On April 6, 2017, President Donald John Trump ordered a massive missile barrage on the Shayrat Air Base in Syria’s Homs province. It was an act of war, for which there can be no justification. The Syrian Arab Republic is no threat to the security of the American people. The President did not even bother to claim that it is.
The President’s justification for the attack was an April 4 chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. Idlib province is under the control of armed opposition groups who are linked to al-Qa’ideh. About 80 civilians, including children, died in the attack, and many others were injured. It is alleged that the gas used was sarin, one of the deadliest weapons in the chemical arsenal.
The Trump administration was quick to blame the Syrian government, headed by Dr. Bashar al-Assad. The evidence that President Trump provided was about as definitive as the evidence that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the months before the election. If Trump has better evidence than “I’m hearing…” or “everybody knows…” he has not yet shared it with the American people. The working people of the United States deserve to know the truth—after experiences such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident at the beginning of the Vietnam war and the allegations that President Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in 2003—weapons which were never found because they never existed.
In terms of military and political tactics, a poison-gas attack on civilians, even in al-Qa’ideh–controlled territory, makes little sense. The Syrian government has been regaining the upper hand in Syria’s five-year-plus civil war, having won complete control of Aleppo. The Trump administration appeared to have dropped the Obama administration’s call for regime change in Syria. As late as the last week of March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that the choice of the future of the Assad regime was one to be made “by the Syrian people.”
Though President Trump’s approval rating is the lowest in history for a president so early in his term, Americans seemed to agree with his stated policy of keeping out of the Syrian civil war. An attack using sarin gas against civilians would be so counterproductive to the Syrian government’s overall strategic interests that it raises the question of whether some other party is guilty of carrying it out—an attack often called a “false flag” operation. It must be acknowledged that there is no more hard evidence that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was a false flag attack than there is that Assad’s forces did it.
However, in a larger sense, the question of responsibility for the chemical attack is irrelevant. Even if Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the attack—and the evidence does not prove it at all—no one appointed Donald John Trump to be the policeman and trial judge. How does the United States claim the right to be the moral arbiter in the Syrian conflict?
To be sure, the videotape images of the Khan Sheikhoun victims provoke an emotional response—and it provoked an emotional response on the part of the President. Well-meaning people are saying to one another, “we can’t just let this happen and do nothing.” They are then willing to give the President grudging support for his decision to launch a missile strike. However, even the horror of a sarin gas attack does not give the United States the right to take military action, especially when similar attacks on civilian populations are occurring in other areas, such as Yemen, where U.S. ally Sa’udi Arabia is committing war crimes on as high a scale as anything happening in Syria, but from which videotape does not find its way to television network news in the United States.
No, working people in the United States need to demand that the Administration get out and stay out of Syria—immediately, totally, and unconditionally. That means no missile strikes, no aerial bombardment, no drone strikes, no reconnaissance flights, no weapons, no money, no “support troops,” and no combat troops. That means whether or not Bashar al-Assad remains in power, whether or not Russia, Iran, or paramilitary groups such as the Lebanese Hizbullah militia are helping the Syrian government fight the Islamic State and al-Qa’ideh forces. And it means now, not after a settlement is negotiated, not after we “figure out what’s going on,” and certainly not after U.S. casualties reach unacceptable levels.
Clear, principled demands for immediate, total, and unconditional withdrawal and non-intervention stand in stark contrast to the mealymouthed evasions coming from the politicians of the Democratic Party. The most honest and forthright expression came from defeated presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called for a military strike against the Syrian government even before President Trump announced that he had ordered it. After hearing of Trump’s decision, Clinton expressed her support for it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York also expressed support for the missile strike, only complaining that the President had not come to Congress to ask for authorization. Similarly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi supported the air strikes, calling them a “proportional response,” but urging Trump to come before Congress for any further authorization of use of military force.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts issued a statement which began by condemning the “Syrian regime” for the Khan Sheikhoun attack—despite the Trump Administration’s inability to present conclusive evidence—and then only calling on President Trump to “explain” his military action to the Congress. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii took the strongest stand of any member of Congress against Trump’s action, but her statement fell short of calling for unconditional withdrawal. She even called for Assad’s “execution” if he were found guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun attack at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
United action by the labor movement and antiwar organizations is a vital necessity. Unfortunately, united action has been hampered by toxic hostility between activists who support the removal of Assad from power and those who recognize that it is not a decision in which Americans can have any say. Insisting that the United States stay out of a conflict is not the same as endorsing one side in a conflict. When polemics among activists become more important than working together for peace, it benefits only the warmakers. United action is the vital necessity today. Emergency actions have been scheduled for as early as the afternoon of April 7. That is the right thing to do. Donald Trump has taken a step towards escalating U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. It’s up to working people throughout the country to unite to demand that he does not take a next step.
Lastly, Americans who are demanding that the United States stay out of Syria need to add one more demand: that the United States open its borders to Syrian civilians who are fleeing the violence in their country. The Trump Administration is hypocritical in the extreme when it launches a missile strike into Syria because of violence against civilians and then refuses to allow civilian refugees into the United States. This has to change. Let them in!