Syria: Obama drums up support for war aims

Polls show majority opposition to imperialist military action

Ahead of the US Congressional debates next week on US-led military action against Syria, President Obama indicated on 3 September that his plans go beyond “limited and proportional” attacks to “degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities” and involve a wider longer-term strategy to bring about ‘regime change’.

Following the setback to Obama’s war plans last week, when Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron was defeated and humiliated in a Commons vote over British armed forces participating in attacking Syria, the US administration is busy trying to drum up support for their planned military action. The international right wing mass media has stoked up pro-imperialist propaganda and justifications for a new war against a Middle East state. Obama is visiting Europe, starting with Sweden today, on the way to the St. Petersburg G20 summit and will try to persuade more ‘world leaders’ to back his strategy.

The real imperialist character and motives of the threatened military action is becoming clearer to people everywhere. The fact that Obama is not opposing the Egyptian military’s power grab and is silent over the continuing repression in Bahrain, home of the US navy’s Fifth Fleet, are just the latest examples of his wordy hypocrisy. The truth is that the looming US military action has nothing to do with protecting civilians against Assad’s brutal regime but is intended to further US and Western imperialist interests in the vital region. They will worsen, not bring to an end the increasingly sectarian civil war.

However polls show overwhelming opposition in the US, Britain and across the world to military action against Syria. Mass protests are growing, in which CWI supporters participate.

Below we publish articles on Syria from this week’s Socialist and Offensiv newspapers (the CWI sections in England and Wales, and Sweden respectively).

Obama’s war plans face increased resistance

No to US attack on Syria!

Per-Åke Westerlund, from Offensiv, weekly newspaper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden)

Most indicators still point to a US military strike against Syria. But Obama’s plans for an attack have weaker support than he thought, even among prospective allies.

Anxiety and suffering in the war-torn country has been further worsened by the US threat of war.

After two and a half years of brutal civil war, Syria is a country in ruins – there’s no food, electricity, water, and most people are without a job. Over 150,000 have been killed in just over two years, according to a statement from some small socialist organizations in the region that are both opposed to the Assad regime, and oppose a US attack.

The flood of refugees has further increased in the last week. Over two million refugees are now in neighbouring countries, of which about one million in Lebanon and a half million each in Jordan and Turkey.

The terrible images of hundreds killed and thousands injured by gas or chemical weapons two weeks ago shocked people around the world. Obama and other politicians in the West, along with a widespread feeling among ordinary people, declared, “Something must be done”.

Meanwhile, much remains unclear about the use of gas and chemical weapons. UN inspectors are not expected to be ready with their analysis until the middle of September.

The US government says it has evidence the Assad regime was behind an attack with gas/chemical weapons. But this evidence has not been made public and everyone knows that the “evidence” about WMD in Iraq in 2003 was false.

The US has a far from unblemished history with regard to gas attacks. Recent revelations show that the CIA helped Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran with chemical weapons in the war of 1980-88. 

After the British Prime Minister and war hawk David Cameron’s ignominious defeat in parliament, Obama has now decided to wait for support from the US Congress, which is not back in Washington until September 9.

Meanwhile, other potential allies have said no. The Arab League (the governments of the Arab world) and NATO have both spoken in favour of punishing the Assad regime, but won’t participate in any military action. Jordan has ruled out participation in the war effort.

Even after Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden singled out the Assad regime as responsible for using chemical weapons, they stress they want a “limited” attack.

“Our goal is not to cause regime change, or to alter the balance of power in Syria, or put an end to the civil war there. We will simply act in one or two days and then leave,” Obama told CNN.

Obama has, in addition to the references to the many victims, stressed that this is about America’s own security.

This very unclear aim – to punish – was also Cameron’s argument for Britain again participating in a US-led war. But he lost by 285 to 272 in a parliament that sensed the anti-war sentiment in the country but also the huge anger against the right-wing government’s extreme austerity policies. Thirty nine of Cameron’s own party colleagues in the Tories and Liberal Democrats voted with the Labour opposition. And despite the fact that Labour is open to a later change of stance, Cameron stated it was clear that neither parliament nor the British people want to see military action. BBC polls afterward showed that 75 percent supported the decision not to participate.

