The Toll of American Indifference in Syria

Last month, while he was preparing to attend the United Nations general assembly, the American secretary of state Mike Pompeo, made a statement of seriousness but not of significance.

Pompeo noted the result of an American investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in May this year.

He said that the United States now believes that the regime had used chlorine gas in that attack, as it has been in a habit of doing throughout Syria’s near decade-long civil war.

‘The United States will not allow these attacks to go unchallenged, nor will we tolerate those who choose to conceal these atrocities’, Pompeo at first declared. ‘This is different in some sense in that it was chlorine, so it’s a bit of a different situation’, he later mumbled.

In the course of a single day – in the course of a single statement – the weakness of the American position was made clear.

Chemical weapons, used primarily by the regime, have likely killed thousands in Syria. There have been hundreds of instances in which the use of chemical weapons has been reported – a number of them confirmed. Yet this incident took many months to confirm. And it was minimised and reduced in that confirmation.

And the American conclusion – which years ago might have occasioned impassioned debate about possible action to prevent and punish chemical war crimes – will likely now result in silence.

The nature of the attack itself inclines towards significance.  It is the latest use of chemical weapons which the United States has confirmed since last April’s attack on Douma.

In 2018, not only the United States, but also Britain and France, confirmed that the Assad regime had used a chemical weapon (initially suspected to be sarin, but later believed to have been chlorine) which had killed up to fifty and injured over a hundred. After some vacillating, Britain, France and the United States struck Syria in retaliation.

A year is a long time ago. But a year before that, after a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun which killed a hundred or more, the United States bombed a Syrian air base in response.

Perhaps the lack of casualties of the most recent attack is the reason for such a mealy-mouthed response. But does it justify an extended wait before confirmation?  Previous chemical crimes were suspected instantaneously, and authenticated to a high degree of probability within days. The lag between attack and confirmation now seems to convey a lack of American interest.

The attacks in earlier years which inspired retaliation, like the attack now confirmed, are each one of hundreds. As detailed by a GPPi report this year, the regime has likely used chemical weapons hundreds of times, most of which bore no international response or repercussion.

That so few of these events merited a response was seen to mean something: perhaps even a partiality on the Americans’ part. Maybe, in isolated moments, America’s leaders could be provoked by the most grotesque chemical attacks into reactive strikes; but two successive American presidents seemed to care not a fig for Syrian lives – especially, many Syrians feared, if those killed were Arab and Sunni.

The last week, however, has suggested that American indifference is not restricted by ethnicity or confession.

One American president, in Barack Obama, favoured the Kurdish PYD and its military branch, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). After the United States assisted the YPG in defending towns like Kobani, the American-led coalition used the YPG as its de facto ground forces, rejecting efforts by Arab-led forces to take up those burdens.

In the process, America afforded the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces – a label which was created, per General Raymond A. Thomas in 2017, at the behest of and for the benefit of the Americans – full support. The United States placed troops in SDF territory and guarded Rojava from attack in the air.

If that support seemed like favouritism, it too could not last. And as the past week has shown, when necessity called for the United States to mediate between its Kurdish proxy and its Turkish ally, America preferred not to bother. Let friends be abandoned; let power decide.

America’s disappearance has not been total. As in the case of chemical warfare, a pretence is still maintained. Donald Trump – apparently preferring to act from afar – has threatened to destroy the Turkish economy if it and its allies transgress his unspecified boundaries.

This will not stop Turkey’s attack and is not intended to do so. It’s all bluster, all show, designed for an unusually united domestic audience, which is horrified by seeing news reports of new violence descend on the unprepared.

These spasms of public opinion are not accounted for in the decisions the executive makes – but it has become used, over the past two administrations, over the past decade, at ducking the calls to action popular revulsion can occasionally inspire.

We have seen this happen before.

The length of time taken to confirm May’s chemical attack indicates not thoroughness but rather a lack of priority. The unwillingness to intercede to talk Turkey out of what the White House called its ‘long-planned’ operation in northeastern Syria demonstrates the same.

Last month, a man given the name ‘Caesar’ – a Syrian defector who smuggled out photographs of thousands of dead, and attested to horrific war crimes in regime prisons – gave an interview in which he demanded to know why nothing was now being done about crimes in Syria which he had witnessed.

His photographs had brought him before the United States Congress when America and its politicians wished to convince the world that the Assad regime was evil.

Some effort had been made to make sure people across the world knew of the regime’s chemical attacks in Ghouta in 2013, Khan Sheikhun in 2017 and Douma last year. But now it appears any American interest is gone. A lack of interest breeds and confirms a lack of will, which can be seen all around.

Over nine years of war in Syria, there is no ally the United States has not abandoned; and no inconsistency it has left unexplored.

Perhaps it is right to conclude that two administrations – none of whom foresaw or wanted this outcome – cared as little about the lives of those lost as they did about preventing the many small tragedies which led to Syria’s bitter harvest.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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