He’s just shifting the burden to allies and relying more on mercenaries
December 23, 2018
By Stephen Gowans
The announced withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the drawdown of US occupation forces in Afghanistan very likely do not represent the abandonment of US aims in the Middle East, and instead more likely reflect the adoption of new means of achieving longstanding US foreign policy goals. Rather than renouncing the US objective of dominating the Arab and Muslim worlds through a system of veiled colonialism and direct military occupation, US president Donald Trump is merely implementing a new policy—one based on shifting the burden of maintaining the US empire increasingly to allies and private soldiers bankrolled by oil monarchies.
Trump’s foreign relations modus operandi have been guided consistently by the argument that US allies are failing to pull their weight and ought to contribute more to the US security architecture. Recruiting Arab allies to replace US troops in Syria and deploying mercenaries (euphemistically called security contractors) are two options that have been actively under consideration at the White House since last year. What’s more, there already exists a significant ally and mercenary presence in Afghanistan and the planned withdrawal of 7,000 US troops from that country will only marginally reduce the Western military footprint.
US defense secretary Jim Mattis’s clash of worldviews with Trump is misperceived as a contradiction of views about US objectives, rather than how to achieve them. Mattis favors prosecution of US imperial aims through the significant participation of the US military, while Trump favors pressuring allies to shoulder more of the burden of US-empire maintenance while hiring security contractors to fill in the gaps. Trump’s goal is to reduce the empire’s drain on the US treasury and to secure his voting base, to whom he has promised, as part of his “America First” plan, to bring US troops home.
Significantly, Trump’s plan is to reduce expenditures on US military activity abroad, not as an end in itself, but as a means of freeing up revenue for domestic investment in public infrastructure. In his view, expenditures on the republic ought to have priority over expenditures on the empire. “We have [spent] $7 trillion in the Middle East,” complained the US president to members of his administration. “We can’t even muster $1 trillion for domestic infrastructure.” Earlier, on the eve of the 2016 election, Trump groused that Washington had “wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering — imagine if that money had been spent at home. … We’ve spent $6 trillion, lost thousands of lives. You could say hundreds of thousands of lives, because look at the other side also.” 
In April of this year, Trump “expressed growing impatience with the cost and duration of the effort to stabilize Syria,” and spoke about the urgency of speeding the withdrawal of US troops.  Administration officials scrambled “to develop an exit strategy that would shift the U.S. burden to regional partners.” 
The national security adviser, John Bolton, “called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort.”  Next Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were “approached with respect to financial support and more broadly to contribute.” Bolton also asked for “Arab nations to send troops.”  The Arab satellites were pressured to “work with the local Kurdish and Arab fighters the U.S. has been supporting” —in other words, to take the baton from the United States.
Soon after, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, the mercenary firm, was “informally contacted by Arab officials about the prospect of building a force in Syria.”  In the summer of 2017, Prince—the brother of US education secretary Betsy DeVos—approached the White House about the possibility of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan and sending mercenaries to fight in their place.  The scheme would see the Persian Gulf oil monarchies pay Prince to field a mercenary force to take over from US troops.
Trump announced in April that “We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region.”  The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal applauded the move. Trump’s plan, it said, was “the better strategy”—it would enlist “regional opponents of Iran,” i.e., the Arab potentates who rule at Washington’s pleasure, in the project of turning “Syria into the Ayatollah’s Vietnam.” 
There are currently 14,000 acknowledged US troops in Afghanistan, of whom half, or 7,000, will soon be withdrawn. But there are somewhere around 47,000 Western forces in the country, including NATO troops and mercenaries (14,000 US troops, 7,000 NATO forces , and 26,000 private soldiers ). Cutting the US contribution in half will still leave 40,000 Western troops as an occupation force in Afghanistan. And the reduction in US forces can be made up easily by hiring 7,000 mercenary replacements, paid for by Persian Gulf monarchs. “The drawdown,” reported The Wall Street Journal, “could pave the way for more private contractors to take over support and training roles,” as outlined in “the long-time campaign by Erik Prince.” The Journal noted that education secretary’s brother “has carried out an aggressive campaign to persuade Mr. Trump to privatize the war.” 
Mattis’s resignation has been interpreted as a protest against Trump’s “ceding critical territory to Russia and Iran”  rather than a rebuke to Trump for relying on allies to bear the burden of pursuing US goals in Syria. The defense secretary’s resignation letter was silent on Trump’s decision to bring US troops home from Syria and Afghanistan, and instead dwelled on “alliances and partnerships.” The letter outlined Mattis’s concerns that Trump’s turn in direction fails to pay adequate attention to “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect” to allies. While this has been construed as a reprimand for abandoning the US tip of the spear in Syria, the Kurds, Mattis referred to “alliances and partnerships” in the plural, indicating that his grievances go further than US relations with the Kurds. Instead, Mattis expressed concerns that are consistent with a longstanding complaint within the US foreign policy establishment that Trump’s incessant efforts to pressure allies to bear more of the cost of maintaining the US empire are alienating US allies and undermining the “system of alliances and partnerships” that comprise it. 
The notion, too, that Mattis’s resignation is a rebuke to Trump for abandoning the Kurds, is baseless. The Kurds are not being abandoned. British and French commandos are also present in the country and “are expected to remain in Syria after the American troops leave.”  Mattis appears to have been concerned that by extracting US forces from Syria, Trump is placing the weight of securing US goals more heavily on the British and French, who can hardly be expected to tolerate for long an arrangement whereby they act as Washington’s expeditionary force while US troops stay at home. At some point, they will realize they might be better off outside the US alliance. For Mattis, long concerned with maintaining a “comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships” as the means to “advance an international order that is most conducive to [US] security, prosperity and values,” Trump’s burden-shifting hardly amounts to “treating allies with respect” or “providing effective leadership,” as Mattis said in his resignation letter that Washington ought to do.
Russian president Vladimir Putin greeted the Trump announcement with skepticism. “We don’t see any signs yet of the withdrawal of U.S. troops,” he said. “How long has the United States been in Afghanistan? Seventeen years? And almost every year they say they’re pulling out their troops.” Already, the Pentagon is talking about shifting US troops “to neighboring Iraq, where an estimated 5,000 United States forces are already deployed,” who will “’surge’” into Syria for specific raids.”  The force would also be able to “return to Syria for specific missions when critical threats arise,”  which might include the Syrian army attempting to recover its territory from Kurd occupation forces. What’s more, the Pentagon retains the capability of “continued airstrikes and resupplying allied Kurdish fighters with arms and equipment” from Iraq. 
Trump never intended to bring a radical redefinition of the aims of US foreign policy to the presidency, only a different way of achieving them, one that would take advantage of his self-proclaimed prowess at negotiation. Trump’s negotiation tactics involve nothing more than pressuring others to pick up the tab, which is what he has done here. The French, the British, and other US allies will replace US boots on the ground, along with mercenaries who will be bankrolled by Arab oil monarchies. To be sure, US foreign policy as an instrument for the protection and promotion of US profit-making has always relied on someone else to foot the bill, namely, ordinary Americans, who pay through their taxes and in some cases with their lives and bodies as US soldiers. As wage- and salary-earners they reap none of the benefits of a policy that is shaped by “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests,” as the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page showed in their 2014 study of over 1,700 US policy issues. Big business, the scholars concluded, “have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”  In other words, big business formulates US foreign policy to its benefit, and gets ordinary Americans to shoulder the cost.
That’s the way things ought to be, in the view of Mattis, and other members of the US foreign policy elite. The trouble with Trump, from their perspective, is that he is trying to shift part of the burden that presently weights heavily upon the shoulders of ordinary Americans to the shoulders of ordinary people in the countries who make up the subordinate parts the US empire. And while allies are expected to bear part of the burden, the increased share of the burden Trump wants them to carry is inimical to maintenance of the alliances on which the US empire depends.
1. Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House, (Simon & Shuster, 2018) 307.
2. Jon Schwarz, “This Thanksgiving, I’m Grateful for Donald Trump, America’s Most Honest President,” The Intercept, November 21, 2018.
3. Michael R. Gordon, “US seeks Arab force and funding for Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2018.
4. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
5. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
6. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
7. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
8. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
9. Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman, “Trump settles on Afghan strategy expected to raise troop levels,” The New York Times, August 20, 2017.
10. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
11. The Editorial Board, “Trump’s next Syria challenge,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018.
12. Julian E. Barnes, “NATO announces deployment of more troops to Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2017.
13. Erik Prince, “Contractors, not troops, will save Afghanistan,” The New York Times, August 30, 2017.
14. Craig Nelson, “Trump withdrawal plan alters calculus on ground in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2018.
15. Helene Cooper, “Jim Mattis, defense secretary, resigns in rebuke of Trump’s worldview,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
16. “Read Jim Mattis’s letter to Trump: Full text,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
17. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon considers using special operations forces to continue mission in Syria,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018.
18. Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew E. Kramer, “Putin welcomes withdrawal from Syria as ‘correct’,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
19. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon considers using special operations forces to continue mission in Syria,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018.
20. Gibbons-Neff and Schmitt, December 21, 2018.
21. Gibbons-Neff and Schmitt, December 21, 2018.
22. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.
The United States has a new strategy for Syria, according to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The new direction, however, is simply the old, largely unrecognized, one, transformed from a de facto status to official one by presidential authorization. In other words, an aggressive US policy on Syria will continue to be implemented—one the US president had, for a time, openly mused about reversing, but has now accepted.
The strategy, crafted by “the steady state”, and now acquiesced to by the US president, features the continued illegal and indefinite occupation of roughly one-third of Syrian territory by US forces as well as US interference in Syrian attempts to liberate Idlib from the control of Al Qaeda forces allied to Washington, its Arab monarchist collaborators, and their partner, Israel. It also features US pressure, military and otherwise, to confront Iranian forces and to drive them out of Syria. The overarching goal of the strategy, clearly articulated by US officials, is to dictate the form, nature and raison d’être of the Syrian state, the self-appointed prerogative of a globe-girding dictatorship. In the words of US officials, Washington seeks to build “a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community”. The goal, redolent with the stench of imperialism, can be challenged on democratic and liberal grounds, as well as on legal and moral ones.
First, it might be noted that almost every state in the Arab world was created by the dominant imperialist powers of the day, Britain and France, to serve their own interests at the expense of the Arabs they subordinated to their rule, occasionally directly but usually indirectly. London and Paris partitioned West Asia and North Africa without the slightest regard to the aspirations of the people who inhabited these regions, and imposed rulers upon them, quislings who collaborated with their imperial patrons in plundering the region’s resources. Washington’s plan to establish a government in Syria acceptable to the international community, i.e., the United States, continues a long imperialist tradition of indirect rule by outside powers.
Partisans of democracy should object to this plan for three reasons.
First, a Syrian government doesn’t have to be acceptable to the United States or any other country. It only needs to be acceptable to Syrians.
Second, democracy has both intra- and inter-national aspects. Internationally, it means that peoples have the right to organize their own affairs, free from the interference of foreign states. Governments need only answer to their own people; not to Washington. While the point should be obvious, it is studiously avoided in public discourse and therefore needs to made: US “leadership” and democracy are antitheses.
Third, there can be no democracy intra-nationally, if a government has been imposed on a people by outside powers, as provided for in Washington’s plan. Clearly, a government acceptable to Washington would be a government willing to do Washington’s bidding; one that would assent to reshaping Syria’s economy and politics to comport with US business and military-strategic interests, not with the interests of Syrians. There are already too many quisling governments in the Arab world; another is not needed.
Washington’s objection to the Assad government is of a piece with its fierce opposition to Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, and Gaddafi’s Libya. All these governments pursued the Arab socialist project of breaking the control of the region’s wealth by the Western oil companies and their Arab Petains in order to direct it to the uplift of Arabs. While the Western-backed emirs, kings and sultans built pharaonic palaces and lived lives of luxury in exchange for allowing Western oil corporations to pile up a Himalaya of profits, their subjects wallowed in poverty. Meanwhile, in Iraq, during the 1970s, the Arab socialists used their country’s oil wealth to build a Golden Age. In Libya, Muamar Gaddafi, inspired by Nasser’s Arab socialism, built a society beyond the dreams of his compatriots who had lived lives of stark under-privilege under the tyranny of the Western-imposed King Idris I. In Syria and Egypt, Arab socialists implemented social reforms to uplift the poor, and asserted the right of women to equality. At the same time, they brought large parts of the economy under public control and implemented plans to overcome the economic legacy of colonialism. In Egypt, the president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the most popular Arab since the Prophet Mohamed, lived in the modest house he occupied as an army colonel, while sending his children to public school. He threatened the West by proclaiming the democratic slogan “Arab oil for Arabs”. All these governments were assisted ably by the Soviet Union. Syria’s government stands in this tradition. It is the only Arab socialist government that has withstood the anti-democratic designs of Washington, Israel and the Saudi kings, to bring the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, under their uncontested domination.
As part of its campaign to topple the last force of Arab independence, the United States currently controls about one-third of Syrian territory, by means of an unspecified number of US service personnel who direct a mercenary force of Kurds, and some traitorous Arabs under Kurd control. Dennis Ross, who held several senior national security positions in the US state, says that “the U.S. and its partners control about 40% of Syrian territory.” The Pentagon says there are some 2,500 US troops in Syria, but acknowledges the number is higher, since covert forces and aircrew are not counted. The Pentagon, then, is running a semi-covert war on a sovereign Arab state, having obtained no legal authorization for its actions, either from the United Nations Security Council or the US Congress. The point is only partly relevant, since even if the Pentagon had obtained legal authorization for its actions, the legal cover would in no way justify the occupation. Still, failure to obtain legal authorization is significant in bringing to the fore the question of why US forces are in the country. Trump raised the question, though predictably not on moral or legal grounds, but in relation to the implications that US entanglement in Syria have for the US Treasury. This, of course, reflects Trump’s Mattis-identified inability to grasp the subtleties of US imperial strategy.
The ostensible purpose of the US presence in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Washington says that it must maintain its presence in the Levantine country to prevent an ISIS resurgence. This implies an indefinite occupation, based on the pretext of the occupation acting as an anti-ISIS prophylaxis. But US officials acknowledged earlier this year that the Pentagon plans to occupy the territory to a) prevent its recovery by the Syrian government; b) to create administrative structures, i.e., to impose a government on the US-controlled portion of a partitioned Syria; and c) to rebuild the territory under US control, using Saudi financing, while denying reconstruction funds to Damascus.
