There is widespread criticism of Trump’s Syria attack on the left, and many of the reasons stated are spot on:
- The attack was surely not motivated by humanitarian considerations, contrary to what is claimed.
- The attack is illegal, both under US and international law, and hence constitutes an act of war.
- The US has been conducting military strikes in Syria for well over two years. However, it is for the first time explicitly targeting the Assad regime.
- It is stunning, yet predictable, to see the establishment, across party lines, line up behind the president in times of war. The same holds for the media that has predictably become the voice of the state department.
- While the attack might be a one-off, it may also not be a one-off, and with the Trump administration, one can never be sure. A prolonged military confrontation with the Assad regime raises the prospect, however slim,of a military confrontation with Russia, setting the two nuclear powers “on a dangerous collision course”.
Yet, even though there is general agreement on most of the above points, Trump’s attack seems to have further polarized the anti-war movement, instead of uniting it. As always, the tone adopted by various arguments is a major factor contributing to the polarization. However, there are also issues of substance that are at stake, that ought to be recognized.
Many analysts on the left have raised questions about who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun. It is unclear what is the objective of this line of questioning. While calling for careful investigation is of course sensible, surely the goal is not to imply that if the Assd regime is in fact responsible for using chemical weapons, then perhaps the Syria attack is justified. The argument gets even murkier when some point out that the Assad regime had nothing to gain by using chemical weapons. We know very well from the history of state power that states often act in seemingly irrational ways to project their power. For example, it was unclear if Israel gained much by using white phosphorous against Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Yet, it did. Similarly, the Assad regime’s track record suggests that it is fully capable of using chemical weapons“aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes”.
The fact is that each of the criticisms raised above about the Syria attack holds even if the Assad regime was responsible for using chemical weapons.Questions of responsibility are the wrong issue to focus on.
Another significant issue on which most left analysts have been silent is the effect of the attack on ordinary Syrians. While some Syrians oppose the attack since “the airbase was instrumental in keeping at bay Islamic State militants”, it is also true that for other Syrians “who have lived under Assad’s bombs”, a strike against the “killer pig Assad” is worth celebrating. For the latter Syrians, the illegality of the strike is a mere technicality. The US has, after all, been striking Syria for over two years; the difference is that for the first time, the right target has been hit.
This does not mean that antiwar activists in the US should stop protesting US military intervention in Syria. They should, because of the reasons stated above, plus historical evidence that together strongly argue that the cost of US intervention almost always exceeds its benefits.
The seeming contradiction between opinion on the ground and anti-war analysis is not specific to Syria. During the initial days of the Iraq war, many Iraqis celebrated the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. That never stopped the anti-war movement from criticizing the war (rightly so). However, in the case of Syria, the degree of the contradiction is greater. The fact that the regime has wreaked havoc on a large scale with the aid of Iran and Russia means that US military action against the regime could be viewed as legitimate by many Syrians. As anti-war activists, our role should be to offer analyses that acknowledge these contradictions.
The anti-war movement has rarely been so fragmented. Yet, there is an urgent need for unity within the movement. How the movement responds to this challenge will determine how effective it is.
Raghav Kaushik is an anti-war activist