Stephen Gowans

Another Beautiful Soul: Counterpunching the Global Assault on Dissent

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 24, 2018

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.

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Meet Syria’s real mass murderers

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 23, 2018

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.

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

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 21, 2018

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.

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A prolonged war in Syria is on the US agenda

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 16, 2018

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.

Washington 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.

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

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 15, 2018

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.

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

Posted in Syria, World War III by what's left on April 11, 2018

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.

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Syria Chemical Weapons Attack: The Facts

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 11, 2018

April 11, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

#1. The fundamental question of whether a chemical weapons (CW) attack took place last Saturday in the Syrian town of Douma has yet to be independently addressed. The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the one neutral body that is qualified to investigate the use of chemical weapons, has yet to begin its investigation.

#2. While the OPCW can determine whether a chemical attack has occurred, it is beyond its capability to assign responsibility. The allegation that the Syrian government perpetrated a CW attack is not verifiable in principle by a neutral body.

#3. The sole evidence for the claim against the Syrian government consists of allegations from two partisan sources: the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society.

#4. Both groups are allied with jihadists seeking to overthrow the Syrian government and both are funded by Western states which openly call for regime change in Damascus. These outfits are neither neutral nor independent.

#5. As parties to the conflict, both groups have an interest in fabricating atrocity stories to defame their enemy and create a pretext for the continued and even escalated intervention of Western militaries in Syria.

#6. As parties to the conflict, Western states have an interest in legitimating the atrocity stories to defame the government they seek to change and to furnish a pretext for their continued and even escalated intervention in Syria.

#7. While early media reports referred to the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society as the sources of the allegations, explicit references to these partisan sources have now mostly disappeared from media coverage.

#8. Instead, the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society are now referred to by more neutral-sounding terms, such as “medical professionals and human rights groups,” or “relief workers”* disguising their partisan character and creating the illusion that they are independent humanitarian organizations free from a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict.

#9. Following the tenet cui prodest scelus, is fesit (he has committed the crime who has received the profit) suspicion falls more heavily on the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society, as perpetrators of a hoax, than on the Syrian government, as perpetrators of a crime. While it’s easy to attribute a motive to the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society to fabricate a story, no credible motive or benefit has been adduced to explain why the Syrian government would carry out the alleged CW attack. Those explanations that have been advanced fail on either of two grounds: they’re circular, or implausible and free from evidence.

A favored circular explanation holds that Assad ordered an attack because he’s an “animal.” How do we know he’s an animal? Because he ordered an attack.

Another line of argument attributes the alleged attack to a desire on the part of the Syrian government “to terrorize the population.”** Apart from the reality that no evidence for this claim is adduced, it is wholly unsatisfying as an explanation. Populations can be far more effectively terrorized by carpet bombing (also known, fittingly, as terror bombing.) If the Syrian government sought to terrorize the population, why use chemical weapons, when far more effective means are at hand, ones, morever, that don’t cross a red line?

#10. The bottom line is that there is no independent verification that an attack even took place, let alone that the Syrian government is responsible for one. What’s more, the sources of the allegations are wholly untrustworthy, have an interest in perpetrating a hoax, and no credible motivation has been cited to explain why the Syrian government would undertake the alleged CW attack.

The only reasonable conclusion in light of the above is that there’s not a speck of credible evidence that the Syrian government perpetrated a CW attack at Douma last Saturday, and that there are strong grounds to suspect the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society have created a deception.

* See for example “The US presses allies to back military strike on Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2018 or “Russia warns it will shoot down US missiles fired at Syria, target launch sites,” Reuters, April 11, 2018. Two days earlier the Wall Street Journal’s reporting identified the Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets as the sources of the allegations, as did The Associated Press and the New York times.

** See for example “Syria gas attack echoes Assad’s gamble that gains outweigh risks,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2018.

