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An Interview with James Corbett

Who Really Crossed the Red Line?

by ALESSANDRA BAJEC

The momentum for war seems to have slowed down as President Obama turns to Congress to get the go-ahead for military action against Syria. Despite Obama’s surprise U-turn on Syria, the US administration is said to retain ‘its right’ to strike regardless of a vote in Congress, which could come as early as next week.

While Washington appears resolved to act, even without the UN approval or support of its allies like Britain, Obama is facing huge public pressure with more than half of Americans opposing intervention and support counting only 9%.

Let alone US credibility being called into question worldwide because of false claims about weapons of mass destruction used in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, as people fear the same is happening with Syria to justify another war.

With the G20 summit taking place this week and US congressional debate due to start on 9 September, the Obama administration will certainly continue to build the US case for a punitive military strike against Syria. The ‘red line’ has been crossed, and that’s enough for Washington to trigger action.

Independent journalist James Corbett at corbettreport.com expressed his views on the latest in Syria.

Alessandra Bajec: US administration officials say they have evidence showing that Syrian government forces carried out the 21 August chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. What kind of evidence does Washington have?

James Corbett: Their evidence is circumstantial and sketchy at best. It mainly relies on supposed telecommunications intercepted via Israeli Mossad’s sources which, I think, have to be called into question by their very nature as being not from a disinterested party in this.

The US government has no definitive proof linking the attack to Assad directly. In fact, the evidence shows this was not known by the upper ranks of the Syrian management. Some of the reported intercepts came from people on the ground trying to get in touch with the Ministry of Defence to find out what was happening, the Ministry of Defence had no idea what was going on based on those intercepts. That would suggest the attack was not ordered from the top, at the very least.

Instead, there’s a lot of counterfactual evidence that points to eye witness testimony of people in Ghouta, where the chemical weapons attack supposedly took place, now claiming it was the rebels who launched such an attack. The eye witnessing came through a report that was filed by Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh at mintpressnews.com on 29 August. This report seems to indicate the exact opposite of what the US has been saying.

AB: US intelligence officials told The Associated Press that the dossier released by the White House does not directly link the alleged chemical attack to the Assad government. What has essentially come out from intelligence sources?

JC: Neither of the intelligence sources, spy networks inside Syria or telecommunications intercepts, can in any way confirm that Assad had anything to do with this attack. Which really undermines the case as a whole since what they’re attempting to say is simply ‘take our word for it’.

AB: Secretary of State Kerry has been stating that Washington is almost certain the chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s order. What makes the Obama administration so confident?

JC: This assertion by Kerry tends to go in line with US foreign policy agenda to destabilize the Assad government that’s been played out since long before the current Syrian crisis of the last 2 and half years. WikiLeaks documents released from diplomatic cables, few years ago, show the Bush administration already approved the funding of Syria’s opposition in 2006, and the active arming of the opposition began as far back as 2007.

Obama’s ‘red line’ of chemical warfare has already been breached by the rebels on various occasions. One chemical weapons attack, for example, took place on 19 March in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. A UN investigation which included eye witness testimony concluded in May that sarin gas was used by rebels in the incident. Bu the American government, for some reasons, is not talking about that.

AB: President Obama seems determined to take military action against Syria. However, he will now seek Congress approval first. What do you make of Obama taking a step back from what earlier suggested an imminent strike into Syria?

JC: It’s an interesting development as it did seem it was almost inevitable that the attack was going to commence this past weekend. Obama’s position was severely undermined by the significant resistance that he was receiving not only abroad, most notably from Britain which ruled out involvement in any military action last week, but also at home where this has been a deeply unpopular idea. Recent polls have suggested that as little as 9% of the American population want the US to intervene militarily, and 80% of them wanted Obama to consult the Congress before carrying out the attack.

Also, if Barack Obama was to take America into a military intervention that was deeply unpopular with the American public, like the Iraq war, it would be something politically suicidal. Especially at a time when the Americans are overwhelmingly rejecting US plans to attack Syria.

Moreover, Obama will be attending this week’s G20 and it would be almost inconceivable for him to take part in or launch a strike into a foreign country while away, meeting face to face people like Russian President Putin, vehemently opposed to US attack on Syria.

So the Obama administration had to either act last week-end or put the plan off.

