U.S. imperialist war in Syria: Acid test for antiwar movement

nov-2016-aleppo-aug-ameer-alhalbi-afpgettyBy JEFF MACKLER

A Sept. 6 New York Times article reporting on President Obama’s press conference at the end of the Group of 20 conference in China caught my eye. Noting Obama’s planned visit to Laos, The Times commented: “The United States and Laos have a difficult relationship that dates to the C.I.A.’s undeclared war in the 1960s and ’70s, when American warplanes dropped 270 million bombs on this country, many of which are still buried in fields and forests.”

Two hundred-seventy million bombs in an undeclared CIA war on a country with only seven million people! President Obama went to Laos to, among other things, apologize. Former president Bill Clinton similarly apologized to Guatemala during his presidency for the CIA’s secret war supporting that nation’s dictatorship, which slaughtered 400,000 indigenous Guatemalans. There have been no apologies for the 10-year U.S. mass slaughter in Vietnam that murdered four million Vietnamese, mostly civilians and with poison gas, napalm and saturation bombing.

There have been no apologies for the secret U.S.-orchestrated coup that overthrew the elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi monarchy. No apologies when the U.S.-financed the Saddam Hussein government’s 10-year war, 1980-88, against Iran when the Iranian masses overthrew that monarchy in 1979. One million Iranians died in that U.S.-abetted war.

Need we recount further the history of U.S. imperialism’s wars of annihilation, conquest, “regime change,” covert and overt? Was there one where the U.S. government stood on the side of humanity? One?

“In Somalia, U.S. Escalates a Shadow War,” was the title of an Oct. 16, 2016, New York Times article that read: “The Somalia campaign [where U.S. Special Forces bomb “terrorists” with impunity to protect alleged U.S. ‘national interests—J.M.] is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa—from Syria to Libya—despite the president’s stated aversion to American ‘boots on the ground’ in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more” (emphasis added).

But maybe Syria today is the exception to this “model.” Could it be that the combined forces of U.S. imperialism, NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the rest of the Gulf State monarchies, are on the side of truth and justice in Syria? Are they there, as they claim, to protect the defenseless people of Aleppo from indiscriminate civilian bombing by the Bashar Assad government and Russia? This is the view of the corporate media that daily blares headlines that Assad and Russia are guilty of war crimes, of violations of international law, of starving civilian populations, of bombing courageous rebel fighters and civilians in a civil war with American truth and justice on one side and a Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah cabal of mass murderers on the other.

Tragically, it is also the view of a small section of so-called antiwar activists and socialist organizations who, to date, have failed to mount a single action against the U.S. war on Syria, a war that in all its fundamentals is indistinguishable from the U.S. wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and all the others.

But as with any new war, and they seem endless in the lexicon of U.S. atrocities, facts are invaluable in establishing what is actually taking place in Syria today. Curiously, my sources are from the chief propaganda voice and supposedly “internationally respected” New York Times. Much of the material, usually buried deep in the general pro-U.S. imperialist Times narrative, deals with the “negotiations” between the U.S. and Russia regarding the “rebel” evacuation of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial center until it was overrun by ISIS and the Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. The latter is the U.S.-designated terrorist group whose forces, as we shall demonstrate, with the help of the New York Times, are inextricably linked to the U.S.-armed and financed “rebels.”

  • “The rebels involved in the operation [in northern Syria] appeared to be mainly from the groups fighting to unseat Mr. Assad that the United States, Turkey and other allies support through a covert operations center in Turkey…” The Aug. 24 Times article continues: “Turkish officials were adamant that they would continue operations in Syria until they had neutralized what they see as threats against national security.”

Months earlier, The Times reported Pentagon figures that the flow of foreign [ISIS] fighters into Syria via Turkish-abetted corridors had been 2000 monthly. Turkey, in collaboration with the U.S., then sought the removal of the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.

