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Damascus Blues

On the bombing of Syria

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

As promised by our Bloviator-in-Chief, we bombed Syria last Friday, inauspiciously the 13th of April.

It was not the first time the United States has bombed Syria. The US has been conducting a low-intensity air war against ISIS, in Syria and Iraq, for years. This has involved dropping a great many deadly bombs. But last week’s bombing was against Syria’s brutal Assad regime. It was indeed the second time in the past year that the Trump administration has bombed regime targets, both times purportedly in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in its murderous effort to maintain power.

As Peter Baker points out in the New York Times, while Trump has absurdly declared “Mission Accomplished,” he has outlined no clear mission and seems not to have one.

The action might have been “restrained.” And its “precision” might be a sign of some tactical wisdom on the part of Defense Secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis. But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish new National Security Adviser, looms in the background (see herehere, and here), and if he has not prevailed at the moment, his bellicose position on Iran, and on the region more broadly, casts a dark shadow on this move (according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Bolton indeed coordinated the air strikes with the Netanyahu government in Israel).

While Assad’s regime is despicable, this bombing does nothing to address the questions of human rights, human security, or geopolitical security that the Syrian situation presents. Considered in national security terms, what Robin Wright says of it is true: “Trump’s strike was a tactical response that lacks a long-term strategy to help restore stability to turbulent Syria. A country that is the geostrategic center of the Middle East, Syria has been ravaged by seven years of a war that has killed an estimated half million people and displaced more than half of its twenty-three million citizens. The US-led military operation did nothing to change those realities — or even challenge Assad’s brutal rule or his growing military grip on the country.”

At the same time, there is much reason to doubt that the move can be understood simply as a “tactical response.” For there have been a great many alleged uses of chemical weapons by the Assad regime over the past year that have gone unnoticed by Trump. Moreover, as many serious commentators have pointed out, this President has demonstrated little grasp of or interest in serious foreign or security policy.

Given Trump’s contempt for both veracity and intelligent public discourse, and given the multiple scandals and legal pressures that appear to have him unhinged and his Presidency in crisis, it is no surprise that many commentators have invoked the “wag the dog” scenario, suggesting that it appears, and indeed might well be the case, that what explains the bombing, now, is Trump’s desire to distract the public from his reeling Presidency and to “rally the flag” behind him.

Rachel Maddow on MSNBC has been most explicit about this. Frank Bruni offers a more nuanced view in the New York Times. Yet even he notes that:

It’s impossible to ignore the degree to which the military strike pushes a slew of unflattering stories about the Trump administration — its failed attempt to undo Obamacare, the feuding within its ranks and, above all, the probes into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russian government — to the side of the page. Nothing drowns out scandal like the fire and fury of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. On Friday morning Mike Allen of Axios quoted an unnamed official in the Trump administration saying that White House aides were viewing this particular juncture — these last few days — as “leadership week,” because Trump was not only meeting with the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago but had also stood tall at a lectern there on Thursday night, just after the strike against Syria, to utter these sweeping words: “God bless America and the entire world.” To read Allen’s succinct account is to get the haunting sense that the administration isn’t talking about — or, for that matter, evaluating — the substance of what Trump did in Syria. The official is talking about a script that Trump is reading and a role that he’s playing. I fear that Trump is relishing that role too much, and that his enjoyment explains the turnabout. How shocking, really, was Assad’s use of chemical weapons against its citizens? He’s done it before. What’s changed is that Trump, not Obama, is now the one in position to send America’s missiles, flex America’s muscle and feel the titanic power of that.

This seems right, even if it is also obvious that Trump has not orchestrated either the Syrian crisis or the broader geopolitical setting, and that the support his bombing maneuver received from the UK’s Theresa May and France’s Emmanuel Macron suggests that it was not without some “warrant” in terms of the logic of geopolitics. As retired Colonel Jack Jacobs, a regular guest on the Maddow show, observed when asked about the overlap in timing between the Russia probe and the Syria bombing: “I don’t believe in coincidences … You can’t discount the wag the dog factor in this particular case any more than you can discount any other factor.”

