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“I believe that the progressive supporters of the war have confused a ‘just cause’ with a ‘just war.’ There are unjust causes, such as the attempt of the United States to establish its power in Vietnam, or to dominate Panama or Grenada, or to subvert the government of Nicaragua. And a cause may be just–getting North Korea to withdraw from South Korea, getting Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, or ending terrorism–but it does not follow that going to war on behalf of that cause, with the inevitable mayhem that follows, is just.”
– Howard Zinn, A Just Cause, Not a Just War
Black smoke billowed and rubble smoldered after Israelis incinerated a Gazan home that took the lives of nine members of the Dalu family in July 2015. The Dalus, of course, were not associated with Hamas or any other “terror” organization. It was one of many such bombings during that horrific 50 day stretch of killing. In the weeks leading up to Israel’s attacks, leaflets were dropped, warning residents that their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles. “Those who fail to comply with the instructions will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware,” read one leaflet that landed on the battered streets of Beit Lahiya, an impoverished Gazan border town.
The justification for why Israel was targeting civilian infrastructure was that Hamas resided in those locations, or near them, using civilians as cover. Like Bashar al-Assad in Syria today, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu argued that he was simply defending his country’s sovereignty against outside actors. Of course, Netanyahu’s rationale for killing innocent “human shields” was based on pure propaganda, which has been largely discredited. Israel, of course, is always good at blaming the victim. In all, Israel’s Operation Protective Edge destroyed or severely damaged nearly 900 homes, 138 schools, 26 health facilities and killed almost 1,500 civilians.
Fast forward to 2015 in Habeet, Syria, a dusty border town near Idlib, a stronghold of the Western-backed Syrian opposition. Since October, Habeet and the surrounding areas have suffered from intense Russian bombing raids. Reports are beginning to trickle out about the impact these campaigns are having and the death toll is mounting fast. Airwars, an independent public interest group that tracks impacts of bombings against Islamic State, reports that since October, Russian bombs have taken the lives of more civilians in Syria than IS has killed there. (Airwars has also documented thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of the United States and its coalition in 2015.)
“Airwars presently assesses 44 Russian incidents as having likely killed civilians in Syria to October 30th – which between them reportedly killed 255 to 375 non-combatants,” writes Chris Woods of Airwars. “This is roughly ten times the level of credible allegations against US-led Coalition operations in Syria [during this period of time].”
It’s also been alleged by Syrian Civil Defense and others, including Doctors Without Borders, that medical facilities and schools have been struck where Russia is carrying out its bombing. Putin’s justification for attacking the area, while not as blatant as Netanyahu’s (Putin doesn’t directly acknowledge he’s targeting rebel factions), is virtually indistinguishable: opposition forces (terrorists according to Putin and many of his sympathizers) occupy and reside in civilian enclaves, therefore these areas are legitimate targets, a-la Hamas in Gaza. Civilians are necessary collateral damage.
As Russia’s air assault drags on, there is no question more innocents will perish as a result. Nonetheless, many continue to support Putin’s efforts in Syria, despite the rising death count (or they just write it off entirely as being propaganda, only US bombs kill innocents!). They view Putin’s actions as a legitimate response to American belligerence and imperialist machinations. Heck, Russia was even invited by Assad to bombs away! Russia’s actions must be just, because the cause is just. However, as I’ve argued before, it’s a devil’s bargain to ride shotgun with Putin.
Russia’s entrance into the Syrian crisis has not made the situation better, or brought us closer to a tangible resolution. In fact, Putin has pulled Western powers in deeper. NATO is now on watch after its member state Turkey shot down the Russian fighter jet. The UK is set to bomb. France is upping the stakes (no, Putin isn’t responsible for the Paris attacks) and the US isn’t going to back off supporting opposition forces. One can only imagine how far Hillary Clinton will take this if she’s elected–where Obama backs down it’s likely Clinton will escalate. Bottom line: Putin’s involvement hasn’t forced the US and its allies out of Syria. Even if you believe it’s not Russia’s fault for any of this, it’s clear Putin hasn’t been able to stop it from happening. Thus far the Russians have only been able to help Assad reclaim 0.4% of the country.
Moral imperatives and human rights concerns aside, from a strategic standpoint Russia has thus far not accomplished what it set out to do. Assad’s reign may be safe in the short run, but his long term prospects are still bleak. It’s hard to imagine how killing more Syrians in a small border town and elsewhere–those who aren’t associated with the opposition or the regime–is going to change that outcome. Why would someone embrace a government that bombed their apartment building, killed their kids and ruined their lives? Killing Palestinians hasn’t made Netanyahu many new friends in Gaza, just plenty of new enemies.
As Russia wages war abroad, the scene in the homeland is also not looking very promising. Just last week truckers began a large-scale protest of a new proposed tax hike and blocked the main artery into Moscow. It was the first industrial unrest Russia has experienced since Putin came to power. Truckers, many from family owned operations, are upset that they will now be required to pay a fee that will be pocketed by a company owned by the Rotenberg family, with whom Putin is close. The Rotenbergs will reportedly take a hefty 20 percent commission. With Russia’s economy on the fritz, largely due to the drop in global oil prices (Russia’s #1 export), it’s likely more people will begin to turn on Putin’s government.
While Putin has long been accused of being a crony-capitalist, many continue to embrace him as the best chance to challenge US power. Really? No matter that Putin’s actions in Syria aren’t forcing the US out, or that more Western countries are now coming to aid US imperial efforts. No big deal that working people in Russia are turning against him. Sorry to say, Putin is no Chavez. It’s a sad state that so many support a man that has adopted Netanyahu’s brutal tactics, and write off civilian casualties because those killings don’t fit the narrative that Russia’s war is a just war. Putin doesn’t even have the courtesy to drop leaflets.