By Stephen Gowans
Political scientist Ian Hurd, writing in the New York Times, scotches the misconception that there is a legal basis for a US attack on Syria. Because Syria does not belong to international conventions prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, there is no “legal justification in existing law” for US military action, Hurd writes. Even if Syria had signed onto these conventions, the treaties are enforceable only by the United Nations Security Council, and not by the United States acting unilaterally or with allies. Indeed, an attack on Syria would be illegal. 
Without a legal basis for military action, Washington and its British and French allies have invoked a moral imperative. British prime minister David Cameron says that planned military action “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” However, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reminds us that, “In the late 1980s, not only did the Reagan White House take no action when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and his own people but the United States also aided the attacks by providing intelligence.” 
And it’s not as if the United States has an aversion to chemical weapons. It has, along with the Russia, the world’s largest stockpiles. 
But the lack of a legal basis for military action, and the insincerity of the allies’ claim that they’re driven by a moral revulsion against chemical weapons, is beside the point. There’s no hard evidence that Syrian forces are responsible for last week’s attack. US, British and French politicians may say they’re certain that Assad is guilty, but the US intelligence community isn’t.
According to The Associated Press’s Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo ,
• U.S. intelligence officials say, “The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no ‘slam dunk.’”
• “A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence outlining the evidence against Syria is thick with caveats.”
• “U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on al-Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces (emphasis added).”
The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler echo the Associated Press’s reporting. “Administration officials say there is no “‘smoking gun’” and no “hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack.” 
So, there’s no hard evidence that the target has done what he is accused of, and even if he had, military action would still be illegal, and the assertion that the planned attack is driven by moral imperatives is not credible. Not only did the United States assist Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks, it has stood idly by while Saudi tanks and troops helped Bahrain’s royal dictatorship crack down violently on protesters and stood idly by as Egypt’s military launched a coup and killed civilians who were peacefully demonstrating against the illegal ouster of their elected government. The idea that US foreign policy in connection with Syria is shaped by outrage over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military and its violent repression of demonstrators carries no weight in light of Washington’s benign tolerance of similar behaviour on the part of its allies.
To understand US, British and French actions vis-à-vis Syria, it is therefore necessary to understand what sets Syria apart from Bahrain, Egypt’s military rulers, and other Western allies which have one or more of the characteristics the imperial powers claim to abominate about Syria. The distinguishing factor appears to be the degree to which the balance of a country’s public policy tilts away from domestic constituencies toward accommodating the economic, political and military interests of Western financial and corporate concerns.
Egypt, Bahrain, the Gulf state monarchies and Israel are pro-West, which means accommodating of Western economic, political and military interests, while Syria is pro-Arab, and pro-Syrian. This is the real basis for US, French and British hostility toward the country. The rest is artifice, intended to obscure the authentic motivation for Western aggression against the Arab nationalist state.
1. Ian Hurd, “Bomb Syria, even if it is illegal”, The New York Times, August 27, 2013.
2. Walter Pincus, “Obama is boxed in on Syria”, The Washington Post, August 28, 2013.
4. Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo, “Intelligence linking Syria to chemical attack no ‘slam dunk’, U.S. intelligence says”, The Associated Press, August 29, 2013.
5. Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, “U.S. facing test on data to back action on Syria”, New York Times, August 28, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
US officials say they’re convinced that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This might mean something, if US officials weren’t notoriously bad at getting the facts straight. In 1998, the Pentagon flattened a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with a cruise missile, because US officials said they were convinced it was a site for manufacturing chemical weapons (CW). In turns out the plant made pills. In 1999, Serbia and parts of Montenegro were bombed by US and NATO warplanes for 78 days because US officials said they were convinced the Milosevic government was carrying out a genocide in Kosovo. They were wrong. Over a million Iraqis were sanctioned, bombed and invaded into early graves by the United States and its British subaltern because the officials of both countries said they were convinced the Iraqi government was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Wrong again. The weapons Iraq was said to be hiding, but had destroyed, had only a tiny fraction of the mass destructive power of the weapons in the arsenals of the US and UK militaries, which didn’t call their weapons WMD, but “deterrents” and “guarantors of our national security.” The Libyan government was ultimately toppled by NATO warplanes because US, French and British officials said they were convinced Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was about to commit genocide. Gaddafi had neither the means nor intention to do so. Yet another spectacular error.
In making the point that Washington has waged unprovoked wars on the basis of faulty intelligence at best, but far more likely contrived intelligence and sheer deception, we mustn’t implicitly accept the idea that the United States has the right and obligation to outrage the sovereignty of any country it wishes because the country’s government has crossed a red line the United States has unilaterally established. In doing so, we become locked in a framework of the US ruling class’s making, accepting its claim to have a moral right to assume the role of global rule-maker, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner—in other words, the planet’s autocrat.
Accepting this framework could limit the questions we ask, making us miss important ones. When is an intervention legitimate, and when is it not? Is intervention to punish a country for using a class of weapons in a civil war legitimate? If not, why even talk about whether the trigger for intervention has been pulled if the trigger is invalid? Why talk about whether Obama’s red line has been crossed, rather than whether Obama’s red line is even legitimate? Why are the United States’ massively destructive weapons not called WMD while Syria’s not so massively destructive weapons are? If the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and Israelis have a right (de jure or de facto) to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, why not the North Koreans?
Diana Johnstone eloquently pointed out in Counterpunch yesterday that, “There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Selecting one as a trigger for US intervention serves primarily to give rebels an excellent reason to carry out a ‘false flag’ operation that will bring NATO into the war they are losing.”  True. But we could also note, There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Why single out CW? It can’t be because they’re uniquely destructive or gruesome. All the deaths due to reported use of chemical agents in Syria are dwarfed by the number of deaths due to other weapons. And dying by gas is no more gruesome than evisceration by an al-Qaeda rebel or having your head blown off by a Saudi-supplied RPG.
Part of the answer, I think, for why CW have been singled out is because Washington can’t single out the Syrian government for using violence to put down a rebellion. That’s because the United States’ satellites, the ruling generals in Egypt, and the Arab royal dictators, are using violence in Egypt and Bahrain to put down rebellions there. To punish the Syrian government for using violence to defend itself against a rebellion is a tough sell, given that Washington’s friends are doing the same in their own countries. UK leader David Cameron says that the plan to use US WMD (cruise missiles) against Syria “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” So, what has the Syrian government done (or said to have done), that the military dictatorship in Egypt and royal dictatorship in Bahrain haven’t done? The answer is: been accused of deploying CW. Hence, CW have been singled out as one of many ways of killing people in a civil war, that will provoke an intervention. The motivation is purely political, and the singling out of CW has been customized to the Syrians to provide a pretext to attack them.
If we’re to use the term WMD descriptively, then WMD cannot be limited to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or be something that only countries that insist on safeguarding their political and economic independence have. It must include all weapons that can create mass destruction, no matter who has them. Incendiary bombs are WMD. The destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg and other cities by US and British firebombing raids, attests to that. A Tomahawk cruise missile is a WMD. Nuclear weapons have become less attractive to the US military, as it develops conventional bombs that have near-nuclear destructive power, without the radioactive mess. Are these not WMD?
We should ask, Why is it not wrong for the United States and the United Kingdom to use sanctions of mass destruction to kill over a million Iraqis, and conventional bombs and missiles of mass destruction, along with depleted uranium, to invade Iraq, when it is wrong to use CW to kill a few hundred people (which, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is no proof, open to examination, that the Syrian government used, and cogent reasons to believe it didn’t)? We should also ask, Is there not something morally grotesque about the United States and the United Kingdom planning to use their own WMD to punish Syria for the deaths of a few hundred people through CW, when the Anglo-American alliance used sanctions of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, on contrived grounds, producing vastly more deaths and engendering a humanitarian catastrophe on an immense scale? Isn’t this even more grotesque considering that the evidence points more strongly to the alleged gassing incident being the work of the opposition, allied to the United States, than the Syrian government?
