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Washington’s Long War on Syria Isn’t About to End: On the Contrary, the White House Has Blessed Pentagon Plans for More Aggression

September 10, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

The United States has a new strategy for Syria, according to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The new direction, however, is simply the old, largely unrecognized, one, transformed from a de facto status to official one by presidential authorization. In other words, an aggressive US policy on Syria will continue to be implemented—one the US president had, for a time, openly mused about reversing, but has now accepted.

The strategy, crafted by “the steady state”, and now acquiesced to by the US president, features the continued illegal and indefinite occupation of roughly one-third of Syrian territory by US forces as well as US interference in Syrian attempts to liberate Idlib from the control of Al Qaeda forces allied to Washington, its Arab monarchist collaborators, and their partner, Israel. It also features US pressure, military and otherwise, to confront Iranian forces and to drive them out of Syria. The overarching goal of the strategy, clearly articulated by US officials, is to dictate the form, nature and raison d’être of the Syrian state, the self-appointed prerogative of a globe-girding dictatorship. In the words of US officials, Washington seeks to build “a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community”. The goal, redolent with the stench of imperialism, can be challenged on democratic and liberal grounds, as well as on legal and moral ones.

First, it might be noted that almost every state in the Arab world was created by the dominant imperialist powers of the day, Britain and France, to serve their own interests at the expense of the Arabs they subordinated to their rule, occasionally directly but usually indirectly. London and Paris partitioned West Asia and North Africa without the slightest regard to the aspirations of the people who inhabited these regions, and imposed rulers upon them, quislings who collaborated with their imperial patrons in plundering the region’s resources. Washington’s plan to establish a government in Syria acceptable to the international community, i.e., the United States, continues a long imperialist tradition of indirect rule by outside powers.

Partisans of democracy should object to this plan for three reasons.

First, a Syrian government doesn’t have to be acceptable to the United States or any other country. It only needs to be acceptable to Syrians.

Second, democracy has both intra- and inter-national aspects. Internationally, it means that peoples have the right to organize their own affairs, free from the interference of foreign states. Governments need only answer to their own people; not to Washington. While the point should be obvious, it is studiously avoided in public discourse and therefore needs to made: US “leadership” and democracy are antitheses.

Third, there can be no democracy intra-nationally, if a government has been imposed on a people by outside powers, as provided for in Washington’s plan. Clearly, a government acceptable to Washington would be a government willing to do Washington’s bidding; one that would assent to reshaping Syria’s economy and politics to comport with US business and military-strategic interests, not with the interests of Syrians. There are already too many quisling governments in the Arab world; another is not needed.

Washington’s objection to the Assad government is of a piece with its fierce opposition to Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, and Gaddafi’s Libya. All these governments pursued the Arab socialist project of breaking the control of the region’s wealth by the Western oil companies and their Arab Petains in order to direct it to the uplift of Arabs. While the Western-backed emirs, kings and sultans built pharaonic palaces and lived lives of luxury in exchange for allowing Western oil corporations to pile up a Himalaya of profits, their subjects wallowed in poverty. Meanwhile, in Iraq, during the 1970s, the Arab socialists used their country’s oil wealth to build a Golden Age. In Libya, Muamar Gaddafi, inspired by Nasser’s Arab socialism, built a society beyond the dreams of his compatriots who had lived lives of stark under-privilege under the tyranny of the Western-imposed King Idris I. In Syria and Egypt, Arab socialists implemented social reforms to uplift the poor, and asserted the right of women to equality. At the same time, they brought large parts of the economy under public control and implemented plans to overcome the economic legacy of colonialism. In Egypt, the president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the most popular Arab since the Prophet Mohamed, lived in the modest house he occupied as an army colonel, while sending his children to public school. He threatened the West by proclaiming the democratic slogan “Arab oil for Arabs”. All these governments were assisted ably by the Soviet Union. Syria’s government stands in this tradition. It is the only Arab socialist government that has withstood the anti-democratic designs of Washington, Israel and the Saudi kings, to bring the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, under their uncontested domination.

As part of its campaign to topple the last force of Arab independence, the United States currently controls about one-third of Syrian territory, by means of an unspecified number of US service personnel who direct a mercenary force of Kurds, and some traitorous Arabs under Kurd control. Dennis Ross, who held several senior national security positions in the US state, says that “the U.S. and its partners control about 40% of Syrian territory.” The Pentagon says there are some 2,500 US troops in Syria, but acknowledges the number is higher, since covert forces and aircrew are not counted. The Pentagon, then, is running a semi-covert war on a sovereign Arab state, having obtained no legal authorization for its actions, either from the United Nations Security Council or the US Congress. The point is only partly relevant, since even if the Pentagon had obtained legal authorization for its actions, the legal cover would in no way justify the occupation. Still, failure to obtain legal authorization is significant in bringing to the fore the question of why US forces are in the country. Trump raised the question, though predictably not on moral or legal grounds, but in relation to the implications that US entanglement in Syria have for the US Treasury. This, of course, reflects Trump’s Mattis-identified inability to grasp the subtleties of US imperial strategy.

The ostensible purpose of the US presence in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Washington says that it must maintain its presence in the Levantine country to prevent an ISIS resurgence. This implies an indefinite occupation, based on the pretext of the occupation acting as an anti-ISIS prophylaxis. But US officials acknowledged earlier this year that the Pentagon plans to occupy the territory to a) prevent its recovery by the Syrian government; b) to create administrative structures, i.e., to impose a government on the US-controlled portion of a partitioned Syria; and c) to rebuild the territory under US control, using Saudi financing, while denying reconstruction funds to Damascus.

Another plank of the US strategy is to interfere in the Syrian government’s campaign to liberate Idlib from Al Qaeda. “Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting Islamic State, has called Idlib ‘the largest al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.’” The joint Syrian-Russian campaign will resemble other campaigns that have been waged by Syria, Russia, the United States and Iraq to wrest control of territory captured by Islamist guerillas. What has distinguished these campaigns is not the military methods used, but the way they have been presented by the Western media. Western news organizations have condemned ISIS as the bad jihadists and lionized Al Qaeda as the good ones. The US-directed campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa to wrest control of these cities from ISIS were portrayed as laudable US-Iraqi military victories against a foe, ISIS, of ineffable depravity, whose fighters were branded as “terrorists.” In contrast, the Russia-Syria campaigns in Aleppo and now Idlib have been painted as murderous projects aimed at good jihadists, Al Qaeda, branded as “opposition fighters”. In the former case, civilians caught in the crossfire were presented as a grim but necessary cost that regrettably needed to be incurred to eradicate the ISIS evil. US Defense Secretary James Mattis, in reference to the US campaign to capture Raqqa, intoned: “Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.” In the latter case, civilian casualties become a humanitarian tragedy that evidences the evil of the Russian and Syrian governments. The fact of the matter is that Mattis is right: civilian casualties are unavoidable.

