The Syria Catastrophe
The response required at this late, desperate stage is neither anti-Assad nor anti-ISIS nor even anti-imperialist — it is antiwar.
Author’s Note: I wrote and edited this consideration of the Syrian war between December 2016 and March 2017. The issue in which it appears was sent to the printer on March 27, before the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, which the US government has attributed to Syrian government forces, and before the US government launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Bashar al-Assad’s Al Shayrat airfield. —R.B.
The Syrian war is at once incomprehensibly byzantine and very simple. It is complex in the number of countries involved, in the shifting and fragile internal alliances and resentments of the groups constituting the rebellion, in the threads of national interest that circle back and consume themselves like a snake eating its own tail. To take just one example: after a decade of friendly relations with Syria, Turkey turned on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and decided to work toward his downfall, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that his country would “support the Syrian people in every way until they get rid of the bloody dictator and his gang.” Since then, Turkey has served as a staging ground for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), but it has also been repeatedly accused of funneling funds and arms to ISIS, which regularly attacks FSA bases and beheads the soldiers it captures. Turkey has provided military aid to the effort to combat ISIS, but it also devotes energy and resources to fighting Kurdish nationalists, who have been more effective in fighting ISIS than any other group to date. In November 2016, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to unseat Assad, saying Turkish forces had entered Syria in August 2016 for no other reason than to remove Assad from power. One day later, he retracted his statement and claimed Turkey’s military campaign in Syria had been designed solely to defeat ISIS, the terrorist group whose operations Turkey had at least tacitly and perhaps actively supported. Turkey is now working closely with Russia, which has done more than any other country to prevent Erdoğan from realizing his goal of bringing down Assad. Turkey is just one of at least nine countries involved in the conflict.
The simple part of the war is that it is a human, social, and environmental disaster that equals some of the 20th century’s worst conflicts. Around half a million have died, with another two million wounded, in a country whose prewar population amounted to just more than twenty million. Since the conflict’s beginning, in 2011, Syrian life expectancy has dropped by more than twenty years, from roughly 79 to 56. More than half of the country’s population has been forced to leave their homes, including some six million internally displaced and nearly five million refugees. Their movements have in turn contributed to political upheaval across Europe and North America, with right-wing nationalists campaigning against the supposedly dangerous influx of refugees. The use of torture against political enemies and captured soldiers has been widespread, especially on the part of the Assad regime. Many refugees cite their female family members’ dramatically increased risk of being raped as a major reason for leaving. In addition, a country with a strong national identity and a tradition of religious tolerance — including for a dozen Christian denominations and esoteric sects like the Druze — has been transformed into a place of bitter sectarian violence. Much of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth and one of the region’s architectural and cultural jewels, has been reduced to rubble. As regime forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian ground troops, made their final, decisive assault on the rebellion’s dwindling territory there in December 2016, many residents found themselves trapped and began to tweet out their good-byes. In one such video, an old man rocked back and forth in the middle of a bombed-out street, pushing his hands away from his face as he called out, “We are starving. There is nothing.”
The war’s complexity makes it difficult to see a viable path forward, but there is a sense in which it would be foolish to think of the conflict as one big Rubik’s cube in need of solving, because the complexity itself is part of the problem — the best thing to do with the Rubik’s cube would be to throw it against a wall. Again and again, countries across and outside the Middle East have decided that escalating the war by military means is justified by whatever little sliver of national interest they feel is at stake. The US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, China, France, and Britain have all pumped military resources into the conflict, increasing not only the war’s capacity for destructive violence but also its duration. To the extent that it needed to take place at all, it should have been a civil war fought by two sides with limited military resources. Instead, it has turned into a series of extravagantly funded proxy wars across two or three separate axes, none of which has any organic connection to the questions of regime tolerance for political assembly and speech that prompted the conflict in the first place. While it would not be useful to ask nations to stop pursuing their national interests, the ease with which these countries have turned to military means in the pursuit of those interests is shameful. The response required at this late, desperate stage is neither anti-Assad nor anti-ISIS nor even anti-imperialist — it is antiwar.
The first person to make the mistake of military escalation was Bashar al-Assad himself. In his book Syria Burning (2016), the journalist Charles Glass recounts an old joke:
A dog in Lebanon . . . was so hungry, mangy and tired of civil war that he escaped to Syria. To the surprise of the other dogs, he returned a few months later. Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. “Very good.” “Did they feed and wash you?” “Yes.” “Then why did you come back?” “I want to bark.”
