On the Iraq-Syria Border, ‘Terrorists’ and a Prime Minister on One Side, ‘Rebels’ and a ‘Brutal Dictator’ on the Other
By Stephen Gowans
No one would be surprised these days to open a newspaper to read: Violence in Syria has risen dramatically since the spring of 2011, when a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement against the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus drew a violent response from regime forces.
But would they be surprised to read the same sentence, with Shiite replacing Alawite, and Baghdad in place of Damascus?
Yet much the same sentence appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 24. Reporters Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan wrote that, “Violence (in Iraq’s Anbar province) has risen dramatically since the spring, when a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad drew a violent response from security forces.”
Anbar borders Syria.
The Western narrative on Syria is that a government dominated by one religious group used violence to quell a largely peaceful protest movement of another, triggering an armed rebellion. Just like Anbar.
The government’s actions, and the uprising that followed, were labelled a problem by Western news media and governments—a problem to be resolved by removing a president who is “killing his own people” (and who also, just happens, to refuse to play along with Washington’s economic and foreign policy agenda.) Not like Anbar.
Hence, while two very similar situations exist side-by-side, they have been met by completely different reactions in the West, not only on the part of governments, but also the news media, and a certain faction of leftists that mistake reaction for revolution.
The Western news media have been virtually silent on Maliki’s cracking down violently on a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement, yet fevered and voluble in its coverage of the Syrian insurgency, and was, even in the uprising’s early days. Practically everyone knows about Syria. How many know about Anbar?
Western governments have designated Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a pariah, but haven’t demonized Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, have refused to denounce him as a brute who kills his own people, and haven’t told him he has lost his legitimacy, and must step down, as Assad has been told.
And yet as the Washington Post’s Liz Sly noted on 8 February,
The grievances [against Maliki]…are real, as was articulated last week in a Human Rights Watch report condemning the “draconian” measures used by the Maliki government to curtail its opponents. The report cited widespread allegations of abuse within the criminal justice system including torture, the rape of female prisoners and arbitrary arrests, as well as the successful suppression of an earlier attempt to organize Arab Spring-style demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere in 2011 (“Arab Spring-style protests take hold in Iraq”).
While some leftists in the West have embraced the Syrian insurgency as if it were a modern day October Revolution in embryo, they have not rallied to the cause of the Anbar insurgents. Probably because they’ve never heard of them, and maybe because the Western news media have yet to invent a faction of moderate (i.e., ‘good’) rebels that the kind souls of the left can embrace. The field, instead, is dominated by the same al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who lead Syria’s insurgency.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Anbar fighters “flow fluidly back and forth across the Iraq-Syria border, staging attacks on both sides…” These are the same fighters the US occupation army battled in Iraq during the surge of 2007. Of course, back then, they were called “terrorists”, and were considered “legitimate” targets in a war on terror.
Funny, “terrorists” is what the Syrian government calls them today, when they set off car bombs, execute captives, eviscerate bodies, and saw off heads, on the Syrian side of the border. All the same, this is considered illegitimate terminology by Western governments, who prefer that terrorists who work on their side be called rebels, freedom fighters, or part of a popular, democratic, uprising.
Maliki, the prime minister who wields violence to crush largely peaceful protest movements, remains Washington’s man in Baghdad. As a consequence, he need not worry about getting the Assad-treatment…for now. Just as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi was in reality the monster Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is made out to be by Western governments and news media, Meles escaped sanction and demonization from the West, and was lionized when he died last year, because he did the West’s bidding. Mugabe is more interested in his country’s independence from the West—hence, the sullying of his name in Western capitals and newsrooms.
It didn’t matter how many people Meles locked up, killed and tortured, he remained the model statesman in Western eyes, as Maliki may, so long as he doesn’t develop too much of an independent streak. Assad, the president who says “Syria is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West,” is, however, quite another matter.
By Stephen Gowans
The Friends of Syria—an 11 country coalition ranged against the Syrian government—favors what it calls a “democratic” transition in Damascus. There are multiple problems with this.
The coalition says that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, must have “no role in Syria.” How odd that an ostensibly democracy-promoting coalition should dictate to Syrians who it is who can’t be president of their country, rather than democratically leaving the question up to Syrians themselves.
Equally strange is that half of the coalition members do not support democracy in their own countries. Five of the 11—nearly one-half—are not, themselves, democracies, but are monarchies and emirates (Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) and one, Egypt, is a military dictatorship.
The formal democracies that make up the coalition’s other half—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey—are not promoting democratic transitions within the territories of their coalition partners, limiting their intervention to Syria alone.
Yet, while Syria has hardly conformed to the Western model of a multi-party democracy, it is not at all the undemocratic dictatorship it has been made out to be. It is not, for example, a Saudi Arabia. It has a parliament. It is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. And parts of the state, much to the annoyance of the US State Department, remain committed to socialist goals. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2014. Any Syrian, so long as he or she meets minimal basic criteria, is free to run. If Syrians don’t want Assad, they’ll be free to toss him out then.
On the other hand, coalition member Saudi Arabia is a family business. The Saud family calls the shots. There’s no chance they’ll be tossed out in elections, since they’ll never have any. If Washington were truly interested in cobbling together “Friends of” coalitions to promote democratic transitions in undemocratic countries, it would have long ago put together a Friends of the Saudi People group.
Not that the United States ought to be ranging the globe, foisting its brand of democracy on others. Rather, its selective commitment to democracy promotion (only in countries not under its thumb but not in satellite states), speaks volumes about what US foreign policy is really about—and just how far removed from a meaningful democracy the US version is.