Added to the patent double standard is a clear attempt to build public support for US intervention against the Idlib campaign and therefore on behalf of Al Qaeda by announcing that the United States has information that Damascus is planning to use chemical weapons in liberating Idlib. Making the allegation appear credible to an all too frequently lied to public is facilitated by the single voice with which the Western media proclaim matter-of-factly that Damascus has built a track record of using chemical weapons in the long-running war. And yet the only so-called evidence presented of Syrian chemical weapons use are assessments by US officials that amount to: “We believe the Syrians have used chemical agents, but have no definitive evidence to back up our claim; still this is the kind of thing the evil Assad would do.”

Inasmuch as the Syrians dismantled their chemical weapons under an internationally supervised process and inasmuch as no credible evidence exists that they have retained or regained access to weaponized chemicals, any discussion of the possible future use of chemical arms by the Syrian military represents a decent into a world of fantasy. What’s more, even if Syrian forces had gas to use, “with the Russians positioning forces to carry out naval and air bombardments,” they have no need to use gas, as former US national security official Dennis Ross argues.

Lest we take Syria’s previous possession of chemical weapons as emblematic of a unique Syrian evil and menace, we ought to give the matter some thought.

First, Israel, with which Syria remains in a state of de jure and de facto war, has its own stock of chemical weapons. If Syria’s former possession of chemical weapons makes it evil, then what are we to say of Israel?

Second, the United States and its satraps, Israel included, use their military superiority to dominate, oppress, and exploit poor countries. What options are open to Syria to defend itself? Achieving parity in conventional arms is out of the question. On top of monopolizing the world’s wealth, the United States and its allies monopolize the world’s weapons systems. Syria can’t hope to compete with the United States or US-subsidized Israel in conventional military terms.

Israel’s function within the US Empire is to weaken Arab and Islamic nationalism and prevent either from becoming a significant force that would challenge US control of the Arab world’s oil resources. As the last bastion of Arabism, Syria quite naturally is a target for Israeli aggression. Munificent US military aid has made the Jewish nationalist settler colonial state into the region’s military Leviathan. Not only is it more formidable than every Arab country in conventional arms, it is also much stronger militarily than the Persian country, Iran. Additionally, Israel holds a regional nuclear weapons monopoly, and boasts stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Moreover, the United States exempts Israel, as it does itself, from any legal constraints on its right to use force. The only way Syria can defend itself against the imperialist predations of the United States and its Jewish nationalist janissary, both bursting at the seams with the world’s most sophisticated conventional arms and formidable collections of WMD, and unrestrained by international law, is to develop an equalizer. That means nuclear weapons, or, failing that, chemical and biological arms. It also means achieving parity with its adversaries by operating outside the constraints of international law.

We’re taught to shudder at the idea of chemical weapons (that is, when they’re used by a country that defies the international dictatorship of the United States, not when they’re used in its service, as they were in the 1980s by Iraq, then a temporary US ally of convenience against Iran, a US target. Washington accepted Iraq’s use of the chemical weapons it had helped the Arab state acquire.) But why should we shudder at the thought of chemical weapons any more than we do at cruise missile strikes, the Pentagon’s Mother of All Bombs, the incendiaries fighter pilot John McCain dropped on Vietnamese peasants and light bulb factory workers, Israeli snipers gunning down unarmed Palestinians in Gaza demanding their internationally-recognized right of return, and so on? In all these cases, the outcome is death or disability, often brutal, regularly painful, and frequently prolonged. Does it matter how the death was brought about? The United States doesn’t use guillotines on the battlefield to kill quickly, painlessly and humanely; it maims, crushes, pulverizes, vaporizes, incinerates and leaves bodies to slowly bleed to death. And it reserves to right to use nuclear weapons, and assorted other WMD.

Shuddering at the methods available to the weak, the oppressed, the exploited, and the plundered, to fight back and defend themselves while accepting the more formidable weapons of the strong as legitimate makes no sense. Insisting we shudder at one but not the other is part of a class war of the oppressors against the oppressed, of tyrants against the tyrannized, carried out at an ideological level. To deplore the weapons of the weak is to concede ground in this war of class. Syria hasn’t a stock of chemical weapons to use, but if it did, far from condemning their use, the only defensible course would be to welcome it as one of the few effective means by which a secular, republican, Arab socialist state can assert its independence and preserve its freedom against the intolerable despotism and anti-democratic machinations of the world’s paramount tyranny, the United States.

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September 10, 2018 at 1:43 am

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The Economic Atom Bombing of Syria

The United States, the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada and Australia have collectively taken measures since 2011, and the United States since 1979, to destroy Syria’s economy. The measures are illegal under international law, which prohibits states from using economic pressure, outside the framework of the UN Security Council, to coerce other states. With Syrians fleeing sanctions-induced economic collapse, joblessness, crumbling infrastructure and a public health care system in tatters, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Syria has spoken out. But is anyone listening?

June 23, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

Washington’s long war on Syria comprises three major elements: a proxy war waged by Islamist insurgents; an occupation of almost one-third of Syria by US and allied troops [1]; and a program of economic warfare. If we understand war to represent an attempt by one state to impose its will on another, then all three elements, including the economic one, are expressions of war, and Washington’s long war on Syria must be understood as a multi-faceted enterprise involving more than aerial bombing, firefights, cruise missile launches, and suicide attacks, however much the military aspects of the war command attention and the economic aspects evade it.

That economic warfare, or sanctions, can properly be considered a form of warfare is evidenced in the description of sanctions in international law as “coercive economic measures”. “Coercion” is coterminous with one state imposing its will on (that is, coercing) another. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations recognizes that some states have used economic measures to coerce other states “to obtain from [them] the subordination of the exercise of [their] sovereign rights and to secure … advantages.” [2] In its aims and effects, economic coercion is indistinguishable from military coercion. That is, not only are its goals the same, but its consequences—the breakdown of economies, collapse of infrastructure and government support systems, disease, malnutrition, and death—are also the same.

The coercive economic measures deployed by Western states to impose their will on other states are largely invisible to Western publics. Few citizens of the countries which deploy anti-Syria sanctions appear to know that the Arab state has been inflicted with “a complex network of non-UN ‘economic sanctions’” [3], and that one country, the United States, has waged an unceasing economic war on Syria since the late 1970s.

Western publics also appear to be largely unaware that:

0 These measures, implemented without the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, are “contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the [UN] Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States”; [4]

0 “[T]hose involved in delivering humanitarian projects consistently report that [sanctions] often … act as an impediment in the smooth and rapid delivery of humanitarian aid”; [5]

0 And that sanctions “have had a devastating impact on the entire economy and the daily lives of ordinary Syrians.” [6] Indeed, referring to the coercive economic measures imposed on Syria by the West, the UN’s Special Rapporteur has concluded that “Claims that [the sanctions] exist to protect the Syrian population, or to promote a democratic transition, are hard to reconcile with the economic and humanitarian suffering being caused.” [7]

The virtual invisibility of illegal coercive economic measures to Western publics makes the measures particularly attractive to Western states as a means of waging war. People cannot object to a war they’re unaware of. Additionally, when people are aware of their governments’ sanctions, the measures are widely misunderstood as a pacific alternative to military intervention, and misrepresented as having effects limited to the decision-makers of enemy governments, rather than correctly understood as an instrument of war, with devastating consequences for the enemy country’s civilian population. Hence, when citizens know their government has sanctioned another state, they are likely to believe the measures are largely immaterial for the targeted country’s civilian population, and are at best a nuisance to the country’s leadership.

