Murder as messaging

Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy hits violent new lows.


On April 7th, the United States military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria’s Homs province, killing at least 14 civilians. A little less than a week later a massive bomb was dropped out of a cargo plane near the Afghan/Pakistan border. As a seeming afterthought, U.S. troops were also sent into Somalia for the first time in almost 25 years.

The U.S. cable news media, followed by the major national dailies, drunkenly cheered the bombings, with one previously disgraced anchor paraphrasing my city’s most famous poet, Leonard Cohen, and calling the missiles used in the attack on a Syrian airbase, “beautiful”.
Few sober voices were available to critique either strike until days after they occurred and, even then, the corporate press had already moved on, leaving many people with the impression that these shows of American strength accomplished strategic objectives.

If these strikes were meant to send a signal to the leadership in other countries, as numerous commentators in and outside government have claimed, it shows the petulance of an administration that has bragged about giving full decision making power to the military brass and loosening their rules of engagement since taking office, policy choices that have already arguably led to an uptick in civilian deaths in the various theaters the U.S. military is engaged in, declared and undeclared.

In Syria, no investigation needed

Missing from most of the mainstream media coverage, as well as government briefings, was one simple fact regarding the alleged chemical incident in Syria that the Trump Administration used as a pretext for the cruise missile strike. The Syrian government was pronounced guilty before any investigation had taken place.

Khan Shaykhun, where the nerve gas was reportedly released, is in the hands of Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Al Nusra Front before a recent ‘rebranding’), and there are no independent journalists in the area, meaning we are relying on this group and its allies for the information that surfaced after the Syrian airforce bombed the area. Under any other circumstances, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. government would accept claims from groups like these without skepticism.

Likely reacting to the criticism coming from some in the international community, the White House released an intelligence ‘assessment’ of the events of April 4th that weighs in at just over 3 pages. The use of the word ‘assessment’ is telling because, just as in an earlier report about Russian interference in the U.S. election, this short analysis is also based more on opinion than demonstrable fact.

Considering its length, it’s notable that more than a third of the report is used to argue earlier, mostly unproven, assertions made about the conduct of the Syrian government, obfuscating the almost complete lack of verifiable evidence it presents about what happened in Khan Shaykhun.

Released on April 11th, the “Assessment of White House Intelligence Report”, also makes the argument that, “the opposition could not have fabricated all of the videos and other reporting of chemical attacks.” While this is plausible, it doesn’t mean that that the Salafist groups that control the area weren’t the perpetrators, either intentionally, or, as the Russian government has suggested, accidentally, two alternative explanations the assessment doesn’t even broach.

The authors repeat the allegation that the Syrian Arab Army was responsible for a sarin gas attack in a suburb of Damascus in August, 2013, a claim that has been convincingly debunked by investigative reporters including Seymour Hersh, a journalist who became famous early his career for exposing the My Lai massacre and later revealed the torture regime at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq when it was under the control of the U.S. military.

In a 14 page response to the White House’s assessment, Theodore A. Postol,  Professor Emiratus of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT., takes apart the government’s case piece by piece. The main evidence offered in the government’s report are commercial satellite images of a crater on a road north of the town that Postol was able to locate, “using Google Earth,” in the process finding, “there is absolutely no evidence that the crater was created by a munition designed to disperse sarin after it is dropped from an aircraft.”

While short itself, Postol’s investigation does create doubt about the U.S . government and its NATO allies’ claims, making a convincing argument that the gas was dispersed by a, “122 mm pipe like that used in the manufacture of artillery rockets” and presenting more evidence for his theory than the government did in the assessment he was responding to.

Besides, as Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies recently explained, “The Syrian government may well be responsible for the attack. Or others may have been involved. That means the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) must be given a full and complete and open mandate to follow all leads and report fully.” 

One doesn’t have to be sympathetic to the Ba’athist government in Syria to argue against launching missiles at one of their airbases in violation of international law without proof that they were responsible for the alleged sarin gas attack. There is extensive reporting about torture by the country’s security services, including the testimony of a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, who was sent to the country as part of the George W. Bush era rendition program.

On the other hand, in a region where the rights of women and minorities are routinely trampled on, the Syrian government has a better record than most of its neighbors. If the leadership in Damascus is removed, policymakers need to ask themselves what comes next and what it means for these vulnerable groups in the short to medium term.

As Josh Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma told the Intercept, “Once the policy people look at what the day after would be – they don’t see any options. The two strongest militias in Syria are Al Qaeda and ISIS, which would undoubtedly profit and would move into Damascus, were the Assad regime to be destroyed.”

Of course, such concerns don’t trouble armchair generals like the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, whose wooly strategic thinking discounts the suffering of the Syrian people while pretending to decry it.

In a recent opinion piece, Friedman offered Times readers a ‘thought experiment’, arguing that it might be a good idea to let ISIS gain the upper hand against the Assad government while at the same time arming mythical ‘moderate rebels’ and creating no-fly zones that would themselves increase the risk of a confrontation with Russia. A surefire way to increase the suffering of Syrian civilians.

Further, the way that the Syrian war has been personalized by pundits like Friedman reminds us of previous regime change operations, most recently in Libya. The idea that Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor trained in the UK who became president of Syria by accident and only has about four years of military training, is personally responsible for everything that happens on a chaotic battlefield defies logic, but does allow for a name and face to be put on the horrors inflicted on the country’s citizens by all sides.

The mother of all bombs

The week after the missile strike in Syria, on April 13th, a U.S. cargo plane dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, referred to as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) in news reports, on a tunnel complex in the mountainous Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. The area is home to the country’s small, newly established ISIS affiliate, who are reportedly still fighting U.S. forces in the area of the blast.

Both U.S. and Afghan officials have insisted that no civilians were harmed by the blast and have raised the number of fighters killed from an early estimate of 32 to 94. As we might expect, the ISIS affiliate claims they suffered no casualties as a result of the bombing.

Whatever the true number of ISIS casualties is, amidst the cheering and increased approval ratings for the embattled President, there has been very little analysis of the effect that dropping such a bomb could have on the farmland and health of the people who live in the district and who weren’t warned that it was coming.

From dropping tweets to dropping bombs

In the time that has passed since these actions a disturbing picture of why the Trump Administration made these strategically insignificant strikes has emerged. It appears that they was attempting to send a message to the leadership of North Korea (DPRK), and to a lesser extent, Iran.

The Generals surrounding this uniquely unqualified President, who, although they’re well respected in establishment circles, have spent most of their careers winning small battles while losing larger wars, were apparently signaling that, as the Vice President said on his recent trip to South Korea (ROK), “the era of strategic patience is over.”

Besides alarming major powers Russia and China that border the DPRK, the saber rattling shows no signs of breaking the North’s resolve. The idea of more punishing sanctions on a country where famine is routine to try and provoke an unarmed citizenry to revolt is inexplicably cruel.

It’s my belief that the DPRK’s isolation empowers its government as nothing creates unity like a siege mentality. An opening with the culturally and economically powerful ROK that seems likely if a Liberal wins the upcoming election in the South, let alone an opening to the entire world, could be just what’s needed to put the North on a slow, hopefully non-violent, path to change.

A few days later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the exact same statement as the Vice President about ‘strategic patience’, directing his remarks at Iran.

While the pushback against the concept of strategic patience, a concept touted by the Obama Administration that has its own flaws, may in some ways be political posturing, as much for domestic as international consumption, it creates the very real possibility that either of these named adversaries could misread these statements, a danger that the leadership in Washington, DC doesn’t seem to have considered at all.


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