Imperial Theatrics in Syria: Where Is Justice for Syrians?

Javier Sethness

Summary: Utter cynicism of US-British-French missile attack on Syria, as murderous Assad regime and its allies continue to suppress the revolution. Originally published by Coalition for Peace, Revolution, and Social Justice — Editors

On Friday evening, 13 April, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the commencement of joint U.S. missile and air strikes with France and the U.K. against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in response to the Syrian military’s alleged use of chemical weapons during the siege of Douma on April 7th. This chemical attack on Douma has reportedly taken the lives of more than forty people and, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society, at least five hundred others have presented with symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical weapons—likely chlorine and possibly also sarin.

The Douma gas massacre, for which Assad is clearly responsible, represents the culmination of the regime’s long siege of the rebel-held Damascus suburb, a campaign which began in 2013, aimed at retaking control of the whole of Eastern Ghouta. During the ferocious intensification of Ghouta’s bombardment, which began on February 18 and ended with Ghouta’s fall just days ago, Assad and Russia cruelly murdered an estimated two thousand civilians using napalm, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons in an indiscriminate assault on residences and hospitals alike. It was the Douma chemical attack which finally led Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel group holding out in the region, to surrender and accept forced transfer to the northwestern province of Idlib, thus yielding full control of the city to State forces. As Frieda Afary observes, the fall of Eastern Ghouta to Assad recalls the regime’s previous conquest of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016, portending the defeat of the Syrian Revolution. Meanwhile, Trump allows Turkey a free hand to attack the Kurds in northwestern Syria.

Into this fraught context come the joint U.S.-U.K.-French strikes of April 13-14. The strikes have consisted of an estimated 100 missiles fired from naval and air forces in the Eastern Mediterranean against the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in the Barzeh district of Damascus, as well as suspected chemical-weapons depots and a control center west of Homs. There are unconfirmed reports that the Hama military airport and al-Shirai and al-Dumayr airbases near Damascus have also been targeted, in addition to other suspected chemical-weapons sites around the capital city. According to U.S. General John Dunford, these strikes aim to “deter future chemical-weapon use” on Assad’s part. For its part, the Russian military claims to have intercepted almost 70% of the incoming missile strikes, as it had promised to do in the days leading up to the attack, though the Pentagon has cast doubt on this assertion. The number of casualties from the strikes has not been clearly reported so far, but it is likely to be significant. Plus, striking chemical-weapons depots with missiles may recklessly endanger nearby populations.

Still, in effect, these punitive strikes hardly amount to an overwhelming military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and they certainly do not anticipate larger strikes aimed at reversing the regime’s gains in the war. While announcing the strikes in joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on April 13th, Dunford declared that “operations are [now] complete.” Indeed, the potential military damage done by the strikes was greatly mitigated by Trump’s sustained telegraphing of the raid, which allowed regime forces ample time to abandon their bases, transfer aircraft and matériel to Russian military sites, and even supposedly evacuate Assad himself. Effectively, then, the attack is little different than the largely symbolic missile strikes Trump ordered against Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack of April 2017.

Although the U.S., the U.K., and former colonial power France are effectively invoking international law and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in their punitive strikes on Syria, we find such pretexts cynical. By continuing and intensifying established Obama-era practices, Trump has murdered thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, particularly through his loosening of rules of engagement and his attendant granting of greater decision-making power to his field commanders. Moreover, the Trump Regime has completely rejected its responsibilities toward the millions of Syrian refugees, denying all but 11 of them entry to the U.S. so far this year. This illuminates its true lack of concern for those starved, bombarded, gassed, imprisoned, tortured, displaced, and assassinated by the Assad Regime and its allies. As Leila al-Shami writes, the recent strikes are “less about protecting Syrians from mass-atrocity and more about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable, lest one day they be used on westerners themselves.” In like manner, Trump’s open support for Israeli atrocities against unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza mobilizing to demand their rights further illustrates the emptiness of his sudden claim to be the champion of oppressed Syrians.

Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact that this attack comes at a particularly sensitive time for Trump, whose attorney Michael Cohen just had his office, home, and hotel room raided by the FBI, on the referral of Robert Mueller. We therefore see a clear element of distraction in these strikes, noting a clear parallel with the case of Bill Clinton, who resorted on two occasions to bombing Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq in 1998 to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Currently, Trump faces not one but several domestic political scandals. In addition, Trump clearly seeks to capitalize on these strikes to promote his image and brand ahead of the upcoming midterm elections—and conceivably, the 2020 presidential elections, too—as being “different from Obama,” who famously failed to enforce the “red lines” he had outlined following the regime’s ghastly sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013.

