On August 21, hundreds were killed in a chemical weapon attack in the Ghouta district of Damascus. This has proved to be one more horror in Syria’s ongoing civil war which has claimed over 100,000 lives and has displaced 4.5 million people from their homes. In response to the events in Ghouta, Obama is preparing to ask Congress to authorize military strikes against Syria.
There is major domestic public opposition to US involvement despite the desire for an end to the slaughter. Memories of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq and the bogus claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction are evoked by the current rush to attack. A Reuters poll found that “about 60% of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9% thought President Barack Obama should act.”
Syria’s civil war developed out of a popular uprising in 2011 against the brutal dictatorial regime of Bashar Al-Assad. But Obama’s desire to intervene now has nothing to do with helping the Syrian people and everything to do with the “prestige” of US imperialism and its desire to maintain its power in a region where it has strategic economic and political interests.
Obama claims he is going to war because he drew a “red line” against the idea of the Assad regime using chemical weapons, and now his administration feels he has to follow through on his threats. It remains unclear whether the chemical weapon attack came from Assad’s side or from one of the rebel groups although it is amply clear that the regime is capable of such an atrocity.
Obama has also claimed that the bombing campaign will be “limited” and is not intended to remove Assad from power. But it is increasingly suggested that part of the administration’s agenda is to “degrade” the Syrian military, a more open ended aim. Either way, the main thing the air strikes will accomplish is to increase the misery of the Syrian people. It is inevitable that many civilians will be killed as in all such operations.
Given the huge death toll from the civil war and the chemical attack, a desire for a solution to this horror is a natural human response. But to hope that the US government and its allies could bring any solution, given history, both recent and long-term, is horribly mistaken. The task of overthrowing the Syrian dictator remains the task of the Syrian masses themselves, with the international support of other working-class and oppressed people, not capitalist governments intervening for imperialistic reasons.
The Arab spring of 2011, and especially the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, showed the potential of the working class to liberate itself. During this revolutionary upsurge there was a popular uprising against Assad’s police state.
But interventions from the reactionary monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Western governments, along with political weaknesses of the leadership of the opposition, changed the course of the movement. As a result, the uprising against Assad’s dictatorship has been skewed into a vicious sectarian conflict pitting the mostly Sunni opposition against the Alawite regime and its Shia and Christian allies and unleashing a dangerous battle between the Sunnis and the Shias on a regional scale. Groups linked to Al Qaeda are playing an increasing role in the armed opposition. Socialists therefore, do not support either the Assad government or the increasingly reactionary opposition forces, but instead stand for the independent interests of the workers and poor people of Sryia.
John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State, has characterized the actions of the Assad regime as a “moral obscenity.” However, Obama and Kerry were willing to look past the “moral obscenity” of Saudi troops crushing the Bahraini uprising of 2011 and Israel’s open-air prison on the Gaza Strip that denies the Palestinians their democratic and national rights.
In the 1980s, the US was supporting Iraq in its war with Iran and said nothing about the Saddam Hussein regime’s massive use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces. The US is also directly responsible for the “moral obscenity” of the destruction of Iraq, including the alleged use of white phosphorous and depleted uranium tipped missiles. Whatever humanitarian concerns Obama or Kerry may put forward, US intervention in Syria is not about genuine liberation, but imperialist maneuvering.
Limits of US Power
As of two weeks ago, the US was preparing to immediately attack Syria, with the support of the British and French governments. Because it was clear that Russia would use its veto power they were denied the “legal cover” of a United Nations Security Council resolution. But the vote in the British Parliament against Prime Minister Cameron’s wish to support Obama on Syria, upended the administration’s calculations.
Increasingly isolated, Obama decided to seek Congressional approval. Despite getting the support of key Democrats and Republicans it is not a foregone conclusion that he has the votes especially in the House. And to top it off at this week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Obama and Putin, the Russian President, debated the issue in front of the other heads of state until “the early hours of the morning” and at the end most countries, including many close US “allies” like Germany, still expressed themselves as opposed to military action.
Within the American elite there are many who question whether the attack will be effective on its own terms and who are concerned about “unintended consequences” and being drawn deeper into Syria’s civil war. But what is most clearly revealed in all of this is the increasing limits of US power, already badly damaged by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Democratic Party Exposed
The drive to war, along with the recent NSA scandal, has also done incredible damage to Obama’s progressive credentials. Obama was elected on the promise to bring an end to US involvement in Iraq and the years of Bush’s warmongering. Instead he has been a war president with the murderous drones multiplying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, albeit largely replacing troops on the ground, and the maintenance of the prison in Guantanamo Bay. Notorious right-wing warmonger William Kristol has gone so far as to praise Obama as a “born again neo-con.”
It is not just Obama as an individual who lacks antiwar credentials, but the entire Democratic Party. The reality is that the Democrats led the country into almost all the wars it has fought in the past hundred years. They almost unanimously supported Bush’s war resolution on Afghanistan and most of them gave the green light for the invasion of Iraq. They are a party of big business committed to defending its interests here and overseas.
This is illustrated by the case of Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress, and won a tight primary race in 2006 as an anti-war insurgent challenging an establishment Democrat. Although Ellison’s election was entirely due to support from the anti-war movement, he has come out in favor of intervention in Syria, saying “I just don’t think the world can stand by and say that’s ok, that’s not our business, we don’t have to worry about it.”
This shows the role of “left-wing” and “progressive” politicians like Ellison, who help funnel movements like the antiwar movement into the dead end of the Democratic Party by providing the right-wing Party leadership a left-wing face. Again and again, the Democratic Party has co-opted and demobilized mass movements, diverting anger into safe channels that do not threaten the interests of the ruling class.
With Obama, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi beating the drums for war, it should be clear to all those who are against war that we can’t rely on the Democratic Party to represent us. Working people need to build an anti-war, anti-corporate political alternative to the two parties of imperialism, war, and big business. The three Socialist Alternative candidates in Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle are an example of what can be done. The buildup to an attack on Syria shows once again that it is time to build a left alternative on a national basis.
What we say:
- No to imperialist intervention by the US and its allies in Syria. Withdrawal of all foreign troops.
- For the building of united, non-sectarian defense committees in Syria to defend workers, the poor and others against sectarian attacks from all sides.
- National, democratic and equal religious rights for all ethnic groups.
- Free and democratic elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly.
- For a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East and North Africa.