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Externalizing the Syrian Conflict

by NORMAN POLLACK

The social forces at play are different, but the Syrian conflict, perhaps more than any other in a decade which has seen violence and civil war break out in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, puts one in mind of the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, whether as a dress rehearsal for a still greater conflagration or, simply, the setting for Great Powers to pursue their own agendas through using the combatants on either side in a proxy war. Syria is extremely serious business on the world stage, yet I confess, and am not alone in this regard, that it is unclear to me the respective merits of the opposing sides within the country itself. It is not enough to accept the adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” because both sides appear guilty of war crimes, chiefly, placing at risk, and outright murder, of the civilian population—again like the thirties, with refugees the symbol and fact of inhuman treatment.

What we do know, however, is that third-party involvement has accelerated and exacerbated the inner turmoil and conflict, in which competing religious differences, ideological agendas, and geostrategic policies and goals imposed from without, and finding correspondence to the parties within, have made Syria a living hell to its own people—and a powder keg to the world at large. Revelations of Assad-based torture and mass killings may be true, in which case obviously vitiating any claims for aligning with the present regime, but even if true, still raising questions about the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention because itself saturated by questionable practices (targeted assassination elsewhere) and motives (the establishment of a now-tighter sphere of influence in the region for multiple purposes, e.g., security of oil interests and sustained supply, foothold for protection of Israel, as part of an arc of military power covering the wider region, including North Africa and Southern Europe, and western rampart for the Pacific-first posture of containing China, naval power and military alliances in the Pacific completing the pincer-like engagement from the eastern side).

Had America been approaching the Syrian conflict with clean hands, one might have more confidence in the Obama-Kerry “diplomatic” mission of stopping hostilities (a supposedly immaculate transition plan of political democracy, the cart-before-the-horse litmus test for excluding Iran from the deliberations at Geneva II), but its aid to the Opposition, the reasoning for which has never been given to the American people, places the US in full view not only as taking sides in a civil war, but also in specific confrontation with other Powers (notably, Russia) in an hegemonic contest having little to do with Syria itself. It is no coincidence that the rival blocs are clearly delineated, the US, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, versus Russia and Iran, with unstated implications for drawing in others to each of the respective sides.

Putin’s recent move to prevent the US bombing of Syrian chemical-weapons stocks, is neither forgiven nor forgotten by Obama, just as behind-the-scenes pressure to discourage Israeli bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities, equally relevant to the current imbroglio, also has been taken, by the US and Israel, as an unacceptable display of interest and power in the region.

In power politics, no side can be taken as selfless, pristine, on the side of the angels. Yet here, the US is far and away the more interventionist, with Russia and Iran taking a primarily defensive role, so that, as in the earlier case of Afghanistan, in which America armed and supported the Taliban against an elected government backed by Russia (really, the resumption, if it ever stopped, of the Cold War on the seeming periphery), only to face the Taliban—and provide the pretext for massive intervention—subsequently, so today we arm the Opposition in Syria despite the fact, or even because of the fact, that it contains a seething cauldron of groups which, in the short-run, will do our bidding, only down the road probably having the same outcome of creating a New Enemy.

The opposition is no stranger to the commission of war crimes, to which we are largely silent, not does the presence of Al Qadea therein appear to hold us back. One might say to the Great Powers, ”a plague on both your houses,” yet, I submit, the balance is tilting further in the direction of US hegemonic expansionism, with, in this case, Syria, the new kid on the block offering opportunity for the further consolidation of global power.

If terrorism were such a menace, why aid the forces identified with it? Terrorism has been construed in practice as the stalking horse for counterrevolution. As implied above, I claim no expertise on the Syrian Question, still I fault the government, as in the case of every major policy area, for its extreme secrecy in failing to elucidate its true position. USG and Obama have betrayed the TRUST of the American public by placing the social order on militaristic foundations. Assassination, intervention, the unconstitutional destruction of civil liberties through massive surveillance and prosecution of whistleblowers, emphasis on nuclear modernization, paramilitary operations, heightened naval power, these are but starters for a regime—yes, regime—whose collective hands have been bloodied, nowhere more so than now, under a liberal banner, in its thirst for capitalist world dominance. Call it the financialization of US capitalism or whatever one will, the Obama administration’s position on Syria is that of the American eagle creating the conditions for and thence feeding on carrion—the innocent wasting away—when, instead, it could seek a genuine peace in the region as a whole founded on the mutual respect of allits people. Rather than stir the pot of hostility, renounce all claims to unilateral superpower status.

My New York Times Comments, Jan. 21-22, respectively, to the Gordon and Barnard article, “Talks Over Syria Are Set to Begin, but Iran Not Invited,” and the editorial, “Another Syria Peace Conference,” both provisional in character as the situation unfolds, follow:

I
I wish all sides were more forthcoming about their positions and the reasons thereof. What stands out is the US veto of Iran’s participation, a move effectively superseding the UN, and therefore dangerous on two counts: the need to involve Iran in a regional settlement, and the humiliation of the UN by this power play.

Iran will not go away; ignoring it risks further diplomatic isolation, with obvious consequences for internal hard-liners. More basic, what is America’s game here? Why arrogate to itself the right to become involved? Why, opposition to Assad? The State Dept. has been less than frank in describing motivation and policy to the American people.

And what is the role of Israel in defining the context for negotiations and a settlement? E.g., did the US veto Iran’s participation because of Israel?

Frankly, I do not trust Kerry; diplomacy is not a poker game wherein one plays his cards close to the chest. As with so much else about the Obama administration, secrecy rules the roost. Try to piece together the geopolitical strategy: how can the US be sincere about peace in one place, when POTUS orders targeted assassination in another? Or sincere and constructive, when the new military budget tops one-half trillion dollars (more than half of all discretionary spending)? For the peace conference to succeed, all positions must be exposed to the light of day.

II
Syria must be viewed in the context of global power politics, which of course is no consolation to the hundreds of thousands experiencing heart-wrenching human suffering. The rubble within Syria, the silent misery of the refugee camps, no continuance of hostilities can be justified in light of the misery created. Yes, a cease fire and humanitarian aid immediately, without regard to an ultimate settlement.

I sense that Syria has become a surrogate for a renewed Cold War, some change of actors, additional crosscurrents of religious conflict, but still US vs. Russia now engaged in a proxy war, each gathering satellites in the process. As has been observed by many, the US objection to Iran’s participation is worse than short-sighted, a persistent demonization which will certainly impede a settlement. Too, it remains unclear the composition and aims of the opposition to Assad, and whether war crimes from that quarter are being minimized. Assad is no St. Francis of Assisi, but one wonders if the other regional players, notably, the Saudis, are any better and have clean hands?

One despairs of the international situation, but as a critic of the Obama administration on so many fronts, from the Pacific-first strategy for containing China, to targeted assassination in several countries, to massive global surveillance, it is hard to credit US intentions here (almost a replay of Afghanistan, aiding the Taliban, then fighting them, now aiding the Opposition in Syria). Muddled.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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