The Houla Massacre

Syrian government forces may or may not have been responsible for the killing of 108 civilians at Houla. Witness accounts point to militias that may have been acting independently of the Syrian government. One account describes the killings as avenging a rebel sectarian attack on an Alawite village. All the same, no witness account has been independently verified. The events are, in the words of a UN monitor, “murky”.

The US government, nevertheless, has reached far beyond the evidence to blame the Syrian government for the atrocity, a brazenly hypocritical public relations assault on Syria. In light of the serial massacre of hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan civilians, including children, by US drone strikes, the US government has no credibility as a self-appointed champion of the innocent.

Examining the conflict with reference to US foreign policy goals, and the objectives of other parties, it is likely that the Assad government’s opponents are depending on armed conflict and the exploitation of the public relations opportunities the conflict provides to meet their goal of regime change.

Damascus, on the other hand, has more to gain from working out a modus vivende with its internal opposition than trying to win a shooting war with armed rebels that have the backing of the formidable diplomatic and material resources of the United States and wealthy Gulf petro-monarchies.


In the Syria conflict, the goal of:

• Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council Sunni petro-monarchies is to replace Syria’s Alawite-dominated state with a Sunni leadership;

• The United States and its Western allies is to force the Russia-allying, Iran-supported, Hezbollah-backing economic and Arab nationalist Syrian Ba’athist regime to relinquish control of the Syrian state. Ultimately, Washington would like to see a satellite regime in Damascus that ousts Russia from its naval base on the Mediterranean, breaks ties with Iran, cuts support to Hezbollah, accepts Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and opens its economy to US corporations and investors. Whether Washington can realize all these ambitions is unclear, but they do appear to be ambitions the US state embraces;

• The Sunni Islamists and al-Qaeda is to overthrow the Assad government, which they think of variously as “atheist” and “heretical”;

• The exile opposition and Free Syrian Army is to replace Assad as local rulers, courting US backing by professing commitment to Wall Street and State Department interests;

• The Syrian Ba’athist government is to survive in the face of determined opposition and with few allies.

In light of these goals, it is very unlikely that the opposition forces arrayed against the Syrian government are sincerely committed to the Annan peace plan. Since the plan seeks to find an accommodation between the Syrian government and its internal opposition without calling for the government’s dissolution, it fails to satisfy the opposition goal of regime change.

The plan does, however, promise a pathway to the Syrian government’s goal of political survival, and therefore it is Damascus, of all parties described above, that is likely to have the greatest commitment to making the plan work.

On the other hand, being committed to Assad’s overthrow, and not accommodation with him, the opposition is more likely to favor rhetorical commitment to the plan while continuing to pursue its regime change goal through armed struggle, relying on material, diplomatic, and moral support from the US and its allies.

This thrusts Damascus onto the horns of a dilemma. If it fails to respond to opposition attacks it puts its survival at risk. If it does respond, it is accused of violating the peace plan.


Atrocities being accustomed events in war, it was highly likely that one would eventually arise that Washington and Europe could take advantage of. Pinning blame for an atrocity on the Syrian government would allow Washington to escalate pressure on the Ba’athists, embarrass their supporters into withdrawing or weakening support, and strengthen public backing of stepped up intervention in Syria.

The events surrounding the Houla massacre are, in the words of UN monitors, “murky”, and the identity of those who carried out the killings of 108 civilians, many at close-range, remains unclear. Witness testimony, none of which has been independently verified, points to “pro-government militias” as the culprits, which may mean loosely organized sectarian gunmen acting independently of Damascus. One witness told The Wall Street Journal that “the attacks…might have been to avenge a rebel assault on a nearby Alawite village a day earlier.” [1]

While Syrian forces had been engaged in combat with armed rebels in the area, UN monitors found that fewer than 20 people were killed by government artillery fire. [2] And “rebel fighters,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “admitted putting up a stronger fight with government forces…than had been claimed initially. That fighting appeared to be what the government blamed for its artillery barrage.” [3]

Despite the event’s “murkiness” and evidence that it was possibly related to Alawite gunmen avenging an earlier sectarian attack, Washington blamed the massacre directly on Damascus, squeezing in a denunciation of Iran at the same time. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the Houla events an “absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs,“ adding that the perpetrators were “aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend.” [4]

What the Iranians had actually done was point out that they have provided military aid to Syria, what the US and Gulf monarchies provide to the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government.

