Syria: gas attacks, air-strikes and hypocrisy

An apparent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib governorate, left at least 80 dead April 4. After a bombing of the town, medics reported a "bloodless massacre," saying that they were treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The hospital where gas-attack victims were being treated was itself bombed in the immediate aftermath, "bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked," according to AFP. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib has provided a list of the names of some 70 dead, with more still being identified. Some of the victims were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment, where several died. Turkish authorities say autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin. The UN Security Council immediately called emergency talks on the attack. On April 4, US warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air-base outside Homs, from where the Khan Shaykhun attack is said to have been launched. This constituted the first US attack on an Assad regime target throughout the course of the war (not counting last year's accident, immediately apologized for). (CNNCNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)

Donald Trump, who even peaceniks had lauded as "isolationist" on the campaign trail, is now making noises like a "humanitarian interventionist," even waxing maudlin about the "beatiful babies" killed in the attack. Recall that over the past weeks, Trump's own air-strikes in Aleppo governorate, Raqqa and Mosul have killed perhaps upwards of 600 civilians. 

Also recall that just days earlier, Trump had been signalling a closer collaboration with AssadVox notes that US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last month that "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that "the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people." (High-level officialdom emitted similar noises under the Obama administration, despite the ceaseless fiction of a US "regime change" conspiracy in Syria.)

So what was this all about? Inevitably, theories are circulating that Russia, which had been tipped off in advance, was actually in on the air-raid, and that all Moscow's protests against it are for show—the real objectives having been public relations. The Onion satirized this notion with the headline "Trump Confident US Military Strike On Syria Wiped Out Russian Scandal."

More likely, perhaps, is that Assad and Trump each could not control their own bloodlust and fetish for weaponry. Assad, over-confident in his trust for Trump, just couldn't resist using chemical weapons again. Trump, in turn, just couldn't resist retaliating, and humiliating Obama by doing what he failed to do in the aftermath of the 2013 Ghouta attack.

Then there is the possibility that it really was about geopolitics. The air-raid was carried out just as  Trump was meeting with President Xi Jinping of the formerly demonized China at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. Can it be that Trump's seeming breach with Putin is actually real, and that he is already tilting to China?

In any case, Trump's supposed humanitarian motive can be readily dismissed, as he moves to loosen Obama-era rules of engagement to accommodate further civilian carnage of his own.

Unfortunately, the pseudo-anti-war left which is suddenly protesting the Shayrat air-raid is guilty of equal hypocrisy. The inevitable ANSWER hucksters held their rally in New York's Union Square the day after the raid. (ABC 7) Did they protest when Trump's air-strikes wiped out hundreds of civilians in Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul—areas held by ISIS or other jihadist factions (in other words, Assad's enemies)? Not a fucking peep. But their favorite fascist dictatorship gets bombed, and they all come out of their holes. (Even the Assad regime says only seven were killed in the Shayrat strikes, while improbably claiming that women and children as well as military personnel were among the dead.)

And of course "false flag" theories about the Khan Shaykhun chemical massacre are circulating on the predictable pseudo-news sites, with such ironic names as Global Research and Information Clearing House, who claim that the rebels gassed their own people as a provocation. Isn't it funny how the rebels supposedly have poison gas, but only ever use it on themselves? (Only slightly more probable is the Russian defense ministry's claim that a regime air-strike hit a "terrorist warehouse" containing an arsenal of "toxic substances.")

Some elements of the anti-war left are admittedly getting better. War Resisters League releases a statement entitled "With Syria; Against Selective Solidarity." They are to be heartily applauded for calling out the "selective solidarity" of much of the Western left, and for their call for "deep solidarity" with the Syrian Revolution. But we can't quite go along with their pacifist dogma that sees all air-strikes as alike, whether on a military base from which a gas attack was just launched or on a hospital where gas-attack victims are being treated….

CNN provides an interview with Kassem Eid, who survived the 2013 Ghouta attack, in which he openly pleads for US strikes on Assad's air-bases: "Please Mr. President, in the name of every woman, child and elder who got killed by the Assad regime—come in and help us. Don't make the same mistake that President Obama did."

