Reality Show violence in the Age of Trump: Striking Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Trump along with allies British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emannuel Macron struck Syria on Friday evening.

It was not a piece of military strategy designed to win any war aims.

It will have no effect on the situation in Syria at all.

It was not authorized by Congress. The Republicans in Congress had threatened to impeach Barack Obama if he struck Syria in 2013 under similar circumstances.

It was not authorized by the UN. None of the three striking states had been attacked or harmed.

Then why?

In our age of politics as reality show, where we have hired the star of NBC’s “Apprentice” to play president (apparently in large part because he is both consistently awful and highly entertaining at once), even geopolitics is done for show.

The United States, France and the UK lost the Syrian War to Russia and Iran. It is all over but the shouting. They had hoped that the al-Assad regime, which had been a thorn in their sides for decades, would be overthrown. It isn’t an ignoble hope. It is a horrible, Stalinist regime with massive amounts of blood on its hands. But the reasons for which Washington, Paris and London wanted it gone were not necessarily noble ones. Syria is among the last states to reject Israel. Its secular elites reached out, isolated after the end of the Cold War, to Iran for support. Its system does not accommodate the Western corporate take-over of the country’s economy. Overthrowing countries that buck the neoliberal, barracuda capitalist Washington consensus and challenge the neocolonial order in the Middle East (with the assumption of Israeli hegemony in the Levant) is a no-brainer for the North Atlantic powers.

The Syrian revolution of 2011 was a homegrown revolt against a regime that had already largely abandoned its socialist policies in favor of the establishment of Alawite oligarchies, which imprisoned people for the slightest criticism of the regime, and under which the proportion of people living in absolute poverty was rapidly increasing. But when the regime cleverly maneuvered the revolutionaries into allying with Muslim extremists on the battlefield, even then the CIA went on supporting the rebels. Its officials would deny it, but they were one degree of separation away from al-Qaeda, just as they had been in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And even while the US FBI and right wingers in the Senate like Ted Cruz were darkly intimating that the Muslim Brotherhood and all its offshoots are terrorist organizations, the 40 vetted groups supported by the CIA were mostly Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

No lesson of history is ever learned in Washington, D.C.

As I argued on Thursday, the Russo-Syrian military operation against the Saudi-backed Army of Islam in Douma, in the course of which chemical weapons appear to have been used, was a resounding success. Once the chem was released, the Army of Islam fighters, who had dug in their heels and inflicted substantial casualties on the elite Panther Brigade special ops forces of the Syrian Arab Army, abruptly surrendered. They turned over hundreds of their weapons, released dozens of captives, and agreed to exit north to Jarabulus in their thousands. It was one of the most ignominious defeats visited upon any guerrilla group in the course of the seven-year war.

If you had wanted to work against further such chemical use, the more effective method would have been to negotiate with Russia about it and apply pressure on Moscow.

The Tripartite missile attacks on Saturday will attrite some regime military capabilities in a small way. But since the Russian Federation’s Aerospace Forces are actually supplying the air power to defeat what is left of the rebels, the regime’s loss of some facilities won’t matter to the course of the war. I expect further Idlib and Deraa campaigns later this year, and I expect the regime over time to win them. I have to say that I’m surprised by the resiliency of the al-Assad clan. You wouldn’t have expected them easily to restore control over places like Homs (a largely Sunni Arab city with a strong Muslim Brotherhood movement). Security is no doubt fragile. But it appears that a reassertion of the regime is plausible in the short to medium term.

The missile attacks are for domestic politics, and perhaps to some extent a demonstration of political will to Russia and Iran. As military history they are a footnote.

Those who argue that they were necessary to show resistance to the use of chemical weapons are missing some things. The West backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chem in the Iraq-Iran War. It is hard to see why killing children with chlorine differs from the point of view of the children from killing them with bombs. Military action should be taken in accordance with international law. And, deploying missile strikes ineffectually renders them less effective politically down the road.

These strikes are like when a fistfight breaks out on the reality show Big Brother. The show will go on next week.

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Bonus video:

guardian news: “‘A strong deterrent’: Trump announces strikes on Syria”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 24 Responses | Print |

24 Responses

  1. Three paragraphs stand out for superb writing in another smashingly superb article.

    “In our age of politics as reality show, where we have hired the star of NBC’s “Apprentice” to play president (apparently in large part because he is both consistently awful and highly entertaining at once), even geopolitics is done for show.”