Meanwhile, one of Washington’s servile friends, the royal dictator, King Abdullah of Jordan, has called for a peaceful settlement of Syria’s civil war. Abdullah’s hypocrisy is stunning. He has turned Jordanian territory over to the CIA and Saudis as a center for training Syrian rebels and distributing weapons to the Syrian opposition. Hardly a contribution to a peaceful settlement. 
Turkey, which once maintained a vast prison house of nations that included the Arabs, says it will join other former colonial powers, France and Britain, in the campaign to punish Syria. The Syrian government, it should be stressed, remains part of a movement of Arab national emancipation and colonial liberation. Unlike the US Communist Party and other leftists who make conspicuous displays of turning up their noses at the Syrian government, I’m happy to recognize the role it plays in the movement for Arab emancipation, and regard it as progressive. I measure no movement for emancipation against utopian standards, and acknowledge that the Syrian government, as every other organization in the movement for liberation, whether of race, class or gender, also falls short by utopian standards. The question is not whether the Syrian government is inerrant and beyond reproach, but whether it is advancing the cause of emancipation. The servile Arab League, from which the legitimate government of Syria has been ejected, and which has settled comfortably into the role of US puppet, is not so concerned about emancipation, and the same leftists who publicly revile the Syrian government are not so concerned about showing their distaste for the reactionary Arab regimes, all friends of the West.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported today that according to a June poll it sponsored with NBC News, US public opinion is opposed to a military intervention to respond to “the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians.” Only 15 percent of respondents backed a US military intervention. The newspaper didn’t say whether respondents were asked if they favored US military intervention in response to the Egyptian military’s killing of protesters and civilians in Egypt, or Bahrain’s royal dictatorship killing of protesters and civilians in Bahrain, although we can be pretty certain they weren’t. Within the ruling class framework of acceptable thought, punishing allies for doing what enemies are punished for, is unthinkable. It could be said that the poll results are irrelevant, because the survey question didn’t ask about CW. That’s true, but even if the CW question had been posed, the poll results would still be irrelevant. US state officials don’t make decisions on the basis of public opinion, and aren’t particularly swayed by it. The taking and presenting of public opinion polls simply create the illusion that public opinion matters in the formulation of US foreign policy. It doesn’t. What matters are the interests of major investors, bankers and the top executives of America’s largest corporations, and the opinions of the members of the power elite that represent them. And what matters to them is securing more markets, labor and natural resources for US capital to exploit and plunder by toppling governments that insist on using these for their own country’s development and people’s welfare, rather than for the enrichment of Wall Street investment bankers and the expansion of corporate America’s profit margins. The red line Syria crossed had nothing to do with CW, and everything to do with its insisting on preserving its political and economic independence.
1. Diana Johnstone, “US uses past crimes to legalize future ones”, http://www.counterpunch.com, August 26, 2013.
2. Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria”, The New York times, June 15, 2013; Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. begins shipping arms for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2013; Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker, “A veteran Saudi power player works to build support to topple Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
“’The fact that an attack has taken place is not going to be hard to establish; the hard part is going to be assessing the blame,’ said Gary Samore, who until recently was the Obama administration’s top adviser on arms control and weapons of mass destruction.” 
It seems that the task of producing evidence that the Syrian government launched a gas attack against civilians last week has, in fact, become so difficult, that Washington, the French, Britain, and the Western media, have simply side-stepped the problem by declaring that unless the Syrian government proves itself innocent, it must be guilty.
And to seal the deal, they say that even if Damascus proves itself innocent (and how can it prove a negative?), it’s too late. “At this juncture, the belated decision by [the Syrian government] to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible,” a US official said.  This is a red herring. The team of 20 World Health Organization inspectors has neither the mandate, nor the ability, to determine who launched the attack, only whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the inspectors had access days ago to the site of the alleged attack, they would only be able to ascertain whether a gas attacked had occurred, not who was behind it.
Equating evidence of a chemical weapons attack with evidence that Assad’s government undertook one, is a crafty trap that the media have willingly stepped into, and that the left risks blundering into. The trap is to accept as axiomatic and beyond dispute that any gas attack must be the work of the Syrian government. This is the view of British foreign secretary William Hague, US and French officials, editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain, and of the so-called reliable reporter Patrick Cockburn, who equates mounting evidence that a gas attack occurred, with mounting evidence that Assad gassed his people. 
There are three reasons to reject this view:
1. It’s based on no evidence, and only an assumption—one which conveniently fits the political agendas of the governments making it. Leftists who also make it may want to reacquaint themselves with Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony.
2. The Syrian government’s launching of a gas attack would be so thoroughly against its own interests, and with so little to show for it, that to accept this view is to accept a ridiculously implausible scenario. Why use a weapon of mass destruction to produce limited casualties? Why use gas against civilians, and not armed rebels? Why launch an attack at the same time WHO inspectors are in the country to investigate chemical weapons use? Why hand political enemies a pretext to step up their military intervention? If the Syrian government was riddled with morons, we might believe the story, but it hasn’t hung on for three years against armed rebels backed by royal dictators, former colonial powers, and history’s top imperialist power, without perspicacity and knowing when to avoid suicidal missteps.
3. The idea that the opposition carried out the attack, on the other hand, is more plausible. I have outlined the reasons why elsewhere, from the existence of a strong motive to carry out a gas attack and blame it on the government to pave the way for the West to escalate its military involvement in Syria, to reporting that points to the rebels possessing chemical agents. To this can be added the following from today’s Washington Post:
Adding urgency to the international deliberations, Jahbat al-Nusra, an opposition group in Syria that the United States deems a terrorist organization, said Sunday that the attack gives a green light for rebels to respond in kind.
‘It is permissible for us to punish in the same way,’ Jahbat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said in a statement Sunday titled ‘Eye for an Eye’.
‘It is a debt that will not be lifted until we make them taste what they made our sons taste,’ said Jalani, a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. ‘With every chemical rocket that fell upon our people in Syria, the price will be paid by one of their villages.’ 
If the Syrian military is the only force in Syria that can carry out a chemical weapons attack, how do we explain Jolani’s threat? It could, of course, be empty bluster, but in the context of evidence the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria said that it had found that the opposition had used chemical agents , and Wall Street Journal reporting that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin,”  it at least gives ground to very seriously doubt the assertion that chemical weapons use is a Syrian government monopoly.
Iraq and Iran Reprised
Demanding that Damascus prove itself innocent of the allegations the West has made, is the same tactic the US and its British and French subalterns used in Iraq, and use today in connection with Iran.
The Iraqis were required to prove they had no weapons of mass destruction, and their inability to prove a negative provided a US-led coalition with a pretext to bomb and sanction. This was a campaign of genocide that led to the deaths of over a million civilians, before a ground war was launched in 2003 that created a vast humanitarian catastrophe on top of the profound damage the imperialist coalition had already created. No weapons of mass destruction were found.
The Iranians are required to prove they don’t have a nuclear weapons program, even though US intelligence says they don’t, and IAEA inspectors have no evidence that nuclear material is being diverted to military use. All the same, the country is being subjected to an assault from the West on three fronts: ideological, economic and military. The Iranians must prove their innocence, simply because the West says they’re guilty.
