Chemical Weapons (Once Again) in Syria

Monday morning. Joe Scarborough (on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which I watch with embarrassing habitualness) seems absolutely certain that the Syrian military backed by Russia and Iran has “again” used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. He thus agitates for an appropriate U.S. reaction, even though the provenance of the material used in the Damascus suburb of Douma has not been investigated and determined. (Any more than the last episode in April 2017, after which Trump ordered a missile hit on a Syrian air force base, never ascertaining or caring about the facts.)

Al-Nusra is reported by some sources to have used chemical weapons in the past, and Turkey has probably exploited instances of chemical weapons use to egg on the U.S. to bomb Syria.

Scarborough acknowledges that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has produced nothing but misery. Everybody know that. (It was a “mistake.”) Still, the former Florida Republican Congressman retains the idea that the U.S. represents freedom, democracy and human rights, and declares that by its failure to “do something” to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people it is abrogating its inherent moral role.

How does he organize his mind? How can he live with himself?

“How are historians going to explain our lack of involvement?” asks grief-stricken Joe, rolling his bespectacled eyes. Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher school at Tufts University, replies, “Historians will look back and unload a lot if shame on all of us.”

Oh? As though historians 10 years from now will have a consensus on the Syrian situation in the 2010s, agreeing that the U.S. should have bombed Syria more, and established no-fly zones, and engaged the Russian air force, and more fully used al-Nusra aligned forces…

No, that’s not how it works. “Historians” rarely agree on anything, including the attribution of shame. We do not get together in conclusive conclaves to establish the “truth” of what happened in the past. We debate what happened, and the causal relationships producing what happened. (French historians commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 were divided in their interpretations of the event; as Zhou Enlai once remarked about the justice of that revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”) Historians will likely long debate the current Syrian situation and disagree on what has happened and is happening.

Don’t ever say “Historians will say…”  This is incredibly disrespectful to historians. It’s a form of what’s called “essentialization.”

The shame here is that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State went from praising Bashar Assad as a reformer and maintaining diplomatic relations (while NATO ally Turkey became increasingly close to Damascus) up to 2011, when she (and Erdogan) turned on him. Even after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, fueled by foreign jihadis, she told Chris Wallace: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe [Assad is] a reformer.” The shame is that instead of working with the reformer she decided to try to give him the Gaddafi treatment.

In 2011 the Arab Spring seemed to promise regime change throughout the Middle East. The U.S. found a pretext to close down its embassy and cut diplomatic ties. Obama ordered Assad to step down. Washington virtually pledged itself to the overthrow of Assad. (We know that the U.S. embassy was already in contact with regime opponents and hoping to encourage regime change. But Assad had been cooperative on terrorism, even hoisting torture facilities for U.S.-apprehended militants. On the other hand, Israel wanted him toppled, and as you may have noticed, Israel has clout in Washington.)

Then ISIL emerged, winning lightning victories from northern Syria to the gates of Baghdad in 2014. The U.S. was startled at this bad fruit of its occupation of Iraq. It was embarrassing. So the U.S. intervened in Syria, to suppress the manifest evil of the Islamic State but also to undermine the Assad regime, using Kurdish pawns in that effort. Both the CIA and Pentagon funded and trained groups who—anyone paying attention now knows—were and are necessarily allied to al-Nusra (renamed Fateh al-Sham), an al-Qaeda affiliate). The violence of both ISIL and al-Sham, directed at the Syrian state, non-Sunni religious minorities, and secular institutions, facilitated by Gulf state donors, has practically destroyed the country.

The famous souk of Aleppo, the world’s largest covered market for centuries, has been incinerated, the monuments of Palmyra blown up. The 6800-year-old Assyrian gateway lion sculpture in Raqqa was bulldozed. George W. Bush is indirectly responsible. This is what happens when you destroy societies and create a ferocious backlash.

Had the U.S. not destabilized the region, generating Abu Musad al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which morphed into ISIL, which seized part of Syria; and had it not decided to overthrow Assad in 2011, in league with al-Nusra allies, Syria would likely be today what it was in 2010. A stable country of Sunnis, Alawites and other Shiites, Christians, Druze, Yezidis, atheists etc going about their normal lives. A country with no dress code, where middle class women wore Italian fashions; a beer-producing country with orchestras and good schools. A highly repressive country, as is the regional norm, but not one whose people would prefer an Iraq-style U.S. occupation and inevitable accompanying violent resistance to the status quo.

John Bolton once referred to Syria (which he wanted to bomb, to produce regime change, as early as 2003) as “low-hanging fruit,” meaning it was ripe for plucking. He has waited so long to get his way. He will use this claim of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma to demand that his boss bomb Syria. He is an intelligent if wholly evil person; “human scum” as the North Koreans put it when he proved himself to behave civilly in diplomatic negotiations. He may see his heroic role at present to steer his impressionable and unbalanced employer to shift to his own intensely confrontational foreign policy preferences, and particularly to get Trump to challenge Russia and Iran over Syria. His own priority—it is no secret—is the overthrow of the Iranian Islamic State through coordination with Saudi Arabia and Israel. It’s insane.

MSNBC anchors keep indignantly repeating the statistics on Syrian deaths and displacements. How can the U.S. do nothing?!  How can it leave Syria to Russia and Iran?! How can we say a gas attack produces no consequences?! One commentator is soberly urging the U.S. “take out the Syrian Air Force.” Like it’s that simple. Like the Russians and Iranians and Iraqi Shiites and Lebanese (Hizbollah) are going to accept this as the moral duty of the United States to end the Syrian people’s suffering. Because the U.S. as we’ve seen in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya is really good at alleviating suffering after it bombs.

