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The Roots of American Discontent

US Credibility in Syria and the World

by GEOFFREY McDONALD

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, America’s official position has been that the evil dictator must go; yet in announcing its intention to strike Syria as a punishment for its use of chemical weapons, America says that it is not intervening in the civil war, just enforcing its “red line.” All along, Obama says he wants to get rid of Assad, then he seriously maintains that it is only about giving him a warning ticket.

When Russian President Putin takes Obama at his word and announces a plan for getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons which Assad agrees to, Obama accepts the plan but can barely suppress his annoyance. He proclaims the plan a success for his threat of force even as he expresses his doubts that it will work. This is curious. What’s going on?

Pundits read these shifts as Obama’s newest “off the cuff” diplomatic style or a policy in disarray. What they don’t notice is that these dilemmas are brought on by an imperialist claim of the highest kind: America’s need to demonstrate that it defines and enforces the world order in Syria. America’s dilemmas over Syria do not show any confusion in its aims, but its difficulties making them “credible” in a situation it is not so sure about.

America wants regime change in Syria

In the eyes of the USA, the original “red line” transgressed by the Syrian government was in coming to power 40 years ago as an Arab nationalist state. It wanted to challenge the lack of sovereignty in the Arab world because the West had already established its interest in controlling the region. Syria wanted the Arab nations to unite and become an independent force in world politics. To achieve this, it needed a power that could stand up to Israel, which aimed to weaken the new Arab states. Syria’s sovereignty from the beginning was hostile to Israel and the states that backed it. Its national program therefore included opposition to the US and its world order. It formed alliances on the basis of this common anti-Americanism: first as an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and more recently with Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and China.

That’s the simple reason the US wants to destroy the Syrian government. It wants to replace it with a pro-American government that makes America’s interests an integral part of its own national project. Of course, that the sovereignty of Syria should serve America’s interests is a contradiction. The US does not just say: they don’t accommodate us. Rather, the US represents its demands ideologically, as the world’s demands. It says: they violate universal norms. They are not a democracy. In other words: they violate the human rights of their citizens by not fulfilling their duties to America.

Freedom fighters

From the start of the “Arab Spring,” America supported those states that are friendly to its world order and opportunistically encouraged rebels in those states that stand in its way. The ideological view among the American public is that a rebellion broke out in Syria and then the US responded. The truth is that the Syrian rebels are the outcome of American policy. The US has a standing offer in countries that it defines as its enemies: make a rebellion and we will support you. The rebellion could not have developed into the kind of civil war that it did without America’s help. To succeed in overthrowing an established state, means are necessary – supplies, logistics, weapons. For the Americans, having others do its dirty work is a great advantage.

At the start of the rebellion, a variety of opposition movements emerged; some even avow socialism. Of course, the US does not favor socialism any more than Sunni dominance for the Saudi-backed groups. It subsumes these groups’ different reasons for opposing Assad under the principle “my enemy’s enemy is my potential friend.” Movements and programs which under different circumstances would not be freedom fighters are in this circumstance: the legitimate fighters against an illegitimate regime.

The plan to have Assad ousted by the locals with as little effort as possible from Washington has not been successful for various reasons. Russia and China finance Assad while Qatar and the Saudis finance jihadist rebels. The next task for America is bringing the opposition under its control: the tricky business of trying to find a pro-American element among them. America soon suspected the wrong people are leading the revolt. It tries to strengthen those favorable to America and tells them to dissociate from the bad guys they fight next to – in effect, instigating a civil war within the civil war. When it becomes a question of whether to support the rebels with heavy weapons, the official position remains “hands off” until they can be counted on to form an opposition that America certifies as legitimate.

Here too America acts consistently in insisting that the rebels subordinate their political goals to America’s interest in a pro-American government in Syria. The rebels must make American interests an integral aspect of their own program before America gives them full recognition. This has proved difficult. The Syrian opposition groups have their own interests which are not compatible with America’s demands. Many fight for a state that will be loyal to Allah, not Uncle Sam. America’s message to the rebels is: if we recognize you, it is not because of your interest, but only because you are willing to form a coalition that is capable of fulfilling its functions for us.

This uncertainty about the opposition is what the world perceives as America’s hesitation to get more involved than it already is. America works on this by trying to get the pro-western elements to unify behind it. Whether this succeeds or not, the rebels have sufficiently weakened the Assad regime so that it can no longer act outside its borders. For the US, that’s already a pretty good deal.