Neither Nuland, nor her fellow compatriot practitioners of Goebbels’s art, have worked themselves up into high dudgeon over the 175 children and 828 civilians killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 [5] — absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable killings of innocent children, women, killed from the safe distance of a Nevada warehouse by US regime thugs brandishing computer joy-sticks. And in the case of these killings there was no murkiness about who the killers actually were.

US atrocities don’t mitigate the Houla massacre, nor excuse the Syrian government if it was involved. The killings were indeed indefensible, vile, and despicable. But there are two points here.

Unlike the case of the far greater number of civilians blasted away by the United States, it is unclear whether Damascus was involved in the Houla killings. It may have been. But the evidence is hardly compelling and points just as strongly to perpetrators acting independently of the government.

The US track record is littered with indefensible, vile, despicable killings of innocent children and women by US forces—on a far greater scale than happened at Houla. Were there strong evidence that Damascus pulled the trigger, Washington’s denunciation of the Assad government would be manifestly hypocritical. But in the absence of such evidence, Washington’s apportioning of blame for the atrocity to the Syrian government is not only hypocritical but blatantly political—another volley in a war to put Washington more firmly in the driver’s seat in Syria.

1. Nour Malas and Jay Solomon, “Syria crisis deepens divisions”, The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2012.

2. Nour Malas and Joe Lauria, “Western nations expel Syrian diplomats”, The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2012.

3. Malas and Solomon

4. Malas and Lauria

5. “Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 4, 2012 cited in Seumas Milne, “America’s murderous drone campaign is fuelling terror”, The Guardian (UK), May 29, 2012.

Myanmar learns the lesson of Libya

Strike Myanmar from the regime change list. Only two years ago, the resource-rich country located between India and China was practicing the kind of economic nationalism that got Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi deep into trouble with the US State Department and oil company giants. Now, Washington has suspended its sanctions on Myanmar and nominated its first ambassador to the country in 22 years.


The Obama administration says it’s because of the profound political changes Myanmar has brought about over the last year, including the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in Myanmar’s parliament. But the real reason has more to do with the country’s military rulers turning away from economic nationalism and throwing their economy’s doors open wide to ownership by outsiders.

Announcing the easing of US sanctions, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton went directly to the heart of the matter, after making obligatory remarks about Myanmar travelling the road to democracy. “Today we say to Americans business: Invest in Burma (Myanmar)!” [1]

When Myanmar’s military took power in a 1962 coup, it nationalized most industries and brought the bulk of the economy under government control, which is the way it stayed until two years ago.

Major utilities were state-owned and health-care and education were publically provided. Private hospitals and private schools were unheard of.

Ownership of land and local companies was limited to the country’s citizens. Companies were required to hire Myanmar workers. And the central bank was answerable to the government. [2]

But in the last year, Myanmar’s government began to sell off government buildings, its port facilities, its national airline, mines, farmland, the country’s fuel distribution network, and soft drink, cigarette and bicycle factories.

The doors to the country’s publically-owned health care and education systems were thrown open, and private investors were invited in.

A new law was drawn up to give more independence to the central bank, making it answerable to its own inflation control targets, rather than directly to the government. [3]

To top it all off, a foreign-investment law was drafted to allow foreigners to control local companies and land, permit the entry of foreign telecom companies and foreign banks, allow 100 percent repatriation of profits, and exempt foreign investors from paying taxes for up to five years.

What’s more, foreign enterprises would be allowed to import skilled workers, and wouldn’t be required to hire locally. [4]

With Myanmar signaling its willingness to turn over its economy to outside investors, President Obama last December dispatched Hillary Clinton to meet with Myanmar’s leaders, the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years. [5]

William Hague soon followed, the first British foreign minister to visit since 1955. [6]

Other foreign ministers beat their own paths to the door of the country’s military junta, seeking to establish ties with the now foreign investment-friendly government on behalf of their own corporations, investors, and banks.

