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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Avoiding the Failure of Libya: US Strategy in Syria

September 27, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

While Washington toppled a resource nationalist in Libya who annoyed US oil companies, it failed to install a successor government in a stable environment in which US interests could be effectively advanced. US policy in Syria emphasizes “an orderly political transition” in which Arab nationalists vacate the Syrian state, yielding to anti-nationalist US marionettes. The political transition is to be brought about by proxies, militant jihadists, who the United States and its allies will strengthen enough to weaken and dispirit the current government in Damascus but not enough to topple it and plunge the country into a Libya-style chaos.

Washington’s strategy in Syria is an implicit admission that its direct military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have failed to bring about its desired foreign policy objectives of establishing stable conditions in which pro-US regimes can carry out policies to advance Wall Street’s economic, and Washington’s interlinked political and military agendas, in those few remaining parts of the world that refuse to submit to US hegemony, alternatively described as the international dictatorship of US business interests .

To be sure, the objectives have been partially met. There’s a US-installed regime in Kabul, but the active resistance of the Taliban limits its room to maneuver to advance US goals. Sectarian strife in Iraq, largely the consequence of the divide and rule policies forced upon Iraqis by US occupying forces in the mid-2000s, has produced tension among Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian communities, while Iran competes with Washington for influence in the country. And the US-led (from behind) military operation in Libya—essentially a marriage of NATO air power with al-Qaeda foot soldiers to topple a “resource nationalist” whom US oil companies could no longer abide—has produced a failed state, utter chaos, and no reliable US puppet to take control of the country to reshape it in the interests of corporate USA.

With these failures in mind, Washington has approached the project of purging Damascus of its governing Arab nationalist ideology more judiciously and with greater caution than it approached similar regime change projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The strategy is to force a political settlement in which the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Arab nationalist colleagues step aside, leaving the infrastructure of the Syrian state in place, to be taken over by reliable anti-nationalist US marionettes. The political settlement is to be brought about by forcing a military stalemate between the Syrian government and Islamist rebels. At some point, it’s hoped, the Arab nationalists in Damascus will realize that their situation is hopeless, and sue for a graceful exit.

The key to the strategy is ISIS and other groups of fanatical Islamist militants. They must be allowed to be strong enough to maintain unrelenting military pressure on Damascus but not so strong that they topple the Syrian government. To achieve this delicate balance, ISIS is held in check by a US-led air campaign of containment, while other jihadists are managed through controls on the amount of arms, money and training they receive from their sponsors, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf oil dictatorships.

The nature of the US strategy has long been discussed openly in major US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have revealed that: “The White House has drawn up elaborate plans for a post-Assad Syria that includes an orderly political transition that keeps the country together and preserves Western interests.” “U.S. officials are hoping for a diplomatic solution to keep national institutions in place.” “The U.S. … wants to keep technocratic elements of the state in place, seeking to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion”. “American policy is not to oust Mr. Assad precipitously, risking an extremist takeover, but to push him to a political settlement.” The United States doesn’t want “wholesale regime change, institution collapse, state collapse (as it) saw in Iraq.” Christine Wormuth, US undersecretary of defense for policy, points to “a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down while preserving a government structure to avoid chaos.”

Major U.S. newspapers have also revealed that “The (US) end game requires a very careful calibration that doesn’t tip the meter in an unintended way toward groups that could produce the kind of post-Assad Syria that (the United States isn’t) looking for.” Underscoring this point “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests”. “The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail.”

Significantly, “The CIA’s mission…has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result…limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that … U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.” “Gen. Martin Dempsey, (when he was) chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (was) particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.”

Washington’s policy of forcing competing forces in Syria to bleed each other into exhaustion is looked upon favorably by the Israelis, who see it as coming straight out of the playbook of setting Arabs against each other, leaving the Zionists free to continue their project of usurping Arab territory as the Arabs descend into a hell of intra-ethnic internecine warfare. This is congenial to the Zionists’ “imperialism by the inch” as novelist Susan Abulhawa terms it. “Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened.” Meanwhile, Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, notes that “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie. Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

It seems clear now that US planning for a post-Assad Syria foresees an end to aid to its jihadist allies—the United States “has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years” through a covert CIA program—and an intensification of the US campaign against ISIS, if, and when, a political settlement is reached to purge the Syrian state of its Arab nationalist elements. Obama’s choice of words in declaring war on the self-proclaimed caliphate was not insignificant. The US president said that the Pentagon would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. So far US and allied forces have only degraded the militant group’s capabilities, holding it in check so that it doesn’t grow strong enough to topple the Arab nationalists, while not pressing so hard that ISIS is destroyed. The Pentagon won’t turn to destroying ISIS until its usefulness in advancing the US agenda of forcing a military stalemate and Assad’s exit through a political settlement has been realized. At that point, and only then, will the hammer come down.

The character of the Pentagon’s ISIS campaign is reflected in the complaints of many people, from Assad to Obama’s critics in Washington, that the campaign has been ineffective and seemingly half-hearted. Assad points out correctly that the Syrian Arab Army has borne the brunt of the fight against ISIS, and that the Syrian air force, small by comparison with US coalition forces, flies more missions.

