The U.S. airstrikes Thursday night against targets in eastern Syria escalate Washington's conflicts in the Middle East, adding more instability to a disastrous situation in Syria and creating new obstacles to the possibility of reducing tension with Iran and returning to the nuclear deal. If this is what President Biden's claim that "America is back" continues to look like, his promises to put diplomacy before war will show themselves hollow indeed.
The airstrikes were ostensibly in response to attacks in mid-February on Iraqi military sites housing US military forces. One U.S. contractor was killed and several U.S. and coalition troops were injured. As of 48 hours before the U.S. bombing, Pentagon officials were still admitting they didn't know who had carried out the attack on the Iraqi base, though after the airstrikes U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that "we're confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes."
The U.S. bombed Syria, a country whose people have already been suffering from years of war, repression and sanctions, in response to attacks two weeks ago on U.S. positions in Iraq, not in Syria, which the U.S. blames on militias ostensibly linked to Iran.
Iran has denied any involvement in the Feb. 15 attack on the Iraqi base, and it is not clear if the U.S. has any actual evidence to the contrary. Many militia groups operate across Iraq, some identifying as Shi'a and some not, some of which support and others target the Iraqi government and the U.S. troops operating in their country; of those, some are supported by Iran, though the level of control Tehran actually brings to bear varies widely.
But regardless of Iran's potential involvement in this particular attack in February, the U.S. bombing in Syria is an incredibly dangerous and provocative move. It follows a year of significant U.S. ratcheting up tensions with Iran, starting with the January 2020 assassination in Iraq of Iran's influential General Qassem Soleimani, part of Trump's "Maximum Pressure" operation against Iran. Trump launched that campaign following his 2018 abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal signed by Obama three years earlier. The 2020 onslaught continued with the intensification of the Pentagon's naval and air exercises near Iran's borders, as well as the U.S. seizure of Iranian oil tankers in international waters. Most significantly, 2020 saw a continuing escalation of U.S. economic sanctions reimposed after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The sanctions have led to widespread poverty across the Iranian population, collapse of the health care system and resulting inability to respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic, food scarcity and malnutrition, and even the deaths of children from lack of access to medicines, something unprecedented in modern Iranian history.
President Biden has reaffirmed his intention to reengage with Iran and re-join the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, and he has taken some important steps in that direction. Those include moves to pull back from Trump's close embrace of Iran's regional competitor, Saudi Arabia, pausing some arms sales the Saudis want to continue their deadly war against Yemen and releasing at least parts of the intelligence report holding Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the 2018 murder of U.S.-based Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He also appointed Wendy Sherman, a top Obama-era diplomat who led the team negotiating the JCPOA as second in command at the State Department, and significantly, was willing to spend some political capital to appoint Rob Malley as lead envoy to Iran, mandated to rejoin the JCPOA, despite opposition from many elite voices hostile to the deal.
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This recent bombing, however, points in the opposite direction. The rationale for the U.S. bombing seemed to center on "sending a message" that the U.S. would use military power to avenge any attack on its forces anywhere in the region—particularly if Iran could somehow be implicated. So the U.S. bombed Syria, a country whose people have already been suffering from years of war, repression and sanctions, in response to attacks two weeks ago on U.S.. positions in Iraq, not in Syria, which the U.S. blames on militias ostensibly linked to Iran. Washington had no right under international law to attack Syria, where almost a decade of war has already killed some 400,000 people and displaced more than 13 million—more than three-quarters of the population. The Syrian war has long passed being a civil war, and has for years become a venue for regional and global powers to carry out proxy conflicts—in which Syrians continue to die and their country, its cities, water and environment, continue to be destroyed. Biden's move continues US involvement in this shameful pattern.
"Washington had no right under international law to attack Syria, where almost a decade of war has already killed some 400,000 people and displaced more than 13 million—more than three-quarters of the population."
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the US bombing as acting "in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq." For a bombing in Syria that was clearly aimed at Iran, in retaliation for something that happened in Iraq, the notion that this would somehow "deescalate" the violence and insecure conditions of eastern Syria was a pretty astonishing claim. The real question in looking at the US response to the Feb. 15 attack on the Iraqi base is what the U.S. troops are doing in Iraq in the first place. Deployed in Iraq since 2014 ostensibly to take on ISIS, after 11 years of invasion, overthrow of the government and occupation of the country, by every measure the U.S. presence in Iraq has made life worse for Iraqis and others in the region. While the U.S. may claim its goal now is against ISIS, we cannot forget that the brutal extremist organization was created in Iraq in 2004 at the height of and in reaction to the U.S. occupation. And we cannot forget what so many generals, diplomats, war-makers and policy-makers, as well as peace and diplomacy advocates, have known and repeated for so many years, there is no military solution to terrorism.
If President Biden and his administration are serious about returning to the Iran nuclear deal—and they absolutely should be—this kind of attack sends absolutely the wrong message. Is this what "America is back" is supposed to mean? As Senator Bernie Sanders responded to the bombing, "last night's strike by US forces in Syria puts our country on the path of continuing the Forever War instead of ending it. For far too long administrations of both parties have interpreted their authorities in an extremely expansive way to continue military interventions across the Middle East region and elsewhere. This must end."
There are varying reports, so far, of casualties resulting from the U.S. airstrikes in Syria. It's not clear yet how far these bombing raids were from the sprawling refugee camps scattered throughout eastern Syria, housing desperate people who have for so long suffered under their own and other government's bombs including those of the United States. We do know there is no military solution to the political instability and violence in Syria. And regardless of who is the commander in chief giving orders to U.S. bombers, we know that deploying U.S. troops and U.S. drones and U.S. warplanes across the region does not provide safety or security for Iraqis or Syrians. Not for Iranians, or for Americans.