The Strike on Syria is Either Escalation, Distraction, Incompetence or All of the Above

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The Strike on Syria is Either Escalation, Distraction, Incompetence or All of the Above

At Rex Tillerson’s news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the former said, “There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Finally, something we can all agree on. But how about the low level of trust within our own country, Mr. Secretary?

The airstrike in Syria makes something depressingly clear: the Russiagate narrative is now somehow consoling. In the strike’s wake, it makes for a more stable future if Trump and Putin are engaged in political theater rather than in actual conflict. At least two narratives are possible here: the airstrike as distraction or the airstrike as escalation. In other words, it’s either time to wear tinfoil hats with pride or start building bomb shelters.

The former means the president is most likely a traitor, sold out to Russian interests, and hoping to throw mud in the eyes of those investigating him. “How could he be a Russian co-conspirator when he attacked a Russian ally? Look at the state of relations between the US and Russia. Who would want this?” The latter means the Russiagate allegations are irrelevant. Either Trump never was beholden unto Russian power or money or has broken away from it. In this case, we are starting a dangerous waltz pushing the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Maybe it’s neither. Regardless, any way the pie gets sliced, it’s still made of poison.

We’ve all seen footage. Children twitching and choking because of nerve gas. Hospitals shaken by bombs. The public reasoning behind why the strike was launched from the president himself was humanitarian concern. How could anyone do this to children and how could we just sit by in the face of such blatant evil? Something had to be done.

Of course, the conflict in Syria has been long, horrific and complicated. Picking out good guys and bad guys is a Sisyphean task. Everyone involved, from Bashar al-Assad to the rebels—a mixture of American allies, ISIS recruits and others in between—to Russia to the US, has lied and, at best, muddied their case for moral high ground in the region.

Syrian military planes conducted an air raid against Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town, on April 4. Shortly after the bombing, people started convulsing and dying. Nearly 600 were injured and nearly 90 were killed. A hospital treating victims of this attack was struck by a rocket soon after. The Turkish government’s health minister said test results on victims confirmed sarin gas was used and this was corroborated by British scientists. US officials say individuals associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at the Shayrat Airfield these planes took off from before the strike and terrorist forces in the area do not have access to sarin gas.

Russia and the Syrian government’s story is that Assad’s forces were targeting a terrorist storehouse of chemical weapons and that’s why a host of poisonous gases were leaked into Khan Sheikhun. This is pretty dubious for chemical reasons alone. According to New Scientist:

For one thing, sarin is unstable, and the Assad regime chose to stockpile its precursor chemical, which would be mixed with another chemical just before use to produce sarin. Any rebel-made agent would probably be handled similarly. Hitting a cache of this would release little sarin.

Moreover, if Syrian air strikes released the agent by accidentally hitting an enemy cache, they were improbably lucky, as they managed to do the same thing at three separate locations in the area within 24 hours: SAMS reports two attacks on nearby villages the previous day that produced fewer casualties but with similar symptoms.

But that doesn’t mean the slowly-solidifying US narrative should be free from criticism. The last chemical attack of this caliber in Syria was in 2013, despite the fact chlorine bombing followed in the years after. That year, the Obama administration blamed the Assad government for an even more brutal sarin attack. It’s become harder and harder to take that initial accusation as gospel truth.

It was contested by both Democrat and Republican congressmen, the Associated Press, and a host of former intelligence agents who are now speaking out against Trump’s airstrike. Renowned journalist and whistleblower Seymour Hersh also turned up plenty of dirt on these Obama era proclamations.

All to say, it’s not like our own intelligence community has a super great track record when it comes to the truth even if the Russian/Syrian take is blatantly bogus. All we, the public, know with a modicum of certainty is that sarin was used in Syria to kill and injure civilians by someone and that we’ve been lied to about this exact sort of circumstance by all parties involved.

After Ivanka and some of his other advisors told him to, Trump responded to this chemical attack by launching 59 Tomahawk missiles into the Shayrat airfield from which the Syrian air raid came earlier. The goal of the strikes was to screw up the base’s infrastructure rather than to kill a bunch of people. A spokesperson for the Pentagon said:

Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.

The numbers associated with the attack are all murky, everyone you ask has a different story. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the attack took out 20% of Syria’s airforce
The very next day, combat planes were flying out of this specific base (it’s just one of twenty) so this claim seems, in the most charitable terms possible, a little hyperbolic. The US says 58 of the 59 missiles hit their targets, Russia says only 23 did. Satellite images confirm 45 hits.

