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“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

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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

A prolonged war in Syria is on the US agenda

April 16, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

Claims that the Syrian government has all but won its long war against US-backed Islamist insurgents, now in its eighth year, and that all that remains for Syrian forces is a mopping up operation, are far too sanguine. The United States is not prepared to allow the Syrian government, and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, a victory just yet. Indeed, with the United States military occupying nearly one-third of Syrian territory, and at the same time enforcing a de facto no-fly zone east of the Euphrates, [1] it’s difficult to accept the “Assad has won” narrative as anything but wishful thinking.

More soberly, there are strong indications that the US foreign policy establishment, or at least influential sections of it, favor a protracted war in Syria. And it is well within US capabilities to keep the fires of war burning in the Levant for some time to come.

Syria has for decades envisaged an orderly transition in government, from Assad’s ideologically-inspired Arab nationalists to Sunni business people who are more interested in making money than in politics. [2] The last thing Washington wants is the current government’s collapse and its replacement by a government led by ISIS, Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, Washington has been careful not to tip the balance too far in favour of its Islamist insurgent allies. The prescribed role of Washington’s jihadist proxies is not to take over the reins of government, but to create a quagmire from which the Arab nationalists in Syria can never extract themselves.

A quagmire in Syria is seen to offer Washington two benefits.

First, if the Arab nationalists perceive that the United States will never abandon its pursuit of regime change, and is committed to prolonging the war in Syria indefinitely, they will eventually arrive at the conclusion that their cause is hopeless and accede to a negotiated transition to a US-approved government. It is hoped that the Syrian population will arrive at the same conclusion even sooner, and pressure the president to fall on his sword.

Second, echoing Che Guevara’s strategy of weakening the United States by creating not one, not two, but three Vietnams, the view in some US foreign policy circles is that prolonging the war in Syria hands Iran its “Vietnam.” [3] Engagement in a prolonged Syrian struggle would, it is hoped, weaken Iran by forcing it to squander precious resources on an unwinnable war, thereby increasing its vulnerability to Washington’s regime change efforts directed at Tehran itself.

US tactics in Syria appear to have coalesced around the holding and reconstruction operations US Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke of earlier this year in connection with the policy announced by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson of an open-ended US military occupation of Syria east of the Euphrates. Mattis said the United States would hold areas US forces and their allies had already captured, rather than expanding into new territory, while focussing on reconstruction within captured areas. [4]

Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, has presented a policy proposal that appears to fill in some of the gaps of Mattis’s plan. [5] Washington’s intention is to spend heavily on reconstruction in areas held by US forces and its allies, while working to deny reconstruction funds to areas held by the Syrian government. With US forces in control of Syria’s main petroleum-producing assets, Damascus has already been denied access to an important internal source of revenue it needs for reconstruction. The idea is to create material incentives for the Syrian population to favor cooperation with the United States. The aim is to induce Syrians within government-controlled areas to pressure the Assad government to step down as a condition of unlocking the reconstruction funds needed to restore their lives to some semblance of normalcy. The policy, in short, is one of economic blackmail.

For the plan to work, US forces must be in a position to hold the territory they and their allies have captured. Crocker is urging Washington to proclaim all Syrian territory that is not under Syrian government control, including that held by Islamist insurgents, as “safe-zones,” with embedded US forces to call in airstrikes to repel any steps the Syrian Arab Army might take to recover the government’s sovereign territory. The plan, of course, assumes the complete disregard of international law, under which the United States’ uninvited presence in Syria is wholly untenable.

Exponents of the view that Assad has won have been misled by either of two misinterpretations of the conflict in Syria. One misinterpretation is that the conflict is a civil war, and while, to be sure, elements of a civil war are present, the conflict is more aptly described as an international war, involving a multiplicity of States and foreign actors, in a tightly confined space. Were the conflict only a civil war, the conclusion might be drawn that the Syrian government is on the cusp of victory. But the conflict is more variegated and larger than that.

Another misinterpretation holds that the aim of the US government has been to replace the Syrian government with Islamist proxies, and that, with these proxy forces now largely contained or in disarray, Washington’s aims have been foiled and Assad has won. But fearing the consequences of the Syrian government’s collapse, Washington has never intended Islamist insurgents to topple Assad. Instead, it has sought to pressure the Arab nationalists in Damascus to accede to an orderly transition to a government acceptable to Washington, while ensuring the Arab nationalists’ rule was never actually truly threatened.

The illusion that Assad has won rests on the victories the Syrian Arab Army, with the indispensable aid of its allies, has won in recovering territory from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ideological cognates. But while these victories were being achieved, the United States established facts on the ground east of the Euphrates. The declaration of all territory currently held by opponents of the Syrian government as US protected safe-zones, would further extend de facto US control of Syrian territory, to the detriment of international law and Syrian sovereignty. It would also call into question the all too premature formulation that total victory is within the Syrian government’s immediate grasp.

