Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:
This is the same airfield from which the Assad regime on Tuesday launched an Su-22 that dropped four bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, killing eighty four civilians, including twenty-seven children and nineteen women, and leaving 546 injured.
Doctors Without Borders medics who treated the survivors and the World Health Organization found the symptoms—dilated pupils, muscle spasms, foaming mouths, breathing difficulties, violent convulsions and involuntary defecation—“consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents such as sarin.”
The regime denied responsibility; and Russia, in line with its post-truth public diplomacy, tried to absolve the regime with an absurd counter-thesis that the source of the chemical exposure was a warehouse in the same town targeted by Syrian forces. But U.S. central command monitored the attack unfolding in real time, the flight paths of the planes were recorded, and people on the ground identified the make of the plane—only the regime flies the Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-22.
A day earlier, three air raids had struck the Maarrat al-Nu'man National Hospital that services the southern Idlib countryside where the targeted town is located. Shortly after the chemical attack, one of the makeshift hospitals treating the survivors was also struck.
The United States has been militarily involved in the Syrian conflict for more than two years; it has frequently bombed not just ISIS, but also Assad’s anti-ISIS opponents; it even provided air support to the regime and Hezbollah in the recapture of Palmyra. But this is the first time the U.S. has directly confronted the regime—which according to the Violations Documentation Centre and the Syrian Network for Human Rights is responsible for more than 90 percent of Syria’s civilian deaths.
Tuesday’s attack from Assad on his own people was set apart not in scale, but in political implications. Like the August 2013 chemical massacre, this was a deliberate provocation. Part of the agreement in 2013, when Barack Obama accepted the face-saving device of a Russian deal to avoid enforcing his own red line, was a threat of punishment should the regime engage in further chemical attacks. The regime continued undeterred during the rest of Obama’s tenure. It was clearly testing the new administration’s resolve.
It got an answer.
In its earlier overture to Assad, the Trump Administration had made explicit a policy that Obama had implicitly pursued—regime preservation. Thursday’s actions mark a major, and for Syrians a welcome, reversal. Many have suggested cynical motives. But that is a trivial point.
The architect of this policy shift is not Trump but his national security advisor H.R. McMaster. (Before the shift, McMaster also ensured that expulsion of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council principals’ meetings.) And the administration’s motivations are less political or humanitarian than an attempt by McMaster and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to restore deterrence. In this they have succeeded.
The strikes were tactical and punitive, but they have redrawn a line on the use of chemical weapons that Obama had allowed to be breached. The strikes were certainly not humanitarian, since most Syrians are still killed by conventional means. No red-lines have been drawn to prohibit the use of barrel bombs.
The consequences of today’s actions are likely to be far-reaching, in spite of the Administration’s intentions. Anticipation of the military strikes had already softened the Kremlin’s stance, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman indicating that Russian support for Assad was not unconditional. Turkey, which had joined Russia in an uneasy detente, may also reconsider its position. Among other things, the strikes exposed the limits of Russia’s power in Syria. The regime has lost part of its impunity.
This is in contrast to 2013, when following a much larger massacre, Obama retreated from his own red line. (The “red line” on the use of chemical weapons had been issued in August 2012, at a time when none were being used; it was in effect a green light to conventional killing). The regime’s response was telling: it killed almost four times as many people in the two years after the chemical attack as it had in the two years prior.
Trump’s new national security advisor, General McMaster—who led the counterinsurgency campaign in northern Iraq, successfully recruiting local tribes to drive out the Islamic State of Iraq (the forerunner to ISIS)—understands that there can’t be any hope of stability without buy-in from the majority community. Granting Assad impunity in 2013 alienated Syria’s majority Sunnis, with the regime’s sectarian strategy contributing to its radicalisation and its escalating violence precipitating a mass exodus that has yet to abate.
The way many Syrians see this, the United States has been bombing Syria since September 2014; this is the first time it hit the right target. For the first time since the beginning of the war, the regime has suffered consequences for its crimes. Survivors of Tuesday’s massacre and residents of Khan Sheikhoun welcomed the strikes. Whatever the administration’s motives, it worked for Syrians—at least for now.
How should progressives respond? Many have understandably reacted with revulsion at Assad’s crime, and compassion for the victims. The “anti-imperialist” left, however, remains perplexed. It is “anti war” but not against the war that Assad has been waging on his people since 2011.
The only time during the past six years that the anti-war movement was stirred into action regarding Syria was in August 2013, when, after a chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta killed over 1,400 civilians, it came out not to protest the atrocity but to reject any attempt to hold the perpetrators accountable (the British “Stop the War Coalition” banned Syrians from its platform, though it made an exception for a regime representative). Indeed, prominent left-wingers showed greater alacrity than the Kremlin in trying to absolve Assad, blaming victims, fabricating evidence.
Four years on, there is little sign of contrition. Even as the smell of sarin lingers over Khan Sheikhoun, former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich is in London making a case for rehabilitating Assad and writer and activist Phyllis Bennis is casting doubt on the regime’s responsibility—not just for this attack, but also for the one in 2013. Small wonder that few Syrians see the Western left as allies in their struggle for justice and self-determination.
For the left to become relevant again, it will need to revive an old principle: “no justice, no peace.” Without accountability for war crimes—rebel or regime—there is no hope of ending the carnage. And without Assad’s removal, half the country will remain displaced. It is time to put civilians, not states, at the center of our concerns.'