Declaring countries guilty until proven innocent isn’t half as absurd as setting out to punish the putative, though by no means actual, use of chemical agents to kill a few hundred people, while blithely accepting the killing of many more by conventional arms. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by assault rifles and artillery, many, if not most, at the hands of the Syrian military. If there are no grounds to intervene in Syria’s internal affairs to punish the Syrian government for using conventional weapons to produce thousands of deaths (and there aren’t), surely there are no grounds to punish the same government for producing a few hundred deaths with chemical weapons (laying aside, for the moment, that there’s no evidence Damascus has actually done this and no cogent reasons to believe it would.)
How is it, then, that some weapons like Tomahawk cruise missiles, are all right to use, while others, like mustard and sarin gas, are not—especially considering that Tomahawk cruise missiles have the potential to kill far more people than the limited number of people that have been killed in alleged gas attacks in Syria? The answer, I think, lies in what weapons the United States regards, at this moment, as useful to its military goals, and the weapons which are not useful, but which may be useful to countries the United States deems its enemies. A country can’t be punished for using weapons the US military itself might use, except if they’re nuclear weapons, and then only if that country is North Korea.
Gas is an inefficient weapon. It’s messy, difficult to use, and its effects are unpredictable. The United States military wouldn’t use gas, because it has far more effective and certain ways to slaughter large numbers of people. So it demonizes gas, the weapon it doesn’t need, but which less armipotent countries might find useful, while branding far more destructive weapons—weapons with the potential to create mass destruction—as acceptable. This establishes the double standard of: Our WMDs are acceptable, but yours are not.
The great absurdity, then, is that the United States is poised on the brink of using Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, which could kill more people than all the people killed in alleged gas attacks attributed to the Syrian military without proof.
Syria’s Right to Use Chemical Weapons
Gas as a weapon is no more inherently gruesome than are Tomahawk cruise missiles, or the warplanes, tanks, and attack helicopters that the United States itself uses and sells to its Arab dictator friends, royal and otherwise, to punish, intimidate, destroy and conquer. Gas can’t be declared beyond the pale simply because it has no useful place in the US arsenal. If Syria is to be punished for using gas to produce hundreds of deaths (and without proof or even sound reason to believe it has done so), surely the United States should be punished for killing millions of civilians by conventional methods in an endless string of wars, and so too should France and Britain, whose records of slaughter in colonial wars, including those in the Levant, are hardly to be admired. To our list of absurdities must be added the spectacle of countries with the blood of tens of millions on their hands, parading about as humanitarian warriors.
The Syrian government has a right to use gas to protect itself against the neo-colonial machinations of Western powers, as well as a formal legal right to do so without punishment. It has not signed onto the international treaty banning their use, and neither have Washington’s key subalterns in the region, Israel and Egypt. Syria, therefore, has no formal legal obligation to refrain from using chemical weapons. All the same, there is neither proof nor reason to believe that Damascus has exercised this right.
Limiting ourselves to the empirical question of whether the Syrian government did indeed exercise its right, we should acknowledge that there are two issues to be addressed.
• Were chemical weapons used?
• Who used them?
Regarding the first question, there is no proof yet that chemical weapons were indeed used (though there is mounting circumstantial evidence they were.) However, it’s possible that proof will never be forthcoming and that some other cause is responsible for the deaths.
Proof that chemical weapons were used, however, does not establish that they were used by the Syrian government. The question of who did use them is far more difficult to establish, especially in light of the reality that there is no reason to believe that Damascus has a monopoly on chemical agents. The rebels have the motive, and the evidence suggests they also have the means, to carry out a chemical weapons attack.
1. Anne Gearan, Loveday Morris and Colum Lynch, “U.N. to inspect site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria; lawmakers call for U.S. military response”, The Washington Post, August 25, 2013.
2. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
3. Patrick Cockburn, “Did Syria gas its own people? The evidence is mounting”, The Independent, August 25, 2013.
4. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
5. “Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013
6. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
British foreign secretary William Hague says there’s no doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for last week’s alleged gas attack which killed scores of people in Syria. So too do the editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain. US officials have also said the Syrian government is responsible, though at the same time they admit they are still trying to ascertain the facts. The Wall Street Journal could report, as a consequence, that there’s an “emerging consensus” that the Assad government was behind the attack. The consensus, however—and it’s one limited to Syria’s political enemies—is backed up by not a scintilla of evidence.
You might wonder why journalists haven’t challenged Hague’s assertion that the only possible culprit is the Syrian government. After all, there is another possible culprit: the opposition.
In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, told reporters that that the commission had gathered evidence that chemical weapons had been “used by the opponents, by the rebels.” 
Last month, the New York Times reported on an investigation that “had found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” 
And the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” 
What’s more, the Syrian government “said its soldiers had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces.” 
Doubtlessly, the last statement will be dismissed on grounds that the source is the Syrian government, and that Damascus is an interested party, motivated to provide misleading information. But the Syrian government is only as much an interested party as are the rebels, William Hague, the White House and French officials. That, however, hasn’t stopped Western journalists from accepting the pronouncements of their own leaders without question. You might call it chauvinist journalism.
Still, chauvinist journalists could at least evince a modicum of scepticism. After all, their leaders have a history of fabricating evidence to mislead public opinion. Think no further than Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. Or, given recent talk about using NATO’s 1999 terror bombing of Serbia as a model for intervention in Syria, we might consider the tens of thousands of corpses NATO promised that forensic pathologists would uncover in the “killing fields” of Kosovo, but didn’t.
So, why are newspaper editors taking William Hague, along with US and French officials, at their word?
Three possibilities suggest themselves, none of them encouraging. The editors are:
• Gullible, chauvinists, or both;
• Enslaved to a business model of keeping costs low by simply echoing what people in power say about what’s going on in the West’s former colonies (journalism as stenography);
• Knowingly complicit in misleading public opinion to give license to their governments to pursue neo-colonial agendas.
As mentioned, there’s not one iota of evidence to back up Hague’s assertion. U.S. intelligence is “still trying to determine whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack against his people earlier this week. “  The State Department says that the facts remain to be determined.  And while much has been made by the media about the statement from Doctors without Borders that hundreds died from what appears to be exposure to a neurotoxin, the organization could not say “who was responsible for the attack.” 
No one, however, should be surprised if supporting facts are provided soon. As the New York Times explained, the White House doesn’t have a smoking gun…”yet.” The rush to judge Assad guilty on no evidence makes clear that the conclusion has already been arrived at. We’re just waiting for US intelligence to assemble the “facts”. 
It pays then to be equipped to resist the propaganda assault. There are plenty of reasons to dismiss the “emerging consensus” among Assad’s political enemies. It is based on a story that is full of holes.
What could the Syrian government possibly hope to gain by gassing civilians? If the aim was to kill a few hundred people, conventional weapons could have done the job far more readily, and without the unwelcome consequence of handing the United States, and hated former colonial powers, a pretext to resume their meddling in Syrian affairs.
And wouldn’t it make more sense to kill armed rebels, not unarmed civilians?
Also, why would the Syrian military undertake this pointless act at precisely the time a UN team has arrived to investigate possible use of chemical agents? Only if we believe the Syrian government and military are made up of complete imbeciles does the story hang together.
I have no more evidence for what I’m about to say than the Americans, British and French have that the deaths in Syria were due to a chemical attack launched by the Syrian military, but all the same, if we’re to compare scenarios for plausibility, the more plausible scenario is that the rebels staged the attack to provide their allies in the West with a pretext to step up their military intervention. There’s reason to believe they have access to chemical weapons. They have a motive (they can’t topple Assad without Western intervention.) And as they’ve documented themselves with endless atrocity videos, they have no squeamishness about killing large numbers of people in gruesome ways.