This is far from the truth. The reality is that the effects of sanctions are often more lethal than the consequences of conventional military coercion. Writing in Foreign Affairs, the unofficial journal of the US State Department, John Mueller and Karl Mueller showed that the coercive economic measures inflicted upon Iraq during the 1990s produced more deaths than all the weapons of mass destruction in history, including all the chemical weapons used in the First World War and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the Muellers found coercive economic measures to be so devastating to qualify as instruments of mass destruction, even more injurious to civilian populations that weapons of mass destruction. [8]

Considering that the number of deaths attributable to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (200,000) are less than half as large as the number of sanctions-related deaths in Iraq (more than 500,000), the implication is that the economic element of the war on the Arab nationalist state was tantamount to an attack of two atom bombs. [9] Viewed in this light, it is difficult to apprehend coercive economic measures as a pacific alternative to military coercion. They are, on the contrary, instruments of war whose effects may well be far more devastating than military measures, and therefore, more effective in coercing their target, but also more inhumane and more objectionable on moral grounds.

The coercive economic measures inflicted on Syria by the United States:

• Began long before the 2011 Islamist unrest in Syria, challenging the view that they are a reaction to the Syrian government’s response to the jihadist revolt (presented in the West dishonestly as a democratic uprising);
• Are illegal, impugning the view that the United States and its allies seek to uphold the rule of law and a rule-governed international order;
• Have caused immense suffering among ordinary Syrians, contesting the notion that the use of coercive economic measures by Washington and its allies is motivated by humanitarian considerations.

The US-led project of anti-Syria economic coercion—illegal, destructive, and a major cause of economic breakdown and human suffering—has but one aim: to create intolerable misery in Syria until Damascus capitulates to the international dictatorship of the United States.

The Sanctions

The United States imposed sanctions on Syria as early as 1979, designating the Arab republic a state sponsor of terrorism, citing its support for groups engaged in the anti-colonial struggle against Washington’s principal proxy in the Arab world, Israel. Anti-colonial struggle was defamed as terrorism and support for the former maligned as support for the latter.

Washington stepped up its coercive economic measures against Syria on December 12, 2003, in the wake of the US invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq. A year earlier, Washington had declared Syria part of an Axis of Evil, along with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Libya (two of these countries, Iraq and Libya, were subsequently invaded and regime changed.) The Congressional Research Service—the US Congress’s think tank—revealed that Washington contemplated an invasion of Syria following the invasion of Iraq, but that the unanticipated heavy burden of pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan militated against an additional expenditure of blood and treasure in Syria. [10] As an alternative, the United States chose to pressure Damascus through sanctions and support for jihadist groups opposed to the secular Arab nationalist government; in other words, Washington reached for different instruments to prosecute its war on Syria.

The principal component of the 2003 tranche of US sanctions, the Syria Accountability Act, was aimed at coercing Damascus to abandon its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups and to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction, especially its chemical weapons, and to forswear the acquisition of other WMD. To put this simply, the Arab republic was expected to renounce the anti-colonial struggle and to surrender its means of self-defense. The sanctions included bans on the export of military equipment and civilian goods that could be used for military purposes (in other words, practically anything). This was reinforced with an additional (and largely superfluous) ban on U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine. [11]

On top of these sanctions, the Bush administration imposed two more. Under the USA Patriot Act, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered U.S. financial institutions to sever connections with the Commercial Bank of Syria, severely restricting Syria’s access to the world’s banking system. And under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the U.S. president froze the assets of Syrians involved in supporting policies hostile to the United States, which is to say, supporting Hezbollah and groups fighting for Palestinian self-determination, refusing to acquiesce to Zionist colonialism, and operating a largely publicly-owned, state-planned economy, based on what US government researchers termed “Soviet models.” [12]

The sanctions devastated Syria. In October 2011, The New York Times reported that the Syrian economy “was buckling under the pressure of sanctions by the West.” [13] By the spring of 2012, sanctions-induced financial hemorrhaging had “forced Syrian officials to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country,” according to The Washington Post. [14]

If that weren’t enough, Washington imposed yet another tranche of sanctions in 2011. The European Union followed with its own coercive economic measures, imposing “considerable restrictions on the types of financial services” EU banks could “offer in Syria.” The sanctions also prohibited “the export into Syria of certain ‘dual use’ goods.” [15] “In totality, the US and EU sanctions on Syria are some of the most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed,” concluded a report prepared for the United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). [16] And yet, Turkey, the Arab League, Canada and Australia, felt compelled to add to the staggering weight of sanctions already inflicted on the small Arab republic.

In May of this year, the Special Rapporteur on Syria described the sanctions— “different packages of collective sectoral measures, together with the across-the-board … financial restrictions”— as “tantamount in their global impact to the imposition of comprehensive restrictions” [17]—in other words, effectively a total blockade.

And while exceptions are theoretically carved out to allow the flow of humanitarian relief into Syria, a report prepared for ESCWA pointed out that there “is perilous reluctance among western suppliers and banks to offer humanitarian goods and related finance, in part, for fear of sanctions issues, such as fines for inadvertent technical violations.” [18] The Special Rapporteur observed that “The uncertainty around what transactions do, or do not violate the unilateral coercive measures, have created a ‘chilling effect’ on international banks and companies, which as a result are unwilling or unable to do business with Syria.” [19] As a consequence, the entry points through which humanitarian aid is supposed to flow exist in theory alone.

The Effects

Since 2011 “the total annual GDP of Syria has fallen by two thirds. Foreign currency reserves have been depleted, and international financial and other assets remain frozen.’” [20] The damage to the economy has impaired “the ability of Syrians to realize their economic, social and cultural rights,” reports the Special Rapporteur. “Syria’s human development indicators have all tumbled. There has been a staggering increase in the rate of poverty among ordinary Syrians. While there was no food insecurity prior to the outbreak of violence, by 2015 32% of Syrians were affected. At the same time unemployment rose from 8.5% in 2010 to over 48% in 2015.” [21]

Financial sanctions have severely limited Damascus’s ability to purchase drugs, medical equipment, spare parts and software. In “practice international private companies are unwilling to jump the hurdles necessary to ensure they can transact [business] with Syria without being accused of inadvertently violating the restrictive measures.” [22] As a consequence, Syria’s public health care system—once, one of the finest in the region—is in a state of virtual collapse.