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Nonsense about Syria gas attacks reveals US ideology of tyranny

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 10, 2018

April 11, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

Ideologues of US power, notably those ensconced in the editorial offices of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, believe that the United States has an imprescriptible right to exercise an absolutist tyranny over the world, to define the boundary between civilization and barbarism, and that Washington is unbound by international law, but free to wield it as a tool against the barbarians. In the ideology of US despotism, the compass of civilization includes states that submit to “US leadership”, a euphemized version of “US tyranny,” while states which favor an international order based on the UN Charter’s ideal of the sovereignty and equality of states (Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela are among the supporters of this alternative, democratic, order) are relegated to the category of barbarism. Once a state has been located outside of civilization, Western legal traditions—testing accusations against evidence and the assumption of innocence until culpability is credibly demonstrated— no longer apply. The “barbaric” state becomes guilty of all acts of which it is accused, regardless of whether there exists credible evidence to corroborate the accusation.

In a 9 April editorial “In Syria, Trump faces the limits of bluster” The New York Times attributes a global leadership role to the United States, which it urges the Trump administration to exercise by creating “an independent investigation that could lead to prosecution” of the Syrian leadership “in a tribunal like the International Criminal Court,” a court the United States itself rejects and refuses to be bound by.

The New York Times’ editors lay out steps Washington ought to take if “the Syrian regime’s guilt is determined,” but conclude all the same that the Syrian government is guilty on all charges, contrary to the reality that the US State Department, British Foreign Office, and its own reporters, have acknowledged that the chemical attack allegations against the Syrian government are unverified and unconfirmed. What’s more, the sources of the allegations are the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society, partisan outfits, funded by Western governments, and allied with anti-government insurgents, who have an interest in fabricating atrocities to defame their enemy and to justify continued and even elevated Western intervention in Syria.

Additionally, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, at a 2 February news conference, admitted that the Pentagon has no evidence that the Syrian military has ever used chemical weapons. This, however, didn’t stop the New York Times’ editors from declaring that Syria has failed to honor its agreement to destroy its chemical weapons under a 2013 pact or that it is responsible “for most of the 85 chemical attacks in the country over the past five years.” A newspaper which proclaims itself to live up to the highest standards of journalism, indeed, to set the gold standard, appears to have no trouble creating facts out of thin air.

The editors lay out steps the Trump administration should take once a legal imprimatur is conferred upon a pre-judgement of guilt. Inevitably, military action is called for. “If a Russian veto prevents Security Council action, then Mr. Trump needs to work with our allies, through NATO or otherwise,” the editors counsel—a call for the US administration to violate international law (again.)

“The use of poison gas,” the newspaper of record observes one paragraph later, “is a war crime under international law,” a curious observation given the editors’ dim view of international law as evidenced by their urging Washington to act without Security Council authorization in order to exercise “America’s traditional leadership role.” It should be recalled that the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan also claimed leadership roles, to say nothing of imperial Britain and imperial France, the latter of which is eager to rehabilitate its colonial tyranny over its former Syrian mandate under the guise of punishing the “barbarian” Assad for outrages against civilization.

The Pentagon has the world’s largest stockpile of weaponized poison gas. The point of having it is to possibly use it, despite its prohibition under the very same international law the New York Times condemns Syria (without evidence) of violating. Thus, the ideologues of US tyranny reveal that international law is a matter of significance only to countries the United States defines as its enemies (the barbarians), and not to the United States itself, which is free to act as it pleases against the barbarians, according to its own laws, as the guarantor of a global moral order. Needless to say, the idea that the United States, the principle source of disorder, suffering and decay in the world, has even a soupcon of moral authority, is risible, if not a sick joke—a truth of which most of the world’s population is only too aware.

In 1970, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 2625, which, inter alia, declared that “States have the duty to refrain from propaganda for wars of aggression,” a resolution of apparently no significance to the New York Times, which is only too happy to spread propaganda for wars of aggression in the service of a US tyranny which, far from exercising moral authority, continues to spread its dark wings over the whole world, led by a madman at the top of a system of global oppression and exploitation, from which has sprung a program of neo-colonial warfare and escalating confrontation with China and Russia.