So, no, Mr Hague, it is not at all clear that Syrians were killed by a gas attack launched by a government you seek to overthrow. It seems more plausible, on the other hand, that your allies in the opposition did the deed.
1. Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013.
2. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013.
3. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.
4. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
5. Bradley Klapper and Robert Burns, “Obama weighs options for military action against Syria as U.S. naval forces move closer”, The Associated Press, August 24, 2013.
6. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
7. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
8. Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
Two days after a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria we know that:
• The United States does not have “conclusive evidence that the (Syrian) government was behind poison-gas attacks.” [Wall Street Journal, 1]
• “Neither the United States nor European countries…have a ‘smoking gun’ proving that Mr. Assad’s troops used chemical weapons in the attack.” [New York Times, 2]
• The State Department doesn’t know “If these reports are true.” [New York Times, 3]
• The White House is trying to “ascertain the facts.” [Wall Street Journal, 4]
All the same, the absence of evidence hasn’t stopped the Pentagon “from updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations”;  hasn’t stopped Britain and France from accusing the Syrian government of carrying out an atrocity; and hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm of newspaper editors for declaring Assad guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“There is no doubt,” intoned the editors of one newspaper–with an omniscience denied to lesser mortals, including, it seems, US officials who are still trying “to ascertain the facts”—“that chemical weapons were used” and that Assad “committed the atrocity.” 
In a editorial, The Guardian avers that the Syrian military “is the only combatant with the capability to use chemical weapons on this scale.” Yet The Wall Street Journal’s Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads report that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” 
That might account for why the White House admitted two months ago that while it believed chemical weapons had been used in Syria, it has no evidence to indicate “who was responsible for (their) dissemination.” 
And given that the US president claimed chemical weapons use by the Syrian military would be a red line, the rebels have a motivation to stage a sarin attack and blame it on government forces to bring the United States into the conflict more forcefully on their side.
For the Syrian government, however, the calculus is entirely different. Using chemical weapons would simply hand the United States a pretext to more muscularly intervene in Syria’s internal affairs. Since this is decidedly against Damascus’s interests, we should be skeptical of any claim that the Syrian government is defying Obama’s red line.
Another reason for skepticism: Why use chemical weapons to produce the limited number of casualties that have been attributed to chemical agents use in Syria, when conventional weapons can just as easily produce casualties of the same magnitude—without proffering an excuse to Western countries to launch air strikes?
Last month, the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone reported on a study which “found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” 
So, no, the Syrian military is not the only combatant capable of using chemical weapons in Syria. But unlike the rebels, it has no motive to do so, and compelling reasons not to.
That’s not to say that chemical weapons were used, rebel forces used them, and the Syrian military did not. The evidence is murky.
But that’s the point. The rush to blame the Syrian military, and to update target lists for possible airstrikes, on the basis of no evidence, smacks of political motivation.
Clearly, the United States, France and Britain want public opinion on their side for stepped up intervention in Syria. They’ve decided to declare Assad and the Syrian military guilty of using a weapon of mass destruction.
But the conviction of guilt, as is evident through the statements of politicians and reporting of newspapers, rests on no sound evidentiary basis—indeed, on no evidence at all.
1. Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Inti Landauro, “U.S. weighs plans to punish Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
2 Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013
3. Landler, Mazzetti and Rubin.
4. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
5. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
6. “Syria: chemical weapons with impunity”, The Guardian, August 22, 2013.
7. Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
8. Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use, June 13, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/13/statement-deputy-national-security-advisor-strategic-communications-ben-
9. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013
By Stephen Gowans
The United States is once again, without evidence, accusing Syrian forces of using chemical weapons.
A senior White House official spoke of “strong indications” of “a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the (Syrian) government,” but added “we need to do our due diligence and get all the facts.”  In other words, we haven’t got the facts, but that won’t stand in the way of our making the accusation.
The New York Times called the accusation into question with this headline: Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack. 
The newspaper went on to say that according to experts, videos of the attack’s aftermath “did not prove the use of chemical weapons.” It added that,
Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons—a phenomenon not seen in the videos. 
The Syrian military vehemently denies that it used chemical weapons. That, of course, doesn’t prove its innocence. The Syrians could be trying to cover up to avoid a backlash. But if they’re concerned about a backlash, why use the weapons at all?
It makes no sense to use gas, a weapon of mass destruction, to kill only as many people as can be killed readily with conventional weapons , while handing the United States, France and Britain—countries with histories of finding excuses to topple economically nationalist governments—a pretext to step up their intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.
The White House’s contention that Syrian forces are using chemical weapons but “keeping strikes small…possibly to avoid mass casualties that could spark a stronger international response”  doesn’t add up. It’s like accusing a country of using nuclear weapons, but keeping casualties low to avoid eliciting a punitive international response. If your objective is few casualties and no strong international response, why use weapons that produce neither?
The White House set the standard earlier this year for hurling baseless accusations in connection with Syria when it announced that it had concluded that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, but admitted it had no proof.
On June 13, Deputy US National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes announced that: “Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” 
Further down in the statement Rhodes admitted that the evidence the United States had collected “does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination (emphasis added).” 
Read that again: The White House’s evidence “does not tell us…who was responsible.”
Contrast the rush to find Damascus guilty on the basis of no evidence with the White House’s ridiculous refusal to conclude that the Egyptian military carried out a coup d’etat, despite overwhelming and conspicuous evidence it did. For Washington, it seems, facts are facts, and conclusions are conclusions, but they exist in separate, unconnected, worlds.
So why is the United States baselessly accusing the Syrian military of using chemical weapons? For the same reason it calls the Syrian government the Assad regime. Both serve to create a demon. And creating demons, as Michael Parenti has pointed out, gives you license to intervene. (8)
In a letter to a US Congressman, the United States’ top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, acknowledged that the war in Syria is fuelled by “underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues’—a substantially different, and more realistic, take on the war than the simple-minded pro-democracy-rebels-fighting- against-dictatorship twaddle favored by the manufacturers of public opinion. Dempsey went on to say that the Pentagon could intervene in Syria to tip the balance in the war, but that there are no opposition groups “ready to promote their interests and ours.” 
Since it’s absurd to say that there are no opposition groups ready to promote their own interests (what group doesn’t promote its own interests as its members understand them?) it can only be concluded that what Dempsey really meant was that there are no groups that see their interests as consonant with those of the United States, and until Washington can create such a group and the group has broad public support, the Pentagon will wait to intervene more forcefully.
Until then, we can expect that Washington will continue to demonize the Syrian government and its leader—even if it has to draw conclusions from thin air to do so.
1. Sam Dagher, Farnaz Fassihi, and Adam Entous, “U.S. Suspects Syria Used Gas,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2013
2. Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad, “Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, August 21, 2013
3. Hubbard and Saad.
4. Estimates range from “scores” to 130 to over 1,000 people killed in the latest incident, depending on the source.
5. Dagher, Fassihi and Entous.
6. Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use, June 13, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/13/statement-deputy-national-security-advisor-strategic-communications-ben-
8. Paul Weinberg, “The Face of Imperialism: An interview with Michael Parenti”, rabble.ca, November 3, 2011, http://rabble.ca/news/2011/11/face-imperialism-interview-michael-parenti. Parenti said, “Once you convince the American public there are demons, you have the license to bomb their people.”