From the point of view of public opinion, the US position’s weaknesses lie in Washington’s flagrant violation of international law, to say nothing of its apparent absent mandate under US law to conduct operations in Syria to deny the legitimate government access to its sovereign territory and resources it needs for reconstruction. Public opinion is unlikely to support a war on Syria whose aim is regime change, which may account for why the US occupation of Syrian territory is kept largely under the radar of public awareness through its infrequent coverage by the mainstream media and minimization as a small scale effort involving “only 2,000 US military personnel,” a miscounting the Pentagon acknowledges. [6] The benefits to ordinary citizens of the West of Washington’s prolonging the war in Syria, to say nothing of the benefits to Syrians, are difficult to grasp, if only because there are none.

The vast majority of the citizens of the United States, the UK, France and other Western satellites of the United States, do not benefit in the least from Washington’s long war on Syria, and on the contrary, are disadvantaged by it; they bear its monetary costs. And ordinary Syrians certainly do not benefit either; on the contrary, the war casts them as victims of a blackmail.

US policy, then, rests on untenable foundations. It is illegal and in principle unsupportable by public opinion. These are weaknesses that can be used against Western governments to pressure them to abandon their unlawful, wasteful and morally unconscionable plans for the prolonged infliction of misery on Syrians.

1. See Stephen Gowans, The (Largely Unrecognized) US Occupation of Syria, what’s left, April 6, 2018.

2. https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP86T01017R000100770001-5.pdf

3. “Trump’s Next Syria Challenge,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018

4. Aaron Stein, “Turkey’s Afrin offensive and America’s future in Syria: Why Washington should be eyeing the exit,’ Foreign Affairs, January 23, 2018; Dion Nissenbaum, “As ISIS recedes, US steps up focus on Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2017; Nancy A. Yousef, “U.S. to send more diplomats and personnel to Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2017.

5. Ryan Crocker and Michael O’Hanlon, “After the Syria Strike, a Strategy,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018.

6. See Gowans.

Written by what's left

April 16, 2018 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Syria

First Step to Resolving Syria Crisis: Distribute Copies of the UN Charter to Washington, London and Paris

April 15, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

A draft resolution, defeated at the UN Security Council on April 14, demanded that the United States and its allies immediately refrain from the use of force in violation of international law.

“It also would have expressed grave concern that such acts had taken place at a time when the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)” had begun a fact-finding mission “to collect evidence in the Syrian city of Douma” of an alleged chemical weapons attack, which formed the ostensible basis of the US, UK, and French (or tripartite) aggression on Syria of the day before.

Syria’s representative to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari[/caption]The representatives of Russia, China, Bolivia and Syria argued for the resolution. Since Western media have given ample coverage to the views of the representatives of the three aggressor states, but only token, superficial coverage of states in opposition to the attacks, I’ve summarized below the arguments of the states in support of the resolution, as reported by the United Nations Press Office.

At the meeting, Vassily A. Nebenzia, Russia’s representative, expressed grave concern that “the United States, supported by its allies, had launched air strikes against Syria” without “a mandate from the Council and in violation of the Charter and international norms,” which prohibits military intervention except in self-defense or with Security Council authorization. The US-orchestrated attacks constituted “an aggressive” and illegal “act against a sovereign State,” Nebenzia charged.

The Russian representative also noted that the aggression had been carried out despite the “OPCW dispatching experts to Syria” to investigate the allegations which the United States, the UK, and France had cited as the basis for their action.

China’s representative Zhaoxu Ma echoed the point, arguing that “the Council must launch an impartial investigation of the suspected chemical weapons attack. Until then, no party must prejudge the outcome, he said, stressing that there was no alternative to political settlement.” He advocated “support for the United Nations as the main mediator” of the dispute, in preference to US-led unilateral efforts conducted outside the framework of international law.

Arguing that the three countries that carried out the attack are “constantly tempted by neo-colonialism”, Russia’s Nebenzia said it “was shameful that, in justifying” its “aggression” the United States had invoked “an article of the United States Constitution”, reminding the US representative that “the international code of behaviour regarding the use of force” is “regulated by the Charter”, not US law.

Nebenzia observed that the attack by the three Western countries had led to the destruction of “scientific facilities in Syria” that “were used for peaceful activities, notably to enhance economic performance. ‘You want Syria to have no economy at all?’ he asked. ‘Throw this country back to the stone age’ and finish off what sanctions had not yet achieved?’”

As to concern for the “suffering of Syrians” the Russian representative accused US, UK and French authorities of “shedding crocodile tears.” “The conflict could end within a day,” he said, if only “Washington, London and Paris” ordered “their hand-picked terrorists to stop fighting Syrian authorities,” a reference to Western countries funding, arming, and equipping Islamist insurgents to wage war on the Syrian government.

Sacha Sergio Llorentty Soliz of Bolvia “decried the air strikes, which” he observed “represented an attack against the OPCW fact-finding mission and the Council’s duty to maintain international peace and security,” to say nothing of “the Charter and the entire international community.” He added that “Bolivia understood that the United States had powerful aircraft carriers, satellites, smart bombs and a huge nuclear weapons arsenal,” but at the same time has “nothing but scorn for international law.”