Another plank of the US strategy is to interfere in the Syrian government’s campaign to liberate Idlib from Al Qaeda. “Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting Islamic State, has called Idlib ‘the largest al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.’” The joint Syrian-Russian campaign will resemble other campaigns that have been waged by Syria, Russia, the United States and Iraq to wrest control of territory captured by Islamist guerillas. What has distinguished these campaigns is not the military methods used, but the way they have been presented by the Western media. Western news organizations have condemned ISIS as the bad jihadists and lionized Al Qaeda as the good ones. The US-directed campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa to wrest control of these cities from ISIS were portrayed as laudable US-Iraqi military victories against a foe, ISIS, of ineffable depravity, whose fighters were branded as “terrorists.” In contrast, the Russia-Syria campaigns in Aleppo and now Idlib have been painted as murderous projects aimed at good jihadists, Al Qaeda, branded as “opposition fighters”. In the former case, civilians caught in the crossfire were presented as a grim but necessary cost that regrettably needed to be incurred to eradicate the ISIS evil. US Defense Secretary James Mattis, in reference to the US campaign to capture Raqqa, intoned: “Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.” In the latter case, civilian casualties become a humanitarian tragedy that evidences the evil of the Russian and Syrian governments. The fact of the matter is that Mattis is right: civilian casualties are unavoidable.
Added to the patent double standard is a clear attempt to build public support for US intervention against the Idlib campaign and therefore on behalf of Al Qaeda by announcing that the United States has information that Damascus is planning to use chemical weapons in liberating Idlib. Making the allegation appear credible to an all too frequently lied to public is facilitated by the single voice with which the Western media proclaim matter-of-factly that Damascus has built a track record of using chemical weapons in the long-running war. And yet the only so-called evidence presented of Syrian chemical weapons use are assessments by US officials that amount to: “We believe the Syrians have used chemical agents, but have no definitive evidence to back up our claim; still this is the kind of thing the evil Assad would do.”
Inasmuch as the Syrians dismantled their chemical weapons under an internationally supervised process and inasmuch as no credible evidence exists that they have retained or regained access to weaponized chemicals, any discussion of the possible future use of chemical arms by the Syrian military represents a descent into a world of fantasy. What’s more, even if Syrian forces had gas to use, “with the Russians positioning forces to carry out naval and air bombardments,” they have no need to use gas, as former US national security official Dennis Ross argues.
Lest we take Syria’s previous possession of chemical weapons as emblematic of a unique Syrian evil and menace, we ought to give the matter some thought.
First, Israel, with which Syria remains in a state of de jure and de facto war, has its own stock of chemical weapons. If Syria’s former possession of chemical weapons makes it evil, then what are we to make of Israel?
Second, the United States and its satraps, Israel included, use their military superiority to dominate, oppress, and exploit poor countries. What options are open to Syria to defend itself? Achieving parity in conventional arms is out of the question. On top of monopolizing the world’s wealth, the United States and its allies monopolize the world’s weapons systems. Syria can’t hope to compete with the United States or US-subsidized Israel in conventional military terms.
Israel’s function within the US Empire is to weaken Arab and Islamic nationalism and prevent either from becoming a significant force that would challenge US control of the Arab world’s oil resources. As the last bastion of Arabism, Syria quite naturally is a target for Israeli aggression. Munificent US military aid has made the Jewish nationalist settler colonial state into the region’s military Leviathan. Not only is it more formidable than every Arab country in conventional arms, it is also much stronger militarily than the Persian country, Iran. Additionally, Israel holds a regional nuclear weapons monopoly, and boasts stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Moreover, the United States exempts Israel, as it does itself, from any legal constraints on its right to use force. The only way Syria can defend itself against the imperialist predations of the United States and its Jewish nationalist janissary, both bursting at the seams with the world’s most sophisticated conventional arms and formidable collections of WMD, and unrestrained by international law, is to develop an equalizer. That means nuclear weapons, or, failing that, chemical and biological arms. It also means achieving parity with its adversaries by operating outside the constraints of international law.
We’re taught to shudder at the idea of chemical weapons (that is, when they’re used by a country that defies the international dictatorship of the United States, not when they’re used in its service, as they were in the 1980s by Iraq, then a temporary US ally of convenience against Iran, a US target. Washington accepted Iraq’s use of the chemical weapons it had helped the Arab state acquire.) But why should we shudder at the thought of chemical weapons any more than we do at cruise missile strikes, the Pentagon’s Mother of All Bombs, the incendiaries fighter pilot John McCain dropped on Vietnamese peasants and light bulb factory workers, Israeli snipers gunning down unarmed Palestinians in Gaza demanding their internationally-recognized right of return, and so on? In all these cases, the outcome is death or disability, often brutal, regularly painful, and frequently prolonged. Does it matter how the death was brought about? The United States doesn’t use guillotines on the battlefield to kill quickly, painlessly and humanely; it maims, crushes, pulverizes, vaporizes, incinerates and leaves bodies to slowly bleed to death. And it reserves to right to use nuclear weapons, and assorted other WMD.
Shuddering at the methods available to the weak, the oppressed, the exploited, and the plundered, to fight back and defend themselves while accepting the more formidable weapons of the strong as legitimate makes no sense. Insisting we shudder at one but not the other is part of a class war of the oppressors against the oppressed, of tyrants against the tyrannized, carried out at an ideological level. To deplore the weapons of the weak is to concede ground in this war of class. Syria hasn’t a stock of chemical weapons to use, but if it did, far from condemning their use, the only defensible course would be to welcome it as one of the few effective means by which a secular, republican, Arab socialist state can assert its independence and preserve its freedom against the intolerable despotism and anti-democratic machinations of the world’s paramount tyranny, the United States.
A barbed criticism aimed at the International Socialist Organization, shown nearby, under the heading “If the ISO Existed in 1865” encompasses a truth about the orientation of large parts of the Western Left to the Arab nationalist government in Damascus. The truth revealed in the graphic is that the ISO and its cognates will leave no stone unturned in their search for an indigenous Syrian force to support that has taken up arms against Damascus, even to the point of insisting that a group worthy of support must surely exist, even if it can’t be identified.
Of course, Washington lends a hand, helpfully denominating its proxies in the most laudatory terms. Islamist insurgents in Syria, mainly Al Qaeda, were not too many years ago celebrated as a pro-democracy movement, and when that deception proved no longer tenable, as moderates. Now that the so-called moderates have been exposed as the very opposite, many Leftists cling to the hope that amid the Islamist opponents of Syria’s secular, Arab socialist, government, can be found votaries of the enlightenment values Damascus already embraces. Surely somewhere there exist armed anti-government secular Leftists to rally behind; for it appears that the goal is to find a reason, any reason, no matter how tenuous, to create a nimbus of moral excellence around some group that opposes with arms the government in Damascus; some group that can be made to appear to be non-sectarian, anti-imperialist, socialist, committed to the rights of women and minorities, and pro-Palestinian; in other words, a group just like Syria’s Ba’ath Arab Socialists, except not them.
Stepping forward to fulfill that hope is the PKK, an anarchist guerrilla group demonized as a terrorist organization when operating in Turkey against a US ally, but which goes by the name of the YPG in Syria, where it is the principal component of the lionized “Syrian Democratic Force.” So appealing is the YPG to many Western Leftists that some have gone so far as to volunteer to fight in its units. But is the YPG the great hope it’s believed it to be?
Kurds in Syria
It’s difficult to determine with precision how many Kurds are in Syria, but it’s clear that the ethnic group comprises only a small percentage of the Syrian population (less than 10 percent according to the CIA, and 8.5 percent according to an estimate cited by Nikolaos Van Dam in his book The Struggle for Power in Syria.  Estimates of the proportion of the total Kurd population living in Syria vary from two to seven percent based on population figures presented in the CIA World Factbook. Half of the Kurd community lives in Turkey, 28 percent in Iran and 20 percent in Iraq. A declassified 1972 US State Department report estimated that only between four and five percent of the world’s Kurds lived in Syria . While the estimates are rough, it’s clear that Kurds make up a fairly small proportion of the Syrian population and that the number of the group’s members living in Syria as a proportion of the Kurd community as a whole is very small.
Kurdish fighters in Syria operate under the name of the YPG, which is “tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a radical guerrilla movement combining [anarchist ideas] with Kurdish nationalism. PKK guerrillas [have] fought the Turkish state from 1978” and the PKK is “classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union, Turkey and the U.S.” 
Cemil Bayik is the top field commander of both the PKK in Turkey and of its Syrian incarnation, the YPG. Bayik “heads the PKK umbrella organization, the KCK, which unites PKK affiliates in different countries. All follow the same leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in prison in Turkey”  since 1999, when he was apprehended by Turkish authorities with CIA assistance.
Ocalan “was once a devotee of Marxism-Leninism,” according to Carne Ross, who wrote a profile of the Kurdish nationalist leader in The Financial Times in 2015. But Ocalan “came to believe that, like capitalism, communism perforce relied upon coercion.” Imprisoned on an island in the Sea of Marmara, Ocalan discovered “the masterwork of a New York political thinker named Murray Bookchin.” Bookchin “believed that true democracy could only prosper when decision-making belonged to the local community and was not monopolized by distant and unaccountable elites.” Government was desirable, reasoned Bookchin, but decision-making needed to be decentralized and inclusive. While anarchist, Bookchin preferred to call his approach “communalism”. Ocalan adapted Bookchin’s ideas to Kurd nationalism, branding the new philosophy “democratic confederalism.” 
Labor Zionism has similar ideas about a political system based on decentralized communes, but is, at its core, a nationalist movement. Similarly, Ocalan’s views cannot be understood outside the framework of Kurdish nationalism. The PKK may embrace beautiful utopian goals of democratic confederalism but it is, at its heart, an organization dedicated to establishing Kurdish self-rule—and, as it turns out, not only on traditionally Kurdish territory, but on Arab territory, as well, making the parallel with Labour Zionism all the stronger. In both Syria and Iraq, Kurdish fighters have used the campaign against ISIS as an opportunity to extend Kurdistan into traditionally Arab territories in which Kurds have never been in the majority.
The PKK’s goal, writes The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, “is a confederation of self-rule Kurdish-led enclaves in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey”  countries in which Kurdish populations have a presence, though, as we’ve seen, an insignificant one in Syria. In pursuit of this goal “as many as 5,000 Syrian Kurds have died fighting alongside the PKK since the mid-1980s, and nearly all of YPG’s top leaders and battle-hardened fighters are veterans of the decades-long struggle against Turkey.” 
In Syria, the PKK’s goal “is to establish a self-ruled region in northern Syria,”  an area with a significant Arab population.
When PKK fighters cross the border into Turkey, they become ‘terrorists’, according to the United States and European Union, but when they cross back into Syria they are miraculously transformed into ‘guerrilla” fighters waging a war for democracy as the principal component of the Syrian Democratic Force. The reality is, however, that whether on the Turkish or Syrian side of the border, the PKK uses the same methods, pursues the same goals, and relies largely on the same personnel. The YPG is the PKK.
Washington has long wanted to oust the Arab nationalists in Syria, regarding them as “a focus of Arab nationalist struggle against an American regional presence and interests,” as Amos Ma’oz once put it. The Arab nationalists, particularly the Ba’ath Arab Socialist party, in power since 1963, represent too many things Washington deplores: socialism, Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Zionism. Washington denounced Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1970 to 2000, as an Arab communist, and regards his son, Bashar, who succeeded him as president, as little different. Bashar, the State Department complains, hasn’t allowed the Syrian economy—based on Soviet models, its researchers say—to be integrated into the US-superintended global economy. Plus, Washington harbors grievances about Damascus’s support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian national liberation movement.
US planners decided to eliminate Asia’s Arab nationalists by invading their countries, first Iraq, in 2003, which, like Syria, was led by the Ba’ath Arab Socialists, and then Syria. However, the Pentagon soon discovered that its resources were strained by resistance to its occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that an invasion of Syria was out of the question. As an alternative, Washington immediately initiated a campaign of economic warfare against Syria. That campaign, still in effect 14 years later, would eventually buckle the economy and prevent Damascus from providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country. At the same time, Washington took steps to reignite the long-running holy war that Syria’s Islamists had waged on the secular state, dating to the 1960s and culminating in the bloody takeover of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, in 1982. Beginning in 2006, Washington worked with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood to rekindle the Brother’s jihad against Assad’s secular government. The Brothers had two meetings at the White House, and met frequently with the State Department and National Security Council.
The outbreak of Islamist violence in March of 2011 was greeted by the PKK as an opportunity. As The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov recounts, “The PKK, once an ally of…Damascus…had long been present among Kurdish communities in northern Syria. When the revolutionary tide reached Syria, the group’s Syrian affiliate quickly seized control of three Kurdish-majority regions along the Turkish frontier. PKK fighters and weapons streamed there from other parts of Kurdistan.” The “Syrian Kurds,” wrote Trofimov’s colleagues, Joe Parkinson and Ayla Albayrak, viewed “the civil war as an opportunity to carve out a self-governing enclave—similar to the one established by their ethnic kin in neighboring Iraq.”  That enclave, long backed by the United States and Israel, was seen as a means of weakening the Iraqi state.
Damascus facilitated the PKK take-over by withdrawing its troops from Kurdish-dominated areas. The Middle East specialist Patrick Seale, who wrote that the Kurds had “seized the opportunity” of the chaos engendered by the Islamist uprising “to boost their own political agenda”  speculated that the Syrian government’s aims in pulling back from Kurd-majority areas was to redirect “troops for the defence of Damascus and Aleppo;” punish Turkey for its support of Islamist insurgents; and “to conciliate the Kurds, so as to dissuade them from joining the rebels.”  The PKK, as it turns out, didn’t join the Islamist insurgents, as Damascus hoped. But they did join a more significant part of the opposition to Arab nationalist Syria: the puppet master itself, the United States.
By 2014, the PKK had “declared three self-rule administrations, or cantons as they call them, in northern Syria: Afreen, in the northwest, near the city of Aleppo; Kobani; and Jazeera in the northeast, which encompasses Ras al-Ain and the city of Qamishli. Their goal [was] to connect all three.”  This would mean controlling the intervening spaces occupied by Arabs.
A Deal with Washington
At this point, the PKK decided that its political goals might best be served by striking a deal with Washington.
The State Department had “allowed for the possibility of a form of decentralization in which different groups” — the Kurds, the secular government, and the Islamist insurgents — each received some autonomy within Syria.  Notice the implicit assumption in this view that it is within Washington’s purview to grant autonomy within Syria, while the question of whether the country ought to decentralize, properly within the democratic ambit of Syrians themselves, is denied to the people who live and work in Syria. If we are to take seriously Ocalan’s Bookchin-inspired ideas about investing decision-making authority in the people, this anti-democratic abomination can hardly be tolerated.