9. Thom Shanker, “General Says Syrian Rebels Aren’t Ready to Take Power,” The New York Times, August 21, 2013
From Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy and Mike McGuire (editors), We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, (AK Press, 2012): The occupy ‘movement,’
refuses to acquiesce to our traditional notions of analysis and action, shuns the antiquated idea that there is a single right answer to any problem, scoffs in the face of a single set of demands. Our demand? We want everything and nothing. Our perspective? We are all a little bit right and we are all a little bit wrong. What matters is that we are doing something.
The book might be more appropriately titled, Reflections on the Absence of Movement Strategy from Media Flash-in-the-Pan to Utter Irrelevance. Of course, I could be a little bit wrong here, but then again, I could be a little bit right too, depending on whatever your notion of analysis— traditional or otherwise—happens to be.
By Stephen Gowans
Unless the major parties in a parliamentary democracy agree on which classes ought to hold the dominant position in society, the politics of the country will be unstable. Electoral contests will pivot on fundamental disagreements, and the parties will be disinclined to play by the rules of ‘normal politics,’ putting pursuit of fundamental class interests ahead of scrupulously observing liberal democratic principles. By contrast, in Western countries, mainstream political parties agree on the fundamental questions of which class rules, and elections, therefore, are never titanic struggles between contending classes, but largely placid affairs in which conflict between liberal democratic principle and pursuit of fundamental interests never arise. This is even true when socialist parties whose origins are found in challenge to the rule of dominant classes have considerable popular support. While these parties may represent popular interests, they champion those interests only insofar as they can be satisfied within a capitalist framework in which the class interests of financial titans and corporate grandees are primary. Since all major parties agree on the fundamentals, in Western democracies, elections are only ever about policies that are permissible under the accepted rule of a single class, not about which class should rule. Not so in Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, the two dominant parliamentary parties, Zanu-PF and the MDC-T, disagree on the fundamental issue of which classes Zimbabwean society should be organized in the interests of. Zanu-PF represents the national bourgeoisie, including black farmers and wealthy black investors. The Zanu-PF agenda has been the redistribution of European settler farmland to black indigenous farmers and indigenization of industry by mandating a majority ownership stake in industry for black Zimbabweans.
The MDC-T, largely the tool of North American and Western European investor interests, represents foreign capital, and promotes a pro-foreign-investment agenda. MDC-T’s supporters on the ground (as distinct from the party’s foreign-based support in Western governments and Western-funded NGOs) tend, more than Zanu-PF supporters, to be urban-based (though, in a largely agrarian society, it’s still the case that most MDC-T supporters are based in rural areas, though less so than Zanu-PF’s.) To these Zimbabweans, the MDC-T’s appeal lies in its promise that foreign investment will engender new employment opportunities and a rising standard of living.
In the July 31 elections, Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe defeated the MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential race, capturing 61 percent of the vote to Tsvangirai’s 34 percent. Zanu-PF also won a sizable parliamentary majority, taking 160 seats to the MDC-T’s 49. Tsvangirai complained bitterly that the election was flawed, and his patrons in London and Washington also called the legitimacy of the election into question. Notwithstanding the (predictable) protestations of Tsvangirai and his metropolitan backers, there are reasons to believe the election fairly represented the will of Zimbabweans.
The Zimbabwe government allowed observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to monitor the elections. Both bodies expressed some concerns, but released early reports endorsing the elections as largely free and fair. Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanho, who led the African Union observer mission, said: “From what I saw and from what has been reported so far from our observers who are out in the field the conduct of the election was peaceful, orderly, free and fair.”  The SADC observers encouraged the parties to accept the outcome of the election. It is fairly certain that Western observer missions would have impugned the integrity of any election the MDC-T did not win. For this reason, I suspect, they were not welcome in Zimbabwe, and shouldn’t have been.
Freedom House, an anti-Zanu-PF US-based think tank, which Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described in their Manufacturing Consent as interlocked with the CIA, commissioned a summer 2012 public opinion poll in Zimbabwe.  The poll, a survey of 1,198 Zimbabweans, found that the MDC-T had “been suffering a decline in support, falling from 38 percent to 20 percent” between 2010 and 2012. “In contrast,” the survey pointed “to Zanu-PF having experienced a growth in popular support, moving from 17 percent to 31 percent in the same period.” While nearly half of the survey respondents did not declare a party preference, the researchers reported that “this undeclared category does not veil a systematic party orientation” and that “should these persons vote in the next election, their support is likely to be diffused across party categories.” A standard polling practice in these circumstances is to distribute the support of undeclared voters in proportion to that of declared voters. Following this practice, it would be expected that had the election been held last summer, Zanu-PF would have won 58 percent of the vote and the MDC-T 38 percent. Assuming voter preferences didn’t change radically over the year, there’s no reason to suspect that a robust Zanu-PF victory is indicative of a flawed election rather than an honest reflection of the political preferences of Zimbabweans.
The Freedom House poll revealed another, indirect reason, to view Zanu-PF’s electoral victory as probable. Both parties have more rural than urban supporters. This is largely inevitable. Roughly 60 percent of the country’s population is located in the countryside and two-thirds of the working population is employed in agriculture. But Zanu-PF supporters are more strongly rural-based (over three-quarters are) compared to MDC-T supporters (59 percent live in rural areas.) A party whose base more strongly skews to the rural population is likely to enjoy an electoral advantage in a largely agrarian society.
The Freedom House poll also points to class cleavages that separate Zanu-PF and MDC-T supporters. Zanu-PF supporters more strongly support land reform than do MDC-T supporters (who are less likely to be rural-based and therefore less likely to benefit from the program.) Zanu-PF supporters are also more strongly in favor of Zimbabweans having ownership stakes in Zimbabwe industry than are MDC-T supporters. The latter are more likely to think that “indigenization is only for elites who can buy or claim shares in foreign-owned companies”, and less likely to think that “indigenization will ensure economic benefits for all Zimbabweans.” This reflects the reality that urban proletarians are over-represented among MDC-T supporters, that they are not in a position to benefit from land reform, and that they are unlikely to be in a position to have accumulated sufficient wealth to acquire substantial equity shares in foreign-owned enterprises. Given that MDC-T supporters are less likely to directly benefit from Zanu-PF’s “masters in our own house” policies of land reform and indigenization, it’s no surprise that compared to Zanu-PF supporters, they’re less strongly against the interference of foreign governments in the affairs of Zimbabwe—an interference that would threaten policies whose benefit to them is indirect at best.
So long as Zimbabwe is ruled in the interests of the black rural petite bourgeoisie and wealthy local elite in the cities, and not in the interests of North American and Western European capital, the MDC-T will have no interest in a stable Zimbabwe. If the party agreed with Zanu-PF on the fundamentals of which classes Zimbabwean society should be organized on behalf of, it would be far more likely to accept its electoral defeats with equanimity. But as a tool for foreign investor interests, it has no remit to promote the smooth functioning of a society governed in the interests of indigenous farmers and local investors. It can, then, only benefit from contesting the legitimacy of every election it loses, in order to undermine the idea that Zanu-PF governs with the consent of the majority. From the MDC-T point of view, the only election in Zimbabwe that will ever be free and fair is the one it wins.
From the perspective of Zanu-PF, MDC-T is a threat to the “masters in our own house” policies on which the country has been built since achieving political independence, and hence is a threat to the idea that black farmers should own the country’s land and that a black urban elite should have majority control of the country’s industry. The alternation of Zanu-PF and the MDC-T in power would not be like Republicans and Democrats alternating power in the United States, or Conservatives and Labour doing the same in Britain. In these countries, the alternation of one party with another does not threaten the class basis of society. Whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House, or Conservative or Labour PM resides at No. 10, the fundamental interests of bankers, wealthy investors, and major corporations dominate the policy decisions of the government. Labour in power hardly means that Britain is going to be governed in the interests of labor at capital’s expense, rather than the accustomed reverse. But in Zimbabwe, the MDC-T in power probably means a tectonic shift in class rule, with the interests of the rural petite bourgeoisie and black local urban elite yielding to those of North American and Western European investors.