The US also has major problems with public opinion at home. According to a survey from Reuters only nine percent in the US fully support a military attack against Syria. Even in France, where President Hollande stands at the forefront of the war hawks, there is growing pressure for the matter to be taken up in parliament.

Even think tanks like the International Crisis Group, headed by former politicians, expresses great concern about an attack, which they argue can quickly lead to an escalation both in Syria and throughout the region. The ICG also points out that even deadlier massacres occurred earlier during the civil war.

But the United States is squeezed from two directions. An attack that does not lead to anything apart from yet more civilians killed will not strengthen Obama’s position. Lurking behind the delay is the possibility the White House now wants to prepare public opinion for a bigger commitment than the 2-3 day “tailored” action previously mentioned.

Which factors suggest the US and Obama will carry out a military attack?

Obama faces great difficulty to back down now. He said last summer that chemical weapons were a “red line” that if crossed would bring forth a US response. It is about power and prestige, to give a signal that US imperialism is not finished as the world’s policeman – a warning not least directed against Iran. The Middle East is a strategically important region, not least because of the oil.

US imperialism has lost much military prestige after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Superior military force and more than 100,000 soldiers in each country did not give the expected victories, but instead left behind fragmented, bomb-torn and economically destroyed countries.

Now there are six US warships with tomahawk cruise missiles on standby in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Obama points out that, as commander-in-chief, he has the right to order a military attack without asking Congress, but also says he will get support when Congress convenes.

Can the attack be called off?

This is hardly likely. Should anti-war opinion pressurise lawmakers to vote against an attack, Obama could hide behind this, but to call off an attack would mean a severe weakening of his position.

Why has Obama hesitated so far?

Because a new war is likely to be another setback for the US and at the same time consume enormous resources in the middle of an economic crisis.

This question was summed up a month ago by General Martin Dempsey, head of the US Defence Staff and the commander of the troops in Iraq, 2003-04. To take control of Syria’s chemical weapons he wrote requires “a no-fly zone with air and missile attacks with hundreds of aviation, submarines and other tools. Thousands of Special Forces and other ground troops would be needed to attack and secure key sites. Costs can be considerably more than a billion dollars a month.” Even a limited attack would require hundreds of planes and ships.

Dempsey also pointed out that the US does not have any reliable allies on the rebel side, where jihadists with ties to al-Qaeda today account for a growing share of the military battles. He wrote that the past ten years show that “we must anticipate and be prepared for unintended consequences of our actions. If the regime’s institutions collapse and a viable opposition is lacking we may inadvertently reinforce extremists or trigger the chemical weapons we try to take control of.”

What kind of US attack? How long will it last?

Most likely Tomahawk missiles with massive firepower, fired from the four US warships stationed in the Mediterranean. Turkey has also offered the use of its infamous airbase Incirlik, which was used both during the Iraq war.

From the beginning the talk was about strikes lasting a few days. But Kerry is now speaking of a “strategy” to increase support for the opposition in Syria, something that could “change the dynamics” of the war. Since the summer the US has openly sent arms to rebel groups.

Nobody believes that a short attack can topple the Assad regime. NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 lasted for 78 days but did not topple Milosevic. In Libya, it required 26,000 air strikes that destroyed 6,000 military targets, alongside forces on the ground, to remove Gaddafi.

How have the rebels responded to Obama’s war threat?

The Free Syrian Army supports an attack, but wants it extended to destroy the Syrian Air Force. But they do not want an invasion by ground troops. The Syrian National Coalition criticises Obama for postponing the attack as “leadership failure”, calling Obama “a weak president”.

Confusion among left groups is again evident. The most prominent supporters of the rebels within the Swedish Left, Gote Kilden and Benny Åsman (both USFI members), do not oppose a US attack: “As socialists, we are not pacifists, and we do not therefore deny the opposition’s right to say yes to attacks and take military advantage of these. It has not got what it wants – its own weapons to defend itself. So of course we don’t oppose the upcoming air strikes.” These rebel supporters have completely missed that although struggle in Syria started as a mass popular revolt it has long ago degenerated into a brutal civil war with abuses on both sides, and where al-Qaeda groups play an increasing role in fighting against Assad.

What can be the outcome of missile and air strikes?

There will be huge civilian casualties and even greater damage to infrastructure. “Precision bombing” and “ tailored” attacks do not exist. For the population this will increase suffering and uncertainty further.