The protests that sparked the conflict in 2011 were not originally calls for Assad’s fall. They were instead demonstrations demanding reforms: the end of emergency law (justified by a permanent “state of war” with Israel), the release of political prisoners, the removal of a regional governor who allegedly allowed the torture of teenagers by police, an end to the bribes and harassment and other daily humiliations of life under authoritarian rule.
Syria initially seemed to have avoided the wave of Arab Spring unrest that swept across much of the Middle East beginning in late 2010, but beneath its surface stability and continuity lay several of the same factors that destabilized Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries. Political power was concentrated among a tiny elite of technocrats and Assad flunkies. The Mukhabarat, a set of brutal intelligence agencies originally trained by the Stasi, snuffed out the faintest flicker of opposition. The introduction of neoliberal economic policies also unsettled Syrian society — Assad had attempted a halfhearted marketization of the economy that produced the worst of both worlds, destroying the country’s economic safety net without actually producing more jobs. Farmers who had relied on now-diminished government fuel subsidies could no longer afford to keep their machines running. In the cities, millions of educated young people found there was nothing for them to do with their educations.
The protests that made the world aware of these grievances were expressions of a desire to bark, and they were carried out peacefully. Assad’s security forces responded with beatings, water cannons, and live ammunition, killing protesters and then killing mourners at those protesters’ funerals. By the time Assad released the teenagers and removed the regional governor (his cousin Faisal Kalthum), it was too late, and the protesters’ demands had changed. Assad’s now very likely victory in the war should not obscure the fact that his 2011 response to the protests was a disaster — six years later, he remains the leader of what is no longer a functioning state.
The opposition’s decision to militarize was a mistake, too, although it’s true that Assad’s crackdown left few other options. Even after Assad’s security forces had made a habit of shooting up funerals, the pro-democracy protesters of 2011 did not reach for their rifles en masse. Instead, they were gradually overtaken and displaced by more than three thousand militias, defectors from the military who established the Free Syrian Army, and the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda–affiliated group of Sunni fundamentalists that saw in the escalating chaos an opportunity to topple Assad’s Alawite regime (al-Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham before joining up with other rebel groups to form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Liberation of the Levant Committee, in January). The shift from peaceful protest to military engagement turned a reformist project into a revolutionary one. Yet the revolutionaries had no single vision for what a post-Assad Syria would be. Rather, they had competing visions that were inherently incompatible with one another, ranging from secular democracy to an authoritarian theocratic state under Sunni rule. The revolution as a whole lacked a constructive political project, and so it was doomed from the beginning. One Syrian journalist reporting on the Battle of Aleppo said there was a moment in 2012 during which the FSA, had it been able to muster a unified force of a few hundred, could have seized city hall and “proclaimed Aleppo a liberated city.” It didn’t.
These fissures in the Syrian rebellion were apparent from an early stage, and external countries should have seen them as a reason to stay away and allow the conflict to exhaust itself. Instead, they saw the rebellion’s weaknesses as an opportunity to use it for their own various ends. Within the Middle East, Syria became a flash point in the regional conflicts that had been escalating since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia, the world’s only remaining theocracy ruled by an absolute monarch, had been alarmed by the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia. It saw in the Syrian conflict an opportunity to spark a counterrevolution, as well as a chance to weaken Iran, its primary opponent and Assad’s most important supporter in the Middle East. For its part, Iran saw Syria as a key arm of its regional influence, which has increased enormously ever since the US deposed its primary regional rival, Iraq. When US officials began to criticize Assad’s brutal tactics in 2011, supporting his regime also became a useful way for Iran to resist the Middle East’s great Western antagonist. Meanwhile, the diplomatically insignificant but very wealthy country of Qatar bet on the rebels in hopes of winning increased regional influence after Assad’s fall, a tactic it had previously pursued by supporting opposition forces, particularly Islamists, in other Arab Spring uprisings. The country pumped nearly $3 billion into the rebellion during the first two years of the conflict.
Other countries in that area of the world have used the war to deepen their involvement in the Middle East. Following its unenthusiastic and unsuccessful pursuit of EU membership, Turkey decided to direct its geopolitical muscle to the east instead, and the Syrian rebellion provided what looked like an ideal opportunity to flex. The country hosted Syrian army defectors who eventually formed the core of the FSA; helped to organize Group of Friends of the Syrian People, an international coalition modeled on the coalition that brought about Gaddafi’s fall in Libya; and served as by far the most important point of entry for arms and other supplies used by the rebellion.