The result of this is that it is in the interests of Zanu-PF, as tribune of black indigenous capitalism, to place its representatives in positions of power in the state and to use the state apparatus to perpetuate its rule and protect itself from the prospect of the MDC-T coming to power. Senior members of Zimbabwe’s security establishment have threatened not to “serve under the leadership of anyone who did not have liberation war credentials”, an obvious reference to Tsvangirai, who was not part of the liberation struggle.  It’s doubtful that they meant they would resign their posts if Tsvangirai became president. The state media is blatantly pro-Zanu-PF and fiercely anti-MDC-T and makes no effort to hide their partisan nature. By the same token, the private media, and Western-financed propaganda outlets that pose as ‘independent’ media, are blatantly pro-MDC and truculently anti-Zanu-PF.
There is reason to believe that if Zanu-PF lost an election to the MDC-T, that the black nationalist state would not yield power to the MDC-T or any other party that promoted the pro-foreign investment, open doors policies, favored in Western capitals. In the view of the security establishment, the MDC-T is a puppet of the West and Tsvangirai’s elevation to president would mean the reversal of the gains the black majority has made since it ousted the white minority settler state. They are resolved not to let this happen. In the 2008 election, Mugabe repeatedly warned that an MDC-T victory would not be tolerated. He told one crowd that, “You can vote for (the MDC), but that will be a wasted vote. You will be cheating yourself, as there is no way we can allow them to rule this country. We have a job to do and that is to protect our heritage. The MDC will not rule this country. It will never happen.” 
Admittedly, there was enough ambiguity in Mugabe’s words to wonder whether he was saying that the MDC-T would not be allowed to come to power, or that the electorate would not deliver Tsvangirai his coveted majority. However, one wonders whether the ambiguity was not deliberate.
Mugabe was not so opaque when he threatened civil war if Tsvangirai won the 2008 election. The Zanu-PF leader warned that liberation war veterans “said if this country goes back into white hands just because we have used a pen (delivered an electoral victory to the MDC-T—S.G.) we will return to the bush to fight. I’m even prepared to join the fight. We can’t allow the British to dominate us through their puppets.” 
Echoing the view that black majority economic rule is here to stay, no matter what the outcome of an election, Mugabe told supporters in June 2008 that:
We are the custodians of Zimbabwe’s legacy. We will only pass this on to those we know are fully aware of the party’s ideology; those who value the country’s legacy. We will pass on leadership to them, telling them to go forward. But as long as the British still want to come back here, I will not grow old; until we know we can longer have sellouts among us….If there are parties that go to the people promoting what they have to offer, that’s fine. But not those that are used by the Americans and British to reverse the revolution.” 
This could be read as an ultimatum. Zimbabwe is a state governed on behalf of the black rural majority and a black urban elite. If you accept this, fine, you’re free to participate in elections and we’ll respect the outcome of any election you should win. But if your intention is to champion the interests of North American and Western European capital at the expense of indigenous Zimbabweans owning Zimbabwe’s land and industry, the state will work against you. We will not allow you to come to power.
This may be shocking to anyone who has been inculcated with the view that liberal democracy is the highest political good. But Zanu-PF did not stand in the vanguard of a revolution to establish liberal democracy in Zimbabwe, but to make the indigenous population masters, both politically and economically, in its own house. What happens, then, when liberal democratic principles threaten the gains of revolution? It would be unrealistic to think that the revolutionaries will stoically accept the loss of their revolution in order to uphold liberal democracy.
Holding fundamental class interests above electoral principle is emblematic of ruling classes. Governments which have come to power through electoral means that have threatened, or were seen to threaten, the rule of the dominant class (even when they didn’t), have been routinely thwarted or undermined or overthrown by the state and its class allies abroad. Examples abound, but three are worthy of mention: Chile, 1973; Venezuela, 2002; and the most recent, Egypt, 2013 (where the elected Morsi government was deposed by the military, whose tightly-knit officer class owns a sizable part of Egypt’s economy. Christopher Hitchens once said that Egypt isn’t a country with a military, but a military with a country, an epigram which pithily identifies the class at the country’s apex.)
Like any ruling class, Zimbabwe’s black bourgeois elite and its rural petite bourgeoisie ally, use the state to defend its interests against contending classes, in this case, the propertyless at home, and the propertied aboard who seek to increase their holdings by securing access to Zimbabwe’s land, minerals, and labor.
Divisions among leftists in the West over whether to support or oppose Zanu-PF originate in the question of which struggle is regarded as more important: the local bourgeois elite’s fight to preserve Zimbabwe’s land, natural resources, and labor as a sphere of exploitation that they alone can exploit, free from competition from foreign interests; or the struggle of the urban working class against exploitation by local (or foreign) capital. What’s clear is that those who side with Zimbabwe’s black national bourgeoisie will favor Zanu-PF and oppose MDC-T. At the same time, those who lean toward identification with Zimbabwe’s propertyless laborers can neither support Zanu-PF (which represents local private property interests) or the MDC-T (which represents foreign private property interests), if they’re honest.
Honesty, however, has not always been a virtue of Mugabe’s opponents on the left. Some have subtly, and others not so subtly, backed the MDC-T, because it opposes Zanu-PF, which they condemn as authoritarian (yes it is—as is any party in power.) This, of course follows the rule: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Despite following this rule, left MDC-T supporters hypocritically accuse leftists who back Zanu-PF of genuflecting to the same rule. Your support of Zanu-PF is based solely on the fact that Mugabe is reviled by the US and British governments, they contend. Other leftists, some of whom command an inexplicable respect that appears to be based more on posturing than substance, have even gone so far as to formulate whacky theories about Mugabe being an agent of Western imperialism. If so, they forgot to let the imperialists, who have been working overtly since 2000 to depose him, that they’re targeting the wrong man.
To sum up, Zanu-PF has built a substantial base in the countryside through its land redistribution program. This offers the party an electoral advantage since most Zimbabweans are rural-based. Polling by Freedom House contests the idea that an MDC-T victory in the July 31 elections was a foregone conclusion and that Zanu-PF’s victory was unexpected, unlikely and indicative of a flawed election. On the contrary, according to the Freedom House poll, support for the MDC had been waning to at least the summer of 2012 and was lower than support for Zanu-PF, which had been growing. What’s more, observer missions from the African Union and SADC declared the elections to be largely free and fair.
In Zimbabwe, struggle between the local bourgeoisie and Western investors is played out in multiple arenas, including the electoral one. Elections in Zimbabwe pit a black bourgeois elite and its rural petite bourgeois allies, who control the state and use it to their advantage in the electoral arena, against North American and Western European investors, who use the apparatus of their states to interfere in Zimbabwe’s affairs, press into service ‘independent’ NGOs which they fund against Zanu-PF, and look to the MDC-T to promote policies which will advance their interests in Zimbabwe. MDC-T’s appeal on the ground is to Zimbabweans who don’t benefit from land reform and haven’t sufficient accumulated wealth or indigenous status to take an equity position in a foreign enterprise under indigenization laws. They believe that the MDC-T’s pro-foreign investment policies will generate job opportunities and raise their standard of living.
