Recent and not so recent events conspire to keep the Middle East in the news. Wars against terrorism and the terrorism of war leap from newspaper pages and the screens of computer devices. Television talking heads put forth their version of events; versions mostly dependent on the corporate and financial masters they serve. Truth is lies and lies are truth. Most recently, bloody attacks on civilians by US forces in Iraq and Syria have been dismissed by most western media as mistakes while an equally bloody attack on Al-Qaeda linked forces in the Idlib province of Syria that resulted in several dozen deaths from some kind of poison gas has been used as a rationale by the Pentagon to launch fifty million dollars worth of missiles at a Syrian air base. In other words, despite the lack of objective non-partisan evidence, the US used this bloody incident as a rationale to attack a Syrian military base, aware that such an attack could lead to a longer and even deadlier war. It is another case where the truth might well get in the way of US dreams of hegemony; two other such examples include the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to greater US military involvement in Vietnam and the falsification of WMD evidence that ultimately led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The overwhelming sentiment of most westerners regarding the Syrian conflict seems to be this: the Assad regime is bad, but the options are not much better and may be worse. The overwhelming sentiment of most western politicians and much of the media seems to be this: Assad needs to go and we are willing to put Arab and western populations at risk to achieve that goal. When considering this latter sentiment and the positions of those who endorse it, one has to question why they are so intent on removing Assad and his government. A new book by Stephen Gowans does a good and thorough job providing answers to this question. Given the current perception of Syria’s President Assad as the reincarnation of the devil and Saddam Hussein (a perception based on the actions of his military in the current conflict and fanned by western media), reading this book with an open mind may be out of the question for many people. However, its contents provide a historic and political context to the murderous war currently destroying the nation of Syria.
Titled Washington’s Long War on Syria, Gowans’ text begins with the observation that the conflict between Damascus and the West (led by Washington) did not begin in 2011 with the events known as the Arab Spring. To substantiate this observation, Gowans offers a perspective on Arab history and reasons for that history rarely considered by most US citizens, either because of ideological stubbornness or ignorance. That history began decades earlier with a declaration from various pan-Arabists across the Arab world who were fed up with western colonialism and wary of Islamic sectarianism. He discusses the creation of the Ba’ath parties in Iraq and Syria: their nationalization of industry and oil, their wealth re-distribution and modernization efforts and their demand for a political system based on politics and Arabism, not religion, tribe, or ethnicity. Furthermore, he points out how Washington (and those colonizers that came before) tried to exacerbate those differences. The point, as the current situation in Iraq makes crystal clear, was to divide and conquer.
In the chapter titled “Regime Change,” Gowans notes Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s 2003 comment that the US would not stop its intervention in the Middle East until the entire Arab World was ruled by pro-American regimes. He then details a little known anecdote about US attempts under President Eisenhower to assassinate communist and Ba’athist politicians in the Syrian government. The person assigned to carry out this plan was none other than Kermit Roosevelt, one of the masterminds behind the US-orchestrated overthrow of Iranian president Mossadegh and his replacement with the US client Shah Pahlavi in 1953. Roosevelt’s plan was eerily similar to the events which unfolded in 2011 in Syria. Internal uprisings fomented by CIA money and Muslim Brotherhood organizers were to work in tandem with armed paramilitary groups to start an uprising in Syria—an action which would bring the force of the Syrian military into the streets. In the mayhem, it is assumed that the CIA’s assassination targets would be taken care of. Although the plan fell through, there is a reason US citizens are not aware of this history. If they did know, it is perhaps less likely that they would support their government in its interventions in Syria and elsewhere around the world.
The reasons the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are opposed to the Baathists lies primarily in their opposition to the party’s secularism. Although Islam is also opposed to socialist-type economies, whose principles Baathists have historically tried to emulate within the context of their philosophies, it is the Baathist insistence on secularism that is the defining difference between the groups. When the Syrian regime tried to change the requirement that the Syrian president had to be Muslim, the Brotherhood rioted for days. In the aftermath of those riots, no reconciliation ever occurred. In addition, the fact that the Assad governments have been perceived as primarily Alawite (whom fundamental Sunni Muslims consider to be heretics) is another reason the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups are opposed to the Ba’ath regime. Naturally, the US and other western governments intent on weakening Ba’ath rule have attempted to use these differences to their advantage.
One aspect of the conflict in Syria that Gowans comes back to quite frequently is the matter of perception. For example, although many socialists would have difficulty considering the Baathist economy as being socialist in nature, that has been the guiding interpretation of many in the Washington political establishment. Consequently, the free market capitalists in the US circles of power have responded in the manner they reserve for those opposed to their mythology and intrusion. When it comes to the nature of the protests against the Baathists in the 1970s and in 2011, it is their questionable portrayal as both massively popular and originally peaceful that permeated western media. This portrayal led to a perception among many if not most westerners that the Syrian government’s military were overreacting, when in fact they were responding to what would be termed open rebellion in any western nation in which similar protests occurred. Indeed, many Syrians would have a hard time recognizing their country as described by the western media and those in the government who feed them their reports.
Gowans provides a reasoned, at times quite partisan, defense of the pan-Arabism project that once represented the hopes of millions across the Middle East. As his history tells it, it was a project founded on principles that included anti-imperialism, the ownership of the region’s resources by the people of the region and the fair distribution of those resources amongst all the people, and a secular approach in the realm of politics. As Gowans also points out, the desires embodied in this project were counter to the designs of Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East (esp. Saudi Arabia). Consequently, it was doomed to be in the bombsights of those governments almost since it began. Syria remains the only nation left of the original nations that made up the pan-Arabist project. This explains why the Syrians who support Assad’s defense of his regime against Islamist and imperial enemies are so adamant in that defense. They know that if he loses, their fate will be as bad, if not worse than, that endured by the people of Egypt and Iraq. Washington’s Long War on Syria not only provides a counter-narrative to the popular western version of the Syrian protests, but more importantly, a history and discussion of western intervention rarely heard in western media. If there is only one lesson learned from reading this book, it is that Washington decided decades ago that its plans for Pax Americana would be better served if the government in Syria was one that did its bidding. Once that decision was made, Damascus would be the seat of a government with a target on its back.