In 1998, al Qaeda killed 224 people when it attacked U.S. embassies in east Africa. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered a missile strike against what he described as an al Qaeda nerve gas factory in Sudan. For years, he insisted that the attack had dealt a tough blow against terrorists.
Turns out the chemical weapons factory was a pharmaceutical plant. Journalists who arrived at the scene in protective clothing expected nerve gas fallout. They found aspirin scattered among the wreckage instead.
Now it looks like history is repeating itself.
In coordination with the United States, Israel bombed the Syrian T-4 airbase on April 9. On April 13, the United States, Britain and France bombed three sites in Syria that were supposedly key to Syria's chemical weapons program.
Western missiles flattened the Barzeh Research Center in Damascus. Washington claimed it was a lab used to make chemical weapons.
Turns out it may have just been a research facility making such products as antidotes for snake bites and children’s medicine. After the missile strike, the Assad government took foreign reporters to the site. The building was still smoldering but no chemical weapons fumes came from the structure.
Said Said, an official at the center, told the international news agency Agence France-Presse, “If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health—I’m not coughing.” CBS News produced a similar report.
Such contrary evidence didn’t prevent the Pentagon from boasting of success. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the attacks are “going to set Syrian chemical weapons program back for years.”
President Donald Trump led the cheerleading, tweeting “Mission Accomplished,” a declaration that immediately reminded everyone of George W. Bush’s premature 2003 pronouncement regarding his failed war in Iraq.
The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term “Mission Accomplished.” I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2018
In fact, the attack is unlikely to have an impact on Assad’s war plans.
“I can’t believe that the Pentagon seriously thought that this wimpy missile attack would actually serve as a deterrent,” William Beeman, professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, told me. “This was a cosmetic strike. The Russians were warned, and it didn’t come close to attacking the full range of suspected chemical facilities.”
So what actually happened?
On April 7, the White Helmets and other groups posted videos from the Damascus suburb of Douma showing people dying from what they described as a Syrian Air Force chemical attack. They said the attack was likely chlorine gas or possibly the far deadlier nerve agent, sarin.
Douma is controlled by a rightwing political Islamist group known as the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), which has been accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurds. It has a vested interest in discrediting the Assad regime.
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Robert Fisk, a journalist with the British Independent, raised serious questions in his first-hand reporting from Douma. He interviewed a doctor who said people died from a lack of oxygen in underground tunnels, not chemical weapons.
The air attack happened just hours before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was scheduled to inspect the site. Later, the inspectors were blocked by Syrian and Russian authorities.
Inspectors are hoping to gain entrance to Douma and if allowed in should be able to determine if banned weapons were used. The organization does not seek to determine who, if anyone, unleashed the chemicals.
It may be as difficult to determine what happened in Douma as it has been in previous alleged chemical attacks. Both sides have used chemical weapons in the past. Rebel groups such as the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front used sarin to attack Syrian troops in 2013, as I described in my book Inside Syria.
United Nations chemical weapons inspectors have verified cases of the Syrian air force dropping chlorine gas. Assad’s military has been willing to face international condemnation because chemical weapons are a relatively cheap method of killing, wounding, and demoralizing an enemy.
Regardless of what happened in Douma, the United States has no legal or moral right to bomb Syria. The U.N. Security Council did not authorize this or other recent U.S. actions (Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, or previous attacks on Syria). The Trump Administration is also violating the U.S. War Powers Act, which prohibits the President from waging war without Congressional approval.
The most recent missile attacks had less to do with chemical weapons than sending a message to Assad, who has defeated insurgent groups throughout his country with crucial help from Russia and Iran. Top Washington leaders care little about human rights in Syria but very much want to control the country for geopolitical reasons.
Syria does not have significant amounts of oil, but it does occupy a strategic location bordering Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. British and French empires competed for control of the region before World War II, and modern day imperialists are doing the same.
The United States now has more than 2,000 troops in northern Syria and is allied with a Kurdish group. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which often represents the views of the ultra-conservative business elite, now advocates intensified bombing and creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which would effectively carve out that region from Syrian government control.
The Journal also reports that Trump is asking Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Muslim countries to send troops to the Kurdish region to replace those of the United States. It’s an absurd proposal. Assad and the Kurds will certainly oppose it. Egypt is consumed with fighting terrorist groups in the Sinai; Saudi Arabia is already losing another war in Yemen.
Vladimir Putin has “the same goal as Peter the Great.”
Russia has its own imperialist interests in Syria. It occupies two large military bases in western Syria with leases that won’t expire for another half century, and that can be renewed for another 50 years. The base agreements give Russian citizens extra-territorial rights; they can’t be tried in Syrian courts for crimes committed in Syria. With Syria as a permanent ally, Russia seeks to block U.S. influence in the region.
Vladimir Putin has “the same goal as Peter the Great,” says Beeman, “a permanent warm-water port, an outpost in the Middle East, [and] … a watch post for U.S. activities in the area.”
The missile attacks on Syria lessen the already remote chances of a political settlement in Syria’s civil war. At the moment, four countries have troops in Syria: United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. All foreign powers will need to pull out if the people of Syria are to determine their own future.
Reese Erlich's syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.