    “No lesson of history is ever learned in Washington, D.C.”

    “Those who argue that they were necessary to show resistance to the use of chemical weapons are missing some things. The West backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chem in the Iraq-Iran War. It is hard to see why killing children with chlorine differs from the point of view of the children from killing them with bombs. Military action should be taken in accordance with international law. And, deploying missile strikes ineffectually renders them less effective politically down the road. ”

    Thank you, thank you and thank you again, Juan.

  2. Once again, many thanks for a clear and balanced account of the illegal attacks launched against Syria. There is always a danger that in our enthusiasm to condemn illegal activities by the West, we overlook the criminal activities of the Syrian regime. At what time the “peaceful protests” changed into a violent and vicious invasion by thousands of jihadists often supported by some regional and Western powers is a matter of debate, but what is clear is that Assad’s regime made use of excessive force to crush the opposition and in the process intensified support for insurgents/terrorists.
    You are absolutely right to point out that the attack on Syrian targets was not a piece of military strategy designed to win any war aims. However, in addition to that and what you also point out about the lack of Security Council and Congressional and parliamentary authority, I believe that this action will have a number of other negative consequences:

    1- There is little doubt that without Iranian and subsequently Russian support there was every chance that ISIS would have marched on to Damascus, Irbil and Baghdad. Kurdish and Iraqi officials have already said as much. It was when even Iran’s support failed to tip the balance in favor of the Syrian government due to the lack of air power that General Qassem Soleimani met with President Putin and persuaded him to get involved. The combination of Russian air power and Iran’s and Hezbollah’s support on the ground finally defeated the rebels/ISIS. The defeat of the rebels has so enraged the Saudis, the Israelis and the neocons in the United States that they have continued agitating for military action against the Syrian government. The danger of the latest attack and the talk of more to follow is that it will encourage the rebels to continue their anti-regime activities, and this will only prolong the agony of the Syrian people, at a time when the regime seemed to have won the battle.

    2- Taking this action on the day that OPCW inspectors were due to visit Douma and to report about whether chemical weapons had been used or not weakens such international organizations and also provides some ammunition to those who say that the whole episode had been faked by the “White Helmets”, a shady group set up and funded by a former British army officer and probably by the British government. If Syria had really stockpiles of chemical weapons in the targets that have been hit, as claimed, there should have been some evidence of the scattering of such material, presumably with some harmful effects on those living in the neighborhood.

    3- As the rebels see the effect of an “alleged” chemical attack to have resulted in Western attacks on Syria, this would encourage them to stage fake incidents in the future, even if the incident in Douma was genuine.

    4- Some 400,000 people have been killed with conventional weapons in Syria. Although the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, I do not see why the killing of tens of thousands of people in Syria and during the liberation of Mosul in Iraq with conventional weapons is OK.

    5- Many people had hoped that after the fiasco of the “dodgy dossier” and all the lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons, the age of unilateral wars on the say-so of some intelligence operatives would be over. The latest attacks bring us back again to the age of rogue rulers waging illegal wars on the basis of some trumped up charges.

    6- These illegal attacks may only increase President Trump’s popularity among his base and encourage him to take more such illegal actions, and probably even winning a second term.

    7- Above all, I believe that these attacks have not helped the cause of peace or finding a long-term solution to the Syrian tragedy. Furthermore, there is still the danger that they might continue and lead to a confrontation with Russia, with the risk of a global war.

    • The OPCW is carrying on the inspection today despite the attack:
      link to afp.com
      Can they decide “on the spot” to ask to also visit the bombed “chemical facilities”, and inspect them if Syria allows?

  3. It is a difficult transformation when it is finally beaten into your thick head that your side, supposedly the good guys, are actually war criminals on a scale that dwarfs the Syrian regime.

    It’s against international law, not to mention basic morality, to:
    – arm terrorists to attack another nation and prolong their civil war;
    – inavde and occupy another nation that presents zero threat to yours;
    – bomb another nation on an as yet unproven pretext.

    The OPCW started work in Syria today to confirm whether chemical weapons were in fact used. It shouldn’t be difficult to determine especially when video has emerged of 2 of the hospital doctors shown in the White Helmets video denying that a chemical attack took place. Would it have been too much to wait 24 hours for the OPCW to announce preliminary finding?

    Supposedly 40,000 civilians were killed in the western-backed liberation of Mosul, many of those by US bombs. Does it really matter whether a child is gassed to death or burned to death in an explosion or dies from having their entrails blown from their body by a 500lb bomb?

