The massacre of 106 Syrian soldiers in a US-led air attack brings the Middle East and the world closer to the edge of complete chaos. If Syria can be torn apart, why not your country, or mine? If Syrians can be killed so brutally, and so casually, so dishonestly, so brazenly, so callously, why not all of us? Why should our lives be sacrosanct when theirs are not?
The policymakers in Washington organizing this destruction are not affected. Their wives and children are safe in their suburban houses in their leafy streets and they cannot imagine themselves or their country being sucked into the vortex of annihilation any more than Hitler did before invading Poland. We are back to the 1930s and no-one should be surprised if this situation ends where the 1930s ended.
But the next war will not end where 1939 ended because it will be nuclear and those smug policymakers in Washington and their wives and children will be burnt to a smudge on the wall like everyone else even if they don’t have the imagination to see it.
The fascists of yesteryear have resurfaced in the liberal democracies of today. The fascists wore uniforms, military jackets, belts and caps in black and brown. The liberal democrats wear uniforms, too, grey or blue suits, white shirts and pastel ties. The fascists killed remorselessly. The liberal democrats kill remorselessly. The fascists tore international law to shreds. The liberal democrats tear international law to shreds. The fascists lied as a matter of course. The liberal democrats lie as a matter of course. The fascist media trumpeted lies around the world. The liberal democrat media trumpets lies around the world.
World order now is being torn apart by the liberal democracies. This was made explicit by Condoleeza Rice during the George W. Bush presidency when, spelling out the national security policy of her country, she said the US would not respect the sovereign rights of countries where they did not deserve to be respected in the opinion and in the interests of the US. Well, the US never did respect the rights of other countries when it did not want to respect them but here was the reality being spelled out, arrogantly and openly, for the world to hear.
The 17th century Treaty of Westphalia, guaranteeing order in the European world and still a foundation of hope for global order, was torn up in a second. We have seen the results: countries destroyed and drone missile attacks ordered on the basis of authorization signed by the US president. What international law might say is irrelevant because this is the exceptional state.
Syria may as well not be a country with borders, sovereign rights and represented at the United Nations by the government in Damascus. There might as well not be a UN as far as Syria is concerned. It has done nothing to save Syria from this tempest of destruction and everything to enable it, in the same way that the feeble League of Nations failed to protect Spaniards, Ethiopians and Chinese from the onslaught of the fascists. There might as well be no international law as far as Syria is concerned.
The only country with the right to position military forces in Syria is Russia. All the others are engaged in the most tremendous violation of international law. Even distant Australia was part of the air attack outside Deir al Zor. The government apologized for the ‘mistake’ and moved on while the real story for the media was not this violation of international law, ending in the killing of 106 Syrians, but the domestic problems of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The arch villain is the United States. It’s record as an international pirate is seamless. It lives in a permanent state of war with someone, as if this is an existential requirement. The wars began with the wars against the North American Indians, moved on to the war against the colonial British master, then the war against the slaves, then the continuing war against Afro-Americans, then the wars exported around the world, as if the territory of the US was not big enough to contain its inherent violence, as if the belt around a bulging waistline had to be loosened. Wars shipped to Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East: invasions, coups, assassination, economic destabilization and the sponsorship of theft and occupation by the Zionist colonists of Palestine. In the past decade alone the US has torn Iraq and Libya apart and is now trying to finish off Syria.
The attack outside Deir al Zor was not accidental. It was planned, it was deliberate, it was preceded by drone reconnaissance and it lasted for at least an hour, way past the point at which the US would have been informed that it was bombing the wrong target. The aerial assault was immediately followed by an ISIS attack on what was left of the Syrian military installations. In context, the attack was foreshadowed four months ago when 51 State Department personnel petitioned the US government to launch direct attacks on the Syrian military.
It was foreshadowed by the Defence Intelligence Agency evaluation that the establishment of a ‘salafist’ state in eastern Syria would serve US interests: in the form of the Islamic State, this is what the US now has. It was foreshadowed by Hillary Clinton’s statement that if elected president she would authorize direct military attacks on Syrian targets. Finally, after these threats, noone should be surprised that it finally happened.
What has been made clear, yet again, as if the point needs to be made again, is that the US has no more interest in bringing peace to Syria than it did five years ago. It remains determined to break it apart, towards which end it is utilizing the most brutal terrorist groups operating in the world today. They include the Islamic State. The US did not begin launching serious attacks against the Islamic State until shamed by Russia: how serious these attacks have been since remains a matter of conjecture.
It is completely inconceivable that the US did not know the Islamic State was moving against Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra. Its satellites and drones would have picked up the pickup trucks speeding across the desert. The clouds of dust whirling up from their wheels would have been enough to give them away. The US turned a blind eye, and was therefore complicit in the seizure of these cities by the ostensible terrorist enemy. Furthermore, the attack on Syria has been in the works for decades, planned by the neo-conservatives, including Israel’s American Zionist implants, and honed and refined ever since.