When you follow media reports…you see that the rate of the airstrikes conducted by what they call a coalition against terrorism is sometimes less than 10 strikes a day or a little more…We are talking about a coalition which includes 60 countries, some of which are rich and advanced. On the other hand, the Syrian air force, which is very small in comparison… conducts in a single day many times the number of airstrikes…That’s why we say simply that there is no serious effort to fight (ISIS’s) terrorism, and what is being achieved by Syrian forces on the ground equals in one day what is being achieved by these states in weeks.

Veteran journalist Robert Fisk echoes Assad’s assessment. “I don’t think the U.S. is serious. Very occasionally, you can hear the rumble of American bombs. But they’re certainly not having much effect.”

According to US secretary of state John Kerry, “Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria.” US strategy might be more aptly summed up this way: “Our focus remains on destroying ISIL eventually and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria to be brought about, we hope, partly by the pressure ISIS and other jihadists can bring to bear on Damascus.”

According to Western dogma, Kerry, along with British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, are champions of democracy, on a moral plane far higher than that on which the Syrian president operates. After all, Assad is a dictator, or so we’re told, whose ‘brutal repression” of “largely” (i.e., not entirely) peaceful demonstrations in 2011 sparked an Islamist rebellion. It’s not clear how a peaceful call for democracy can almost instantly metamorphose into a violent rebellion on behalf of the anti-democratic project of creating a state based on the Quran. But this is not the only reason to question the narrative. The story suffers from another problem.

Islamist rebellions have been an ongoing feature of Syria’s modern history, antedating Bashar al Assad’s presidency. Tensions between secular Arab nationalists on the one hand, and conservative Islamists on the other, have been a staple of Syrian politics. The conflict has often been deliberately stoked by London and Washington, seeking to use political Islam to counter communist and nationalist threats to their domination of the Near East and its immense petroleum resources, no less in Syria than in Egypt (against Nasser), Iraq (against Saddam Hussein) and in Afghanistan (against a leftist, secular, modernizing government committed to eliminating discriminations based on race, sex and property.) Britain and the United States don’t want the populations of Western Asia owning and controling their own natural resources for use in their own interests. As Bernard Lewis put it in a 1992 article in the virtual house organ of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, the danger to the United States of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was the possibility that it would lead to ”monopolistic control (by Arab nationalists) of (Arab) oil.” Damascus is perhaps the final redoubt of the kind of Arab nationalist thinking that inspired Lewis to call for a rethinking of the Middle East.

Curiously, Kerry and Hammond appear to be able to work themselves up into great fits of outrage over Assad, the “dictator”, who, contrary to the odious appellation Western officials and media have foisted upon him, is not as dictatorial as may be supposed. He was elected in a multi-candidate contest, and Syria has an elected legislature. At the same time, the two Western foreign ministers feel only the warmest regard for Saudi dictator, King Salman, the head of a family of parasites who owes his political position, privileges and immense wealth to hereditary succession and the patronage of his imperialist sponsor, the United States. The West recognizes no limits to its indulgence of the misogynistic, anti-Shia, sectarian, belligerent, democracy-abominating brutes in Riyadh, whose reciprocal indulgence of Western business interests is no less limitless. Apart from facilitating the Western oil industry’s accumulation of profits, the Saudi royal dictatorship uses oil revenues, not to develop the Arab nation as the Arab nationalists would do, but to keep the pipeline of money flowing to New York investment banks and Western weapons companies.

For their services in expanding the wealth of the West’s corporate elite, the Saudi despots get a pass. They can send Canadian-supplied light armored vehicles into Bahrain to violently repress protestors who call for a parliamentary democracy without fear the Canadian government will allow its rhetoric about promoting human rights scuttle future sales of more light armored vehicles to Riyadh. Recently asked to justify his policy of arming a repressive regime, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper could only lamely reply, “They’re our allies.” This was the same lame defense invoked by US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, when asked by a journalist for his reaction to the jaw-dropping news that Saudi Arabia, which has executed more than 100 people this year, mostly by beheading, has been selected to head a key U.N. human rights panel. “I don’t have any comment, don’t have any reaction to it,” said Toner. “I mean, frankly it’s—we would welcome it. We’re close allies.”

The nature of the blatant hypocrisy that indulges a medieval tyranny while seeking to regime-change an elected president was spelled out clearly in the pages of The Washington Post by a senior US official. “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.” We need look no further to understand why the United States and its allies are using jihadists to try to force a political settlement in Damascus that would cleanse the Syrian state of a non-cooperative Arab nationalist ideology while giving a pass to the cooperative Saudi dictatorship to behead and crucify, sequester and veil women, prevent them from driving automobiles and subordinate them to male domination, and illegally invade, bomb and blockade Yemen (amply assisted, incidentally, by Washington and London whose high state figures never tire of singing paeans to the rule of law they have no intention of being bound by themselves.)

To return to Kerry and Hammond, the alleged democrats, and Assad, the alleged anti-democrat, which of the following statements reflects the spirit of democracy, and which reflects the spirit of its opposite, rule of a people without representation from abroad, (the very arrangement that American colonists rebelled against King George III over)?

Assad: For us, the president comes through the people and through elections, and if he goes, he goes through the people. He doesn’t go as a result of an American decision, a Security Council decision, the Geneva conference or the Geneva communiqué.

Hammond: “Assad has to go. He can’t be part of Syria’s long-term future.”

Who is Philip Hammond, a member of the British political elite, resident of a country half a world away from Syria, to say who Syrians can and can’t have as their president?

Hammond’s arrogance, as US policy on Syria, is an affront against both geography and democracy.