  • ‘“The fighters attacking the [Syrian] regime from inside and outside Aleppo fought fiercely, knowing that this battle was a fateful one and would lift the siege on their families and children,’ said Zakaria Malahifji, the political chief of a rebel group backed by the C.I.A. and its counterparts in European and Arab states” (New York Times, Aug. 12, 2016, emphasis added).
  • “But spearheading the rebel effort were hard-line Islamist groups including the Levant Conquest Front, which has been affiliated with Al Qaeda for years and only recently changed its name and claimed to have become independent. While American officials dismissed the rebranding, saying the group did not change its ideology or its goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria, analysts said it allowed the jihadists to work more closely with other rebel groups, blurring the lines between them (New York Times, Aug. 25, 2016, emphasis added).
  • “The jihadists’ prominent role in the Aleppo offensive showed that they remain militarily indispensable to the wider rebel movement and increased their popularity at time when many Syrians [unnamed] criticize the United States for not doing more to protect Syrian civilians” (New York Times, Aug. 25, 2016).
  • “The Nusra Front has been one of the most effective anti-Assad forces, and because of that United States-backed rebel groups often coordinate their activities with its units. Russia has argued that means that Washington is effectively supporting Nusra, and that the American-backed groups are legitimate targets. So a joint campaign against Nusra would not only appear to concede Russia’s point, but could also bring American firepower to bear against the strongest anti-Assad military force and a sometime partner of Washington’s allies” (New York Times, July 14, 2016, emphasis added).
  • “Up to now, the United States has carried out occasional strikes against what have been described as senior Qaeda figures in Syria. But it has refrained from systematic attacks against the Nusra Front, whose ranks are heavily Syrian, including many who left less extreme rebel groups because Nusra was better armed and financed” (New York Times, July 14, 2016).
  • “Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, was also critical of the proposed military coordination with the Russians. He said that combined attacks against Nusra would effectively end the Syrian opposition, cementing Mr. Assad’s grip on power and enraging most Syrians” (New York Times, July 14, 2016, emphasis added).
  • “The Syrian government and its allies have often referred to all rebel fighters as belonging to the Nusra Front, while opposition fighters have said that they will not renounce tactical alliances with the Qaeda-linked group without new arms [from the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf State monarchies] or guarantees” (New York Times, Oct. 18, 2016).
  • “The new offensive [in Aleppo] was a strong sign that rebel groups vetted by the United States were continuing their tactical alliances with groups linked to Al Qaeda, rather than distancing themselves as Russia has demanded and the Americans have urged. … The rebels argue that they cannot afford to shun any potential allies while they are under fire, including well-armed and motivated jihadists, without more robust aid from their international backers. … Those taking part in the offensive include the Levant Conquest Front, a militant group formerly known as the Nusra Front that grew out of Al Qaeda; another hard-line Islamist faction, Ahrar al-Sham; and other rebel factions fighting Mr. Assad that have been vetted by the United States and its allies” (“Syrian Rebels Launch Offensive to Break Siege of Aleppo,” by Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2016, emphasis added).
  • The same article reports, “Eleven of the roughly 20 rebel groups conducting the offensive have been vetted by the C.I.A. and have received arms from the agency, including anti-tank missiles, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow and Syria specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington.”

The article continues: “A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment on any armed assistance to the rebels, which, although it has been well publicized, is also still technically a covert program” (emphasis added). … “Mr. Lister and other analysts said the vast majority of the American-vetted rebel factions in Aleppo were fighting inside the city itself and conducting significant bombardments against Syrian government troops in support of the Qaeda-affiliated fighters carrying out the brunt of front-line fighting.”

And further: “’The unfortunate truth, however, is that these U.S.-backed groups remain somewhat dependent upon the Al Qaeda linked groups for organization and firepower in these operations,’ said Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. In addition to arms provided by the United States, much of the rebels’ weaponry comes from regional states, like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Lister said, including truck-borne multiple-rocket launcher systems and Czech-made Grad rockets with extended ranges.”