The Special Rapporteur notes that:

The ban on the trade in equipment, machinery and spare parts has devastated Syrian industry. Vehicles, including ambulances and fire trucks, as well as agricultural machinery suffer from a lack of spare parts. Failing water pumps gravely affect the water supply and reduce agricultural production. Power generation plants are failing, and new plants cannot be purchased or maintained, leading to power outages. Complex machinery requiring international technicians for maintenance are failing, damaging medical devices and factory machinery. Civilian aircraft are no longer able to fly safely, and public transit buses are in woeful condition. [23]

On top of this:

Syrians are unable to purchase many technologies, including mobile phones and computers. The global dominance of American software companies, technology companies, and banking and financial software, all of which are banned, has made it difficult to find alternatives. This has paralyzed or disrupted large parts of Syrian institutions. [24]

Finally, the West’s coercive economic measures have contributed strongly to the migration crisis

While the security situation was a central factor which led to migration flows from Syria, it should be emphasized that the dramatic increase in unemployment, the lack of job opportunities, the closure of factories unable to obtain raw materials or machinery or to export their goods have all contributed to increasing the emigration of Syrians. Some [Western states] have selected skilled migrants, while pressuring the less fortunate to return to Syria. This ‘brain drain’ has harmed the medical and pharmaceutical industries in particular, at the worst possible time for Syria. [25]

Commenting on the sanctions, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent Patrick Cockburn observed that the US and EU sanctions resemble the Iraqi sanctions regime, and are “an economic siege on Syria.” He surmised that the siege is killing numberless Syrians through disease and malnutrition, as the siege on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during the 1990s. [26]

The Law

All of this is illegal. Sanctions outside of the Security Council framework are prohibited under international law. And yet the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia—countries which present themselves as champions of the rule of law and a rules-based international order—thwart the very rule of law they claim to uphold. By their actions, they reveal that it is not a rules-based international order they seek, but a US-dictated international order, in which the rules apply to all states but the United States, which rules. As Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, unapologetically put it in the current (July/August 2018) issue of Foreign Affairs:

Many forget…that even the UN Charter, which prohibits nations from using military force against other nations or intervening in their internal affairs, privileges the strong over the weak. … As the Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan has observed, superpowers are “exceptional”; that is, when they decide it suits their purpose, they make exceptions for themselves. The fact that in the first 17 years of this century, the self-proclaimed leader of the [rules-based international] order invaded two countries, conducted air strikes and Special Forces raids to kill hundreds of people it unilaterally deemed to be terrorists, and subjected scores of others to ‘extraordinary rendition,’ often without any international legal authority (and sometimes without even national legal authority), speaks for itself. [27]

Allison added: The United States has never “refrained from using military force to protect its interests when the use of force violated international rules.” [28] He might have added that neither has it ever allowed the rule of law to deter it from using economic coercion.

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. These same states have arrogated onto themselves the mantle of privileged interpreters and defenders of human rights, while at the same time negating the human rights of the people who live in former colonized countries whose states assert their independence in the face of Western efforts to abridge their sovereignty. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declare that a people may not be deprived of its own means of subsistence—precisely what the West’s economic sanctions are intended to do. Additionally, the UN’s Human Rights Council declares that “unilateral coercive measures [have negative impacts] on the right to life, the rights to health and medical care, the right to freedom from hunger and the right to an adequate standard of living, food, education, work and housing.” [29]

According to the Article 5 of the United Nation’s Declaration on the Right to Development:

States shall take resolute steps to eliminate the massive and flagrant violations of the human rights of peoples and human beings affected by situations such as those resulting from…foreign domination and occupation, aggression, foreign interference and threats against national sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity, threats of war and refusal to recognize the fundamental rights of peoples to self-determination.

Notwithstanding this declaration, Washington and its allies have actively taken steps to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, issue threats of war and undertake aggressions, violate Syria’s territorial integrity, and occupy part of its territory.

What’s more, states are prohibited from using “any type of measure, including but not limited to economic or political measures, to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.” [30]

Western states may object, protesting that they seek in their imposition of sanctions no advantages for themselves, but only to bring about a democratic transition in Syria. The objection is easily dismissed as false.
To begin, the Islamist insurgents supported by the West, aspire, not to a democratic transition, but to the rule of the Koran (or their interpretation of it); indeed, they regard democracy as a man-made system of governance, inferior to what they see as the God-given way revealed in Islam. The major opposition to the Syrian government on the ground has been ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups—hardly democrats. [31]

What’s more, the United States’ greatest allies in the Arab world are absolutist monarchs—kings, sultans, emirs, complemented by a military dictator, the very antitheses of the democrats Washington professes to admire and support.

Syria, by contrast, is one of the few Arab countries with an elected legislature and elected president. A fortiori, the country’s last presidential election had multiple candidates. Whatever the shortcomings of Syria’s democracy, it is closer to the model the West holds up as a paragon than are the autocratic political systems of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, among Washington’s principal Arab satellites—kingdoms in which pro-democracy activism is ruthlessly suppressed.

As for the main US proxy in the region, Israel, it is a herrenvolk (master-race) democracy—a democracy for Jews, and Jewish state for Arabs—hardly an inclusive, liberal democracy, but an exclusive, illiberal, and racist one.

Hence, if Washington’s friends in the region are autocrats and master-race democrats, and the country in which it professes to seek a democratic transition resembles the Western model of parliamentary democracy to a greater degree than the United States’ most esteemed regional allies, how can we believe that Washington is genuinely seeking to achieve a democratic transition in Syria?

Of course, we can’t. The idea that considerations related to democracy promotion—and not empire-building—lie at the base of Washington’s Syria policy is so strongly at variance with the facts, that the fact that this is believed at all is testament to the extraordinary power of Western states and their mass media to implant in the public mind representations of the world that are completely untethered from reality.

Like atom bombs, sanctions are indiscriminate. They kill both combatants and non-combatants, government employees as well as civilians. As such, their imposition ought to be “seen as a war crime”, since they involve, as Patrick Cockburn argues, “the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.” Cockburn urges us to be “just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing” as we are “by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire.” The trouble, however, is that “the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.” [32]

Building bulwarks against economic atom bombing

Frantz Fanon once remarked that “’When a colonial and imperialist power is forced to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says: ‘you want independence? Then take it and die of hunger.’ Because the imperialists continue to have economic power, they can condemn a people to hunger, by means of blockades, embargoes, or underdevelopment.” [33]

US president Donald Trump expressed the same idea, though from an entirely different point of view: “Economic security is national security” [34] he observed, though he said this in connection with the challenge China poses to US high-tech supremacy and Washington’s efforts to overcome the challenge by invoking the need for tariffs on national security grounds. In highlighting the nexus between economic security and national security, Trump invoked a question that is central to anti-colonial struggles.

Anti-colonial struggle has two phases: the first, a military one, aims to achieve titular political independence. The second phase is an economic one. [35] Its goal is scientific and technological advancement as the foundation of self-sufficiency, self-sufficiency as the foundation of economic independence, and economic independence as the foundation of authentic political independence. [36]

Few former colonial or semi-colonial countries have advanced toward these second-phase goals. But China, one of the world’s poorest countries when Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, has. Under the guidance of the communist party, it has achieved economic development of such magnitude as to challenge “the Great Divergence,” the separation of humanity into a minority of rich countries and majority of poor ones, inaugurated by the European conquest and rapine of the Americas over 500 years ago. And it has done so with a mixture of engagement with the world market, industrial planning, and economic dirigisme, guided by the ultimate aim of completing the anti-colonial revolution and overcoming five centuries of Western economic supremacy and political tyranny.

Without the advantages that have allowed China to successfully pursue its path of anti-colonial struggle, other anti-imperialist states of the global south continue to struggle, hobbled by economic dependency, still trapped in a strait-jacket of neo-colonialism. As such, they remain at the mercy of the West’s economic atom bombs.