Equally fatal to the idea that the Friends seek democracy in Syria is this: one of its number, Egypt, is ruled by a government installed by the military, after it ousted a democratically-elected government. The charge that Syria’s Assad has to go because he is killing his own people (insurgents) hasn’t stopped the Egyptian military from killing demonstrators who call for the restoration of their elected government. They deserve the appellation “pro-democracy protestors” more than do the Islamist insurgents who used turmoil in Arab countries to inspire a return to jihad against the secular Arab nationalists in Damascus.
And what of the coalition’s formal democracies? All are former colonial powers. They cared not one whit about democracy when they held the greater part of humanity in colonial thrall, including the people who lived in what is modern day Syria. By their actions and duplicity, they’ve revealed themselves to care as little about democracy in the Arab world as they did when four of them (the Turks, Italians, British and French) ruled Arabs by edict from afar.
Six former colonial powers in a coalition with five tyrannies, telling Syrians who they can’t have as president, supporting a group of exiles who wait in the wings for the signal to traipse onto the Syrian stage as Washington’s marionette, is hardly the picture of democracy-promoters. If you believe otherwise, then democracy is nothing but a euphemism for imperialism, an emotionally appealing word tossed around as a cover for the very negation of what the Friends of Syria profess to seek.
By Stephen Gowans
US hostility to Iran didn’t begin with the latter enriching uranium. It began in 1979, when Iran extricated itself from US domination by overthrowing the US-backed Shah, who had been installed after the United States and Britain engineered the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected, and economically nationalist, prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh irked the British and Americans by nationalizing his country’s oil industry. Ever since the Shah’s overthrow, Washington has been waging war on Iran, through a proxy (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), by sanctions, assassinations, cyber-warfare and threats of military intervention. The goal is to bring Iran back under US domination. Ending Iran’s nuclear program—or more specifically, its domestic production of nuclear fuel—is only part of the larger goal.
Recently, there has been talk of relaxing” or “easing” (though not ending) sanctions and of a possible “thaw” in US-Iranian relations. Washington sees, in the new Iranian president, the possibility of concessions, and wants to facilitate Iran’s partial capitulation. Israel fears that Iran is sending false signals, and is playing for time.
Iran is seeking an end to sanctions and recognition of its right to enrich uranium.  This conflicts with Washington’s view that Iran has the right to nuclear energy, but not to domestic production of nuclear fuel. Washington wants Iran to:
• Halt work on a heavy water reactor at Arak (which could produce plutonium);
• Destroy the subterranean Fordo uranium enrichment facility (which is invulnerable to air attack);
• Suspend production of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity (deemed dangerously close to weapons grade);
• Relinquish its existing stockpile of nuclear fuel;
• Allow international inspectors to talk to Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (who has been hidden away, out of reach of Israeli assassins. 
Even if Iran acceded to all of Washington’s demands, a number of US sanctions would remain. These include sanctions intended to stop Iran from:
• Developing other weapons of mass destruction;
• Building ballistic missiles;
• Supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad;
• Exercising influence in the Middle East;
• Exporting arms;
• Dealing with unrest and subversion at home (stoked by the misery created by Western sanctions);
• Monitoring and censoring domestic internet communications. 
In previous talks with Iran, US and European negotiators have offered to relax some sanctions. For example, they proposed to end trade sanctions banning exports of airplane parts to Iran, in return for Iran suspending domestic production of nuclear fuel. This is a mild trade sanction, hardly punitive in comparison to the ban on Iranian oil exports and isolation of Iranian banks that have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy and the lives of its people.
In return for forswearing the development of nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) grants to non-nuclear weapons states the right to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran is a member of the treaty, and its nuclear facilities are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA monitors have never reported that Iran has diverted nuclear material to military use.
Whether the right to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes includes the right to enrich uranium is disputed, but some NPT members, including Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, have domestic uranium enrichment programs which operate without sanction or threat. Only Iran is denied this right.
Israel refused to become a member of the NPT, presumably to allow itself the option to develop nuclear weapons. The country has an estimated 400 nuclear warheads, and the aircraft, ballistic missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles to deliver them anywhere in the Middle East. In contrast, even if Iran did have nuclear warheads, it hasn’t anywhere near the range of delivery options Israel has, and would struggle to develop them.
This raises an embarrassing question for the United States. Why is Iran the object of sanctions, bombing threats, cyber-warfare, and an assassination campaign targeting its nuclear scientist, despite its forswearing the development of nuclear weapons and opening its nuclear facilities to the IAEA, when Israel, which actually has nuclear weapons and refuses to join the NPT, faces no similar pressure? The answer, according to John Bolton, who was deputy secretary of arms control under George W. Bush, is that “The issue for us is what poses a threat to the United States.”  In other words, the key here is not a nuclear weapons capability but whether the country that possesses it is under US domination.
The United States supplied the Shah’s Iran with the Tehran research reactor, which began operations in 1967, and is still used to produce medical isotopes. It is this reactor which requires uranium enriched to 20 percent purity. In 1974, with Washington’s approval, the Shah announced plans to build two reactors at Bushehr. At the time of the 1979 revolution, the reactors were nearing completion. After the revolution, the United States tore up its nuclear agreements with Iran and pressured other countries to treat the country as a pariah.