Need we say more? Few, if any, informed sources doubt that the U.S. government is central to the organization, arming, financing, directing, and perpetuating the war in Syria to remove the Syrian government. It has been so since early 2012—that is, shortly after the entirely justified mass demonstrations against the Assad dictatorship’s imposition of neo-liberal “reforms” that cut deep into the well-being of Syrian farmers and outraged democratically-minded forces. Tragically, in short order, and especially with the Assad government’s firing on and arresting en masse peaceful demonstrators, the extremely limited and virtually leaderless mobilizations devolved into a U.S.-abetted “regime change” war, almost immediately involving massive ISIS and Al Qaida forces.

In a matter of a year, the latter well-armed and financed groups had literally occupied and conquered close to two-thirds of Syria while imposing reactionary jihadist-fundamentalist military rule virtually everywhere. Indeed, in October 2015, the Al-Qaida forces came close to conquering the entire Syrian nation—with militarized strongholds deeply established in the outskirts of the capital city, Damascus. It was only in recent months that in Daraya, for example, from which “rebels” daily launched artillery bombardments on downtown Damacus, negotiated agreements allowed for the “rebels” to evacuate unharmed. The same with another major Syrian city, Homs. Clearly, the Syrian government-requested Russian intervention had turned the tide.

But today, despite negotiated ceasefire agreements to similarly allow for the evacuation, through free passage corridors of Eastern Aleppo, of “rebels” and civilians alike, Al Qaida forces aimed at continuing the fighting and pressing for more U.S. weapons, have literally resorted to shooting residents who attempt to leave. During one of the several negotiated ceasefire periods, U.S. warplanes, “accidently,” so U.S. officials claim, bombed Syrian Army soldiers, killing civilians as well.

Syria’s right to self-determination

The intervention of Russia, as well as others invited by the Syrian government to intervene on its behalf (Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah) have been central to the present and often heated polemics issuing from currents on the U.S. left who reject any characterization of the war as a U.S. imperialist onslaught. Instead, these currents stand firmly opposed to united front mass action mobilizations that demand “U.S. Out Now!” and “Self-determination for Syria!” What is transpiring in Syria, they insist, is a civil war between the Syrian dictatorship on the one hand, and a fully justified popular rebellion on the other.

Others in this camp often argue that Syria today is the scene of a “proxy war” between U.S. imperialism and “Russian imperialism.” In accord with this view, the U.S. antiwar movement must condemn “both sides” equally and demand that both leave Syria. Further, they insist that “Down with Assad” must be a central antiwar movement demand.

Revolutionary socialists, on the other hand, stand in unqualified opposition to these views. In accord with our unconditional support to the historic right of oppressed nations to self-determination, we demand “U.S. Out Now!” This unconditional right to self-determination, from the time of and in the revolutionary tradition of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky to today, extends to all poor and oppressed nations, including those led by dictators, like Bashar Assad, or to Iraq when the U.S. invaded that nation, then under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It applies to the U.S. and to all imperialist interventions in Africa and Latin America today, whether or not any of these poor and formerly colonized nations are led by “democrats” or “dictators.” The job of dealing with tyrants, in our view, resides only with the oppressed people of the world and never with imperialist oppressors and interveners.

Whatever “rebel” forces exist in Syria today, and shortly after the earliest stages of the mass anti-Assad protests that began in late 2011 are armed, financed, and organized by U.S. imperialism, NATO, Turkey, and their reactionary Gulf State surrogates, including ISIS and the Al Qaida-affiliated Nursa Front.

Following the “successful” U.S. slaughter and “regime change” in Libya, where the U.S./NATO “humanitarian war” destroyed the infrastructure of that country and killed thousands, U.S. imperialism set its sights on replacing the Assad government with one of its choosing. As with Libya, the U.S. proved to have no significant “democratically minded” allies in this venture. In addition to its own Special Operation killers, and covertly trained forces, in conjunction with its “coalition” allies (NATO, Turkey and the Gulf State monarchies), it provided massive aid to the “rebels” we have described in detail above. As a direct result, until the October 2015 Russian intervention, the above forces were on the verge of conquering all of Syria.

