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killing civilians

Rethinking Killing Civilians—Tom Hastings

Secretary of State John Kerry has worked tirelessly to end the bloodshed in Syria. Yet he has been on the receiving end of criticism and pushback from Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It appears those who run the U.S. military would prefer the carnage to continue in Syria rather than share U.S. targeting information with the Russians as outlined in the deal Kerry brokered.

American foreign policymakers have known all along that ousting President Bashar al-Assad will not magically end the civil, ethnic, and sectarian wars that are now raging in what’s left of Syria. But that fact hasn’t stopped them from trying.

American foreign policymakers have known all along that ousting President Bashar al-Assad will not magically end the civil, ethnic, and sectarian wars that are now raging in what’s left of Syria. But that fact hasn’t stopped them from trying.

Since December 2006, five year before the so-called Arab Spring protests, according to documents leaked from the State Department, the United States has fought an economic, diplomatic, political, and propaganda war against the Syrian government. (The Wikileaks Files, Verso, 2015, pp. 298-300)

On September 14th, the New York Times ran a front-page article titled: “Syria Agreement Widens U.S. Rift, Officials Split on Sharing Data with Moscow,” quoting Lt. General Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, who said of Secretary Kerry’s Syrian deal with the Russians: “I’m not saying yes or no. It would be premature to say that we’re going to jump right into it.”

In the final months of the Obama Administration we see the Secretary of State negotiating a potentially breakthrough agreement that might begin the process of lifting the military siege that has left millions of Syrian civilians suffering or dead only to be rebuked by the hawks in the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Then, on Saturday, come a number of “errant” or “mistaken” U.S. air attacks that kill at least 62 Syrian soldiers (and injure 100) who were fighting the Islamic State near al-Tharda Mountain in the Deir-ez-Zor region. The bombing ended up allowing ISIS (Daesh) to seize territory it didn’t already control essentially under U.S. air cover.

If journalists were doing their jobs such “errant” and “mistaken” U.S. bombings might raise at least two questions: 1). Are these really “errant” and “mistaken” or part of a wider strategy?; and 2). If U.S. targeting is so faulty and wrought with error, shouldn’t we re-evaluate the intelligence behind all those drone strikes and other air attacks the U.S. conducts all over the world?

But even in the post-Iraq WMD, post-Judith Miller era of American journalism we still see paragraphs like this one in today’s New York Times where the nation’s elite reporters serve as stenographers for anonymous “official” sources putting out whatever spin they want:

“Many American officials believe that the Russians were never serious about the deal that was sealed in Geneva. The officials argued that the Russians were looking for an excuse that would derail it and keep a status quo in which they have more control of events in Syria than any other power, with the possible exception of Iran. If so, the accidental bombing made that process easier.” (New York Times, September 19, 2016, p. A3)

So, you see, (according to anonymous sources) it’s really the Russians (and Iranians) who are responsible for the U.S. airstrikes that ended up killing 62 Syrian soldiers, helping ISIS gain territory it didn’t control, and torpedoing the agreement that the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs never liked in the first place.

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(David Sanger, Mark Mazzetti, and Ben Hubbard leave it to their readers to ponder why the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov reached an agreement with Kerry at all, since anonymous U.S. military officials say “the Russians were never serious about the deal.”) End of story.

And when the Russian government turned to the United Nations to voice its concerns about the U.S.’s “errant” air strikes, which is the only legitimate international arena to air such grievances, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, denounced the Russian effort as “a stunt.”

That’s how “American Exceptionalism” plays out in the real world: Anything the U.S. does that violates “universal” standards of international relations — such as the sovereignty of nations, respecting international borders, extrajudicial killings, torture, targeting civilians, etc. — can be brushed off by the “whoops, sorry” defense, followed by finger-pointing at adversaries, and dismissing any criticism that comes America’s way as “a stunt.”

What’s chilling is the disregard for the lives of innocent people in Syria from officials like Secretary Carter and General Harrigian who are willing to let the status quo prevail in Syria with all its brutality and gore rather than set up a “joint information center” with the Russians.

We don’t hear much about it but U.S.-backed “rebels” in Syria have fired artillery into Aleppo that has killed at least 160 children. And since 2006 (according to leaked documents), the U.S. has given direct assistance to those seeking to destabilize the Damascus government. Close U.S. allies, such as the Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been backing Sunni extremists, cutthroats and mercenaries in Syria since at least 2011.

It should be a source of embarrassment to Americans, not pride, that the Russians are more willing than their U.S. counterparts to share targeting information and move towards peace in Syria.

But that stance wouldn’t uphold the idea of “American Exceptionalism.” It serves U.S. power in the Middle East better simply to offer up anodyne “whoops, sorry” statements followed by sneering at America’s enemy du jour, which today, unfortunately, is Russia.

Citing anonymous sources inside the national security state, mainstream media repeat the conclusion that these airstrikes that wiped out Assad’s troops are, like the recent bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, just another “whoops, sorry” moment in a complex targeting environment.

The “whoops, sorry” defense is always good enough for American journalists who are so used to reporting misinformation passed on to them from their official sources. The “whoops, sorry” defense has the added benefit of breathing life into the discredited narrative of “American Exceptionalism.” It goes like this: leaving behind 80 million unexploded cluster bombs in Laos, “whoops, sorry”; arming jihadists to fight in Afghanistan who later target the United States, “whoops, sorry”; invading and occupying a nation in the heart of the Arab world causing a sectarian bloodbath that spread carnage throughout the region, “whoops, sorry”; torturing people and holding them without due process at “black sites” in Eastern Europe, “whoops, sorry”; firing a billion dollars worth of cruise missiles into a north African nation thereby helping to open up the country to the Islamic State, “whoops, sorry”; killing an innocent American aid worker in a drone attack, “whoops, sorry”; bombing a hospital in Kunduz, “whoops, sorry”; using the National Security Agency to spy on everybody without warrants or judicial supervision, “whoops, sorry”; finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, “whoops, sorry.” And so on.

Secretary of State John Kerry should be commended for his efforts. He is trying to do the right thing: end the bloodshed in Syria that has already cost a half million lives. And if saving the lives of Syrian children requires that the United States share a few codes with the Russians that can be changed in 10 minutes, so be it.

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Joseph Palermo
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