U.S. missiles strike Syria
On April 14, the United States dropped bombs on Syria in cooperation with France and the United Kingdom. While Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White said that France and the United Kingdom showed solidarity with American military actions, Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis and the co-director of the Comparative Border Studies Mellon Initiative, seeks the solidarity of countries on whom these missiles fall.
“I think it’s up to them to call for solidarity,” Maira said about nations undergoing civil unrest, like Syria has been since 2011. “I think on the point of intervention specifically, […] I actually think that it’s really important to remember that communities have the right to self-determination.”
The phenomenon of intervention under humanitarian pretense, and of intervention by powerful western militaries begs the question of political motivation and neocolonial impulse. The military actions of the U.S. were in response to alleged chemical attacks by the government under Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, on Douma. Douma is located in Eastern Ghouta and is a remaining rebel force. Chemical attacks are contrary to international law of war, but this is not the first time that Syria has used chemical warfare against its people. The 2013 sarin gas attack by Assad on rebels did not invite airstrikes by the United States. In the context of the near post-Iraq War, military intervention can be unappealing and politically unpopular.
History professor Lorena Oropeza contextualized the roots of the situation in Syria alongside that of Iraq and makes a parallel to her own research focus. Oropeza recently completed a book on a 1960s social movement leader situated in New Mexico.
“It is hard to say what a good intervention looks like because so many have long-range, negative consequences,” Oropeza said via email. “In the case of Syria, for example, one root of the current humanitarian crisis is the spillover from U.S. intervention in Iraq after 9/11. That war was not quick and easy despite all promises to the contrary. Similarly, if we look at the caravan of migrants now at the U.S.-Mexico border, these are people trying to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries in Central America. And a lot of this violence is gang-related and these gangs were a U.S. import. Americans do not always connect these dots.”
History professor Baki Tezcan also made a significant allusion to the Iraq War. It foregrounds his emphasis on thoughtfulness and care in militarized cases of intervention. According to Tezcan, threats must be verified before they are addressed violently.
“In 2003 we invaded Iraq and at the time, at the time of the invasion we were led to believe that Iraq had a close connection with Al-Qaeda, the government of Iraq had a close connection with Al-Qaeda, which proved to be false,” Tezcan said. “We believed that the government of Iraq was involved in producing weapons of mass destruction which it was about to use and that also proved to be false. Nothing was found. And so the, that intervention led to so many things including, including, in a sense what has happened in Syria today by several steps. And not directly but indirectly. So that is why I am just trying to say that it is important to be cautious before intervention and making sure that there was need to intervene.”
Tezcan’s observation is relevant to the case of missile strikes on Syrian weapons development and storage, as these bombs fell hours before a team arrived to make an official investigation. To be confident of chemical attacks, samples must be taken and analyzed from the scene. The reports of chemical weapons use still have not been officially verified, as photo, video and personal testament still may not be cause for intervention.
While both Tezcan and Oropeza make reference to the seeds of resistance and violence sown by intervening forces in the Arab world which gave birth to the conflict in Syria as it exists today, Tezcan also sheds light on the complex political dynamics that made the Syrian political makeup untenable and led to rebellion.
“The government in Syria has mostly been a secular government in the last decades and yet it’s been controlled sort of in terms of its personnel, its recruitment,” Tezcan said. “And the Alawite Muslim minority was very well-represented which made some Sunni Muslims feel kind of disenfranchised, to a certain extent. So that I think might have been [one] of several things that happened in Syria, people wanted to have more representative governmental system at the time when the Arab Spring things were happening in different parts of the Middle East.”
The Arab Spring was a series of civil upheavals following an act of resistance in Tunisia. Many of these upheavals called for a change of government, though in Syria the people are still resisting for change. Meanwhile, Oropeza explained the material cause of violence. The arms available in Syria and some neighboring countries which have contributed to some of the violence within the transition can be traced back to the U.S.