Written by what's left

September 26, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Syria

Visible and Invisible Victims

September 26, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

Why is it that this photograph of a young Syrian refugee who drown in flight from the war in Syria has been made an iconic image…

Syrian refugee

…while this similar photograph of a young Palestinian killed by the Israeli military while playing on a Gaza beach has not?


Which isn’t to say that one tragedy is more worthy of attention than the other, but that’s just the point. One has been made more worthy than the other.


The answer, I think, has much to do with how politics pervades the mass media and uses it to draw attention to some events and not others.

Why has a media spotlight been shone on the pitiable plight of refugees, now, and not earlier? Syrians have been displaced in countless numbers by the jihadist rampage through their country for more than four years. For four years their plight has been largely invisible.

What of refugees fleeing the chaos created by the war on Libya—essentially a marriage of NATO air forces with al-Qaeda foot soldiers to oust a resource nationalist, Muammar Gaddafi, whom US oil companies could no longer abide?

Why has little attention been paid to the exodus of refugees from the ongoing tumult in Afghanistan, and Iraq?

And the little boy slaughtered on a Gaza beach: He too is forgotten, if he was ever really noticed in the first place.

Could the invisibility of these victims have something to do with reality that they were victimized by the United States, by NATO, by Israel, the supposed “good guys”?

And could the visibility of the drowned little Syrian refugee boy, on a beach, serve a political purpose—to blame the tragedy of the Syrian war on the supposed “bad guy”, Bashar al-Assad, a man the West wants to step aside from his job as president of Syria, because he, like Gaddafi, is a nationalist, and the United States doesn’t like nationalists?

Meanwhile, Saudi King Salman, not a nationalist, is illegally bombing, invading, and blockading his neighbor Yemen (with the assistance of the United States.) The United States likes Salman. Journalist Glen Greenwald recently wrote that “Saudi Arabia executed more than 100 people already this year, mostly by beheading (a rate of 1 execution every two days), and not only is it serially flogging dissidents, but it is reaching new levels of tyrannical depravity as it is about to behead and then crucify the 21-year-old son of a prominent regime critic, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was convicted at the age of 17 of engaging in demonstrations against the government.”

Earlier, Saudi Arabia invaded neighboring Bahrain to violently repress protesters demanding a parliamentary democracy. They used Canadian-supplied light armored vehicles. The Canadian government has organized the sale of more light armored vehicles to the Saudi royal dictatorship. This is all pretty much invisible.

A US official explains that “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.” That goes a long way toward explaining visibility and invisibility. A free pass, the reward for cooperation, is a cloak of invisibility.

If the image of a drowned Syrian refugee is being used in an attempt to blame the tragedy of the Syrian war on the supposed “bad guy”, Bashar al-Assad, that too, would be another feat of deflection, of concealing the crimes of the West, namely, that the chaos of Syria that ultimately led to the death of a little child on a beach (and the death of numberless others in far more gruesome ways), is as much as the chaos of Afghanistan, of Iraq, and of Libya, a product of decisions taken by the United States and its allies to impose their wills, their politics, their militaries, their economics, their religions, and their proxies, on other peoples’ countries.

The United States has trained and equipped almost 10,000 rebels and sent them into Syria to foment chaos, misery, and terror, part of a covert CIA program. Its allies have showered fanatical Islamist militants with money, weapons and training, to destabilize Syria, to force a political settlement that would see the current government in Syria step down, to make way for one that is willing to cooperate with the United States politically, militarily and economically.

Two little boys lying dead on beaches killed by governments that present themselves as the “good guys.” Neither are.

Written by what's left

September 26, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Posted in Palestine, Syria

Assad talks to Russian Media

Highlights from a Russian media interview of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on September 16, 2015.

On the West’s campaign against ISIS

Since this coalition started to operate, ISIS has been expanding. In other words, the coalition has failed and it has no real impact on the ground.

On why the West is against him

Assad-photo-620x330[T]he Western principle followed now in Syria and Russia and other countries is changing presidents, changing states, or what they call bringing regimes down. Why? Because they do not accept partners, and they do not accept independent states. What is their problem with Russia? What is their problem with Syria? What is their problem with Iran? They are all independent countries. They want a certain individual to go and be replaced by someone who acts in their interests and not in the interest of his country. For us, the president comes through the people and through elections, and if he goes, he goes through the people. He doesn’t go as a result of an American decision, a Security Council decision, the Geneva conference or the Geneva communiqué.

On the origins of unrest in Syria

[W]e saw that the war [in Iraq would] turn Iraq into a sectarian country, into a society divided against itself. To the West of Syria there is another sectarian country, Lebanon. We are in the middle. We knew well that we will be affected. Consequently, the beginning of the Syrian crisis, or what happened in the beginning, was the natural result of that war and the sectarian situation in Iraq, part of which moved to Syria, and it was easy for them to incite some Syrian groups on sectarian grounds.

The second point which might be less crucial is that when the West adopted terrorism officially in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and called terrorists at that time “freedom fighters,” and then in 2006 when the Islamic State appeared in Iraq under American sponsorship and they didn’t fight it.

All these things together created the conditions for the unrest with the Western support and Gulf money, particularly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and with Turkish logistic support, particularly that [Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan belongs intellectually to the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, he believes that if the situation changed in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, it means the creation of a new sultanate, this time not an Ottoman sultanate, but a sultanate for the Brotherhood extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and ruled by Erdogan.

