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Propaganda is easy. Use touchy-feely words like “human rights” to sell wars. Claim to cherish “values”. Demonise your enemies; ignore the crimes of your allies. Don’t be afraid to lie.
The greatest innovation that William Hague has brought to the dark art of spin is that he has mastered it in a Yorkshire accent. The West must “be prepared to do more to save lives” in Syria, Britain’s foreign secretary said recently. Hague’s preferred method of saving lives is to arm one side in a civil war.
Why should be we sceptical of the erudite statesman? In 1916, Britain and France negotiated a secret deal on carving up the Middle East between them. Splotches of blue and red were applied to a map, designating which territories should “belong” to each power. “In the blue area France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire,” stated the Sykes-Picot accord – as the deal became known.
Almost a century later Hague and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius appear determined to oust Bashar al-Assad. There can be little doubt that Assad is responsible for atrocities. But is that really why strategists in London, Paris and Washington want him removed?
One year after Sykes-Picot, the US President Woodrow Wilson declared that a war was necessary for the world to be “made safe for democracy”.
Ordinary Syrians know a thing or two about the West’s commitment to democracy. Syria achieved independence in 1946; it was supposed to be a parliamentary republic. In 1949, the CIA orchestrated a coup in order to put Husni al-Zaim in power. Declassified documents indicate that the US regarded the colonel as a “likeable rogue”.
Bashar al-Assad was also viewed as a likeable rogue by some Western elitists. In February 2011, Vogue magazine published a feature eulogising Bashar and his wife Asma. As well as leading the “safest country in the Middle East”, the couple wanted Syria to be treated as a brand, the feature informed us.
Assad had spent much of the preceding decade undergoing a makeover to woo foreign multinationals. His Baath party had been in favour of central planning but in 2005 it decided to move towards a “social market economy”, a euphemism for letting major corporations run the show. To stress its approval for this neoliberal shift, most EU governments were prepared to overlook Assad’s penchant for imprisoning opponents and conclude a “free trade” deal with him. (The accord didn’t come into effect, mainly because of opposition from the Netherlands).
The EU was more favourably disposed towards Assad than the US. While George W Bush was initially able to co-opt Assad for the “war on terror”, the White House eventually succumbed to pressure from Congress and signed a bill imposing economic sanctions on Syria in 2003.
The editors at Vogue may have forgotten to consult their in-house astrologers before publishing that inauspicious article. Soon after it hit the shelves, Assad’s forces were suppressing popular protests against him. Brand Syria had turned toxic.
Assad is now clearly perceived as a liability by Britain, France and the US. So much so that they are preparing to arm groups which we are enjoined to call “rebels”. Under different circumstances, the “rebels” would be labelled “terrorists”.
The Free Syrian Army has reportedly opened fire inside a hospital serving Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. These “rebels” are the most probable recipients of Western weapons. Indeed, they are already well-armed, thanks largely to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family is a client state of the US and a prized customer of Britain’s war industry. Could that explain why the West is happy to tacitly applaud the Saudis for abetting war crimes?
Susan Rice, the outgoing American ambassador to the UN, described the Security Council’s “inaction” on Syria as “a moral and strategic disgrace”. Her attempt to put a moral gloss on American foreign policy was risible. The same Susan Rice acted as Israel’s lapdog. Among those attacked by Israel in November last year were Palestinian refugees who had fled from Syria to Gaza. Rice supported that patently immoral attack.
As it happens, the permanent members of the Security Council have not been guilty of inaction. One of them, Russia, has shamefully kept on sending arms to Assad. Three others, Britain, France and the US, have been training Syrian “rebels” in Jordan.
NATO, for its part, has provocatively placed a number of missile interceptors near Turkey’s border with Syria. These are in addition to the military bases that America, the dominant country in NATO, has established in Turkey.
For all their talk about wanting to protect lives, the imperial powers’ only real objective in Syria is protecting their interests. Not for the first time, they are determined to ensure that Damascus is ruled by someone who answers to Western orders.
There is a nasty sectarian aspect to Syria’s civil war. Like the invasion of Iraq, it has exacerbated tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Moreover, the conflict has not stayed within Syria; it has spilled over into Lebanon. Israel has got involved, perhaps as a test run for an attack on Iran.
Shovelling fresh weapons into this civil war is flagrantly irresponsible. In their arrogance, the West’s imperialists are prepared to play with fire, if it means that they can keep the Middle East under their control.
David Cronin’s book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War will be published in August. It can be pre-ordered now from Pluto Press.
A version of this article was first published by New Europe.