And business organizations sent their own delegations, including four major Japanese business organizations, all looking to cash in on Myanmar’s new opening. [7]

A new frontier

The Wall Street Journal calls Myanmar “the last, large frontier market in Asia” and describes its “potential” as “too great for …investors to ignore.” [8] The country is gas- and oil-rich, and teems with timber and gems. It could become a major exporter of rice and seafood, though with the country’s new foreign investment law, it will be the superrich of New York, London, and Tokyo who reap the lion’s share of benefits, not Myanmar’s citizens.

A country of poor people, Myanmar offers the attraction to overseas investors of low manufacturing wages. And it’s situated between India and China, giving manufacturers easy access to two emerging growth markets.

International companies are circling the country, says the Wall Street Journal, [9] (like vultures?) ready to invest their capital in the provision of heavy machinery, railways, airports, telecom networks, consumer goods–and services, including private healthcare. [10]

Their enthusiasm is no less than that expressed by US ambassador to Libya Gene A. Cretz in connection with that country. Cretz said the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs” [11] to say nothing of redounding to Wall Street with respect to its enrichment.

Two countries teeming with investment opportunities. The only difference is that Libya had to be bombed in hopes that Gadhafi’s successors would lay out the welcome mat for foreign investors and US and western European corporations with greater alacrity than the resource nationalism-practicing Gadhafi did.

Myanmar’s generals got the message, and laid out the welcome mat themselves, before they too faced Gadhafi’s fate.

1. Steve Myers, “As relations warm with Myanmar, U.S. will ease trade limits”, The New York Times, May 17, 2012.

2. “Myanmar’s ruling junta is selling state’s assets,” The New York Times, March 7, 2010; “Change comes to Myanmar, but only on the Junta’s terms,” The New York Times, March 17, 2010.

3. “Myanmar’s ruling junta is selling state’s assets,” The New York Times, March 7, 2010.

4. “Firms see Myanmar as next frontier”, The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2011; Patrick Barta, “Myanmar considers letting outsiders in telecom market amid overhauls”, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2012; Patrick Barta, “Myanmar eases investment laws”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2012.

5. Thomas Fuller, “Clinton set to visit Myanmar as Obama cites progress”, The New York Times, November 17, 2011.

6. Patrick Barta, “On Myanmar visit, U.K. calls for further reform”, The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2011.

7. Yoree Koh, ”Japan Inc. Rushes to Myanmar”, The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2012.

8. Patrick Barta, “A pariah regime courts West in China’s shadow”, The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2011.

9. Patrick Barta, “Myanmar eases investment laws”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2012.

10. John Bussey, “The new dance with Myanmar”, The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2011

11. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.

Gadhafi’s crime: Making Libya’s economy work for Libyans

“Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.”—Muammar Gadhafi, 2006.

The Wall Street Journal of 5 May offers evidence, additional to that already accumulated, that last year’s NATO military intervention in Libya was rooted in objections to the Gadhafi government’s economic policies.

According to the newspaper, private oil companies were incensed at the pro-Libyan oil deals the Gadhafi government was negotiating and “hoped regime change in Libya…would bring relief in some of the tough terms they had agreed to in partnership deals” with Libya’s national oil company. [1]

For decades, many European companies had enjoyed deals that granted them half of the high-quality oil produced in Libyan fields. Some major oil companies hoped the country would open further to investment after sanctions from Washington were lifted in 2004 and U.S. giants re-entered the North African nation.

But in the years that followed, the Gadhafi regime renegotiated the companies’ share of oil from each field to as low as 12%, from about 50%.

Just after the fall of the regime, several foreign oil companies expressed hopes of better terms on existing deals or attractive ones for future contracts. Among the incumbents that expressed hopes in Libyan expansion were France’s Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

‘We see Libya as a great opportunity under the new government,’ Sara Akbar, chief executive of privately owned Kuwait Energy Co., said in an interview in November. ‘Under Gadhafi, it was off the radar screen’ because of its ‘very harsh’ terms, said Mrs. Akbar. [2]

The Journal had earlier noted the “harsh” (read pro-Libyan) terms the Gadhafi government had imposed on foreign oil companies.