For the Western left, its potential areas of contribution to the meaningful emancipation of the global south from its enslavement by the north are three-fold: First, to pressure Western governments to abandon their projects of economic coercion. Part of this involves lifting the humanitarian veil behind which the hideous face of sanctions has been concealed. The second is to pressure Western governments to give formerly colonized countries space to pursue self-directed economic development. The third is to recognize that radical democratic, worker-centric or autarkic economies may not be practical routes for formerly colonized countries to achieve economic development and independence. Engagement with markets at home and abroad, economic incentives, a role for both state-owned and private enterprises, and state planning, under the guiding hand of parties committed to carrying through the anti-colonial struggle to fruition via its second, economic, phase, may be the most promising routes to challenging the Great Divergence and creating a bulwark against the West’s economic atom bombs.

1. Stephen Gowans, “The (largely) unrecognized US occupation of Syria,” what’s left, March 11, 2018, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/the-largely-unrecognized-us-occupation-of-syria/

2. “Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural, including the right to development,” Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, Human rights and unilateral coercive measures, Twenty-seventh session, October 3, 2014.

3. Justine Walker, “Study on Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures: A report prepared for the United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia,” May 16, 2016.

4. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.

5. Walker.

6. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission.

7. “End of mission statement of the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights to the Syrian Arab Republic, 13 to 17 May 2018,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission, 17 May 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23094&LangID=E

8. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.

9. Domenico Losurdo, Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History. Palgrave MacMillan. 2016, p. 250.

10. Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.

11. Prados and Sharp.

12. Prados and Sharp.

13. Nada Bakri, “Sanctions pose growing threat to Syria’s Assad,” The New York Times, October 10, 2011.

14. Joby Warrick and Alice Fordham, “Syria running out of cash as sanctions take toll, but Assad avoids economic pain,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2012.

15. Walker.

16. Walker.

17. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

18. Walker.

19. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

20. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

21. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

22. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

23. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

24. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

25. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.

26. Patrick Cockburn, “U.S. and E.U. sanctions are ruining ordinary Syrians’ lives, yet Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power,” The Independent, October 7, 2016.

27. Graham Allison, “The myth of the liberal order,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018.

28. Allison.

29. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.

30. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.

31. Stephen Gowans. Washington’s Long War on Syria. Baraka Books. 2017. Chapter 4.

32. Patrick Cockburn, “It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are—war crimes,” The Independent, January 19, 2018.

33. Domenico Losurdo, “The New Colonial Counter-Revolution,” Revista Opera, October 20, 2017.

34. Peter Navarro, “Trump’s tariffs are a defense against China’s aggression,” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2018.

35. Paraphrasing Ayatollah Khamenei. Original quote in William R. Polk, Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 212.

36. Losurdo, October 20, 2017.

Written by what's left

June 23, 2018 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Sanctions, Syria

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Black Agenda Report Book Forum: Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom

Roberto Sirvent

June 20, 2018

In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Stephen Gowans . Gowans is an independent political analyst whose principal interest is in who influences formulation of foreign policy in the United States. His book is Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom.

Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?

Stephen Gowans: The conflict between the United States and North Korea didn’t start at the moment North Korea embarked upon a program of nuclear weapons development, although the discourse surrounding US-North Korea relations—focussed largely on the ostensible threat Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose to the United States and the consequent demand for denuclearization—would lead you to believe it did. On the contrary, the conflict began in 1945, when the United States, taking its first steps to establish a global empire of unprecedented scale, arrived on the Korean peninsula to accept the Japanese surrender and refused to recognize the newly established Korean People’s Republic, the state Koreans proclaimed for themselves after 40 years of foreign rule by the Japanese.

Korea had been bisected by the United States into separate US and Soviet occupation zones to accept the Japanese surrender. US forces quickly eradicated the Korean People’s Republic within their occupation zone. They did so by fighting an anti-insurgency war against Korean guerrillas who took up arms to defend the nascent republic. In place of the republic, Washington installed a US military dictatorship, and subsequently a puppet regime, South Korea, which possessed, and continues to posses, the trappings of a viciously anti-communist police state.

“US policy since 1945 has been to crush any independent Korean government.”

The Korean People’s Republic survived north of the 38thparallel, in the Soviet occupation zone, and became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known informally as North Korea. US policy since 1945 has been to crush any independent Korean government, whether the short-lived Korean People’s Republic, or its DPRK successor.

My book traces the history of US efforts to quash independent political movements in Korea, not only in the north, but in the south as well, and the struggle waged by Korean patriots to unify their country and emancipate it from the foreign rule and military occupation inflicted on it, first by the Empire of the Rising Sun, beginning in 1905, and subsequently by the US empire, since 1945.

Continued at Black Agenda Report .

Written by what's left

June 20, 2018 at 4:33 pm

“Sanctions on Iraq, Syria, Yemen, North Korea or Iran, are the economic equivalent of atom bombs”

Alex Anfruns interviews Stephen Gowans

On April 13, the US, UK and France launched an attack on Syria. The reason, backed by an enthusiastic mainstream media, was retaliation over an alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta. We have interviewed Stephen Gowans to discuss this incident, US foreign policy in Syria, comparisons to foreign policy in Iraq, and the recent de-escalation in the Korean peninsula. Gowans is one of the most important voices when it comes to dissecting the war propaganda of the mainstream media. He is the author of Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017) and Patriots, Traitors and Empire – the Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom (2018).

Despite a lack of evidence, US, British and French governments have tried to legitimize the latest attack on Syria using the humanitarian approach. What has been the evolution on the ground in recent months and how can we understand those attacks?

The Western missile attacks were carried out ostensibly in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian Arab Army in Eastern Ghouta, an area Syrian forces were about to liberate, and soon thereafter did liberate. A few days prior to the alleged gas attack, US president Donald Trump had called for the exit of US troops from the nearly one-third of Syrian territory US forces occupy illegally.

The conditions on the ground—imminent victory in Eastern Ghouta and the prospect of US withdrawal from Syria—were highly favorable to the Syrian government. It is highly unlikely that Damascus would sabotage these auspicious developments by crossing a chemical weapons red-line that would trigger a US response.

On the other hand, from the perspective of Syria’s Islamist insurgents and high-level officials in the US departments of defense and state (who regard Trump’s withdrawal plans as ill-considered) there was much to recommend the fabrication of an incident, in order to scotch Trump’s troop withdrawal plans. This is not to say that this is what happened, but it’s a far more plausible scenario than one that depicts the Syrian government as acting against its interests.

Based on the reporting of The Independent’s Robert Fisk, a bombing attack in Eastern Ghouta had stirred up dust, which filled the basements and subterranean shelters in which civilians had retreated to escape. Choking on dust, and suffering from hypoxia, many fled to a nearby hospital. With cameras rolling, someone shouted “gas!” The scene, captured on video, resembled the aftermath of a gas attack.

Apart from the question of whether a gas attack occurred, is another, more important, question.

Imagine, if you will, that there was irrefutable evidence that the Syrian military, ignoring its own interests, did in fact use chemical weapons. Would this justify the US, British, French response? The answer, I think, is absolutely not. Hence, the question of whether chemical weapons were used is irrelevant to the question of whether the missile attack was justified.