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Eight reasons why the latest Syria chemical weapons attack allegations are almost certainly complete nonsense

Posted in Syria by what's left on April 8, 2018

April 8, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

There is much ambiguity surrounding the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, said to have taken place late Saturday, but there are a few matters that are clear.

First, the reports are “unverified”, according to The Wall Street Journal [1] and British Foreign Office [2] and are unconfirmed, according to the US State Department [3]. What’s more, The New York Times noted that it “was not possible to independently verify the reports,” [4] while The Associated Press added that “the reports could not be independently verified.” [5]

Second, according to The Wall Street Journal, it isn’t “clear who carried out the attack” [6] assuming even that one was carried out.

Third, the “unverified photos and videos” [7] which form the body of (unverified) evidence, were produced by two groups which have an interest in fabricating atrocities to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. Both groups, the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society, are funded by Western governments [8], which openly seek regime change in Syria and therefore have an interest in producing a humanitarian pretext to justify stepping up their intervention in the country. The Western government-funded White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society are allied with anti-government jihadists and are active only “in opposition-controlled areas.” [9] They, too, are clearly interested parties.

Fourth, The New York Times indirectly revealed a possible motivation for the two groups to bring forward fabricated atrocity stories. “A new confirmed chemical attack in Syria,” the newspaper noted, “would pose a dilemma for President Trump, who … recently said he wants to get the United States out of Syria.” [10]

Trump’s recent musings about ending the US military occupation of nearly one-third of Syrian territory, including the country’s richest oil fields, was swiftly met by Pentagon opposition, led by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The US president reluctantly accepted a continued occupation, so long as it ends in a matter of months rather than years.

Fabricating an atrocity would pressure Trump to maintain the US occupation indefinitely and possibly escalate US military intervention in Syria, much to the pleasure of Islamist insurgents, their White Helmet and Syrian American Medical Society allies, and US war planners.

If that is the intention, the maneuver appears to have met with success. Trump reacted on Twitter to the unverified (and unverifiable) reports, by dehumanizing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as an “animal,” who the US president said was responsible for a “humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever.” That the US State Department acknowledged that the reports were unconfirmed failed to restrain the “shoot-from-the-hip” Trump.

Fifth, a chemical attack by the Syrian government would be manifestly self-defeating, and therefore would seem to be highly unlikely. The Syrian Arab Army is on the cusp of an all but inevitable victory in Eastern Ghouta. Why would it cancel its gains by handing the United States a pretext to continue its military intervention in Syria, in the aftermath of Trump signalling his intention to withdraw US troops?

Sixth, it is difficult to conceive of any military benefit to the Syrian Arab Army of deploying chemical weapons. The Syrian military has more lethal conventional ways of killing than using chemical agents, whose effects are unpredictable and typically small scale. In all the alleged chemical attack incidents in Syria, the claimed number of victims is always smaller than that which could easily be produced by air strikes and artillery. Why, then, would the Syrian government use relatively ineffective chemical weapons, creating a pretext for continued US intervention, when it could use more deadly conventional weapons, without a crossing a red line?

Seventh, much of the discourse about chemical weapons in Syria implicitly assumes the Syrian government has them, despite the country cooperating with the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons to eliminate them years ago.

Finally, allegations of chemical weapons use are routinely made against the Syrian government, and while, through repetition, have been transfigured into received truths, have all proved to be unverified. Jim Mattis acknowledged this at a February 2 news conference.

Q: Just make sure I heard you correctly, you’re saying you think it’s likely they have used it and you’re looking for the evidence? Is that what you said?

SEC. MATTIS: … We do not have evidence of it…we’re looking for evidence of it….

Q: So the likelihood was not what your — you’re not characterizing it as a likelihood? I thought I used — you used that word; I guess I misunderstood you.

SEC. MATTIS: Well, there’s certainly groups that say they’ve used it. And so they think there’s a likelihood, so we’re looking for the evidence.

Q: So there’s credible evidence out there that both sarin and chlorine —

SEC. MATTIS: No, I have not got the evidence, not specifically. I don’t have the evidence.

