- The Trump administration has warned it will strike Syria if it finds it used chemical weapons in an upcoming assault.
- President Trump has already attacked Syria twice over chemical warfare, but it doesn’t stop chemical weapons use or even ease the suffering of Syrians.
- The Syrian war is seven years old and the US can’t do much to turn the tide at this point as Russia and Iran take control.
- Instead, the US exercises leadership with purely punitive strikes against non-critical elements of Syria’s military.
- The real purpose of the Syria strikes is to send a message to Russia and others who would use chemical weapons, not to actually help people in Syria.
President Donald Trump’s made it very clear that the US may soon carry out a military strike on Syria for its suspected chemical weapons use on civilians, but saving Syria’s bombarded civilians wouldn’t be the real purpose of such a strike.
Currently, the Syrian government, along with its Iranian and Russian backers, is preparing a massive offensive to take back the last rebel stronghold in a seven-year-long war that started with Syrian President Bashar Assad putting pro-democracy protestors to death in 2011.
Since then, the war has seen 500,000 deaths and millions of Syrians displaced, spawning a refugee crisis across Europe. A generation of Syrian children have grown up under fire and knowing nothing but war, likely fuelling extremism for decades to come.
The US under Obama made efforts to train and equip moderate rebels, but those efforts failed as US weapons made their way to terrorists’ hands and the opposition was crushed by the regime which Iran and Russia more directly supported.
Only Trump has stood up to Assad, who stands accused of war crimes including chemical weapons use, torture, and bombing of civilian hubs like schools and hospitals. But Trump didn’t strike Syria to save civilians, he did it to send a message to Russia.
“If President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday.
“This is a tragic situation,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on the same day, referring to the mounting Syrian offensive.”If [Assad and his allies want] to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that, but they cannot do it with chemical weapons.”
The US has attacked the Syrian government twice, in April 2017 and in April of this year, both times after large scale chemical weapons use in the country.
Haley went on to say that Syria, Iran, and Russia “can’t” retake the country by “assaulting their people,” but the US has never attacked Syria for simply assualting, whether in prisons, by shelling, or airstrikes, its own people.
The chemistry of US strikes on Syria
Chemical weapons represent a unique horror on the battlefield. Families sheltering in basements or bunkers from conventional bombs can die from fumes seeping in. Survivors and battlefiled medics describe the suffering associated with exposure to chemical weapons as uniquely horrifying and traumatising. Unlike conventional bombs that might blow up a plane or ship, chemical weapons are strictly anti-human.
But as horrible as they are, chemcial warfare accounts for a tiny fraction of overall death in the Syrian war. Even if the Trump administration managed to completely rid Syria of chemical weapons, or ward them off from ever using the weapons again, the suffering in Syria would continue at much the same pace.
If the US military wanted to, it could find out which air force units in Assad’s military dropped the chemical weapons. It could find out where they live. It could kill them in the night to send a message.
Instead, the US strikes have focused on repairable airstrips and research facilities. These targets had no embedded Russian soliders and a few cruise missiles off a Navy ship that would simply sail away after striking these targets.
When the US strikes Syria, it picks locations unlikely to harm Russians, therefore preventing escalation between the world’s greatest nuclear powers. But the strikes still send a message to Moscow, that the US won’t be muscled out of Syria, and that the international norm against chemical weapons use is worth upholding.
In that way, the US demonstrates the tiny channel of leadership it has left in the horrific Syrian crisis. The US can’t stop a Syria, with Iran and Russia’s help, from slaughtering its own people. That ship sailed years ago.
But it can show the world that there are still red lines that the US will risk blood and treasure to enforce.
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