All the same, the PKK was excited by the US idea of dividing “Syria into zones roughly corresponding to areas now held by the government, the Islamic State, Kurdish militias and other insurgents.” A “federal system” would be established, “not only for Kurdish-majority areas but for all of Syria.” A Kurd federal region would be created “on all the territory now held by the” PKK. The zone would expand to include territory the Kurds hoped “to capture in battle, not only from ISIS but also from other Arab insurgent groups.” 
The PKK “pressed U.S. officials” to act on the scheme, pledging to act as a ground force against ISIS in return.  The group said it was “eager to join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in return for recognition and support from Washington and its allies for the Kurdish-dominated self-rule administrations they [had] established in northern Syria.” 
The only people pleased with this plan were the PKK, the Israelis and the Americans.
“US support for these Kurdish groups” not only in Syria, but in Iraq, where the Kurds were also exploiting the battle with ISIS to expand their rule into traditionally Arab areas, helped “to both divide Syria and divide Iraq,” wrote The Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.  Division redounded to the benefit of the United States and Israel, both of which have an interest in pursuing a divide and rule policy to exercise a joint hegemony over the Arab world. Patrick Seale remarked that the US-Kurd plan for Kurdish rule in northern Syria had been met by “quiet jubilation in Israel, which has long had a semi-clandestine relationship with the Kurds, and welcomes any development which might weaken or dismember Syria.” 
For their part, the Turks objected, perceiving that Washington had agreed to give the PKK a state in all of northern Syria.  Meanwhile, Damascus opposed the plan, “seeing it as a step toward a permanent division of the nation.” 
Modern-day Syria, it should be recalled, is already the product of a division of Greater Syria at the hands of the British and French, who partitioned the country into Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and what is now Syria. In March, 1920, the second Syrian General Congress proclaimed “Syria to be completely independent within her ‘natural’ boundaries, including Lebanon and Palestine.” Concurrently “an Arab delegation in Palestine confronted the British military governor with a resolution opposing Zionism and petitioning to become part of an independent Syria.”  France sent its Army of the Levant, mainly troops recruited from its Senegalese colony, to quash by force the Levantine Arabs’ efforts to establish self-rule.
Syria, already truncated by British and French imperial machinations after WWI “is too small for a federal state,” opines Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. But Assad quickly adds that his personal view is irrelevant; a question as weighty as whether Syria ought to become a federal or confederal or unitary state, he says, is a matter for Syrians to decide in a constitutional referendum,  a refreshingly democratic view in contrast to the Western position that Washington should dictate how Syrians arrange their political (and economic) affairs.
Tip of the US Spear
For Washington, the PKK offers a benefit additional to the Kurdish guerrilla group’s utility in advancing the US goal of weakening Syria by fracturing it, namely, the PKK can be pressed into service as a surrogate for the US Army, obviating the necessity of deploying tens of thousands of US troops to Syria, and thereby allowing the White House and Pentagon to side-step a number of legal, budgetary and public relations quandaries. “The situation underscores a critical challenge the Pentagon faces,” wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne; namely, “backing local forces…instead of putting American troops at the tip of the spear.” 
Having pledged support for Kurdish rule of northern Syria in return for the PKK becoming the tip of the US spear, the United States is “providing “small arms, ammunition and machine guns, and possibly some nonlethal assistance, such as light trucks, to the Kurdish forces.” 
The arms are “parceled out” in a so called “drop, op, and assess” approach. The shipments are “dropped, an operation [is] performed, and the U.S. [assesses] the success of that mission before providing more arms.” Said a US official, “We will be supplying them only with enough arms and ammo to accomplish each interim objective.” 
PKK foot soldiers are backed by “more than 750 U.S. Marines,” Army Rangers, and US, French and German Special Forces, “using helicopters, artillery and airstrikes,” the Western marionette-masters in Syria illegally, in contravention of international law. 
“Large numbers of Arab residents populate the regions Kurds designate as their own.”  The PKK has taken “over a large swath of territory across northern Syria—including predominantly Arab cities and towns.”  Raqqa, and surrounding parts of the Euphrates Valley on which the PKK has set its sights, are mainly populated by Arabs, observes The Independent’s veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn—and the Arabs are opposed to Kurdish occupation. 
Kurdish forces are not only “retaking” Christian and Muslim Arab towns in Syria, but are doing the same in the Nineveh province of Iraq—areas “which were never Kurdish in the first place. Kurds now regard Qamishleh, and Hassakeh province in Syria as part of ‘Kurdistan’, although they represent a minority in many of these areas.” 
The PKK now controls 20,000 square miles of Syrian territory , or roughly 17 percent of the country, while Kurds represent less than eight percent of the population.
In their efforts to create a Kurdish region inside Syria, the PKK “has been accused of abuses by Arab civilians across northern Syria, including arbitrary arrests and displacing Arab populations in the name of rolling back Islamic State.”  The PKK “has expelled Arabs and ethnic Turkmen from large parts of northern Syria,” reports The Wall Street Journal.  The Journal additionally notes that human rights “groups have accused [Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters] of preventing Arabs from returning to liberated areas.” 
Neither Syrian nor Democratic
The PKK dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces, a misnomer conferred upon a group of mainly Kurdish fighters by its US patron. The group is not Syrian, since many of its members are non-Syrians who identify as Kurds and who flooded over the border from Turkey to take advantage of the chaos produced by the Islamist insurgency in Syria to carve out an area of Kurdish control. Nor is the group particularly democratic, since it seeks to impose Kurdish rule on Arab populations. Robert Fisk dismisses the “Syrian Democratic Forces” as a “facade-name for large numbers of Kurds and a few Arab fighters.” 
The PKK poses as a Syrian Democratic Force, and works with a token force of Syrian Arab fighters, to disguise the reality that the Arab populated areas it controls, and those it has yet to capture, fall under Kurd occupation.
A De Facto (and Illegal) No Fly Zone
In August, 2016, after “Syrian government bombers had been striking Kurdish positions near the city of Hasakah, where the U.S. [had] been backing Kurdish forces” the Pentagon scrambled “jets to protect them. The U.S. jets arrived just as the two Syrian government Su-24 bombers were departing.” This “prompted the U.S.-led coalition to begin patrolling the airspace over Hasakah, and led to another incident…in which two Syrian Su-24 bombers attempted to fly through the area but were met by coalition fighter jets.” 
The Pentagon “warned the Syrians to stay away. American F-22 fighter jets drove home the message by patrolling the area.” 
The New York Times observed that in using “airpower to safeguard areas of northern Syria where American advisers” direct PKK fighters that the United States had effectively established a no-fly zone over the area, but noted that “the Pentagon has steadfastly refused to” use the term.  Still, the reality is that the Pentagon has illegally established a de facto no-fly zone over northern Syria to protect PKK guerillas, the tip of the US spear, who are engaged in a campaign of creating a partition of Syria, including through ethnic cleansing of the Arab population, to the delight of Israel and in accordance with US designs to weaken Arab nationalism in Damascus.
An Astigmatic Analogy
Some find a parallel in the YPG’s alliance with the United States with Lenin accepting German aid to return from exile in Switzerland to Russia following the 1917 March Revolution. The analogy is inapt. Lenin was playing one imperialist power off against another. Syria is hardly an analogue of Imperial Russia, which, one hundred years ago, was locked in a struggle for markets, resources, and spheres of influence with contending empires. In contrast, Syria is and has always been a country partitioned, dominated, exploited and threatened by empires. It has been emancipated from colonialism, and is carrying on a struggle—now against the contrary efforts of the PKK—to resist its recolonization.
The PKK has struck a bargain with the United States to achieve its goal of establishing a Kurdish national state, but at the expense of Syria’s efforts to safeguard its independence from a decades-long US effort to deny it. The partition of Syria along ethno-sectarian lines, desired by the PKK, Washington and Tel Aviv alike, serves both US and Israeli goals of weakening a focus of opposition to the Zionist project and US domination of West Asia.
A more fitting analogy, equates the PKK in Syria to Labor Zionism, the dominant Zionist force in occupied Palestine until the late 1970s. Like Ocalan, early Zionism emphasized decentralized communes. The kibbutzim were utopian communities, whose roots lay in socialism. Like the PKK’s Syrian incarnation, Labor Zionism relied on sponsorship by imperialist powers, securing their patronage by offering to act as the tips of the imperialists’ spears in the Arab world. Zionists employed armed conquest of Arab territory, along with ethnic cleansing and denial of repatriation, to establish an ethnic state, anticipating the PKK’s extension by armed force of the domain of a Kurdish state into Arab majority territory in Syria, as well as Kurd fighters doing the same in Iraq. Anarchists and other leftists may have been inspired by Jewish collective agricultural communities in Palestine, but that hardly made the Zionist project progressive or emancipatory, since its progressive and emancipatory elements were negated by its regressive oppression and dispossession of the indigenous Arab population, and its collusion with Western imperialism against the Arab world.
Representing an ethnic community that comprises less than 10 percent of the Syrian population, the PKK, a Kurdish anarchist guerrilla group which operates in both Turkey and Syria, is using the United States, its Air Force, Marine Corps, Army Rangers and Special Forces troops, as a force multiplier in an effort to impose a partition of Syria in which the numerically insignificant Kurd population controls a significant part of Syria’s territory, including areas inhabited by Arabs in the majority and in which Kurds have never been in the majority. To accomplish its aims, the PKK has not only struck a deal with a despotic regime in Washington which seeks to recolonize the Arab world, but is relying on ethnic cleansing and denial of repatriation of Arabs from regions from which they’ve fled or have been driven to establish Kurdish control of northern Syria, tactics which parallel those used by Zionist forces in 1948 to create a Jewish state in Arab-majority Palestine. Washington and Israel (the latter having long maintained a semi-clandestine relationship with the Kurds) value a confederal system for Syria as a means of weakening Arab nationalist influence in Arab Asia, undermining a pole of opposition to Zionism, colonialism, and the international dictatorship of the United States. Forces which resist dictatorship, including the most odious one of all, that of the United States over much of the world, are the real champions of democracy, a category to which the PKK, as evidenced by its actions in Syria, does not belong.
1. Nikolaos Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Assad and the Ba’ath Party, IB Taurus, 2011, p.1.
3. Sam Dagher, “Kurds fight Islamic State to claim a piece of Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2014.
4. Patrick Cockburn, “War against ISIS: PKK commander tasked with the defence of Syrian Kurds claims ‘we will save Kobani’”, The Independent, November 11, 2014.
5. Carne Ross, “Power to the people: A Syrian experiment in democracy,” Financial Times, October 23, 2015.
6. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
7. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
8. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
9. Yaroslav Trofimov, “The State of the Kurds,” The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015.
10. Joe Parkinson and Ayla Albayrak, “Syrian Kurds grow more assertive”, The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2013.
11. Patrick Seale, “Al Assad uses Kurds to fan regional tensions”, Gulf News, August 2, 2012.
12. Seale, August 2, 2012.
13. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
14. David E. Sanger, “Legacy of a secret pact haunts efforts to end war in Syria,” the New York Times, May 16, 2016.
15. Anne Barnard, “Syrian Kurds hope to establish a federal region in country’s north,” The New York Times, March 16, 2016.
16. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
17. Dagher, November 12, 2014.
18. Robert Fisk, “This is the aim of Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and it isn’t good for Shia communities,” The Independent, May 18, 2017.
19. Seale, August 2, 2012.
20. Yaroslav Trofimov, “U.S. is caught between ally Turkey and Kurdish partner in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2017.
21. Anne Barnard, “Syrian Kurds hope to establish a federal region in country’s north,” The New York Times, March 16, 2016.
22. David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, Henry Holt & Company, 2009, p. 437.
23. “President al-Assad to RIA Novosti and Sputnik: Syria is not prepared for federalism,” SANA, March 30, 2016.
24. Paul Sonne, “U.S. seeks Sunni forces to take militant hub,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2016.
25. Dion Nissenbaum, Gordon Lubold and Julian E. Barnes, “Trump set to arm Kurds in ISIS fight, angering Turkey,” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2017.
26. Nissenbaum et al, May 9, 2017.
27. Dion Nissenbaum and Maria Abi-Habib, “Syria’s newest flashpoint is bringing US and Iran face to face,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2017; “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; Michael R. Gordon. “U.S. is sending 400 more troops to Syria.” The New York Times. March 9, 2017.
28. Matt Bradley, Ayla Albayrak, and Dana Ballout, “Kurds declare ‘federal region’ in Syria, says official,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2016.
29. Maria Abi-Habib and Raja Abdulrahim, “Kurd-led force homes in on ISIS bastion with assent of U.S. and Syria alike,” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2017.
30. Patrick Cockburn, “Battle for Raqqa: Fighters begin offensive to push Isis out of Old City,” The Independent, July 7, 2017.
31. Robert Fisk, “This is the aim of Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and it isn’t good for Shia communities,” The Independent, May 18, 2017.
32. Dion Nissenbaum and Maria Abi-Habib, “U.S. split over plan to take Raqqa from Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal. March 9, 2017.
33. Raja Abdulrahim, Maria Abi_Habin and Dion J. Nissenbaum, “U.S.-backed forces in Syria launch offensive to seize ISIS stronghold Raqqa,” The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2016.
34. Margherita Stancati and Alia A. Nabhan, “During Mosul offensive, Kurdish fighters clear Arab village, demolish homes,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2016.
35. Matt Bradley, Ayla Albayrak, and Dana Ballout, “Kurds declare ‘federal region’ in Syria, says official,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2016.
36. Robert Fisk, “The US seems keener to strike at Syria’s Assad than it does to destroy ISIS,” The Independent, June 20, 2017.
37. Paul Sonne and Raja Abdulrahim, “Pentagon warns Assad regime to avoid action near U.S. and allied forces,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2016.
38. Michael R. Gordon and Neil MacFarquhar, “U.S. election cycle offers Kremlin a window of opportunity in Syria,” The New York Times, October 4, 2016.
39. Michael R. Gordon and Neil MacFarquhar, “U.S. election cycle offers Kremlin a window of opportunity in Syria,” The New York Times, October 4, 2016.
A day before my book Washington’s Long War on Syria was sent to the press, I read a short essay by a notable Canadian, Norman Bethune. The essay was titled Wounds. Bethune was a skilled and innovative surgeon who was at the forefront of the fight for public health care in Canada. But he’s mainly known for participating in two wars in the late 1930s: The Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the Second Sino-Japanese War Bethune joined Mao’s forces as a frontline surgeon in the resistance against Japanese efforts to colonize China.