What I’m saying is that other — that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence, credible or uncredible. [11]

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but neither is it evidence of guilt. The complete lack of evidence, along with a political context that favors the production of spurious allegations, suggests that the latest chemical weapons claims are—like all that have preceded them—dubious at best.

1. Raja Abdulrahim, “Dozens killed in alleged chemical-weapons attack in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2018.
2. Ben Hubbard, “Dozens suffocate in Syria as government is accused of chemical attack,” The New York Times, April 8, 2018.
3. Hubbard.
4. Hubbard.
5. Zeina Karam and Philip Issa, “Syrian rescuers say at least 40 people killed in eastern Ghouta has attack,” The Associated Press, April 8, 2018.
6. April 8.
7. Abdulrahim, April 8.
8. Raja Abdulrahim, “Syria airstrikes hit hospitals in rebel territory,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2018; Louisa Loveluck and Erin Cunningham, “Dozens killed in apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, rescue workers say,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2018.
9. Abdulrahim, April 8; Abdulrahim, February 5.
10. Hubbard.
11. Media Availability by Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, Feb. 2, 2018, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1431844/media-availability-by-secretary-mattis-at-the-pentagon/

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The (Largely Unrecognized) US Occupation of Syria

Posted in Syria by what's left on March 11, 2018

The United States has invaded Syria with a significant military force, is occupying nearly one-third of its territory, has announced plans for an indefinite occupation, and is plundering the country’s petroleum resources. Washington has no authorization under international or even US law to invade and occupy Syria, much less attack Syrian forces, which it has done repeatedly. Nor has it a legal warrant to create new administrative and governance structures in the country to replace the Syrian government, a project it is undertaking through a parallel invasion of US diplomatic personnel. These actions—criminal, plunderous, and an assault on democracy at an international level—amount to a retrograde project of recolonization by an empire bent on extending its supremacy to all the Arab and Muslim worlds, including the few remaining outposts of resistance to foreign tyranny. Moreover, US actions represent an escalation of Washington’s long war on Syria, previously carried out through proxies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, into a full-scale conventional war with direct US military involvement. Yet, despite the enormity of the project, and the escalation of the war, the US occupation of Syria has largely flown under the radar of public awareness.

March 11, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

Atop multiple indignities and affronts to liberty and democracy visited upon the Arab world by the West, including the plunder of Palestine by European settlers and the political oppression of Arabs by a retinue of military dictators, monarchs, emirs and sultans who rule largely at the pleasure of Washington and on its behalf, now arrives the latest US transgression on the ideals of sovereignty, independence, and the equality of nations: marauders in Washington have pilfered part of the territory of one of the last bastions of Arab independence—Syria. Indeed, Washington now controls “about one-third of the country including most of its oil wealth”, [1] has no intention of returning it to its rightful owners, has planned for an indefinite military occupation of eastern Syria, and is creating a new Israel, which is to say, an new imperialist outpost in the middle of the Arab world, to be governed by Kurdish proxies backed by US firepower. [2] The crime has been carried out openly, and yet has hardly been noticed or remarked upon.

Here are the facts:

In January, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that US “troops will remain in Syria” indefinitely “to ensure that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will take over areas” [3] the United States captured from ISIS, even though these areas belong to the Syrian Arab Republic, by law and right, and not to Washington, or to Washington’s Kurdish proxy, the SDF. The SDF, or Syrian Democratic Force, is a US-constructed outfit which, in journalist Robert Fisk’s words, is neither Syrian (it’s dominated by Kurds, including those of Turkish origin) nor democratic (since it imposes Kurdish rule over traditionally Arab areas and dances to a tune called by a foreign master.) Moreover, it’s not much of a force, since, without US airpower, artillery, and Special Operations support, it is militarily inconsequential. [4] “US President Donald Trump’s rollout of an updated Syria policy,” reports Aaron Stein, writing in the unofficial journal of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, “commits US forces to maintaining a presence” in northeast Syria in order to “hedge against” any attempt by Damascus to assert sovereignty over its own territory. [5]

