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Syria: We need to stop a new war in the Middle East

The Syrian civil war is spreading, writes Phyllis Bennis – but US military action is the last thing the country needs
June 2013


A man stands in ruins in Aleppo

Plans for an international peace conference on Syria are looking very shaky. Even as the US and Russia continue collaborating on plans for such a meeting, arms shipments on all sides continue to threaten even greater escalation. Arms flows to Syrian rebel forces from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey and Jordan continue, Britain and France forced the European Union to end its prohibition on sending arms to the opposition, the United States cheered the EU decision, Russia announced it is sending Damascus advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and Israel made clear it would bomb those missiles if they arrive in Syria. And the Obama administration has reportedly requested the Pentagon to prepare plans for imposing a ‘no-fly’ zone in Syria in support of rebel fighters and even for direct multilateral military engagement inside Syria.

Syria – and the Middle East – are in serious trouble. Pressures on the Obama administration to engage even more directly in Syria, establishing a ‘no-fly’ zone, creating ‘safe corridors’ for the rebel forces, sending heavy weapons to the US-identified ‘good guys’ among the rebels, training even more than the 200 CIA agents in Jordan are training now, even direct air strikes on Syrian targets… all are on the wish list of the We-Want-To-Attack-Syria-And-We-Want-You-To-Do-It-Now caucus.

Most, though not all, of the calls for intervention come from the same people who led the calls for invading Iraq – neo-cons and other hard-line militarists, pundits and Congressmembers, mainly Republicans but plenty of Democrats too, including the ‘humanitarian hawks’, those who never saw a human rights crisis that didn’t require US military involvement to solve. The long-standing Republican supporter of US military action in Syria, Senator John McCain, made a highly-publicised visit to rebel-held territory inside Syria, accompanied by top leaders of the fractious rebel alliance. His trip appears timed directly to scuttle any potential for Washington’s and Moscow’s efforts to establish the new peace conference for Syria.

The drumbeat is spreading, and it’s not only from Republicans. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, reprising his 2003 ‘reluctant’ support for the Iraq war, once again supports US armed intervention in Syria. What does he think will be better in this war? Well this time, unlike Iraq ten years ago he claims, Syria represents a ‘genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region.’

Guess Keller hasn’t looked very carefully at Iraq today. His point about what happens if Syria collapses is true (despite his leaving out the far more dire impact on the Syrian people), but he ignores the crucial point that his description of a future failed Syria if we don’t intervene, matches precisely what exists today in Iraq – as a direct result of US intervention. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the exploding Sunni-Shi’a violence across Iraq and over the borders into Syria among other places – today’s post-intervention Iraq is precisely what Keller warns of if the US doesn’t join the Syrian civil war. He didn’t look at Lebanon, where the already-shaky confessional system French colonialists imposed in the 1930s is under renewed strain from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, as well as the political-military pressure of the Syrian civil war itself. He didn’t look at Jordan, where more than 500,000 Syrian refugees have stretched the country’s social fabric to a near-breaking point.

The failure of militarism

What neither side of the Washington debate have considered is that the escalating crisis in the Middle East is taking place in the context of the significant decline of US power and influence. With US economic and diplomatic power reduced, military force remains the one arena in which the US is the indisputable champ. But even the $800 billion annual US military budget no longer determines history by itself. The US-Nato campaign in Libya was partly, though not entirely, an attempt to remilitarise problem-solving in the region and thus re-legitimise US centrality. But it failed.

What the civil war in Syria and the Arab Spring have exposed is that the massive political and social transformation and real regime change underway in the region is led by people themselves – largely without military force and certainly with no role for the United States. US military involvement serves only to escalate the destruction, while distracting from other failures. The people on the ground engaged in those political struggles don’t want US military intervention; the only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers whose CEOs and shareholders continue to reap billions of blood dollars in profit.

War hurts civilians, but US wars generally hurt and kill civilians far from the US – so direct consequences remain far from US public consciousness. The problem for US policymakers is that an arms embargo also hurts their key campaign contributors: the arms dealers. The US remains the largest arms exporter in the world; can anyone doubt that sending US arms to one side of Syria’s civil war (even, or especially, if it extends the war) helps justify things like the pending $10 billion arms deal to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Or that instability in Syria, whatever its cause, can only help reinforce calls for increasing the existing $30 billion ten-year commitment of US military aid to Israel? No wonder the international Arms Trade Treaty – not to mention any potential for global gun control – remain so far from Washington’s agenda.