The history of Iran’s nuclear program can be divided into two periods: Before the revolution, and after. Before the revolution, the United States and other Western countries helped Iran acquire nuclear technology. After the revolution, they did their best to freeze Iran out.
In the mid-1980s, Iran asked the IAEA for assistance in enriching uranium. The NPT directs nuclear powers to furnish non-nuclear member states with information, equipment and materials for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The idea is that there’s a quid-pro-quo: non-nuclear states agree to foreswear nuclear weapons in return for the nuclear weapons states helping them develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Under US pressure, Iran’s request for assistance was rejected. With this avenue blocked, Iran turned to AQ Khan, the father of the Pakistan bomb. The AQ Khan network provided Iran with design information and equipment for uranium enrichment facilities, enabling Iran to build an enrichment plant at Natanz.
US, Israeli and other US-ally intelligence agencies, western politicians, and the western media, have cried wolf about Iran developing nuclear arms since the early 1980s. In 1984, Jane’s Defence Quarterly reported that Iran was “entering the final stage of the production of a bomb.”  In 1995, The New York Times reported that US and Israel officials believed that Iran would have nuclear weapons by the year 2000.  Thirteen years later, Iran still doesn’t have a bomb. “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany, and it’s racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” warned Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in 2006.  Netanyahu has been raising the same alarm for years. In 1992, he predicted that Iran was three to five years away from producing a warhead.  Today, he says Iran is only a few months away from developing a nuclear bomb.
No intelligence agency has ever produced hard evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The IAEA has never found that Iran has diverted nuclear material to military use. The US intelligence community’s Intelligence Estimate says that Iran abandoned a nuclear weapons program in 2003. The opinion that Iran had a nuclear weapons program to abandon in the first place is probably based on Iran acquiring information and equipment from AQ Khan.  Whatever the case, the US intelligence community doesn’t believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons today, and has said so repeatedly. Even so, major US news media regularly assert that the West believes Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. If so, who in any official capacity in the West truly believes this?
In 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed six resolutions on Iran’s nuclear energy program, demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. But the Security Council had no legal basis to claim that Iran’s nuclear energy program is a threat to international peace and security, and therefore, no basis to pass its resolutions. To repeat:
• There is no evidence Iran has nuclear weapons.
• The country’s nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA.
• The IAEA hasn’t uncovered any diversion of nuclear material for military use. 
What’s more, Iran hasn’t attacked another country in 200 years. And if Iran’s enriching uranium is a threat to international peace and security, why isn’t Argentina’s, Brazil’s, Germany’s, Japan’s and the Netherland’s? The answer is plain from Bolton: They’re US satellites; Iran isn’t.
Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus argues that the Israelis insist Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons despite Tehran’s assurances they are not, because that’s what the Israelis themselves did. Pincus wrote that:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders continue to accuse Tehran of deceit in describing its nuclear program as peaceful.
Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran following the path Israel took 50 years ago when it’s known that his country joined the relatively small nuclear weapons club.
Back in the 1960s, Israel apparently hid the nuclear weapons program being carried on at its Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC) at Dimona. It deceived not only the international community but also its close U.S. ally. It repeatedly pledged “it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the area.”
In early 1966, at the time of a U.S. sale of F-4 fighter-bombers to Israel, the Johnson administration insisted that Israel reaffirm that pledge. “Foreign Minister Abba Eban told Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that Israel did not intend to build nuclear weapons, ‘so we will not use your aircraft to carry weapons we haven’t got and hope we will never have,’” according to the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XVIII.
Sound familiar? Maybe that’s why Netanyahu was so tough Tuesday during his U.N. General Assembly speech when attacking Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s statements that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful. When the Israeli prime minister asked, “Why would a country that claims to only want peaceful nuclear energy, why would such a country build hidden underground enrichment facilities?” I thought Dimona.
According to the bipartisan, Washington-based, Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Machon 2 facility at Dimona “is reportedly the most sensitive building in the NNRC, with six floors underground dedicated to activities identified as plutonium extraction, production of tritium and lithium-6,” for use in nuclear weapons. 
The answer to Netanyahu’s question about why Iran would bury its enrichment facilities deep underground is obvious: to protect them from an Israeli air attack. Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 and bombed a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in 2007, and has repeatedly threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It would be criminally stupid not to hide enrichment facilities underground with Mars-worshiping Israel in the neighbourhood, since the Zionist settlers are bent on denying any country in the Middle East that is not under the sway of its patron, the United States, access to nuclear technology, whether for peaceful or military purposes.
The important point that Pincus misses is that Israel never joined the NPT, thereby giving itself the legal latitude to pursue nuclear weapons, but more importantly, remaining free from IAEA monitoring, which would have made keeping the development of nuclear weapons under wraps inordinately difficult, and more likely, impossible. A country that intends to develop nuclear weapons on the sly doesn’t want international inspectors poking around its nuclear installations. That’s why non-nuclear countries that have gone on to develop nuclear weapons have either not joined the NPT, or have withdrawn from it before embarking on nuclear weapons development. The fact that Iran continues to belong to the NPT and therefore submits to ongoing monitoring, even though its treaty rights have been abridged and nuclear member states have failed to live up to their treaty obligations to share nuclear technology and know-how with Iran, is a compelling reason to doubt the country is trying to follow the path Israel did of developing nuclear arms covertly.