The Pentagon officially admits to having 2,000 troops in Syria [6] but a top US general put the number higher, 4,000, in an October press briefing. [7] But even this figure is an “artificial construct,” as the Pentagon described a previous low-ball figure. On top of the infantry, artillery, and forward air controllers the Pentagon counts as deployed to Syria, there is an additional number of uncounted Special Operations personnel, as well as untallied troops assigned to classified missions and “an unspecified number of contractors” i.e., mercenaries. Additionally, combat aircrews are not counted, even though US airpower is critical to the occupation. [8] There are, therefore, many more times the officially acknowledged number of US troops in Syria, operating out of 10 bases in the country, including “a sprawling facility with a long runway, hangars, barracks and fuel depots.” [9]

In addition to US military advisers, Army Rangers, artillery, Special Operations forces, satellite-guided rockets and Apache attack helicopters [10], the United States has deployed US diplomats to Syria to create government and administrative structures to supersede the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic. [11] Plus, the United States “is now working to transform Kurdish fighters into a local security force” to handle policing [12] while US diplomats on the ground work to establish local governments to run the occupied territory’s affairs. [13]

“The idea in US policy circles” is to create “a soft partition” of Syria between the United States and Russia along the Euphrates, “as it was among the Elbe [in Germany] at the end of the Second World War.” [14] On top of the 28 percent of Syria the United States occupies, it controls “half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates Dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land.” [15]

During the war against ISIS, US military planning called for the Kurds to push south along the Euphrates River to seize Syria’s oil-and gas-rich territory. [16] While the Syrian Arab Army and its allies focussed mostly on liberating cities from Islamic State, the Kurds, under US direction, went “after the strategic oil and gas fields”, [17] “robbing Islamic State of key territory,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The US newspaper correctly designated the seizure of key territory as a robbery, but failed to acknowledge the victim, not Islamic State, which itself robbed the territory, but the Syrian Arab Republic. But this skein of equivocation needs to be further disentangled. It was not the Kurds who robbed ISIS which earlier robbed the Syrians, but the United States which robbed ISIS which robbed Syria. The Kurds, without the backing of the US armed forces, are a military cipher incapable, by their own efforts, of robbing the Arab republic. The Americans are the robbers, the Syrians the victims.

The United States has robbed Syria of “two of the largest oil and gas fields in Deir Ezzour”, including the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest. [18] Last September, the United States plundered Syria of “a gas field and plant known in Syria as the Conoco gas plant” (though its affiliation with Conoco is historical; the plant was acquired by the Syrian Gas Company in 2005.) [19] Russia observed that “the real aim” of the US forces’ (incontestably denominated) “illegal” presence in Syria has been “the seizure and retention of economic assets that only belong to the Syrian Arab Republic.” [20] The point is beyond dispute: the United States has stolen resources vital to the republic’s reconstruction (this from a country which proclaims property rights to be humanity’s highest value.)

Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who specializes in Syria, has argued that by “controlling half of Syria’s energy resources…the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced.” [21] Bereft of its petroleum resources, and deprived of its best farmland, Syria will be hard-pressed to recover from the Islamist insurgency—an operation precipitated by Washington as part of its long war on nationalist influence in the Arab world—a war that has left Syria in ruins. The conclusion that “Assad has won” and that the war is over except for mopping up operations is unduly optimistic, even Pollyannaish. There is a long road ahead.

