Donald Trump ordered the launching of missiles against the Syrian state in response to the alleged 4 April chemical attack in Idlib. He was compelled to take this action because, “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack”. His actions have met with widespread approval from otherwise harsh critics of his from the Democratic Party and the ‘national security’ apparatus. The mainstream media has been quick to rally round the president’s decision.
The principal justification given for this attack is one that we have heard many times before – humanitarian concern. Such appeals to our sense of justice − that we might affirm the necessity to punish – are not uncommon. We are told that the situation is complicated, and that we must trust “the experts”. Is it really that complicated?[i] Let us recall the numerous times that we have been misled as a pretext for violence, only to realise that the true war agenda was far from benevolent. Iraq, Libya and Vietnam come to mind.
We are confronted with a terrible crime in Idlib. However, there are several reasons that we must not rush to assume that the guilty party is the West’s latest bogeyman, Syrian president Bashar Assad. If the United States had any evidence of regime complicity, it could put all dissent to rest by making it public. As Paul Gottinger notes, “if the accused is a US enemy, no evidence appears to be needed.”[ii]
The scenario is reminiscent of the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta. In that instance, President Obama appeared to demonstrate restraint, observing that, “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force”. Subsequent investigations[iii] found that it was entirely possible that opposition forces carried out the attack.
So we must ask ourselves why, when government forces have all but overcome their opponents and Assad was being increasingly recognised as the legitimate leader of Syria, an attack like this would be carried out? It would seem to undermine the regime’s objectives completely. And as US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made clear[iv], Assad’s removal has now been re-prioritised.
The Middle East needs autonomy, not bombs
The mainstream media would have us believe that Donald Trump, and his predecessors, were moved by compassion to commit acts of state violence. What does he feel for the children of Yemen, under genocidal attack by US-backed Saudi Arabia? How about the children of Iraq killed in American strikes? Interestingly, Raytheon stocks jumped a day after the missile attack and it emerged that the president may directly benefit.
The so-called war on terror has been tremendously expensive for taxpayers − but extremely lucrative for contractors and convenient for politicians. The human cost has been catastrophic. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq (a top priority for the Bush administration even before 9/11) led directly to the emergence of ISIS. While western nations have been impacted by this group, the vast majority of victims have been Arabs.
Among his assortment of recent gaffes, White House press secretary Sean Spicer accidentally (one must assume) admitted to the objective of “destabilising” the Middle East. Wikileaks has provided us with ample evidence of the efforts being made by the US government towards regime change in Syria during Barack Obama’s tenure. The quest for resources, economic dominance and geopolitical manoeuvring seems to keep stability off the table in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the millions displaced by stern interventions in the Middle East are met with increasingly militarised borders and, if and when they reach safe shores, a citizenry widely conditioned to fear and hate them. The rhetorical demonisation of refugees by public figures such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump has ignited deeply held racial and religious prejudices. We have become a society willing to create mass displacement through war, but not to protect those forced to move − or perish. Donald Trump previously claimed that he would look Syrian refugee children in the face and say “go home”.
With a president hell-bent on improving his atrocious popularity levels, we could be walking into a much larger conflict − a dangerous tension grows with Russia, Iran, China and North Korea.
Human rights of all must be protected
The human suffering that we see from Syria and around the world is carefully filtered. Judith Butler talks about ‘frames’ we use to understand war, violence and torture. The Idlib attack is within the accepted frame. The 1000 civilian deaths[v] , in March alone, from US attacks in the Middle East are not within the accepted frame.
The media establishment failed to dispute the narrative of “beautiful” missiles – again reminiscent of the Iraq invasion. As Frankie Boyle highlighted[vi], would we be so excited by pictures of children dying as the bombs explode? But no, we do not see their faces or hear the stories of those suffering under our bombs. Our selective outrage at some deaths above others demonstrates that many lives have already been deemed not really worth living.
If Assad is guilty of using chemical weapons, he should be prosecuted. So too should top US/UK/Australian officials who have committed war crimes around the world − Donald Trump being the most recently initiated killer-in-chief. Not rushing to a conclusion does not equal support for Assad or his regime, just as condemning regime violence against civilians does not equal support for imperialism.
If we truly want to make a difference, we must vote against war and force the hand of financially compromised politicians. Whether in Australia, the UK or the US, voting for the lesser evil does not work in a political system where the major parties both have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with regard to war. We must set aside our fear and vote for peacemakers.
War does not bring true peace. Punishment does not bring true repentance. In our advocacy for non-violence we most certainly cannot remain passive. We must disrupt and oppose injustice. That means disobeying the call to war from our leaders and our media. Support independent media that hold the powerful to account.
We must look beyond Donald Trump and recognise that we are witnessing an American empire in decline. War is the objective. Let's not fall for it.
Jason Von Meding is senior lecturer, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle.
[i] Caitlin Johnstone, “The situation in Syria is NOT complicated – here’s what you need to know”