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(Updated Sept. 24) Syria: West's hypocritical war drive slowed

By Barry Sheppard

September 15, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- The proposal by Russia, accepted by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, for Syria’s chemical weapons to be turned over to an international authority (presumably the United Nations) for destruction, has temporarily put off Washington’s plans for war against Syria.

US President Barack Obama has postponed asking US Congress to approve of his plans to attack Syria. This represents a political defeat for the war drive.

Even if Washington scuttles the proposed agreement and goes ahead with war, it will do so with even less support at home and abroad than it had before the Russian proposal.

The main force blocking the proposed attack has been the opposition of the world's people especially in the United States.

In spite of huge pressure, in the face of mass opposition of their own citizens, few countries have backed bombing Syria. Only one country has fully said it would take part militarily ― Saudi Arabia, a well-known bastion of liberal democracy and human rights.

Obama could not even arm-twist NATO into compliance. British Prime Minister David Cameron felt the heat so much he took the question to parliament, which defeated his motion to join in the bombing campaign. Initially supporting Obama, French President Francois Hollande got cold feet and postponed a decision.

Hollande is competing with Cameron for the post of European lap-dog to the White House, but neither could deliver.

In the wake of his defeat in the British parliament, and facing overwhelming opposition to the proposed bombing campaign at home, Obama decided to take the matter to Congress.

On the eve of the Russian proposal, the vote in the Senate was still undecided and it looked like it would be defeated in the House.

To understand why there has been so much opposition in the US, we have to examine what has changed since the early 2000’s, when there was initially mass support for the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq once the shooting started. Much of what has changed for the US population also applies to the rest of the world.

The first thing to note is the experience of those wars themselves. After over a decade of US bombing and occupation, both Afghanistan and Iraq remain torn by sectarian violence, much of it actually instigated by the US.

In Iraq, Washington came down with a heavy hand against the Sunnis, and installed a Shiite government. In Afghanistan, it backed the Northern Alliance group of nationalities against the Pashtuns.

Both countries have had their infrastructures severely damaged. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions displaced. They are riddled with corruption, and can hardly be called democracies.

Washington promised the US people that these wars would be quickly over, with crowds of grateful Iraqis and Afghans greeting the US troops with flowers and waving American flags. What they got instead was years and years of grinding warfare, hatred of the US from all sides, and fierce resistance to the occupations.

Then there is the torture, renditions and indefinite detentions, such as at the US-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

What the US people saw was the price they paid for these debacles. Thousands of US soldiers killed, and hundreds of thousands maimed or severely damaged mentally. The cost in treasure is over US$1 trillion.

It is little wonder most US people do not want to repeat that experience in Syria.

What about the US-led war on Libya in 2011? There was no US occupation, but the “humanitarian” bombing has left the country a shambles. There are warring armed groups, no central government, an attack on a US embassy, and oil production down to 10%-20% of pre-war levels. Not inspiring to Americans, either.

Then there is the other big difference between the early 2000s and today the financial collapse of 2007, the deep recession and the recovery for profits but not for workers and other producers. This situation is the major preoccupation for most US people.

Few want to spend more billions on another war when there is high unemployment and underemployment, wages are falling, schools closing, other government services are being cut back, college tuition is rising, and more.

To top it off, whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have exposed war crimes and lies and cover-ups, huge spying on US people, and attempts by Washington to keep it all secret. There is great distrust of Washington and politicians.

For these and other reasons, the White House has tried to reassure everyone that the proposed campaign against Syria will “not be another Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya”, to paraphrase Obama. There will only be a short “shot across the bow” to punish Assad.

But “shots across the bow” are warning shots that do not hit the boat. Obama promises to bombard Syria, not to fire warning shots.

Moreover, his message has been all over the place. He says that there will be no US “boots on the ground”. But when Secretary of State John Kerry was questioned on this in a Congressional hearing, he refused to “take off the table” the threat of the use of ground troops.

Obama says the strikes are not aimed at overthrowing the Syrian regime, but his stated position for two years has been to do just that. He says he doesn’t want to interfere in the Syrian civil war, but then reassured Senatorial hawks that the bombing he proposes will change the relation of forces on the ground by significantly degrading the Syrian military.

The resolution he sent to Congress for approval was for an open-ended war, without a time limit or any other limit, directly contrary to what he says to the public.

No wonder that public is sceptical.

Obama has made his case around Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His only aim, he says, is to prevent their further use.

The hypocrisy of this stance is shown by the US’s use of Agent Orange against food crops and foliage during the Vietnam War.

More than 400,000 people were killed or maimed in Vietnam as a result of this chemical warfare, and 500,000 children have born, so far, with birth defects. It also blew back on US troops, affecting tens of thousands.

The US also was directly involved in Saddam Hussein’s use of Sarin and other poison gases in the US-sponsored Iraqi war against the Iranian revolution. Thousands were gassed to death, including Iraqi Kurds, whom Hussein believed were siding with Iran, a toll many orders of magnitude higher than what has occurred in Syria.