Needless to say, Damascus aspires to recover its lost territory, and “on February 7 sent a battalion-sized column to [recuperate] a critical gas plant near Deir Ezzour.” [22] This legitimate exercise of sovereignty was repulsed by an airstrike by US invaders, which left an estimated 100 Syrian Arab Army troops and their allies dead. [23] The significance of this event has been under-appreciated, and perhaps because press coverage of what transpired disguised its enormity. An emblematic Wall Street Journal report, for example, asserted that the US airstrike was a defensive response to an unprovoked attack by Syrian forces, as if the Syrians, on their own soil, were aggressors, and the invading Americans, victims. [24] We might inquire into the soundness of describing an aggression by invaders on a domestic military force operating within its own territory as a defensive response to an unprovoked attack. Likewise, we can inquire into the cogency of Washington’s insistence that it does not intend to wage war on the Syrian Arab Army. That this statement can be accepted as reasonable suggests the operation of what Charles Mills calls an epistemology of ignorance—a resistance to understanding the obvious. It should be evident—indeed, it’s axiomatic—that the unprovoked invasion and occupation of a country constitutes an aggression, but apparently this is not the case in the specially constructed reality of the Western media. Could Russia invade the United States west of the Colorado River, control the territory’s airspace, plunder its resources, establish new government and administrative structures to supplant local, state, and federal authority, and then credibly declare that it does not seek war with the United States and its armed services? Invasion and occupation are aggressive acts, a statement that shouldn’t need to be made.

Washington’s February 7 attack on Syrian forces was not the first. “American troops carried out strikes against forces loyal to President Bashar Assad of Syria several times in 2017,” reported the New York Times. [25] In other words, the United States has invaded Syria, is occupying nearly a third of its territory, and has carried out attacks on the Syrian military, and this aggression is supposed to be understood as a defensive response to Syrian provocations.

It is incontestable that US control of the airspace of eastern Syria, the invasion of the country by untold thousands of US military and diplomatic personnel, the plunder of the Levantine nation’s resources, and attacks on its military forces, are flagrant violations of international law. No country has more contempt for the rule of law than the United States, yet, in emetic fashion, its government incessantly invokes the very rule of law it spurns to justify its outrages against it. But what of US law? If, to Washington, international law is merely an impediment to be overcome on its way to expanding its empire, are the US invasion and occupation of Syria, and attacks on Syrian forces, in harmony with the laws of the United States? If you ask the White House and Pentagon the answer is yes, but that is tantamount to asking a thief to rule on his or her theft. The question is, does the US executive’s claim that its actions in Syria comport with US law stand up to scrutiny? Not only does it not, the claim is risible. “Under both Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump,” explains the New York Times’ Charlie Savage, “the executive branch has argued that the war against Islamic State is covered by a 2001 law authorizing the use of military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks [my emphasis] and a 2002 law authorizing the invasion of Iraq.” However, while “ISIS grew out an offshoot of Al Qaeda, the two groups by 2014 had split and became warring rivals,” and ISIS did not perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. What’s more, before the rise of ISIS, the Obama administration had deemed the Iraq war over. [26]

Washington’s argument has other problems, as well. While the 2001 law does not authorize the use of military force against ISIS, it does authorize military action against Al Qaeda. Yet from 2011 to today, the United States has not only failed to use force against the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s largest branch, it has trained and equipped Islamist fighters who are intermingled with, cooperate on the battle field with, share weapons with, and operate under licence to, the group, as I showed in my book Washington’s Long War on Syria, citing the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, which have extensively reported on the interconnections between US trained and armed fighters and the organization founded by Osama bin Laden. [27]

Finally, by implication, since the law does not authorize the use of force against ISIS, it does not authorize the presence of US aircrews in Syrian airspace or US military and diplomatic personnel on Syrian soil. In addition, it certainly does not authorize the use of force against a Syrian military operating within its own borders.

Let’s look again at Washington’s stated reasons for its planned indefinite occupation of Syria: to prevent the return of ISIS; to stop the Syrian Arab Republic from exercising sovereignty over all of its territory; and to eclipse Iranian influence in Syria. For only one of these reasons, the first, does Washington offer any sort of legal justification. The latter two objectives are so totally devoid of legal warrant that Washington has not even tried to mount a legal defense of them. Yet, these are the authentic reasons for the US invasion and occupation of Syria. As to the first reason, if Washington were seriously motivated to use military force to crush Al Qaeda, it would not have armed, trained and directed the group’s auxiliaries in its war against Arab nationalist power in Damascus.

