By Talia Floyd
On Thursday, April 6 2017, the United States launched an attack on Al Shayrat airfield in Syria. President Trump said the airbase was targeted for its role in a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 civilians two days earlier.
According to the Pentagon News Release, Russia and Iran sharply criticized U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airfield , while European countries have been broadly supportive so far.
As terrible as this event is, and it is terrible, this is hardly the first atrocity faced by Syrians. It would be hard to quantify what is the “worst” thing that happen to the Syrian people, it would be foolish to attempt it but Syrians are facing some of the most pressing and most vile of violations of human rights.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Syrian government under the Assad regime has knowingly used several strategies notoriously unsafe on civilians. These includes sieges to starve civilians into cooperation, the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta near Damascus, cluster munitions, dropping explosive barrel bombs on civilians, arbitrary detention and many cases torture and killings mostly young men but also people of all ages and genders including children. Karen Yourish, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Derek Watkins of the New York Times reported that over 200.000 people had died in 2015. Entire hospital wings have been converted into “torture wards” wrote Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria of the Washington Post.
So why does this particular event matter to the US? Was this just the straw that broke the camel’s back? Perhaps but a more likely cause is in one word, Trump. The change in administration means a change in priorities and Trump ran on the promise of a strong military.
Although President Trump also inferred that the US would at least attempt not to get involved in any more wars in the middle east. Trump was quoted saying that these acts shouldn’t be “ignored by the civilized world.” and that “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution…”
US intervention in Syria is rapidly increasing under the Trump administration. The number of troops in Syria is not publicly available but a cap of 500 troops was placed by the Obama administration. That cap will almost inevitably be abolished soon. Trump has already added 500 more troops to those previously deployed in Syria during his short tenure. According to the Washington Post that number could increase by another 500 in the coming weeks. The US has been involved in violent conflict for the entirety of it’s history, beginning with the ongoing occupation and colonization of indigenous land and people. That is to say that the US has a history of occupations with no exit strategy.
Voices of opposition such as Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT), have drawn parallels to the Iraq war, warning that this is a costly intervention that seeks to counter The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but does not have a clear set of steps once ISIL has been satisfactorily defeated or even what defeat would look like.
Conflict has been a staple of the US since its inception and there is no doubt that the US military force is incredibly powerful and expansive however, conflict is costly, and the Syrian conflict is no exception, not just because of the economic toll it takes but for its impact on Syrian lives and the stability of all of the states throughout the region. The military under Obama was reluctant to commit to any combat roles for US forces. However under Trump and with the ever looming operation to take Raqqa, a city with strategic importance currently under ISIL control, that commitment is looking ever murkier. According to Al Jazeera, US allies have been waiting on the US to commit to some kind of support or intervention but given the shift in power the international community has been left in a limbo. Two plans, one under Obama and the other under Trump have been submitted by the Pentagon in the last 2 months. Both rely heavily on supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is predominantly populated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Turkey, a close and critical ally, has decried as a terrorist organization.
The Syrian conflict is immensely complicated and the words of US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson leave something to be desired in honoring that complexity. “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction” said Tillerson. There is no conflict in which the enemies are defeated and the US can simply leave, at-least not without the scars of warfare–psychologically or physically. Thus, a possibility of another long war.