The missile attack certainly had no legal basis. Neither of the countries that attacked Syria were acting in self-defense. They had no mandate from the Security Council. Even from the point of view of US law, the US contribution to the attack was illegal, since the US president has no legal authorization to wage war on the Syrian state. And while a humanitarian agenda may be invoked as a justification, there’s absolutely no evidence that the countries involved in the missile attack were inspired by humanitarian considerations; on the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence they weren’t.

The United States and its allies have very likely created more suffering in Syria than has been created by all the chemical weapons used in the country. They have done so through collateral civilian deaths related to their air war against ISIS and siege of Raqqa and through a devastating sanctions program that has lasted nearly two decades. This is to say nothing of the United States deliberately inflaming the long running civil war in Syria (which dates to the late 1940s) and keeping it going by financing the Islamist insurgency, both directly and through its allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Jordan.

If the United States and its allies were truly animated by humanitarian concerns, they wouldn’t be killing Syrians through their own bombs, through the disease and malnutrition caused by sanctions, and indirectly through the insurgents they support.

Finally, let’s consider a parallel. During Friday protests in Gaza leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, Israeli soldiers have killed scores of Palestinians and have wounded hundreds more, who have posed at best a trivial threat to Israel. Would China or Russia be justified in raining a barrage of missiles upon Tel Aviv in response?

Continues at Investig’Action

Written by what's left

May 10, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Posted in north Korea, Syria

Another Beautiful Soul: Counterpunching the Global Assault on Dissent

April 25, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

I was recently alerted to Sonali Kolhatkar’s Truth Dig article, “Why Are Some on the Left Falling for Fake News on Syria?”, which Counterpunch found important enough to republish under the title, “The Left, Syria and Fake News.” Kolhatkar’s article was introduced to me as the work of a “beautiful soul.”

There’s certainly reason to believe the Truth Dig columnist fits the description. She urges us to consider “nonmilitary alternatives to ending the complex [Syrian] war”, but can’t think of any, much as Mehdi Hasan, in his rant against supporters of the Syrian government’s struggle against the aggressions of what he concedes are rapacious US foreign policy, Saudi extremism, and Israeli opportunism, can’t think of the benign alternatives the Syrian government should employ to defend itself (but thinks Assad should come up with some, all the same.)

And like Hasan, Kolhatkar claims neutrality in the US neo-colonial war on Syria, protesting that she’s on neither the side of Washington or Damascus, but (like Counterpunch’s Eric Draitser) is on the side of the Syrian people, the beautiful souls’ escape from the clash of real social forces into an amorphous “humanity.”

The beautiful soul is consumed with “philanthropic fantasies and sentimental phrases about fraternity”, Engels once remarked. They advocate “edifying humanism” and “generic, vague, moral appeals” not “concrete political action” to challenge “a specific social system”.* It’s not clear what Counterpunch is counterpunching, but in the case of Draitser and Kolhatkar, it’s certainly not US imperialism.

Beautiful souls appear not to recognize that the war in Syria is a concrete political struggle connected to a specific social system related to empire; it is the struggle of the United States to extend its dictatorship over all of the Arab world and of Arab nationalists in Damascus and their allies to counter US imperial designs. All the beautiful soul recognizes is that people are being killed, families are being uprooted, small children are being terrorized, and they wish it would all just end. They’re not for justice, or an end to oppression and the dictatorship of the United States, or for equality; they’re for the absence of conflict. And they don’t seem to particularly care how it’s brought about.

Kolhatkar accepts US-orchestrated war propaganda against Syria as true, and brands the challenges to it (which she deems fake news) as false. She deploys illogic (the White Helmets may be funded by the US but that means nothing because so are other groups) and then says our analysis “needs to be far more sophisticated.”

To clarify her position, consider an analogy with the struggle of slave owners against the slave rebellion.

In the war between slave owners and the slave rebellion, Kolhatkar profess neutrality, protesting that she’s for neither, but for humanity. If that weren’t bad enough, she undermines her compromised moral position further by demonstrating that her professed neutrality is a sham and that she’s really for the slave owners.

She accepts as true all the slurs the slave owners hurl at the slave rebellion, urging those who challenge the slave owners’ account to be more sophisticated (i.e., to accept it as incontestable), and to consider nonviolent alternatives to “the complex issue of slavery” (i.e., abandonment of the rebellion.) The effect of her advocacy, were it successful, would be the defeat of the rebellion and the perpetuation of a system of oppression.

Kolhatkar’s professions of neutrality notwithstanding, it’s clear whose side she’s on in the matter of the US war to impose neo-colonial slavery on Syria (and after Syria, Iran), but it’s not clear why. She certainly hasn’t arrived at her position by reasoned analysis; none is offered. Her disquisition is embarrassingly unsophisticated. She appears to be unaware of the issues that lie at the root of the conflict. She’s oblivious to the reality that mass media are jingoistic. And she’s incapable of recognizing glaring lapses of her own logic. We can only wonder what Counterpunch saw in her piece.

What’s more, Kolhatkar’s article is barely distinguishable in its broad strokes and intent from a recent Haaretz editorial, “How Assad’s War Crimes Bring Far Left and Right Together – Under Putin’s Benevolent Gaze,” which Media Lens has called part of “a global assault on dissent.” That an Israeli newspaper should smear supporters of Syria’s struggle against the unlawful, predatory, US-led, Saudi- and Israeli-supported neo-colonial aggression is hardly a surprise. Kolhatkar may have approached the task more gently, but it’s difficult to see how she (or for that matter Counterpunch) parts company with Haaretz.

In any event, whatever left Kolhatka is part of, is not a left that has much to do with challenging and overcoming a real world system of domination, oppression and exploitation. It’s a left whose goal is the absence of conflict, not the presence of justice; it’s for pious expressions of benevolence, not engagement with a real world struggle against dictatorship on an international level.

* Domenico Losurdo. Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History. Palgrave MacMillan. 2016. P 79-80.

Written by what's left

April 24, 2018 at 11:34 pm

Posted in Syria

Meet Syria’s real mass murderers

April 23, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, formerly of the Qatari monarchy’s mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, and a man who according to his failed application for employment at the British newspaper The Daily Mail, is in favour of “social conservativism on issues like marriage, the family, abortion and teenage pregnancies” and admires “outspoken defense of faith…in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists”, has denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a mass murderer. To make his case, Hasan points to the civilian fatalities that have resulted from the Syrian president’s decision to use force to defend his country against (what Hasan acknowledges are) the aggressions of rapacious US foreign policy, Saudi-backed extremists and Israeli opportunism (to use his words).

The figure of 400,000 deaths in the Syrian war since 2011 is widely cited, for which Syrian government forces can be directly responsible for only a fraction. Let’s assume, on no empirical basis whatever, and only for the sake of argument, that since 2011 100,000 people have died at the hands of the Syrian Arab Army. On this basis, Hasan is arguing that the 100,000 deaths that follow from Assad’s decision to defend the Syrian state mark the Syrian president as a mass murderer.