It was in China that Bethune wrote his essay, a meditation on the causes of the war in which he was entangled which produced the wounds he was called upon everyday to operate on.
As I read Bethune’s essay, it struck me that what he was saying, in very few words, was what I had tried in a whole book to say. So I quickly asked my publisher if he would include a short quote from Wounds as the epigraph of the book. He readily agreed. The epigraph reads:
Are wars of aggression, wars for the conquest of colonies … just big business? Yes, it would seem so, however much the perpetrators of such national crimes seek to hide their true purpose under banners of high-sounding abstractions and ideals. 
The idea that wars of aggression, wars for the conquest of colonies, are motivated by the profit-making interests of big business strike many as facile. But once you strip away the high-sounding abstractions and ideals Washington invokes to justify its wars of aggression, an obvious question remains: If the reasons Washington cites to justify its wars are bogus, what, then, are the real reasons?
In his book Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan, Noam Chomsky argues that:
If we hope to understand anything about the foreign policy of any state, it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure. Who sets foreign policy? What interests do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power? It is a reasonable surmise that the policy that evolves will reflect the special interests of those who design it. 
In an article published yesterday in The New York Times, reporter Kate Kelly reveals that nearly 300 top executives have visited the White House in the president’s first 100 days, an average of three per day.  That offers a clue about who influences the public policy direction of the United States.
Here’s another: After examining over 1,700 policy issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests groups have little or no independent influence.” 
The shoguns of finance and industry who have enjoyed access to the White House in Trump’s first 100 days include multi-billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, head of the giant equity manager Blackstone Group; near billionaire Jack Welch, the former chairman and chief executive of General Electric; billionaire Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase; multi-millionaire Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, the world’s largest money-management firm; billionaire Eric Schmidt, head of Google’s parent company Alphabet; multimillionaire Andrew Liveris, head of Dow Chemical; Roy Harvey, chief executive of Alcoa.  The list goes on.
Not only is the administration lobbied directly by the heads of corporate America, but measures have been taken to systematize their influence. Blackstone’s Schwarzman, writes the New York Times’ Kelly, “recruited a range of business leaders, economists and policy experts for the president’s strategic and policy forum, which regularly meets at the White House and has emerged as the most elite outside counsel.” 
On top of titans of corporate America enjoying unfettered access to the president, Trump has appointed to posts in his administration billionaires and multi-millionaires whose fortunes come from the business world. A number of his top advisers had careers in the pharaonicly wealthy investment bank Goldman Sachs, known on Wall Street as “Government Sachs” for its history of placing top executives in commanding posts in the US state. 
Goldman Sachs’ ties to the White House (and to aspiring presidents) date back to the Clintons, if not earlier. As president, Bill Clinton appointed Goldman co-chair Robert Rubin to the post of Treasury Secretary. (The current Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin had a 17 year career with Goldman, rising to the post of the firm’s Chief Information Officer.) Goldman chair and CEO Lloyd Blankfein raised funds for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential bid, and also paid Clinton $675,000 to deliver three speeches at Goldman events after she left the State Department. Blankfein was one of the guests at Clinton’s 64th birthday celebration. (Blankfein’s predecessor as Goldman’s top executive was Henry Paulson, who served as Treasury Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.) “Over 20-plus years,” observed The New York Times, “Goldman provided the Clintons with some of their most influential advisors, millions of dollars in campaign contributions and speaking fees, and financial support to the family foundation’s charitable programs.” 
Obama’s administration was no less in thrall to Wall Street. Seventeen members of the previous president’s administration were members of the Council on Foreign Relations, Wall Street’s foreign policy think tank. Council members included national security advisors James Jones Jr., Thomas Donilon, and Susan Rice, Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter, and CIA director David Petraeus.
Council members also include most of the captains of finance and industry who have paraded through Trump’s White House since the beginning of the year. The think tank is the chief interlock between Wall Street and US administrations, bringing together giants of US finance, banking and industry with scholars, military officers and ambitious politicians to address questions of US foreign policy. As of 2016 over 70 council members held key cabinet positions and were usually members of the Council before they were appointed or elected to these posts, including 10 National Security Advisers, 9 US Ambassadors to the United Nations, 8 Secretaries of State, 8 Secretaries of Defense, 8 CIA Directors, 4 Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, 3 World Bank Presidents and 2 Presidents of the United States.
Given that Wall Street’s tentacles reach everywhere in Washington it is hardly surprising that successive US administrations have been hostile to the Syrian government. Since 1963, Syria has been ruled by the very antithesis of the world-leading financiers and industrialists who rule in Washington; Syria has been governed in contrast by people who call themselves and are called in Washington socialists.
For over half a century, Syria has been governed by the Baath Arab Socialist Party, which is guided by the party’s motto of unity (of the Arab world), freedom (from Western domination), and socialism (in contrast to Washington’s preferred paradigm of free enterprise, free markets and free trade.) The party presided over the drafting of Syria’s constitutions, which mandate government ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and a significant role for government in the guidance of the economy, i.e., socialism.
Ba’ath Arab Socialists have been seen in Washington as “Arab communists”  and the state they lead as “socialist Syria.” 
Indeed, Washington and Wall Street have long complained about Damascus’s refusal to fully integrate into a US-led global neo-liberal economic order, and about the “ideologues” in the Syrian government who refuse to disavow their commitment to socialism. The Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom is replete with grievances about the Syrian government’s economic policies, from its subsidies to local businesses, tariff barriers, state-owned enterprises, and restrictions on foreign investment. These policies are designed to overcome the injuries of under-development visited about the Arab world by colonialism, but severely limit US investment and trade opportunities, and are therefore anathema in free enterprise, profit-hungry, Washington.
That the US government is—as two German philosophers once described the governments of business-driven societies—a committee for managing the common affairs of the country’s business owners, is not lost on the current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. In an April 27, 2017 interview with Telesur, Assad described US foreign policy as being set by US “financial institutions” and “the big arms and oil companies” as well as “the intelligence agencies” and “the Pentagon.”
The American President merely implements these policies, and the evidence is that when Trump tried to move on a different track, during and after his election campaign, he couldn’t. He came under a ferocious attack. As we have seen in the past few weeks, he changed his rhetoric completely and subjected himself to the terms of the deep American state, or the deep American regime…[The president] ultimately does what these institutions dictate to him. This is not new. This has been ongoing American policy for decades. 
Bethune denounced as an enemy of the human race the very same class which rules in Washington. In his view, in its hunt for profits, this class starts the wars which create the wounds which he was, and all frontline surgeons are, called upon to heal. What do the members of this class, these enemies of humanity, look like, he wondered.
Do they wear on their foreheads a sign so that they may be told, shunned and condemned as criminals? No. On the contrary. They are the respectable ones. They are honoured. They call themselves, and are called, gentlemen. …They are the pillars of the state, of the church, of society. They support private and public charity out of the excess of their wealth. They endow institutions. In their private lives they are kind and considerate. …. But there is one sign by which these gentlemen can be told. Threaten a reduction [in their profits] and the beast in them awakes with a snarl. They become ruthless as savages, brutal as madmen, remorseless as executioners. 
Muamar Gaddafi was inspired by the same Baath Arab Socialist goals of unity, freedom and socialism that guide the Syrian state. A year after he was violently removed from power by Islamists backed by NATO (Canadian fighter pilots quipped that they were al-Qaeda’s air force), The Wall Street Journal revealed that Western oil companies had agitated for Gaddafi’s removal because he was driving hard bargains and insisting that Libyans benefit from their own oil resources.  Gaddafi had effectively threatened a reduction in the oil companies’ profits, awakening the beast in the respectable burghers and pillars of US society.
Bethune ended his essay with this: “Such an organization of human society as permits [these enemies of humanity] to exist must be abolished.” 
The overarching theme of my book follows along the very same lines: Washington’s long war on Syria can only be understood within the context of the organization of human society—one in which economic power, driven by profit-hunger, is coterminous with political power—as permits these enemies of humanity to exist.
A final thought. Many in the West have taken a stand against the Syrian government, arguing that it is not democratic, nor engaged in a fight for democracy. They also argue that amid the alliance of business-driven US foreign policy, the Arab monarchs who funnel support to the al-Qaeda and ISIS insurgents, and the US-backed guerrillas who are enmeshed with, cooperate on the battlefield with, and exchange weapons with, the former, that there can be found a pro-democratic element. The problem is that no one has ever been able to adduce the slightest evidence that such an element exists, and nor are the proponents of this view bold enough to assert that this hypothetical element plays anywhere near a consequential role in the conflict.
A more sophisticated view holds that there exists in Syria an indigenous Islamist movement which—though rejecting democracy as a man-made ideology and seeking rule by the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and Sunna (the record of the Islamic prophet Mohammad’s thought and actions)—is fundamentally democratic insofar as it represents the aspirations of the majority. This view, however, suffers from two fatal defects: (1) There is no evidence that a majority of Syrians hold Islamist aspirations; and (2) a significant part of the Islamist opposition to the secular Syrian government is of foreign origin.
Even if a genuinely democratic opposition element did exist, it does not follow that support for the Syrian government in its efforts to assert its sovereignty against neo-colonial efforts to negate it, is undemocratic. On the contrary:
If we are seriously concerned with the question of democracy [we should be concerned about] the democratization of international relations. If a country or a group of countries declare and decide that they have the right to provoke a war…without the authorization of the Security Council, they are developing a theory in which the West has the right to exercise despotism over the rest of humanity. It is open despotism; the United States and the West declare openly that they have the right to intervene in every corner of the world. That is despotism. [Washington] already said at the start of the century that Assad should be toppled. They said that they should carry out a change of regime in Syria because Assad is against Israel, against the West, etc. That is despotism, and those [who] struggle against such despots are the real defenders of democracy. 
1. Norman Bethune, “Wounds,” in Roderick Stewart, The Mind of Norman Bethune, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002, pp. 183-186.
3. Kate Kelly, “Persuasive business leaders parade through White House,” The New York Times, April 29, 2017
4. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall, 2014
7. Julie Creswell and Ben White, “The Guys from ‘Government Sachs’,” The New York Times, October 19, 2008
8. Nicholas Confessore and Susanne Craig, “2008 crisis deepened the ties between Clintons and Goldman Sachs,” The New York Times, September 24, 2016
9. Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Three Rivers Press, 2003, p. 123
10. Baer, p. 193
11. President al-Assad to Telesur: Stopping outside support to terrorists and reconciliation among Syrians are means to restore security to Syria,” SANA, April 27, 2017, http://sana.sy/en/?p=105108
13. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012
15. Attributed to Domenico Losurdo. I cannot find the original source, and therefore cannot vouchsafe that Losurdo is the author. All the same, the words are worthy of repeating, whether they are those of Losurdo or not.
Apparently, the US Left has yet to figure out that Washington doesn’t try to overthrow neoliberals. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were a devotee of the Washington Consensus–as Counterpunch’s Eric Draitser seems to believe–the United States government wouldn’t have been calling since 2003 for Assad to step down. Nor would it be overseeing the Islamist guerilla war against his government; it would be protecting him.
By Stephen Gowans
There is a shibboleth in some circles that, as Eric Draitser put it in a recent Counterpunch article, the uprising in Syria “began as a response to the Syrian government’s neoliberal policies and brutality,” and that “the revolutionary content of the rebel side in Syria has been sidelined by a hodgepodge of Saudi and Qatari-financed jihadists.” This theory appears, as far as I can tell, to be based on argument by assertion, not evidence.
A review of press reports in the weeks immediately preceding and following the mid-March 2011 outbreak of riots in Daraa—usually recognized as the beginning of the uprising—offers no indication that Syria was in the grips of a revolutionary distemper, whether anti-neo-liberal or otherwise. On the contrary, reporters representing Time magazine and the New York Times referred to the government as having broad support, of critics conceding that Assad was popular, and of Syrians exhibiting little interest in protest. At the same time, they described the unrest as a series of riots involving hundreds, and not thousands or tens of thousands of people, guided by a largely Islamist agenda and exhibiting a violent character.
Time magazine reported that two jihadist groups that would later play lead roles in the insurgency, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, were already in operation on the eve of the riots, while a mere three months earlier, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood voiced “their hope for a civil revolt in Syria.” The Muslim Brothers, who had decades earlier declared a blood feud with Syria’s ruling Ba’athist Party, objecting violently to the party’s secularism, had been embroiled in a life and death struggle with secular Arab nationalists since the 1960s, and had engaged in street battles with Ba’athist partisans from the late 1940s. (In one such battle, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, who himself would serve as president from 1970 to 2000, was knifed by a Muslim Brother adversary.) The Brotherhood’s leaders, beginning in 2007, met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative, which had taken on the overt role of funding overseas overthrow organizations—a task the CIA had previously done covertly.
Washington had conspired to purge Arab nationalist influence from Syria as early as the mid-1950s, when Kermit Roosevelt, who engineered the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh for nationalizing his country’s oil industry, plotted with British intelligence to stir up the Muslim Brothers to overthrow a triumvirate of Arab nationalist and communist leaders in Damascus who Washington and London perceived as threatening Western economic interests in the Middle East.
Washington funnelled arms to Brotherhood mujahedeen in the 1980s to wage urban guerrilla warfare against Hafez al-Assad, who hardliners in Washington called an “Arab communist.” His son, Bashar, continued the Arab nationalists’ commitment to unity (of the Arab nation), independence, and (Arab) socialism. These goals guided the Syrian state—as they had done the Arab nationalist states of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq under Saddam. All three states were targeted by Washington for the same reason: their Arab nationalist commitments clashed fundamentally with the US imperialist agenda of US global leadership.
Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to renounce Arab nationalist ideology dismayed Washington, which complained about his socialism, the third part of the Ba’athists’ holy trinity of values. Plans to oust Assad—based in part on his failure to embrace Washington’s neo-liberalism—were already in preparation in Washington by 2003, if not earlier. If Assad was championing neo-liberalism, as Draitser and others contend, it somehow escaped the notice of Washington and Wall Street, which complained about “socialist” Syria and the country’s decidedly anti-neoliberal economic policies.
A Death Feud Heats Up With US Assistance
In late January 2011, a page was created on Facebook called The Syrian Revolution 2011. It announced that a “Day of Rage” would be held on February 4 and 5.  The protests “fizzled,” reported Time. The Day of Rage amounted to a Day of Indifference. Moreover, the connection to Syria was tenuous. Most of the chants shouted by the few protesters who attended were about Libya, demanding that Muammar Gaddafi—whose government was under siege by Islamist insurrectionists—step down. Plans were set for new protests on March 4 and March 5, but they too garnered little support. 
