‘The US Is Not at All Interested in the Welfare of the Syrian People’

Janine Jackson interviewed Gregory Shupak about US policy toward Syria for the April 20, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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Janine Jackson: Talking about Syria, it seems, is not so much having a conversation as occupying a narrative. Either Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is the sole source of Syria’s pain, those who oppose him represent the true will of the Syrian people and critical outsiders are benighted; or Assad, though flawed, represents the people’s will, the rebels are if anything more cruel, and backed by foreigners to boot. Because the US lies, Russia cannot be lying—or else vice versa.

Tweet from Anne-Marie Slaughter endorsing airstrikes on Syria

Twitter (4/14/18)

In another world, US news media would help people understand events in a country most know little about, and particularly understand the role the US has and is playing there. Instead, media’s evident point of vantage is that reflected in a tweet from Anne-Marie Slaughter, a senior State Department official under Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration:

I believe that the US, UK and France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere and says enough.

Those with pointed questions about when, where and why the United States says “enough,” and what actually happens when it claims to, will need to look outside corporate media for that conversation, and even the information with which to have it.

Gregory Shupak teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and he’s author of the new book The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, almost out, available by pre-order, by O/R Books. He’s also been writing for FAIR. Welcome to CounterSpin, Greg Shupak.

Gregory Shupak: Thanks for having me.

NYT: US Attacks Syria in Retaliatory Strike

Wayback Machine (4/14/18)

JJ: The lead headline on the New York Times homepage on the night or early morning of this most recent missile strike read, “US Attacks Syria in Retaliatory Strike. Britain and France Join Strikes to Show Western Resolve.” So this is the story as many, if not most, Americans will understand it, and we’re to understand that what the US is “retaliating” against is an April 7 chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces on Douma, a city outside Damascus and a holdout of anti-Assad forces.

So there is—and it’s acknowledged—dispute over whether there was an attack of chemical weapons, and if there was, whether or not it was in fact ordered by Assad. But before all of that, whatever happened in Douma—whether there was an attack or not, who ordered it or not—did the United States have the right to carry out this most recent air strike?

GS: No, I mean, not under international law. It’s fairly clear, as I understand it, under international law that you can only carry out military force with the blessing of the UN Security Council, which the United States did not have in this case—the United States and allies, I should say. The only other scenario where such actions can be taken would be if Syria was directly attacking the United States or was on the verge of doing so, which of course hasn’t happened.

So from a legal perspective, no, they don’t have a right; from any moral or ethical perspective, I cannot conceive of any justification for the United States attacking Syria. The most common justification offered is that the Syrian government, according to this line of argument, had carried out a chemical weapons attack, and that is evidently a bridge too far. However, among other problems with that line of argument, we can keep in mind that, as you said, the evidence is at this point very unclear as to whether an attack happened, or who carried it out if it did.

FAIR: Media Support US Violence Against Syria, but Long for More

FAIR.org (4/20/18)

Even if, for the sake of argument, we say, “OK, the Syrian government did it”; let’s say there’s unambiguous evidence of that. Well, it’s still unclear as to what would give the United States and its partners the right to carry out a further bombing campaign against Syria—because they have been bombing Syria quite a bit in a variety of contexts over the years—and what possible good that could do for the people of Syria. Because the US’s record, the policy record in Syria throughout the course of the seven years’ war in that country, strongly indicates that the United States is not at all interested in the welfare of the Syrian people. And I think on a gut level, most people realise that bombing a country is not likely to help the people therein.

JJ: You know, it’s pretty much the only response on the table, that somehow attacking bad will create good. But I want to bring you back, first of all, to the history, because it’s, frankly, missing from the current media accounts, which often include quotes from officials or pundits that say the US needs to “come off the sidelines,” the US needs to just “do something.” And that’s something that you’ve written about for FAIR.org. I wonder if you could just fill in for listeners, what are we missing from the history, from this idea that the US needs to, as of now, get involved in Syria?

GS: Yeah, it’s remarkable how widespread this information is, this misinformation, that says that the United States, or the West generally, have not acted in Syria. I mean, it depends on how far back we want to go. Do we want to go to the dividing up of the Middle East after World War I? Do we want to go to the CIA carrying out a coup in the late ’40s against Syria’s democratically elected government? I’m being somewhat facetious, because I assume you mean in more recent years.

So we can start by saying, then, in the years leading up to the war taking place in Syria, there was significant effort on the part of the United States to help drum up anti-government sentiments, through things like funding opposition groups in the country, or more specifically funding sectarian-oriented organizations, to drum up fears of a Shia takeover of the country via Iranian influence.

But if we want to go to really the heart of the matter, I think we have to start talking about the war that began in 2011; and in the seven years of that war, the United States has done a number of things. It certainly hasn’t done nothing. What it has done includes funding—to the tune of, depending on what estimate you go by, the Washington Post had put it at a billion dollars a year, other estimates are lower—but through that program, a CIA covert operation which the New York Times called one of the most expensive covert operations in the CIA’s history, the United States has armed and funded Syrian opposition groups.

