Since the Obama administration announced plans for a bombing campaign in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government, there’s been a flurry of skepticism in the US media regarding the administration’s case for war.
Those who get their news from sources other than NPR and the cable networks have probably read and heard commentators pointing out that a military strike without Congressional or UN Security council approval violates both US and international law; that Americans overwhelmingly oppose any such action; that the Obama administration tried and failed to call off the UN probe ordered by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; that the evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s government carried out the attack is far from conclusive; that interviews with victims of a previous chemical weapons attack, conducted by a separate UN investigation, indicate that Syrian rebels were responsible; that residents of Ghouta, the Damascus suburb hit by this latest attack, have given similar accounts implicating rebels; that recent history strongly suggests that any military intervention – from cruise missile strikes to a full-scale land invasion – will likely prolong and intensify the bloodshed, even expanding it beyond Syria’s borders.
There are many excellent reports and articles addressing these points, and I encourage everyone to read them. But to see how all of these different pieces – the doubts, the conflicting reports, the apparent eagerness for war on the part of the Obama administration – actually fit together, we also have to look at the material base of the conflict, at the economic and geopolitical actors behind the militarization of what could have developed into a mass protest movement.
So at the risk of oversimplifying, I’d like to try and sketch a one-dimensional “big picture” of the regional and global relationships fueling the war.
While Syria itself doesn’t have significant oil or natural gas reserves, the country is of immense economic and strategic importance as a transit point for Middle East oil. As Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar noted in April of last year, Assad agreed to a deal with Iran and Iraq – several months before the first major protests in March 2011 – to build a pipeline from Iran’s South Pars fields, through Iraq, Syria, and possibly Lebanon, reaching Europe via the Mediterranean. “The European Union’s supreme paranoia is to become a hostage of Russia’s Gazprom,” Escobar writes. “The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe’s energy supplies away from Russia.” Crucially, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would bypass Turkey, which has made no secret of its ambitions to be the nexus for Russian, Central Asian, Iranian, and Iraqi oil on its way to European markets.
In a recent Guardian column that’s well worth reading, Nafeez Ahmed points out that just two years earlier, Assad had refused a Qatari proposal for a pipeline running from Qatar’s North Field – which borders the South Pars fields – through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, and from there to Europe. This arrangement cuts out both Russia and Iran, Syria’s two closest allies; indeed, Ahmed quotes Assad as saying he turned down Qatar “to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas.”
As is often pointed out, Russia and Iran have an interest in bankrolling Assad’s war machine. Saudi Arabia, however, sees Iran as its biggest rival for regional dominance, both politically and economically, and the Assad government as Iran’s key ally in the Arab world. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have been training, funding, and arming sectarian militias in Syria since the early days of the uprising – which, contrary to the dominant media narrative, was marred from the start by substantial violence on both sides.
But those three governments are just the most active of the more than three dozen countries involved in illegal arms shipments to the so-called rebels, including the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Argentina, and Brazil.
Of the aforementioned countries, almost two-thirds are part of NATO, and together they form nearly half of the NATO membership. In this case, the regional imperial ventures of the Saudis, Qatar, and Turkey coincide with the longtime strategy of the Western nations to secure markets for the multinational corporations that operate out of them. These are NATO’s “private partners“: Energy companies like Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil; defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon; financial giants like Barclays and Deutsche Bank, and so on.
From Europe’s point of view, a new regime in Damascus could alleviate its dependence on Russian oil by agreeing to deals like the pipeline proposed by Qatar. With Syria’s full cooperation, instead of being gouged by Gazprom, the Europeans would likely land far more lucrative deals from the likes of the Persian Gulf monarchies.
If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, consider that the UK and France – the nations that led the charge to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 – get quite a lot of their oil from Libya. Among the companies who gained the most from Qaddafi’s ouster were the UK’s BP and France’s Total. These two countries, which have always had the interests of Middle Easterners at heart, have been planning regime change in Syria since before the so-called Arab Spring even began: In an interview for French TV, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas recalled that, on a trip to England in 2009, he met
with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate.
Dumas insists that he replied, “I’m French, that doesn’t interest me.” At any rate, 2009 happens to be the same year that Assad turned down Qatar’s pipeline deal. Taking Dumas’s anecdote as evidence of early covert operations on the part of NATO is not a “conspiracy theory”. In fact, to dismiss that conclusion as Western chauvinism would be to endorse the most extreme “coincidence theory” imaginable.
While the interests of the US, as the global military and economic superpower, also include the profits of US-based multinationals like ExxonMobil, they are a bit different. For decades, the linchpin of US policy in the Middle East has been control over energy resources. From the perspective of the US, this means preventing Iran’s rise as a regional power, which threatens not only US dominance, but also that of its closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
What does this strategy entail in an era when the US is less and less able to maintain hegemony through purely economic means? Maybe the most revealing illustration is the infamous 2001 Bush memo, recounted by retired Gen. Wesley Clark in 2007, which supposedly described the administration’s plans for regime change “starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” As we now know, it didn’t take long for the US to depose Saddam and plunge Iraq into the carnage that continues to this day. Meanwhile, the US’s Lebanon problem worked itself out politically, at least for a time.
But It wasn’t until permanent war got a “liberal” makeover under Obama that the neoconservative dream of military intervention in Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria became a reality. In Libya, a seven-month NATO bombing campaign ended in the assassination of that country’s leader and increased the conflict’s death toll by tens of thousands. The administration has stepped up its drone attacks and proxy fighting in Somalia, and deployed troops to the south of Sudan (which has since seceded).
In Syria, NATO’s military intervention has thus far taken two forms: Directly, through the training and arming of rebel fighters, and indirectly, through Turkey, Qatar, and the Saudis. At this point, some object that the US only supports the good, “moderate” factions within the armed opposition, whereas the bad, “extremist” rebels get their training and weapons from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. But it’s simply a matter of fact that most of Saudi Arabia’s arms are supplied by the US, the UK, and France. President Obama knows very well that they are used for the most brutal repression – not just in Syria and Bahrain, but at home as well.
Meanwhile, Qatar has the second smallest military in the Middle East: It gets 80% of its weapons from France, and plays host to a key US command center for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A negotiated, enforced arms embargo is still the first course of action to protect civilian lives, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Nobel Peace Prize winning humanitarian in the White House.
None of this is to say that ordinary Syrians don’t have legitimate reasons for armed struggle against their government. On the contrary, they deserve more solidarity than we in the US and Europe have bothered to show. But “solidarity” doesn’t oblige us to pretend that what’s happening in Syria is a revolution in any meaningful sense. It obliges us to call the transnational elite’s wars, covert or otherwise, by their real name: Mass murder.
It’s not about some Evil American Empire that is always to blame for everything. The struggle of Syrians is the struggle of the poor, the colonized, who are crushed time and time again by the teetering balance of power: the blood sacrifice of capital. While we debate whether or not it denies Syrians “agency” to highlight the determining role of economic and geopolitical forces in this catastrophe – while we wring our hands at the prospect of “doing nothing” – our governments, their allies, and their enemies make a mockery of the Syrian people’s agency, and ours.