And if … gaps and weak points [in democracy] are the cause [of the unrest], why didn’t they lead to revolutions in the Gulf States, particularly in Saudi Arabia which doesn’t know anything about democracy?

Written by what's left

September 16, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Syria

Terrorism from Damascus’s perspective

Below are excerpts from a July 26, 2015 speech Syrian president Bashar al-Assad delivered in Damascus.

turkey-us-isis-syrian-conflict-birgun-gazetesiOn the West’s double standards on terrorism

[Western powers] call it terrorism when it hits them, and call it revolution, freedom, democracy, and human rights when it hits us. There, its perpetrators are terrorists, and here, they are rebels and moderate opposition. They scream at the top of their voices whenever they are touched by a spark of fire while they fall deathly silent when we are burned by it.

On humanitarian intervention

Let them permit the opposition in their countries to bear arms and kill and destroy and keep calling them opposition, or permit them to become proxies or let other states decide what is the ruling system for them should be, then we will believe and accept their old recipes that have always been used to justify an aggression or interference in states’ affairs under humanitarian slogans like human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on.

On the West’s relationship with militant Islamists

What they want is to keep this monster in check and not eliminate it. All their military, political and media campaigns are in fact smoke screens, and what the West has done so far has led to a growth of terrorism instead of eliminating it, and this is confirmed by reality, not personal analysis, as terrorism has spread geographically, its material resources have increased, and its manpower has doubled.

An observation a propos of Assad’s comments: Western newspapers talk of the Egyptian army’s fight in the Sinai against militant Islamists, but of the Syrian army’s fight against militant Islamists in Syria as “regime forces” waging a “brutal” war to crush a “rebellion”.

Written by what's left

July 27, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Syria

Rethinking Chemical Weapons

It’s highly unlikely that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons in its ongoing fight against foreign-backed jihadists, but if it had, would use of the weapons be uniquely reprehensible, and would it justify an intervention?

“You mention chemical weapons, people immediately freeze and are irrational.”–Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical weapons unit.*

June 27, 2015
Updated July 18, 2015 and August 14, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

There are two problems with the way we think about chemical weapons. The first is the idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, and explosives. This position is both intellectually and morally indefensible. The second is our belief that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They are not. In fact, they’re no more WMD than are bullets and machetes. [1]

Before elaborating on these points, let me address the question of whether the Syrian Army has used chemical weapons. This article is not a defense of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, because I don’t believe the Syrian Army has used them. If it had, I would defend the army’s use of these weapons, but there’s no reason to believe they have been used, and compelling reasons to believe they haven’t. It’s impossible, of course, to say definitively that Syrian forces haven’t used chemical weapons; negatives can’t be proved. But there are compelling political and military reasons that can be cited that any reasonable person would concede amount to formidable constraints on the Syrian military that would prevent it from using chemical weapons. These constraints make the allegations against Syrian forces unconvincing. Plus, there’s no hard evidence, only allegations by states with a record of placing fabrications on the public record as pretexts for illegal aggressions against nationalist, socialist, communist and anti-imperialist governments. As an Arab nationalist state, with a significant public sector, and an independent foreign policy, Syria is a prime target for aggression by the United States, its allies, and its proxies.

Chemical weapons, as will be shown below, are highly ineffective. It’s difficult to conceive of when they would be used when bullets, conventional ordnance, missiles and jet fighters are at hand. Militarily, there are no compelling reasons for the Syrian military to use chemical weapons. This logic is all the stronger in the case of chlorine gas which is more an annoyance (its makes people sick, and rarely kills) than a credible weapon. [2]

Additionally, it made no sense politically for Syrian forces to deploy chemical weapons once their use became a red line drawn by US President Barack Obama. Since the US leader promised that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger missile strikes, any possibility of their use became severely constrained. And since there were no compelling military reasons to use them, allegations that the Syrian military did, indeed, use them are unconvincing in the extreme.

The recent allegation that Syrian forces are using chlorine gas-filled barrel bombs dropped from helicopters suffers from the same lack of credibility. The political reasons against using chlorine gas remain the same as those that militate against the use of banned chemical weapons. And the military reasons that act as restraints on their use are even stronger, since chlorine gas rarely kills. [3]

Let’s acknowledge, then, that the Syrian military almost certainly hasn’t used chemical weapons in Syria in the last four years, and almost certainly isn’t mounting chlorine gas attacks today. Instead, let’s turn to the following questions:

• Are chemical weapons more reprehensible than other weapons?
• Are they legitimately WMD?
• Where did the concept of WMD come from?
• What role, if any, does the concept play in selling Western foreign policy goals to the public?

The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, or explosives is untenable. Why is choking to death from gas inhalation inhumane, while bleeding to death from a bullet wound, being crushed to death by a collapsed building struck by a missile, or being incinerated in an explosion, morally acceptable? Why is killing hundreds of people with sarin or mustard gas bad, when killing a hundred-fold more people through sanctions and economic blockade and their attendant hunger and disease, is all right? In this perverted moral calculus, what matters, it seems, is not the weapon, per se, but who’s wielding it. Our unique weapons are all right. Their unique weapons are morally repugnant. This double standard is glimpsed in the condemnation by Western human rights NGOs of the Palestinians’ home-made rockets as indiscriminate and therefore criminal under international law and the acceptance of Israel’s missiles and bombs as “precise” and therefore acceptable under the rules of war. The trouble is that the “morally repugnant” Palestinian rockets kill few Israelis while the Israeli’s “morally acceptable” precise weapons kill many Palestinians. [4]

To have any meaning at all, the concept of WMD must include weapons that kill massive numbers of people, and exclude those that don’t. A single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people. [5] By contrast, a rocket with a typical payload of nerve gas will kill between 108 and 290 people if delivered under ideal weather conditions (overcast skies with no wind) over a heavily populated area against unprotected people. If there is a moderate wind or the sun is out, the death rate will be 11 to 29 people. [6] WMD kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, not tens or hundreds.

