The proposal by Russia, accepted by the regilme of Bashar Al-Assad, for Syria’s chemical weapons to be turned over to an international authority (presumably the United Nations) for destruction, has temporarily put off Washington’s plans for war against Syria.
Obama has postponed asking Congress to approve of his plans to attack Syria. This represents a political defeat for the war drive.
Even if Washington scuttles the proposed agreement and goes ahead with war, it will do so with even less support at home and abroad than it had before the Russian proposal.
The main force blocking the proposed attack has been the opposition of the world's people especially in the United States.
In spite of huge pressure, in the face of mass opposition of their own citizens, few countries have backed bombing Syria. Only one country has fully said it would take part militarily ― Saudi Arabia, a well-known bastion of liberal democracy and human rights.
Obama could not even arm-twist NATO into compliance. British Prime Minister David Cameron felt the heat so much he took the question to parliament, which defeated his motion to join in the bombing campaign. Initially supporting Obama, French President Francois Hollande got cold feet and postponed a decision.
Hollande is competing with Cameron for the post of European lap-dog to the White House, but neither could deliver.
In the wake of his defeat in the British parliament, and facing overwhelming opposition to the proposed bombing campaign at home, Obama decided to take the matter to Congress.
On the eve of the Russian proposal, the vote in the Senate was still undecided and it looked like it would be defeated in the House.
To understand why there has been so much opposition in the US, we have to examine what has changed since the early 2000’s, when there was initially mass support for the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq once the shooting started. Much of what has changed for the US population also applies to the rest of the world.
The first thing to note is the experience of those wars themselves. After over a decade of US bombing and occupation, both Afghanistan and Iraq remain torn by sectarian violence, much of it actually instigated by the US.
In Iraq, Washington came down with a heavy hand against the Sunnis, and installed a Shiite government. In Afghanistan, it backed the Northern Alliance group of nationalities against the Pashtuns.
Both countries have had their infrastructures severely damaged. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions displaced. They are riddled with corruption, and can hardly be called democracies.
Washington promised the US people that these wars would be quickly over, with crowds of grateful Iraqis and Afghans greeting the US troops with flowers and waving American flags. What they got instead was years and years of grinding warfare, hatred of the US from all sides, and fierce resistance to the occupations.
Then there is the torture, renditions and indefinite detentions, such as at the US-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
What the US people saw was the price they paid for these debacles. Thousands of US soldiers killed, and hundreds of thousands maimed or severely damaged mentally. The cost in treasure is over US$1 trillion.
It is little wonder most US people do not want to repeat that experience in Syria.
What about the US-led war on Libya in 2011? There was no US occupation, but the “humanitarian” bombing has left the country a shambles. There are warring armed groups, no central government, an attack on a US embassy, and oil production down to 10%-20% of pre-war levels. Not inspiring to Americans, either.
Then there is the other big difference between the early 2000s and today the financial collapse of 2007, the deep recession and the recovery for profits but not for workers and other producers. This situation is the major preoccupation for most US people.
Few want to spend more billions on another war when there is high unemployment and underemployment, wages are falling, schools closing, other government services are being cut back, college tuition is rising, and more.
To top it off, whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have exposed war crimes and lies and cover-ups, huge spying on US people, and attempts by Washington to keep it all secret. There is great distrust of Washington and politicians.
For these and other reasons, the White House has tried to reassure everyone that the proposed campaign against Syria will “not be another Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya”, to paraphrase Obama. There will only be a short “shot across the bow” to punish Assad.
But “shots across the bow” are warning shots that do not hit the boat. Obama promises to bombard Syria, not to fire warning shots.
Moreover, his message has been all over the place. He says that there will be no US “boots on the ground”. But when Secretary of State John Kerry was questioned on this in a Congressional hearing, he refused to “take off the table” the threat of the use of ground troops.
Obama says the strikes are not aimed at overthrowing the Syrian regime, but his stated position for two years has been to do just that. He says he doesn’t want to interfere in the Syrian civil war, but then reassured Senatorial hawks that the bombing he proposes will change the relation of forces on the ground by significantly degrading the Syrian military.
The resolution he sent to Congress for approval was for an open-ended war, without a time limit or any other limit, directly contrary to what he says to the public.
No wonder that public is sceptical.
Obama has made his case around Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His only aim, he says, is to prevent their further use.
The hypocrisy of this stance is shown by the US’s use of Agent Orange against food crops and foliage during the Vietnam War.
More than 400,000 people were killed or maimed in Vietnam as a result of this chemical warfare, and 500,000 children have born, so far, with birth defects. It also blew back on US troops, affecting tens of thousands.
The US also was directly involved in Saddam Hussein’s use of Sarin and other poison gases in the US-sponsored Iraqi war against the Iranian revolution. Thousands were gassed to death, including Iraqi Kurds, whom Hussein believed were siding with Iran, a toll many orders of magnitude higher than what has occurred in Syria.
In the present situation, the most glaring hypocrisy is Obama’s failing to mention Israel’s stockpile of poison gases ready to be used against the rest of the Middle East.
The issue of chemical weapons is a pretext. Washington’s real war aims in Syria and the whole region include thwarting the aspirations of the peoples there for democracy, peace and a better life evidenced in the Arab Spring, and to impose pro-Western regimes. That is why it backs Egypt’s new military dictatorship.
It wants to weaken Iran, and eventually install the type of subservient regime it had under the Shah. It wants to weaken and then destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Its immediate goal in Syria is to change the military relation of forces on the ground in the hope of imposing a puppet regime there, in pursuit of these broader objectives.
This may be a vain hope, given the nature of many of the strongest Syrian armed groups fighting Assad. The likelihood is a US bombing campaign will lead to greater sectarian warfare among Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians and Kurds.
However, since the public position Obama has put forward is the chemical weapons issue, the Russian proposal could be a way for Obama to back away from his predicament in face of international and domestic opposition to his war plans.
Right now, however, he and his allies on the UN Security Council are pushing for a resolution that would commit the UN to back a US strike if the result of the negotiations is not to Washington’s liking. That cannot pass the Security Council.
The outcome of all the push for war will not be clarified for weeks. We have to remain vigilant and press forward the demand of “no” to the war against Syria.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]