So regardless of Trump's motives (and there is every reason to assume the worst about them), if you are going to be protesting the raid on Shayrat air-base, you might want to devote some time to thinking about what kind of solidarity you are prepared to offer people like Kassem Eid. 

The only thing that makes the Shayrat raid more worthy of protest than Trump's far deadlier earlier raids that failed to win any protest is the fact that the US was now going against Russia's ally, escalating potential for superpower confrontation. But as we've had to say before: The notion that Syrians must submit to mass murder and genocide in order to preserve world peace (such as it is) is not a particularly principled or courageous position.

  1. Trump’s air-strikes ineffective… apparently

    AP, Turkey's Anadolu Agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report that the same village that was hit in the chemical attack, Khan Shaykhun, was again struck with conventional bombs by regime aircraft taking off from the same base that Trump bombed just days before, al-Shayrat. Despite claims that planes were destroyed and an airstrip damaged in Trump's air-strikes, they appear not to have been very effective.

  2. Trump break with Assad actually real?

    Nikki Haley now seems to be embracing "regime change" in Syria, telling CNN, "We don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there." (Haaretz

    Meanwhile, at least 15 civilians are reported dead in a US-led air-strike near Raqqa. (Haaretz) Please note the failure of the ANSWER fascists to protest this. Killing civilians is OK. It's bombing Assad regime warplanes that is bad.

  3. Russian version of Khan Shaykhun attack debunked

    Award-winning Syrian journalist Hadi Abdullah provides on-the-scene video from Khan Shaykhun, showing pretty clearly that no warehouse was hit. Rather, the crater is in the middle of a road, and still reeks of toxic chemicals.

    The London Times meanwhile identifies the pilot in the Khan Shaykhun attack as Gen. Mohammed Hasouri of Assad's air force, who had also flown on at least one other chemical attack mission, at Latamineh (Hama governorate)

  4. Assad spews bullshit after spewing sarin

    The Fulda Gap blog provides a breakdown of Assad's typically slippery response to the Khan Shaykhun attack. He griped to AFP:

    Actually, no one has investigated what happened that day in Khan Sheikhun till the moment. As you know, Khan Sheikhun is under the control of Al-Nusra Front, which is a branch of Al-Qaeda, so the only information the world have had till this moment is published by Al-Qaeda branch. No one has any other information . We don't know if the whole pictures or videos that we’ve been seeing are true or fabricated. That's why we asked for investigation to what happened in Khan Sheikhun. This is first.

    But a UN Security Council resolution that would have called for an investigation into the attack was vetoed by Assad's ally and sponsor Russia. And indeed the reports have not come from the ex-Nusra forces, but from independent media activists who continue to function within the territory, and from Turkish authorities, who have identified the toxin used as sarin.

  5. Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky betray Syria —yet again

    Amy Goodman's Democracy Now website sports her latest interview with Noam Chomsky, this one before an audience at a church in Cambridge, Mass. Disgracefully if predictably, they engage in detatched and smug theorizing that the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack was a "false flag," although they do not actually use that ugly phrase. Chomsky concedes that it is "plausible it was the Syrian government," but immediately follows up that it is "not so obvious why the Assad regime would have carried out a chemical warfare attack at a moment when it's pretty much winnning the war, and the most serious danger it faces is that a counterforce will enter and undermine its progress."

    The "winning the war" exclusion can simply be dismissed. To point out the obvious, the US was winning the war when it nuked Hiroshima. It also ignores that as recently as last month, Damascus itself was threatened by a surprise rebel advance. Assad is clearly bent on terrorizing the populace into submission—the logic of his war ever since March 2011.

    Chomsky continues: "Maybe you can think of some reason why the Assad regime, which is a murderous brutal regime [note perfunctory lip service], might have done it, [but] there's even another question of why the Russians would have allowed it." This assumes both that Moscow directly controls Assad and that Putin himself would oppose this kind of thing.

    Chomsky next cites MIT scholar Theodore Postol's "devastating critique" of the White House report blaming the attack on Assad. RT is (of course) avidly touting Postol's claim that the report "contains absolutely no evidence that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft."

