While Donald Trump delighted in launching 59 cruise missiles toward Syria while eating chocolate cake at one of his resorts, Syrians, as they have for years of living under conditions of extreme violence, feared the worst.
The devastatingly bloody conflict in Syria, which the US has already been involved in for years, has left nearly 500,000 dead and nearly 2 million injured. That means that more than 1 out of every 10 Syrians has been killed or wounded, and more than 85 percent of the country is living in poverty. According to the UN, more than 6 million Syrians are displaced within their own country, and nearly 5 million have fled the country altogether and are now refugees.
As the Trump administration appears poised to become increasingly involved in Syria and the greater Middle East, what is life like under the bombs?
“It is a day-to-day kind of life where nothing is guaranteed and everything is unexpected,” Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, who lives in Homs, told Truthout, emphasizing that securing day-to-day amenities is a struggle. “There is little room for anything normal.”
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has been ravaged by war. Al-Sabouni has described her city as basically not having “a cityscape anymore” since more than 60 percent of it has been razed. Her architecture study has long since been flattened by bombs.
As that conflict continues with no end in sight, in yet another direct contradiction to his campaign promises to avoid involvement in Middle East conflicts, Trump is now on the brink of plunging the US deeper into the morass of blood, destruction and suffering across the Middle East and beyond.
Several former intelligence officials spoke with Truthout about the Trump administration’s military escalations, and what his mistakes could mean for the world’s future.
Syria as a Distraction
The former officials pointed to Trump’s escalation of US attacks on Syria as a distraction from investigations into his administration.
“I think it’s clear that Donald Trump found it expedient to fire the 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base on April 7 as a way to quell the media frenzy surrounding ‘Russiagate’ that was causing his approval ratings to tank,” Elizabeth Murray, who was formerly the deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council, told Truthout. Murray retired in 2010 after a 27-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where she served as a media and political analyst on Middle Eastern issues.
Murray believes Trump seized the opportunity to blame the Syrian government for the April 4 chemical weapon incident so that he could use it as a pretext to bomb.
“By giving his generals the green light to launch the missiles, he was able to silence media criticism, appease pro-war neoconservative elements and shore up his flagging image,” Murray explained. “The neocon-controlled US mainstream media are now referring to Trump as ‘presidential,’ and at least one mainstream TV anchor described the launched missiles as ‘beautiful,’ so in that sense, it worked.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA operations officer who worked on counter-terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, told Truthout he also believes the Trump administration is using military machinations in Syria as a distraction from the ongoing investigations into Russian election tampering, as well as the public’s misgivings about the new administration’s domestic policies.
“Trump is demonstrating to the public that he can be tough with America’s ‘enemies’ and that he is also not afraid to offend the Russians,” Giraldi explained. “He has been accused of being a de facto Russian agent so it is particularly important that he demonstrate that he is not.”
Giraldi, who is currently executive director of the Council for the National Interest, a think tank focused on Middle East policy, sees the Russia situation becoming increasingly embarrassing for President Trump.
“Trump is particularly thin skinned and he reacts to protect his image, in this case doing something quite stupid in Syria to make a point about himself and his administration,” Giraldi said. He added that the escalation in Syria “has inflicted major damage on Washington’s ability to deal effectively overseas.”
Ray McGovern, a former Army officer and CIA analyst who prepared the president’s daily intelligence brief under the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, pointed out how much popularity ratings matter to Trump. Of course, his ratings are currently in the pits.
“So he’s looking for ways to ease the pressure he’s feeling from the media, which is being stoked by the CIA, and Brennon, and Susan Rice, who were leaking that stuff to the press,” he said. “Totally illegal, but it worked.”
McGovern questions the chemical attack in Syria that was used as the pretext for launching the cruise missile attack; he sees it as “fixing the intel” to justify the policy after the fact.
“They came up with this embarrassing three and a half pages about the event that don’t hold water, and we have the MIT professor totally debunk it,” he added. “And now all that is on the record.”
When asked about the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, McGovern replied that he does not believe such a policy exists. He sees Trump as being “completely at the mercy” of the generals with whom he has surrounded himself.
