Your Guide to Discussing the Syrian Airstrikes Online

The Middle East, and especially Syria, rejects simple narratives that people in America want to impose on it.

The Middle East is a complicated region that rejects simple narratives. Yet people, especially those in the West, want simple narratives to explain everything that happens there. For some, when a president orders an airstrike in Syria it’s proof of that president's imperial aims. For others it’s a chance to talk about repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001 that underpins the Forever Wars. For still others it’s a chance to talk about the litany of horrors America has brought to the Middle East.

So it was with President Biden’s first airstrike on Feb. 25. The facts are these: after several Iran-launched rocket attacks against U.S., coalition, and Iraqi forces in Iraq, Biden ordered an attack on a military checkpoint and storage facility used by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias on the Syrian side of the border of Iraq and Syria.

The strike came from F-15s which dropped seven 500 pound precision-guided bombs. These were probably GBU-38/B Joint Direct Attack Munitions, but that’s unconfirmed. Pentagon sources said there were casualties but didn’t give a number, emphasizing that the strike was meant as a warning. Local sources have reported casualties as high as 22, but that number is disputed by all sides

In the days after the strike, the White House spun up it’s media machine in an effort to characterize the strike as a retaliatory measure against Iran-backed strikes. It released footage of a January 2020 attack on the Al Asad Air Base.

60 Minutes interviewed American service members present during the attack.

Online, some western leftists characterized the attacks as a hegemonic assault on the Middle East by Imperial America. The strike was proof, they said, that Biden was just another president who would keep the churning the fires of the Forever War. The Onion ran several biting articles about the attack. Memes depicting munitions covered in Democratic slogans proliferated.

Not many asked Syrians how they felt about all this.

The Syrian civil war has been going on for a decade now and it’s a complicated conflict. But at its base is President Bashar al-Assad who has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people to stay in power. Russia is backing him and has used its own Iskander ballistic missiles to destroy hospitals in Syria. 

We know this because the Russian Ministry of Defense recently released a montage of footage that included video of it blowing up hospitals. It released this footage after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan complained that his own Iskanders didn’t quite perform the way he wanted during Armenia’s fight with Azerbaijan last year. The Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada forces targeted in the attack are allied with the Assad regime. If the Syrian civil war has clear bad guys, these are them.

The media describes Kataib Hezbollah as an “Iran-backed militia” but what does that mean? It’s a Shia militia funded, trained by Iran, and often led by Iranian commanders. The irregular force first formed in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pulling fighters from across the region. Iran’s Quds force supplied it with weapons and training. It became infamous for violent ethnic campaigns against Sunnis in Iraq.

It's been instrumental in an Iran backed plan of genocide and replacement in Syria. As Sunnis die or flee, Shias from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon come in. The militia attack in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that precipitated the Syria strike injured at least one Syrian refugee when several rockets fell in residential areas of the city. At the American base two contractors—an Iraqi and a Filipino firefighter—died in the attack. Being Shia is not a protection from them, as Kataib Hezbollah routinely assassinates Shia dissidents and protestors.

The Syrian Emergency Task Force, a non-profit organization promoting peace and democracy in Syria, released a statement in support of the airstrike. “The Iranian-backed forces currently in Syria are allies to the Assad Regime, contributing to human rights abuses and mass atrocities against Syria’s civilian population,” it said. “Kataib Hezbollah forces are trained in Iran and then flown to Syria to support Assad’s forces on the ground. In this capacity, they have participated in the deliberate targeting of civilian life, including attacks on educational and medical facilities, and in forced displacement.”

There are thousands of Syrian expats online. There are even more subject-matter experts that either live or lived in the Middle East. Their opinions on this air strike matter more than mine.

So, should Congress reassert its power to authorize war and repeal 2001’s AUMF? Yes. Does America need to scale back its involvement in the Middle East? I think so.

But don’t pretend that America is the worst actor in the Middle East. The anti-Imperial left in America absolutely believes in American exceptionalism, it just comes at it from a different angle. 

There’s a paternalistic chauvinism to how the left discusses Middle Eastern countries it doesn’t understand, one that can be as damaging and condescending as the idea that America needs to police foreign countries as an extension of its foreign policy goals. Being an anti-imperialist is not a license to use the tragedy of a people you haven’t bothered to understand as a political football. 

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image at top: A F-15 in flight in 2007. U.S. Air Force photo