Syria’s representative Bashar Ja’afari observed “the Secretary-General was exactly right when he had said on 13 April that the cold war was back. Everyone could recall, after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the books titled The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations, the gist of which was that the peoples of the world could either follow the United States or be attacked by that country.”

Syria’s representative argued that the “aggressors had decided to intervene directly” in his country to avenge “the defeat of their proxies in eastern Ghouta,” adding “that their actions sent a message to terrorists to continue to use chemical weapons not only in Syria, but elsewhere as well.”

Ja’afari denounced the “United States, United Kingdom and France” as “liars, spoilers and hypocrites who were trying to exploit the Council to justify a policy of interference and colonialism. They had demonstrated their conviction,” he charged, “for the law of the jungle and the law of the strong.”

Alluding to the fact that the three aggressor states had attacked targets they said were involved in the production of chemical weapons, Ja’afari wondered why, if they knew the location of chemical weapons production facilities, “they had not shared” this “information beforehand with OPCW or its fact-finding mission.”

In response to Britain’s and France’s proposal to the Secretary General that a plan of action be developed and implemented to resolve the conflict in Syria, Ja’afari made the following proposal. First, he suggested that “copies of the Charter” be distributed “to the representatives of the United States, United Kingdom and France” to remind them that in “launching 110 missiles against” Damascus “and other targets” in Syria they had conducted “a flagrant violation against Syria’s sovereignty.”

Next, he proposed “an immediate halt to support to armed terrorist groups in Syria by the United States, the United Kingdom and France” followed by “an end to lies” to “justify aggression against his nation.”

Western aggression against Syria, Ja’afari reminded the Security Council, includes the “direct United States military occupation” of “a third of his country”—a violation of “Syrian sovereignty” by “a permanent Council member.”

The illegal occupation was announced in January by then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that US troops would remain in Syria indefinitely to block Syria from recovering its territory east of the Euphrates, which includes most of Syria’s oil and gas resources. The illegal US occupation is accompanied by Israel’s illegal occupation of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights.

Written by what's left

April 15, 2018 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Syria

World War III: What It Is And What It Threatens To Become

April 11, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

World War III is not about to erupt; it has already begun; indeed, it began as long ago as 2015, when Russia, at the request of the Syrian government, intervened in the conflict in that country, whose government was under attack by Islamist insurgents encouraged, armed, and resourced by the United States and its allies.

The war in Syria, one that counts among its participants the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Qatar and others, is no less a world war for being confined to the borders of Syria. A world war is not defined by the multiplicity of its theaters but by the multiplicity of its actors.

Ultimately, the war is a conflict over two types of international order: on the one hand, a hierarchy of states, with the United States at the top, endowed with de facto authority to impose its will on all other states; on the other, a network of sovereign and independent states, linked by mutual benefit—a US-dictated global order vs. a democratic UN-defined international order. This is a battle of tyranny versus democracy at the level of international relations.

The war over these two contending conceptions of how the world’s affairs should be organized—the Third World War in action—is now threatening to spill beyond Syria’s borders.

The US president has threatened to attack the Syrian government in response to an alleged chemical weapons incident that is almost certainly a hoax perpetrated by partisan sources, the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society. These are jihadi-aligned groups, funded by Western governments, which have an interest in pressuring the United States to maintain its illegal occupation of nearly one-third of Syrian territory, or to provide a pretext for continued or even escalating US intervention in Syria.

The same Western governments that fund the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society have openly called for regime change in Damascus and have invested time and money in an effort to bring it about. The two outfits they bankroll are neither independent nor neutral, and can hardly be judged to be trustworthy sources, any more than the United States, and its allies France, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Israel, can be.

Russia has warned the United States not to carry through on its threat to attack the Syrian government. An attack ordered by the US president would violate international law, to say nothing of US domestic law, which vests authority to wage war in Congress. The president does not plan to seek Congress’s authorization.

This, however, is all of a piece. It is difficult to point to any aspect of the US intervention in Syria that has not been illegal, from the occupation of Syrian territory, to the violation of its airspace, to the funding of guerrillas to overthrow its government.

The United States’ newspaper of record, the New York Times, urges the US president to commit another illegal act, namely, to punish Syria militarily, without Security Council or Congressional authorization, for an unverified transgression against international law. The New York Times, thus, no less than other major Western media, has chosen a side in World War III—four-square behind the fight for an international order based on the arbitrary rule of the US administration in preference to a global order based on sovereign and equal states governed by the rule of law.

Russia has vowed to intercept incoming US missiles. Its warning has been met by a belligerent reply from the US president. The situation is fraught with danger. The United States, and its major media, which connive in the likely chemical weapons deception and elevate a planned illegal act of war into a moral crusade, are playing a very dangerous game. They’re willing to bring the world to the brink of a general conflagration to fulfil their vision of a hierarchy of states subordinate to the US administration’s rule—an undisputed global US empire.

Written by what's left

April 11, 2018 at 9:17 pm

Posted in Syria, World War III

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