Threats of a new United States-led war in the Middle East abated, at least for now, on September 20 when Syria met a deadline set in a September 14 agreement between the US and Russia.
As part of the deal, Syria submitted details of its chemical weapons to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The US threatened military action against Syria after an August 21 sarin gas attack killed 355 people in the East Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
The US has consistently held the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible, citing alleged Israeli intercepts of Syrian military communications. The Assad government has consistently blamed the armed opposition, a claim Russia has consistently supported.
The BBC said the agreement “aims to have inspectors on the ground in Syria in November, when they will make an initial assessment and oversee the destruction of certain equipment. The destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons would then be completed by mid-2014.”
For US President Barack Obama, the agreement with Russia provided a way to avoid a Congress debate on his war plans. Obama had already backed away from initial statements claiming a moral obligation to take military action of undefined scope.
After the British parliament rebuffed Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid for a resolution authorising military action, Obama promised a US-led attack would not become another full-scale invasion, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or even an air war, such as that waged by NATO in Libya in 2011.
Instead, Obama promised Congress his strike would be a one-off missile barrage. There were indications Congress would have still voted against such an attack.
In the lead-up to the 1991 and 2003 attacks on Iraq and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the US rejected agreements similar to the one signed with Russia.
However, the US has continued to keep the threat of using military force alive. On September 19, Secretary of State John Kerry told a press conference: “I would say to the community of nations: Time is short … we have to recognise that the world is watching to see whether we can avert military action and achieve, through peaceful means, even more than what those military strikes promised.”
Kerry said the September 16 report of the United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria pointed to the Assad regime’s culpability for the August 21 attack. However, the September 18 New York Times quoted Russian foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov saying: “We are unhappy about this report. We think that the report was distorted. It was one-sided. The basis of information upon which it is built is insufficient.”
Neither the US nor Russia have so far produced the evidence they claim to have about who committed the attack. In the absence of evidence, propagandists for both sides have promoted conspiracy theories to explain the attack's motivation.
Assad would seem to be the most likely culprit. His forces are known to possess chemical weapons and the civilian casualties were in an opposition-held suburb.
However, opposition forces were not making military gains and the UN investigation team had arrived in Syria to investigate earlier allegations of much smaller chemical attacks, and were in Damascus on August 21.
If Assad was responsible, the choice of timing and location was particularly stupid. Then again, stupidity on the part of a dictator who owes his position to hereditary rule is hardly unprecedented.
Other explanations put forward by Western propagandists include that it was a bid to “internationalise” the conflict, the result of a split in the regime’s military or political establishment or an accident.
Those claiming the opposition was responsible also point to the possibility of an accident in a bid to explain why the opposition would gas residents of an area supporting them.
Other popular conspiracy theories include that it was a provocation to create the pretext for a US intervention, or that it was a provocation, for the same reason, by the US itself.
Such theories blaming Assad’s domestic and foreign opponents are not just coming from Syrian and Russian politicians and media: US bloggers across the political spectrum from left liberal filmmaker Michael Moore to ultra-conservative Pam Geller have also advanced them.
After 12 years of the “War on Terror”, public opinion in the US (and the West generally) has become extremely sceptical of pretexts for going to war in the Middle East.
Hypocrisy and lies
It is very possible that Assad carried out the sarin attack on August 21. However, the public has not forgotten that the US and other Western governments and intelligence agencies faked evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for invasion in 2003.
It is also a matter of record that depleted uranium munitions are responsible for the cancer and leukemia epidemic in the Iraqi town of Fallujah. This is true even though DU munitions ― widely used by the US in most of its wars ― are not officially classed as a chemical weapons.
The outcomes of the US-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have not even achieved the stated realpolitik aims. In Afghanistan, while the US negotiates with the Taliban, casualties sustained by occupation forces are increasingly inflicted by the armed forces of the dysfunctional US-imposed puppet government.
Iraq, meanwhile, has become a close ally of the US’s regional rival, Iran.
Even the Islamophobia that the US and other Western powers have fuelled in their own populations to justify previous wars in the Middle East has worked against Obama’s bid to justify an attack on Syria.
