In response to a chemical weapons attack by unknown perpetrators on August 21, US President Barack Obama, in a “coalition of the willing” with the governments of Britain and France, has made escalating threats for a military attack on Syria.
With the likelihood of Russia and China opposition in the UN Security Council, Obama has indicated that his coalition, calling itself the “international community”, may strike Syria unilaterally.
The move comes as the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011 continues to deepen into a drawn-out civil war that is estimated to have claimed about 100,000 lives so far.
By threatening unilateral action against UN wishes, Obama has abandoned the last of the promised changes from the foreign policy of George W Bush on which he was originally elected in 2008.
After Britain tabled a UN Security Council resolution on August 28, which — if passed — would authorise military aggression, Prime Minister David Cameron also threatened unilateral action should the resolution fail. On August 29, the British government published a “position regarding the legality of military action in Syria” saying unilateral action was legal.
It threatened: “If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.” However, on August 29, the British parliament voted down a bill tabled by Cameron that would have authorised unilateral aggression against Syria.
The vote came despite Cameron backtracking in the debate and “pledging that Parliament would have a second vote before the government ordered any military strikes against Syrian targets, and that there’d be no action before United Nations inspectors reported back on the chemical attacks”, the August 30 Sydney Morning Herald said.
ABC News Radio said on August 30 that in response to the British parliamentary vote, the US government was indicating a willingness to intervene in Syria alone. The British vote is sign of the legacy of the huge movement against the Iraq War, which was stronger and more sustained in Britain than elsewhere.
It also reflects the failure of Western interventions over the past 12 years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to realise their stated goals or even, to a large degree, their real geopolitical aims.
NATO’s 2011 war against Libya killed tens of thousands, despite not involving a NATO ground invasion. The toll from the Iraq war is estimated at more than a million and that in Afghanistan may be higher. However, in both countries, the occupation forces have deliberately failed to count civilian casualties. The aftermath of all three military interventions were civil collapse, rule by warlords and militias and in many instances strategic gains for the US’s rivals.
For example, Iran has more influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the current US-installed regimes than it did with their US-overthrown predecessors. Britain’s role in the deliberate fabrication of evidence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq cast a shadow over the parliamentary debate.
Material about the invasion of Iraq leaked to WikiLeaks, other media revelations, a parliamentary inquiry and a decade of mobilisations by the anti-war movement have made it impossible for the British government to manufacture pretexts to invade Syria without a sceptical public response.
This has also been the case internationally. France is now the only country offering to join a US-led war in Syria. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and foreign minister Bob Carr have indicated full political and diplomatic support for a US-led action without UN sanction, but said that no Australian forces would take part.
On August 29, the BBC said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned against any countries taking action before UN chemical weapons inspectors delivered their report to the Security Council on August 31.
The evidence regarding the apparent August 21 chemical attack in East Damascus is far from conclusive. The BBC said on August 24 that “Medecins Sans Frontieres says hospitals it supports in Syria treated about 3,600 patients with ‘neurotoxic symptoms’, of whom 355 have died”. This is the most serious allegation of chemical weapons use in the more than two-year-old civil war in Syria, both in scale and veracity of evidence.
On August 19, UN chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use made by both the Syrian opposition and government. These allegations involved smaller numbers of casualties, in more remote locations, and were supported by less evidence.
The August 21 attack took place a few kilometres from where the UN inspectors were working. The Syrian regime and its armed opponents have accused each other of being responsible for the attack.
Since a mass uprising against Assad began in February 2011, the US and other Western powers have been interfering in Syria. The intervention is motivated by fear at the democratic mass struggles that erupted across the Arab countries and an opportunistic interest in weakening a regime closely allied to Russia and Iran.
Syria has also been supportive of anti-Israel resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon. However, until now, this interference has stopped short of military attack. This stands in contrast to Libya, which NATO attacked in March 2011. This was despite the Gaddafi regime having abandoned earlier anti-imperialist politics and taking part in the West’s “war on terror”.
In Libya, the West achieved its aim of diverting the course of grassroots resistance and reasserting the West's role as the bringer of regime change in the Middle East.
The larger and more ethnically and religiously diverse population of Syria has made it more cautious about intervention there. Other factors behind the caution include Syria's shared borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Palestine, the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights and the fact that Syria occupies part of Kurdistan.
Another factor is the ongoing anarchy caused by struggles between rival gangs in post-war Libya. This was brought home on September 11 last year with the assassination of US ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans, by a gang probably armed by the embassy itself. However, the sometimes opposing motivations of fear and opportunism have made Western policy contradictory.
The bids to establish various governments-in-exile, encouragement of defections by military officers and the relatively small-scale and highly selective supply of weapons encourage the army to depose Assad and create a new government based on the same military-dominated state.
This strategy could have worked if Russia had been amenable. But the US made clear it viewed regime change in Syria as a chance to break Syria's alliance with Russia and Iran. It also made clear its aim at removing the Russian navy from its Mediterranean base at Tartus. This made Russian cooperation impossible.
The Syrian uprising was initially militarised by the regime, when it used military force against protesters. Anti-government forces responded by forming armed militias to protect protests.
However, Western arms and interference accelerated the militarisation of the conflict. Mass protests, which still continue, were rapidly overshadowed by a multi-sided civil war. Most Western military hardware went through regional allies — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Most of the aid went to Sunni Muslim communal sectarian and fundamentalist groups.
Assad’s secular regime has presented itself as the defender of the country’s religious minorities from fundamentalists. The foreign-armed (and often foreign-staffed) Sunni Islamist groups helped him give the civil war as a religious communal character.
The growing religious dimension to the conflict attracted other, strongly anti-Western Sunni fundamentalist outfits from Iraq. By July last year, opposition fighters had reached the capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo.
However, in the opposition’s hinterland, secular opposition forces clashed with Islamists, Saudi-backed outfits clashed with Qatari-backed groups and protesters condemned Islamist repression and corruption and warlordism by secular commanders. In Syrian-ruled Kurdish areas, the two main opposition parties, the left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the nationalist Kurdish National Council, combined to form a militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG initially supported the anti-Assad forces. But Islamist violence and Turkish moves to ensure Kurdish demands were ignored in Western diplomatic interventions around Syria led it to take a more neutral position. When regime forces in Kurdistan withdrew to defend Damascus and Aleppo in July last year, the YPG took effective control of most of Syrian Kurdistan. It has since defended the area from government and opposition forces.
A violent stalemate has been maintained for more than a year, with Assad not in control of most of the country but the opposition unable to topple him. The Syrian conflict has started to fuel clashes in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. Obama’s threats of military action also reflect diplomatic uncertainty after the overthrow of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in July by the military.
The strongest regional opponents of Morsi's overthrow are the Western-aligned government in Turkey and the Russian-aligned government in Iran: key regional supporters of opposing sides in Syria. War in Syria may be a US strategy to cohere its regional alliances in the Middle East. The humanitarian consequences of such a war would be disastrous.
Regardless of who was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, a military response will only increase suffering. This is the clear lesson from the disastrous US-led wars in the region since 2001.