“The cruise missile attack is a visceral reaction to show he is not a tool of Putin, and show he’s a tough guy and can react immediately,” McGovern added.
Murray believes the Trump missile attack violated international law and set a dangerous “shoot-from-the-hip” tone for US foreign policy under the new administration.
“There’s little mention of the 13 Syrian civilians who were killed by the US missiles, including four children, which is a clear war crime,” she said.
Murray pointed out how the US bombing also took place in the absence of actual evidence of Syrian government involvement in the preceding attacks, and that, if anything, there are indications that the US-backed al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels may be responsible.
Like McGovern, she pointed towards MIT professor Ted Postol’s analysis of the event that contradicts the “assessment” issued by the White House.
“What’s especially troubling is that there’s been no independent investigation,” she said. “In fact, the US is currently obstructing efforts initiated by Russia, China, Iran and Syria to bring in an independent international fact-finding commission to investigate the incident.”
Murray also found it strange that Trump did not commission a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the April 4 chemical incident at Khan Shaykhun.
“A National Intelligence Estimate, as you may know, is a consensus paper that brings together the expertise of all 16 US intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, State Department, NSA and others,” she said. “It is the most authoritative and credible document that the Intelligence Community (IC) can issue. Instead, the White House issued a four-page paper that offers nothing in the way of substantive evidence. The lack of an NIE suggests to me that there was likely serious disagreement among Intelligence Community analysts with the White House version of events.”
McGovern expressed grave concerns about where Trump’s actions could lead.
“To the degree Trump keeps having all these problems, he’s irascible and unpredictable, and it’s hard to know what he’s going to do,” McGovern said. “But my fear is [what will happen in the case of] either a real event — say in the Ukraine — or something provoked, by people who want to see an outbreak of hostilities between NATO and Russia. The Russians will have their defenses way up on high alert, and we better be careful they don’t misinterpret what we are doing as an attack on their homeland.”
McGovern warned that saber-rattling in Russia’s direction should not be dismissed.
“If Putin’s generals believe that our generals think we can pull off a first strike taking out their ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], that raises a lot of stakes,” McGovern said.
From Bad to Worse
According to Murray, in terms of the trajectory of developments in Syria and Iraq, it’s very difficult to be optimistic in the near term.
“What’s really disturbing is that US citizens are being prevented from knowing what is really going on with regard to US involvement in those countries,” she said. “The Trump administration has announced that the public will no longer be informed of new troop deployments to Iraq and Syria, while this was routinely disclosed under the previous administration.”
She sees that as an indication that US military activity in both countries is being ramped up in a clandestine manner; and since deploying ground troops to these countries is wildly unpopular, the Trump administration has decided to keep the American people in the dark.
McGovern agreed with Murray that a lack of transparency and trustworthy information — and, therefore, a less informed populace — is a big part of the problem.
“The fourth estate is dead,” he said, citing the failings of the media. “The transcendent problem is that Americans don’t know what is going on in the world.”
Murray felt similarly, pointing to the silence around the US attacks on Mosul.
“It disturbs me that so little is reported about what is taking place in Mosul, Iraq, where thousands of innocent people are dying from US-led coalition airstrikes — one report said more than 2,000 Iraqi civilians died in the month of March alone. But the American people are simply told that Mosul is being ‘liberated,'” she said.
Given that the US military does not report numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is impossible for Americans to hold their so-called leaders accountable when they are prevented from knowing what is even occurring.
“These kinds of policies will leave us dependent on journalists and whistleblowers willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to tell the truth,” Murray added. “Meanwhile, weapons manufacturers and Washington, DC-based ‘beltway bandits’ [the cottage industry of think tanks and contractors servicing the Defense Department and intelligence agencies] will continue to thrive under a foreign policy of endless wars.”
Murray had been optimistic about Trump’s early statements about seeking a modus vivendi with Russia, cooperating with Moscow to counter ISIS in Syria, and not seeking a Syrian regime change.
“But these were just words,” she said. “As with nearly every other US president, Trump has caved to the pressures brought by neoconservative elements within the government and the military-corporate complex, otherwise known as the Deep State.”