Time’s correspondent Rania Abouzeid attributed the failure of the protest organizers to draw significant support to the fact that most Syrians were not opposed to their government. Assad had a favorable reputation, especially among the two-thirds of the population under 30 years of age, and his government’s policies were widely supported. “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically,” Abouzeid reported, adding that unlike “the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” Assad, in other words, had legitimacy. The Time correspondent added that Assad’s “driving himself to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low security profile” had “helped to endear him, personally, to the public.” 
This depiction of the Syrian president—a leader endeared to the public, ideologically in sync with popular Syrian sentiment—clashed starkly with the discourse that would emerge shortly after the eruption of violent protests in the Syrian town of Daraa less than two weeks later, and would become implanted in the discourse of US leftists, including Draitser. But on the eve of the signal Daraa events, Syria was being remarked upon for its quietude. No one “expects mass uprisings in Syria,” Abouzeid reported, “and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.”  A Syrian youth told Time: “There is a lot of government help for the youth. They give us free books, free schools, free universities.” (Hardly the picture of the neo-liberal state Draitser paints.) She continued: “Why should there be a revolution? There’s maybe a one percent chance.”  The New York Times shared this view. Syria, the newspaper reported, “seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.”  Syria was distemper-free.
But on March 17, there was a violent uprising in Daraa. There are conflicting accounts of who or what sparked it. Time reported that the “rebellion in Daraa was provoked by the arrest of a handful of youths for daubing a wall with anti-regime graffiti.”  The Independent’s Robert Fisk offered a slightly different version. He reported that “government intelligence officers beat and killed several boys who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on the walls of the city.”  Another account holds that the factor that sparked the uprising in Daraa that day was extreme and disproportionate use of force by Syrian security forces in response to demonstrations against the boys’ arrest. There “were some youngsters printing some graffiti on the wall, and they were imprisoned, and as their parents wanted them back, the security forces really struck back very, very tough.”  Another account, from the Syrian government, denies that any of this happened. Five years after the event, Assad told an interviewer that it “didn’t happen. It was only propaganda. I mean, we heard about them, we never saw those children that have been taken to prison that time. So, it was only a fallacious narrative.”
But if there was disagreement about what sparked the uprising, there was little disagreement that the uprising was violent. The New York Times reported that “Protesters set fire to the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and other government buildings…and clashed with police….In addition to the party headquarters, protesters burned the town’s main courthouse and a branch of the SyriaTel phone company.”  Time added that protesters set fire to the governor’s office, as well as to a branch office of a second cellphone company.  The Syrian government’s news agency, SANA, posted photographs of burning vehicles on its Web site.  Clearly, this wasn’t a peaceful demonstration, as it would be later depicted. Nor was it a mass uprising. Time reported that the demonstrators numbered in the hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands. 
Assad reacted immediately to the Daraa ructions, announcing “a series of reforms, including a salary increase for public workers, greater freedom for the news media and political parties, and a reconsideration of the emergency rule,”  a war-time restriction on political and civil liberties, invoked because Syria was officially at war with Israel. Before the end of April, the government would rescind “the country’s 48-year-old emergency law” and abolish “the Supreme State Security Court.” 
Why did the government make these concessions? Because that’s what the Daraa protesters demanded. Protesters “gathered in and around Omari mosque in Daraa, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners…the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.”  These demands were consistent with the call, articulated in early February on The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page “to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.”  A demand to release all political prisoners was also made in a letter signed by clerics posted on Facebook. The clerics’ demands included lifting the “state of emergency law, releasing all political detainees, halting harassment by the security forces and combating corruption.”  Releasing political detainees would amount to releasing jihadists, or, to use a designation current in the West, “terrorists.” The State Department had acknowledged that political Islam was the main opposition in Syria ; jihadists made up the principal section of oppositionists likely to be incarcerated. Clerics demanding that Damascus release all political prisoners was equal in effect to the Islamic State demanding that Washington, Paris, and London release all Islamists detained in US, French and British prisons on terrorism charges. This wasn’t a demand for jobs and greater democracy, but a demand for the release from prison of activists inspired by the goal of bringing about an Islamic state in Syria. The call to lift the emergency law, similarly, appeared to have little to do with fostering democracy and more to do with expanding the room for jihadists and their collaborators to organize opposition to the secular state.
A week after the outbreak of violence in Daraa, Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported that “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.”  Indeed, the demands issued by the protesters and clerics had not included calls for Assad to step down. And Syrians were rallying to Assad. “There were counterdemonstrations in the capital in support of the President,”  reportedly far exceeding in number the hundreds of protesters who turned out in Daraa to burn buildings and cars and clash with police. 
By April 9—less than a month after the Daraa events—Time reported that a string of protests had broken out and that Islam was playing a prominent role in them. For anyone who was conversant with the decades-long succession of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and insurrections the Muslim Brotherhood had organized against what it deemed the “infidel” Ba’athist government, this looked like history repeating itself. The protests weren‘t reaching a critical mass. On the contrary, the government continued to enjoy “the loyalty” of “a large part of the population,” reported Time. 
Islamists played a lead role in drafting the Damascus Declaration in the mid-2000s, which demanded regime change.  In 2007, the Muslim Brothers, the archetypal Sunni political Islamist movement, which inspired Al-Qaeda and its progeny, Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State, teamed up with a former Syrian vice-president to found the National Salvation Front. The front met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative,  which did openly what the CIA once did covertly, namely, funnel money and expertise to fifth columnists in countries whose governments Washington opposed.
By 2009, just two years before the eruption of unrest throughout the Arab world, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood denounced the Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad as a foreign and hostile element in Syrian society which needed to be eliminated. According to the group’s thinking, the Alawite community, to which Assad belonged, and which the Brothers regarded as heretics, used secular Arab nationalism as a cover to furtively advance a sectarian agenda to destroy Syria from within by oppressing “true” (i.e., Sunni) Muslims. In the name of Islam, the heretical regime would have to be overthrown. 
A mere three months before the 2011 outbreak of violence in Syria, scholar Liad Porat wrote a brief for the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, based at Brandeis University. “The movement’s leaders,” the scholar concluded, “continue to voice their hope for a civil revolt in Syria, wherein ‘the Syrian people will perform its duty and liberate Syria from the tyrannical and corrupt regime.’” The Brotherhood stressed that it was engaged in a fight to the death with the secular Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad. A political accommodation with the government was impossible because its leaders were not part of the Sunni Muslim Syrian nation. Membership in the Syrian nation was limited to true Muslims, the Brothers contended, and not Alawite heretics who embraced such foreign un-Islamic creeds as secular Arab nationalism. 
That the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a key role in the uprising that erupted three months later was confirmed in 2012 by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. A leaked report from the agency said that the insurgency was sectarian and led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State. The report went on to say that the insurgents were supported by the West, Arab Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey. 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, who wanted to see the secular Arab nationalists isolated and cut-off from Iran. 
Documents prepared by US Congress researchers in 2005 revealed that the US government was actively weighing regime change in Syria long before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, challenging the view that US support for the Syrian rebels was based on allegiance to a “democratic uprising” and showing that it was simply an extension of a long-standing policy of seeking to topple the government in Damascus. Indeed, the researchers acknowledged that the US government’s motivation to overthrow the secular Arab nationalist government in Damascus was unrelated to democracy promotion in the Middle East. In point of fact, they noted that Washington’s preference was for secular dictatorships (Egypt) and monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.) The impetus for pursuing regime change, according to the researchers, was a desire to sweep away an impediment to the achievement of US goals in the Middle East related to strengthening Israel, consolidating US domination of Iraq, and fostering open market, free enterprise economies. Democracy was never a consideration.  If Assad was promoting neo-liberal policies in Syria, as Draitser contends, it’s difficult to understand why Washington cited Syria’s refusal to embrace the US agenda of open markets and free enterprise as a reason to change Syria’s government.
To underscore the point that the protests lacked broad popular support, on April 22, more than a month after the Daraa riot, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid reported that “the protests, so far, seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” In other words, more than a month after only hundreds—and not thousands or tens of thousands—of protesters rioted in Daraa, there was no sign in Syria of a popular Arab Spring upheaval. The uprising remained a limited, prominently, Islamist affair. By contrast, there had been huge demonstrations in Damascus in support of—not against—the government, Assad remained popular, and, according to Shadid, the government commanded the loyalty of “Christian and heterodox Muslim sects.”  Shadid wasn’t the only Western journalist who reported that Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians were strongly backing the government. Times’ Rania Abouzeid observed that the Ba’athists “could claim the backing of Syria’s substantial minority groups.” 
The reality that the Syrian government commanded the loyalty of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects, as the New York Times’ Shadid reported, suggested that Syria’s religious minorities recognized something about the uprising that the Western press under-reported (and revolutionary socialists in the United States missed), namely, that it was driven by a sectarian Sunni Islamist agenda which, if brought to fruition, would have unpleasant consequences for anyone who wasn’t considered a “true” Muslim. For this reason, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians lined up with the Ba’athists who sought to bridge sectarian divisions as part of their programmatic commitment to fostering Arab unity. The slogan “Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” chanted during demonstrations in those early days”  only confirmed the point that the uprising was a continuation of the death feud that Sunni political Islam had vowed to wage against the secular Arab nationalist government, and was not a mass upheaval for democracy or against neo-liberalism. If indeed it was any of these things, how would we explain that a thirst for democracy and opposition to neo-liberalism were present only in the Sunni community and absent in those of religious minorities? Surely, a democratic deficit and neoliberal tyranny, if they were present at all and acted as triggers of a revolutionary upsurge, would have crossed religious lines. That Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians didn’t demonstrate, and that riots were Sunni-based with Islamist content, points strongly to the insurrection, from the very beginning, representing the recrudescence of the long running Sunni jihadist campaign against Ba’athist secularism.
“From the very beginning the Assad government said it was engaged in a fight with militant Islamists.”  The long history of Islamist uprisings against Ba’athism prior to 2011 certainly suggested this was very likely the case, and the way in which the uprising subsequently unfolded, as an Islamist-led war against the secular state, only strengthened the view. Other evidence, both positive and negative, corroborated Assad’s contention that the Syrian state was under attack by jihadists (just as it had been many other times in the past.) The negative evidence, that the uprising wasn’t a popular upheaval against an unpopular government, was inhered in Western media reports which showed that Syria’s Arab nationalist government was popular and commanded the loyalty of the population.
By contrast, anti-government demonstrations, riots and protests were small-scale, attracting far fewer people than did a mass demonstration in Damascus in support of the government, and certainly not on the order of the popular upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia. What’s more, the protesters’ demands centered on the release of political prisoners (mainly jihadists) and the lifting of war-time restrictions on the expression of political dissent, not calls for Assad to step down or change the government’s economic policies. The positive evidence came from Western news media accounts which showed that Islam played a prominent role in the riots. Also, while it was widely believed that armed Islamist groups only entered the fray subsequent to the initial spring 2011 riots—and in doing so “hijacked” a “popular uprising”— in point of fact, two jihadist groups which played a prominent role in the post-2011 armed revolt against secular Arab nationalism, Ahrar- al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, were both active at the beginning of 2011. Ahrar al-Sham “started working on forming brigades…well before mid-March, 2011, when the” Daraa riot occurred, according to Time.  Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, “was unknown until late January 2012, when it announced its formation… [but] it was active for months before then.” 
Another piece of evidence that is consistent with the view that militant Islam played a role in the uprisings very early on—or, at the very least, that the protests were violent from the beginning—is that `”there were signs from the very start that armed groups were involved.” The journalist and author Robert Fisk recalled seeing a tape from “the very early days of the ‘rising’ showing men with pistols and Kalashnikovs in a Daraa demonstration.” He recalls another event, in May 2011, when “an Al Jazeera crew filmed armed men shooting at Syrian troops a few hundred metres from the northern border with Lebanon but the channel declined to air the footage.”  Even US officials, who were hostile to the Syrian government and might be expected to challenge Damascus’s view that it was embroiled in a fight with armed rebels “acknowledged that the demonstrations weren’t peaceful and that some protesters were armed.”  By September, Syrian authorities were reporting that they had lost more than 500 police officers and soldiers, killed by guerillas.  By late October, the number had more than doubled.  In less than a year, the uprising had gone from the burning of Ba’ath Party buildings and government officers and clashes with police, to guerrilla warfare, involving methods that would be labeled “terrorism” were they undertaken against Western targets.
Assad would later complain that:
“Everything we said in Syria at the beginning of the crisis they say later. They said it’s peaceful, we said it’s not peaceful, they’re killing – these demonstrators, that they called them peaceful demonstrators – have killed policemen. Then it became militants. They said yes, it’s militants. We said it’s militants, it’s terrorism. They said no, it’s not terrorism. Then when they say it’s terrorism, we say it’s Al Qaeda, they say no, it’s not Al Qaeda. So, whatever we said, they say later.” 
The “Syrian uprising,” wrote the Middle East specialist Patrick Seale, “should be seen as only the latest, if by far the most violent, episode in the long war between Islamists and Ba’athists, which dates back to the founding of the secular Ba‘ath Party in the 1940s. The struggle between them is by now little short of a death-feud.”  “It is striking,” Seale continued, citing Aron Lund, who had written a report for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs on Syrian Jihadism, “that virtually all the members of the various armed insurgent groups are Sunni Arabs; that the fighting has been largely restricted to Sunni Arab areas only, whereas areas inhabited by Alawis, Druze or Christians have remained passive or supportive of the regime; that defections from the regime are nearly 100 per cent Sunni; that money, arms and volunteers are pouring in from Islamic states or from pro-Islamic organisations and individuals; and that religion is the insurgent movement’s most important common denominator.” 
Brutality as a Trigger?
Is it reasonable to believe that the use of force by the Syrian state sparked the guerrilla war which broke out soon after?
It strains belief that an over-reaction by security forces to a challenge to government authority in the Syrian town of Daraa (if indeed an over-reaction occurred) could spark a major war, involving scores of states, and mobilizing jihadists from scores of countries. A slew of discordant facts would have to be ignored to begin to give this theory even a soupcon of credibility.
First, we would have to overlook the reality that the Assad government was popular and viewed as legitimate. A case might be made that an overbearing response by a highly unpopular government to a trivial challenge to its authority might have provided the spark that was needed to ignite a popular insurrection, but notwithstanding US president Barack Obama’s insistence that Assad lacked legitimacy, there’s no evidence that Syria, in March 2011, was a powder keg of popular anti-government resentment ready to explode. As Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported on the eve of the Daraa riot, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular”  and “no one expects mass uprisings in Syria and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.” 
