Syria’s Actually Existing War

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On April 4th, 2017, Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib governate of Syria was hit by a chemical attack, leaving hundreds injured and scores of people dead. Nor was this the end of it. Shortly afterwards, the hospitals treating the victims were targeted in an attack, further adding to the day’s bloodshed. The Trump administration responded on April 6th by sending a missile barrage against the Shayrat airbase, where the chemical weapons strike had allegedly originated from.

Information is still coming in on the extent of the damages and effects the missile strike had but initial impressions seem to indicate that damage and casualties were minimal. Preliminary statements also appear to demonstrate that the strikes were carried out with the knowledge of Russia, and possibly the Syrian regime as well. Strangely enough, some so-called anti-war activists have used this strike to plead against going to war, when the war has been ongoing for the last six years.

Many Syrians have cheered on these airstrikes; it’s not difficult to see why. After six years of constant bombardment, massacres, and chemical attacks, an international power is finally targeting the regime that is responsible for what has happened to the country. Yet most people know that Trump is no friend of the Syrian people. Besides the suspicious circumstances surrounding the airstrikes, Trump has repeatedly shown that he does not care for the Syrian people.

Just days before the chemical attacks, he openly declared that the Assad regime could stay, that the regime’s existence was a “political reality” that the world—and, crucially, Syrians—must accept. Yet, this was clearly not to avoid more bloodshed but rather to focus on the fight against groups like the Islamic State. Trump was of course quite willing to ban refugees fleeing the war in Syria from coming to the United States. He has also gutted any funding for humanitarian or diplomatic purposes.

The Tomahawk cruise missile strikes themselves were questionable. While one can go back and forth on the question of military force itself, the more critical question is to ask what this supposed “one off” strike could accomplish.

Trump had informed the Russians ahead of time, and there were reports of the Shayrat airbase preparing for such an attack. Even the Pentagon statement had stated that it worked to minimize any damage to Syrian and Russian personnel. All indications seem to point to a symbolic strike that will do little to change what is happening in Syria on a daily basis. As of the morning of April 7th, the Independent reported that the Syrian regime has claimed the strike killed 7 people, including 4 children. If true, it is yet another saddening loss of life in an already bloody war.

Now, many are now calling for “hands off Syria” or attempting to hold protests against any further action against the Assad regime. And this is where everything falls apart. The missile strike on April 6th was the 7,899th attack conducted by the US in Syria, according to Airwars, but the first that deliberately targeted the Assad regime.

Yet, the same people who have been condemning Trump for attacking the airbase were silent as the same administration committed grievous war crimes by attacking mosques and other civilian targets. These same people were silent as the US killed thousands and lodged no complaints just as long as the targets were assumed to be “terrorists.”

These same people who were silent as Russia, Assad, and Iran committed unspeakable atrocities and continued repressing the Syrian people for the last six years have all of a sudden become aware of a war in the Middle East. The same people now chanting #HandsoffSyria were quite willing to look away as the US supposedly struck terrorists, even if these came with hefty civilian casualties. These same people were quite willing to overlook Russia’s onslaught and complicity in Assad’s massacres.

This is true especially for the many Western leftists who have cheered on the Assad regime and its militias, who have attempted to justify Russian and Iranian intervention by claiming the legitimate government of Syria had asked for it. It is clear that the left needs to step back and re-evaluate exactly what it means to say “Hands off Syria.”

There is a strong justification for why we should be anti-war and this requires calling for the cessation of all violence, not just from the US-led coalition but also the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and the various militias now operating in the country.

But one must be clear exactly what is meant by being anti-war. It does not mean one can be selective about who is targeted or who is doing the targeting. It does not mean that one can excuse horrific state violence because it fits obsolete leftist dogmas that reduce the agency of people in the Middle East.

What it requires is a recognition that wars do not begin only when the United States becomes involved. Most of all, it requires us to acknowledge what is at stake in each war, to think back to that day in 2011 when the Syrian people went out on the streets chanting, “the people want the downfall of the regime,” only for the regime to declare war on the people.

Hari Prasad is a Masters Candidate at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East and South Asian Security. He is currently writing his thesis on the use of pro-government militias in Indian counterinsurgency campaigns.