Compared to the single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a single rocket with a typical chemical weapons payload perfectly delivered against unprotected people will produce a fatality rate less than one-half of one percent as great under ideal conditions, and less than one-twentieth of one percent as great under realistic conditions. Against those with gas masks, or who have taken shelter indoors, the fatality rate will be infinitesimally small.

In WWI, it took 70,000 tons of gas to produce as many fatalities as were produced in Hiroshima by a single atom bomb. [7]

For the aforesaid reasons, defining chemical weapons as WMD is highly dubious unless the concept is so diluted that bullets and machetes are also included. [8] In large quantities, chemical weapons can kill many people. But in large quantities, bullets and machetes can kill many people, too.

Chemical weapons were introduced by the Germans in 1915. They accounted for less than one percent of battle deaths in WWI. Only 2-3 percent of those gassed on the Western front died, while the fatality rate among those struck by bullets or shrapnel was 10 to 12 times higher. It took a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. After the war, some military analysts argued that gas was comparatively humane—it incapacitated troops without killing them. [9]

Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s—to little outside protest. At the time, Iraq was fighting a US enemy, Iran, with US assistance. Hence, for the United States and its allies, chemical weapons were all right—even though they were largely ineffective. Of 27,000 Iranian soldiers gassed, only 268 died—one in 100. [10]

Baghdad’s chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 is held up as an example of the weapons’ extensive destructive power. The attack is said to have produced 5,000 deaths. However, even if we accept this estimate as reasonable, it isn’t in the tens of thousands, as would be expected from a true WMD, like an atom bomb, but is in the low thousands. And there’s reason to believe that even this number is over-estimated. The source of the estimate was Iranian authorities, who had an interest in exaggerating the number of fatalities, because they were engaged in a conflict with Iraq and were providing aid to the Kurds. Journalists visiting the town after the attack reported seeing hundreds, not thousands, of dead. And the town had been under siege for several days and bombarded by conventional artillery.
Conventional weapons likely accounted for some fraction of the fatalities, and perhaps a large fraction. [11]

A Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi chemical weapon attacks in Iraqi Kurdish areas during the 1980s cited two attacks in which it is suggested that 300-400 may have been killed (again hundreds, and not tens of thousands of fatalities), while estimates for other attacks are under 100, and most are under 20. [12]

The release of sarin gas into a Japanese subway station in 1995 killed only 12 people. [13]

In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack took place in the Syrian town of Ghouta. Fatality estimates range from the low hundreds to low thousands, not tens of thousands. [14]

Thousands were killed in the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India. This is sometimes cited as an example of the massive destructive power of chemical agents. But 40 tons of toxic gas was released into a heavily populated area after an explosion at a chemical plant, and no chemical weapon carries a payload of 40 tons. [15] To be sure, chemical weapons can be highly destructive if used in massive quantities, but so too can bombs and incendiaries, as witness the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo in WWII.


The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets and shrapnel comes out of WWI. The Germans were the first to introduce gas in 1915 and the British emphasized the inhuman aspects to try to draw the United States into the war on their side. [16] The British used the deception—to be used by many other states subsequently–that their weapons were humane while the weapons uniquely used by the other side were inhumane. That this was wrong is starkly illustrated by the following: Eighty thousand soldiers died from gas in WWI. Even if all of these fatalities were British, the number would pale in comparison with the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as 750,000 German civilians who perished from hunger and disease as a result of Britain’s deployment of its main weapon against Germany—a blockade intended to starve the country into surrender. [17]

Initially, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. [18] In 1989, George HW Bush departed from this convention, using the term WMD in an address to the UN in connection with chemical weapons. [19]

In 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, the White House began to talk of Iraq as “an emergent regional superpower, bristling with weapons of mass destruction,” a reference to Baghdad’s chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. [20] As shown above, chemical weapons are manifestly not WMD. Nor, by themselves, are ballistic missiles WMD. But it was useful for Washington to transform Iraq from being seen accurately as a comparatively weak country militarily that could carry out chemical weapons attacks, each of which could kill a few thousand at most under favorable conditions, to being seen inaccurately as a WMD threat. The purpose of elevating Iraq from a non-threat to a large threat was to soften public opinion for a series of wars and massively destructive sanctions that would soon be rolled out against the country. Washington’s problem with Iraq wasn’t that it bristled with WMD (it didn’t), but that it bristled against subservience to the interlocked political and economic agendas of Washington and Wall Street. As an Arab nationalist state with a publicly-owned economy sitting atop an ocean of oil, Iraq was a prime target for US aggression. Deceiving the Western public into believing Iraq was a WMD threat would secure public support for, or at least acquiescence to, a campaign of war and sanctions leading to regime change and absorption of Iraq into the United States’ informal empire. The ultimate prize would be the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry. [21]

In 1992, as sanctions against Iraq were beginning to bite, US law defined chemical and biological weapons as WMD. In 1994, radiological weapons and explosives were added to the list. Under the law, almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols now became WMD, a vast extension of the concept, rendering it virtually meaningless. [22]

Chlorine Gas

Bullets kill. Shrapnel kills. Explosives kill. Chlorine gas makes people sick. It is lethal only in very high doses and where medical attention is not immediately available. [23] It’s a nuisance, not a lethal threat. It’s not even in the same category as bullets and machetes.