But what about at minimum 500,000 deaths brought about by a decision that had nothing whatever to do with self-defense? Would the person who made that decision not be a mass murderer?

Bill Clinton’s decision to impose sanctions on Iraq led to the deaths through disease and malnutrition of 500,000 children under the age of five, according to the UN. Unlike the rapacious, extremist and opportunist forces arrayed against Syria which threaten the state’s existence, Iraq posed no threat to the United States. Madeline Albright, Clinton’s ambassador to the UN, told Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes that the mass murder of a half million children was “worth it.” The Iraq extermination is mass murder, and Albright’s words are apology for it, on a grand and odious scale. The British blockade of Germany during WWI led to the deaths of 750,000 German civilians, and while the death toll is horrendous, it could be argued in extenuation that the blockade was undertaken in a time of crisis. The blockade Clinton imposed on Iraq wasn’t. There was no crisis. No emergency. No threat to the United States. And yet Clinton made a decision whose outcome was the death of half a million Iraqi children. And Albright said the slaughter was “worth it.”

Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, who has denounced Assad, recently met and exchanged views and pleasantries with Albright, who she admires. Freeland’s grandfather, Michael Chomiak, was a Nazi collaborator and “the chief editor of a Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland that vilified Jews during the Second World War.” Freeland, who “knew for more than two decades that her maternal Ukrainian grandfather was the chief editor of a Nazi newspaper” has spared her grandfather the enmity she expressed for Assad. Freeland says she admires her forebear, an apologist for Nazi mass murder, so it’s fitting she would admire Albright, an apologist for US mass murder. Chomiak’s collaboration with a viciously aggressive imperialist power (the Third Reich) anticipates his granddaughter’s collaboration with another viciously aggressive imperialist power (the US empire.)

What about the 400,000 deaths widely believed to have been produced by the Syrian conflict? Who, ultimately, is to blame? Washington has waged a long war on Syria, whose aim has been, not self-defense, but the elimination of Arab nationalists in Damascus. In pursuit of its strategic goals, Washington has imposed sanctions on Syria—the economic equivalent of an atom bomb—and has enlisted Islamists to carry out a jihad against Assad’s secular government, detailed in my book Washington’s Long War of Syria. Blame for the 400,000 deaths in Syria falls squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, the US presidents who pursued war on Syria, neither in self-defense nor in response to an emergency, but in order to clear away an obstacle to Washington’s total domination of the Arab world (a project whose progress was assisted by Clinton’s earlier extermination of 500,000 Iraqi children.) It’s likely that these men—and Freeland too—think 400,000 deaths is worth it, and that the corpse factory that will attend the continued prosecution of the war, which is on the US agenda, is a price that’s worth it (and why not? They suffer no ill-consequences from an imperial aggression upon a country that’s too weak to strike back.)

It’s helpful for these mass murderers and their apologists that there are Mehdi Hasans around to lay the blame for Syria’s mountain of corpses on the victims of rapacious US foreign policy, rather than on its executors, where it belongs.

Written by what's left

April 23, 2018 at 1:19 am

Posted in Syria

Mehdi Hasan, beautiful soul, and his diatribe against the consequential Left

April 21, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

If it wasn’t already clear, The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, wants us to know he’s a beautiful soul. In an April 19 diatribe against “Bashar al Assad apologists,” Hasan professes his distaste for war crimes, torture, and dictatorship, no matter the source, but devotes particular attention to the violence and restrictions on political and civil liberties attributable to the Syrian president. Assad, Hasan concludes, “is a war criminal even if he didn’t gas civilians,” and leftists should stop defending him. The journalist, who once worked for the Qatari monarchy’s mouthpiece Al Jazeera, then proceeds to recite a litany of charges against Assad, some undeniable, some unproved or unprovable. One gets the impression that he’s peeved that the latest chemical weapons allegations against the Syrian government, ridiculously thin to begin with, and now largely demolished by Robert Fisk’s reporting, have failed to stick.

At one time, where one stood on the political spectrum depended on one’s position on the questions of political, social, and economic equality, on a national and international level. Leftists favored greater equality; conservatives liked the status quo; and reactionaries, including Qatari monarchs, agitated for a return to a world of ascriptive hierarchies based on class, gender and race. The methods political actors used to achieve their goals could be judged as acceptable or deplorable on moral or instrumental grounds, but it was understood that the methods used were not intrinsic to the goals sought.

It was also understood that the circumstances constrained the methods. The methods available to advance a struggle toward growing equality, for example, or in defense of it, differed depending on the strength of the opposition; the likelihood it would yield to violence versus moral suasion; the degree to which supporters could be galvanized to fight and their tolerance for sacrifice, and so on. One could find the methods disagreeable, but if so, there was an expectation that one would suggest realistic alternatives.

Hasan has turned the distinction between goals and methods on its head. In Hasan’s view, leftists are defined not by what they’re trying to achieve, but by the methods they use. Torture, dictatorship, abridgement of civil liberties, warfare that produces collateral civilian casualties—all these things, according to Hasan, are signs of a contra-left political orientation. Thus, he argues, with illogic, that “Bashar al-Assad is not an anti-imperialist of any kind, nor is he a secular bulwark against jihadism; he is a mass murderer, plain and simple.” The illogic is evident in the false dichotomy that lies at the center of his argument. Mass murderer (if indeed Assad can be so characterized) does not exclude anti-imperialist and secular bulwark against jihadism; but in Hasan’s world, mass murderer and secular anti-imperialist are mutually exclusive. They are so to Hasan, because he has transfigured Leftism into the concept of avoiding all choices that have potentially awful consequences.

The beautiful soul retreats from the political struggles of the real world into impotent moral posturing, where no choices are ever made, because the consequences of all choices are awful to one degree or another. Success, then, in any political struggle is transformed from acting on the world to change it into avoiding any step that might have terrible consequences—a recipe for impotence, paralysis and failure. To the beautiful soul, the only leftist political movement that is worthy of support is the one that fails, never the one that comes to power and implements its political program and fights to overcome opposition to it.

To Hasan, the Syrian State’s position on the political spectrum is unrelated to its goals: overcoming sectarian and other divisions in the Arab world, safeguarding Syria’s political independence, and achieving economic sovereignty. Nor does it matter that Damascus is engaged in a struggle against (to use Hasan’s own words) “rapacious U.S. foreign policy”, “Saudi-inspired extremism” and “Israeli opportunism”—in other words, the aggression of conservative and reactionary forces that are more powerful individually to say nothing of collectively than the Syrian State by many orders of magnitude. To the Mahatma, all of these considerations are irrelevant, and all that matters in the evaluation of Assad’s political orientation is whether the methods Damascus has used to defend the gains it has made in the direction of asserting its right to equality and sovereignty are methods that that are suitable to a State in periods of stability, normalcy and safety. It’s as if what Hasan deplores about a war cabinet, for example, is not the war that made the war cabinet necessary, but the very fact that a war cabinet was created in response to it, as if carrying on in the regular manner could somehow make the war go away.