For the Syrian army this will be a severe test. Both the Iraqi and Libyan armies collapsed when the world’s greatest war machine attacked. But even the more limited mission in Libya took several months.

The war hawks acknowledge that an attack will lead to civilian casualties. Cruise missiles and air strikes can wreak enormous havoc, while a short-lived attack is unlikely to bring down Assad or alter the course of the war in a major way. But if the regime weakens the tensions within the rebel camp will increase further. The risk is high for prolonged chaos as in Iraq or in Lebanon during the civil war.

The US and its allies can expect retaliation from Syria’s allies, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. It could lead to the war spreading across the Middle East, which is already happening with escalating attacks in Iraq and Lebanon.

US imperialism will be even more hated in the Middle East. The level of public support in the West for an attack, will be lower than at the time of the Iraq or Libya wars, and will be further reduced when the impact is clear.

What we say:

  • No to imperialist intervention by the US and its allies in Syria. Withdrawal of all foreign troops.
  • For the building of united, non-sectarian defence committees to defend workers, the poor and others against sectarian attacks from all sides.
  • National, democratic and equal religious rights for all ethnic groups.
  • Free and democratic elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly.
  • For a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East and North Africa.

The situation in Syria:

What began as a youthful, peaceful social protest movement, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, turned two years ago into a military conflict that increasingly have become religious/sectarian, with massacres on both sides.

The regime leaders come mainly from the minority Alawites, originally a branch of Shia Islam. President Assad is backed by Iran and its ally Lebanese Hezbollah, and gets weapons and support in the UN from Russia.

The rebels are dominated by Sunni Muslims, who constitute over 70 percent of the population. Its official representatives are closely allied to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and Turkey.

The country is divided into military zones. Assad’s army controls a corridor from the south via Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. With Hezbollah troops in the front-line, the regime this summer won back control of Qusair city and the region around Homs.

Rebel forces control much of northern and eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa and parts of the country’s largest city, Aleppo. They are internally divided with clashes between militias within the loosely organized “Free Syrian Army”, which is led by defectors from Assad regime, and the militarily strongest extreme Islamist groups – the al-Qaeda front Al-Nusrah and rival al-Qaeda troops from “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” which has sent thousands of fighters from Iraq.

A third area in the northeast (Western Kurdistan) is controlled by Kurdish troops under the leadership of the party PYD. Kurds make up a tenth of Syria’s population. The area has in recent weeks been attacked by Islamists and tens of thousands have fled across the border into Iraq.

Huge anti-war demonstration in London in 2003, photo Paul Mattsson

From this week’s Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales):

Syria: Cameron defeated

Now defeat Tory cuts! – TUC: Name the day for a 24-hour general strike

"I get it." Through gritted teeth Tory Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged an historic defeat. MPs had just voted by a margin of 13 to oppose British participation in a military intervention in Syria after he recalled Parliament on 29 August.

The last time a British prime minister was defeated on a war motion was in 1782 when MPs voted to end Britain’s involvement in the American war of independence.

US forces may still bomb Syria. The Socialist Party is against any attack on Syria, which would cause further suffering and exacerbate the conflict.

We are also completely opposed to the murderous Assad regime and to the reactionary, sectarian forces who dominate the anti-Assad opposition.

We stand instead for the building of a united, non-sectarian mass movement of workers and the poor to establish independent trade unions and a mass workers’ party.

Such a party can play a key role in overthrowing the repressive regime and allowing the masses to democratically determine their future.

Blair’s heir

Humiliated, Cameron was forced to ’get’ the huge opposition to an attack and that the divisions in his party and his government have been exposed. Tempers frayed and the blame game ensued as realisation of the rout set in.

Cameron was caught in the long shadow of Iraq. This was the revenge of the anti-war movement of 2003 – as much a defeat for Tony Blair and New Labour’s ’dodgy dossier’ as it was for the Con-Dem government.

The entire legitimacy of the Con-Dem coalition has taken a battering. Their weakness has been exposed.

Now we have to ensure that Cameron ’gets’ our opposition to austerity. The most effective way to do this is through the main potential opposition force in society, the organised trade union movement and the broader working class.

We call on the TUC to urgently name the day for a 24-hour general strike which would have huge support from workers.