What Washington ultimately wants is the replacement of Iran’s independent government with a pliable regime, that is, regime change in Tehran—a return to the time before the 1979 revolution. A recent US Congressional Research Service report notes that “observers believe that the international community should offer incentives—such as promises of aid, investment, trade preferences, and other benefits—if Iran were to completely abandon uranium enrichment in Iran or were there to be a new regime formed in Iran (emphasis added.)”  If the goal of sanctions is to deter Iran from enriching uranium, why offer to lift sanctions were there to be a new regime formed in Tehran? In this can be glimpsed the ultimate aim of anti-Iran economic warfare: Not to force Tehran to relinquish its right to enrich uranium, but to install a new regime. The United States already allows its satellites Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands to enrich uranium, and doubtlessly would allow Iran to do the same were the regime in Tehran as committed to acquiescing to Washington’s leadership as US satellites are.
As it manoeuvres to bring about regime change in Tehran, the United States pursues its intermediate goal of containing Iran, to limit its influence. Crippling Iran’s economy through sanctions serves two goals: weakening Iran and warning other countries of what happens to those who do not submit to US hegemony. The prospect of Washington even relaxing some sanctions has agitated Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates who fear that, with some of the fetters on Iran’s economy removed, the country will be better able to challenge them economically. 
Many US sanctions against Iran and those of US satellites are rooted in the pretext that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program, or at the very least is developing a nuclear weapons capability, that must be stopped because it is a threat to Israel. Attributing a covert nuclear weapons program to Iran while propagating a farrago of nonsense about Iran seeking to annihilate Israel militarily, allows Israel to remain militarily bulked up and immune from calls to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction, ostensibly in order to defend itself, but actually to be intimidating enough to act as Washington’s policeman on the beat. How, it is asked, can Israel disarm when its security is under unceasing threat from hostile neighbors? The necessity of guarding against a wide array of vastly exaggerated threats is a pretext all aggressive powers use, including the United States and Britain, to justify the maintenance of vast and multifariously dangerous arsenals, less for self-defense and more for aggression and to cow other countries into submission. Britain, for example, says it needs its nuclear arsenal for self-defense, but denies that North Korea needs nuclear weapons for the same purpose. However, of the pair, North Korea is the most likely to come under attack. Indeed, it has been the object of unceasing hostility from the world’s greatest military power for over six decades. The chances of Britain being attacked, even absent its nuclear weapons, are about as great as the chances that nuclear-weapons-free Canada will be—approximately zero.
Iran’s military capabilities pale in comparison with those of Israel, which are subsidized by the United States. Moreover, Israel’s security is vouchsafed by US military power. Iran poses no military threat to Israel of consequence, and, even in possession of a few warheads, would be greatly outclassed by Israel, both in the size and sophistication of its nuclear arsenal, and in the means of delivery. As a supporter of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, Iran is more of a nuisance to Israel than a direct threat. The idea that a nuclear-weapons-equipped Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel is a canard, of no more substance than Netanyahu’s frequent warnings, dating back to the early 1990s, that Iran is on the threshold of going nuclear.
Sanctions are a pathway to regime change. Their purpose is to create enough suffering that Iranians will rise in revolt and open the gate from within. That economic warfare has created suffering is not in doubt. Oil sales, which account for 80 percent of the country’s revenue, have been halved. Iran’s foreign exchange reserves have dwindled. Financing business deals has become terribly complicated. 
Bahman Eshghi, who owns a bus manufacturing company, told The New York Times that “he ‘nearly had a heart attack’ when he found out that President Obama had imposed sanctions against any company working with Iran’s automotive industry. ‘That’s me,’ he said. ‘I feed 100 families in a city where nobody has work. Is Mr. Obama waging economic war on our leaders or on us?’ 
The answer is “us.” When the hardships the US government imposes become unendurable, it’s hoped that ordinary Iraninas will rise in revolt and topple their government, allowing Obama or his successors to install a US puppet, to return Iran to its status before the 1979 revolution. At that point, if it is ever reached, US foreign policy goals for Iran will have come to fruition.
There’s little chance of Washington significantly relieving its pressure on Iran. The United States may make insignificant concessions in return for Iran curtailing its production of nuclear fuel. This would leave Iran dependent on the West for fuel to power its reactors, and therefore more pliant, and more apt to make concessions on other matters, from reducing support to its Axis of Resistance partners to “reforming” its economy to accommodate Wall Street. Apart from making these minor concessions, it’s difficult to see Washington lifting sanctions en masse or normalizing relations with Iran until a pliant puppet regime has taken up residence in Tehran. For Washington, the name of the game is regime change. Arms control alone falls well short of the goal-line.
1. Michael Schwirtz and David E. Sanger, “Dueling narratives in Iran over U.S. relations”, The New York Times, September 29, 2013.
2. David E. Sanger, “Big challenges remain despite progress on Iran”, The New York Times, September 28, 2013; Jodi Rudoren, “Israel and others in Mideast view overtures of U.S. and Iran with suspicion”, The New York Times, September 28, 2013.
3. Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, July 26, 2013.
4. This section based on Peter Oborne and David Morrison, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran, Elliot and Thompson, London, 2013.
5. Oborne and Morrison.
6. Oborne and Morrison.
7. Joel Greenberg, “Benjamin Netanyahu invokes Holocaust in push against Iran”, The Washington Post, February 29, 2012.
8. Oborne and Morrison.
9. Oborne and Morrison.
10. Oborne and Morrison.
11. Walter Pincus, “Fineprint: A new approach for Israel?” The Washington Post, October 2, 2013.
13. Sanger; Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee, “Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, assails Iran’s new president”, The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2013.
14. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran staggers as sanctions hit economy”, The New York Times, September 30, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
In a counterpunch.org article titled “The People Against the 800 Pound Gorilla” Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone argue that “genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war [against Syria] are … hard to find”; that US foreign policy is not based on moral concerns; and that the real basis for war—ruling out the former two explanations—must therefore be pressure from Israel.
They dismiss as unsatisfying the explanations of “many” of their Marxist friends who, they say, “ insist that every war is driven by economic interests,” and that “this latest war [is] to be waged because big bad capitalists want to exploit Syrian gas, or use Syrian territory for a gas pipeline, or open up the Syrian economy to foreign investments…”
In place of this Marxist straw man (which friend of theirs believes that every war is driven by economic interests?) they offer the view that the latest war is to be waged because big bad Zionists “have frightened themselves into believing that the very existence of another power in the region, namely Iran, amounts to an existential threat” to Israel. This view, they say, is mistaken, but history, it seems, is an “ocean of human folly.” The policies of governments often make no sense (to Bricmont and Johnstone anyway) because decision-makers are continually misjudging their true interests, or are forced to act against them.
The Bricmont and Johnstone case for Israeli pressure as the basis for US policy on Syria is astonishingly weak. It leads with anecdotal evidence about, “An American friend who knows Washington well [who] recently told us that ‘everybody’ there knows that, as far as the drive to war with Syria is concerned, it is Israel that directs U.S. policy.” The opinion of an unnamed friend is, of course, evidence of nothing, but what his opinion is, and it is astonishing that analysts of Bricmont’s and Johnstone’s calibre would begin their argument with an “everybody knows” claim.
Adding not a whit to their case, the duo continue by relating that “James Abourezk, former Senator from South Dakota,” holds the same view. So what?
Next, they cite newspaper headlines which point out that Israel and its partisans back war on Syria, and finish with a New York Times report that “Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel.”
Other lobby groups are also working to influence US policy, but we don’t take this as proof that they dictate US policy.
Besides, it would appear that an attack on Syria is no longer imminent despite the urging of Israel, which would seem to fatally undermine the Bricmont and Johnstone thesis. I could at this point stop. The pair’s argument fails to stand up against the facts, and there’s nothing more that needs to be said. However, let’s press on, to show why their argument fails and to reply to their critique of the “Marxist” view.
To sum up their argument:
• Some people in Washington say US policy is based on pressure from Israel.
• Newspaper headlines confirm that Israel wants the US to wage war on Syria.
• AIPAC is pressing for military action.
Rather thin gruel.
In part II of their argument the duo sets out to refute two alternative explanations of why the United States wants to wage war on Syria. The aim is to show that these explanations fail to account for US policy as convincingly as does their Israel-tells-Washington-what-to-do argument.
Since I agree that moral concern is not the basis of US foreign policy, I’ll focus on the critique of the Marxist viewpoint (or what they present as it), and then show that one Marxist viewpoint is a better explanation of the data than is their Israelis-are-running-the-show hypothesis, which, as already shown, failed the moment Washington decided not to send cruise missiles hurdling toward Damascus in favor of a Russian-brokered plan to have Syria destroy its chemical weapons.
To topple their Marxist straw man, Bricmont and Johnstone argue “People who think that capitalists want wars to make profits should spend time observing the board of directors of any big corporation: capitalists need stability, not chaos, and the recent wars only bring more chaos.”
It’s true that businesses need stability. But so too do governments need peace and workers need paycheques, but governments will go to war and workers will go on strike if they can’t have peace or a paycheque on acceptable terms. Likewise, businesses will lock out workers—and deny themselves the tranquil digestion of profits—if they think they can arrive at better terms by doing so. First and foremost, businesses need profits—and they only need stability if it serves their primary profit-making goals.
In developing their case against the view that US policy on Syria is driven by economic interests, Bricmont and Johnstone note that, “Wars have been waged for all kinds of non-economic reasons, such as religion or revenge, or simply to display power.” And indeed wars have been waged for reasons apart from or in addition to economic concerns. But we’re not talking about all wars. We’re talking about the wars the United States wages, and specifically, Washington’s threatened war on Syria. Washington clearly has no religious reason for waging war on Syria, and we would be hard pressed to identify a reason for revenge. As to the fighting of wars to display power, it could be pointed out that economic interests often lurk behind non-economic goals. What purpose would a display of power serve? The psychological satisfaction of doing so, or to gain some material advantage, or both? There’s no reason why economic and non-economic reasons can’t both be implicated in decisions to wage war. A display of power could serve the purpose of intimidating a country into yielding favorable terms to investors in the first country, while at the same time satisfying the leaders of the country that displays its power. And what is the objective of exercising power? I would say that the US state exercises power not for the sake of exercising power, but to protect or advance the interests of the citizens who dominate state policy.
A genuine Marxist account of US policy toward Syria—and not the straw man Bricmont and Johnstone construct—might make the following points:
A. US foreign policy is disproportionately shaped by a class of owners of productive property who use their command of economic resources to structure the decisions governments make and to place their representatives in key positions in the state. AIPAC may be a powerful lobby, but its influence pales in comparison to the think tanks, foundations, and lobby groups that represent the common interests of the ruling class of owners, and is a hill against the Himalaya of capital flight and strike, and mass media pressure, businesses can engage in to influence governments.
B. US foreign policy is ultimately aimed at protecting and advancing the profit-making interests of the class that dominates state policy.