Regarding Washington’s stated aim of eclipsing Iranian influence in Syria, we may remind ourselves of the contents of a leaked 2012 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report. That report revealed that the insurgency in Syria was sectarian and led by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State. The report also disclosed that the United States, Arab Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey supported the insurgents. The analysis correctly predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality,” an Islamic state, in eastern Syria, noting that this was desired by the insurgency’s foreign backers, which wanted to see the secular Arab nationalists isolated and cut-off from Iran. [28] The United States has since decided to take on the role that it had once planned for a Salafist principality. A planned Saudi-style state dividing Damascus from Tehran has become an indefinite US occupation, from whose womb US planners hope to midwife the birth of a Kurd mini-state as a new Israel.

The reality that the US operation in Syria is illegal may account for why, with Washington’s misdirection and the press’s collusion, it has largely flown under the radar of public awareness. Misdirection is accomplished by disguising the US occupation of eastern Syria as a Kurd-, or SDF-effort, which the United States is merely assisting, rather than directing. The misdirection appears to be successful, because the narrative has been widely mentally imbibed, including by otherwise critical people. There are parallels. The United States is prosecuting a war of aggression in Yemen, against a movement that threatens US hegemony in the Middle East, as the Syrian Arab Republic, Iran and Hezbollah do. The aggression against Yemen is as lacking in legal warrant as is the US war on Syria. It flagrantly violates international law; the Houthis did not attack Saudi Arabia, let alone the United States, and therefore there is no justification for military action on international legal grounds against them. What’s more, the Pentagon can’t even point to authorization for the use of force against Yemen’s rebels under US domestic law since they are not Al Qaeda and have no connection to the 9/11 attacks. To side step the difficulty of deploying military force without a legal warrant, the war, then, is presented as “Saudi-led”, with the involvement of the United States relegated in the hermeneutics to the periphery. Yet Washington is directing the war. The United States flies its own drones and reconnaissance aircraft over Yemen to gather intelligence to select targets for Saudi pilots. [29] It refuels Saudi bombers in flight. Its warships enforce a naval blockade. And significantly, it runs an operations center to coordinate the bombing campaign among the US satellites who participate in it. In the language of the military, the United States has command and control of the aggression against Yemen. The only US absence is in the provision of pilots to drop the bombs, this role having been farmed out to Arab allies. [30] And that is the key to the misdirection. Because Saudi pilots handle one visible aspect of the multi-dimensional war, (whose various other dimensions are run by the Americans), it can be passed off to the public as a Saudi affair, while those who find the Saudi monarchy abhorrent (which it is) can vent their spleen on a scapegoat. We do the same to the Kurds, hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at them, when they are merely pawns of the US government pursuing a project of empire-building. Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, has seen through the misdirection, declaring that it is the West, not the Saudis, who are ‘directing the war’ in Yemen. [31]

It would profit us to heed the words of Ibrahim Al-Amin, who, on the occasion of the White House recognizing Al-Quds (Jerusalem) as the capital of Israel, asked Arabs whether it wasn’t time to realize that the United States is the origin of all that plagues them. Let us leave ‘Israel’ aside, he counseled. “Whatever is said about its power, superiority and preparation, it is but an America-British colony that cannot live a day without the protection, care and blind support of the West.” [32] The same can be said of the Saudi monarchy and the SDF.

I leave the last word to the Syrian government, whose voice is hardly ever heard above the din of Western war propaganda. The invasion and occupation of eastern Syria is “a blatant interference, a flagrant violation of [the] UN Charter’s principles…an unjustified aggression on the sovereignty and independence of Syria.” [33] None of this is controversial. For his part, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has pointed out incontestably that foreign troops in Syria “without our invitation or consultation or permission…are invaders.” It is time the US invasion and occupation of Syria—illegal, anti-democratic, plunderous, and a project of recolonization—was recognized, opposed, and ended. There is far more to Washington’s long war on Syria than Al Qaeda, the White Helmets and the Kurds. As significant as these forces are, the threat they pose to the Syrian center of opposition to foreign tyranny has been surpassed by a more formidable challenge—the war’s escalation into a US military and diplomatic occupation accompanied by direct US military confrontation with the Syrian Arab Army and its allies.

