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). (CNN, CNN, 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 Assad. Vox 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.