EVIDENCE OF a horrific chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime against civilians has revived liberal calls for “humanitarian” intervention by the U.S. military–despite the U.S. armed forces’ own recent record of mass death and destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
For example, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that President Barack Obama should “punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime with a military strike” because “any government or group that employs chemical weapons must be made to suffer real consequences. Obama should uphold this principle by destroying some of Assad’s military assets with cruise missiles.” “[S]omebody,” says Robinson, “has to be the world’s policeman.”
The New York Times editorial board cautioned against an open-ended intervention, but said that because Obama had made the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would trigger a U.S. response, the president now had to “follow through.” In other words, the credibility of the U.S. empire is now on the line, so a military strike is unavoidable, according to the Times.
But the threatened U.S. military attack on Syria is motivated solely by Washington’s imperial aims in the Middle East, not by any desire to save civilians from further repression by a brutal regime. The U.S. objective is to contain and roll back the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring, a project it shares with allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf State monarchies and, now, the Egyptian military that has reasserted its power.
CERTAINLY THE U.S. hasn’t been stirred to consider military action by the fact that Syrians are dying in large numbers. An estimated 100,000 have perished since the revolution against the Assad regime began in March 2011–the overwhelming majority of them civilians killed at the hands of Assad’s forces.
At least 1,000 people have died in the Ghouta region from the chemical weapons attack, almost certainly sarin gas. Yet it wasn’t the horror of the weapons that caused Washington to prepare military action. As the Foreign Policy website reported August 26, “[A] generation ago, America’s military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen”–when Iraq, led by then-U.S. ally Saddam Hussein, used such weapons against Iran in the 1980-88 Gulf War.
What U.S. politicians and the Pentagon fear most is that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would mean they could be used against Syria’s neighbor–and the chief U.S. ally in the region–Israel, as well as any international “peacekeeping” forces in a post-Assad Syria. In fact, the prospect of Islamist fighters getting control of chemical weapons is a key factor in the U.S. hesitation to provide the opposition with the heavy weaponry it has long sought.
What’s more, the U.S., still struggling to recover from its failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is highly reluctant to put forces on the ground in Syria. Even a Libya-style bombing campaign seems unlikely for now, because of Syria’s sophisticated, Russian-supplied air defense systems. Establishing a no-fly zone, as in Iraq after the first Gulf War, would require a long-term bombing campaign, with likely losses of U.S. aircraft and personnel. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in July that an effort to “prevent the regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply” would cost “$500 million initially…[and] as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.”
Politicians and military leaders appear to have reached a consensus on a limited attack with Tomahawk missiles fired from warships and submarines. The reported intention is to pressure Assad into foregoing the use of chemical weapons and to keep the war from widening the refugee crisis that has already forced 1.7 million people–including 1 million children–out of the country and internally displaced another 2 million children.
U.S. policymakers, however, are not only worried about al-Qaeda-linked jihadists taking power. They’re also concerned that the revolutionary movement, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), will bring to power a popular democratic government in the wake of Assad.
As Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current points out, the LCCs are the wellspring of the revolutionary movement and have challenged the Islamists’ repression and attempts to impose sharia law on areas they control. “Our choice should not be to choose between on one side the U.S.A. and Saudi Arabia, and on the other side Iran and Russia. Our choice is revolutionary masses struggling for their emancipation,” Daher said in an interview with an Australian socialist group.
U.S. policy, therefore, is contradictory. It tolerated Gulf state Qatar’s support for Islamist fighters even while declaring the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra to be a “terrorist” organization. Washington has also insisted that Islamists take a back seat in the latest version of the mainstream Syrian opposition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The U.S. and its ally Turkey, moreover, have blocked heavy weapons from reaching the fragmented opposition.
The bottom line is that the U.S. would like to contain the civil war in Syria, hoping for an outcome acceptable in Washington–like an ex-general taking power who can preserve as much as possible of the existing state.
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THE CHEMICAL weapons massacre, however, complicates U.S. plans.
The mass killing in Ghouta was so awful that it forced the debate on Syria to a head. The warheads filled with sarin gas were targeted not at rebel fighters, but women and children in their beds. Their lungs filled with fluid, suffocating them. Hundreds more suffered severe and crippling injuries. Anyone with a sense of justice will be incensed by such a calculated effort to terrorize a vulnerable civilian population.
Now Western politicians are cynically trying to turn this horror to their political advantage. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande are joining Obama in preparing the ground for military intervention.
Secretary of State John Kerry played to the outrage over the use of chemical weapons when he denounced the Syrian regime: “As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a father who held up his dead child, wailing,” he said.
But Kerry lacks credibility when it comes to speaking out against the savagery of the Assad regime. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he made outreach to Syria a personal project, in the name of encouraging Assad’s pro-market economic reforms. Even after the regime moved to repress pro-democracy protests in early 2011, Kerry continued to praise Assad as a reformer.
The scale of Assad’s repression led Barack Obama to call for Assad’s downfall two years ago. But since the U.S. was unwilling to intervene to oust him, Assad has been able to hang on, thanks in large part to political, military and economic aid from allies–mainly Russia, but also Iran, along with the Hezbollah movement in neighboring Lebanon, which has joined directly in the war. With the U.S. making it clear to Assad that he had no political future, his regime has dug in and carried out steadily more savage repression.
Key to Assad’s staying power is his ability to whip up fears among ethnic and religious minorities that they will be slaughtered if Sunni Islamist groups come to power–as well as his claim to be the defender of the Syrian nation against foreign powers.
A U.S.-led military strike will not only add to the killing, but will play into the hands of the regime as it uses nationalist appeals to justify still more barbaric repression. Already, the U.S. and its ally Turkey are trying to bring Syrian Kurds into the embrace of the pro-U.S. regime in Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. intervention will only aggravate ethnic and sectarian violence, as it did in Iraq, which is suffering through the worst sectarian violence since 2008.
While Western imperialist powers and their regional allies might like to see Assad go, they are willing to tolerate his rule for now in order to foreclose the possibility of revolutionary change in Syria. As the Revolutionary Left Current put it in a statement after the Ghouta attack:
“Our revolution has no sincere ally, except for the revolutions of the peoples of the region and the world and the militants who work to free themselves from obscurantist, oppressive and exploitative regimes.”
Written by Lee Sustar for SocialistWorker.org