Then, most famously, there is Russia, without which Assad may well have fallen. In addition to vetoing UN Security Council resolutions calling for Assad’s resignation, Russia has lavished the Assad regime with military and economic aid. Russian air strikes have turned the military tide against the rebels in recent months, and in an earlier stage of the war, when Syria’s economy was on the brink of collapse, Moscow delivered some thirty tons of new banknotes to Damascus, ensuring that the government could continue to function.
Farther afield, Britain and France decided that toppling Assad would help to stymie Iran. Still pumped from its Libyan escapade in 2011, France demanded Assad’s departure and has since provided rebels with arms and communications equipment, as well as conducted a few air strikes of its own. And while the UK’s parliament initially decided against overt military involvement in the country, the successes of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front changed its mind. The Royal Air Force carried out air strikes in Syria in 2015, and British Special Forces were operating within Syria by summer 2016.
For the US, the Syrian war has been a long and painful lesson on the consequences of squandering one’s status as world hegemon on military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. When protests first broke out, the US was slow and reluctant to respond for two main reasons. The first is that, after its experience in Libya, in which toppling the dictator had not produced a flourishing of peace and representative democracy, the Obama Administration was reluctant to involve the US too deeply in another regional conflagration. The second is that the US had not been particularly focused on Syria, and the State Department’s resources were already stretched to the limit by everything else happening in the Middle East, a phenomenon referred to by diplomats as the “bandwidth” problem. There are only so many crises any government, even the US, can address at once. Even as Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to speak out against Assad’s crackdowns, the tone was very much wait-and-see, condemning the violence while also making it clear that Assad would be welcome to remain in power should he implement reforms.
In 2012, as the conflict was maturing into a full-fledged civil war, Obama told the White House press corps that any use of chemical or biological weapons by Assad would be a “red line for us,” the implication being that direct military intervention would follow. He used the “red line” phrase twice, saying, “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” But one year later, when chemical weapons were launched at rebel-held positions in Ghouta, it turned out that Obama’s calculus would stay the same, and the expected air strikes never came. While this may have been a wise decision on its own, it could not compensate for the recklessness of having made the “red line” remarks in the first place. Opposition forces had spent a year digging in and escalating the military conflict in the expectation that the American cavalry would soon arrive, and its failure to do so left the FSA in the lurch. ISIS soon seized the initiative that the FSA could no longer hold. Three years later, American diplomacy finds itself marginalized. When Russia, Iran, and Turkey organized a December meeting in Moscow to pursue a political solution to the conflict, the US was not invited.
None of which is to say that America hasn’t been involved. Over the past fifteen years, debates over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have steadily moved the discursive goalposts, such that “non-interventionist” now means “anything short of a full-scale occupation.” That’s the only sense in which one can say the US hasn’t carried out military intervention in the Syrian war. In 2011, Hillary Clinton objected to and undermined peace talks that didn’t include Assad’s removal as a condition. The CIA has assisted rebels with training, arms, ammunition, and supply routes along the Turkish border. The US has also helped train the much-praised “moderate rebels” in Jordan and in 2014 provided anti-tank weapons to the Supreme Military Council, which includes members of the most prominent rebel groups. Kurds were resupplied in 2015, and when it became clear that the $500 million rebel-training program had failed, that money was used to buy arms, which were then sent to the rebel groups already on the ground, trained or otherwise. Special operations forces have also carried out missions in Syria.
Surprisingly, the US has managed to ratchet up its involvement in the Syrian war without concurrently ratcheting up its anti-regime rhetoric. Assad has not been made into a villain on anything like the Saddam Hussein model. The reason has been the rise of the Islamic State — variously referred to as IS, ISIL, or ISIS. This group is a direct consequence of the Iraq war. It emerged out of the post-Saddam chaos in 2006, just barely survived the US “surge” in 2007, and returned to the scene in 2010. With its kidnappings, videos of hostage beheadings, destruction of ancient temples and other archaeological treasures, and eventual capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, ISIS has assumed al Qaeda’s former place as America’s preeminent terrorist bogeyman, all without ever carrying out a major terrorist attack in the United States itself. It was probably the beheading videos, with their combination of medieval violence and PR savvy, that clinched it. But it could also have been the group’s habit of claiming credit for terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando, whether it played an actual role in organizing those attacks or not. The group’s brutality and destructiveness are by no means unprecedented among either extremist groups or some of the region’s authoritarian regimes, but its eagerness and ability to portray itself as brutal and destructive probably are. Assad may have torture chambers of his own, and other groups may carry out massacres, too, but only ISIS is widely thought of as a “death cult,” something outside the realm of rational human calculation. ISIS’s successes have provided the US with a progressively freer military hand in the Middle East over the past two years, perhaps a freer hand than it has had at any point since the golden days of bin Laden and al Qaeda. In Syria, the group captured the city of Raqqa in 2013 and has subsequently battled the Kurds for control of the country’s northeastern region, which shares borders with Turkey and Iraq and holds valuable oil fields. As long as ISIS remains a force in Syria, there is little reason to expect much domestic opposition to America’s involvement there.
