Growing numbers of people worldwide are turning their Facebook profile pictures into solid red squares in an attempt to call attention to a new, deadly phase of the Syria war. The latest round of violence was marked by the bombing of a refugee camp near the Syrian border with Turkey, which resulted in 28 deaths. That attack was probably the work of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad or its ally Russia.
Only days earlier, a horrific bombing took place in the rebel-controlled city of Aleppo, targeting Al-Quds Hospital, which was supported by the Nobel Prize-winning organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. That airstrike, which came in the form of multiple barrel bombs (the Assad government’s signature bomb), killed dozens of civilians, including one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians.
"It is not far-fetched to compare the impunity of the U.S. government to that of the Syrian government."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the strike, saying, “We are outraged” at what “appears to have been a deliberate strike on a known medical facility and follows the Assad regime’s appalling record of striking such facilities and first responders.”
Kerry’s statement reeked of hypocrisy. In October, U.S. planes struck an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing about as many people as last week’s Syria strike. MSF staff condemned the hospital bombing as “deliberate” and a “war crime,” given that the U.S. and Afghan forces had been made well aware of the hospital’s coordinates ahead of time. Almost at the same time that Kerry was chastising the Assad regime in Syria, the Pentagon’s internal investigation into the Kunduz hospital strike absolved the U.S. military of war crimes, saying only that minor violations had taken place.
It is not far-fetched to compare the impunity of the U.S. government to that of the Syrian government. The Syrian government has been bombing and destroying its own country. The U.S. government has been bombing, occupying and destroying other countries—chief among them Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. For the Obama administration to attempt to set itself apart from Assad’s government is laughable.
A quick survey of the latest news emerging from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya is a testament to the disastrous impacts of American wars. In addition to the slap on the wrist that the Pentagon gave itself for bombing the Kunduz hospital, a recent audit of the money that the U.S. spent on Afghan schools was found to be severely lacking in accountability. The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that three U.S. departments spent $760 million on the impoverished country’s education system but failed to properly track how the money was spent and if its goal was achieved. The U.S.’ investment in schools was lauded as one of its most important reconstruction initiatives against the Taliban, and now it’s not possible to even measure the success of that effort. In fact, there is evidence that the successes of the schools was exaggerated, and that Islamic State is rapidly expanding inside Afghanistan, shutting down dozens of schools.
In Iraq, public anger over a paralyzed and polarized government is so high that hundreds of protesters recently broke through security barriers in the Green Zone that protect the Parliament. Islamic State has overrun large swaths of the nation, prompting U.S. soldiers to return to a country it had briefly withdrawn from. The U.S. is supposed to be playing an advisory role on the ground, but the lines between ground war and advice are increasingly blurry, as a recent combat death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq illustrated. From the skies, the U.S. is back to dropping bombs on Iraq and even borrowed a macabre technique from the Israeli Air Force of “roof knocking” before dropping a bomb. The U.S. has so far admitted to killing 41 Iraqi civilians since 2014, but the actual number may be higher. A recent poll found that young Iraqis overwhelmingly despise the U.S.
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In Libya, a U.S.-led NATO war has resulted in violence and chaos almost from the moment Col. Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. President Obama has gone as far as admitting that the U.S. made mistakes, saying that his worst foreign policy mistake was “probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.” Rebel groups and even Islamic State are now threatening the fabric of the country.
Even in Syria, the U.S. is playing a far less innocent role than it claims. While Obama has been equally berated and praised for not taking a more aggressive role in Syria early on, the U.S. has in recent months ratcheted up its airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. According to USA Today:
In November, pilots in the U.S.-led coalition had dropped 3,227 bombs in Iraq and Syria, a record number for a single month and more than twice as many as they had used in November 2014. Since then, the totals for bombs dropped per month eclipsed the previous year. In March, pilots dropped 1,982 bombs compared with 1,685 in March 2015, an 18% increase.
Simultaneous to the intensification of the war, the U.S. has relaxed restrictions on civilian killings and so-called “collateral damage.” So far, the U.S. military has admitted to killing 20 civilians between last fall and this winter in both Iraq and Syria. But others have put the number as high as 1,000.
A spokesman for the U.S. military, Col. Pat Ryder, said, “We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from those strikes and express our deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and those affected.” One of the main differences between the U.S. and the Assad regime on civilian deaths is that the U.S., when pressured, might sometimes apologize.
(Incidentally, an Army captain has now filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration for waging an undeclared, and therefore illegal, war against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.)
Today, refugees from all the nations the U.S. has devastated—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya—are streaming out of their countries by the millions, looking for a better life than what their devastated lands offer them. Even in these circumstances, the U.S. is playing a deadly role, joining with European allies in blocking the chance to leave for desperate refugees.
Rather than change Facebook profile photos to red over just the violence of the Syrian regime in Aleppo, we might adopt the same symbol to encompass a much larger geographical area, stretching from Afghanistan to Libya, that is bathed in the blood of countless victims of wars at the hands of the U.S., Syria and others.