Second, we would have to discount the fact that the Daraa riot involved only hundreds of participants, hardly a mass uprising, and the protests that followed similarly failed to garner a critical mass, as Time’s Nicholas Blanford reported. Similarly, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid found no evidence that there was a popular upheaval in Syria, even more than a month after the Daraa riot. What was going on, contrary to Washington-propagated rhetoric about the Arab Spring breaking out in Syria, was that jihadists were engaged in a campaign of guerilla warfare against Syrian security forces, and had, by October, taken the lives of more than a thousand police officers and soldiers.
Third, we would have to close our eyes to the fact that the US government, with its British ally, had drawn up plans in 1956 to provoke a war in Syria by enlisting the Muslim Brotherhood to instigate internal uprisings.  The Daraa riot and subsequent armed clashes with police and soldiers resembled the plan which regime change specialist Kermit Roosevelt had prepared. That’s not to say that the CIA dusted off Roosevelt’s proposal and recycled it for use in 2011; only that the plot showed that Washington and London were capable of planning a destabilization operation involving a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurrection to bring about regime change in Syria.
We would also have to ignore the events of February 1982, when the Muslim Brothers seized control of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city. Hama was the epicenter of Sunni fundamentalism in Syria, and a major base of operations for the jihadist fighters. Galvanized by a false report that Assad had been overthrown, Muslim Brothers went on a gleeful blood-soaked rampage throughout the city, attacking police stations and murdering Ba’ath Party leaders and their families, along with government officials and soldiers. In some cases, victims were decapitated  a practice which would be resurrected decades later by Islamic State fighters. Every Ba’athist official in Hama was murdered. 
The Hama events of 1982 are usually remembered in the West (if they’re remembered at all), not for the atrocities carried out by the Islamists, but for the Syrian army’s response, which, as would be expected of any army, involved the use of force to restore sovereign control over the territory seized by the insurrectionists. Thousands of troops were dispatched to take Hama back from the Muslim Brothers. Former US State Department official William R. Polk described the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on Hama as resembling that of the US assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004,  (the difference, of course, being that the Syrian army was acting legitimately within its own sovereign territory while the US military was acting illegitimately as an occupying force to quell opposition to its occupation.) How many died in the Hama assault, however, remains a matter of dispute. The figures vary. “An early report in Time said that 1,000 were killed. Most observers estimated that 5,000 people died. Israeli sources and the Muslim Brotherhood”—sworn enemies of the secular Arab nationalists who therefore had an interest in exaggerating the casualty toll—“both charged that the death toll passed 20,000.”  Robert Dreyfus, who has written on the West’s collaboration with political Islam, argues that Western sources deliberately exaggerated the death toll in order to demonize the Ba’athists as ruthless killers, and that the Ba’athists went along with the deception in order to intimidate the Muslim Brotherhood. 
As the Syrian army sorted through the rubble of Hama in the aftermath of the assault, evidence was found that foreign governments had provided Hama’s insurrectionists with money, arms, and communications equipment. Polk writes that:
“Assad saw foreign troublemakers at work among his people. This, after all, was the emotional and political legacy of colonial rule—a legacy painfully evident in most of the post-colonial world, but one that is almost unnoticed in the Western world. And the legacy is not a myth. It is a reality that, often years after events occur, we can verify with official papers. Hafez al-Assad did not need to wait for leaks of documents: his intelligence services and international journalists turned up dozens of attempts by conservative, oil-rich Arab countries, the United States, and Israel to subvert his government. Most engaged in ‘dirty tricks,’ propaganda, or infusions of money, but it was noteworthy that in the 1982 Hama uprising, more than 15,000 foreign-supplied machine guns were captured, along with prisoners including Jordanian- and CIA-trained paramilitary forces (much like the jihadists who appear so much in media accounts of 2013 Syria). And what he saw in Syria was confirmed by what he learned about Western regime-changing elsewhere. He certainly knew of the CIA attempt to murder President Nasser of Egypt and the Anglo-American overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.” 
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “the Hama massacre could be understood as, ‘The natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state trying to stave off retrogressive—in this case, Islamic fundamentalists—elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a 20th century secular republic. That is also why,” continued Friedman, that “if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among Sunni Muslims.” 
The outbreak of a Sunni Islamist jihad against the Syrian government in the 1980s challenges the view that militant Sunni Islam in the Levant is an outcome of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the pro-Shi’a sectarian policies of the US occupation authorities. This view is historically myopic, blind to the decades-long existence of Sunni political Islam as a significant force in Levantine politics. From the moment Syria achieved formal independence from France after World War II, through the decades that followed in the 20th century, and into the next century, the main contending forces in Syria were secular Arab nationalism and political Islam. As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in 2016, “the Syrian armed opposition is dominated by Isis, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.” The “only alternative to (secular Arab nationalist) rule is the Islamists.”  This has long been the case.
Finally, we would also have to ignore the fact that US strategists had planned since 2003, and possibly as early as 2001, to force Assad and his secular Arab nationalist ideology from power, and was funding the Syrian opposition, including Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups, from 2005. Accordingly, Washington had been driving toward the overthrow of the Assad government with the goal of de-Ba’athifying Syria. An Islamist-led guerilla struggle against Syria’s secular Arab nationalists would have unfolded, regardless of whether the Syrian government’s response at Daraa was excessive or not. The game was already in play, and a pretext was being sought. Daraa provided it. Thus, the idea that the arrest of two boys in Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall could provoke a major conflict is as believable as the notion that WWI was caused by nothing more than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Socialism can be defined in many ways, but if it is defined as public-ownership of the commanding heights of the economy accompanied by economic planning, then Syria under its 1973 and 2012 constitutions clearly meets the definition of socialism. However, the Syrian Arab Republic had never been a working-class socialist state, of the category Marxists would recognize. It was, instead, an Arab socialist state inspired by the goal of achieving Arab political independence and overcoming the legacy of the Arab nation’s underdevelopment. The framers of the constitution saw socialism as a means to achieve national liberation and economic development. “The march toward the establishment of a socialist order,” the 1973 constitution’s framers wrote, is a “fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.” Marxist socialism concerned itself with the struggle between an exploiting owning class and exploited working class, while Arab socialism addressed the struggle between exploiting and exploited nations. While these two different socialisms operated at different levels of exploitation, the distinctions were of no moment for Westerns banks, corporations and major investors as they cast their gaze across the globe in pursuit of profit. Socialism was against the profit-making interests of US industrial and financial capital, whether it was aimed at ending the exploitation of the working class or overcoming the imperialist oppression of national groups.
Ba’ath socialism had long irritated Washington. The Ba’athist state had exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. The Ba’athists regarded these measures as necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.
Washington’s goals, however, were obviously antithetical. It didn’t want Syria to nurture its industry and zealously guard its independence, but to serve the interests of the bankers and major investors who truly mattered in the United States, by opening Syrian labor to exploitation and Syria’s land and natural resources to foreign ownership. Our agenda, the Obama Administration had declared in 2015, “is focused on lowering tariffs on American products, breaking down barriers to our goods and services, and setting higher standards to level the playing field for American…firms.” This was hardly a new agenda, but had been the agenda of US foreign policy for decades. Damascus wasn’t falling into line behind a Washington that insisted that it could and would “lead the global economy.”
Hardliners in Washington had considered Hafez al-Assad an Arab communist,  and US officials considered his son, Bashar, an ideologue who couldn’t bring himself to abandon the third pillar of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party’s program: socialism. The US State Department complained that Syria had “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, had failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The US State Department also expressed dissatisfaction that “ideological reasons” had prevented Assad from liberalizing Syria’s economy, that “privatization of government enterprises was still not widespread,” and that the economy “remains highly controlled by the government.”  Clearly, Assad hadn’t learned what Washington had dubbed the “lessons of history,” namely, that “market economies, not command-and-control economies with the heavy hand of government, are the best.”  By drafting a constitution that mandated that the government maintain a role in guiding the economy on behalf of Syrian interests, and that the Syrian government would not make Syrians work for the interests of Western banks, corporations, and investors, Assad was asserting Syrian independence against Washington’s agenda of “opening markets and leveling the playing field for American….businesses abroad.” 
On top of this, Assad underscored his allegiance to socialist values against what Washington had once called the “moral imperative” of “economic freedom,”  by writing social rights into the constitution: security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels. These rights would continue to be placed beyond the easy reach of legislators and politicians who could sacrifice them on the altar of creating a low-tax, foreign-investment-friendly business climate. As a further affront against Washington’s pro-business orthodoxy, the constitution committed the state to progressive taxation.
Finally, the Ba’athist leader included in his updated constitution a provision that had been introduced by his father in 1973, a step toward real, genuine democracy—a provision which decision-makers in Washington, with their myriad connections to the banking and corporate worlds, could hardly tolerate. The constitution would require that at minimum half the members of the People’s Assembly be drawn from the ranks of peasants and workers.
If Assad was a neo-liberal, he certainly was one of the world’s oddest devotees of the ideology.
A final point on the origins of the violent uprising in 2011: Some social scientists and analysts have drawn on a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to suggest that “drought played a role in the Syrian unrest.” According to this view, drought “caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas.” This, in combination with an influx of refugees from Iraq, intensified competition for scarce jobs in urban areas, making Syria a cauldron of social and economic tension ready to boil over.  The argument sounds reasonable, even “scientific,” but the phenomenon it seeks to explain—mass upheaval in Syria—never happened. As we’ve seen, a review of Western press coverage found no reference to mass upheaval. On the contrary, reporters who expected to find a mass upheaval were surprised that they didn’t find one. Instead, Western journalists found Syria to be surprisingly quiet. Demonstrations called by organizers of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page fizzled. Critics conceded that Assad was popular. Reporters could find no one who believed a revolt was imminent. Even a month after the Daraa incident—which involved only hundreds of protesters, dwarfed by the tens of thousands of Syrians who demonstrated in Damascus in support of the government—the New York Times reporter on the ground, Anthony Shadid, could find no sign in Syria of the mass upheavals of Tunisia and Egypt. In early February 2011, “Omar Nashabe, a long-time Syria watcher and correspondent for the Beirut-based Arabic daily Al-Ahkbar” told Time that “Syrians may be afflicted by poverty that stalks 14% of its population combined with an estimated 20% unemployment rate, but Assad still has his credibility.” 
That the government commanded popular support was affirmed when the British survey firm YouGov published a poll in late 2011 showing that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. The poll received almost no mention in the Western media, prompting the British journalist Jonathan Steele to ask: “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news?” Steele described the poll findings as “inconvenient facts” which were” suppressed “because Western media coverage of the events in Syria had ceased “to be fair” and had turned into “a propaganda weapon.”
Sloganeering in Lieu of Politics and Analysis
Draitser can be faulted, not only for propagating an argument made by assertion, based on no evidence, but for substituting slogans for politics and analysis. In his October 20 Counterpunch article, Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence, he argues that the defining goals of Leftism ought to be the pursuit of peace and justice, as if these are two inseparable qualities, which are never in opposition. That peace and justice may, at times, be antithetical, is illustrated in the following conversation between Australian journalist Richard Carleton and Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer, novelist and revolutionary. 
C: ‘Why won’t your organization engage in peace talks with the Israelis?’
K: ‘You don’t mean exactly “peace talks”. You mean capitulation. Surrendering.
C: ‘Why not just talk?’
K: ‘Talk to whom?’
C: ‘Talk to the Israeli leaders.’
K: ‘That is kind of a conversation between the sword and the neck, you mean?’
C: ‘Well, if there are no swords and no guns in the room, you could still talk.’
K: ‘No. I have never seen any talk between a colonialist and a national liberation movement.’
C: ‘But despite this, why not talk?’
K: ‘Talk about what?’
C: ‘Talk about the possibility of not fighting.’
K: ‘Not fighting for what?’
C: ‘No fighting at all. No matter what for.’
K: ‘People usually fight for something. And they stop fighting for something. So you can’t even tell me why we should speak about what. Why should we talk about stopping to fight?’
C: ‘Talk to stop fighting to stop the death and the misery, the destruction and the pain.’
K: ‘The misery and the destruction the pain and the death of whom?’
C: ‘Of Palestinians. Of Israelis. Of Arabs.’
K: ‘Of the Palestinian people who are uprooted, thrown in the camps, living in starvation, killed for twenty years and forbidden to use even the name “Palestinians”?’
C: ‘They are better that way than dead though.’
K: ‘Maybe to you. But to us, it’s not. To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights is something as essential as life itself.
To which values the US Left should devote itself when peace and justice are in conflict, Draitser doesn’t say. His invocation of the slogan “peace and justice” as the desired defining mission of the US Left seems to be nothing more than an invitation for Leftists to abandon politics in favor of embarking on a mission of becoming beautiful souls, above the sordid conflicts which plague humanity—never taking a side, except that of the angels. His assertion that “no state or group has the best interests of Syrians at heart” is almost too silly to warrant comment. How would he know? One can’t help but get the impression that he believes that he, and the US Left, alone among the groups and states of the world, know what’s best for the “Syrian people.” Which may be why he opines that the responsibility of the US Left, “is to the people of Syria,” as if the people of Syria are an undifferentiated mass with uniform interests and agendas. Syrians en masse include both secularists and political Islamists, who have irreconcilable views of how the state ought to be organized, who have been locked in a death feud for more than half a century—one helped along, on the Islamist side, by his own government. Syrians en masse include those who favor integration into the US Empire, and those who are against it; those who collaborate with US imperialists and those who refuse to. In this perspective, what does it mean, to say the US Left has a responsibility to the people of Syria? Which people of Syria?
I would have thought that the responsibility of the US Left is to working people of the United States, not the people of Syria. And I would have imagined, as well, that the US Left would regard its responsibilities to include disseminating a rigorous, evidence-based political analysis of how the US economic elite uses the apparatus of the US state to advance its interests at the expense of both domestic and foreign populations. How does Washington’s long war on Syria affect the working people of America? That’s what Draitser ought to be talking about.
1 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011
2 Rania Abouzeid, “The Syrian style of repression: Thugs and lectures,” Time, February 27, 2011
3 Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011
4 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011.
5 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011
6 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
7 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?,” Time, April 9, 2011
8 Robert Fisk, “Welcome to Dera’a, Syria’s graveyard of terrorists,” The Independent, July 6. 2016
9 President Assad to ARD TV: Terrorists breached cessation of hostilities agreement from the very first hour, Syrian Army refrained from retaliating,” SANA, March 1, 2016
11 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
12 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?” Time, March 20, 2011; Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s revolt: How graffiti stirred an uprising,” Time, March 22, 2011
13 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
14 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?,” Time, March 20, 2011
15 “Thousands march to protest Syria killings”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011
16 Rania Abouzeid, “Assad and reform: Damned if he does, doomed if he doesn’t,” Time, April 22, 2011
17 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
18 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011
19 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011.
