Victims of this week’s chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. (Alaa Alyousef / AP)
War opens a Pandora’s box of evils that once unleashed are beyond anyone’s control. The invasion of Afghanistanset out to defeat al-Qaida, and nearly 16 years later, we are embroiled in a losing fight with the Taliban. We believed we could invade Iraq and create a Western-style democracy and weaken Iran’s power in the region. The fragmentation of Iraq among warring factions has left Iran the dominant Muslim nation in the Middle East and Iraq destroyed as a unified nation. We set out to topple President Bashar Assad in Syria but then began to bomb the Islamic insurgents trying to overthrow him. We spread the “war on terror” to Yemen, Libya and Syria in a desperate effort to crush regional resistance. Instead, we created new failed states and lawless enclaves where vacuums were filled by the jihadist forces we sought to defeat. We have wasted a staggering $4.79 trillion on death, destruction and folly as our nation is increasingly impoverished and climate change threatens us with extinction. The arms manufacturers, who have a vested interest in perpetuating these debacles, will work to make a few trillion more before this act of collective imperial suicide comes to a humiliating end.
In war, when you attack one force you implicitly aid another. And the forces we assist by striking the Assad regime are the forces we ironically are determined to eradicate—Nusra Front, al-Qaida and other Islamic radical groups. These are the same Islamic forces we, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Kuwait, largely created, armed and funded at the inception of the civil war in Syria. They are the forces that have responded to the chaos caused by our misguided military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. They are the forces that execute Western captives, slaughter religious minorities, carry out terrorism in Europe and the United States and collect billions of dollars from smuggling refugees into Europe. They are our sometime enemies and our sometime allies.
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The jihadists’ savagery mirrors our own. The jihadists respond to our airstrikes and aerial drone attacks by using suicide vests and improvised explosive devices. They respond to our black sites and prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo with basement cells that torture kidnapped captives. They respond to the ideology of Western secularism with an Islamic state. They respond to violence with violence.
The Islamic militants in Syria, after Russia intervened against them in September 2015, were losing territory, financial revenue and support in the six-year war. And they were the ones who rejoiced this week when the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat airfield, reportedly the launching site for a chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people, including at least 30 children, on Tuesday in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government says six people died in the U.S. missile attack.
The selective moral outrage of the United States, among both Democrats and Republicans, over the alleged chemical attack—I know from two decades of covering war that the truth is very murky and easily manipulated in wartime—ignores America’s primary responsibility for the wholesale carnage that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions as refugees, including 4 million from Iraq and 5 million from Syria. It ignores the 12,197 bombs we dropped on Syria last year. It ignores our role in creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and our role in arming and funding these jihadists in Syria. We have made sure that the Syrians—400,000 of whom have died and half of whom have been forced from their homes during the war—have many options when it comes to dying.
Syria had, and may still have, chemical weapons. It appeared to use them in 2013 in the Damascus suburb Ghouta, leaving anywhere from 281 to 1,729 dead. But the Syrians, in an international accord brokered by then-Secretary of State John Kerry with the Russian government, agreed to turn over their chemical stockpiles to the Russians following the attack. And one has to ask why Syria, which is finally winning the war, would use chemical agents now and risk U.S. retaliation. Syria says the deadly nerve agent sarin and possibly chlorine gas were released when a rebel depot holding the chemicals was hit in an airstrike.
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Why the moral outrage now among Americans? Why have we stood by as Syrians died daily from barrel bombs, bullets, famine, disease and drowning off the shores of Greece? Why have we been mute as schools, apartment blocks, mosques and hospitals have been bombed into rubble? Where is the outrage about the deaths of the thousands of other children, including those we killed recently in Mosul when a March 17 coalition airstrike took the lives of as many as 200 civilians? Why are we not enraged by the Trump administration’s flagrant violation of domestic law by carrying out an act of war without approval from Congress or the United Nations? Why do we lament these deaths yet bar Syrian war refugees from entering the United States? Is American foreign policy to be dictated by the fickle emotions of Donald Trump, whose perception of reality appears to be obtained exclusively from a television screen?
The radical Islamists can always count on the West to intervene and resurrect them. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian radical, founded al-Tawhid al-Jihad in Iraq with about 100 former fighters from al-Qaidi in Afghanistan. His goal was a sectarian conflict with the Shiites. A unified Shiite and Sunni state in Iraq was an anathema to the Sunni jihadists. Zarqawi’s group became al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004. It declared its loyalty to Osama bin Laden, who had initially opposed Zarqawi’s call for a war with Shiites. Zarqawi was killed in 2006.
By 2010 al-Qaida in Iraq was a spent force. Then came the civil war in Syria. The United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey pumped weapons, money and resources to various rebel factions in Syria to overthrow the Syrian regime. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over the leadership of Zarqawi’s organization, changed the name of the group to the Islamic State of Iraq. He soon decamped to Syria. His group, like all jihadist organizations in Syria, was showered with weapons and resources. Baghdadi devoted his energy to attacking other jihadist and rebel groups. He gradually took control of an area the size of Texas in Syria and Iraq. Al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria, merged with the Islamic State of Iraq. The new group became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. It attracted an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters—some 4,000 of whom held European passports. The group was estimated by The Wall Street Journal to earn $2 million a day in oil exports alone. As a trafficker of humans, it has made billions from the desperate refugees attempting to flee to Europe. It has executed religious minority members or forced them out of its territory. The newly formed self-described caliphate has also terrorized the Sunnis in the name of religious purity, as Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton point out in the AlterNet article “Is Trump Rescuing Al-Qaeda’s ‘Heartland’ in Syria?”
The rise of Islamic State has instilled pride and self-empowerment for many Sunnis, humiliated by the U.S. occupation. It has exposed the weak and corrupt ruling elites who have sold themselves to Washington. It is proof that the Western military forces are not invincible. These groups will suffer reverses, but they will not go away.
There is no clean or easy way to exit from the morass we created in the region. None of the insurgents in the region will willingly lay down their weapons until the U.S. occupation of the Middle East ends. The wars we started are complicated. There is a myriad of proxy wars being fought beneath the surface, including our war with Russia, Turkey’s war with the Kurds, and Saudi Arabia’s war with Iran. The civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are the human fodder. This slaughter has already lasted nearly 16 years. It will not cease until the United States is exhausted and withdraws its forces from the region. And before that happens, many, many more innocents will die. So save your tears. We are morally no different from the jihadists or the Syrians we fight. They reflect back to us our own repugnant visage. If we wanted this to stop, we could make it happen.