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The War Train to Syria


A United States military attack on Syria appears to be imminent. Imperial U.S. and British warships are in position in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, loaded for “surgical” acts of war against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The junior British and French partners are on board with the tough talk coming from Washington and so are top Middle Eastern clients/allies. There doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done to stop the assault, given the heated rhetoric of U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry three days ago.

The Pretense of Concern

The official reason given for the looming air assault is that Syria has engaged in the “moral obscenity” (Kerry) of using chemical weapons against its civilians. Kerry accuses the Syrian government of the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and of cynical attempts to cover up this “cowardly crime.”

Leaving aside the question of the veracity of this charge (see below), one key assumption behind the pretext is that Washington cares about ordinary people in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. This is an assumption that nobody should take seriously in light of Washington’s mass-murderous conduct towards those people across recent decades. That record includes the following moral obscenities:

*The killing of 300 Iranian civilian air passengers (including 90 children) blown out of the sky (on Iranian Air Flight 655) by the U.S. Navy in Iranian air space from Iranian territorial waters by the U.S. warship Vincennes on July 3, 1988. (The commander of the Vincennes William C. Rogers III was subsequently rewarded with a Combat Action ribbon and the prestigious Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct.”)

*Helping Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime attack Iranian troops with chemical weapons, including sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in 1988.

*The killing of more than 125,000 Iraqis so that the U.S. could punish the renegade behavior of its former client Saddam Hussein in the so-called Persian Gulf War of 1991 – an operation that cost the lives of less than 200 U.S. troops. (The body count included many thousands of surrendered troops slaughtered while in full retreat from Kuwait on the infamous “Highway of Death” in the night of February 26-27, 1991. A reporter described the highway scene as “a blazing Hell” and “a gruesome testament,” noting that “to the east and west across the sand lay the bodies of those fleeing”).

*The killing of more than 1 million Iraqis by a U.S-imposed weapon of mass destruction called “economic sanctions” between 1991 and March 2003 (Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the following to CBS News about the killing of more than half a million Iraqi children by the U.S.-led sanctions: “this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” )

*The killing altogether of more than 2 million Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalians, Libyans and other predominantly Muslim and Arab people killed in criminal U.S. wars of occupation, revenge, assassination, torture, and petroleum-control launched in the name of the “global war on terror” since 9/11/2001. (The dirty wars have continued with a vengeance under Obama, who holds a special attachment to lethal special forces and drone attacks across the global battlefield.

*Massive U.S. assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in April and November of 2004. Besieging the city and declaring it a free-fire zone, the U.S. Marines attacked Fallujah with (among other things)white phosphorous (a chemical agent), cluster bombs, and depleted uranium. The U.S. “liberators” killed many thousands of civilians in a vicious campaign of retribution (for the killing of four Blackwater operatives) that included the targeting of ambulances, hospitals, and mosques. The U.S. left Fallujah with a higher measure of radioactive poisoning than that experienced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb droppings of 1945), creating an epidemic of cancer, leukemia, infant mortality and birth defects.

*Consistent massive U.S. support and equipping of (a) Israel’s deadly oppression of the criminally occupied Palestinians and (b) dictatorial oil regimes across the Arab world, including above all Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary government on Earth.

*Failure to withdraw military aid from an Egyptian military regime that butchered hundreds of its own people who were protesting a military coup that Washington refuses to acknowledge as such.

Awkward Timing

The timing of all this war talk might seem a little awkward given that President Obama (he of the personally and presidentially approved Kill List) is about (as I write on the morning of August 28th, 2013) to desecrate the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington by speaking at the steps of the Lincoln Mall at the same time of the same day (August 28th) that the great Civil Rights and antiwar leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1963. But so what? Kill List Obama went to Oslo to receive the preposterously awarded 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with a speech on the peaceful necessity of war.

Maybe Obama should give the order to bomb Syria during his time in King’s spot just for the Orwellian thrill of it. He could cue the Pentagon off his remarks, telling them to fire away when he says “And so let Tomahawk missiles strike below the prodigious hilltops of Syria. Let Predators strike beneath the mighty mountains of Pakistan. Let special forces assassins ring death and destruction beneath the heightening cliffs of Afghanistan…Let empire ring with fearsome doom in the streets of Damascus!”