A number of well-meaning MSNBC commentators, clearly trying hard to prove their lack of “bias” against Trump, have described this “wag the dog” interpretation as “cynical.” But it would be more accurate to describe it as a realistic attribution of cynicism to this President, whose relatively “Presidential” composure in announcing the bombing should not make us forget everything that he has done over the past year to demonstrate that he is a dictatorial individual who displays authoritarian dispositions and articulates what William E. Connolly has called an “aspirational fascism.” It was, after all, only a few short months ago that Trump declared that “only a major event” can “bring Americans together” behind his leadership. And was only a few days ago that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders — who lies daily for Trump — Tweeted out a deceptive message straight from “the dictator’s playbook,” glorifying the resolve of Trump and his cabinet, including a photo described as “Inside the Situation Room as President is briefed on Syria” that was clearly photo-shopped to include Vice President Mike Pence even though Pence was in Argentina when the bombing took place. There is no depth beneath which this President and his handlers, enablers, and publicists will sink. And, however complicated was the bombing decision, it is a mistake to normalize this President for even one second, just as it is a mistake to imagine, for a single second, that Trump’s decision was based on his “compassion” for suffering Syrian children — something quite foreign to him, and something distinct from being moved by Fox News propaganda (on this, see Andrew Marantz’s recent piece in The New Yorker).

For what Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America says is true: “The ongoing bloodshed and war crimes in Syria are a stark reminder that Syrian civilians need our support now more than ever. Yet the Trump administration still lacks a coherent strategy to actually bring an end to the conflict and instead has sought to slash humanitarian aid and slam the door on Syrian refugees.”

According to a Newsweek report, Trump has authorized a record number of bombings throughout the region:

Trump did promise in a campaign speech in 2015 to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, and he seems to be living up to his word — with little regard for the consequences.

Under Trump, civilian casualties from America’s war on ISIS have reached an all-time high in Iraq and Syria. The pace of air attacks has led to dozens of civilian deaths, watchdogs say. From 28 to 88 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. And Airwars, which tracks international airstrikes against ISIS, estimated that US-led airstrikes killed 1,060 civilians in Iraq and Syria in August 2017, compared with 138 in August 2016.

More importantly, Trump has rained a torrent of abuse toward Syrian refugees, placing the exclusion of Syrians at the center of his “Muslim ban”:

In 2016, near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the US resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees, according to State Department figures. In 2017, the country let in 3,024. So far this year, that number is just 11. By comparison, over the same 3 1/2-month period in 2016, the US accepted 790. “We are seeing the impact of the Trump administration’s words and policy and actions,” says Noah Gottschalk, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. “That slams the door on refugees, and Syrian refugees in particular.”

Trump cannot be blamed for the long-term failure of US policy to address the awful humanitarian and political costs of the Syrian crisis. But he has demonstrated a particular callousness towards this crisis, and its victims, and has indeed used fear-mongering about them to cement his broader xenophobic political base. In this way, Trump’s approach to Syria is of a piece with his broader contempt for liberal democracy.

At the same time, the real casualties of his approach to Syria are the Syrians.

As I think about music in connection to the ongoing death and destruction being imposed on these people and on the region in general, I immediately flash to Horace Silver and his “Baghdad Blues,” because it is a fine minor blues tune that incorporates some elements of the so-called “Arabic scale,” and because Silver is one of my musical heroes, but mainly because of the title and my familiarity with it:

At the same time, a Google search immediately brought me to The Baghdad Blues, a short book of poetry by the Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon. Here is a sample of his poetry, called “When I Was Torn By War”:

When I Was Torn by War

BySinan Antoon
Baghdad, 1990

I took a brush
Immersed in death
And drew a window
On war’s wall
I opened it
Searching
For something
But
I saw another war
And a mother
Weaving a shroud
For the dead man
Still in her womb

Antoon was a political dissident under Saddam Hussein who also opposed the 2003 US war in Iraq. In a New York Times op-ed published last month, “Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country,” he explains:

I was one of about 500 Iraqis in the diaspora — of various ethnic and political backgrounds, many of whom were dissidents and victims of Saddam’s regime — who signed a petition: “No to war on Iraq. No to dictatorship.” While condemning Saddam’s reign of terror, we were against a “war that would cause more death and suffering” for innocent Iraqis and one that threatened to push the entire region into violent chaos. Our voices were not welcomed in mainstream media in the United States, which preferred the pro-war Iraqi-American who promised cheering crowds that would welcome invaders with “sweets and flowers.” There were none.