20 Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005
21 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
22 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
The hypocritical Western heart beats for all except those the US Empire drowns in blood. 
By Stephen Gowans
“In Syria almost everybody is under siege to a greater or lesser degree,” observes the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.  Most people, however, think the only siege in Syria is the one imposed on (East) Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces. But siege as a form of warfare is hardly uniquely embraced by the Syrian Arab Army and Russian military. On the contrary, the United States and its allies have been practicing siege warfare in the Levant and beyond for years, and continue to do so. It’s just that US-led siege warfare has been concealed behind anodyne, even heroic, labels, while the siege warfare of countries Washington is hostile to, is abominated by Western state officials crying crocodile tears.
Here’s how the deception works:
Sieges of cities controlled by Islamic State, carried out by US forces and their allies, are called rescue operations, or campaigns to liberate or retake cities—never sieges. Other sieges—the ones carried out by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Al Nusra, which, herein, I’ll call Al Qaeda for convenience—are ignored altogether (which might suggest something about the relationship of Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate to the United States.) And a particularly injurious form of siege—economic sanctions — is presented as a separate category altogether and not siege warfare at all. But sanctions, imposed by rich countries, such as the United States and those of the European Union, on poor countries, such as Syria, are a modern form of siege, and have been called sanctions of mass destruction, in recognition of their devastating character.
In the Levant, the sieges which are identified as such by Western state officials, and in train, by the Western mass media, are sieges of cities controlled by Al Qaeda, carried out by Syrian forces and their allies. These sieges—which cause hunger, kill civilians, and destroy buildings—are denounced in the West as ferocious attacks on innocents which amount to war crimes. “Russia’s bombardment backing the siege of Aleppo by Syrian government forces,” notes the Wall Street Journal, “has created a humanitarian crisis.”  A UN Security Council resolution—vetoed by Russia—has called for an end to Russian bombing of Aleppo. British foreign minister Boris Johnson has mused openly about war crimes indictments against Syria and Russia.
Yet US campaigns to drive Islamic State out of Manbij, Kobani, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit, and now Mosul, have also caused hunger, killed civilians, and destroyed buildings. Unlike the Syrian military’s siege of East Aleppo, these campaigns have been celebrated as great and necessary military victories, but have, themselves, created vast humanitarian crises.
Cockburn observes that the “recapture” of “cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit…would scarcely have happened without the coalition air umbrella overhead.”  That is, the cities liberated by Iraqi forces and their US patron were bombed into submission, even though civilians were trapped inside. Iraqi ground forces only moved in after these cities were left in ruins by coalition airstrikes and Iraqi artillery bombardment, as mopping up forces.
Rania Khalek, writing in the Intercept, points out that “U.S.-backed ground forces laid siege to Manbij, a city in northern Syria not far from Aleppo that is home to tens of thousands of civilians. U.S. airstrikes pounded the city over the summer, killing up to 125 civilians in a single attack. The U.S. replicated this strategy to drive ISIS out of Kobane, Ramadi, and Fallujah, leaving behind flattened neighborhoods.” 
To recover Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraqi forces surrounded and cordoned off the city.  In addition, the US led coalition bombarded Ramadi with airstrikes and artillery fire.  The bombardment left 70 percent of Ramadi’s buildings in ruins. The city was recovered, but “the great majority of its 400,000 people” were left homeless. 
Iraqi forces also besieged the city of Fallujah, preventing most food, medicine and fuel from entering it.  Militias “prevented civilians from leaving Islamic State territory while resisting calls to allow humanitarian aid to reach the city.”  This was done “to strangle Islamic State”  with the result that civilians were also “strangled.” Inside the city, tens of thousands endured famine and sickness due to lack of medicine.  Civilians reportedly survived on grass and plants.  Many civilians “died under buildings that collapsed under” artillery bombardment and coalition air strikes. 
The current campaign to recover Mosul is based on the same siege strategy US forces and their Iraqi client used to liberate Ramadi and Fallujah. US and allied warplanes have been bombarding the city for months.  Iraqi forces, aided by US Special Forces, are moving to cordon it off. “Some aid groups estimate that as many as a million people could be displaced by fighting to recapture the city, creating a daunting humanitarian task that the United Nations and other organizations say they are not yet ready to deal with.” 
Writer and journalist Jonathan Cook commented on the utter hypocrisy of Westerners who condemn the Syrian/Russian campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Islamist fighters while celebrating the Iraqi/US campaign to do the same in Mosul. Targeting the British newspaper, the Guardian, beloved by progressives, Cook contrasted two reports which appeared in the newspaper to illustrate the Western heart beating for all except those the US Empire drowns in blood.
Report one: The Guardian provides supportive coverage of the beginning of a full-throttle assault by Iraqi forces, backed by the US and UK, on Mosul to win it back from the jihadists of ISIS – an assault that will inevitably lead to massive casualties and humanitarian suffering among the civilian population.
Report two: The Guardian provides supportive coverage of the US and UK for considering increased sanctions against Syria and Russia. On what grounds? Because Syrian forces, backed by Russia, have been waging a full-throttle assault on Aleppo to win it back from the jihadists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda – an assault that has led to massive casualties and humanitarian suffering among the civilian population. 
Central to Western propaganda is the elision of the Islamist character of the Al Qaeda militants who tyrannize East Aleppo. This is accomplished by labeling them “rebels,” while the “rebels” who tyrannize the cities the United States and its allies besiege are called “Islamic State,” ISIL” or “ISIS” fighters. The aim is to conjure the impression that US-led sieges are directed at Islamic terrorists, and therefore are justifiable, despite the humanitarian crises they precipitate, while the Syrian-led campaign in East Aleppo is directed at rebels, presumably moderates, or secular democrats, and therefore is illegitimate. This is part of a broader US propaganda campaign to create two classes of Islamist militants—good Islamists, and bad ones.
The first class, the good Islamists, comprises Al Qaeda and fighters cooperating with it, including US-backed groups, whose operations are limited to fighting secularists in Damascus, and therefore are useful to the US foreign policy goal of overthrowing Syria’s Arab nationalist government. These Islamist fighters are sanitized as “rebels.”
The second class, the bad Islamists, comprises Islamic State. Islamic State has ambitions which make it far less acceptable to Washington as an instrument to be used in pursuit of US foreign policy goals. The organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aspires to lead a caliphate which effaces the Sykes-Picot borders, and is therefore a threat, not only to the Arab nationalists in Damascus—an enemy the organization shares in common with Washington— but also to the US client states of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which Islamic State attacks. The US objective in connection with Islamic State is to push the organization out of Iraq (and out of areas in Syria that can be brought under the control of US-backed fighters) and into the remainder of Syria, where they can wear down Arab nationalist forces.
Syria’s “moderates”—the “rebels”—if there are any in the sense of secular pro-democrats, are few in number. Certainly, their ranks are so limited that arming them, in the view of US president Barack Obama, would make little difference. The US president told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that his administration had “difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: ‘There’s not as much capacity as you would hope,’” Obama confessed.  Obama’s assessment was underscored when “a US general admitted that it had just four such ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria after spending $500 million on training them.”  Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk dismissed the idea of the “moderates” as little more than a fantasy. “I doubt if there are 700 active ‘moderate’ foot soldiers in Syria,” he wrote. And “I am being very generous, for the figure may be nearer 70.” 
Elizabeth O’Bagy, who has made numerous trips to Syria to interview insurgent commanders for the Institute for the Study of War, told the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard that my “sense is that there are no seculars.”  Anti-government fighters interviewed by the Wall Street Journal found the Western concept of the secular Syrian rebel to be incomprehensible. 
To be clear: Syrian and Russian forces are waging a campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Islamists, whose only difference from Islamic State is that they’re not a threat to the US client states, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It’s “primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo,” US Department of Defense spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren said on April 25, referring to Al Qaeda.  Other militant Islamist organizations, including US-backed groups, are also in Aleppo, intertwined with, embedded with, sharing weapons with, cooperating with, and acting as auxiliaries of Al-Qaeda.
Author and journalist Stephen Kinzer, writing in the Boston Globe, reminds us that:
For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: “Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.” Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it. 
The Invisible Sieges
While sieges imposed by US-led forces are hidden by not calling them sieges, sieges imposed by Washington’s Al-Qaeda ally are simply ignored.
“Only three years ago,” notes Fisk, the same Islamist fighters who are under siege today in East Aleppo, “were besieging the surrounded Syrian army western enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived under regime control.”  Fisk observes acidly that the “first siege didn’t elicit many tears from the satellite channel lads and lassies” while the “second siege comes with oceans of tears.” 
To the ignored Al Qaeda-orchestrated siege of West Aleppo can be added “the untold story of the three-and-a-half-year siege of two small Shia Muslim villages in northern Syria,” Nubl and Zahra. Those sieges, carried out by Al-Qaeda against villages which remained loyal to Syria’s Arab nationalist government, left at least 500 civilians dead, 100 of them children, through famine and artillery bombardment.  The “world paid no heed to the suffering of these people,” preferring to remain “largely fixed on those civilians suffering under siege by (Syrian) government forces elsewhere.” 
And then there’s the largely untold story of the 13 year-long siege imposed on a whole country, Syria, by the United States and European Union. That siege, initiated by Washington in 2003, with the Syria Accountability Act, and then followed by EU sanctions, blocks Western exports of almost all products to Syria and isolates the country financially. This massive, wide-scale siege plunged Syria’s economy into crisis even before the 2011 eruption of upheavals in the Arab world —demonstrating that Washington’s efforts to force Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down began long before the Arab Spring. The roots of US hostility to Assad’s government are found in the danger of its becoming “a focus of Arab nationalistic struggle against an American regional presence and interests”  – another way of saying that the Arab nationalist goals of unity, independence and socialism, which guide the Syrian state, are an anathema to the US demand—expressed in the 2015 US National Security Strategy—that all countries fall in behind US global “leadership.”
Under US siege warfare, unemployment shot up, factories closed, food prices skyrocketed and fuel prices doubled.  “Syrian officials” were forced “to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country.”  Indeed, so comprehensive was the siege, that by 2011 US “officials acknowledged that the country was already under so many sanctions that the United States held little leverage.” 
Western siege warfare on Syria has blocked “access to blood safety equipment, medicines, medical devices, food, fuel, water pumps, spare parts for power plants, and more,”  leading Patrick Cockburn to compare the regime change campaign to “UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003.”  The siege of Iraq—at a time when the country was led by secular Arab nationalists who troubled Washington as much, if not more, than the secular Arab nationalists in Syria vex Washington today—led to the deaths, though disease and hunger, of 500,000 children, according to the United Nations. Political scientists John Meuller and Karl Meuller called the siege a campaign of economic warfare amounting to “sanctions of mass destruction,” more devastating than all the weapons of mass destruction used in history.  When the West’s siege warfare on Arab nationalist Iraq ended in 2003 it was immediately resumed on Arab nationalist Syria, with the same devastating consequences.
According to a leaked UN internal report, the “US and EU economic sanctions on Syria are causing huge suffering among ordinary Syrians and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid.”  Cockburn notes that “Aid agencies cited in the report say they cannot procure basic medicines or medical equipment for hospitals because sanctions are preventing foreign commercial companies and banks having anything to do with Syria.”  “In effect” concludes the veteran British journalists, “the US and EU sanctions are imposing an economic siege on Syria as a whole which may be killing more Syrians than die of illness and malnutrition in the sieges which EU and US leaders have described as war crimes.” 
Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy-backed blockade of Yemen’s ports —in other words, a siege— has left much of the country, the poorest in the Arab world, “on the brink of famine.”  Last year, a United Nations expert estimated “that 850,000 children in the country of 26 million” faced “acute malnutrition” as a result of the US-backed siege. The blockade amounts to “the deliberate starvation of civilians,” the UN expert said, which constitutes a war crime.  “Twenty million Yemenis, nearly 80% of the population, are in urgent need of food, water and medical aid,” wrote British journalist Julian Borger last year. The siege, also backed by Britain, has created “a humanitarian disaster.” 
That Washington protests so vehemently about the humanitarian consequences of Syria’s campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Al Qaeda, while US forces and their allies kill civilians through airstrikes, artillery bombardments and siege-related famine and disease in campaigns to capture territory from Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Syria’s secular Arab nationalists, invites the obvious question: Why the double standard? Why does the Western heart beat for the civilians harmed in the campaign to liberate East Aleppo but not for the civilians harmed by Western campaigns to bring territory under the control of the United States and its proxies?
The answer, in short, is that Al Qaeda is a US asset in Washington’s campaign to overthrow the Arab nationalists in Damascus, and therefore Washington objects to military operations which threaten its ally. On the other hand, Washington sparks one humanitarian crisis after another in pursuit of its foreign policy goal of coercing submission to its global leadership. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s value to Washington resides in its implacable opposition to the secularism of Syria’s ruling Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party, and its willingness to accept the Sykes-Picot boundaries drawn up by Britain and France after WWI. Thus, the Syrian al-Qaeda outfit limits its operations to working toward the overthrow of secularists in Damascus. Washington is unwilling to accept radical Islamists seizing control of the Syrian state, but is willing to work with Al-Qaeda to eliminate a common enemy.
Washington plays a similar game with Islamic State, by calibrating its military campaign against the bad Islamists, in order to prevent them from threatening Iraq and Saudi Arabia while at the same time using them as a tool to weaken Syria’s Arab nationalist state. US airstrikes have been concentrated in Iraq, reports the Wall Street Journal. The air war focusses on Islamic State targets in Iraq, explains the newspaper, because “in Syria, U.S. strikes against the Islamic State would inadvertently help the regime of President Bashar al-Assad militarily.”  Likewise, France has “refrained from bombing the group in Syria for fear of bolstering” the Syrian government.  The British, too, have focused their air war overwhelmingly on Islamic State targets in Iraq, conducting less than 10 percent of their airstrikes on the Islamist organization’s positions in Syria.  The New York Times reports that “United States-led airstrikes in Syria … largely (focus) on areas far outside government control, to avoid … aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”  Hence, US-coalition “airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria” have been so limited as to make them “little more than a symbolic gesture.”  Fisk sums up the phony war against Islamic State in Syria with a sarcastic quip: “And so we went to war against Isis in Syria—unless, of course, Isis was attacking Assad’s regime, in which case we did nothing at all.” 