There are compelling political and military considerations that militate against Syrian forces mounting chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine gas is less effective than bullets and conventional ordnance, so why use it? Moreover, doing so would open up Syria to the risk of the United States claiming that the Syrian military’s use of chlorine gas was uniquely reprehensible and that air and missile strikes on Syrian forces were necessary as a moral response to barbarity.

By contrast, there is a strong reason for the jihadist proxies of the United States and its allies to mount chlorine gas attacks. They would welcome any direct military intervention by US and allied forces that weakens the Assad government. Any evidence of chlorine gas use in Syria can be employed to create a pretext for a US-led air campaign against Syrian forces, or short of that, to further vilify the Syrian government. Pinning blame for chlorine gas attacks on Assad and convincing the Western public that the Syrian president is culpable isn’t difficult to do. The Syrian leader has already been so thoroughly demonized that any charge, no matter how absurd, improbable, or baseless, will stick. All that needs to be done is to produce evidence of chlorine gas use, and then have Western state officials publicly express a “strong suspicion” that the Syrian Army is responsible. No hard evidence need be produced. The allegations will be disseminated uncritically by mass news media, to become, soon enough, the received truth. If the incident isn’t used by Western forces as a pretext for an attack, it can still be added to the growing Himalaya of slanders and black propaganda that has accumulated against the Syrian government over the last four years, and so make a future attack all the easier to sell to Western populations.

Significantly, chlorine gas has been used by jihadists in Iraq since 2003. There was flurry of chlorine gas attacks on US forces carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. [24] The jihadist group later became ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main anti-government militant groups operating today in Syria. Ask yourself: If chlorine gas attacks have been mounted in Syria, who is more likely to have been the perpetrator—organizations with a history of using the weapon and a motivation to continue [25], or an organization with no military reason to use it and a compelling political reason not to?


The idea that chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, kill massive numbers of people is wrong. Chemical weapons are no more destructive, and often are far less so, than conventional arms. Calling chemical weapons massively destructive makes the concept of WMD meaningless. WMD has become a hollow term used to manipulate public opinion to secure support for dubious political goals. Developed as a way of justifying a program of aggression against Iraq, its sole function is to connote something bad while denoting almost nothing at all, in order to turn non-threats into seemingly legitimate targets to secure public support for campaigns of aggression against governments whose sole crime is to exercise sovereignty over their country’s politics, natural resources, and economy.


Stephen Gowans discusses chemical weapons and WMD with Brendan Stone on Unusual Sources

Radio: We need to oppose illegal wars, not just weapons


*Adam Entous, “Islamic State suspected of using chemical weapon, U.S. says,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015.

1. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013

2. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015

3. Barnard and Sengupta

4. See Jonathan Cooke, “Experts: Israel’s weapons are not precise,” The Blog from Nazareth, August 1, 2014. http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-08-01/experts-israels-weapons-are-not-precise/

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

6. “A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 3,000 and 8,000 deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there is a moderate wind or if the sun is out, for example—the death rate would be one-tenth as great.” (John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. p.18.) The UN estimated that rockets carrying a payload of between 11 and 16 gallons of chemical agent were used in the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. (“Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013) Assuming an average payload of 13 gallons and 358 gallons per ton, then 13 gallons of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 108 and 290 deaths.

7. According to Mueller, 2013 it took one ton of gas to produce a single fatality in WWI. If follows, then, that 70,000 tons of gas would produce 70,000 deaths—as many as caused by a single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

8. Mueller and Mueller

9. Mueller, 2013

10. John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. pp.19-20

11. Mueller, 2006

12. Mueller, 2006

13. John Mueller. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp 227-228

14. “Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013

15. Mueller, 2006. p. 20

16. Mueller, 2013

17. Mueller and Mueller

18. Mueller, 2013

19. “Excerpts from Bush’s Speech at the Opening of the UN General Assembly,” The New York Times, September 26, 1989. Bush pledged to eliminate the United States’ chemical weapons within 10 years (since delayed to 2023.) US allies Israel and Egypt also have chemical weapons. In 2003, Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council that the Middle East become a chemical weapons-free zone. The proposal was blocked by the United States, likely in order to shelter Israel from having to give up its store of chemical arms or from being forced into the embarrassing situation of having to explain to the world why it was keeping them. Numerous calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone have also been blocked by Washington to shelter Israel from having to give up its nuclear arsenal.

20. Michael Wines, “Confrontation in the Gulf: US explores new strategies to limit weapons of mass destruction,” The New York Times, September 30, 1990

21. See Greg Muttitt. Fuel of the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. The New Press. 2012

22. Mueller, 2013

23. Barnard and Sengupta

24. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

25. In a July 17, 2015 New York Times Article, (ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates) journalist C.J. Chivers reported on indications that Islamic State militants used improvised mortar shells to carry chemical agents in attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

Chivers wrote:

The Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times in recent weeks, according to field investigators, Kurdish officials and a Western ordnance disposal technician who examined the incidents and recovered one of the shells.

