Making Sense of Syria
“For the greater part of my life, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by American involvement in the Middle East”
Image courtesy of the Kremlin.
I was only in elementary school when the Iraq War began, but I still remember being in the car with my parents, and hearing the news reporter solemnly announce the first strikes on Baghdad. Even then, I had enough political consciousness to feel a deep sense of dread. The ride home was a quiet one.
I had a flashback to this moment on Thursday evening, as I was scrolling Twitter and started to see news of Donald Trump’s strikes on the Syrian Air Force trickle into my timeline. But the alchemy of emotions differed this time. A familiar sense of dread set in. I grew up going to anti-war rallies and signing petitions for the removal of President George W. Bush for his involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the greater part of my life, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by American involvement in the Middle East.
When I was in college, however, I found myself in the awkward, and deeply conflicted, position of defending U.S. intervention. The Arab uprisings were underway, and there were nascent movements in my family’s hometown of Benghazi, Libya. A few days before the official demonstrations were set to begin—February 17—an anti-Gaddafi demonstration broke out at a courthouse, and it soon spread to the rest of the city. Government security forces were responding to the protesters with tear gas, and then gunfire. The ordeal coalesced into a month-long battle for the city once protesters took ahold of some arms. A month later, Gaddafi himself called into a radio show to promise a brutal attack on the city. “We are coming tonight,” he told listeners. “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”
My mother made frightened phone calls to Benghazi from our home in Southern Calfiornia, to check in on our family. They feared a terrible onslaught. As the U.N. prepared to vote on a coalition-based intervention, my cousin Hamadi was shot and killed by Gaddafi forces. There emerged a broad consensus by the city’s inhabitants in favor of a no-fly zone. At protests, they called on the U.S. and other nations to take action and prevent Gaddafi’s attack on the city.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"] I wonder where this anger was over the past seven years, as Syrian lives were lost to regime violence, Russian airstrikes, and, of course, U.S. intervention. [/quote]
It was a troubling position to be in. Who was I, to lecture my family and friends—those who were directly in Gaddafi’s line of fire—about the possible consequences of Western intervention? After all, they didn’t just watch the Iraq war happen on TV—they welcomed Iraqi refugees into their country. They had material knowledge of the ramifications that I did not possess. Yet, they insisted on taking the risks—did it matter who took their lives now, Gaddafi or a NATO missile?
Gaddafi is gone, but the country is trapped in chaos. The political situation remains unstable, with conflicting groups struggling for control—on one side, a power-hungry military general (with CIA ties) named Khalifa Haftar, and on the other side, rogue militias. In retrospect, I don’t know that I would advocate as strongly for a no-fly zone as I did when I was a college student. I did not have to live with the aftermath. My family does, and many of them look back with a mixture of regret and relief.
I think about all this now, as leftist backlash to Trump’s actions in Syria fulminates. I wonder where this anger was over the past seven years, as Syrian lives were lost to regime violence, Russian airstrikes, and, of course, U.S. intervention. To be clear, this latest action is one of more than 7,900 strikes in Syria—most of which happened under the Obama administration—that the U.S. has conducted in its offence against ISIL in the region (that doesn’t include the additional 11,000 it has conducted in Iraq). Many of these strikes also took civilian lives, while the American public looked on dispassionately. Meanwhile, the Trump administration made moves to limit the immigration of refugees to the U.S., those who were escaping a conflict the U.S. had a very strong hand in creating. ISIL, after all, is a monster borne of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, Trump’s actions are not so much a new development in the Syrian war, as much as they are a continuation of previous policies. From the comfort of his glitzy golf resort, as he wined and dined the prime minister of China, Trump ordered these latest strikes. The only difference this time is that these strikes hit the Assad regime directly, and that the man who ordered them is a more definable villain than Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton. But one thing remains the same: the Syrian people suffer the consequences, every time.