What benefits have accrued to the states that have invested so heavily in the war? According to Christopher Phillips, author of The Battle for Syria (2016), none at all. Assad’s likely survival means that Turkey’s ambitions of regional leadership are done, at least for the moment. Turkey also faces an increase in domestic terrorism committed by Islamists operating in Syria who have decided to cross back over the border. Qatar’s international reputation has been damaged by its alleged connections to al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia is stuck spending huge sums on military operations around the region during a time when oil prices are low, portending an ominous future for the kingdom’s economy. Iran protected its ally, but at the cost of its influence everywhere in the Middle East aside from Shia-dominated states. Even Russia shouldn’t get too excited. The country dramatically increased its geopolitical prominence at relatively low cost, but it now finds itself responsible for a failed state with no functioning economy and a government regarded by its own citizens and much of the world as illegitimate. Putin’s position today may turn out to be similar to that of George W. Bush in May 2003, when he stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
The Syrian conflict is what military scholars call a total war, one in which the lines between combatants and civilians blur, societies devote all their resources to the war effort, and tactics gain acceptance regardless of their brutality. Total war manifests in many ways, from the aerial bombardment of city centers all the way down to what happens between a couple of guards and a prisoner in a locked cell. On the latter end of that spectrum, torture stands out as a favored retaliatory technique on both sides and a central component of Assad’s plans for keeping power (as opposed to an ugly by-product of those plans). Summary arrests have regularly occurred since protests broke out in 2011, and except in cases where those detained are prominent figures or members of important families, it is safe to assume that arrests are followed by torture. The war reporter Janine di Giovanni, in her book The Morning They Came for Us (2016), interviewed a man called Hussein, a 24-year-old student of human rights law who helped organize protests in the prewar days. Hussein was captured in Homs and then taken to a hospital the government used as a prison for dissidents. There, he was beaten with sticks, electrocuted, burned, and cut. He suffered a collapsed lung, and at night, unable to walk, he was kept in a room with corpses piled on the floor. One night, his captors laid Hussein on top of a body that turned out to be that of his brother. He only escaped, he says, because a doctor assigned to monitor the torture sessions eventually decided he could not bear to watch anymore. He declared Hussein dead and had him smuggled out of the hospital. This story is representative. In the New Yorker, Ben Taub has reported on torture conducted at a military hospital located near the presidential palace in Damascus. One detainee, having already been tortured for nearly a year, was taken to this hospital when he began to urinate blood. When he arrived, according to Taub, “a nurse asked him about his symptoms, then beat him with a stick.”
Torture is not an inevitable element of war. Its use was not universal in ancient societies, and it was banned in nearly all of Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. These bans did not function perfectly, any more than universal bans on murder function perfectly today, but they constituted a stable and functioning societal taboo. This taboo broke down over the course of the 20th century. By the mid-1980s, nearly three decades after the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the regular use of torture was documented in one-third of UN member states. In the past five years, Amnesty International has documented torture in 141 countries, or three-quarters of the world. Torture is accepted by the Syrian regime because it is currently accepted by most regimes, usually in practice and sometimes in theory, too. The Republican Party in the United States is currently one of those regimes.
When one person brings up some wrong committed by a non-US country, and then a second person responds by pointing out that the US has committed the same wrong, the second person is sometimes accused of “whataboutism,” a rhetorical technique that seeks to blunt criticism by painting it as hypocritical. There are instances in which whataboutism does serve this propaganda function, but the debate on torture is not one of them, because a taboo is like herd immunity: it only works if almost everyone is immune. Despite its recent difficulties as world hegemon, the United States remains more powerful and influential than any other single country, and there can be no hope for preventing horrors like those committed by Assad’s security forces, or for punishing those responsible for them, so long as the US accepts torture.