In light of all this information, agnosticism is the only absolutely kosher response. We don’t know for sure if Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack even if we do know the Russians and Syrians either don’t know how sarin works or are, more likely, playing dumb. The last time we were “sure” about Assad using these sorts of weapons, there was and still is plenty of room for doubt about that official story. People who lie as often as Putin or Assad are hard to trust. Even if they aren’t responsible for this attack, even if it was the rebels, their track record—going off their response to this incident alone—leaves a lot to be desired.

But so does Trump’s. This airstrike contradicts years of his tweets, his campaign rhetoric and the Syria policy of his administration from January 20 to the airstrike. Even after said strike, the major foreign policy figures in his administration—Tillerson, McMaster and Haley contradicted what the policy would be going forward.

Trump vehemently tweeted that Obama shouldn’t get involved in Syria even in the wake of constant firebombing and occasional chemical attacks. There have been videos of the ilk we saw recently coming out of the country for years. Not to mention, Trump’s heart apparently grew large enough to shoot missiles into an airbase but not to reverse his refugee policy. It’s hard to think he cares about these children so much when he ran his entire campaign saying he’d shut down any programs allowing them refuge in the US. This chemical attack is neither the first nor the worst, so why the change of heart?

If there are optimistic ways to look at this policy shift, I’m blind to them. Even if you’re a bleeding heart neoconservative, it looks like your days of hope the Trump administration will end up looking like the Bush administration are numbered. Trump’s already saying we’re not starting a ground war in Syria to remove Assad. It looks like he couldn’t even remember which country he bombed in this interview.

What are we left with here? The strike apparently wasn’t an overture to war or regime change. It didn’t even render the airbase unusable. There’s no concrete plan as to what comes next. That doesn’t leave room for many optimistic interpretations of all this information.

The most likely explanations are that either the strike was a frivolous—not to mention, somewhat ineffective—escalation of tension between the US and its only peer in terms of nuclear armament, or it was a distraction from the Russiagate story. Any way you look at it, it’s depressing. Bear with me here but as someone who started out as a Russiagate skeptic, the latter is holding more water in light of, rather than in spite of, the strike.

Tensions will undoubtedly roil between Russia and America no matter what the truth is. Trump described them as being at an “an all-time low.” That’s obviously a bad thing but it’s also a remarkably convenient thing if you’re being accused of making relations with Russia the best they’ve ever been for very unsavory reasons. Regardless, rumors this airstrike will lead to World War III are overblown. No one wants a nuclear conflict. People as egotistical as Trump and Putin don’t want to rule over an ashen shadow-planet.

As a result of this strike and its aftermath, everyone is doubting the Russia connection with Trump even though now the stage has been set for negotiations between Putin and Trump to open up under a less dubious context. Trump cutting an economically advantageous deal for Russia pre-strike would’ve been suicide. Post-strike, it already seems prudent, if not necessary. Anything to stave off a war with the Russkies, right?

Tillerson advocated for relaxing sanctions while still CEO of Exxon and said just days before the strike that we should leave it to the Syrian people to decide what to do with Assad. Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said “unconditional support [for Assad] is not possible in this current world.”

The sanctions mentioned above were placed on Russia in 2014 as a result of the country’s invasion of Ukraine and focus on Russian oil. The state-run oil company, Rosneft, sold a 19.5% stake to an unnamed buyer in a secretive Cayman Islands transaction. In other recent news, it’s been revealed the FBI had a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump advisor Carter Page. Page has ties to Russia and Rosneft. For what it’s worth, ExxonMobil would stand to gain a lot from a deal with Rosneft if the sanctions were relaxed. As for the 19.5% stake buyer, one can only guess who it may be.

As a result of this strike, it is at least a possibility that we will relax Russian sanctions to prevent an armed or even nuclear conflict in exchange for, say, Russia donating Assad as their pound of flesh. It would just be a nice side effect if this necessary diplomatic agreement also stood to profit people like Rex Tillerson, Carter Page and whoever Mr. 19.5% is.

Or Trump has sold his soul to the interventionist establishment and is going full-hawk now that he’s in office and Russiagate was really a paranoid leftist fantasy all along.

Or he’s just an idiot.

No matter what, we’re all gonna die.