On September 10, Associated Press reported that anti-government fighters belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist Nusra Front had burned a church in the town of Maaloula. Regime propaganda exaggerated the extent of ethnic cleansing of Aramaic-speaking Christians from the town, but the BBC reported that many Christians did flee and some joined pro-government militias.
On September 12, Time published a photo-essay of anti-government fighters decapitating a young victim in the town of Keferghan, near Aleppo, on August 31, one of four decapitations Time’s photographer witnessed that day.
Since the uprising against his regime began in February 2011, Assad has tried to portray the opposition as foreign terrorists and violent Sunni communalist puppets of foreign powers.
This charge was not true and the movement responded with chants and signs proclaiming the unity of Syrians from all ethnic and religious communities against the regime.
It was regime violence that initially militarised the conflict. However, the opposition today does include feuding, violent Sunni communalist and Salafist militias. Some of these include foreign fighters and some of which are funded, armed and were recruited by foreign powers.
Ironically, this evolution of the opposition is the direct result of the Obama administration’s previous attempts at shaping the Syrian conflict without being directly involved.
Seeking to derail the Syrian uprising from its democratic and nationalist trajectory, and pressure Assad into accepting US-directed regime change, the US encouraged regional allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to give limited military support to anti-Assad forces.
These regimes supported forces tied to their own ideological liking, which meant different brands of Sunni communalism and Salafism.
In a September 7 interview in Ceasefire magazine, left-wing US intellectual Noam Chomsky suggested that the US and Israel wanted neither side to win in Syria.
Rather, Chomsky said, they were “enjoying the spectacle” of seeing the country “divided between a region dominated by the Assad regime ― a brutal horrifying regime ― and another section dominated by the various militias, which range from the extremely malicious and violent to the secular and democratic”.
This strategy created more problems for the West than just bad propaganda. Growing political differences have been developing between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has increased clashes between opposition groups.
On September 20, Reuters reported a shaky ceasefire had been agreed between rival opposition factions in the town of Azaz on the Turkish border.
The divisions within the armed opposition are not simply between Islamist and secular, as the Western media usually reports. The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella of numerous armed groups, some Islamist, some secular, while the more extreme Islamist groups tend to be outside it.
However, despite being overshadowed by the increasingly religious military conflict, the mass democratic uprising against Assad continues.
A September 16 article on Tahrir-ICN explained: “The main form of revolutionary organisation in Syria has been at the local level, through the work of local committees and local councils … Today hundreds of local committees/coordinations have been established in neighborhoods and towns throughout the country …
“Whilst organising on the local level, they have built up networks of solidarity and mutual aid across the country. At the city and district levels local councils have been established. There are 128 throughout Syria.”
These are affiliated with “a number of different umbrella groups that have emerged to coordinate and network on the regional and national level. These include the Local Coordination Committees, National Action Committees, the Federation of the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution and the Syrian Revolution General Commission .
“None represent the totality of local committees/councils … For example the Local Coordination Committees comprises 14 local committees.”
Announcing their September 14 agreement, both the US and Russia indicated support for peace talks, proposed for an unspecified date at Geneva, between the Syrian government and opposition, regional and global powers. However, they disagreed on which opposition groups and regional powers should be represented.
Russia’s main interest in Syria is its strategically important naval base at Tarsus.
In an interview in the September 20 Guardian, Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil supported the proposed talks and observed the conflict was at a stalemate.
Any settlement imposed by Russia, the US and other outside powers is likely to be against Syrian interests and install a regime combining elements from Assad’s state with some of the nastier opposition elements. However, if it reverses the militarisation of the conflict, it may benefit the revolutionary struggle.
Describing the relationship between the mass movement and the armed opposition, an activist with Syrian Revolutionary Youth told Syria Untold on September 19: “True, armed resistance is more prominent, but non-violent activity accompanies it.
“The military option will not fulfill all the demands of the revolution. It will help us reach a certain point, after which we will have to continue the peaceful struggle to meet the rest of our demands.”