“Even when the U.S. does not directly intervene, its military equipment is there,” Oropeza said. “In Syria, anti-Assad factions that have both been armed by the U.S. are now fighting each other. Nearby, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen with arms purchased by the United States. The result is not only another major humanitarian crisis there but, for those people on the ground being bombed, another reason for anti-American sentiment.”
While conflicts outside of Syria are propelled by American arms, Syria is itself not an insular war. Maira noted its highly international nature and the self-interest of involved nations.
“It’s fair to say the Syrian people rose up against the dictatorship of Assad but the point is also that the U.S. has also been engaged in various wars and has left many dictators also untouched,” Maira said. “Clearly this is a proxy war with other countries with which the U.S. is engaged in a struggle for power in the region, notably […] in Iran. I think that clearly […] the great game is being played out on the Syrian battlefield between these other powers.”
U.S. political interests, in addition to motivating the financial/arms support of some rebel groups, may also be the basis for its military intervention. Referring to a longstanding tradition of invoking war to garner the support and faith of a disappointed or disgruntled public, Maira ponders Trump’s impulse toward military intervention.
“There were many Syrians who actually were calling for U.S. intervention openly and the U.S. has actually not been […] engaged,” Maira said. “Trump definitely wanted to distract from the numerous problems that are bedeviling him at home in the domestic arena […] and we hear the drumbeat of war to distract the population and kind of try to unify them against some evil threat overseas. It’s not new.”
In an official statement, President Donald Trump invoked the multilateral powers of the U.S., France and the UK including “all instruments of our national power: military, economic, and diplomatic.” Maira inquired into the forms of aid made possible by economics and diplomacy, which are seldom utilized.
“I think if the U.S. cares so much about the Syrian people they would be resettling all Syrian refugees because they have the funding and the resources to do that,” Maira said. “Instead, Syrians are being housed in poor neighboring countries of Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey that are completely overwhelmed by the influx of Syrians.”
The discourse of humanitarianism that permeates discussions around intervention seems to have the potential to welcome and settle asylum-seekers and refugees.
“Humanitarianism has become a fig leaf to provide cover for western imperial intervention because it’s no longer possible or justifiable to just openly invade another country,” Maira said. “This began really with the wars in the Balkans and the Bosnian conflict when, under Clinton, we must remember it was not under a Republican regime, that the west engaged in the war in Serbia and Bosnia. It was done under the kind of notion of the responsibility to protect, R2P. And this doctrine is being used, invoked, by the international community, by certain […] countries to claim that it is their responsibility as global policemen who have annointed themselves with the responsibility to protect supposedly other, weaker populations and to invade them.”
R2P, or the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, is signed by all members of the United Nations and commits them to prevent genocide, war crimes and other humanitarian violations. Being the legal doctrine of the phenomenon of humanitarian war, it has been used in cases of dubious intention.
“The idea of humanitarian war is one that has increasingly been used, particularly by powerful weaponized countries to invade and undermine the sovereignty of other countries,” Maira said. “The problem with it, the two problems, is one: it’s done highly selectively. There are numerous human rights and humanitarian abuses that are happening in different countries around the world, in the U.S. and European countries choose to intervene very selectively in some cases and not others. So, just take the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Israel has committed numerous illegal attacks and wars, it has used chemical weapons on the Palestinian population, it has done so repeatedly every two or three years there’s a war on Gaza in contravention of international law and the U.S. not only does not invade Israel or attack it, the U.S. actually supports Israel and funds it. So there’s a huge hypocrisy.”
It remains to be seen whether in this case, the Assad-led government used gas on its rebels. Although there may be a final answer to this question, that of intervention cannot be concluded with finality. The reality of displaced peoples in the Syrian conflict remains pertinent. Maira reminded the UC Davis community to think about what they can do for refugees and asylees who suffer the lived experience of civil unrest and U.S. intervention.
“I think the word conflict probably doesn’t do it justice because the […] country has been decimated,” Maira said. “You have billions of people who have been forced to leave and displaced […] the infrastructure has been destroyed, Syria doesn’t exist anymore as we know it.”
Written by: Stella Sappington — firstname.lastname@example.org