Good manners in war

What is the difference between chemical weapons and the conventional weapons of destruction that the Assad government has used for the last two years? Syria never signed the international treaties on chemical weapons – the best weapons a poor country can afford if it can’t get nuclear ones, and Syria’s insurance policy against Israel – so it hasn’t violated any agreements. The chemical weapons ban is the ideal of a community of states that has established norms for civilized warfare. America uses it as a weapon against Syria.

The “red line” America draws has nothing to do with chemical weapons per se, but signals the outlaw character of the Syrian leadership. America says: according to us, you have illegal weapons. This puts all parties on notice that the US reserves the right to be the final judge over the rules of war and the outcome of this conflict. The red line is crossed when America says so. It could have been set anywhere else.

The Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons is the moment that America sees Syria flaunting the rules that it has laid down for the conflict. It’s Assad’s “fuck you” to America’s authority to define what happens in Syria. This is when America sees itself directly attacked. America longer considers it tolerable to just to steer the conflict from abroad via proxies, but must intervene with its own – humanitarian – means of force.

But there’s a catch: if America wants to demonstrate its credibility, it is essential that it defines the criteria that determines whether the intervention is successful or not. That’s why Obama insists on the distinction that the strike is about punishment for chemical weapons rather than the impact it will have on the civil war. Of course, it is ridiculous to maintain that it won’t have an effect on the balance of forces on the ground. But America’s credibility as the world power must not be put into question if the war does not go its way. If America sends in the Tomahawk missiles, this must be an effective message to the world about America’s ability to enforce its will in the world. Such are the dilemmas of an imperialist power.

War by other means

America wants not only to demonstrate to Assad that its word is law, but the rest of the world. Most of America’s Syria diplomacy for the last two years has been the attempt to line up which of its allies is going to do what for America. This has also been a failure. More and more states do not fall into line, including America’s friends France and the UK. America finds that it can’t be the world’s leader without followers, making military action more necessary.

This is the dilemma behind Obama’s invitation to Congress: “I don’t need your approval, I can bomb if I want to, I control the military and it will obey me. But its better to have the people behind me in a war.” The debate in America between the hawks and doves mirrors the ambivalence of its allies.  The military says “don’t do it,” while Obama’s political advisors say “go for it.” The military says: we are not so sure how it will work out for us, we don’t know who the opposition is, we want Assad to go but maybe he is the lesser evil; maybe a military conflict with Russia is too risky. On the other hand, the main argument is that America’s credibility as a world power is at stake. This is how it is discussed – if we do nothing, our status is undermined. If do something, then the intervention must be designed in a way that restores our credibility without getting us involved in a war whose outcome is uncertain. This is a conflict between two imperialistic interests; one is strategic – how to get rid of Assad – the other questions whether that is the best solution; maybe it is better to watch the Arabs kill each other.

Bad manners in diplomacy

Russia, no longer a superpower but at least a nuclear one, steps in with a plan that makes the strike unnecessary. Syria joins the UN Chemical Weapons Convention and commits to disposing of its stockpile. For America, this is unwelcome – the chemical weapons were its international moral hook for the military strike, because it can’t just say: we want to destroy them. So this undermines what the strike is trying to achieve. The whole policy towards Syria had the goal of getting Russia out of the conflict, but now Putin acts like a representative of the security council, finds a solution and acts like a partner, which he never was before. Now Russia has the initiative, showing its importance in getting the plan realized.

America’s superpower decisiveness seems questioned by this issue becoming a matter of negotiation. However, it can also be interpreted as a success for America’s military pressure. So America tries to integrate Russia’s meddling in America’s world order plans as its own work. It claims this couldn’t have happened without its threats. The flip side is that the Russians insist that the US agree to not strike Syria. The US, however, doesn’t want to give up its freedom to punish. So it tries to give the negotiations the character of ultimatums.

How this will play out is a work in progress. The military strike seems postponed, if not canceled. The inability of the UN to act in Syria because of the veto power of Russia and China, which the US had complained about so much, seems eliminated. One thing is certain: America’s struggle to demonstrate that it makes the rules in Syria and the rest of the world will continue. For America, Syria is a case to demonstrate that it defines what states may be and do. Without this definition, Syria wouldn’t be an issue. Hence America’s discontent.

GEOFFREY McDONALD is an editor at www.ruthlesscriticism.com