    One child dying in this manner is one too many.

    This bloody war needs to end _now_ yet all the West’s attack has done is prolong it even further.

    My own side disgusts me.

  4. Just as the appointed OPCW inspectors approach Douma to conduct their independent examination of the facts, Trump decides to punish a presumed contravention of one international law by deliberately breaking another. Welcome to the post rational world where we discard not only reason but order and international law. It’s like stripping naked and rushing headlong into a tumultuous sea to relish the exhilaration of being free from all constraint. Dust down Bryon, turn on Beethoven’s 3rd ! When will we ever learn. Seriously, I can understand Trump, he’s like a 3 year-old with a box of matches. But Macron and May should have known better, and that’s what I find really frightening. Is it that they too are peeved by Assad’s successes? What away to conduct foreign policy!

  5. Preempting the OPCW inspectors reminds me of our expulsion of the UN weapons inspectors prior to the Iraq invasion. That very well might have been done because the inspectors were systematically debunking every bit of evidence the US had for the existence of Iraqi WMD, our rationale for the invasion.

    Given Trump’s visceral hate of proven facts, he might have feared the OPCW inspectors could factually negate or mute the rationale for the airstrikes.

    And if Trump wanted to convince Assad that large scale maiming and killing using ONLY conventional weapons was quite feasible, he could point to the Saudis’ Yemen bombing, where we lent a little help to our friend.

  6. This does answer your question about whether Trump will lash out as a way of distracting people from Mueller et al. Incompetently, as usual, would be word, but it doesn’t appear to even have that degree of intention behind it.

    It’s not as though this will have any effect after the holes are filled and the debris swept up; there clearly was no strategic intent or impact. The carrier group set to arrive shortly will be in a position to blow up yet another $100M in missiles, so there is that. But the war is already over, as you noted, and this is just acting out.

  7. May and Macron (like Trump) are both in trouble at home over massive discontent with their domestic policies and seriously need a distraction. Merkel, who apparently has survived, even if just barely, didn’t need it and refused to join. Wagging the dog in Syria in support of the illegal action of the idiot ,Trump was perfect and perfectly timed for them as well as for Trump. Everyone look at the shiny object.

  8. A principled military response by the U.S. against the alleged use of chemical weapons rings a bit hollow considering our massive use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam.

  9. There are interesting side notes on the three allies that participated in this bombing. The evidence that is presented is a video, but the reality is that US president is facing all sort of scandals, British prime minister is having issues with Brexit, and the French president is having a huge backlash to its economic policies (e.g daily strikes that bring public transportation coming to halt).

    Furthermore, is it a coincidence that his royal highness, Prince MBS of Saudi Arabia just visited only three countries in his foreign visit: England, US, and France where he made big weapon purchases.

    End of the day the message is that with all investigative organization and legal means on their side, US, England, and France believe even based on a video evidence, they have right to take military action without any backing of international law. This is the same legal and moral standing that the terrorist organization stand on when they carry their operations. They believe their perceived injustice justifies them being the judge, the jury, and the executioner.

  10. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

    Sun Tzu (Q. Soleimani!!!!)

  11. “It was not authorized by Congress……….”

    This has not gone unnoticed by U.S. House members.

    Young GOP Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan, who is libertarian in political orientation and an Arab-American, opined:

    “These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal and reckless. the next speaker of the House must reclaim congressional war powers as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution. Speaker Ryan has abdicated his most important responsibilities.”

    If one examines the Steel Seizure Case in which the U.S . Supreme Court limited the presidential power of Harry Truman without Congressional approval, it is clear that there is a reasonable argument that Trump has overstepped the range of his independent authority in authorizing the recent missile strikes in Syria – he could be impeached for this and a number of Republican Congressional leaders would agree with Rep. Amash on this point.

    • Hey, you’ve had a lot of well-considered posts here, otherwise I’d not have written. In this case, I don’t get your reference to the Steel Seizure Case, so tell me what I’m missing.

      Judge Jackson’s three boxes distinguished between situations where the President has more or less authorization from congress. Obama asked for the approval of congress in Syria and did not receive it, but he still might’ve proceeded, accepting the deferral of congress as…well, deferral to his judgement (Jackson’s middle box). In this case, there is the same explicit authorization (threadbare, to be charitable) that the AUMF could be tortured to provide that Obama had, but the authorization Trump is really relying on is the deferral of congress. It isn’t as though he asked for their approval, but here its a given.