Fixing Facts Around Policy, Again

Whenever the official order comes, the game is on. The war train has left the station. As Pepe Escobar wrote yesterday in Asia Times, noting parallels with the march to war on Iraq just more than a decade ago:

“The prospects remain grim. Damn another coalition of the willing; Washington already has the British and French poodles in the bag, and full support – in air-con safety – from the democratic Gulf Cooperation Council petro-monarchies, minion Jordan and nuclear power Israel. This is what passes for ‘international community’ in the newspeak age. The Brits are already heavily spinning that no UN Security Council resolution is needed; who cares if we do Iraq 2.0? For the War Party, the fact that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said Syrian ‘rebels’ could not promote US interests seems to be irrelevant….Washington already has what it takes for the Holy Tomahawks to start flying; 384 of them are already positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean. B-1 bombers can be deployed from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. And bunker-busting bombs will certainly be part of the picture. What happens next requires concentric crystal balls – from Tomahawks to a barrage of air strikes to Special Ops commandos on the ground to a sustained air campaign lasting months.” (Pepe Escobar, “Obama Set for Holy Tomahawk War,” Asia Times, August 27, 2013,

Facts are being fixed around the policy in the White House and Downing Street, as before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The intrepid, truth-telling British Middle East expert and journalist Robert Fisk complains that England’s prime minster Andrew Cameron has “forgotten how similar are the sentiments being uttered by Obama and himself to those uttered by Bush  and Blair a decade ago, the same bland assurances, uttered with such self-confidence but without quite  enough evidence to make it stick. In Iraq, we went to war on the basis of lies originally uttered by fakers and conmen. Now it’s war by YouTube. This doesn’t mean that the terrible images of the gassed and dying Syrian civilians are false. It does mean that any evidence to the contrary is going to have to be suppressed.” (Robert Fisk, “Does Obama Know He’s Fighting on al Qaida’s Side?” The Independent (UK), August 27, 2013, guess is be that Cameron doesn’t care, not that he’s forgotten.

Speaking of (deductive) evidence to the contrary, Escobar wryly notes that “The Obama administration has ruled that Assad allowed UN chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, and to celebrate their arrival unleashed a chemical weapons attack mostly against women and children only 15 kilometers away from the inspectors’ hotel.” You don’t have to be a “conspiracy nut” to find that story more than a little odd. Why would the Assad regime undertake a chemical weapons attack when it is wining the war against its opposition?

Once again we are hearing (as in 2003) that no UN Security Council resolution is required and that UN investigators’ findings are beside the point.

And forget about getting U.S. Congressional authorization: Obama did not even bother with the pretense of seeking that in regard to Libya.

We are Good

For the war masters in Washington to hold back now in the absence of something dramatic and highly unlikely in the way of Syrian and Russian capitulation would be to appear feckless and weak – something no Mafia chief or imperial world policeman can afford. Have they not drawn “red lines” of proper state conduct?

The fact that Washington does not itself honor those lines is irrelevant. In the Orwellian world of empire, we are fundamentally noble, benevolent, well-intentioned, democratic, and humanitarian (unlike our vicious enemies), despite our occasional “mistakes.” As Madeline “Price Worth Paying” Albright (a great inspiration to current humanitarian imperialists like Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice and his Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power) said in 1999: “The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

This One Will Run and Run”

Citing Kosovo and adding on Libya, the new cruise-missile liberals-in-chief claim that they intend to undertake only a brief punitive action that will be over quickly, without involving the U.S. and “the West” in the Syrian civil war. But to go after any of Assad’s military and planning facilities or headquarters is to get more deeply involved in precisely that conflict and indeed in the whole set of conflicts across the Middle East. And how many times have we heard the “short-term” promise in the long mendacious history of U.S. empire? “Sure, we are told that it will be a short strike on Syria, in and out, a couple of days,” writes Fisk. “That’s what Obama likes to think. But think Iran. Think Hezbollah. I rather suspect – if Obama does go ahead – that this one will run and run.”

Expect More “Bugsplat”

The thousands of black Africans who died in North Africa as a result of Obama’s fake-humanitarian bombing and regime change in Libya are yet more so-called “collateral damage” (“bug-splat”) in Washington’s long campaign of death and destruction living in and around the world’s energy heartland. Why should anyone expecting anything better and truly humanitarian in an air campaign against Syria. As Middle East historian David Lesch explained in Current History last November:

“U.S. intelligence officials describe the Syrian regime’s air defense system as ‘massive’ and ‘very dense.’ It includes thousands of Russian-supplied sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and advanced radar with digital gear that is more difficult for American aircraft to jam….Taking out Syria’s air defense capability would probably result in significant collateral damage, since many of the air defense missile batteries are located in and around densely populated cities…..Intervention, moreover, could result in unpredictable consequences….” (David Lesch, “Prudence Suggests Staying Out of Syria,” Current History, November 2012, p. 300).

When experts say “significant collateral damage,” an accurate translation is indicated for common usage: “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians,” as in Fallujah, as in many of Obama’s bombings and drone attacks in South Asia and the Middle East, and as in countless U.S. military actions around the world for very many decades. Plus ca change….

Paul Street, an Iowa City resident,  is the author or numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio)  Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011).  Street can be reached at

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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