Murray predicts that this “caving” will serve Trump well in the ratings polls: He will continue to be rewarded for ramping up attacks.
“I believe that Trump will now proceed according to the dictates of these powerful groups, which means more wars to support the military machine and the interests of Israel, which wants the overthrow of governments in Iran and Syria,” Murray explained. “In return, he will see far less media criticism and even receive accolades as with the ‘presidential’ missile strikes on Syria.”
Even if the US and the other players in the region manage to finish off ISIS, Giraldi sees the role of the other actors, like Turkey and the Kurds, further complicating the aftermath — which is complicated even further by what he sees as the US lacking any real policy for the war-torn region.
“The US increasingly does not actually have a coherent policy in the region and is acting largely reactively,” he said. “If it insists on removing Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for any final settlement it will make any peace agreement unlikely.”
Giraldi was blunt in his assessment of Trump’s handling of the US’s relationship with Russia, which has obvious global implications.
“I fear that Washington’s Syria policy has effectively destroyed any possibility for a good working arrangement with Moscow,” he said. “The Russian-US relationship is the most important in the world given the fact that failure to recognize that reality can have dire consequences. Since that is so, the cavalier attitude regarding Russian national interests is a huge mistake on the part of Trump and his advisers.”
McGovern agreed, and pointed to Trump’s unpredictability as another worrisome factor in that equation.
“He lashes out viciously at the slightest slight, real or imagined, and we see that in this missile attack,” he said.
According to McGovern, it’s exceedingly dangerous for someone so unpredictable — who lashes out for political benefit in a violent way — to be dealing with Russia.
“[Trump’s] generals show no respect for the other major nuclear power, and if I’m Putin, I say we’d better go to heightened alert because this guy is unpredictable, and work out a firm relationship with China so Trump doesn’t play us off against each other, but so we can beat him on a united front,” he said.
McGovern explains that recently, a major geopolitical strategy change has been taking place. Increasingly, he says, Trump’s presidency is turning Russia and China (and possibly North Korea) into “virtually allies” against the US.
“If there is a dustup with Russia or China, then what?” he asked.
Giraldi’s statements on the matter serve as an equally dire warning.
“In spite of his campaign promises regarding both Russia and the Middle East, Trump has made a 180-degree turn … and using military intervention as his preferred response to situations that he does not seem to understand,” he said. “If he continues to be aggressive with North Korea, and there is every sign that he will, it could be catastrophic for the entire northeast Asian region.”
And for the Middle East, Giraldi had an equally worrisome outlook.
“Trump is also clearly edging ever closer to Israel, and an Israel-centric policy will inevitably lead to conflict with Iran, which would be a terrible outcome for an administration that in effect promised no more wars in the Middle East,” Giraldi said.
Murray thinks face-to-face talks with North Korean leadership are required to de-escalate tensions, which Trump has gone out of his way to ratchet up. Additionally, she says Washington should scale back the ongoing hostile rhetoric and major military maneuvers it has been conducting in the region.
“If one reads the terrible history of US military intervention in North Korea, it’s easy to understand why Pyongyang is jittery and testing its ballistic missiles,” Murray said. She noted that a similar process of de-escalation should be employed with regard to Syria and Russia, adding that Iran should be included in these negotiations.
Murray hopes that the real threat of nuclear war will prompt moves toward restoring normalcy and diplomacy to US foreign policy.
“If that doesn’t take place,” she concluded, “then all bets are off.”
Meanwhile, the US military continues to wreak bloodshed and suffering abroad. In Syria, Al-Sabouni continues to hope for a chance to begin rebuilding her country — to help Syria return “from the sad state of degradation it is suffering from” and “to find an alternative option other than the usual self-glorification and self-flagellation” in which it has been embroiled.
She also believes it is possible to build a country where people can appreciate their shared spaces, where they can collectively appreciate what their hands can produce and how their lands can thrive.
She outlined her vision for the country: “A place that is not occupied by companies nor neglected by individuals. A place where morals are embodied in stones as well as in every day acts. A place that we can all call home.”
But before the quest for that future country can begin, the conflict that the US continues to bolster must end. With a Trump administration now calling the shots, the forecast looks bleak.