Even before the April 6 U.S. attack on a Syrian air base, President Trump had, in short order, begun to expand the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Yet, during the presidential campaign, he had advocated for a more realpolitik foreign policy that would reduce American intervention in conflicts without direct U.S. interests at stake.
With his slogan evoking Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee, which strenuously advocated for the U.S. to not intervene in World War II, Trump promised to not topple foreign regimes or promote democracy and focus on defeating ISIS. Simultaneously, he called for enhancing the brutality in the fight against ISIS, reinstating torture (which he has since backtracked on) and murdering the families of terrorists.
On Jan. 29, Trump ordered his first military raid as commander in chief in Yemen. Intended to recover laptops, cellphones and other information on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the raid resulted in a 50-minute firefight. In the end, one Navy SEAL was killed and there were several civilian casualties, with estimates ranging from 14 to at least 25. While the value of the intelligence remains unclear, critics say the president signed off on the mission without the necessary intelligence or preparation. Since this incident, the U.S. has dramatically increased its involvement in Yemen; in March alone, the U.S. conducted more drone strikes across the country than during all of 2016, with most coming during a single day.
Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes have skyrocketed.
On March 16, a U.S. airstrike targeting an al Qaeda meeting in Aleppo province hit a mosque, killing 46 civilians. A March 21 U.S. airstrike in Raqqa province, which hit a school in the town of Mansoura, killed at least 30 civilians. Across the border in Iraq, a March 17 airstrike in West Mosul killed between 130 and 230 casualties, with some estimates suggesting as many 500 dead. While the U.S. military is investigating the incident, if confirmed, the airstrike would be one of the worst U.S.-led civilian bombings in 25 years.
According to Airwars.org, which tracks civilian casualties caused by airstrikes, “Almost 1,000 civilian non-combatant deaths have already been alleged from [U.S.-led] coalition actions across Iraq and Syria in March — a record claim. … These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria.” Indeed, the group has decided to scale back its work tracking Russian actions in Syria to focus on monitoring reported casualties from the U.S.
The spike in civilian causalities has many concerned that this is just the sign of things to come, as the Pentagon is still in the middle of its major review of U.S. policies in Iraq and Syria. A loosening of the military’s rules of engagement in these theaters — a notion Trump championed during the campaign — would lead to even further death and destruction for innocent civilians.
It is unclear if the administration will further increase U.S. involvement in Syria. If so, the president must explain how this military escalation will lead to the broader goal of a political solution. As Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersMcConnell warns Biden not to 'outsource' Supreme Court pick to 'radical left' Briahna Joy Gray discusses Pelosi's 2022 re-election announcement Ocasio-Cortez: Supporting Sinema challenge by someone like Gallego would be easy decision MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted following the airstrikes, “If the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, our economy and our people.”
President Trump’s humanitarian justification for bombing Bashar Assad’s forces, following another ghastly chemical weapons attack, rings particularly hollow considering his administration’s efforts to completely ban Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Indeed, if the administration was truly animated by humanitarian concerns, it could take in refugees and fully fund humanitarian operations.
Trump also regularly asserted during the campaign that “we’d be better off” with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, as their absence led to the rise of ISIS in both Iraq and Libya. Given the complexity of the Syrian civil war, and the examples we’ve seen from the last 15 years, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where U.S. military escalation would help grease the skids for a political solution or an improvement to the horrific status quo in Syria.
Ultimately, the civilian casualties and military escalation only bolster the cause of terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. Trump’s policies, anti-Muslim rhetoric and the motley crew of Islamophobes packing his Cabinet feed into the narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam and lead to the radicalization of disaffected youth in the region. Even for the hardbound realist willing to eschew moral considerations, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians is a strategic liability.
As Americans are force fed soap operatic coverage of the Russia scandal and the palace intrigue of the president and his cloistered, bizarre inner circle, President Trump is following through on one of his most pernicious campaign promises and contradicting another. Even if the bombing of Assad’s forces does not lead to further military escalation in Syria, the administration is already expanding the U.S. footprint in the region.
For a war-weary American public, this escalation should be deeply troubling and, if current trends hold, will lead to a diminishment of America’s security, economy and image around the world. Escalation in Syria could very likely also lead to a larger regional conflagration with Iran and/or Russia, both of which have vastly superior militaries compared to the Assad regime. Moreover, it sends an ominous sign to the people of the region, already devastated by decades of war and conflict, that this is just a prelude for what’s to come.
Adam Gallagher is an analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy and politics. He is a senior writer for Tropics of Meta and has his work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, The National Interest, The Diplomat and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He has been an officially accredited election observer in Tunisia (2014) and Myanmar (2015). Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.
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