    This all sounds superficially good, until you actually think about the politics of the situation. Insurgent forces, which have to worry about the hearts and minds of the populace, never commit mass murder on their own people as a provocation. In contrast, counterinsurgency forces all too often resort to mass murder to terrorize targeted populations.  Assad is the only "plausible" suspect, and to cast the blame elsewhere in the absence of positive evidence is merely to legitimize "false flag" theorizing. Whether Chomsky and Postol are impolitic enough to use that phrase or not.

    Implying that none of us really know anything about what is going on Syria, Chomsky adds: "Reporting from Syria is extremely difficult. If reporters go into rebel-held areas and don't do what they're told, you'll get your head cut off."

    He doesn't mention any such putative journalist decapitations, of course. Actually, it is only ISIS that has done that kind of thing—and the Assad regime! (Local reporter Ahmed Assaad Al-Shahab was beheaded by regime forces in Homs governorate in January 2013, Reporters Without Borders finds.) We haven't heard of any such beheadings by the "rebels." Without giving details, Chomsky cites the writing of the extremely problematic Patrick Cockburn to back up his claim.

    Writer and activist Idrees Ahmad addresses Chomsky's claim on Facebook: "[Y]ou surely cannot be unaware of the fact that AFP journalists had reported from the scene in Khan Sheikhoun and that the site was also visited by the Guardian's Kareem Shaheen. Beyond Idlib, journalists such as Clarissa Ward and Nagieb Khaja have done excellent reporting for CNN and Al Jazeera from inside rebel territory. Are you aware of their work? If not, then what were you basing your judgment on? I hope you weren't repeating claims from by the regime-embedded Patrick Cockburn…"

    Chomsky also fails to note that our supposed ignorance about what really happened is first and foremost the fault of Russia, which vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have called on Damascus to cooperate with an international investigation of the attack. (CNN, April 13) Odd behavior if they really have nothing to hide.

    It does not occur to Goodman to challenge Chomsky on any of this. Of course. Indeed, just days earlier, she hosted Jonathan Steele—who openly floated the idea that the Khan Shaykhun massacre was "a dirty trick to try and discredit the Syrian government."

    Almost exactly a year before the interview, Sam Hamad in Muftah wrote on "How Noam Chomsky Betrayed the Syrian People." First and foremost, by portraying the Syrian opposition as monolithically jihadist. This is why Chomsky's lip service about how Assad is bad ultimately comes down to a sleazy trick to lure the uninitiated. When push comes to shove, Chomsky's position is that Assad is the best thing going.

    1. ‘Left’ media silences Syrian civil resistance

      Rime Allaf writes on Middle East Eye: "There is a clear alternative to Assad. To say otherwise is nonsense." It notes the long efforts by Syria's civil resistance to build parallel power—betrayed by all the Great Powers. 

      Charlie Rose meanwhile features an in-depth interview with Syrian opposition figures Noha Alkamcha, Yasmin Kayali Sabra, and Zaina Erhaim. When hectored by Rose about their position on Trump's air-strikes after the  chemical attack  (because everything always has to be about "us"), they emphasize that when the revolution began in 2011 the overwhelming position of the Syrian resistance was in opposition to US military intervention. They have only come around to supporting it in desperation, after years of Assad's unrelenting aerial terror.

      But this overwhelming context is invisible to most "leftist" commentators—as is the very existence of civil resistance voices such as these. Why are these women appearing on Charlie Rose and not Amy Goodman?

  6. Amy Goodman tries to make amends to Syrians

    Amy Goodman's Democracy Now on May 3 featured an interview with journalist Anand Gopal, who refreshingly argues against the Syria "regime change" conspiracy theory, and for the notion that "the sheer brutality of the Assad regime has led people to join ISIS." Well, good. But she's got a lot of catching up to do for all the times she's had Sy Hersh or Noam Chomsky on to regurgitate the regime line. And she's still engaging in exactly the kind of bogus equivalism that the dreaded MSM does re. climate change… like support for a genocidal dictatorship and opposition to one are equally legit POVs….

    Psuedo-left websites such as the oddly named Wrong Kind of Green and American Herald Tribune are already dissing Goodman for the interview, accusing her of joining the "anti-Syria propaganda campaign" and "run[ning] interference for imperialism in Syria." That's the audience you have cultivated, Amy.