Donald Trump’s “surgical strike”, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two US warships in the Mediterranean, against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airbase on the night of 6/7 April should be condemned and all further actions by the US and its allies opposed. So too should the eager support this has drawn from Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The support of Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson and Hilary Benn for Trump must likewise be condemned.
The claim that the attack was a ‘justified and measured response’ to the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in which 74 people died, is completely wrong. Such attacks will not deter Assad’s atrocities, he has been using chlorine gas and high explosives on civilians, even on hospitals, for years. Moreover, such attacks can easily draw in Russian forces to a major international conflagration. Russia has responded to the US attack by declaring: "From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well."
The US is in any case totally unqualified to act as an enforcer of international law or human rights since it is itself a major violator of them; on as great, or even greater, scale.
None of this however detracts from the condemnation that should fall on Assad and Russia for their actions. The attack by Syrian air force planes on Khan Sheikhoun, in the rebel-held territory of Idlib Province, left 16 women and 23 children fighting for breath and foaming at the mouth as a result of the effects of sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent. Later, Syrian jets bombed the town again, hitting the hospital where victims were being treated. This must be condemned without the slightest equivocation. The denials of responsibility by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin carry no conviction.
Assad has already been near universally held responsible for the sarin gas attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus on 21 August 2013, in which the most conservative estimates say over 300 people died. The only doubts about responsibility this time flow from uncertainty over the rationale for the attack. Since the fall of Aleppo, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have clearly had the advantage in the civil war and Trump had accepted that Assad would remain in power.
In all probability, it is the much bigger picture, the global manoeuvring by the major imperialist powers, that holds the key to understanding this event. Syria is effectively a Russian protectorate, hosting Russia’s air and naval bases. This is why the US has so far avoided any direct military attack on the Syrian regime, whilst not preventing its own clients like Saudia Arabia and Qatar arming the rebels and sponsoring the more extreme Islamist groups. Meanwhile the US did everything it could to suborn the democratic and secular forces involved in the Syrian revolution into acting as its tools, with some success. However, it should not be assumed that these regional powers, including Assad, are simply puppets of Russia or the West. Like Israel with regard to the US, the tail can sometimes wag the dog.
The attack on Khan Sheikhoun has thrown into confusion Putin’s project of working towards a détente with the US that would see the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia over intervention in Crimea and Ukraine. If Assad calculated that he might be sacrificed as part of that deal, or even that Russia might simply scale back its military support, then such an attack would suit his purpose.
His “victory” in the civil war is far from in the bag and he has not got the forces on the ground to fight village-to-village, town-to-town, in Idlib. He depends on absolute command of the skies to pulverise the rebels and for that he is dependent on Russian support, although the US, too, has been bombing some of the defenders of the Idlib enclave, specifically the forces of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, (previously known as the Nusra Front and an al-Qaeda affiliate).
Another complicating factor in the present context is the bitter conflict within the US military and political élite over the Trump Administration's original programme of détente with Russia, that is, his attempt to abandon Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s New Cold War. This has already forced Trump to remove his alt-right advisor Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. It now appears that, according to Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, Trump has been forced to change his policy from leaving Assad in power to now asserting: “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen.” On the other side, Russia has abandoned its agreement with the US to warn each other of their aircraft sorties and the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has said the US actions put it "one step away from military clashes with Russia".
Worse still, since neither can fully control their local allies in such tense situations, “accidents” and the need to save the face of populist “strongmen” can have disastrous consequences. What is certain is that neither set of great and regional powers can act as enforcers of international law and humanitarianism, they are themselves the originators of the carnage and chaos.
Whatever the motive, the US attack should be condemned by socialists because we can give no recognition or support to the US or its Nato allies as judges and enforcers of human rights and international law. Nor will their Tomahawks really aid the Syrian rebels. Russian and Syrian jets continue to pound Idlib and the atrocities they inflict are by implication not regarded as crossing any red lines. There can be little doubt that, despite recent events and the way they have strengthened Trump's opponents in the Congress, the President and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will do all they can to re-open the way to a deal with Putin. In this, the welfare of the Syrian people and refugees will be only a cosmetic factor.
The US and British denunciation of Assad’s crimes is a cynical deception when, in Iraq and Syria, their own forces have taken an even greater toll of innocent lives, men, women and children, than Putin's air force has, and their regional allies are currently engaged in similar crimes, killing innocent civilians in Yemen.
Britain has sold some £3.3bn in weaponry to the Saudis since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, and the destruction in Yemen is, given the size of the population, similar to that caused by Assad. Yet this is hardly ever shown in the media and never a word of condemnation comes from Washington or London.
The idea that, with or without the approval of the United Nations, Britain and the USA represent real or potential forces for international law or ending the terrible sufferings of the Syrian people is simply a gigantic deception. Those who endorse their actions are either dupes or, worse, agents, of one or other imperialism. All the imperialist air and land forces and their bases and warships should get out of Syria and the entire region.
Powerful forces in the US Congress and military, and the Nato Allies in Europe, are determined to press on with the Cold War against Russia they launched after Putin’s annexation of Crimea, even at the cost of risking it turning into a hot war. Nor is Putin in a position to retreat either in Syria or in Eastern Europe for this would wreck his plans to reassert Russia’s standing as a world power whose interests and assets have to be respected. Trump, whatever his plans for a deal with Putin, also cannot appear to be a weakling.
His despatch of warships to the seas off the Korean peninsular indicate that he may think “surgical strikes” there, too, might strengthen his bargaining position with China. In short, the world has become a very dangerous place and the need for mass popular resistance to our rulers playing with fire must be stepped up.
Our first principle within the “Western” imperialist camp remains that stated by the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht over a century ago; the main enemy is in our own country. We must expose the “democratic” imperialist claims to be promoting peace and human rights as attempts to deceive the unwary. Supporters of this deception within the labour movement, like Tom Watson, Hilary Benn and John Woodcock, must be exposed for what they are, quite simply agents of imperialism. At the same time, we must not regard the enemies of the West, Russia and China, as defenders of national sovereignty, or as constituting an anti-imperialist or a peace camp.
Our response to the mounting scale of the clashes between the imperialist camps as they try to hold on to, or redivide, the spoils of exploiting the world and create an ever greater danger of regional wars, even another world war, cannot be simply an appeal for peace. It must be to reignite an international revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism in its imperialist heartlands, east or west.