Already teachers, postal workers, firefighters, civil servants and other sections of the organised working class are planning action.

Bringing these struggles together to strengthen them is widely seen as a logical step.

The deep well of anger against austerity would yield enormous support for bold action from young people, pensioners, the unemployed, etc.

In reality Labour fell into voting against action on Syria under mass public pressure – Miliband did not oppose an attack outright.

He argued that more time should be given to the UN inspectors to allow evidence of a chemical weapons attack to be collected.

Nonetheless Miliband’s stance on the vote revealed an important point – even a shred of opposition could force this Coalition back.

They have been successful in their vicious austerity attacks because Labour has not provided any meaningful resistance.

Very quickly a new party, based on working class struggle against cuts could become a mass force in society.

Fundamentally the planned attack on Syria is the logic of the capitalist system and imperialism’s drive for profit, prestige and power. A socialist alternative is necessary.

Revenge of 2003 anti-war movement

Pop! The bubble of Prime Minister Cameron’s image as a strong leader burst. Crack! Any idea that the Con-Dems are a strong coalition exploded. Snap! went the British imperialists’ illusion that Britain is a powerful force in the world. And bang! That was the distrust of the public towards capitalist politicians bearing down on the whole sorry story.

After months of softening up public opinion for an attack on Syria, should the ’red line’ of a chemical weapons attack be crossed, President Obama and Cameron were committed to working together as the world’s policemen in a strike on Syrian government forces.

Given the strength of public opposition, the complications and clear risks for the future of the entire region posed by an attack, grumblings of opposition from within the Tories and the military were audible – but not to Cameron it seems.

But within days their plans were in tatters. And it has been revelatory. Processes and factors that have lurked beneath the surface were forced into the open as the law of unintended consequences took revenge.

Ten years ago an estimated 30 million people marched in cities across the world, two million in Britain, to oppose an attack on Iraq which was widely understood to be a war for oil, for prestige, and for imperialism’s strategic interests.

People knew that when capitalist politicians claimed their aims were to save lives and for democracy they lied. The bloody facts have borne this out.

New York demonstates against the war in 2003, photo Paul Mattsson

Scepticism about so-called intelligence is widespread in the wake of Tony Blair and George Bush’s ’dodgy dossiers’ and claims that Saddam could mount an attack with WMDs within 45 minutes.

Nonetheless there have been attempts to pedal documents that assert Assad carried out a chemical attack but also admissions that so far there is no ’slam dunk’ or ’smoking’ piece of intelligence to prove it decisively.

There is no doubt that Assad’s is a brutal dictatorship capable of unspeakable horror and cruelty, but there are also few illusions that an intervention by imperialist forces would improve the situation.

Shadow of Vietnam and Iraq

Behind some of the indecisiveness among capitalist politicians and the military about a plunge into action have been the lack of clear stated aims for the action and a fear of what could ensue.

Concerns no doubt include the potential for ’blowback’ in terms of terrorist attacks in Britain and the US and the risk of attacks on British bases in Cyprus.

Obama is fearful of a major knock to US prestige. Having pledged to respond if Assad crossed the ’red line’ of a chemical weapons attack he has now been weakened and forced, in no small part by Cameron’s defeat, to go to the Congress for a vote on 9 September.

The more thinking sections of the US administration remember the military defeat in Vietnam, which combined with a mass anti-war movement, gave birth to the ’Vietnam Syndrome’ and virtually ruled out US military interventions for a historical epoch.

The Vietnam war gave a huge push to the development of consciousness in the US and internationally, in a period of heightened struggle, with millions drawing socialist and revolutionary conclusions about the nature of capitalism and imperialism.

The Socialist has pointed out that there is no straightforward capitalist solution to this conflict. Evident from all previous imperialist interventions, is that the interests of the working class and poor in the region are far from a motivating force.

Asked in a poll for the Independent newspaper whether the experience of the Iraq war means that Britain should keep out of military conflict in the Middle East, 62% agree.

The same poll found that a majority thought Cameron showed he is "out of touch with Britain" in his handling of the Syria crisis.

Stop the War demonstration in London, 31.8.13, photo J Beishon

A big majority in the US opposes military intervention and in France where an attack is also due to be debated.

The Iraq and Afghanistan effect has contributed to a crisis of legitimacy of establishment politicians and, to an extent, of democratic processes, which has been enormously exacerbated by the capitalist economic crisis and its accompanying boot of austerity.