In the present situation, the most glaring hypocrisy is Obama’s failing to mention Israel’s stockpile of poison gases ready to be used against the rest of the Middle East.

The issue of chemical weapons is a pretext. Washington’s real war aims in Syria and the whole region include thwarting the aspirations of the peoples there for democracy, peace and a better life evidenced in the Arab Spring, and to impose pro-Western regimes. That is why it backs Egypt’s new military dictatorship.

It wants to weaken Iran, and eventually install the type of subservient regime it had under the Shah. It wants to weaken and then destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Its immediate goal in Syria is to change the military relation of forces on the ground in the hope of imposing a puppet regime there, in pursuit of these broader objectives.

This may be a vain hope, given the nature of many of the strongest Syrian armed groups fighting Assad. The likelihood is a US bombing campaign will lead to greater sectarian warfare among Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians and Kurds.

However, since the public position Obama has put forward is the chemical weapons issue, the Russian proposal could be a way for Obama to back away from his predicament in face of international and domestic opposition to his war plans.

Right now, however, he and his allies on the UN Security Council are pushing for a resolution that would commit the UN to back a US strike if the result of the negotiations is not to Washington’s liking. That cannot pass the Security Council.

The outcome of all the push for war will not be clarified for weeks. We have to remain vigilant and press forward the demand of “no” to the war against Syria.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more articles by Barry Sheppard.]

From GLW issue 981

Syria meets deadline, war threat abates

By Tony Iltis

September 23, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- Threats of a new United States-led war in the Middle East abated, at least for now, on September 20 when Syria met a deadline set in a September 14 agreement between the US and Russia.

As part of the deal, Syria submitted details of its chemical weapons to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The US threatened military action against Syria after an August 21 sarin gas attack killed 355 people in the East Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The US has consistently held the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible, citing alleged Israeli intercepts of Syrian military communications. The Assad government has consistently blamed the armed opposition, a claim Russia has consistently supported.

The BBC said the agreement “aims to have inspectors on the ground in Syria in November, when they will make an initial assessment and oversee the destruction of certain equipment. The destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons would then be completed by mid-2014.”

Opposition

For US President Barack Obama, the agreement with Russia provided a way to avoid a Congress debate on his war plans. Obama had already backed away from initial statements claiming a moral obligation to take military action of undefined scope.

After the British parliament rebuffed Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid for a resolution authorising military action, Obama promised a US-led attack would not become another full-scale invasion, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or even an air war, such as that waged by NATO in Libya in 2011.

Instead, Obama promised Congress his strike would be a one-off missile barrage. There were indications Congress would have still voted against such an attack.

In the lead-up to the 1991 and 2003 attacks on Iraq and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the US rejected agreements similar to the one signed with Russia.

However, the US has continued to keep the threat of using military force alive. On September 19, Secretary of State John Kerry told a press conference: “I would say to the community of nations: Time is short … we have to recognise that the world is watching to see whether we can avert military action and achieve, through peaceful means, even more than what those military strikes promised.”

Kerry said the September 16 report of the United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria pointed to the Assad regime’s culpability for the August 21 attack. However, the September 18 New York Times quoted Russian foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov saying: “We are unhappy about this report. We think that the report was distorted. It was one-sided. The basis of information upon which it is built is insufficient.”

Neither the US nor Russia have so far produced the evidence they claim to have about who committed the attack. In the absence of evidence, propagandists for both sides have promoted conspiracy theories to explain the attack's motivation.

Assad would seem to be the most likely culprit. His forces are known to possess chemical weapons and the civilian casualties were in an opposition-held suburb.

However, opposition forces were not making military gains and the UN investigation team had arrived in Syria to investigate earlier allegations of much smaller chemical attacks, and were in Damascus on August 21.

If Assad was responsible, the choice of timing and location was particularly stupid. Then again, stupidity on the part of a dictator who owes his position to hereditary rule is hardly unprecedented.

Other explanations put forward by Western propagandists include that it was a bid to “internationalise” the conflict, the result of a split in the regime’s military or political establishment or an accident.

Those claiming the opposition was responsible also point to the possibility of an accident in a bid to explain why the opposition would gas residents of an area supporting them.

Other popular conspiracy theories include that it was a provocation to create the pretext for a US intervention, or that it was a provocation, for the same reason, by the US itself.

Such theories blaming Assad’s domestic and foreign opponents are not just coming from Syrian and Russian politicians and media: US bloggers across the political spectrum from left liberal filmmaker Michael Moore to ultra-conservative Pam Geller have also advanced them.

After 12 years of the “War on Terror”, public opinion in the US (and the West generally) has become extremely sceptical of pretexts for going to war in the Middle East.