Under a stringent new system known as EPSA-4, the regime judged companies’ bids on how large a share of future production they would let Libya have. Winners routinely promised more than 90% of their oil output to NOC (Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp).

Meanwhile, Libya kept its crown jewels off limits to foreigners. The huge onshore oil fields that accounted for the bulk of its production remained the preserve of Libya’s state companies.

Even firms that had been in Libya for years got tough treatment. In 2007, authorities began forcing them to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with EPSA-4.

One casualty was Italian energy giant Eni SpA. In 2007, it had to pay a $1 billion signing bonus to be able to extend the life of its Libyan interests until 2042. It also saw its share of production drop from between 35% and 50%—depending on the field—to just 12%. [3]

Oil companies were also frustrated that Libya’s state-owned oil company “stipulated that foreign companies had to hire Libyans for top jobs.” [4]

A November 2007 US State Department cable had warned that those “who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and that there was “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.” [5]

The cable cited a 2006 speech in which Gadhafi said: “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.” [6]

Gadhafi’s government had forced oil companies to give their local subsidiaries Libyan names. Worse, “labor laws were amended to ‘Libyanize’ the economy,” that is, turn it to the advantage of Libyans. Oil firms “were pressed to hire Libyan managers, finance people and human resources directors.” [7]

The New York Times summed up the West’s objections. “Colonel Gadhafi,” the US newspaper of record said last year, “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” [8]

To be sure, that private oil companies and the US government objected to Gadhafi’s pro-Libya economic policies doesn’t prove that NATO intervened militarily to topple the Gadhafi government. But it is consistent with a panoply of evidence that points in this direction.

First, we can dismiss the West’s claims that it pressed its military alliance into service on humanitarian grounds. As civil strife heated up in Libya, a Saudi-led alliance of petro-monarchies sent tanks and troops to crush an uprising in Bahrain. The United States, Britain and France—leaders of the intervention in Libya—did nothing to stop the violent Bahraini crackdown. Significantly, Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet. Equally significantly, its economic policies—unlike Libya’s under Gadhafi—are designed to put foreign investors first.

Second, without exception, countries that are the object of Western regime change efforts—North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran—have set the economic interests of some part of their populations, or all of it, above those of foreign investors and foreign corporations. True, the economic policies of India, Russia and China are nationalist to some degree, and yet these countries do not face the same extent of regime change pressures, but they are too large for a US alliance to conquer without an onerous expense in blood and treasure. The West targets the weak.

Finally, Western governments are dominated by major investors and corporations. Corporate and financial domination of the state happens in a number of ways: lobbying; the buying of politicians through political campaign funding and the promise of lucrative post-political jobs; the funding of think-tanks to recommend government policy; and the placement of corporate CEOs and corporate lawyers in key positions in the state. To expect that foreign policy is shaped by humanitarian concerns and not the profit-making interests of oil companies, arms manufacturers, exporters, and engineering firms seeking infrastructure and reconstruction contracts aboard is to ignore the enormous influence big business and big finance exert over Western states.

In some parts of the world, the arrangement is different. There, governments have organized their economies to serve their citizens, rather than organizing labor, the country’s markets and its natural resources to serve outside investors and foreign corporations.

For refusing to give their citizens’ lives over to the enrichment of foreign titans of finance and captains of industry, these countries are made to pay a price. Their leaders are vilified by scurrilous propaganda and threatened with prosecutions by international criminal tribunals funded and controlled by Western states; they’re targeted by economy-disrupting blockades and sanctions whose chaotic effects are dishonestly blamed on the governments’ “mismanagement” and “unsound” economic policies and whose aim is to create widespread misery to pressure populations to rise up against their governments; fifth columns are created with Western funding and support to engineer regime change from within; and the omnipresent threat of outside military intervention is maintained to pressure the countries’ governments to back down from putting their citizens’ interests first.

Gadhafi’s sins weren’t crimes against humanity but actions in its service. His reputation blackened, government overthrown, country besieged from without and destabilized from within, his life was ended for daring to enact a radical idea—pressing the economy into the service of the people of his country, rather than the people of his country and their natural resources into the service of foreign business interests.

1,2. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012

3, 4. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.

5,6,7. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011

8. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.