C. The US state has at its disposal an array of instruments for prosecuting the foreign policy interests of the country’s ruling class, including foreign aid, “democracy” promotion, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation, the creation of fifth columns, threats of military intervention, and war.
D. The US state will try to shape the policy environment in foreign countries by using any of these instruments alone or in combination.
E. The target countries subjected to the more extreme of these foreign policy instruments (economic warfare and military intervention) have three characteristics in common: (i) They limit US profit making interests through one or more of: restricting foreign investment; pursuing infant industry protection policies; mandating public ownership; subsiding domestic firms; differential treatment of foreign firms and investors; expropriating productive property. (ii) The country is not, as South Korea was, allowed to pursue such policies to build its economy to compete against a rival communist country; (iii) The country poses little or no retaliatory threat to the United States and its allies.
Where does Syria fit in?  The Syrian government exhibits a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors.
The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.”
The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy.”
The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and a generally repressive environment marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference.
The repressive business environment, burdened by heavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity and prolong economic stagnation. Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control.
…systemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive.
The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy.
Examine every other country that is currently, or was recently, on Washington’s regime change hit list: Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela. All pursue, or pursued, policies that are, or were, inimical to US free enterprise. The less than wholly positive attitude of target countries toward US free enterprise can be quickly gleaned by perusing the CIA’s Factbook or the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. Indeed, if there’s an 800 pound gorilla in the room, it’s the economic policies of the countries the United States targets for regime change. The problem is, the gorilla is invisible to just about everyone but policy makers and policy shapers. Most leftists haven’t the slightest idea it exists and therefore look in the wrong places for explanations of US foreign policy.
But what of countries that aren’t targeted for regime change? Do they pursue policies that are congenial to US free enterprise? Yes. An excellent counter-example is Myanmar.  Only three years ago, the resource-rich country was practicing economic nationalism, and was under a punitive regime of US economic sanctions and subject to diplomatic isolation. Now, Washington has suspended its sanctions on Myanmar and nominated its first ambassador to the country in 23 years.
The Obama administration says it’s because of the profound political changes Myanmar has brought about over the last year, including the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in Myanmar’s parliament. But the real reason has more to do with the country’s military rulers turning away from economic nationalism and throwing their economy’s doors open wide to ownership by outsiders.
Announcing the easing of US sanctions, then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton went directly to the heart of the matter, after making obligatory remarks about Myanmar travelling the road to democracy. “Today we say to American business: Invest in Burma (Myanmar)!”
When Myanmar’s military took power in a 1962 coup, it nationalized most industries and brought the bulk of the economy under government control, which is the way it stayed until three years ago. Major utilities were state-owned and health-care and education were publicly provided. Private hospitals and private schools were unheard of. Ownership of land and local companies was limited to the country’s citizens. Companies were required to hire Myanmar workers. And the central bank was answerable to the government.
But three years ago, Myanmar’s government began to sell off government buildings, its port facilities, its national airline, mines, farmland, the country’s fuel distribution network, and soft drink, cigarette and bicycle factories. The doors to the country’s publicly-owned health care and education systems were thrown open, and private investors were invited in. A new law was drawn up to give more independence to the central bank, making it answerable to its own inflation control targets, rather than directly to the government. To top it all off, a foreign-investment law was drafted to allow foreigners to control local companies and land, permit the entry of foreign telecom companies and foreign banks, allow 100 percent repatriation of profits, and exempt foreign investors from paying taxes for up to five years. What’s more, foreign enterprises would be allowed to import skilled workers, and wouldn’t be required to hire locally.
With Myanmar signaling its willingness to turn over its economy to outside investors, President Obama dispatched Hillary Clinton to meet with Myanmar’s leaders, the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years. William Hague soon followed, the first British foreign minister to visit since 1955. Other foreign ministers beat their own paths to the door of the country’s military junta, seeking to establish ties with the now foreign investment-friendly government on behalf of their own corporations, investors, and banks.
Another counter-example is Bahrain. Bahrain’s government is based on the hereditary leadership of the al-Khalifa family, yet Washington has undertaken no serious effort to promote democracy in the country, and does nothing to discredit the country’s de jure hereditary leadership while at the same time denouncing North Korea’s de facto equivalent. It refuses to support “pro-democracy” protestors in Bahrain as it has in Syria, and has turned a blind eye to the Bahraini government’s violent crackdown on protestors. Part of the explanation for why US foreign policy treats Bahrain indulgently and Syria harshly, is that Bahrain is a neo-liberal’s wet dream, pursuing policies straight out of Milton Friedman, while Syria is far closer to the opposite pole. Bahrain also hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Additionally, we should note that US hostility to Syria, and the goal of bringing about a change of regime in Damascus, antedates AIPAC’s pressing Washington to bomb Syria. If AIPAC didn’t exist, would US policy toward Syria be different? It’s difficult to see how it would be. Bricmont and Johnstone think that Washington’s Syria policy makes no sense, and that genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war against Syria are hard to find. That might be because they’re not looking hard enough. And pace the pair, US policy makes perfect sense within the framework of a Marxist analysis. Given Israel’s reprehensible behaviour, blaming the Zionists for the odious aspects of US foreign policy may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s hardly good analysis.