Consistent with the US approach of employing Al Qaeda as a cat’s paw against Syria’s secular Arab nationalists, any military operation which sets back Al-Qaeda’s campaign to overthrow the Assad government is a blow against a US foreign policy objective. Those who implore the United States to join Russia in a coalition to destroy Islamist militancy in the Muslim world miss the point. Washington only abhors jihadists when they threaten the United States and its satellites; otherwise, the US state embraces militant Islam as a useful tool to be used against secular governments which refuse to submit to the international dictatorship of the United States.
Owing to the harm they inevitably inflict on non-combatants, it is easy to condemn military campaigns to liberate cities occupied by enemy forces. But it is much more difficult to suggest a realistic alternative to using force to extirpate enemies from urban redoubts. Compromise and negotiation? For the United States, compromise means Arab nationalists stepping down and yielding power to US puppets—not compromise, but the fulfillment of US objectives. Washington isn’t interested in compromise. It has declared that it can and will lead the world, which means it is determined to set the rules. But even if there were a willingness in Washington for compromise, why should the United States have a role to play in deciding Syria’s political future? We can’t be true democrats, unless we fight for democracy in international relations. And we can’t have democracy in international relations if the United States and its allies intervene in other countries, enlisting jihadists to carry out their dirty work, in order to have a say in a political transition, once their mujahedeen allies have created a catastrophe.
What’s more, even had Damascus and its Russian ally concluded that the humanitarian consequences of attempting to drive Al Qaeda out of East Aleppo were too daunting to warrant a siege campaign, the day of siege would only be delayed. Were Syria’s secular Arab nationalists to yield power under a US negotiated political settlement, the United States, acting through its new Syrian client, would arrange the siege of the city to crush its former Islamist allies, who could not be allowed to challenge the new US marionette in Damascus. Only this time, the siege would be called a rescue operation, the label “rebel” would be dropped in favor of “radical Islamist terrorist,” the ensuing humanitarian crisis would be duly noted then passed over with little comment, and hosannas would be sung to the US military leaders who slayed the Islamist dragon.
On October 19, a Swiss journalist confronted Assad on civilian deaths in East Aleppo. “But it’s true that innocent civilians are dying in Aleppo,” the journalist said. Assad replied: “The “whole hysteria in the West about Aleppo (is) not because Aleppo is under siege…Aleppo has been under siege for the last four years by terrorists, and we (never) heard a question (from) Western journalists about what’s happening in Aleppo (then) and we (never) heard a single statement by Western officials regarding the children of Aleppo. Now they are asking about Aleppo…because the terrorists are in bad shape.” The Syrian Army is advancing “and the Western countries—mainly, the United States and its allies (the) UK and France” feel “they are losing the last cards of terrorism in Syria.” 
My book Washington’s Long War on Syria is forthcoming April 2017.
1 Adapted from Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, 1897. “Our bishops scream to high heaven when the Armenians are violated by the Turks, but say nothing about the much worse crimes committed by their own countrymen. The hypocritical British heart beats for all except those their empire drowns in blood.”
2 Patrick Cockburn, “The silent devastation of Daraya: Capture of suburb is a big step toward Assad winning the battle for Damascus,” The Independent, September 8, 2016
3 Anton Troianovski and Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Germany hosts Putin and Poroshenko for Ukraine summit,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2016.
4 Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq’s ‘ramshackle’ Mosul offensive may see Isis defeated but it will expose deep divisions between the forces involved,” The Independent, October 18, 2016
5 Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016
6 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016
7 Patrick Cockburn, “Air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria are reducing their cities to ruins,” The Independent, May 27, 2016
9 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016
10 Tim Arango, “In effort to defeat ISIS, US and Iran impede one another,” New York Times, April 25, 2016
11 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016
12 Tim Arango, “Iran-led push to retake Falluja from ISIS worries U.S.” The New York Times, May 28, 2016; Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016
13 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016
14 Tim Arango, “Iran-led push to retake Falluja from ISIS worries U.S.” The New York Times, May 28, 2016
15 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016; Missy Ryan, “Mosul offensive poses key test for U.S. strategy against Islamic State,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2016
16 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016
17 Jonathan Cook, “Guardian front page channels Orwell’s 1984,” Jonathan Cook Blog, October 17, 2016
18 Thomas L. Friedman, Obama on the world,” The New York Times, August 8, 2014
19 Patrick Cockburn, “The West has been in denial over how to tackle the threat of Islamic State,” Evening Standard, November 19, 2015
20 Robert Fisk, “David Cameron, there aren’t 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria—and whosever heard of a moderate with a Kalashnikov anyway?” The Independent, November 29, 2015
21 Ben Hubbard, “Islamist rebels create dilemma on Syria policy”, The New York Times, April 27, 2013
22 Nour Malas, “Islamists gain momentum in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2013
23 Sam Heller and Avi Asher-Schapiro, “’The regime can’t be trusted’: Inside Syria’s Aleppo as a shaky truce begins,” Vice, May 5, 2016
24 Stephen Kinzer, “The media are misleading the public on Syria,” The Boston Globe, February 18, 2016
25 Robert Fisk, “No, Aleppo is not the new Srebrenica—the West won’t go to war over Syria,” The Independent, August 4, 2016
27 Robert Fisk, “Syria civil war: The untold story of the siege of two small Shia villages – and how the world turned a blind eye,” The Independent, February 22, 2016
29 Nada Bakri, “Sanctions pose growing threat to Syria’s Assad”, The New York Times, October 10, 2011
30 Moshe Ma’oz, Bruce Cumings, Ervand Abrahamian and Moshe Ma’oz, Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria, The New Press, 2004, p .207
31 Nour Malas and Siobhan Gorman, “Syrian brass defect, bouying rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2012.
32 Joby Warrick and Alice Fordham, “Syria running out of cash as sanctions take toll, but Assad avoids economic pain”, the Washington Post, April 24, 2012
33 David E. Sanger, “U.S. faces a challenge in trying to punish Syria”, The New York Times, April 25, 2011
34 Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016
35 Patrick Cockburn, “The silent devastation of Daraya: Capture of suburb is a big step toward Assad winning the battle for Damascus,” The Independent, September 8, 2016
36 John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of mass destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999
37 Patrick Cockburn, “US and EU sanctions are ruining ordinary Syrians’ lives, yet Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power,” The Independent, October 7, 2016
40 Maria Abi-Habin and Adam Entous, “U.S. widens role in Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2015
41 Shuaib Almosawa and Ben Hubbard, “A roar at a funeral, and Yemen’s war is altered,” The New York Times, October 9, 2016
42 Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim and Somini Sengupta, “Yemeni government faces choice between a truce and fighting on,” The New York Times, Aug 14, 2015
43 Julian Borger, “Saudi-led naval blockade leaves 20m Yemenis facing humanitarian disaster,” The Guardian June 5, 2015
44 Maria Abi-Habib, “Islamic State remains unchallenged from its sanctuary in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2014
45 Matthew Dalton, “Reports on Islamic state plans in Europe fueled French move to prepare Syria strikes, The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2015
46 Patrick Cockburn, “Government has no strategy, no plan and only ‘phantom’ allies in Syria, scathing Commons report reveals,” The Independent, September 22, 2016
47 Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “ISIS fighters seize control of Syrian city of Palmyra, and ancient ruins, “The New York Times, May 20, 2015
48 Patrick Cockburn, “Chilcot report: Tony Blair, the Iraq war, and the words of mass destruction that continue to deceive,” The Independent, July 4, 2016
49 Robert Fisk, “I read the Chilcot report as I travelled across Syria this week and saw for myself what Blair’s actions caused,” The Independent, July 7, 2016
50 “President al-Assad to Swiss SRF 1 TV channel: Fighting terrorists is the way to protect civilians in Aleppo,” SANA, October 19, 2016
Last April, veteran anti-war activist Ken Stone travelled to Syria as part of a seven person solidarity mission with the people of Syria, becoming one of the first tourists to visit liberated Palmyra. Stone recounts his trip in Defiant Syria: Dispatches from the Second International Tour of Peace to Syria.
The short book is part travelogue, part diatribe against those sections of the political left which reliably support US-led interventions in formerly colonized countries, and part trenchant critique of Canadian foreign policy in connection with Syria.
Stone’s journey through Syria left him struck by the defiance of Syrians in the face of the immense challenges they’ve confronted and the struggles they’ve endured.
“I was surprised,” he writes, “at the resilience of the Syrian spirit. I expected to find Syrians depressed, exhausted, and pessimistic after five long years of war. Instead, they were full of life and defiance.”
Part of that defiance was expressed in the Syrian government insisting, over the objections of Western powers, on holding parliamentary elections in April, as mandated by Syria’s 2012 constitution, which was drafted and popularly ratified in response to the demands of the opposition in 2011.
Stone was in Damascus on the day of the election, and devotes a chapter of his book to the mechanics of parliamentary democracy in Syria and what he observed as Syrians went to the polls. He draws a contrast between the government controlled capital, where calm prevailed and residents were determined to cast their ballots, and nearby Ghouta, where “all kinds of foreign mercenaries hold the population hostage and in terror.”
I was struck, reading this, by another contrast. On top of parliamentary elections, Syrians elect their president, and the last presidential election in 2012 was open to multiple candidates. In contrast, there are no elections held in jihadist-controlled territories. The jihadists, not only ISIS and al Nusra, but many of the mislabelled “moderate rebels,” doted on by Western countries, and who are enmeshed with al-Nusra, view democracy as idolatry, and don’t favor it for the successor state they envision.
None of this has stopped the former NATO colonial powers from backing the democracy-adverse jihadists. Nor has it stopped Washington and its NATO allies from working with democracy-abominating Arab monarchies—which, by the way, were installed by the colonial powers—to bring down an elected government in Damascus whose guiding political philosophy is anti-colonialism and freedom from foreign interference.
Framed this way, it’s not difficult to see who the villains are in this piece, and what lies at the root of the war—not a revolutionary eruption of civil society for democracy but a reactionary eruption of former colonial powers, in alliance with Wahhabi-inspired Islam, for renewed domination of Syria.
If the claim about the United States and its allies forging an alliance with Sunni sectarian Islamists seems extreme, consider this: In March, the Wall Street Journal quoted Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and now a member of the Israeli parliament, declaring that “If we had to choose between ISIS and Assad, we’ll take ISIS.”
Mainstream commentators, from journalists Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn of the Independent to Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad of the New York Times, along with the United States’ own Congressional Research Service, have either described the US-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria as largely symbolic or standing down when Islamic State attacks Syrian government forces. Washington is reluctant to stop ISIS from doing as much damage as it can in Syria, a form of collusion with the Wahhabi-inspired Sunni sectarians, in pursuit of a shared goal of ousting Assad, whose crime appears to be adherence to secular Arab nationalist goals of freedom from foreign interference, Arab unity, and socialism.
In a similar manner, British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, with an imperial arrogance befitting an official of the empire, told the New York Times last November that if al-Qaeda accepts the West’s conditions, it should be allowed to contribute to shaping Syria’s future, but not Assad, the elected president.
As for al Nusra, whose fighters are regularly patched up in Israeli hospitals and then sent back across the border to continue their fight against secularism and non-sectarianism, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have run article after article noting that US-trained rebels are enmeshed with, cooperating with, ideologically similar to, sharing arms with, and embedded with the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
None of this is lost on Stone, who blames Washington, and its military alliance NATO, for Syria’s tribulations. A “cabal of mainly western NATO countries with the help of various Arab monarchs” has “recruited, trained, and coordinated” the insurgents, he writes. NATO’s sponsorship of jihadists—whom Stone calls terrorist mercenaries—is the root cause, in his view, of the chaos that plagues the country.
Stone argues that a direct line of causation can be traced from another aspect of the chaos of Syria to the West’s interventionist policies in the Middle East, namely, the refugee crisis in Europe. “It’s no accident,” he writes, “that the wave of refugees that has literally washed ashore on the coastlines of Southern Europe, dead and alive, is composed mostly of Syrians, Libyans, and Afghanis, precisely the victims of NATO military interventions in those three countries.”
The implications for how to resolve the refugee crisis are clear, says Stone. The “lesson is that, if you don’t want to turn millions of innocent civilians into refugees and subsequently find them at your frontiers, you should oppose military interventions in other countries.”
This should resonate with Canadians, whose government has agreed to settle 25,000 refugees from the war-torn country. It is “a fine humanitarian gesture,” Stone notes, but is “treating the symptom rather than the disease.” The “war could end in months,” he predicts, “if the predominantly NATO countries, who have organized the aggression against Syria” brought an end to “their support of the foreign mercenaries operating in that country and leaned on Turkey and Jordan to close their borders to them.”
Stone fulminates against “otherwise intelligent people” who’ve fallen for the myth that the Syrian insurgency is a democratic uprising of civil society against a brutal dictator, rather than a regime change operation sponsored by Washington and its satellites, in the pattern of Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Honduras, Libya, and Somalia.
“It’s not as if Syria is the very first government targeted for regime change by the USA,” he writes. Still, “there is never a shortage of ‘leftists’ in the West who can be either bought or convinced through their incredible naïveté, warped political outlook, or Eurocentric arrogance, that the motives of the Empire are good,” he observes.
Stone reserves particular venom for an article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of The New Internationalist. A retired teacher colleague of Stone’s went out of his way to place a copy of the magazine, featuring the article “The forgotten revolution of Syria,” in Stone’s hands so he could read it in advance of his trip to Syria. Stone dismissed it as “shit.”
The Hamilton-based activist bids us to contrast “the hostile treatment with which the Canadian government unfairly treats the secular and pluralist Syrian government to the friendly treatment (including arms sales and an open invitation to fund mosques across Canada) it offers to the despotic and sectarian Saudi Arabian monarchy, the fountainhead of Wahhabi terrorism around the world.”
Stone also takes Ottawa to task for provide refuelling, reconnaissance, and transport aircraft services to the US-led Coalition, which violates Syria’s sovereignty by carrying out military operations in the country without the slightest regard for the wishes of Syrians or their elected government. This makes Canada “an accomplice, not directly involved in bombing Syria, but doing something akin to driving the getaway car rather than actually robbing the bank,” Stone observes.
The veteran leftist also faults the Canadian government for sending 800 Canadian military trainers to reinforce Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. He argues that this is part of an effort to detach the pro-West Kurdish north completely from Iraq by making it militarily independent of Baghdad.
Stone left Syria sanguine about its future. Restaurants and nightclubs filled with people at night, Syrians singing patriotic songs, dancing, and making ambitious plans to reconstruct their lives—all of this imbued him with a spirit of optimism about a country whose people continue to defy Western machinations to undermine their right to choose their own government, guide their economy in their own way, and choose their own future.
Defiant Syria is available online as an e-book or in paper by sending an e-mail to the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The book will be officially launched in Toronto on July 14. See here for details.