There is also the problem of the fundamental illegality of any US military escalation. The only two ways a military attack – including establishing a no-fly zone – by one country against another can be legal is in response to a UN Security Council authorization, which does not exist and is not likely, or in the case of immediate self-defense. And there is no way even the most hawkish warmongers in the US can claim that Syria’s civil war represents that kind of immediate national threat to the United States. Any US attack – with or without a Congressional mandate (which unfortunately would be all too likely forthcoming if requested) – would still be a violation of international law.

That is also the case for Israel’s attacks on Syria, whether or not weapons arriving in Syria may be headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s position has wavered – until the recent strikes it had not been leading the charge against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor urging the US to escalate its involvement in Syria for the simple reason that Assad’s regime, like that of his father from 1970 till 2000, has been very helpful to Israel. Despite all the puffed up rhetoric about Syria as part of a regional ‘axis of resistance’, the Assad family has largely kept the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights pacified, the border quiet, and the Palestinians in Syria under tight control. Instances of cross-border violence were short-lived and rare.

It should not be forgotten that the Assad regimes have also been very useful to the United States. In 1991 Hafez al-Assad sent his air force to join Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm attack on Iraq. By 2002 Bashar al-Assad was a partner in Bush Junior’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program of the global war on terror – accepting prisoners at the request of the US, including Canadian Maher Arar, for interrogation and torture at the hands of Syria’s feared security police.

So now what?

The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – to staunch the horrific bloodletting that Syria’s civil war is creating for the Syrian people. That means stopping the arms shipments to all sides. That means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo agreement to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels and re-establishing the EU ban on weapons to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government.

Plans for a diplomatic conference under United Nations auspices must go forward, with more pressure on both sides from their respective sponsors to participate. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described a joint US-Russian commitment, ‘to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.’ That’s an important start. Those negotiations will have to include the government of Syria, the armed rebels, and the still-struggling non-violent democratic opposition movement that first launched the Syrian spring more than two years ago. To bring the sides to the table, all the regional players and the parties’ strategic backers will have to be involved as well – Iran as well as Russia, and France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar alongside the US, will all have to play a role to push their recalcitrant allies to negotiate. That’s the context within which a Syrian arms embargo would really begin to mean something.

The US, Europe and the wealthy Gulf states should also take more responsibility for funding the cost of caring for the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced. The UN’s humanitarian funding appeals for Syria remain seriously under-resourced – yet too many ‘humanitarians’ continue to debate only military action.

None of this will be easy. But proposing military escalation as a response to fuzzy, uncertain allegations of chemical weapons, or imposing a no-fly zone because Israel attacked Syria, let alone threatening military force to overthrow a regime, is a far too dangerous road. We’ve been there before. Sixty-six percent of Americans oppose greater US military involvement. There’s no great eagerness from the White House. But President Obama, under pressure from London and Paris as well as US neo-cons, has yet to clearly reject the possibility.

That puts the obligation squarely on our shoulders. We need to take responsibility as people, as civil society, as social movements to raise the political costs of a new war in the Middle East so high, that it stays off the table for good.

Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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Will Podmore 5 June 2013, 12.55

The EU has lifted oil sanctions against Syria, thereby helping the jihadists to profit from their control of Syria’s key resource. Now the EU, after token resistance, has bowed to the Coalition government’s demands to send even more arms to the Al Qaeda forces in Syria. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said earlier, “The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement.” But the EU’s decisions have proved that the EU is indeed a war movement.

Turkey, Israel and Jordan are also helping the rebels. In Jordan, UK special forces and MI6 officers are also aiding the rebels.

Britain, France and the USA are desperate to find a plausible rationale for attacking Syria, a defining, ‘game-changing’ event, for example the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. But Turkish police have found evidence that the Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group al-Nusra, not the Syrian government, uses chemical weapons. Following the terrorist attack in Turkey last month, when two minibuses exploded in Reihanli killing 52 people, Turkish police found two kilograms of sarin gas, as well as grenades, guns and ammunition, in houses in Adana used by al-Nusra terrorists. Adana is where the CIA has been liaising with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who fund and back al-Nusra.

Britain, France and the USA want to set up a no-fly-zone over Syria to help the rebels, which even NATO’s new Supreme Allied Commander has pointed out would be an act of war. The British and French states are trying to reassert their control over the Middle East, this time by helping pro-Western groups into power.

The Russian anti-aircraft missiles will help to prevent Britain and France imposing a no-fly zone on Syria to help the rebels. Such a zone was a key part of the build-up to NATO’s attack on Libya. Russia’s actions will help to prevent British and French moves towards a wider, more open war on Syria.