Chivers added that Sunni militants have a history of using chemical weapons.

Beginning more than a decade ago, Sunni militants in Iraq have occasionally used chlorine or old chemical warfare shells in makeshift bombs against American and Iraqi government forces. And Kurdish forces have claimed that militants affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, used a chlorine-based chemical in at least one suicide truck bomb in Iraq this year.

According to Chivers, an investigator found evidence that ISIS militants had used chemical projectiles in attacks in northeastern Syria.

The reporter acknowledged that “Chemical weapons, internationally condemned and banned in most of the world, are often less lethal than conventional munitions.” He didn’t mention that despite the pariah status of the weapons that the United States has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles. Israel, too, has chemical weapons.

Written by what's left

June 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria, WMD

The Concept of WMD, and its Use against Syria, in the Propaganda Systems of Western States

May 20, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

John Mueller, the US political scientist who coined the term “sanctions of mass destruction,” to show that “economic sanctions…by large states…may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history” [1], wrote an article two years ago in Foreign Affairs, the major foreign policy journal of the US establishment, challenging the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons (when it had them) were a threat. [2] Mueller examined the history of chemical weapons since WWI to make the point that chemical agents are misclassified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

According to Mueller, chemical weapons accounted for less than one percent of battle fatalities during the First World War; it took one ton of Sarin gas on average, during that conflict, to produce a single fatality; and only 2-3% of those gassed on the Western front died, compared to a fatality rate 10 to 12 times higher among those who were struck by bullets or shrapnel from conventional weapons. [3]

In their official history of WWI, the British concluded that “gas made war uncomfortable…to no purpose.” [4] Accordingly, most handsomely funded militaries with generous weapons development programs or the means to purchase highly destructive armaments were quite happy to relinquish their chemical weapons. They are ineffective and conventional arms produce far higher rates of fatalities.

But in the course of challenging the view that chemical weapons are WMD, Mueller came close to making a far more significant point, namely, that the concept of WMD is used for propaganda purposes to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by official enemies that have “weapons of little destruction.” This is done by creating the impression that the ineffective weapons in the enemy’s arsenal are weapons of great destructive power, through the pairing of weapons of little destruction, like chemical agents, with highly destructive armaments, like nuclear weapons. Two auxiliary points are necessary here: (i) These “enemies” are comparatively weak militarily, without the massively destructive conventional arms found in the arsenals of major military powers; (ii) The previous point explains the “enemies’” possession of weapons of little destruction. To exaggerate to make a point, labeling chemical weapons as WMD is like calling the spears of hunting and gathering tribes WMD in order to turn primitive people into threats.

In 1992, the term WMD was explicitly codified in US law to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological weapons, as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons—conventional bombs used to disperse radioactive material—were added. [5] But chemical, biological and radiological weapons have nowhere near the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the destructive capability of the high yield conventional explosives in the arsenals of the US and other large militaries.

So why would the United States subsume a class of highly ineffective weapons under a rubric archetypically defined by nuclear weapons?

For the same reason the British quintupled their gas casualty figures in WWI—to justify a military intervention. For the British, making gas into a uniquely inhuman weapon demonized the Germans, the major users of gas. This could be used, it was hoped, to draw the United States into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. [6]

For the United States, in 1992, investing chemical weapons with the same kind of horrific aura that nuclear weapons have, served the political purpose of making Iraq, which had chemical weapons—furnished by the United States, which condoned their use by Iraq against Iran [7]—appear to be a unique threat—one that had to be dealt with by imposing what amounted to a blockade to starve the population into submission. The blockade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Iraqis—more people than could ever be killed by all of the chemical weapons in the US-supplied Iraqi arsenal—truly, sanctions of mass destruction, and far more terrible than chemical weapons.

So, WMD, applied to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, is by design, a term of deception, whose purpose is the manipulation of public opinion to soften up attitudes to war against countries that (i) are an obstacle to US geopolitical designs and (ii) have one or more types of these weapons of little destruction.

These days, the concept of WMD as part of the propaganda system of Western states has been used against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the government in Damascus, and the reason it finds itself in the cross-hairs of the West’s regime-change apparatus, can best be explained in the words of its president. “Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [8] In other words, the Syrian government pursues Syria’s interests, not the interlocked political agendas of Washington and economic agendas of Wall St.

To demonize this obstacle to Western agendas, the charge is leveled at Damascus that it is responsible for at least one chemical weapons attack, for which no clear evidence has ever been adduced that implicates the Syrian army, and for which the use of chemical weapons would have been a transparent tactical blunder since it would have delivered to Washington a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria. For this reason it is highly improbable that the Syrian army was behind the attack. An additional charge, made now that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons, is that it routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon.

As a weapon, chlorine gas is exceedingly ineffective. It is lethal only in highly concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not immediately available. It is far less effective than conventional weapons. [9] Why, then, would the Syrian army use a highly ineffective weapon, which is deplored by world public opinion, and whose use would provide the United States a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria, when it has far more effective conventional weapons, which are not deplored by world public opinion, and whose use does not deliver a pretext to Washington to intervene? Unless we believe the government in Damascus is comprised of a collection of imbeciles, this makes no sense.