Because the MDC-T’s coming to power would not be like the alternation of power between mainstream political parties in the West, which pose no threat to the continued rule of the dominant class, but would seriously threaten the position of the national bourgeoisie, it is unlikely that Zanu-PF and the state would meekly accept an MDC-T electoral victory. The gains of black majority economic rule are more important to Zanu-PF than commitment to liberal democracy. All the same, there is no compelling evidence that MDC-T’s failure to win the July 31 elections has anything to do with the state in Zimbabwe biasing the election in Zanu-PF’s favour, rather than the MDC-T failing to garner sufficient popular support.
1. Patrick McGroarty, “In Zimbabwe voting, complaints and praise”, The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2013.
2. Susan Booysen, Change and ‘New’ Politics in Zimbabwe: Interim Report of a Nationwide Survey of Public Opinion in Zimbabwe: June-July 2012, August 18, 2012, http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Change%20and%20New%20Politics%20in%20Zimbabwe.pdf
3. The Herald (Zimbabwe), June 23, 2011.
4. The Herald (Zimbabwe), March 24, 2008.
5. The Independent (UK), June 14, 2008.
6. The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), June 15, 2008.
By Stephen Gowans
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel “has defended German cooperation with the National Security Agency program, called Prism, and rejected any comparison between it and the invasive methods used by the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany’s Communist government.”
“The work of intelligence agencies in democratic states was always vital to the safety of citizens and will remain so in the future,” Merkel said. “For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the Stasi in East Germany and the work of intelligence services in democratic states.” The programs are “two totally different things.” (New York Times, July 11, 2013)
Note that Merkel doesn’t deny that Germany’s intelligence apparatus, in collaboration with the NSA, spies on German citizens—only that its spying is vital for public safety. By implication, East Germany’s snooping was not. She invokes democracy’s halo to justify the police state methods of democratic states (if it’s done by a democracy, it must be good) while drawing a distinction with communist states (if it’s done by a communist state, it must be bad.)
At least Merkel has gone so far as to admit that Germany does what East Germany used to do—spy on its own citizens. Western politicians used to pretend that liberal democracies didn’t do that kind of thing (though there was plenty of public record evidence they did.)
Of course, Merkel can’t say that German secret policing is Stasi-like, at least, not in its intent, because the Stasi has long been held up by anti-communists as a sui generis—a totalitarian monstrosity that could only exist in a communist society. Germany’s surveillance activities, Merkel contends, are on an elevated (democratic) plane; they’re “vital to the safety of citizens.” The Stasi, presumably, concerned itself with baser things.
However, it’s clear that all states are concerned with preventing terrorist bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and so on—terrorist activities which endanger the public and disrupt the smooth functioning of the system. This was as true of the GDR as it is of any other state.
But the definition of public safety can be very wide, and states invariably place an equal sign between “public safety” and “the established order.”
The exodus of young, working-age and skilled East Germans to the West—encouraged by the West German government—threatened the viability of the GDR’s established order, and much of the GDR’s political policing involved measures to stanch the bleeding of human capital.
West Germans who identified with the GDR and were sympathetic to its political project represented a potential fifth column which the West German secret police operated to contain and disrupt.
And yes, there was a West German equivalent to the Stasi. It was built on the foundations of Hitler’s secret police, whose operatives were recruited from the ranks of former Gestapo personnel, and which used informants, buggings and mail openings to spy on, harass and disrupt the activities of people with left-wing political views, just as the Stasi did against people who threatened the viability of the anti-Fascist workers’ state.
In the view of those entrusted with preserving West Germany’s capitalist order within the orbit of US hegemony, communists and GDR-sympathizers were threats to public safety.
The scope of secret police activities is proportional to the technology available and the severity of the threat to be contained and disrupted. The threat posed to East Germany by the larger, richer West Germany and its powerful patron, the United States, was many times greater than the threat the smaller, poorer, East Germany posed to the West—a GDR whose backer, the Soviet Union, could offer fewer resources than the United States could offer West Germany. (Not only was the Soviet Union a less affluent backer, after WWII, it carted away from its occupation zone in Germany anything of value, and East Germany disproportionally bore Germany’s costs of indemnifying the USSR for the latter’s war losses.) Accordingly, the demands on a secret police function in the GDR were much greater.
To West Germans who had no strong leftist leanings, the secret police were invisible, but their existence was always clear and menacing to the country’s communists and militant socialists. The fact that the BfV, West Germany’s political police, was part of a “democratic” state made it no less intrusive and threatening than was the Gestapo to Germans who held the wrong political views.
So, are Germany’s secret police and the Stasi two totally different things, as Merkel contends? Not in kind, but they are in degree—though the difference in degree is not in the direction Merkel would care to acknowledge. The surveillance apparatus of Germany’s unified democratic state has a more intrusive access into the private lives of its citizens than the Stasi ever had or could have had.
You know, we started helping the rebels, whatever they are, and they’re certainly not fighting for democracy, given their sponsorship, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as far back as early spring of last year, 2012, without saying it publicly.–Zbigniew Brzezinski*
By Stephen Gowans
Asked to justify his support for what his interlocutor called “Islamo-fascists,” a leftist sympathetic to the Syrian rebellion replied, “I’m not supporting radical Islamists. I support the Free Syrian Army’s fight for democracy.” With al-Qaeda aligned jihadists beheading some of their enemies and eating the organs of others, that’s the best case supporters of the Syrian rebellion can make these days. Unlike the radical Islamists, who dominate the rebellion and want to build a theocracy atop the hoped-for ruins of Syria’s secular Arab nationalist regime, the uprising’s Western leftist supporters are against dictatorship and for democracy. That’s why, they say, they’re backing the FSA.
But much as they believe they’re on the side on the angels, they’re not. The idea that the FSA is the secular, democratic front of a popular uprising ignores a number of problems, from a misunderstanding of what the FSA is, to blindness to the democratic reforms already carried out in Syria, to an unwarranted fondness for a political arrangement that would open the doors to US domination of Syria.
The “moderate” rebels
Let’s begin with the misunderstanding about the Free Syrian Army. There’s nothing secular about the FSA, and nothing democratic about it, either. The US-backed rebel army exists, according to its leaders, for one reason—to remove Bashar al-Assad as president.  Its sole program, then, is negative, without positive (either democratic or secular) aspirations.
You don’t have to be committed to a secular society to belong to the FSA. Indeed, according to Reuters, the organization’s military command is “Islamist dominated”.  The Associated Press says that “Many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers. They include the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultraconservative Islamist group.”  The Wall Street Journal reports that Brig. Gen. Mithkal Albtaish, an FSA leader, says that the organization is “dominated by Islamist groups that are in close coordination with al Nusra,”  the al-Qaeda aligned terrorist group. The idea, then, that the FSA is secular is mistaken.
Neither does the FSA have a political program committed to democracy. “Eliminate Assad” does not necessarily mean “create democracy.” It could mean “create theocracy” or “create a US-puppet regime.” Hence, what the FSA wants to replace Assad with, is not defined, but given that the organization is backed, armed, supported and guided by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royalist dictators (an iconoclast has dubbed the loose alliance of rebel groups the Foreign Supplied Army) we can guess that the answer is: whatever the FSA’s backers, prime among them Washington, say. And let’s be clear. The FSA’s goal isn’t to eliminate Assad per se, but the policies Assad and his allies are committed to: economic nationalism; anti-colonialism; alliance with Iran; and so on, about which more in a moment. It is inconceivable that the United States and its FSA marionette would tolerate a successor to Assad who maintained Assad’s foreign and economic policies.