Several times now, at the precise point the Syrian military was poised to liberate those areas of Aleppo infiltrated and occupied by terrorist groups, Russia and the US have declared a ‘cessation of hostilities.’ Each one has been violated by the US and its allies. This repeated disruption of an ongoing military operation has had to be extraordinarily frustrating for Syria and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah. They either know or have to assume that as part of the greater game these are moves Putin has to make. In July he warned that the world was being pulled in an ‘irreversible direction’ by US/NATO war preparations against Russia. It is a sign of the demented state of world politics that a nuclear war can even be regarded as possible. But Putin’s conclusions would seem to be confirmed by the behavior of the US and its allies, recently manifested by Samantha Powers when she walked out of the UN Security Council just as the Soviet ambassador was about to speak and demonstrated also in the statement just released by the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Germany, the UK, the US and the ‘high representative’ of the EU.
Their demarche against Russia is not just deeply dishonest but extremely belligerent. The US attack on the Syrian military position is not mentioned: it is Russia that is responsible for the breakdown of the ‘cessation of hostilities’, Russia by insinuation that bombed the aid convoy outside Aleppo, Russia that is supporting the ‘siege’ of eastern Aleppo and Syria by insinuation that has launched chemical weapons attacks. These liars warn that their patience with Russian unwillingness to live up to its commitments is not unlimited. This has to be read as a threat to Russia and Syria, perhaps of direct intervention in the form of an entirely illegal no-fly zone to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered takfiris in Aleppo.
If Putin has concluded that war with the US is a real possibility, he is also likely to have concluded that it has to be held off for as long as possible, giving Russia time to prepare militarily. The obvious parallel would be Stalin’s agreement with Hitler in 1939.
Thus negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov can be expected to continue to the bitter end despite their obvious futility insofar as the situation on the ground in Syria is continued. The only other explanation for Putin’s stop-start behavior is that he is in the process of selling Syria out to appease the Americans and gain ‘concessions’ for Russia elsewhere. This does not seem likely as what the US wants from all its ‘partners’ is not cooperation and respect as equals but subjection to the US-directed world political and economic order.
The collapse of the USSR was one great victory (by default) and the incorporation of a westernized Russian satrap into the US world system would be another. Russia already has a corrupt capitalist economy, fed off by oligarchic parasites, but it also has its own history, culture and identity and as much as Putin will try to accommodate the US, these are red lines he is most unlikely to allow himself and Russia to be pushed over.
In the meantime, while this deadly game is being played out, Syria bleeds every day of the week. Its ability to resist this onslaught has been astonishing. Government, people and army have held together against the most intense attempt to destroy an Arab government in modern times. Iraq was fatally weakened in the air war of 1991. It never recovered and was quickly knocked over when the US attacked again in 2003. Libya had no chance and had the US succeeded in getting another fig leaf from the UN Security Council, Syria would have been subjected to a far more devastating aerial attack.
Instead, frustrated and angry, the US had to settle for a war of attrition fought by Takfiri contras funded by the Gulf States and pouring into Syria from Jordan and Turkey. This has resulted in further frustration, anger and more openly expressed belligerence as with Russian help the Syrian military has slowly turned the Takfiri tide. Now only open intervention will save the grand plan, this time not just against Syria but Russia.
In the name of its own security, having undermined Syria’s security and paving the war for the rise of the Syrian Kurdish drive for autonomy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent the Turkish army into Syria. This is not an ‘incursion’ but an invasion which Syria cannot resist because it is too hard pressed on too many other fronts.
The Turkish army has occupied 900 square kilometers of Syrian territory and Erdogan is talking of increasing this to 5000 square kilometers, stretching from the east to the predominantly Kurdish city of Afrin in the west. The army is also moving towards Al Bab, on the road to Aleppo.
Erdogan has asked parliament to authorize additional military action in Iraq, where his ambitions would rest on Mosul, claimed by Turkey in the 1920s but awarded to Iraq (and thus Britain) by the League of Nations. Erdogan has now got the ‘safe zone’ in Syria he wanted from the beginning. How ‘safe’ this will be for Turkey, given the developing confrontation between the US and Russia remains to be seen.
Bashar al Assad is determined to hold Syria together. His enemies are determined to pull it apart.
Towards this end they have funded, armed and aligned themselves with armed groups whose only value is to show the world that there is no limit to the degeneracy of which human beings are capable. Are their besuited or otherwise berobed backers in Washington, London, Paris and Middle East capitals any less despicable? No respect for law, no respect for human dignity, no respect for human life, no remorse, no regrets, no morality and no ethics, just the drive to get what they want irrespective of the harm they do to other people.
We are back in the ‘devil’s decade’, Claud Cockburn’s description of the 1930s.
Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press).