1. Neil MacFarquhar, ‘Russia’s greatest problem in Syria: It’s ally president Assad,’ The New York Times, March 8, 2018.
2. Anne Barnard, “US-backed force could cement a Kurdish enclave in Syria,” The New York Times, January 16, 2018; Domenico Losurdo, “Crisis in the Imperialist World Order,” Revista Opera, March 2, 2018.
3. Gardiner Harris, “Tillerson says US troops to stay in Syria beyond battle with ISIS, The New York Times, January 17, 2018.
4. Robert Fisk, “The next Kurdish war is on the horizon—Turkey and Syria will never allow it to create a mini-state,” The Independent, January 18, 2018.
5. Aaron Stein, “Turkey’s Afrin offensive and America’s future in Syria: Why Washington should be eying the exit,” Foreign Affairs, January 23, 2018.
6. Nancy A. Yousef, “US to remain in Syria indefinitely, Pentagon officials say, The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2017.
7. Andrew deGrandpre, “A top US general just said 4,000 American troops are in Syria. The Pentagon says there are only 500,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2017.
8. John Ismay, “US says 2,000 troops are in Syria, a fourfold increase,” The New York Times, December 6, 2017; Nancy A. Yousef, “US to remain in Syria indefinitely, Pentagon officials say,” The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2017.
9. Dion Nissenbaum, “Map said to show locations of US forces in Syria published in Turkey,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2017.
10. Michael R. Gordon, “In a desperate Syrian city, a test of Trump’s policies,” The New York Times, July 1, 2017.
11. Nancy A. Yousef, “US to send more diplomats and personnel to Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2017.
12. Dion Nissenbaum, “US moves to halt Turkey’s drift toward Iran and Russia,” the Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2018.
13. Nancy A. Yousef, “Some US-backed Syrian fighters leave ISIS battle to counter Turkey,” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2018.
14. Yaroslav Trofimov, “In Syria, new conflict looms as ISIS loses ground,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2017.
15. Gregory Shupak, “Media erase US role in Syria’s misery, call for US to inflict more misery,” FAIR.org, March 7, 2018.
16. Trofimov, September 7, 2017.
17. Raj Abdulrahim and Ghassan Adnan, “Syria and Iraq rob Islamic State of key territory,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2018.
18. Raj Abdulrahim and Ghassan Adnan, “Syria and Iraq rob Islamic State of key territory,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2018.
19. Abdulrahim and Adnan, November 3, 2018.
20. Raja Abdulrahim and Thomas Grove, “Syria condemns US airstrike as tension rise,” the Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2018.
21. Joshua Landis, “US policy toward the Levant, Kurds and Turkey,” Syria Comment, January 15, 2018.
22. Yaroslav Trofimov, “As alliances shift, Syria’s tangle of war grows more dangerous,” The Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2018.
23. Raja Abdulralhim and Thomas Grove, “Syria condemns US airstrike as tensions rise,” The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2018; Nancy A. Yousef and Thomas Grove, “Russians among those killed in US airstrike is eastern Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2018.
24. Yousef and Grove, February 13, 2018.
25. Charlie Savage, “US says troops can stay in Syria without new authorization,” The New York Times, February 22, 2018.
26. Savage, February 22, 2018.
27. Stephen Gowans. Washington’s Long War on Syria. Baraka Books. 20017. Pp. 149-150.
28. DIA document leaked to Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, which promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.
http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf
29. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “Quiet support for Saudis entangles U.S. in Yemen,” The New York Times, March 13, 2016.
30. Stephen Gowans, “The US-Led War on Yemen, what’s left, November 6, 2017.
31. William James, “May defends Saudi ties as Crown Prince gets royal welcome in London,” Reuters, March 7, 2018.
32. Ibrahim Al-Amin, “Either America or Al-Quds,” Alahednews, December 8, 2017.
33. Syria condemns presence of French and German special forces in Ain al-Arab and Manbij as overt unjustified aggression on Syria’s sovereignty and independence, SANA, June 15, 2016.

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