Weak parties

Also revealed was the weak state of the three main parliamentary parties. Having managed to appear united and to defy gravity to an extent by seeming to deflect the true extent of anger over the cuts, the Tories were suddenly naked in their isolation and division.

The Tory front bench dissolved into a swearing, spitting mess as the result of the vote came through – and much of it was aimed internally.

Gove allegedly shouted at Tory rebels outside the chamber: ’You’re a disgrace’. Why hadn’t the whips done their job? Why hadn’t more Tories turned up? How dare some of them revolt!

Then the Tories turned their wrath on Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. He was blamed for not summing up the debate well enough.

And finally they remembered Labour leader Ed Miliband who they accused of "stark raving hypocrisy", "dishonourable behaviour" and "putting his party before the national interest".

Since the vote there has been a desperate attempt to claim that this is the only issue there is division over in the Conservative party and that Cameron’s position is not in danger.

But this is far from true. All but three of the 39 Coalition dissidents had rebelled before. It’s been reported that only 20 Tory MPs actually backed the motion while the others felt duty-bound to vote for it.

Two days before the reported chemical weapons attack Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that events in the Middle East were "the most important event so far of the 21st century, even compared to the financial crisis we have been through and its impact on world affairs."

It reveals the relative weakness and myopia of British imperialism that it is unable to assert itself on this situation.

In a flash Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson has stepped into the furore, arguing that there should be another vote if the US Congress votes for action, presenting himself as the strong hero and, presumably, the potential replacement for a much-damaged Cameron.

Cameron’s humiliation can bolster Miliband’s position in the short-term, despite his and Labour’s tepid and partial opposition over Syria.

A ComRes poll in the aftermath of the vote though puts Labour only six points ahead, a rather thin lead due to Labour’s record of non-opposition to government cuts.

Miliband has been given little space to enjoy the glow of the Westminster victory. He now faces attacks from members of his front bench, and from Blair, and he has developed his position to say he would support an attack if there was significant change in the situation – if al-Qaida got large stockpiles of weapons or if there is a direct threat to Britain’s national security.

In reality both factors could be a consequence of the interventions in Syria by imperialism and reactionary powers within the Middle East.

The growing presence of al-Qaida forces in Syria is well-documented, as is the enormous funding and arming of anti-government forces by the semi-feudal dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The potential for ’blowback’ from British or US military intervention in the form of terror attacks is strong and a factor in public opposition.

International relations

In the days after the vote there was much hand-wringing at the damage done to the long-cherished ’special relationship’ with the US.

US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to confirm this when he called France ’our oldest ally’, referring to the war of independence against Britain.

But within days Obama had Cameron on the phone, reassuring him of Britain’s ’BFF – best friends forever’ status.

No doubt the US regime had looked down the barrel of increased isolation in a world riven by tensions in the face of on-going capitalist crisis and reconsidered any breach.

Since then Kerry has been doing his hawkish utmost to campaign for an attack – citing the need to protect Israel and warning that the US reputation is on the line.

Obama now appears to be committing to a fuller onslaught in the hope of winning Congress round and avoiding a Cameron-style humiliation.

Socialist opposition

The Socialist Party and the CWI stand in complete opposition to imperialist military attacks. Such attacks would worsen the situation in Syria and undoubtedly across the region.

But we are not silent on what needs to be done either. We explain that to bring real democracy to Syria requires the building of, and encouraging the establishment of, independent working class forces that can unite workers, the poor, oppressed and suffering in their common interests against both the forces of imperialism and their semi-feudal and capitalist allies in the region.

Unlike capitalist politicians who fundamentally represent their own national capitalist classes we are socialist internationalists and support struggles against imperialism, oppression and capitalism across the world.

We explain that fighting austerity and for a socialist alternative in Britain and across the world is a vital part of this.

The gap that has been opened up will not remain open indefinitely. The hesitation of the trade union leaders over mass determined action against austerity and to bring the government down must end.

Trade union members must do all they can to apply pressure, to coordinate action where it’s already on the cards, and in all unions to demand a 24-hour general strike.

Building new mass workers’ parties and fighting for a socialist alternative would have big impacts across the world, inspiring millions to join the struggle, including in the Middle East.

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