Like a shift by Trump from resisting Hillary’s Syria war plan to embracing it would be a return to global responsibility. Like attacking Assad—when his loyal, overwhelmingly Sunni professional army regains control over the country, wiping out people who can validly be defined as “terrorists”—thus preventing the restoration of peace, is a good, rational thing.

The prevalence of this view is astonishing. Is historical memory so shallow? It’s like someone once had this hypothesis that you could use gasoline to douse fire. It didn’t work the first couple times but he’s eager to try again. Joe wants “us” to do something.To help these suffering people, just as, in fact, their suffering is abating through the defeat of their worst enemies.

It’s due to that very success—of the professional Syrian Arab Army forces, the Russian military, the Iranians and others—that Syria may be overcoming its national nightmare. Or at least entering a period of low-intensity warfare in Kurdish areas along the Turkish border and protracted mopping-up operations against militants in Idlib Province. There are conflicts playing out here, particularly between Turks, Arabs and Kurds, that the State Department and Pentagon are not even staffed nor equipped to understand.

U.S. officials always see these historical nuances and issues between peoples as bothersome details in the way of their cowboy agendas. So apparently does Joe Scarborough, a pompous fool who while hating Trump admires Pompeo and Mattis as stalwarts of foreign policy respectability.

Isn’t it great that the brass during a heated meeting got Trump to back off on his pledge to withdraw “soon” from Syria, thus showing him who’s boss? (Trump loves his generals. Isn’t it great to know that they’re really calling the shots?) Isn’t it great to know that this reported chemical attack, to which he responded with an immediate knee-jerk denunciation of Russia and Putin—to all the cable anchors’ applause—might change his mind about Syrian withdrawal and cause him to more heed, say, the bellicose advice of his new national security advisor?

It’s been announced that Trump will make an announcement about Syria within 48 hours. Oh no. One can only hope Putin gets on the phone and talks some reason to him.

The U.S. cannot control everything anymore. Indeed, it never could, but it came close after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the generation-long humiliation of its peoples as the U.S. shattered the once prosperous state of Yugoslavia, bombing a European capital (Belgrade) for the first time in 1999 in (of all thing) a NATO operation and relentlessly expanded the hostile anti-Russian NATO bloc. But since the Iraqi debacle from 2003 U.S. influence has appropriately declined.

The U.S. has sought to bully its European allies into mounting confrontation with Russia, not for their interests, but for Washington’s. Spanish and Polish farmers supplying Russian markets are not for trade sanctions. Neither indeed are most European trade ministers. They obey for geopolitical reasons, so far at least. But one has the sense that not only are the Russians losing patience with U.S. intimidation but close allies are also concluding that the U.S. is so messed up under Trump that they have to seek a new path with Russia and the emerging global multilateral order. Good, good. May the stupid United Front against Russia, based on an insistence on NATO expansion and the depiction of any Russian counter-actions as unpardonable aggressions and provocations of the U.S.A., crumble even as the Trump administration collapses.


Tuesday morning. It’s widely reported that Trump will order military strikes on Syria. Cable news does not report that the Syrian Red Crescent says it has no evidence for a chemical attack on Douma. This is not important information Or that Syria, Russia and Iran strongly deny accusations of responsibility and call this an obvious effort to produce a pretext for further military aggression. They don’t entertain for a moment the thought that al-Sham might have done something to invite U.S. intervention which could only aid the terror group’s own future in the short term. (Nothing would better build its local base than a hardy U.S. invasion.) The idea that some people around Trump want a pretext to get back into the game in Syria, and indeed drive out the Russians, either doesn’t occur to them or they’re forbidden by their news directors from openly articulating the thought on air.

Trump sat there in the White House yesterday, surrounded by bemedaled generals and the evil Bolton at his side, planning to discuss Syria and the supposedly necessary U.S. “response” (as though the U.S. were responsible for conditions in Syria, where, in fact, just to point out what should be obvious, its presence is generally unwelcome and illegal).

He began, after condemning the alleged Syrian chemical attack, by whining about the FBI search of his personal lawyer’s home and hotel room. MSNBC asks how his state of mind might affect his decisions on Syria. Michael Isikoff, “investigative journalist” committed to the view that Russia is at war with America, opines that Trump is surrounded by military officers who have already (by forcing him to back down on his promise to withdraw “soon’ from Syria) proven to positively influence his judgment. (So no worries. He’ll do the right thing and bomb Syria.)

Mika asks George Will: “How can we be sure the right decision will be be made on Syria?” given Trump’s preoccupations. Will replies matter-of-factly that Trump might go to war to “cause a distraction.” She wants a strike to show Russia that the U.S. has not conceded regional hegemony to Moscow. He doesn’t want one because he thinks it would be unconstitutional. Anyway it looks like it will happen.

Makes me remember Country Joe in 1967:
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam [or Syria,or Ukraine];
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Lots of talk of Trump’s “tweet rant” about the Cohen search and the real possibility of high-level firings.  I have the feeling that Trump is willing to provoke a constitutional crisis and/or do something very dangerously irrational with his military that will produce his removal from office. He may indeed long for impeachment so as to rebuild his real estate career, projecting the persona of an unfairly hounded, victimized martyr who tried but failed to make America first and great again (because of liberal Democrats’ implacable hatred). His spontaneous tirade against the “witch hunt” last night, in that military context, and his pointed refusal to rule out firing Mueller, suggest he’s truly frazzled; he is, in any case, unpredictable like a baby. And there’s Bolton there at his side, a new baby-sitter, along with the generals. Open up the pearly gates.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.