Hypocrisy and lies

It is very possible that Assad carried out the sarin attack on August 21. However, the public has not forgotten that the US and other Western governments and intelligence agencies faked evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for invasion in 2003.

It is also a matter of record that depleted uranium munitions are responsible for the cancer and leukemia epidemic in the Iraqi town of Fallujah. This is true even though DU munitions ― widely used by the US in most of its wars ― are not officially classed as a chemical weapons.

The outcomes of the US-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have not even achieved the stated realpolitik aims. In Afghanistan, while the US negotiates with the Taliban, casualties sustained by occupation forces are increasingly inflicted by the armed forces of the dysfunctional US-imposed puppet government.

Iraq, meanwhile, has become a close ally of the US’s regional rival, Iran.

Even the Islamophobia that the US and other Western powers have fuelled in their own populations to justify previous wars in the Middle East has worked against Obama’s bid to justify an attack on Syria.

On September 10, Associated Press reported that anti-government fighters belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist Nusra Front had burned a church in the town of Maaloula. Regime propaganda exaggerated the extent of ethnic cleansing of Aramaic-speaking Christians from the town, but the BBC reported that many Christians did flee and some joined pro-government militias.

On September 12, Time published a photo-essay of anti-government fighters decapitating a young victim in the town of Keferghan, near Aleppo, on August 31, one of four decapitations Time’s photographer witnessed that day.

Since the uprising against his regime began in February 2011, Assad has tried to portray the opposition as foreign terrorists and violent Sunni communalist puppets of foreign powers.

This charge was not true and the movement responded with chants and signs proclaiming the unity of Syrians from all ethnic and religious communities against the regime.

It was regime violence that initially militarised the conflict. However, the opposition today does include feuding, violent Sunni communalist and Salafist militias. Some of these include foreign fighters and some of which are funded, armed and were recruited by foreign powers.

Interference

Ironically, this evolution of the opposition is the direct result of the Obama administration’s previous attempts at shaping the Syrian conflict without being directly involved.

Seeking to derail the Syrian uprising from its democratic and nationalist trajectory, and pressure Assad into accepting US-directed regime change, the US encouraged regional allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to give limited military support to anti-Assad forces.

These regimes supported forces tied to their own ideological liking, which meant different brands of Sunni communalism and Salafism.

In a September 7 interview in Ceasefire magazine, left-wing US intellectual Noam Chomsky suggested that the US and Israel wanted neither side to win in Syria.

Rather, Chomsky said, they were “enjoying the spectacle” of seeing the country “divided between a region dominated by the Assad regime ― a brutal horrifying regime ― and another section dominated by the various militias, which range from the extremely malicious and violent to the secular and democratic”.

This strategy created more problems for the West than just bad propaganda. Growing political differences have been developing between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has increased clashes between opposition groups.

On September 20, Reuters reported a shaky ceasefire had been agreed between rival opposition factions in the town of Azaz on the Turkish border.

The divisions within the armed opposition are not simply between Islamist and secular, as the Western media usually reports. The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella of numerous armed groups, some Islamist, some secular, while the more extreme Islamist groups tend to be outside it.

Local organising

However, despite being overshadowed by the increasingly religious military conflict, the mass democratic uprising against Assad continues.

A September 16 article on Tahrir-ICN explained: “The main form of revolutionary organisation in Syria has been at the local level, through the work of local committees and local councils … Today hundreds of local committees/coordinations have been established in neighborhoods and towns throughout the country …

“Whilst organising on the local level, they have built up networks of solidarity and mutual aid across the country. At the city and district levels local councils have been established. There are 128 throughout Syria.”

These are affiliated with “a number of different umbrella groups that have emerged to coordinate and network on the regional and national level. These include the Local Coordination Committees, National Action Committees, the Federation of the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution and the Syrian Revolution General Commission .

“None represent the totality of local committees/councils … For example the Local Coordination Committees comprises 14 local committees.”

Announcing their September 14 agreement, both the US and Russia indicated support for peace talks, proposed for an unspecified date at Geneva, between the Syrian government and opposition, regional and global powers. However, they disagreed on which opposition groups and regional powers should be represented.

Russia’s main interest in Syria is its strategically important naval base at Tarsus.

In an interview in the September 20 Guardian, Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil supported the proposed talks and observed the conflict was at a stalemate.

Any settlement imposed by Russia, the US and other outside powers is likely to be against Syrian interests and install a regime combining elements from Assad’s state with some of the nastier opposition elements. However, if it reverses the militarisation of the conflict, it may benefit the revolutionary struggle.

Describing the relationship between the mass movement and the armed opposition, an activist with Syrian Revolutionary Youth told Syria Untold on September 19: “True, armed resistance is more prominent, but non-violent activity accompanies it.

“The military option will not fulfill all the demands of the revolution. It will help us reach a certain point, after which we will have to continue the peaceful struggle to meet the rest of our demands.”

From GLW issue 982

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