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On Obama and the Syrian Rebels


The world waits. Washington and other western capitals ponder war. Tehran and Moscow assume their positions, wary of their flanks and the rear. Syria suffers. Groups within and without Syria’s borders position themselves as representatives of the Syrian people, almost every one of them hoping for some kind of Western support now that Obama and his White House have decided to publicly join the fray. The question remains. How much military aid and of what nature? Does the White House honestly think it can get away with providing small arms and ammunition to the rebels in Syria? Or is it quietly planning to jump into the shitstorm with the the wild man and warmonger John McCain, eventually providing anti-tank weapons, air support, and RPGs to the rebel elements with the greatest chance of victory? Meanwhile, opposition to the White House decision remains muted, despite opinion polls showing over 80% disapproval of the decision. In fact, the primary opposotion comes from libertarian and other right-wing quarters, some of them who oppose it only because Obama is spearheading it. As for the left? If they spoke ten times as loud they would still be but a whisper.

Syria is in the throes of a civil war. The government is winning, thanks in some part to the recent entrance of Hezbollah forces into the battle. The rebellion which began almost three years ago as popular protests against a repressive regime sold to the neoliberal marketplace has long since stopped being what it originally was. The violent repression of those protests by the Assad government provoked a violent response and the formation of what is called the Free Syrian Army. Since that time, various regional governments and groups with their own agendas have sent in fighters, provided funds and weapons, and generally helped expand the conflict into almost every sector of Syrian society. The politics of the rebel forces grow murkier each day while the influence of outside forces seems to grow. This latter phenomenon will grow exponentially once Washington begins to play its latest hand. There will be no progressive secular government in Syria after the bloodshed ends. Indeed, there may not even be the nation the world now knows as Syria.

If we are to use recent history as an example, the rationale of the previous statement is clear. Iraq, a once singular state run by an authoritarian Baathist government is now a fragmented collection of regions controlled by local rulers often at odds with the nominally central government in Baghdad. The reasons for Iraq’s current situation are related directly to Washington’s 1991 invasion, a decade of low-intensity warfare against Iraq, and the culminating invasion by US forces in 2003. Since none of these series of actions were able to install a regime beholden to Washington, the resulting fragmentation has had to do. If nothing else, it has made the once regional power of Iraq a non-factor. This pleases not only Washington and Tel Aviv, but Saudi Arabia and the other emirates as well. If Washington is unable to install a client government in Damascus, one imagines that a weakened and fragmented Syria will suffice. Given the current role of Hezbollah, one assumes that Washington also hopes to weaken its role in the region.

These are at least some of Washington’s desired goals. After all, Assad’s authoritarian rule has never been too much of a problem before, especially when one understands that Washington maintained relations of various kinds with the Assad regime until quite recently. Much like the relationship various US administrations shared with Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, the commonality of interests and enemies insured numerous joint ventures between Damascus and Washington, including the rendition of US captives to Syria for interrogation under torture. Now, however, it appears that Washington is going to throw its lot in with whatever lies past the long and brutal history of the Assads. Like Libya and Iraq, this decision means that Washington’s new commitment will be broader than it is letting on to the US public. What are now small arms shipments to certain groups in Syria could soon become no-fly zones and bombing raids; drone strikes and helicopter gunships; bombardment from the sea and Marines on the ground. If the usual contingencies are being followed, it is fairly safe to assume that special forces and CIA paramilitaries are already involved inside Syria. If the military piece of this war continues like it has, Syrian government forces and their allies will continue to win. That, in turn, means that the only way in which the forces Washington prefers can win is with ever greater US support. If the scenario begins to include Iranian forces and more sophisticated Russian weaponry, all bets are off.

The decision by Obama and his henchmen to arm Syrian rebels came in the wake of those forces suffering some major defeats. It also makes the moves toward negotiations touted about a couple weeks ago moot. In other words, Washington has chosen war over negotiation once again. The reasons are numerous and certainly include a desire to decrease Iran’s stature in the Middle East. The lives of the Syrians, already made cheap by the armed assaults of their government, have been made even cheaper by this decision. There is nothing noble in Obama’s decision. Like so many US leaders before him, he has chosen to expand a war instead of negotiating to end it. In doing so, he has calculated that the Syrian people will continue to pay the ultimate price in hopes that Washington’s hegemony in the region can continue.

There are those on the left who are convinced that the rebel forces they support can accept arms from Washington and maintain their hopes for a progressive, secular and democratic government when all the killing is done. This type of thinking is as naive as that of the liberals who believe Washington’s entrance into the war is a humanitarian act devoid of imperial machinations. The plain truth is that imperialism never acts from pure humanitarian motives. Its very nature demands that any action it takes, especially in the arena of warfare, is taken to further its goal of hegemony. You can bet your bottom dollar that Barack Obama understands this. No matter what he or any of his spokespeople say in the upcoming months regarding the US commitment in Syria, the fact is that his decision is based on his understanding of the risks involved and the potential benefits to be gained–for Washington, Tel Aviv, himself and whomever else he and his regime are beholden to (and that doesn’t include the US public.)

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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