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

Anton is a secular humanist in a world that is hostile to such a humanism, and what he writes about Iraq is equally true of Syria. In an October 2017 interview, he observed:

It is not uncommon for a society that has witnessed and weathered several destructive wars, including a sectarian civil war with devastating effects on all levels, to suffer major fissures and divisions. I have been interested for quite some time in the concept of collateral damage. In addition to the material damage brought about by dictatorship, wars, and military occupation, there is considerable damage and destruction of Iraqi collective memory and of the idea of Iraq and Iraqiness. The idea is not to be uncritical and nostalgic, but to reimagine and remember a different Iraq and a sense of Iraqiness that did exist. Juxtaposing Maha and Youssef serves to keep the questions open. The dismantling of the Iraqi state and its institutions and totalitarian ideology was followed by establishing an ethno-sectarian system whose culture and practices were institutionalized and popularized through post-occupation media. Sectarian identities and histories were internalized as were notions about the inevitability of sectarian strife.

While the Syrian crisis is a human catastrophe of enormous proportions, I do not believe it lends itself to any easy foreign policy solutions (see here and here). At the same time, if we have learned anything from the disaster that was the Iraq War, it is that “bombing the shit” out of those we oppose will succeed only in bombing the shit out of many innocent civilians and in further inflaming an already inflamed situation. This and this only is reason to breathe a momentary sigh of relief that Trump’s recently authorized “surgical strikes” on chemical weapons facilities appear to have been in fact surgical and properly targeted. At the same time, everything about Trump, including his recent appointment of Bolton, should give us cause to fear, in both domestic and geopolitical terms.

While Trump’s approach to Syria combines moralistic bluster and moral callousness, it is to be hoped that more responsible political leaders would pay heed to this open letter, published in February:

The World Must Act Now on Syria
An Open Letter

The United Nations says it has run out of words on Syria, but we, the undersigned, still have some for the governments, parliamentarians, electorates, and opinion leaders of the powers upon whom the international legal order has hitherto depended.

The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians. All has happened in full view of a global audience that sees everything but refuses to act.

Through Russian obstruction and western irresolution, the UN Security Council has failed to protect Syrians. To the extent that it has been able to pass resolutions, they have proved ineffectual. All they have done is provide a fig leaf to an institution that appears moribund. Perhaps conscious of the stain this might leave on its legacy, the UN has even stopped counting Syria’s dead. After seven years, these nations appear united only in their apathy.

It will be redundant to list the nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries — and by international indifference. The world that watched and averted its eyes is its passive enabler.

Syrians were shot and killed in broad daylight for protesting injustice. They were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. They were bombed and shelled. They were besieged, raped, and humiliated. They were gassed. They were displaced and dispossessed.

Those with the power to act have been generous with expressions of sympathy but have offered nothing beyond the wish that this war on civilians — which they grotesquely call a “civil war” — would end. They call on “all parties” to show restraint, even though one side alone has a virtual monopoly on violence; they encourage all parties to negotiate, even though the opposition is entirely without leverage. They say there is “no military solution” though the regime has given no indication that it believes in a solution of any other kind. Meanwhile, pleas from aid agencies and endangered Syrians fall on deaf ears.

Refugees — the only Syrians to have received some assistance — have seen their plight depoliticized, isolated from the terror that forced them to flee.

Today, as Idlib and Afrin burn, the inevitable is unfolding in Ghouta, the huge open-air concentration camp about to enter its fifth year under siege. What happens next is predictable because the same formula has been applied repeatedly over the past seven years. After holding a civilian population hostage, blocking food, medicine, and aid of any kind, the regime bombs the area relentlessly, in particular its medical facilities, until it capitulates. Those who survive are then forced from their homes that are then expropriated for demographic engineering with the aim of creating politically homogeneous geographies.

While there are no longer any illusions about the role of the Security Council, every member state has nevertheless adopted and pledged to uphold the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine under the UN’s Office on Genocide Prevention. The destruction of Syria was preventable, and can now only be ended by the elected and appointed members of democratic bodies if they fulfill their obligations under R2P to protect Syria’s endangered population from war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and what UN war crimes investigators have themselves labeled the “crime of extermination.”