The death penalty is not the central problem of America’s incarceration complex, and neither is torture the central problem of modern militarism. But as the death penalty stands as a metonym for the prison system’s general willingness to effectively, if not literally, end the life of someone who commits even a minor crime, so does torture stand as an emblem of the modern world’s acceptance of total war. A world that accepts and practices torture, that is willing to inflict unlimited suffering on a person in order to obtain a confession, is a world that also accepts the destruction of entire states and societies in the pursuit of military victory. During the past fifteen years, the war on terror and the many other civil wars and extremist rebellions that have emerged in its wake have seen the mainstreaming of torture and total war alike. The same editorial pages that lay out a ticking-time-bomb scenario as a justification for waterboarding will also publish pieces arguing that civilian casualties are “inevitable” (meaning “acceptable”) when extremist groups so cleverly blend in among the civilian inhabitants of densely populated urban areas. It will be hard, not to say hypocritical, for the United States to call for Assad’s arrest and prosecution when the CIA has rendered terrorism suspects to Syria specifically so they could be tortured there. Rebuilding the international community’s taboo on torture would require at the very least that the US close Guantánamo, that it pay reparations to those who have been held there, and that it agree to be subject to the decisions of the International Criminal Court, even if that court were to decide to prosecute George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or another architect of the country’s rendition and torture programs. For now, Bush Jr. remains a welcome guest at presidential inaugurations and a celebrated early-career painter.
If none of this seems likely to occur in the coming years, that may have to do with how little American debate on the conflict has considered the Syrian war as a moral issue. While the occasional harrowing photograph or chilling testimonial has provoked bouts of public outrage, that outrage has somehow not been channeled back into evaluations of America’s extensive involvement in the war. Even absent a full-scale invasion, the extent to which the US and other countries have fueled the bloodshed with arms and other equipment should be a scandal. The arms transfers have increased each side’s capacity to kill and wound its enemies, and discouraged the pursuit of diplomatic solutions to the catastrophe. But instead of a clear reckoning with what this has meant for the people of Syria, there is only talk of various US interests: the state of its credibility in the eyes of the world, the terrorist threats allegedly posed by desperate refugees, the exact circumference of America’s sphere of influence. It is politically unsophisticated to say so, but none of this matters to a noncombatant resident of Aleppo.
The suppression of war’s morality in American public discourse has not only occurred with respect to Syria — it is a general characteristic of foreign-policy discussion. The reason why is pretty simple: America is now involved in so many wars in so many different places, and there exists such an overwhelming bipartisan consensus that involvement in these wars is necessary and to the US advantage, that to confront the morality of our militarism honestly would require an almost total overhaul of America’s role in the world. In the years following the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the same dynamic could be found in arguments over torture. Instead of recognizing that torture is always wrong, every time, no matter the severity of the threat it is used to address, Democrats and Republicans argued over whether torture produced accurate intelligence, a debate of purely academic interest that should have had no place in the political sphere. Thirteen years after Abu Ghraib, the results of that debate are obvious. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work,” Donald Trump said at a campaign event in February 2016. “Torture works.” He promised to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.” Trump very slightly moderated his position after General James Mattis, whose nickname is Mad Dog, told him he’d “never found [torture] to be useful,” but there’s no reason to think that moderation will outlive Mattis’s tenure as a Trump adviser.
Even Barack Obama’s guiding principles for weighing the wisdom of military action, so cautious in comparison with those of his neoconservative predecessors, betrayed an eagerness to look away from what war does to those caught in its path. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said in a 2002 speech. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” He lived up to this self-description, with a few exceptions, during his eight years as President. Except for his “red line” comments, his decisions regarding Syria were thoughtful and deliberate, and none of them have permanently damaged America’s international standing. But opposing dumb wars isn’t enough. Smart wars should be opposed and avoided too, until the last moment and at all possible costs, because they are wars. All military conflict rips apart the social fabric in irreparable ways, and all the US and Russia have done with their careful, self-interested maneuverings is intensify and accelerate the process by which a dictator has reduced his unfree but still stable society to rubble.
