By Paul Roberts
Whilst President Obama tries to tie down support this week in advance of forthcoming Congressional votes, the US military is preparing an immense assault on Syria. US imperialism does not make idle threats, so it intends that the attack will proceed. Members of Congress are being told that a ‘no-vote’ next week, against air-strikes, would catastrophically weaken the US for years to come.
A colossal war machine is being readied; aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, air force bombers, artillery and munitions have all been marshalled around Syria’s borders. Twice as many warships have already amassed in the eastern Mediterranean than were deployed when imperialism assaulted Libya in 2011. Hundreds of cruise missiles are ready to fire at Syria’s military infrastructure; to destroy its weapons and command and control centres. Israel and the US this week have even been testing their missile systems off Syria’s coast.
Imperialism’s frequent military assaults in the Middle East are not remotely battles between equals and this one is no different. Some idea of just how mismatched the military capacities are is indicated by difference in military spending: the US spends 305 times as much as Syria, France spends 26 times as much. (Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2013 Yearbook)
The chemical weapons pretext
The proposed war is not about chemical weapons. Quite irrespective of whether the Assad regime used them or not, imperialism’s goal had been to remove the regime. The US is planning a substantial intervention in Syria with the aim of qualitatively reducing Assad’s military and assisting the opposition forces. Hence the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to support up to 90 days of attacks.
On this occasion the US has sourced its ‘evidence’ from the very same intelligence agencies (Israeli and Saudi) that are so determinedly campaigning for war.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s presentations on Syria are even vaguer than those of his predecessor Colin Powell. In 2003 Powell infamously made the US case for invading Iraq at the UN, where he played tapes of intercepted Iraqi communications to bolster his story. Subsequently the US/British pretext for war, Iraq’s so called ‘weapons of mass destruction’, was exposed as entirely fake – no such weapons existed.
Now, in relation to Syria, the US has not produced its ‘evidence’. It cites Syrian communications intercepts as proof, but has not made them available.
There is a credible report, here, of witnesses attributing the recent chemical attack to Saudi-armed opposition fighters. One of the article’s reporters, Dale Gavlak, is a long time Associated Press journalist who has also done work for the BBC. Such evidence of what may have happened is barely being aired in the Western media.
The US claims opposition fighters have no access to sarin, despite repeated reports to the contrary. In May a leading member of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated there was evidence of opposition use of sarin.
Later in May the Al-Nusra front, one of the main Al Qaeda groups fighting in Syria, was caught by Turkish authorities with two kilograms of sarin.
Cui bono – who benefits
As many commentators point out, it makes no sense for the Syrian government itself to have used chemical weapons at a time when it is winning the war and understands the US threats to attack it in the event of their use. Even if it were proved that a lower level Syrian commander than Assad took such a decision, then the appropriate demand would be for their severe punishment, not an all out attack on Syria.
But in actually it makes more sense for those who want the US military to attack Syria to use such weapons.
The Syrian government stands to lose so much in an imperialist bombing campaign that only the opposition can gain.
That the imperialists present chemical weapons use as a pretext for war is sheer hypocrisy. As set out here, the US, Britain and Israel, along with the governments supplied by them, have been extensive users of chemical agents and weapons. This past 50 years hundreds of thousands have been killed and maimed due to US use of Agent Orange, white phosphorus and depleted uranium. Israel and the US still use these weapons in the Middle East.
The Imperialist alliance against Syria’s government
The only reason US imperialism has hesitated even until now to attack Syria is that its principal foreign policy priorities are shifting from the Middle East. This is also determining its tactics. Since 2011 US imperialism has been rebalancing its diplomatic and military resources to the Asia Pacific region, in what it calls the ‘pivot’, so as to confront China which it regards as its number one adversary.
China’s economy continues to grow fast and will overtake the US in size within 10 years. Its industrial production is now 20 per cent greater than the US. That is why China has become the prime concern of US imperialism.
So whilst the US will continue involvement in permanent warfare, to increase its Pacific deployments it necessarily has to reduce them in the Middle East and Central Asia. Invasions like Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), which commit tens of thousands of US occupation troops, are no longer practical for the US in the Middle East. It will engage in time-limited air campaigns, as with Libya, and keeps pressing its European allies to take more of imperialism’s military strain in this region.
The European states are currently weakened by economic stagnation and in any event lack the capacity to lead the offensive against Syria. So the US has been centrally coordinating the past two years’ covert and overt military operations against the Syrian government.
The US’s key allies in this offensive are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel wants to overthrow Assad as it will strategically weaken its Lebanese opponent Hezbollah. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia want a weakened Iran.
Without greater US military intervention, the Western-backed opposition fighters have been facing possible defeat. These past six months they have suffered a string of reversals, following Hezbollah engaging in the battles against the opposition forces. That and the Syrian government’s superior conventional weaponry have been the key reasons for the government’s recent advances.
The advantage Syria has in weaponry – aircraft, tanks and missiles – has already been targeted by Israeli air-strikes this year but only a small part destroyed. Now the US plans to seriously weaken the rest and tip the military balance decisively against the government.
Why attack now
The need to remove the Assad regime became urgent for imperialism this summer. Imperialism believes it may face difficulties consolidating the recent coup it backed in Egypt. The Mubarakists, returned to power, only have a minority base in society, the alliance that backed their coup has already started fraying at the edges, so imperialism fears it faces continued instability in Egypt. This problem for the US-Israel-Saudi bloc in the region is exacerbated with Damascus against them. So the Assad regime’s rapid removal is now being sought.