On the other hand, let’s look at this from the perspective of the opposition. It has a strong motive to use chlorine gas in order to pin blame for its use on the Syrian army to create a pretext for direct US military intervention. What’s more, the opposition’s major forces have a long history of using chlorine gas as a weapon.

Chlorine gas has been used by Sunni militants in Iraq for over a decade. It has been used intermittently in attacks against US and Iraqi forces and against civilians since 2003. There was a flurry of such attacks in Anbar province in 2007 as US forces were trying to wrest control of the territory from Al-Qaeda in Iraq [10], an organization from which sprang ISIS and al-Nusra, the principal militant groups in Syria today.

In light of the above, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’s using chlorine gas in Syria: the forces that have a motive for their use and a history of using them. Nor do you have to be particularly perceptive (only attentive) to determine that the insinuation of US politicians and leading news media that the Syrian government is weaponizing chlorine gas is a deliberate deception, on par with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell inventing a pretext for war on Iraq by concocting a deliberate fiction about Iraq concealing chemical weapons, a fabrication leading news media legitimized.

The concept of WMD provides a context in which the public is manipulated to see governments whose militaries have ineffective weapons, of a destructive capability far below that of the conventional weapons in the arsenals of major militaries, as uniquely inhuman and vastly destructive, thereby depicting these governments as dire threats and consequently as necessary targets for regime change. Syria’s relinquishing its chemical weapons stores has undercut the ability of Western governments to demonize Damascus as a user of WMD. Accordingly, the Western propaganda system, of which governments, leading news media, and leading human rights NGOs are a part, has invoked allegations of chlorine gas use by the Syrian Arab Army to bring WMD back into the picture.

But it should be made clear, first, that it is a corruption of the truth to equate weaponized chlorine gas, a weapon of little destruction, with nuclear weapons and veridical WMD; second, that the allegation that the Syrian military is deploying a weapon of little destruction when it has more effective weapons and use of chlorine gas would deliver a pretext to Washington to directly intervene militarily in Syria, strains credibility; and third, there is, not surprisingly, a complete absence of credible evidence that the Syrian army has used chlorine gas as a weapon. It is the propaganda apparatus of Western states—itself a weapon of mass deception–that advances the antitheses of these points.

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

2. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line: Why WeShouldn’t Care about Syria’s Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid; The radiation dispersal range is equal to the blast range. Hence, anyone exposed to radiation would be killed first by the conventional blast. Adding radioactive material, then, to a conventional bomb is pointless—like shooting someone two days after he has been beheaded.

6. Ibid.

7. Glen Kessler, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013

8. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835

9. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015.

10. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

Written by what's left

May 20, 2015 at 1:51 am

Western Hypocrisy Going Naked in the Middle East

May 14, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

The dictator of Bahrain—who, with the help of Saudi troops and tanks, ruthlessly crushed an Arab Spring uprising that demanded a representative democracy—is spending a leisurely day, today, in Britain, one of the world’s oldest parliamentary ‘democracies’, visiting a horse show with his fellow parasite Queen Elizabeth II. Britain is neck deep in the undemocratic campaign to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, amply assisted by Saudi Arabia and other tyrannies of the Persian Gulf, who have provided arms, training and money to al-Qaeda and other Sunni religious fanatics to wage jihad against the secular, anti-sectarian, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist government of Assad. Assad must be toppled, the misnamed Friends of Syria aver, because he is a dictator who thwarted an Arab Spring uprising.

ParasitesSensitive to the legitimate demands inhered in the uprising, the Syrian government made major concessions, amending its constitution to open up political participation, and holding a multi-candidate presidential election, which Assad won. Is Syria a democracy? By Western standards, not yet, concedes Assad. But “if you want to compare me to your closest friend, Saudi Arabia, of course we are democratic,” Assad told a French journalist.

In response to news that traces of ricin and sarin have been found in Syria, former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, ever vigilant for opportunities to vilify Assad, pronounced the Syrian government guilty of hiding chemical weapons, even though UN inspectors say the discovery is not evidence of “a lingering weapons program” or “new use or production.”

“You’re dealing with a regime that is not very credible on weapons of mass destruction programs,” Ford insisted, to lend weight to his case. To be sure, his observation is incontestable, but not in connection with Syria and only insofar as it refers to the “regime” in Washington, which infamously concocted a fiction about Saddam Hussein concealing weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war on Iraq. The accusations levelled at Syria are no less baseless, Ford’s transparently politically-inspired arguments notwithstanding.

The Bahraini king’s hobnobbing with ‘Her Majesty’ calls to mind Diderot’s observation that mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest, though an updated version would need to include the rulers of the world’s currently dominant socio-political system, along with an expanded definition of priests to include mainstream journalists, think-tank experts and PR hacks, to say nothing of former US ambassadors, labouring to mislead public opinion into accepting yet another war on a country that seeks to chart its own course, free from subservience to the dictates of Washington and its political masters on Wall St..

Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” And therein is the issue. Ford, the New York Times, and other instruments of the Western ruling class, want the Syrian people to work for the interests of Western bankers, high-level corporate executives and major investors, as the Saudis, Bahrainis, and other puppet Arab monarchies do. And they’re willing to lie, deceive the public, do deals with al-Qaeda, and wage wars of aggression, to get their way. Into the Middle East they stride, their hypocrisy going naked, with the new priests scrambling desperately to drape it with pleasing raiment.

Written by what's left

May 14, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Syria


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