How will America’s involvement with Syria change now that Trump has assumed office? It is clear that the new President is a racist provocateur who sees Muslims as America’s primary antagonists throughout the world. But it remains unclear what kind of foreign policy these racist views will produce, because Trump does not appear to hold foreign-policy views at all (except insofar as foreign countries “steal” American jobs). Though much of the recklessness of his travel ban derives from the way it escalated tensions between the US and countries across the Middle East, the executive order was primarily an act of domestic politics meant to shore up and energize his nativist base. He believes terrorism is bad and that the US should be “strong,” but he has never indicated how that might translate into a style of diplomacy or a military strategy. Among the many mistakes liberal journalists made during the presidential campaign was their effort to paint Trump as a committed supporter of the Iraq war. This claim was based on a Howard Stern interview in which Trump responded to the question “Are you for invading Iraq?” by saying, “Yeah, I guessss . . . sooo.” The obvious conclusion to draw from the hesitant tone of Trump’s answer is that he hadn’t thought about it all that much and wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome, and during the campaign, Trump only brought up Iraq when it could be used as a cudgel to beat Hillary Clinton or some primary opponent. Is Trump an interventionist or an anti-interventionist? The evidence suggests that he doesn’t really give a shit.
That’s not meant to be reassuring. The importance of presidential diplomacy to America’s international relationships makes Trump’s erratic personality frightening. In addition, our unprincipled new President is advised by a cabinet and a party stuffed with foreign-policy hawks. Defense Secretary Mattis has refused to rule out the deployment of conventional American ground forces to combat ISIS in Syria, and he has also been careful to not close the door on possible cooperation with the Russian military, which would, by extension, entail cooperation with Assad. On the other hand, ramping up tensions with Assad could go a long way toward antagonizing Iran, a cherished Republican goal. (The party’s 2016 platform specified that Republicans “consider the Administration’s deal with Iran, to lift international sanctions and make hundreds of billions of dollars available to the Mullahs, a personal agreement between [Obama] and his negotiating partners and non-binding on the next president.”) While the specific targets of the Republican Party’s foreign-policy aggression under Trump remain to be seen, it is probably safe to assume that American aggression will increase over the next four years, an increase enabled in part by the totally unnecessary $54 billion military-budget increase Trump proposed in February.
Opposing this kind of pervasive, amoral militarism in the US cannot just be a matter of demonizing the executive, however, no matter how repulsive this particular executive may be. American militarism was thriving well before Trump hatched his campaign plans, and will outlast his sad and flailing administration. Even if Trump were to adopt a stance of rigid isolationism, forgoing all direct American military involvement in the conflicts and wars of foreign nations, America would still be one of the single biggest engines of militarism by virtue of its arms trade. US weapons companies were involved in more than half of the world’s arms deals in 2015, deals which netted them some $40 billion (France finished in second place with $15 billion). In December 2016 alone, the State Department approved the following sales: a $115 million “Electronic Warfare Range System” to Australia, fighter-jet upgrades to Finland, nearly $700 million worth of infantry carrier vehicles to Peru, $3.5 billion in Chinook helicopters to Saudi Arabia, missiles for Morocco, Apache helicopters for the United Arab Emirates, logistical support services and equipment in Qatar (plus engines and equipment for C-17 Globemaster planes), nearly $2 billion in equipment and support for Kuwait, some planes for Norway, and something called “Sea Giraffe 3D Air Search Radars” for the Philippines. In 2015, the CEO of Lockheed Martin told reporters that she looked at the Middle East and Asia as “growth areas” because of their instability. By approving the sale of arms in such massive quantities, the State Department is helping to ensure Lockheed’s profits for years to come.
Drastically reducing the country’s arms exports would probably not be in the best interest of the American economy. Weapons manufacturers are conscientious about operating plants within the US, including in politically crucial states like Michigan and Ohio, thus cultivating a broad base of support for arms exports in Congress. Nevertheless, the American arms industry should be an appealing target for protest and antiwar political mobilization. The duration and the brutality of the Syrian war are largely due to nearly a dozen countries deciding again and again that a militarized approach to the conflict was more in keeping with their respective national interests than diplomacy. The political reasons behind those decisions have been as varied as the countries making them, but the availability of every imaginable weapon on the international arms market has been a constant, and no country does as much to maintain that availability as the United States. American activists may not be able to influence Erdoğan’s views on the pros and cons of Assad’s continued rule, but they could theoretically influence how many missiles and aircraft the US would be willing to send him.
The anti-imperialist analysis of global conflict, in which America is almost always seen as the primary bad actor, is useful and productive, but the Syrian war has exposed its limits. The political interests involved in the war are so complicated and numerous that even if the US government were persuaded to abandon the pursuit of any of its ambitions in the Middle East, the war would likely continue unabated. Only an international effort to set aside those interests, to remoralize the discussion around war and acknowledge that wars are atrocities by definition, will produce a solution. What’s needed is not an anti-imperialist analysis but an antimilitarist one. Fortunately, antimilitarism is an authentically internationalist stance, for the simple reason that war is equally bad for everyone on the receiving end of it.