Yet what alternatives might the Syrian government have adopted to face the crisis and emergency that rapacious US foreign policy, Saudi-inspired extremism, and Israeli opportunism inflicted upon it? Even the US constitution makes provision for concentration of authority in the executive branch and abridgement of political and civil liberties under conditions of internal rebellion and threatened invasion. From the mid-1960s forward, if not earlier, Syria has faced permanent crisis and emergency, including an ongoing official state of war with Israel, foreign occupation of its territory (now by the United States and Turkey in addition to Israel), and the fostering of internal rebellion by Western states with imperial ambitions—comparable conditions to those which the architects of the US constitution envisaged would require extraordinary powers for US presidents. Are not comparable powers required for a Syrian president? Any realistic assessment of the challenges Syria faces leads inevitably to the conclusion that harsh and quite disagreeable measures are called for if the Leftist project of defending the equality and sovereignty of Syria within the international network of States is to be achieved against the determined opposition of “rapacious U.S. foreign policy,” “Saudi-inspired extremism” and “Israeli opportunism.”

So, faced with these enormous challenges, what should Assad do? Whatever it is, Hasan can’t say. The best The Intercept writer can do is demand: “Is it the only way you know how to oppose” US, Saudi and Israeli aggression? Well, it does, indeed, appear to be the only way the Syrian government knows how to resist forces many times stronger than itself. But if not this way, then what way? “Should we shoot balloons at the opposition?” Assad once asked another beautiful soul.

In the war against the Axis states, the Allies used torture, summary executions, indiscriminate bombing, confinement of civilians to concentration camps, encroachments on civil liberties, concentration of power in the executive branch, and worse. These methods were clearly disagreeable. And yet, they were the methods chosen to overcome fascism.

It would be wrong to denounce the anti-fascist war as deplorable because some, or indeed many, of its methods, were distasteful–from the virtual dictatorships exercised in Britain and the United States, to the abuse, torture and summary executions of Axis prisoners of war, to sieges and the starving of civilians. And was the Allied countries’ refusal to guarantee the rights of assembly and free expression of Nazi and fascist supporters to be condemned as a human rights violation? Every accusation Hasan makes against Assad he can equally make against Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s conduct in WWII. Curiously (or predictably) he doesn’t, choosing instead to direct his venom at the duo’s ally, Stalin, the only one of the three whose goals were authentically leftist.

The beautiful soul is not of this world. The options available to people who achieve real gains in real world political struggles are rarely simple, and are often ugly and disagreeable to one degree or another. The beautiful soul removes himself from the real world of politics, like the monk retreating from the world into his cell, and thereby avoids having to make choices whose consequences may be regrettable. His politics revolve around denunciations of the choices made by people who act on the world to change it. Few would contest that Hitler’s Nazism, Mussolini’s fascism, and Tojo’s militarism, could have been overcome except by recourse to violence, with all its ugly outcomes, though we can imagine Hasan, the Mahatma, demanding of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin: “Is war the only way you know how to oppose rapacious Nazism, or Japanese imperialism of Mussolini’s opportunism?” We can also imagine him thundering that “Roosevelt is not an anti-fascist of any kind; he is a mass murderer, plain and simple.”

Leftism is not turning the other cheek, an unqualified commitment to rights of free expression and assembly, or scrupulously observing the rules of war, anymore than it’s the opposite of these things. However much Hasan would have us believe that Assad’s shooting balloons at the opposition would make him an authentic anti-imperialist and genuine secular bulwark against jihadism, the truth of the matter is that that shooting balloons would only make Assad a spectacularly unsuccessful anti-imperialist and a secular sieve rather than secular bulwark against jihadist extremism. The Syrian president is unquestionably an anti-imperialist, a point Hasan, himself, concedes (though he doesn’t seem to know it) when he asks is there no other way to oppose US imperialism? What is an anti-imperialist but one who opposes imperialism? The Syrian president, then, in Hasan’s view is engaged in anti-imperialist opposition—he just doesn’t like Assad’s methods. He can’t, however, suggest any realistic alternatives.

What distinguishes Assad from leaders Hasan doesn’t demonize as mass murderers is that Assad has been forced by an internal rebellion and invasion to invoke police state powers and deploy force to meet the crisis and that other leaders, enjoying conditions of stability and normalcy, have not. Would any leader under comparable circumstances have acted differently? Hasan’s facile analysis inevitably condemns all leaders of any State or movement that has deployed force and killed, as mass murderers, unless they have met two sets of impossible standards: (1) they’ve guaranteed a politically open society in which the rights of free expression and assembly are guaranteed to all, including the opposition, which is thereby allowed to freely organize the government’s demise, and (2) they carry out all armed operations strictly in accordance with the rules of war.

The New York Times once observed that the US military adheres to all laws of war when it can but violates them under circumstances of military necessity, as, for example, in the capture of cities from insurgents who use the civilian population as shields. Hasan condemns the Syrian Arab Army (or rather Assad specifically) for siege and indiscriminate bombing, presumably in connection with the liberation of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, measures also employed by US forces in the capture of Raqqa and Mosul. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the US violations on the grounds that “Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.” (Hasan, predictably, didn’t include Mattis in his demonology; the beautiful soul reserves his most impassioned tirades for figures of the Left.) The only alternative to siege and bombing was to accept the capture of these cities by Islamist insurgents as a fait accompli–hence, to surrender to Saudi-inspired extremism and accept the disintegration of the secular Arab nationalist state and the leftist (i.e., anti-imperialist) values embedded in it.

The argument I’m making here is not one of “whataboutism”, but that the only realistic choices available to a military confronting insurgent forces which capture territory and refuse to allow the civilian population to flee are either (1) siege and bombing, with inevitable civilian casualties, or (2) capitulation. Hasan’s diatribe against Assad is in effect a plea for Syrian surrender, for there is no realistic way the Syrian government can meet the crisis and emergency produced by “rapacious U.S. foreign policy”, “Saudi-inspired extremism” and “Israeli opportunism” but to take measures Hasan and other beautiful souls will shudder at and condemn. Implicit in Hasan’s analysis is the view that the only real world struggles against inequality worthy of support are those that use quixotic methods that guarantee their failure, and hence, facilitate the triumph of movements of exclusion, inequality, oppression and exploitation.

Addendum

Hasan and his coreligionist Eric Draitser, profess not to take sides. Instead, they claim to hover neutrally above the field of battle, siding only with such abstractions as “humanity,” as if humanity does not include contending forces, or, in Draitser’s case, with “the Syrian people”, as if the Syrian people does not include government forces, Islamist insurgents, and Kurdish fighters. Through a verbal sleight of hand they hope to conjure an artificial construct free from competing forces to which they can claim fealty and thereby avoid taking a side. This is a deception, and the position of cowards.

The intellectual predecessors of Hasan, Draitser, and their ilk likewise adopted a position of neutrality in the struggle between slave owners and the slave rebellion, deploring the methods of struggle chosen by both sides, but particularly the violence of the slave rebellion, the necessary condition of the slaves’ emancipation. “If only they could work out their disagreements amicably,” they sighed.

In the 1930s, the neutralists, seeking to hover God-like above the fray, refused to side with either the Communists or Nazis, abhorring the deployment of defensive violence by Communists and Jews against the Nazis who would destroy them.

Written by what's left

April 21, 2018 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Syria

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