With this urgency driving the situation, things have moved fast since Egypt’s coup. The US installed a new war operations centre in Jordan in July to direct the forthcoming assault on Syria. Then in August it launched the public campaign for immediate war, linked to the chemical weapons allegations.
Reservations within the imperialist camp
Whilst imperialism favours replacing an independent regime with a pure Western client, there are also some even with the imperialist camp who doubt that this is possible. Significant voices in the US and British military establishments have warned against the forthcoming action, for fear that Al Qaeda will be strengthened by the overthrowing Assad.
The concern is that the West may face similar problems to those still unfolding in Libya. Since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 a stable Western client state has not been established. In the absence of imperialist armies occupying the country, pro-Western Libyan forces have proved too weak to establish control. With Gaddafi’s nationalist forces liquidated, Libya has been overrun by competing militias, many allied to Al Qaeda. Last year’s killing of the US Ambassador and staff at the US diplomatic mission at Benghazi was one indication of the West’s problems.
At present in Syria the most successful opposition military forces are those linked to Al Qaeda. These concerns within imperialist circles are reflected in the media and articulated in bourgeois politics. They have been most clearly spelt out by the military.
In mid-August, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey stated that the US can destroy the Syrian Air Force and shift the military balance in favour of the opposition. But he did not consider this would help the US, saying that air-strikes might ‘inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control’.
Also in August Britain’s chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton made clear his misgivings about entering this conflict, even if it was proved Assad was behind the chemical attack. Likewise General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British army, consistently opposes attacking Syria at this point.
Without an imperialist occupation, taking control on the ground, there is no confidence Assad would be replaced with a fully reliable Western client.
Bombing lacks international support
For similar reasons the Egyptian Army, recently returned to government in July’s military coup, is against US air-strikes. For reasons of its own survival it opposes radical Islamic forces more than it does Assad.
Egypt along with Iraq and Lebanon blocked the Arab League from supporting a US bombing campaign that it is not endorsed by the UN.
In Europe only France is planning to join the air-strikes. Both Germany and Italy, whilst assisting the overall intervention, have declined taking part in bombing.
The British government, which wants to join the air-strikes, was dramatically defeated in its parliament.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly states that the use of force is only legal when it is in self-defence or with UN Security Council authorisation, so there will be no UN cover for this action.
The US policy of permanent war has now confronted a hostile public opinion across the imperialist countries. A consistent majority in the US, France and Britain opposes the planned air-strikes.
The British government defeat on air-strikes
Prime Minister Cameron’s 29 August defeat, by 272 to 285 votes, on a motion to support possible military action against Syria, was a significant blow to the US war drive and no doubt influenced Obama’s decision to seek Congressional authorisation.
Whilst the coalition government has an effective majority of 84, 30 Tories and 8 Lib Dems opposed the government plus a further 34 Tories abstained or were absent plus 12 Lib Dems did likewise. Unlike previous votes on war issues, since 2010, the Labour opposition did not back the government, but put forward its own amendment, which also was defeated.
Cameron immediately announced Britain would not participate in the bombing.
The anti-war movement, led by the Stop the War Coalition, greatly contributed to this government defeat. For 10-plus years it has persistently campaigned against the Britain’s foreign military ventures. All those who built this movement have played a role in ensuring for the first time in a century the UK parliament voted against a major US foreign policy.
The vote is another marker in British imperialism’s 140 year long decline and has weakened a government that spent two years pressing the US for greater military action against Syria.
But it must not be imagined the British imperialists have given up. The pro-war lobby in Britain wants the decision re-visited and is looking for other ways for Britain to militarily aid the opposition.
Obama seeks Congressional authorisation
In part due to Britain’s withdrawal, the US is more isolated on the air-strikes. Bar France there are no significant international forces joining its campaign. So Obama needs domestic political backing for the action. He is seeking Congressional authorisation so that the Senate and House of Representativeness, Republicans and Democrats, join him in assuming responsibility for the attack. The White House does not anticipate losing the forthcoming votes, but has to campaign hard against significant anti-bombing currents on the left and right.
Confusion on the left
Those on the left who have mistakenly viewed the past two years’ battles in Syria as a progressive revolution, and therefore backed the opposition fighters, now confront the reality that they are on the same side as the imperialists who are launching this bombing campaign.
The alliance of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia with opposition fighters in Syria has been and remains an objectively counter-revolutionary bloc. It is more reactionary than the Assad regime. Should it succeed in overthrowing Assad, not only the population of Syria, but the whole Middle East, will be set back. Hezbollah would lose access to weapons needed to defend Lebanon from Israel. Hamas would be further isolated and Iran would lose its principal regional ally.
Undoubtedly, the Assad dictatorship has not been progressive, but the current choice facing the Middle East is not between that regime and socialism. Unfortunately it is a choice between the forces allied with the current government and imperialism, and the latter will both seek to weaken the forces confronting Israel and may let the country be destroyed by the type of sectarian chaos unleashed in Libya.
Supporting the replacement of the Assad regime with imperialism is analogous to getting rid of a small time criminal by bringing in the mafia. Hopefully left currents allied with the opposition fighters will now break away from the side of imperialism.
Stop the war
The US and its allies have for two years blocked all efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Whilst feeding in the fighters and arms across the borders, imperialism has ensured that international attempts to start any negotiations would be blocked. At every stage, pre-conditions have been placed on having talks, such as insisting the Assad government or Iran cannot take part.
At this late stage the call for a negotiated peace with no preconditions for these negotiations remains an important demand.
But with the US on course to imminently start air-strikes building international opposition to this war must be the priority. All those who oppose this war, which will include wide ranging views on the situation in Syria and the Middle East, need to be mobilised.