AB: International momentum towards military intervention has slowed down. Is the US administration, backed by France, continuing to seek a coalition for action or is Washington prepared to attack Syria even alone?

JC: The US definitely indicated that it is ready to go ahead even without the support of the international community. Judging from some remarks made by Kerry and Obama himself, I think they will probably have to launch some strike, at this point, to maintain any kind of political credibility.

AB: The Obama administration is reportedly basing his case for military action on two points: the use of chemical weapons being a ‘red line’ that can’t be crossed, and indirectly a threat on America’s national interests. How do you comment on that?

JC: The reason why Obama put forward that case is because it’s the benchmark that has been set for the idea of US military intervention. There’s always have to be a realistic cover for something that is, at the very least, a preventive action in defence of the US. We saw that’s been used in the past, namely in the Iraq war under the Bush administration.

AB: John Kerry says that whatever comes out of the UN investigation into the chemical attack in Syria is not going to make any difference to the US. Washington has made it clear that it is ready to go ahead with air strikes even before the inspection team discloses its findings. So the US administration has already decided what to do anyway?

JC: UN inspectors are simply going to determine if a chemical weapons attack took place, not who is to blame for the attack. They are reduced to a ‘parody’ here since their reports have zero relevance whatsoever. The fact that the UN team was already inside Syria at the time of the attack is significant because it’s another indication that this attack did not come from Assad’s forces. We’re being asked to believe that Assad waited until UN inspectors were in the country, and two or three days later decided to launch a chemical weapons attack at about 15mn away from where they were stationed in Damascus.

AB: The mandate of UN inspectors is to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used, not by whom. Why did the UN not expand its mission to identify who perpetrated the suspected attack?

JC: As I understand it, they’re going to try to establish exactly what type of chemical composition, and whichever chemical weapons were used. From such identification, there would be the ability to at least say –although not in a definitive way- whether those weapons came from the Syrian stockpile.

If the inspectors determined that the weapons used had Libyan origin, for example, that would be a strong indication that the attack was perpetrated by rebel forces. There are indications that Syrian rebels have been supplied with stockpiles of chemical weapons that came from the ousted Ghaddafi government.

AB: Final results of the investigation might not be ready for one or two weeks. However, Ban Ki Moon promises to speed up the process. If the team reports findings before unilateral US air strikes are launched, could the UN play any relevant part in the crisis?

JC: Other than playing the role of the supposedly neutral body that is going to determine what type of attack took place, I don’t think there’s any role for the UN to play geopolitically here. The US is perhaps hoping to get some kind of UN mandate for its military plans, but they’re prepared to go ahead with or without UN backing or support from NATO allies.

AB: Obama says the strike on Syria won’t be a full scale war, no boots on the ground, instead the action will be limited in duration and scope. What is a limited military operation set to achieve, then? What for?

JC: In my view, this has more of political face saving than it is achieving a military objective. Something has to take place in order for the Obama administration to maintain its face, having set the crucial ‘red line’.

It won’t be a full-scale invasion because that would invite all sorts of geopolitical tensions with Russia, the prospects of being brought into another war in another Middle Eastern country, which should be politically untenable at this point.

It will probably be a limited operation, in the form of cruise-missile strikes, aimed to hit so-called strategic targets.

AB: If the Congress vote doesn’t go in favour to military intervention, is it likely that Obama will still act militarily, given that he made it clear that a strike will happen sooner or later?

JC:. Given the incredible unpopularity of this already with the general public, I can only imagine there will be full scale protests, people on the streets really angry about such move. I don’t know if Obama really has the political capital to put something like that off at this point.

AB: Is the US clear about their own objectives? Do they actually have a plan for Syria?

JC:. Destabilization of Syria as a goal in itself. By making sure that Assad is not capable of governing the country in a functioning manner. Part of this, I think, is meant to keep Syria from being able to do things like the 10 billion dollar Iran-Iraq pipeline for the transit of Iranian gas to Iraq, Syria and Europe. That’s definitely something that a lot of players in the region from Turkey to Qatar and others are very much against. And the US also doesn’t want to see that project happening.

So destabilization of the country is to make sure that deals like that can’t be done. And it doesn’t really matter whether or not Assad is finally overthrown, even a protracted civil war may work out to serve those geopolitical purposes.

Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.