US foreign policy
The aim of US foreign policy is to defend and promote the interests of that section of the country’s citizens which has the greatest sway over its formation. This is by no means a unique feature of the foreign policy of the United States, but is a universal characteristic of the foreign policies of all countries. French, Russian, Chinese and British foreign policies are no different. For example, the basic priority of foreign policy in Britain—where the country’s business interests have a commanding influence over state policy— “is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’ resources,” according to British foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis. Pointing to the role of one instrument of British foreign policy, the country’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, Curtis observes,
As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor, revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ by keeping ‘a particular eye on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals [and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business interests.’ 
The aim of US (or British) foreign policy is not to promote a particular kind of political regime in other countries. It, does not, contrary, to its own rhetoric, favour liberal democracies over other political systems, nor promote liberal democracy abroad, except insofar as liberal democratic political arrangements are congenial to the business interests of its most influential citizens. If fascist dictatorship, military autocracy or absolutist monarchy best serves the profit-making interests of preeminent US investors, banks and corporations at a particular time and place, the United States is happy to promote and defend these alternative regimes. For example, royal dictatorships abound among Washington’s Arab allies. Washington is comfortable having Arab dictators as friends because these regimes are congenial to US business, financial and military interests—recycling petro-dollars through US investment banks; cooperating with the US military, and in some case hosting US military bases; purchasing US military equipment; and implementing pro-US foreign investment and trade policies. When Arab dictators have become less accommodating, and more interested in promoting local interests, Washington has turned against them, reviling them as dictators to galvanize support at home for interventions to topple them, and replace them with more congenial (to wealthy US investor) rulers. “Rebel” journalist Wilfred Burchett put it this way: “The truth of the matter is that any country which can guarantee safety for British and American investments, no matter what the color of its regime, is acceptable to Whitehall and the White House, whether it be a personal dictatorship in Santo Domingo, clerical Fascist in Spain, semi Fascist in South Africa, or a gangster regime in a South American republic.” 
There are, then, two points—the first about goals and the second about means.
• The goal of US foreign policy is to promote the profit-making interests of its super-wealthy citizens who have goods to export and capital to invest.
• Liberal democracy is sometimes seen as the best way to achieve this goal, but sometimes not. When liberal democracy is understood as the best arrangement, Washington will promote it. When a different political arrangement is understood to best support fundamental US foreign policy aims, Washington will promote that different political arrangement.
Is the United States promoting liberal democracy in Syria?
If it is, it is only doing so incidentally, and we don’t even know if it’s doing that. All we know is that Washington, like the FSA (or more precisely the FSA like Washington) wants to topple the Ba’ath regime and it’s easy to infer why. Damascus pursues too many objectionable policies from Washington’s point of view. First, there’s economic nationalism (subsidies to domestic firms, restrictions on foreign investment, tariffs to protect domestic industry, displacement of free enterprise by state-ownership—all of which limit US profit-making opportunities). Then there’s Syria’s refusal to recognize the Zionist conquest of Palestine (i.e., to recognize Israel.) Syria’s support for Hezbollah and alliance with Iran are also irritants, as is the country’s military cooperation with Russia. So, all we know is that Washington wants Assad gone—because his policies fail to mesh with the US foreign policy goal of making US investors, corporations and financiers richer.
At the moment, we can seriously doubt that the United States is working through the rebels to promote liberal democracy, because (a) the dominant part of the rebellion, the radical Islamists, abhor liberal democracy and are committed to a theocracy, and (b) the FSA is only committed to ousting Assad, and has no commitment to promoting democracy. But suppose the United States is indeed working to promote liberal democracy in Syria. Would a US-imposed liberal democracy be better than what currently exists in the country? Syria is in transition from a political arrangement which defined the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party as the country’s lead political organization to a multi-party electoral democratic arrangement in which no party is primus inter pares. A constitutional amendment introduced under pressure of the Syrian revolt, and ratified by referendum, stripped the Ba’athists of their lead role in Syrian society, and scheduled a presidential election for 2014. Anyone who meets basic requirements can stand for election. At the same time, restrictions on civil liberties, implemented because Syria is in a technical state of war with Israel, were lifted. Thus, whoever backs the Syrian rebels on grounds that they’re bringing to birth a new liberal democratic order in Syria (of which we have no evidence that they are or even intend to do so) needs to show how the child that will be delivered through the pain of more war will be any different from the child that has already been delivered through Assad’s reforms.
There’s something else they need to explain. What’s so wonderful about a US-approved liberal democratic order? Liberal democracy appeals to the US’s power elite because it creates an “open society”—one which affords the wealthy elite plenty of room to use their command over their considerable resources to dominate the political process. They use their wealth and connections to place themselves and their representatives in key state decision-making positions; to lobby politicians and regulatory agencies; to bribe politicians with campaign funding and the promise of lucrative post-political jobs; and to hire public relations firms and establish foundations to set media and scholarly agendas. Through these means they concentrate state power in their hands (complementing their considerable economic power); win most political battles; and monopolize the society’s benefits.
An open Syrian society would allow the United States to act in Syria as the US corporate elite acts in the United States. It could buy influence by funding political candidates and parties that are pro-West, pro-US, pro-free-trade, pro-Israel, and pro-foreign-investment. It could allow the State Department to funnel money to local media to promote US positions (openly, through the National Endowment for Democracy, or covertly, if necessary). And Washington could bankroll NGOs, either directly or through private foundations, to garner popular support for policies favorable to US interests. The outcome would be that state power would be concentrated in the hands of US lackeys; US interests would win out in political battles with local interests; and the US corporate elite would monopolize the benefits of the Syrian economy. That’s not democracy. It’s neo-colonialism.
There are two kinds of rebels in Syria. Those who openly promote theocracy. And those whose only public commitment is to eliminate Assad. The military command of the latter includes secular elements but is Islamist-dominated. Their goals, beyond eliminating Assad, are undefined—perhaps concealed. They may want to create a theocracy, or a US-puppet regime, or both, or something else altogether. They are also armed, trained, backed and politically supported by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royal dictatorships.
The United States supports foreign organizations that can help advance the interests of that section of the US population which holds sway over US foreign policy formation—wealthy bankers, major investors and huge corporations looking for export and investment opportunities abroad. It does not support democratic organizations—those that seek to promote the interests of the people in the countries in which US investors and corporations seek to do business. The belief, then, that there exists a popular uprising in Syria for democracy that, despite its being backed by the United States, can still be an instrument for promoting the interests of Syrians, is found on mistaken ideas about who the rebels are and a misunderstanding of the nature of US foreign policy. To square this circle, one would have to believe that the interests of the US corporate elite are congruent with, and not inimical to, the interests of the vast majority of Syria’s people.
But even if, indeed, we could say that Washington is backing some of the rebels on the ground with the aim of creating a liberal democracy in Syria, we would still have to ask two questions. First, would this political system, which is to be secured at the cost of many more tens of thousands of lives in a continued war, be any better than the one already conceded by the Assad government? Second, would an open society—one affording plenty of room for US forces to dominate Syria’s public and economic life—be preferable to a less open one, whose restrictions guard against foreign domination and allow the state to pursue local interests?
1. Zeina Karam, “In rare public appearance, Syrian president denies role in Houla massacre”, The Associated Press, June 3, 2012.
2. “Syrian rebels elect head of new military command,” Reuters, December 8, 2012.
3. Bassem Mroue and Benn Hubbard, “Syria rebels create new unified military command,” Associated Press, December 8, 2012.
4. Inti Landauro and Stacy Meichtry, “Rebels in Syria move to show moderation”, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2013
5. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, pp.210-211.
6. Wilfred Burchett, excerpt from People’s Democracies, in George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (eds.), Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 45.
* “As Assad Makes Gains, Will New U.S. Strategy for Syria Change the Dynamics?” PBS Newshour, June 14, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june13/syria2_06-14.html