For the agony of the people of Syria to come to an end, this must be forcibly stopped. The perpetrators of these colossal crimes against humanity must be halted, once and for all. There are myriad geopolitical reasons why this is an imperative, but none as immediate and important as the sanctity of life and the exercise of free will. Inaction would reduce these principles to the status of platitudes devoid of all meaning. To their misfortune, Syrians dared to believe in these principles; they dared to believe that while their struggle for dignity was theirs alone, they wouldn’t be abandoned to such a fate in the twenty-first century.

Today, appealing once more to the ethics and the codes of moral conduct on which democracy and international law are built, we ask you to act now to stop the Syrian genocide: demand an immediate ceasefire, an immediate lifting of all sieges, immediate access for relief aid agencies, release of political detainees, and immediate protection for all Syrian lives.

At the top of the list of over 200 signatories is the name of Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer currently living Berlin, having fled his country for fear of his life. An opponent of Assad, he is also a victim of the ISIS-linked Salafist rebels who have been battling Assad. And his wife Samira al-Khalil, a human rights activist who was imprisoned by the Assad regime from 1987-91, was indeed abducted by these rebels in 2013, and has yet to be found. In a recent New York Times op ed, he noted that “Eastern Ghouta has been turned into a concentration camp by the Assad regime. Mr. Assad has perfected a system of political nihilism, which wipes out people who oppose it and enslaves those who acquiesce and submit. Even after five years of siege and bombardment, the residents are holding on to human dignity, mourning each death, not turning callous in the face of its familiarity.”

Saleh is a man both desperate and thoughtful. This brief exchange from a 2015 interview with New Inquiry is worth quoting at length (the questions are bolded), for it presents a broad and humanistic perspective that is diametrically opposed to the domestic and global logic of Trumpism:

To those outside Syria, how do you transmit these experiences of the horror? In the news we are given the horror, but without meaning. The enormity of the horror leads to inaction. 

This is what is happening now. I don’t know what to do. We are overwhelmed. Because the experience, the scale of these experiences is horrible, and the organizing efforts are limited. So, I don’t have an answer to this. But, as a writer, I still have some metaphysical hope, that some day this suffering that I am an agent in expressing and transmitting to others, will have some effect. The problem is I write only in Arabic. Actually, that is not true, I want to write in Arabic. My addressees are Syrians and those who can read Arabic. But I feel we are trying to do has a human need, and it addresses the people in Chile, and in Japan, and in South Africa, and in New York. I don’t have systematic solution. We cannot build a new International for instance — although I think there should be something on this level. I mean, a new global movement to develop a new sensitivity, a new imagination, new theories and new thinking. Maybe.

The enormity of what has happened and is happening seems to call for something of an equal enormity in response. If Syria is a global metaphor, then the fact that something like this can happen in the world means there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. 

Exactly, and no country is so far from the other as not to be neighbors. You are not isolated, we are not isolated. You think you can build walls around your castle. Maybe. But someday someone stronger than you will come and knock them down, and we are back to barbarism. So I think we must imagine a new moment, a new global movement. If we are not extremely mistaken in what we’ve been talking about this evening, then others are thinking the same way in India, in Brazil, and I hope so and we will find each other in the coming years.

In this cosmopolitan spirit, I close with “Evasion,” a blues-type piece by the Middle Eastern band Hijaz. According to their website: “Hijaz is a multi-ethnic group based around the dialogue between the oud and the piano. Hijaz is an Arabic musical scale but also holds a clear reference to jazz. Where Arabic music is the starting point, jazz is the open attitude towards diverse musical cultures. Hijaz is a close quartet exploring differences and similarities in Mediterranean cultures in order to create harmony, warmth and musical beauty.”

It is important that Trump not be allowed to evade responsibility, and accountability, for his possible crimes and for his political assaults on constitutional democracy. At the same time, it is important that we no longer evade our responsibility, as human beings and as citizens, for the catastrophe in Syria. The words of Saleh echo those of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.” Such words represent a powerful rebuke to the Trumps, Putins, Orbans, Erdogans, and Assads of this world. And they point to a cosmopolitan ethic of justice, human rights, and democracy that remains the horizon of our time.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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