We should clearly recognize that this attack isn’t designed with “regime change” in mind. No: despite official criticisms of his regime’s brutality, Assad serves too important a function to the U.S. to be deposed—namely, oppressing and murdering Sunni Arab Muslims who revolt against oppression en masse, thus maintaining geopolitical “stability.” As Nicole Magnoona Gervitz writes paradoxically, Assad in fact serves Western and Israeli interests: “An Arab despot who crushes his own people always has a special place in the Zionist heart. Israel [and the U.S.] ha[ve] always relied on corrupt Arab despots like Bashar al Assad to put down the masses for them.” So the imperialist demagogue Trump, true to form, is really just posturing as a humanitarian with these strikes, seeking to gain political capital and unsully his own reputation as a brutal, uncaring criminal. In the wake of the attack, indeed, the Pentagon was quick to clarify to Syrian refugees in the Jordanian border camp of Rukban that this was a limited, retaliatory strike, and that any offensive action they might take against regime forces in response would not be supported by the imperialist militaries.

In essence, then, the joint Anglo-Franco-American strikes symbolize the spectacle of bourgeois international relations, whereby one authoritarian-imperialist camp attacks another merely out of concern for image, but without substance. We lament the civilians whose lives have been taken by these attacks, as well as those who have been and continue to be murdered by Assad’s forces and their allies, in their bid to drown the Syrian Revolution. We condemn the militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism of the Western powers as well as of Assad and his backers, and we look forward to the coordinated unification and intensification of international popular struggles to depose tyrants and borders alike.

Stop the U.S.-Russian-Iranian attack on Syria!
For a free Syria and a free Kurdistan!
Syrian refugees must be allowed asylum!
Down with all forms of imperialism, war, xenophobia, and religious intolerance!
For human liberation and an end to exploitation and domination everywhere!

Javier Sethness, for the Coalition for Peace, Revolution, and Social Justice

Javier Sethness is a member of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation



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  1. Richard Abernethy

    While I welcome this article and broadly agree with the analysis, there are a couple of points I would question.
    The idea that Trump decided on the missile strikes, in part, to create a distraction from the Mueller inquiry (or other political problems at home), is entirely speculative. If that was a contributory reason, it is unlikely to be very effective – the Mueller inquiry and media coverage will continue anyway. Macron and May would not have joined in for such reasons. Geopolitical calculations, the need to project power and appear strong in the face of Russia and Iran, are sufficient to explain these attacks.

    The claim that “Assad in fact serves Western and Israeli interests” is rather dubious. He is a client and ally of Russia and Iran. While a phrase like “Western and Israeli interests” may serve as convenient shorthand for “Western and Israeli capitalist and state power interests”, we should remember that there are two worlds – rulers and ruled – in every country, and yes, that does include Israel.

    Sweeping generalisations about “the Zionist heart” are rather dangerous.

  2. Assadour

    The sentence in the third paragraph that states “For its part, the Russian military claims to have intercepted almost 70% of the incoming missile strikes, as it had promised to do in the days leading up to the attack, though the Pentagon has cast doubt on this assertion” conflates Syrian Defences (which the al jazeera article linked to the word ‘claims’ makes clear) and Russian military as one and the same. It was the Syrian Defences using Russian equipment to intercept missliles. This is misleading and some may assume the author/coalition have done this on purpose to further a specific argument, in this case that of “authoritarian-imperialist” war which is clearly not the case.

  3. J Turk

    Sethness clears the air on the plight of Syrians who rose up against The Assad regime and paid a heavy price. To Abernethy’s point — that geopolitics influenced Trump’s retaliation — another should be added. To say that Clinton ordered military strikes on sites in Afghanistan and Syria in 1998 to divert attention from the Lewinsky affair forgets a detail pertinent to U.S. policy covering the whole two decades since then. The 1998 strikes were in response to the Al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, killing hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians. The embassy attacks and the Clinton administration’s response are loaded with implications about a three-way conflict between Islamic fundamentalists, Western imperialists, and assailed but existant progressive tendencies. Clarity on the drivers of the capitalist state will strengthen critiques of it.

