War in Syria Postponed

by Barry Sheppard

September 13, 2013

Russia’s proposal, accepted by the Assad regime, for Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to an international authority (presumably the United Nations) for destruction, has temporarily put off once again Washington’s plans to unleash war against Syria. Obama has postponed asking Congress to approve of his plans to attack Syria. This represents a political defeat for the war drive. Even if Washington scuttles the proposed agreement and goes ahead with war, it will do so with even less support at home and abroad than it had before the Russian proposal.

The main force that has blocked the proposed attack has been the opposition of the peoples of the world and especially of the United States. In spite of massive pressure from the U.S., in the face of mass opposition of their own citizens few countries have backed bombing Syria, and only one has fully said it would participate militarily. That is Saudia Arabia, a well-known bastion of liberal democracy and human rights.

Obama could not even arm twist NATO into compliance. British Prime Minister David Cameron felt the heat so much he took the question to Parliament, which defeated his motion to join in the bombing campaign. Initially supporting Obama, French President Hollande got cold feet and postponed a decision. Hollande and Cameron are competing for the post of European lap-dog to the White House, but neither could deliver.

David Cameron struggles to convince Parliament to support intervention.

In the wake of his defeat in the British Parliament, and facing overwhelming opposition to the proposed bombing campaign at home, Obama decided to take the matter to Congress. On the eve of the Russian proposal, the vote in the Senate was still undecided, while it looked like it would go down to defeat in the House. To understand why there has been so much opposition in the U.S., we have to examine what has changed since the early 2000’s, when there was initially mass support for the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq once the shooting started. Much of what has changed for the U.S. population applies also to the rest of the world.

The first thing to note is the experience of those wars themselves. After over a decade of U.S. bombing and occupation, both Afghanistan and Iraq remain torn by sectarian violence, much of it actually instigated by the U.S. In Iraq, Washington came down with a heavy hand against the Sunnis, and installed a Shiite government. In Afghanistan, it backed the Northern Alliance group of nationalities against the Pashtuns. Both countries have had their infrastructures severely damaged. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions displaced. They are riddled with corruption, and can hardly be called democracies.

Washington promised the U.S. people that these wars would be quickly over, with crowds of grateful Iraqis and Afghans greeting the U.S. troops with flowers and waving American flags. What they got instead was years and years of grinding warfare, and hatred of the U.S. from all sides, and fierce resistance to the occupations. Then there is the torture, renditions, indefinite detentions, Guatanamo, etc.

What the American people saw was the price they paid for these debacles. Thousands of U.S. soldiers killed, and hundreds of thousands maimed or severely damaged mentally. The cost in treasure is over $1 trillion. Is it any wonder that most Americans don’t want to repeat that experience in Syria?

What about Libya? There was no U.S. occupation, but the “humanitarian” bombing has left the country a shambles, with warring armed groups, no central government, an attack on a U.S. Embassy, and oil production down to 10-20 percent of prewar levels. Not inspiring to Americans, either.

Then there is the other major difference between the early 2000s and today – the financial collapse of 2007, the deep recession and the recovery for profits but not for workers and other producers. This situation is the major preoccupation for most Americans. Who wants to spend more billions on another war when there is high unemployment and underemployment, wages are falling, schools closing, other government services being cut back, college tuition rising, and so forth?

Protestors express their opposition to Obama’s proposal.

To top it off, Manning and Snowden have demonstrated war crimes and lies and cover-ups, massive spying on all Americans, and attempts by Washington to keep all of this secret. There is great distrust of Washington and whatever the politicians say. For these and other reasons, the White House has attempted to reassure everyone that the proposed campaign against Syria will “not be another Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya” to paraphrase Obama. There will only be a short “shot across the bow” to punish Assad.

But “shots across the bow” are warning shots that do not hit the boat. Obama promises to bombard Syria, not to fire warning shots. Moreover, his message has been all over the place. He says that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground.” But when John Kerry, his Secretary of State, was questioned on this in a Congressional hearing, he refused to “take off the table” the threat of the use of troops. Obama says the strikes are not aimed at overthrowing the Syrian regime, but his stated position has been for two years to do just that. He says he doesn’t want to interfere in the Syrian civil war, but then reassured Senatorial hawks McCain and Graham that the bombing he proposes will change the relation of forces on the ground by significantly degrading the Syrian military.

The resolution he sent to congress for approval was for an open-ended war, without a time limit or any other limit, directly contrary to what he says to the American public. No wonder the public is skeptical.

Obama has made his case around Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His only aim, he says, is to prevent their further use. The hypocrisy of this stance is shown by the U.S.’s use of Agent Orange against food crops and foliage during the Vietnam War. Over 400,000 people were killed or maimed in Vietnam as a result of this chemical warfare, and 500,000 children have born so far with birth defects. It also blew back on U.S. troops, sickening tens of thousands.

The U.S. also was directly involved in Saddam Hussein’s use of Sarin and other poison gases in the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi war against the Iranian revolution. Thousands were gassed to death, including Iraqi Kurds, whom Hussein believed were siding with Iran, a toll many orders of magnitude higher than what has occurred in Syria. In the present situation the most glaring hypocrisy is Obama’s failing to mention Israel’s stockpile of poison gases ready to be used against the rest of the Middle East.

The issue of chemical weapons is a pretext. Washington’s real war aims in Syria and the whole region include thwarting the aspirations of the peoples there for democracy, peace, and a better life as evidenced in the Arab Spring, and to impose pro-Western regimes. That’s why it backs Egypt’s new military dictatorship. It wants to weaken Iran, and eventually install once again the type of subservient regime they had under the Shah. It wants to weaken and then destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The immediate goal in Syria is to change the military relation of forces on the ground in the hope of imposing a puppet regime there, in pursuit of these broader objectives. This may be a vain hope, given the nature of many of the strongest Syrian armed groups fighting Assad, and the likelihood that a U.S. bombing campaign will lead to greater sectarian warfare among Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians and Kurds.

Putin and Assad.

However, since the public position Obama has put forward is the chemical weapons issue, the Russian proposal could be a way for Obama to back away from his predicament in face of international and domestic opposition to his war plans. Right now, though, he and his allies on the UN Security Council are pushing for a resolution that would commit the UN to back a U.S. strike if the result of the negotiations is not to Washington’s liking. That cannot pass the Security Council due to Russia’s opposition.

While the outcome of all this won’t be clarified for weeks, we have to remain vigilant and press forward the demand of “no” to the war against Syria.

Barry Sheppard is a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area. He has written a two-volume political biography about his time as a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He writes a weekly letter from the U.S. for the Australian Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alternative magazine, where this article also appears.