1. The discussion of Syria’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s Uprising in Context”, what’s left, February 10, 2012, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
2. The discussion of Myanmar’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Myanmar Learns the Lesson of Libya”, what’s left, May 20, 2012, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/myanmar-learns-the-lesson-of-libya/
By Stephen Gowans
The United Nations report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21 does not, as newspaper headlines have indicated, “point to Assad’s use of gas” ; confirm that rockets were loaded with sarin ; or “come closer to linking Assad to sarin attack” . Nor, as US officials and some journalists have declared, does it “reinforce the case that Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible” ; “confirm Damascus’s responsibility” ; or “undercut arguments by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that rebel forces … had been responsible.” 
This isn’t to say that Syrian forces didn’t use chemical weapons, only that the evidence adduced in the UN report doesn’t show, or even suggest, that they did. On the contrary, the report offers stronger evidence that attempts were made to manipulate evidence to attribute blame to the Syrian government.
The report concludes that “chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.” 
The UN inspectors adduced five findings in support of their conclusion.
• “Impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets, capable to carry a chemical payload, were found to contain sarin.
• “Close to the rocket impact sites, in the area where patients were affected, the environment was found to be contaminated by sarin.
• “Over fifty interviews given by survivors and health care workers provided ample corroboration of the medical and scientific results.
• “A number of patients/survivors were clearly diagnosed as intoxicated by an organophosophorous compound.
• “Blood and urine samples from the same patients were found positive for sarin and sarin signatures.” 
The findings, then:
• Present evidence that the symptoms experienced by people in Ghouta on August 21 were due to sarin exposure.
• Suggest—but do not confirm—a possible route through which the contamination occurred (delivery of the agent by surface-to-surface rockets.)
• Says nothing about who was responsible.
US officials and their allies have cited the discovery by the UN inspectors of rocket fragments containing sarin to attribute blame to Syrian forces. But to make the leap from ‘sarin-contaminated rocket fragments were found’ to ‘Syrian forces carried out a sarin attack’ requires evidence to support two intermediary conclusions:
• The contaminated rocket fragments weren’t planted or manipulated.
• Only Syrian forces could have carried out a chemical weapons attack using rockets.
The report can’t confirm the first conclusion, and indeed, challenges it.
Pages 18 and 22 of the report contain key paragraphs headed by the title “Limitations”.
On page 18:
The time necessary to conduct a detailed survey … as well as take samples was very limited. The sites [had] been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence [had] clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team. 
On page 22:
As with other sites, the locations [had] been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. Time spent on the site was … limited. During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence [was] moved and possibly manipulated. 
In other words, the inspectors had little time to carefully gather evidence and inspect it in situ; there was plenty of opportunity for the evidence to be manipulated; and the evidence had clearly been handled and moved.
Far from indicting Syrian forces as the culprits, these findings point more strongly to evidence being manipulated, possibly to falsely implicate the Syrian government.
As to the argument that only Syrian forces could have launched a rocket attack, it’s plain that rebel forces could have used rockets supplied by their foreign backers or captured from Syrian forces.
Indeed, as the Associated Press’s Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo reported on August 29,
U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. [11, 12]
In summary, here’s what the UN report says: On August 21, people in Ghouta were exposed to sarin. We don’t know how they were exposed and who was responsible. But we do know that evidence in connection with rocket fragments was possibly manipulated.
Concluding that the UN report adds to the evidence linking Syrian forces to the August 21 incident, as US officials and some US mass media have indicated, is misleading. First, there was no hard evidence of Syrian culpability to which the UN report could be added. An earlier assessment by the US intelligence community was “thick with caveats.”  Second, the UN report, like the US intelligence community assessment, offers no evidence linking the Ghouta incident to Syrian forces.
US officials are reading far more into the evidence than the evidence allows, and US mass media are docilely following the officials’ lead. Anti-Syrian forces have adopted a ridiculously lax evidentiary standard to allow themselves to find the target of their hostility guilty of gassing non-combatants on, at best, flimsy evidence. One can only conclude that they’re motivated to discredit the Syrian government to facilitate the project of bringing about regime change in Damascus—a project these parties are overtly committed to.
• The United States and its allies have a motive to blame the Syrian government for using chemical weapons in order to establish a pretext to step up their intervention in Syria’s internal war. In light of this, it would be expected that they would be inclined to favor very liberal, over-reaching, interpretations of evidence to create a casus belli.
• Once Washington declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger an overt intervention by US forces, the rebels had a motive to stage a chemical attack in order to blame it on Syrian forces.
• Syrian forces had a motive to refrain from using chemical weapons to avoid crossing the United States’ red line.
In light of these motives, the most probable scenario is that a sarin attack was carried out by rebel forces to draw the United States more fully into the war and that Washington and its allies have set their evidentiary bar deliberately low to read Syrian culpability into the flimsiest of evidence. The objective is to achieve what US foreign policy has long set as its principal goal: to topple governments that stand in the way of the expansion of economic space for private ownership, market regulation and profit accumulation.
What makes Syria’s government an object of hostility for the big business-dominated US state is its denial of complete freedom for foreign capital to exploit Syrian markets, land, resources and labour.  Added to this is Damascus’s refusal to fully cooperate in supporting US geopolitical goals (which are themselves linked ultimately to US profit-making interests.) “Syria,” says the country’s president “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” 
Syria’s insistence on maintaining its independence, the US government’s long-standing hostility to foreign governments that demand to be allowed to chart their own course, the rebels’ interest in staging a gas attack to blame on Damascus, Washington’s reading far more into the evidence than the evidence allows, and the absence of any hard evidence linking Syrian forces to the Ghouta incident, suggest that the Syrian government is being set up.