  4. Javier Sethness

    Thank you for the comments. Richard, of course media coverage of the Mueller inquiry would continue regardless of whether Trump decided to strike Assad’s facilities, but Mueller and Cohen inevitably become less center-stage, at least for some time, following U.S. bombing of Syrian regime targets. As I wrote, “Trump clearly seeks to capitalize on these strikes to promote his image and brand.” That does not contradict the rest of your comment on Mueller/Cohen.

    The claim that Assad serves Western/Israeli interests is not dubious. The U.S. and Israel understand that Assad the strong-man keeps the Sunni Arab masses and the ‘radicals’ among them in check, thus promoting regional and international “stability.” One only has to go back to Hafez al-Assad’s refusal to provide air cover to Salah al-Jadid’s tank column which invaded Jordan to support the PLO during Black September, or consider the elder Assad’s highly reactionary role in supporting Lebanese fascists in the Lebanese Civil War (or, indeed, Bashar’s willingness to render/torture persons of interest to the U.S. in the early stages of the ‘War on Terror’), to see the consonance of Ba’athism with U.S.-Israeli interests. Let’s not forget that Hafez also sent troops on the Coalition side during Desert Storm, and that not one bullet or shell has been fired from Syria toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past 4+ decades. It is telling indeed that U.S. intervention in Syria since 2014 has almost exclusively targeted Da’esh rather than the regime. Since Trump’s accession, moreover, it’s clear that the U.S. and Russia have been coordinating in Syria, given the forewarnings about the strikes following the Khan Sheikhoun and Douma chemical attacks, taken together with U.S. cutting off of supply lines to the Syrian Arab rebels and Trump’s announcement that he would shortly withdraw special forces from the country. For years since 2011, Bashar al-Assad has tried to portray himself as a critical aspect of the “WoT”; one only needs to briefly review SANA’s editorial line to see confirmation of this. Plus, this article from Ha’aretz is instructive:

    To Assadour: I believe the discrepancy you mention reflects the fact that the 1st AJE article which is linked to here ( was updated after I had initially linked to it, with clarification that it wasn’t the Russians themselves but rather the Syrian military using Russian equipment which attempted to mobilize counter-measures.

  5. Richard Abernethy

    I think you will find that you are quite mistaken in writing that “not one bullet or shell has been fired from Syria toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past 4+ decades”. In fact, there have been many such incidents, some (though not all) involving forces loyal to Bashar Assad or his allies in Hezbollah.
    As recently as February 2018, Syrian antiaircraft batteries shot down an Israeli F-16.
    Syria and Iran’s support for Hezbollah can be regarded as a proxy war against Israel. Hezbollah is fighting for Assad in the Syrian Civil War. They would hardly do that if they suspected him of serving Western and Israeli interests.

  6. Javier Sethness

    Richard, apologies for my mistake. Perhaps the source I had consulted was referring to the situation before the onset of the Revolution. Do you have statistics on that period? In any case, it’s clear that Israel has bombarded Syria several times since 2011, including on numerous occasions in the past few months. To cite the 2/18 downing of the Israeli F-16 does not prove your point, as this happened only after Israel began bombing Iranian facilities in retaliation for the attempted “incursion” of an Iranian drone. The Wikipedia article you linked to shows that the “Syrian Arab Army” has borne the brunt of the casualties of cross-border fire: 150+ soldiers/militia killed, with 15 Israeli soldiers wounded.

    There is an important element that you fail to mention regarding Iran and Hezbollah’s support for Assad, namely, the idea that the Shi’a world (of which Assad’s Alawi sect is a distant cousin) must band together against Sunni Muslims (especially the Gulf autocracies). Syria is (or at least was, before 2011 and mass-displacement) majority Sunni, and the Revolution has been largely based in Syria’s Sunni communities. To return to Nicole Magnoona Gervitz’s analysis, as a result of the sectarian Shi’a intervention to prop up Assad, “An anti-Iranian sentiment is being sown in the Arab world as a result of its colonization of Syria. – Hezbollah is too busy murdering Syrians to cause Israel much trouble. – Israel no longer faces any pressure to give up the Golan Heights.” In fact, Hezbollah’s intervention is rather unpopular among Sunni Arabs in Lebanon, some of whom have targeted the militia out of revenge:

    You do not contest the rest of my comment and so I assume you concede these points.