These groups are not the kind of, I don’t know, “freedom-loving democrats” that sometimes they are made out to be in mainstream media, at least not the ones that have the most power in the Syrian opposition at this point. And US arms and funding have helped—directly and indirectly—some groups that have done some pretty ugly things: carrying out massacres, using a variety of forms of violence and repression against people who oppose them, and in particular these have often been targeted at Syria’s minority groups.

NYT: Sale of US Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States

New York Times (4/18/15)

So the thing about pouring weapons into a country is that people have a habit of using weapons when they get them. So in this respect the United States has, to quote a New York Times article from a couple of years ago, helped fuel the war.

Another key role that the US has played has been in derailing negotiations that had a chance, possibly, of going somewhere earlier in the years of the war. We don’t know precisely what would have happened had those not been inhibited, but at least there’s a chance that this war could have ended when the casualty figures were a fraction of what they are now, and the refugee numbers were a lot lower than they are now.

And then there’s this other dimension, which is that after ISIS got a really significant foothold in Syria, which we have evidence to indicate has occurred in large part because of the US pouring weapons into the country, those went to groups that in many cases had members join ISIS, or were defeated by ISIS and simply had their weapons taken by ISIS. So it was America pouring weapons into the country that had a very direct role in enabling ISIS.

So once ISIS came to global attention, the United States started bombing Syria, along with Iraq, ostensibly to unseat the group. In so doing, the United States has killed between—according to Air Wars, which I think is a pretty credible source—3,000–5,000 Syrian civilians. The United States has completely destroyed Raqqa, a Syrian city which was ISIS’s de facto capital, and in the process of bombing Syria, to apparently take on ISIS, the United States began building military bases in the country.

So now it has a substantial foothold in Syria. There are at present 10 US bases that are known to exist in Syria, with two more under construction. This indicates that the US has a desire to remain in Syria for the longer term, and to manage Syria’s affairs. The United States is engaged, of course, in a variety of attacks against the Syrian government and its allies, including the one Friday, as well as a comparable one in April 2017, but others have got less attention. So that’s a brief overview—or as brief as I can provide—of what US policy has been towards Syria.

The one other thing that I would add to it, I guess, is that it can be tricky to separate US policy in Syria from the policy of US allies in Syria. So we know, for instance, that the United States and Saudi Arabia worked hand-in-glove in an operation funding Syrian opposition groups, and providing them with weaponry and other types of support. We know that other US allies, like Qatar and Turkey and Jordan—the relationship with Turkey is fraught at the moment, but it wasn’t always quite so frayed—we know that these allies have funded a lot of rather dodgy sectarian, religiously conservative organizations, that have had a strongly racist bent in them, at times, in Syria.

So there’s a lot of reasons to suggest that the United States had no real objections to, at the very least, doing what these other countries, mostly from the Gulf, were up to. I think that we can say that the US is, at a minimum, complicit in the role that its regional allies have played in keeping Syria’s bloodshed going.

And to add to that list, I think we also have to include Israel, which of course is sort of a de facto 51st US state that happens to be in the Middle East. Israel has, according to its own estimates, carried out 100, roughly, attacks on Syria, bombing attacks more specifically, carried out untold other forms of military operations, funded an armed insurgency.

So the point that I’m trying to make is that when we look at the US role in Syria, I think we have to also kind of take into account the role of other countries that are very intimately linked with the United States. So if you have countries funding opposition groups that have carried out brutal attacks against civilians, but the US continues selling weapons to and providing military aid to these countries, like Qatar or Saudi Arabia, then that to me suggests the US, at minimum, has no real objection to what they’ve been doing.

JJ: Well, yeah, and you know the hypocrisy is almost so clear that it kind of gets stepped over in the conversations of, you know, “smart people.” I say it a lot, that American exceptionalism is kind of the card you show at the door to get into the serious foreign policy debate: “It’s different ‘cause it’s us.” I mean, if chemical weapons are the problem, well, the US has used chemical weapons, you know? If proxy wars are the problem, well, the US uses proxy wars.

So it’s difficult to puzzle out, and particularly from media coverage, what even the line is supposed to be, which is why I used that Anne-Marie Slaughter quote. Because it says, “Yeah, sure, we’re violating international law, but they violated international law, so we have to get them.” I mean, how do you make sense of that?

FAIR: Major Papers Urge Trump to Kill Syrians, Risk World War III

FAIR.org (4/12/18)

GS: Yeah, the Slaughter quote is very revealing, and one of the things that I wrote for FAIR, which came out last week—I think it was called “Major Papers Urge Trump to Kill Syrians and Risk World War III“—I made the point that several of the media outlets invoke international law as a rationale for attacking Syria, but US attacks on Syria are illegal under international law. So they’re saying, “We have to break international law to uphold international law.”

On the chemical weapons issue, you can read the report from The Intercept [actually Foreign Policy—ed.] that there’s evidence the US has used chemical weapons in Syria itself, much less in Iraq, where that’s pretty well-documented too, and of course you can go further back to other US wars, or you can look at US intimacy with Israel, which used white phosphorus in 2009 against Gaza.

