April 11, 2019
By Stephen Gowans
If you think Washington’s long war on Syria has been largely defeated by the combined opposition of Syria, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, think again.
While attention turns to another US regime change campaign, this one in Venezuela, the long war on Syria grinds on.
“The United States still has cards to play in Syria,” concludes two analysts linked to the US foreign policy establishment. “If it plays them well, the U.S. intervention in Syria may yet become an enduring American success.”
Indeed, the US intervention in Syria has already been a success in at least one respect.
“Syria is currently in a state of de-facto partition,” observe Merve Tahiroglu and Andrew Gabel, research analysts at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think-tank that is interlocked with the US government.
The SDF, the 60,000-strong US-superintended Kurd-led army, controls about one-third of the country, containing “more than 90 percent of Syria’s remaining oil reserves and a significant portion of its viable agricultural land.”
To repeat: Through its SDF proxy army, Washington controls a substantial part of Syria—and not just any part, but the richest part. What’s more, Washington has no intention of giving this territory back to any government not under its sway. Indeed, one of the United States’ goals is “to prevent the Syrian [government] from attempting to [recover] the country’s northeast with Iranian and Russian assistance.”
And with Washington’s 60,000 SDF boots on the ground and the United States Air Force’s unchallenged supremacy over northeastern Syria, Washington is much farther along the road to calling the shots in Syria than it was in 2011. Why, then, would anyone believe that Washington’s war on Syria has failed?
Writing in Foreign Affairs, the unofficial journal of the US foreign policy establishment, Tahiroglu and Gabel point out that without northeastern Syria, Assad lacks “access to almost all of Syria’s remaining oil reserves, in addition to much of its arable land, on the heels of Syria’s worst crop yield since 1989.”
Denying Damascus access to the country’s oil and arable land ties in with US sanctions that have ravaged Syria’s economy for the past 40 years—and were put in place long before the 2011 Islamist uprising that is mistakenly believed to mark the beginning of US efforts to oust the Assad government. By strangling the economy, the United States is hurting not only Syria, “but its backers in Moscow and Tehran, who [are] stuck propping up an expensive, economically moribund partner.”
These are the other respects in which the US intervention has scored successes. It has greatly weakened Syria, a pole of opposition to US hegemony in the Middle East. And it has drawn Russia and Iran into a conflict that strains their treasuries.
No less part of the US war on Syria is Washington’s recent declaration of two-thirds of the Syrian Golan as part of Israel, an event greeted with yawns by much of the world.
Golan, a New York Times reporter once observed, is the forgotten occupied territory. By contrast, northeastern Syria may become the occupation that will never be forgotten for the simple reason that it was never noticed.
As to Washington’s long war on Syria, it was largely unnoticed until 2011, and appears to be returning to an unnoticed-in-the-West phase, partly because it depends in large measure on economic coercion (which attracts far less attention than does kinetic warfare, even though economic ‘atom bombs’ can be equally, if not more, devastating) and partly because it relies on diplomatic measures, like recognizing Israel’s annexation of Syrian territory, which also largely fly under the radar of public attention. Also, the US and other Western forces in Syria are mainly special operations forces that operate covertly.
Another factor explaining the near invisibility of the US war on Syria is that it is hardly talked about anymore in the Western mass media. As the White House-driven media agenda diverts attention to other matters, the real business of extending the reach of the international dictatorship of the United States goes on unobserved.
Meanwhile, some friends of Syria are in raptures over the possibility of Tulsi Gabbard, the US representative for Hawaii, capturing the Democratic nomination for US president. Gabbard, who volunteered to join the US occupation force in Iraq, recycles US war propaganda about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “There is no disputing the fact that Bashar al-Assad in Syria is a brutal dictator,” she announced on the TV talk show The View. “There is no disputing the fact that he has used chemical weapons and other weapons against his people.”
Gabbard believes US interventions are motivated by humanitarian goals, but are misguided because they fail to achieve their humanitarian objectives. Presumably, she would favor any US intervention that lived up to the humanitarian ideals she believes undergird US foreign policy. It’s not imperialism or the international dictatorship of the United States she opposes—just US imperialism that produces outcomes that make the United States look bad.
You cannot turn US citizens away from policies that facilitate their country’s imperialism by reinforcing the myths that are used to justify them. Rather than challenging these myths, Gabbard accepts them, and offers, instead, an appeal to US citizens’ self-interest. The interventions are costly, she says, and cause harm to US military personnel.
The trouble with this approach is that Washington uses tools deliberately designed to minimize and disguise the burden on US citizens of its interventions in order not to arouse public opposition. These tools include economic warfare, cyber-warfare, covert CIA operations, special operations forces, mercenaries, proxy armies, and reliance of proxies to act in place of US boots of the ground—weapons of war that can be concealed behind a cloak of secrecy and which minimize the involvement of the US public. For example, we don’t know how many US troops are in Syria, but we do know that the number is greater than Washington will say. The Pentagon has admitted that its number of 2,000 troops is an “artificial construct”—that is, a low-ball figure that excludes special operations forces and other troops on secret missions. It also excludes the British, French, and German special operations forces that work under US leadership. For all we know, there could be 10,000 Western troops and mercenaries or more occupying northeastern Syria, on top of the 60,000 strong SDF proxy army.
Gabbard also invokes the idea that US interventions make matters worse for the people of the countries in which the interventions take place. This inevitably invites the reply, “But how can we stand by idly while brutal dictators gas babies?’ Having reinforced the very myth that enkindles these concerns (for example, Gabbard’s assertion that there is no question that Assad is a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people), she offers nothing but, what can only appear to be, cruel, hard-hearted counsel that, tough as it may be to turn away, turn away we must. Her advice fails to comport with the myth US citizens imbibe from birth, that the United States is a force for good in the world, and has a duty to lead for the greater welfare of humanity. So long as US interventions imposes no visible burdens, the country’s citizens will gladly accept them as moral crusades that exemplify US moral superiority.
Curiously, Gabbard excites the imaginations of some of the very same people who rail bitterly against Noam Chomsky for similarly characterizing Assad as a brutal dictator. But Gabbard’s sins appear to have been cancelled by her virtues: youth, undoubted good looks, eloquence, and a pleasing personality. “She’s very charming,” one besotted friend of Syria put it. Plus, she has a superficially pleasing patter about avoiding interventions. Were Chomsky female, 50 years younger, and whole lot better looking, he too might be setting hearts aflame.