      In lieu of the congress exercising its prerogatives the executive will take and keep taking, indefinitely. The concept is called Adverse Possession, something that a bully like Trump understands and will gravitate toward instinctively. This attack joins a series of precedents set by prior presidents, and it stands to empower Trump for far greater abuses.

      • “………I don’t get your reference to the Steel Seizure Case, so tell me what I’m missing…..”

        The Steel Seizure Case contained not only the oft-cited concurring opinion of Justice Jackson but also the concurring opinion of Felix Frankfurter regarding historical Congressional acquiescence as a gloss on executive power.

        One of the reasons President Truman’s actions were invalidated by the Court in the Steel Seizure Case was clear Congressional intent in the Taft-Hartley Act that forbade the very conduct Truman undertook.

        In the case at issue, the War Powers Act of 1973 delineates situations in which the chief executive may proceed militarily without initial Congressional approval – and Trump’s unilateral bombing of Syria fits none of these. Reagan’s authorizing the Libyan attack had a history of four Americans killed in the 1985 Rome and Vienna terror attacks and the immediate killing of a U.S. Army non-commissioned officer at a Berlin dance hall in a second terror attack – the situation was arguably authorized by the War Powers Act due to apparent Libyan complicity in ongoing terror attacks directed at Americans. Here, there was no asserted basis that American lives were being endangered in Syria due to alleged poison gas attacks – hence the third prong of Jackson’s concurrence invalidates Trump’s conduct.

        Many constitutional scholars have opined that Truman’s authorization of U.S. forces in Korea was unconstitutional as a United Nations Security Council resolution cannot serve as the legal basis to circumvent the constitutional power of Congress to declare war.

  12. American outrage is so selective. No chance of bombing Riyadh or Tel Aviv for their war crimes in Yemen or Gaza.

  13. I’m more convinced than ever that we’re on a collision course with Russia. Haley gave one of her reasons for our staying on Syria to keep a ‘vantage on Iran’. Sounds permanent to me. Israel has got to our administration. Surprise! So Russia either has to capitulate and suffer a humiliating defeat or fight back. I think they’ve been humiliated enough with NATO up against their border. I’m just hoping China steps up to the plate and allies themselves with Russia more forcefully. We do need a new MAD like in the Cold War. Unfortunately a balance of terror is the only thing that might provide a modicum of peace. Otherwise we’ll have this insane trio of self-appointed policemen dictating a new world order.

    • If you start with the assumption that Israel more or less drives US policy in the area, things usually become clear. Doing everything they can to entangle the US in their own problems is the overarching motif of Israeli FP strategy, and the opportunity to extent that involvement would be a compelling one for them.

      Then there is the how Israel realistically fears the growing influence of Iran, now looming as close as the Golan Heights. Which all leads to Israel (perhaps willfully) being maneuvering into assuming the role of US military proxy against Russia. Israel would certainly like to have the US bear any burden for them, but in this case various pressures will be on them to do things the US is not in the position to do.

      In Syria there is this also idea of the US appearing dominant over Russia (which would be especially salient to Bolton). Since the apparently decisive presence of Russia in Syria, Russia presents a challenge to the broader assumption of US prerogatives, which would be awfully hard for this or any administration to swallow.

      Any action would not be all totally on Israel, of course, as they’ll need US cover for anything involving Russia, but its hard to see them resisting the pressure from several directions to get directly involved in the Syrian mess.

  14. Last but not least is the win, win for shareholders at Rayethon , who will need to replace the 100+ cruise missiles fired into syria.

    • Ron, for interest’s sake the US announced that 7 of those6 missiles were launched at the “Barzah Research and Development Center.” Yet the OPCW conducted a round of inspections in Barzeh as late as November 2017 and found no “activities inconsistent with obligations under the Convention.” link to opcw.org

      Something like $76m wasted to blow away 3 buildings totally unconnected with chemical weapons.

  15. Correction: Ron, for interest’s sake the US announced that 76 of those missiles were launched at the “Barzah Research and Development Center.” Yet the OPCW conducted a round of inspections in Barzeh as late as November 2017 and found no “activities inconsistent with obligations under the Convention.” link to opcw.org

    Something like $760m wasted to blow away 3 buildings totally unconnected with chemical weapons.

    Your tax dollars at work.

    • Does it not seem odd to anyone that 102 cruise missiles at a total cost of $84,864,000 produced no casualties?

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