So I can’t imagine that anybody who isn’t incredibly deluded genuinely believes that the United States is standing up to fight evil and to keep people safe from chemical weapons, or any of that sort of rhetoric. So as far as I can tell, it’s very often, if not always, just a blatant smoke screen for creating rationalizations for US efforts to dominate the Middle East, and Syria’s a crucial node in the Middle East. And very often, the media outlets are kind of transparent about this, sometimes perhaps unintentionally so.

But I’m looking right now at a piece I’m working on, on the Washington Post’s response, their editorial response, to Trump’s bombing of Syria, along of course with Britain and France. The Washington Post endorses this action, and they say that it’s necessary, basically, to protect what they call American “interests” in Syria. And the article makes clear that what they consider American interests in Syria is keeping Iran out of the country, irrespective of how Syrians maybe feel about Iran having a role, versus America having a role–that’s just not something that the paper’s willing to look at. The paper talks about the importance of stabilizing and holding large stretches of territory now under de facto US control.

Greg Shupak

Gregory Shupak: “Enforcing international law or protecting people from horrific chemical weapons is not something that is really an actual, sincere concern of the foreign policy establishment.”

So what this kind of coverage I think reveals is this talk about enforcing international law or protecting people from horrific chemical weapons is not something that is really an actual, sincere concern of the foreign policy establishment. What they’re concerned about is what they call US interests, and what US interests means is illegitimate domination of countries thousands of miles away.

JJ: Right, and sometimes they outright say: “We want their resources. Why should anyone else, including them, have control of their resources?”

GS: Yeah, that was made nakedly clear not long ago in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson. I wrote about this in a piece called “US Isn’t Leaving Syria—but Media Lost It When Possibility Was Raised”; I wrote that for FAIR. So Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, openly said that, I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially that it would be a shame to give up the control that the United States has over Syrian oil fields.

So by some estimates, the US has influence over, if not total control over, more than half of the oil fields in Syria, and Gerson—right there in one of the most influential papers in the United States—is saying that America should continue to pursue a policy that allows it to determine what happens with someone else’s resources, someone else’s very valuable resource, a resource that could be used to perhaps rebuild this country that has had its economy obliterated by being at the center of a proxy war for seven years.

JJ: And, just finally, I wonder where you see hope and a way forward. Jonathan Cook put it in a piece and, everyone’s going to be arguing about this forever, commenting on Robert Fisk’s images from Syria, but that all aside, he says, “Peace in Syria is the horror scenario for the United States.” In other words, the United States and its Western partners are invested in something other than stability in Syria.

I know that’s a very difficult pill to swallow for a lot of United States citizens, that actually what are called “US interests” are the not the interests of stopping violence. It’s not the interest in stopping killings of children that you see on the news. What’s the way forward for people who actually don’t want Syrians to pick who gets to bomb them, but want the bombs to stop?

GS: Yeah, so I mean I agree with Cook’s assessment; I think the US ruling class is being pretty clear that they either want the Syrian government out and/or to keep the war going for as long as possible, so that Syria remains divided and weak and bleeding. Yeah, the way forward; I think people can only do things about the society that they live in. So I can’t go and change what Russian policy is. I have absolutely no capacity to influence that in any way, nor can I influence the policy of any government that the state in which I live has poor to no relations with.

So if I’m concerned about human rights abuses in some country that’s an official enemy of Canada—which in effect basically means of the United States, 99 percent of the time; Canada’s a node in the US empire—but I don’t have any capacity to do anything about what Russia does, or what the Syrian government does, that is objectionable. All that people I think in America, and countries allied with America, can do is call for the US to get out, and call for the US allies to get out of Syria.

We know from the record that the United States has done nothing but contribute to the horrors taking place in the country. It may not solve every problem, it won’t solve every problem that Syria has, but we can make an important contribution towards the longer-term goal of giving the country a chance to rebuild and breathe and have at least minimal safety. And then, perhaps, under those conditions, there can be a way for Syrians to create conditions that work better for them than they had before the war, and certainly during the war.

So I think, to go by the old Chomskyan logic, we’re responsible for what our governments do.  And what our governments do to Syria is unambiguously negative, and we can take a harm reduction approach and say, “Let’s stop the harm that our governments are inflicting,” and that can play a key role in winding down the war.

One crucial thing which I didn’t mention was sanctions. So the US, Canada, other Western countries, have inflicted sanctions on Syria. These have caused enormous harm to ordinary Syrians. They’ve harmed water and sanitation, they’ve harmed energy, they’ve harmed the economy, they’ve harmed the medical system. So calling for an end to sanctions, that is another crucial aspect of what has to happen.

So to me, the demand should be, “US and its allies out of Syria, end the sanctions, accept more refugees.” And these will go a long way to, at the very least, ensuring that the conflict doesn’t get worse, because any measure that America and its partners have contemplated is certain to make it worse. So even if we can’t make it drastically better, let’s at least stop it from getting worse.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Gregory Shupak from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. His new book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, is available by preorder from O/R Books. Thank you so much, Greg Shupak, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

GS: Thanks again for having me.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.