As many as 70 Syrian men, women and children were killed this week by what is believed to be sarin gas, and another 100 were seriously injured. The atrocity played out on news networks and social media feeds around the world. President Trump seized the opportunity to demonstrate just what kind of a leader he is and will continue to be – by blaming former President Obama.
An official White House statement declared the “heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” As with so much of what Trump says, the statement is a lie on so many levels it can be difficult to unpack.
After issuing diplomatic threats to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Obama committed to the country’s civil war in 2014 with a series of airstrikes. Whatever one thinks of those airstrikes, which devastated infrastructure and slaughtered civilians, they were hardly weak and irresolute. Meanwhile Trump’s administration has suggested a hands-off approach to Assad. Just days before the gas attack Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The long-term status of Assad will be determined by the Syrian people.” This isn’t necessarily wrongheaded, but it may have telegraphed to Assad that he had a free hand.
Assad is backed by Russia. The Trump Administration’s financial ties to Russia are extensive and could account for the neutral posture. Contrary to Trump’s statement, both the Russian and Syrian governments deny responsibility. They claim the gas was released accidentally when a strike hit a terrorist supply. It’s a fantastical explanation, though not entirely impossible – terror groups in Syria are capable of producing poison gas like sarin.
Whatever the reality is, the reason this attack is getting so much attention is because the US is not believed to be directly responsible. There are other attacks, equally if not more devastating, for which we are responsible. Already in his short time in office, Trump has committed war crimes of his own that have generated little to no mainstream US outcry.
Despite campaigning against Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness, Trump has increased the US military presence in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. In Yemen he has already launched twice as many airstrikes this year as in all of 2016. His first major military operation in Yemen killed at least 30 civilians. Hundreds of civilians have been slaughtered by airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq. And Trump’s proposed budget sacrifices programs designed to help ordinary Americans in order to pay for a $54 billion military expansion.
None of this comes as a big surprise. Trump campaigned as an isolationist sometimes, but other times he campaigned openly and in bold, Trumpian declarations as a war criminal. He called the Geneva Conventions “the problem” and a hindrance to US antiterrorism efforts. Candidate Trump promised to resume the torture program “even if it doesn’t work,” because “they deserve it anyway.” And he pledged to murder the family members of terrorists in the Middle East – precisely what he’s now doing.
On Wednesday Trump said the killing of “innocent children, innocent babies” crossed “many, many lines.” And it did. But it’s important to remember that it’s precisely those innocent children who are the targets of Trump and Steve Bannon’s various Muslim bans. Those suffering, choking human beings in the streets of Syria are the very same men, women and children that the Trump Administration wants us to close our hearts to, to hate and fear and regard as terrorists.
So it’s tough to imagine that Trump has any genuine sympathy for them. Rather, Trump is already using the attack as a pretext to step up US military involvement. Days after announcing the hands-off Assad policy, Trump now says, “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much” in the wake of the gas attack. Ambassador Nikki Haley now suggests the US will “take our own action” in Syria.
This would almost certainly be a disaster. If Washington hawks have their way and the US dips further into Syria, it could potentially mean American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, and Chinese troops all sharing a battlefield, fighting rebels, terror groups, and civilians alike in urban settings – with hardly anyone knowing exactly whose side anyone else is on. The humanitarian crisis could balloon into a world war.
As Noam Chomsky recently said, the “one ray of light in this gloom” is Trump’s desire to de-escalate tensions with nuclear-equipped Russia. Increased involvement in Syria would likely have the opposite effect. The only option the US should pursue is the same one as always: as complete and quick a withdrawal from the Middle East as possible. Instead, hawk Trump looks like he will finally push isolationist Trump out of the picture for good, to the peril of all mankind.