The UN report does nothing to challenge this view. If anything, its noting that evidence was moved and possibly manipulated, supports it.
1. Rick Gladstone and C.J. Chivers, “Forensic Details in UN Report Point to Assad’s Use of Gas”, The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
2. Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “U.N. Report Confirms Rockets Loaded with Sarin in Aug. 21 Attack,” The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
3. Joby Warrick, “U.N. inspectors’ findings come closer to linking Assad to sarin attack”, The Washington Post”, September 16, 2013.
4. Siobhan Gorman, Joe Lauria and Jay Solomon, “Report on Gas Attack Emboldens U.S.”, The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2013.
5. Gorman, Lauria and Solomon.
6. Gladstone and Chivers.
7. UN Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013, http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf
8. UN Report.
9. UN Report.
10. UN Report.
11.Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo, “Intelligence on weapons no ‘slam dunk’”, The Associated Press, August 29, 2013.
12. Significantly, that “suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report.”
13. Dozier and Apuzzo.
14. Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s Uprising in Context”, what’s left, February 10, 2012, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
15. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency
By Stephen Gowans
The US state is above international law, according to US president Barack Obama. In an address announcing that he was referring to the US Congress the decision to take military action against Syria, Obama declared that the United States needs to violate international law in order to enforce “the international system” and “international rules.” The international “system” and “rules” Obama referred to, which he apparently intended his audience to construe as “international law,” is not, in fact, international law, but rules Obama himself has unilaterally drawn up, and through rhetorical sleight of hand, attempted to pass off as international law. Obama has no regard for international law. The very act Obama proposes—waging war on Syria without UN Security Council authorization—is a flagrant violation of the authentic international system Obama deceptively claims he wishes to uphold. Obama has arrogated onto himself the powers and responsibilities of world ruler. He sets the rules, decides when they’re broken, and metes out the punishment.
The US president justified his self-elevation to the post of world emperor on moral grounds, arguing that the United States must punish heinous acts (though only those, real or imagined, of countries that are not US satellites; the heinous acts of satellite countries are allowed to continue with impunity, and often, US assistance.) In his statement, he asked:
• What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?
• What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people…is not enforced?
• If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
Laying aside the realities that: there is no hard evidence that the Syrian president was behind the heinous act and that it seems more likely that the opposition, Washington’s ally, was; that appointing to itself the moral duty to punish the perpetrator is rather rich coming from a country that has authored multiple heinous acts around the globe—and on an infinitely grander scale; that the agreement of other governments not to use chemical weapons has no relevance to what goes on in Syria, which has not signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention (and neither have US allies Egypt and Israel); we might put these counter-questions to ourselves:
• What message will we, the world’s 99 percent, send if a president can autocratically appoint to himself the right to bomb other countries without justification and without legitimate authority, and pay no price?
• What’s the purpose of the international system if a prohibition on the unlawful use of force that has been agreed to by the governments of 100 percent of the world’s people (the UN Charter) is ignored with impunity?
• If we, the 99 percent, won’t enforce accountability in the face of this act of aggression against Syria, which is to be carried out in brazen defiance of the international system, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To a country that threatens non-nuclear countries with nuclear arms (as the United States does, reserving the right of first-strike against any country)? To a government which terrorizes civilians through bombing raids, “shock and awe” and drone attacks? To states that carry out genocide through sanctions of mass destruction (as the United States did in Iraq)?
Not only is Washington willing to brush aside international law when the UN Charter gets in the way of its foreign policy interests, it is also willing to toss evidence, reason and logic aside when they threaten its pretexts for war.
By Stephen Gowans
In the end, the US intelligence community assessment released by Washington yesterday to justify an attack on Syria amounts to this: There is no confirming evidence that a chemical weapons attack occurred on August 21 in Syria, or if one occurred, that it was carried out by the Syrian military.
Newspapers have been warning that Washington would be unable to point to a smoking gun and had no hard evidence to back up its charges against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Nothing in the official assessment disconfirms this.
The assessment is a judgment, based on an opinion that a chemical weapons attack occurred and that the Syrian military is the only agent in Syria capable of carrying one out.
Others have a different view. The UN special commission of inquiry into Syria announced in May that it had strong suspicions that opposition forces had used chemical weapons. Speculating about the possible outcome of a US-French war on Syria, Washington Post reporter Anne Gearan wrote today that “the rebels might be tempted…to stage further attacks and blame” the Syrian government.
Even more damaging to Washington’s case is this August 29 report from Associated Press reporters Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo:
U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. That suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report, according to the official who described the report.
US secretary of state John Kerry, Washington’s war-monger in chief on the Syrian file, said: “The question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about this?”
• The United States is hardly an impartial party, and has been trying to topple the Arab nationalist government in Syria for decades. It has an interest in contriving pretexts to intervene militarily.
• An attack on Syria would be illegal.
• Even if there was confirming evidence that the Syrian military launched a chemical attack, it is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Neither are US allies Egypt and Israel. And while Syria did in 1968 sign onto the Geneva Protocol banning the use in war of gasses, the protocol is concerned with war between, not within, states.
• Along with Russia, the United States has the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.
• Washington’s revulsion at the use of chemical weapons is disingenuous. The United States aided Saddam Hussein to gas Iranians in the late 1980s.
The more fitting question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about the United States arrogantly arrogating onto itself, in contempt of international law, in defiance of the greater part of humanity, the right to wage war on Syria, and worse, on a pretext?
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.