British, French and US aid to the rebels is like Reagan’s aid to the Contras, which the International Court of Justice condemned in 1986 as a violation of international law.

Vivek Jain 6 June 2013, 12.41

Bennis writes, “There’s no great eagerness from the White House.”

But that’s not true, is it?

Look at the policy, not the rhetoric.

Behind Syria peace talks proposal, US prepares regional war

Kerry steps up US war threats against Syria, Iran

Washington escalates Syrian bloodbath

Sami Ramadani 6 June 2013, 14.07

My friend Phyllis Bennis makes some excellent points against the warmongers’ calls and plans for US-led intervention in Syria. However, I take issue with Phyllis’s “quid pro quo” plan for ending the disastrous war in Syria. I will argue that the plan is rather one-sided, ignores the some of the real reasons for the war in Syria and, therefore, is impossible to handle or achieve given the region’s intricate, and heavily interconnected problems. I will argue for a much more modest approach, though still very difficult to achieve, to spare the Syrian people the continuing carnage and possible destruction of Syria as a society of tolerant religions, sects and ethnicities.

Phyllis writes:

“The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – to staunch the horrific bloodletting that Syria’s civil war is creating for the Syrian people. That means stopping the arms shipments to all sides. That means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo agreement to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels and re-establishing the EU ban on weapons to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government.”

The plan ignores the fact that Syria is partly occupied by Israel (since 1967) and that it turned to the former Soviet Union and Russia for arms in the face of US-backed Israeli expansion and aggression. This continues to be the case today. Israel attacked Syria again only few weeks ago under the pretext of stopping arms supplies to the Hizbullah-led resistance movement in Lebanon. Cutting off supplies to Syria, without dealing with Israeli occupation, leaves it wide open to further Israeli aggression.

Calling for “an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government” also means ending supply of arms to the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements, since Syria is almost the only supplier of arms to these movements.

Hence, for Phyllis’s plan to be accurately described as quid pro quo it must also include the following:

– ending all US arms supplies to Israel and its allies in the region;

– ending US-led and Israeli interventionist policies in Syria and Lebanon and halting all arms supplies to allied and terrorist groups there;

– withdrawal of all the Israeli occupation forces from Syria, the return of the Golan Heights to full Syrian sovereignty and ending Israeli threats to Syria;

– since ending “Russian and allied arms shipment to the Syrian government” means effectively ending shipments to the Lebanese resistance movement then Israel must withdraw all Israeli occupation forces from the whole of Lebanese lands and end all Israeli incursions into the airspace and waters of Lebanon;

– since Phyllis’s plan also includes ending “allied” backing for Syria this means that Iran has to end its backing for Syria; for this to become part of a quid pro quo plan then the US and Israel have to end their preparations for a war of aggression on Iran and end US backing for sectarian armed groups in Iraq.

– and since ending of “Russian and allied arms shipment to the Syrian government” means effectively ending shipments to the Palestinians then the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine has to be overturned first, the daily oppression of the Palestinian people brought to an end, and the right of over 4 millions Palestinians refugees to go back to their homeland practically implemented…

As you can see, Phyllis, your quid pro quo agreement is impossible to achieve because seriously imbalanced, and my suggested inclusion of the above points to redress the balance, though possessing most of the elements for a peaceful future in the region, would be equally impossible to achieve for the foreseeable future.

I think that an immediate end to the disastrous war in Syria can only come about if all parties to the conflict agree the following:

1. An immediate ceasefire. This is only possible if point 2 below is realised, because the armed opposition groups (as different from the democratic opposition groups) are linked to the US-led camp.

2. An immediate halt by the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia of the supply of men, logistics and arms to all the armed opposition organisations in Syria, including the al-Qaida linked terrorist groups.

3. Practical preparations for free and fair elections so that the Syrian people decide their own future. The elections and its preceding period have to be seen to be free and fair. Some international guarantees, acceptable to the Syrian people, have to be in place. I think the democratic anti-imperialist opposition will benefit most for such an environment.

I have previously argued in the pages of Red Pepper (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/broken-spring/) and the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/03/military-intervention-syria-disastrous-people) that the Syrian people’s struggle for radical reform, democracy and social justice had long been highjacked by counter-revolution, through a process of militarisation similar to Libya’s. The militarisation process was the US and its allies’ response to the overthrow of the brutal US-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But the struggle of the peoples of the region for democratic rights, social justice, removing imperialist domination, genuine independence and ending Israeli occupation will continue unabated as long as the underlying reasons for such struggle remain in place.

Sami Ramadani
06 June 2013

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