The 2013 alleged sarin gas attack in Syria: A pretext for war

The beginning of 2013 saw a steady build-up of imperialist pressure on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad as insurgent forces, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, stepped up their attacks on the government. US military forces prepared to intervene directly in the civil war for the first time with the deployment of Patriot missiles, ostensibly in Turkey as part of the NATO military alliance, south toward Syria. The Obama administration openly announced aid to the Syrian opposition forces.

The WSWS denounced US plans to expand and intervene in the Syrian civil war. In a Perspective posted on March 21, 2013, Bill Van Auken wrote:

The ideological pretexts for a US war in Syria are even less coherent than the ones used to carry out the war in Iraq a decade ago. The real driving forces are the same. What is involved is a predatory war aimed at redrawing the map of the Middle East to suit the interests of US imperialism and assure its hegemony over the region’s energy resources. War for regime change in Syria is part of a broader campaign for war with Iran and carries with it the threat of drawing in Russia and China, as well.

The imperialist campaign against Syria focused increasingly on allegations that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons against its own people, presented without evidence or even any effort to explain why—in view of the lack of any military benefit—the regime would do so. Moreover, evidence emerged that it was the US-backed “rebels,” not Assad, who were using chemical weapons, in an effort to provide a pretext for the type of outside imperialist intervention necessary to bring them to power.

The WSWS called attention to a major aspect of the effort by Washington to prepare public opinion for its operations in Syria: the role of pseudo-left groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in openly defending Western military intervention, claiming it would restore democracy. The ISO issued a May Day statement calling for imperialist military aid to the Syrian “rebels.” Responding to this, David North and Alex Lantier wrote:

The ISO statement aims to provide a cynically-contrived pseudo-left cover, couched in the language of “human rights,” for a proxy war being waged by reactionary mercenary forces financed and armed by US and European imperialism. The ISO statement blatantly falsifies the character of both Syria’s Islamist opposition and US war aims in the Middle East, functioning as a propaganda instrument of power politics.

The timing of the statement’s publication is politically significant. It occurs in the midst of an escalating propaganda campaign in the American and European media to prepare public opinion for direct military intervention in Syria and the installation of a puppet regime in Damascus. The day after the statement appeared, Israeli air strikes hit the Syrian capital.

The commentary went on to expose the ISO’s obscene comparison of the US-backed Islamic fundamentalist insurgency in Syria and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, in which millions of workers and youth took to the streets to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship:

The mass popular movement that unfolded in Egypt bore all the characteristics of a genuine revolution. Initial mass protests grew into a general strike, demanding the fall of Mubarak and better living standards for working people. The revolutionary movement unified Muslims and Christians participating in protests and strikes. And, in what was the surest sign of the popular and progressive character of the movement, it was opposed by American imperialism. The Obama administration supported Mubarak’s attempts to crush the protests. Only after it became convinced that Mubarak could not be saved did the United States shift its counter-revolutionary tactics and promote the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to the old dictatorship.

The commentary concluded:

There is no question but that Bashar al-Assad heads a repressive bourgeois regime that is guilty of countless crimes against the Syrian working class. As is the case in all the former colonial countries in the Middle East, the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry through a genuinely democratic restructuring of society led to the establishment of quasi-Bonapartist dictatorial regimes, in which democratic rights were ruthlessly suppressed. However, it is a basic axiom of socialist politics that the overthrow of these regimes is the task of the working class. The struggle for democracy and socialism cannot under any circumstances be outsourced to the imperialist powers and their proxies.

It was on this principled basis that the WSWS approached the August-September global political crisis over Syria, which brought the world to the brink of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia, the two main nuclear-armed powers, which backed opposite sides in the civil war. In late June, the Obama administration formally authorized the shipment of lethal military equipment to the Syrian rebels. Then on August 21, the propaganda campaign over chemical weapons reached its peak, with the allegation that Assad had crossed the “red line” laid down by President Barack Obama the year before, using chemical weapons in rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus.

On August 28, the WSWS published a Perspective analyzing the fundamental driving forces in the US war drive against Syria: the strategic imperative of dominating the Eurasian land mass, the unresolved economic crisis signaled by the 2008 Wall Street crash, and the deepening social tensions at home. The WSWS warned:

Imperialist militarism is seen by the ruling elite as an essential means of directing social tensions outward, along the useless and destructive channels of war.

But the twentieth century teaches that the ruling classes that hoped to extricate themselves from the bankruptcy of capitalism by winning big at the roulette table of militarism, eventually discovered that the odds of history were against them and they had made some very bad bets.

The imperialist war drive began to unravel, however, due to contradictions within its own camp. First came the vote in the British parliament, which unexpectedly rejected a call by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to join the US in military strikes on Syria. Obama sought to recoup this blow by obtaining a vote of Congress to back a unilateral attack, unlike the war against Libya, where a NATO authorization was used as an unconstitutional substitute for congressional backing.

The Political Committee of the Socialist Equality Party (US) issued a statement denouncing Obama’s maneuver and warning of the continuing war danger. The WSWS analyzed both the role of the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the maneuvers among the various imperialist allies of the United States, including France, Germany, Canada and Australia, as well as the European Union as a whole.

In the end, Obama made a tactical retreat, postponing immediate military action in the face of deep divisions both inside the NATO alliance and within the US ruling elite, and growing popular opposition at home. He seized on a proposal from Russia for the supervised destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, the nominal pretext for the threatened US attack. The deal between Washington and Moscow postponed a direct confrontation, but did not put an end to the danger of imperialist war in the region.

In the months which followed, there were bitter recriminations within the imperialist camp over Obama’s decision not to “pull the trigger” on a war with Syria. Meanwhile, the WSWS analysis of the “chemical weapons” provocation was vindicated by the reporting of veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who analyzed the circumstances of the alleged attack and demonstrated that the pro-imperialist “rebels,” not the Assad regime, were the likely culprits.

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