In our view, the right to self-determination necessarily includes the right of oppressed nations to request intervention from other nations—in the case of Syria, the intervention of Russia, Iran, and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. This intervention, despite the intentions of capitalist Russia to use their new influence to seek a “negotiated” settlement, perhaps at the expense of Syria’s sovereignty, has had the effect of thwarting U.S. imperialism’s overt conquest of Syria. It has forced the retreat of ISIS, the Nusra Front, and the U.S.-backed “rebels,” all of which ceaselessly demand U.S. imperialist arms and intervention.

There is no doubt that Russian capitalism today has its own objectives in Syria, almost all of which center on a negotiated deal wherein the U.S. and the European Union will lessen the daily-increasing imperialist encirclement of Russia and ease up on the economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its opposition to the U.S.-backed fascist-led coup in Ukraine. While the Putin capitalist government is more than capable of negotiating away Syria’s right to self-determination, today its actions in Syria have had the effect of preventing a direct and immediate U.S. and allied conquest and occupation. This, in itself, however modest but important, is a gain for the Syrian people. It widens opportunities for future Syrian revolutionary socialist fighters to organize their own forces that stand opposed not only to all imperialist intervention but also against any capitalist government in Syria, including Assad’s.

Today, once again mired in a seemingly endless war in the Middle East, despised by all who have the vaguest memory of present and past imperialist wars of conquest and without any “reliable” allies on the ground, U.S. warmakers today seek a “negotiated” variant of their previous insistence on “regime change,” that is, President Assad’s removal.

I conclude this argument with reference to an important Sept. 30, 2016, New York Times article entitled, “Audio Reveals What John Kerry Told Syrians Behind Closed Doors.” Its author, Anne Barnard, The Times Middle East Bureau Chief, writes: “Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly exasperated, not least at his own government. Over and over again, he complained to a small group of [20] Syrian civilians [at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations on Sept. 22] that his diplomacy had not been backed by a serious threat of military force, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.

Barnard explains, “At the meeting last week, Mr. Kerry was trying to explain that the United States has no legal justification for attacking Mr. Assad’s government, whereas Russia was invited in by the government.” Kerry added another reason for his discouraging these Syrian civilians regarding their demands for more overt U.S. intervention. “A lot of Americans don’t believe that we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country,” he added.

Barnard reports that the secret recording included Kerry’s outlining U.S. plans to press for “free elections” to be supervised by “regional powers and the United Nations” that would include all Syrian refugees. In contrast to President Obama’s longstanding “Assad must go” policy, the “elections” Kerry outlined would allow for President Assad’s participation but, as with all imperialist supervised elections, his assured defeat.

After more than five-years of U.S.-orchestrated war in Syria, marked by an estimated 500,000 dead and nearly half the nation’s people displaced or in exile, the chief U.S. imperialist spokesman revealed today’s updated U.S. policy objectives, presumably to be achieved by further Special Forces operations, continued overt aid to all who seek Assad’s removal, and supplying just enough aid to the “rebels” to “keep the war going,” according to The Times, in anticipation of an eventual negotiated settlement.

Needless to say, a principled U.S. antiwar movement must reject any and all “rights” of U.S. imperialism and its “coalition partners” to negotiate any aspect of Syria’s future. Central to the construction of a powerful and united antiwar today, fully capable of staying the hand of the U.S. warmakers and mobilizing tens and hundreds of thousands to do so, are two demands: U.S. Out Now! and Self-determination for Syria!

Photo: Young girl is wounded in August 2016 bombing attack on eastern Aleppo by Syrian government planes. Ameer al-Halbi / AFP / Getty Images