Why Didn’t Obama Bomb Syria?

4 Oct

We can let go of our breath now.  It really looks like the U.S. bombing of Syria is off.  It sure didn’t look that way at the end of August.  The first videos of large numbers of corpses without apparent wounds appeared on August 21.  Shortly afterwards the Obama Administration announced chemical weapons had been used and began sending U.S. warships closer to Syria.   If you recall it appeared that Obama would bomb not just without waiting for the report of the U.N. inspectors or getting U.N. Security Council approval , but without even taking it up with Congress.  With the “easy” win in Libya and the weakness of the anti-war movement it looked like an attack was a forgone conclusion.  Just recently the Jerusalem Post printed an article saying that a U.S. French strike had been planned for September 1st.

Yet within a few days after the march to war began it hit bumps in the road.  The usual appeals and strong arming to gather support from the “international community” didn’t work.  Russia and China, burned over Libya were not going to be fooled twice.   Obama could live with that.  But then the U.S. traditional allies did not rush to join in.  France gave its OK, but on August 29 the British parliament voted “no”.  That was a thunderbolt.  That gave all sorts of weaker countries the cover to hold back.  The Arab League, recently a willing puppet of the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies, took forever to come up with a resolution that Obama could use.  Ironically the new military regime in Egypt saw in Assad a brother.  On the 27th the Arab League did pass a resolution blaming Assad, but it didn’t call  for any kind of military action.

An article in “Foreign Policy” magazine came out on the 26th of August talking about U.S. complicity in the use of poison gas against Iranians in the 1980’s.  For those in the know it was old news, but FP for the first time published declassified CIA documents as proof.  While not directly connected to charges against alleged Syrian chemical use, exposure of U.S. hypocrisy on chemical weapons became well known among the well-read.  (Click here for the article.)

At the same time the polls starting coming in and the results weren’t good for Obama.  At first the issue was whether Obama could order the bombing of Syria on his own.    A lot of Americans started standing up for the Constitution.  Factor in here the Snowden revelations and the growing understanding and disgust with the Obama war on privacy rights.  Then there were polls about whether to attack Syria.  The first poll I saw on whether to attack was in Newsmax, a conservative website,  and the numbers  were running strongly against the war.  A shocker.

Conservative opposition to war was noteworthy.  The Tea Party Republicans came out against bombing. Opposition to the war started developing among the right wing radio commentators like Limbaugh and Hannity.  They criticized the war plans and started quoting Russian sources, RUSSIA SOURCES, rather than U.S. intelligence on Syria.  Now of course some of that sentiment was sheer hatred of Obama, but very, very uncharacteristically these commentators were not following the Israeli government line.

One of the reasons was Libya.  It hadn’t turned out so well after all.  Al Qaeda types were running around freely and some of them had attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi killing the ambassador and several other Americans.  The Right was using the issue as their Big Foreign Policy Attack Stick against Obama (since they could hardly find any other way to be to the right of the Assassinator- in- Chief).  It was well known that some of these Al Qaeda Libyans had gone to Syria to fight Assad and the Right seized on this.

They had plenty of ammunition available.   The  reports about Al Qaeda types in Syria (more generally they’re called takfiris) among the rebels kept popping up again and again.  Back two years ago “foreign policy makers” were eager to use them to stiffen the spine of the “Free Syrian Army”.  Yes, they knew all about Afghanistan in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and the blowback from the U.S. pampering of the “mujahedeen”, but “foreign policy makers” were much smarter now and would take care of the extremists later.  Yet all the troubling videos of the Syrian takfiris in action were adding up, the suicide bombers, the head choppers, the mass executions and that rebel “commander” who ate a body part of a fallen Syria soldier.   Somehow it made a bad impression.

And the administration had no nice looking rebel leader they could bring to a joint session of Congress to make a plea for aid.  I doubt any Congressman or Congresswoman could even name a single rebel leader.

Finally there were the anti-war demonstrations.  True they were small.  Even in New York and in DC they were no more than 400 or 500.  Yet they made their mark.  The bright yellow signs of “ANSWER” were in the news, one being featured on the web edition of the New York Times.  The United National Anti-War Coalition put out a call for rallies and there were a goodly number on the East Coast, the West Coast and Chicago.  Code Pink had its “bloody hands” in back of Kerry as he testified to Congress.

On August 31 President Obama announced that while he had decided to attack Syria, he would first take the matter to Congress first.   Peace activists took heart.

If you recall, those in the know said it was just a trick.  Obama would attack whatever Congress said.   For a while it did look like the move to go to Congress was the usual, merely getting a  rubber stamp for war.   Ha’aretz revealed that AIPAC was about to send 250 lobbyists into the halls of Congress to twist arms.

Arch foe of Obama Sheldon Adelson and his friends in the Republican Jewish Coalition came out for bombing.   In my state Connecticut there was a “town hall” meeting called by Congressman Larson (September 2).  When I arrived there were 60 Syrians and Syrian-Americans in front of the West Hartford town hall holding a rally with graphic pictures of the chemical weapons massacre.  They called for loudly for U.S. action and the media was all over it (neglecting the speakers inside the hall who were generally against military action).  Again it looked like the familiar path to war.  The pictures of Assad’s horrors would be used to excuse another imperial attack.  Just one Democratic Congressman, Alan Grayson of Orlando, said he would vote against war.

But then a strange thing happened.  The opposition of the public to the war wasn’t just an airy “opinion”.  Americans were prepared to do a bit about it.  They started calling Congress and writing letters and overwhelmingly they said, “No war, no way”.  Grayson (formerly very sympathetic to AIPAC) started a website, Don’t Attack Syria   and after a while other members of Congress starting speaking out against an attack.

The very scientific Pew research group issued a poll saying that at the start of September half of the Americans polled opposed the war and only 29% favored a strike on Syria.

On September 5 the New York Times website showed a gruesome video of a rebel group beating and executing seven Syrian soldiers and it went viral.  They published a five column color photo picture from the video in the print edition of the paper that day.

The vote count against war in Congress continued to climb.  Would Obama lose the House and win the Senate and take that as all the permission he needed to wage war?

I happened to be re-reading Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution through all of this and I was reading about the fall of 1917 when the Russian government tried to stamp out the Bolsheviks while they attempted to stage an uprising.  On paper all the force was on the side of the government, but as the conflict reached its peak all the government’s power just melted away.  Its supposedly absolutely secure allies, got confused, wavered,  sat passive or went over to the Bolsheviks.  OK, there’s no revolution going on in the U.S. ,  but as I read more and more the parallels did not seem so totally off base.

Then from an offhand comment on September 9  by Secretary of State Kerry about the U.S. refraining from bombing if Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons,  there was another surprise.  Russia turned the idea a formal proposal and Assad’s government said “yes”.

Now at this point in a “crisis” the U.S. president usually says the other side is not really “serious” and that they’re just “trying to delay”.  His rhetoric gets angrier and the bombs start to fall.  Not this time.  Obama said the proposal had merit and postponed the Senate vote on war.

On September 11 (of all days) the  New York Times published a masterfully written op-ed by Russian President Vladamir Putin.  It reminded readers about some of the more unsavory fundamentalist groups among the rebel fighters and wondered aloud,    “Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? “      He deftly skewered Obama’s remarks about  American “exceptionalism”.   He wrote, “ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” He talked about the proposal to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons.   He also included a lot of nonsense about his devotion to international law and why there was “every reason to believe” that the rebels has used the chemicals against themselves, but the article made a huge public impact.

On September 16 the U.N. released its report by its inspectors in Syria.  They had some pretty solid evidence,  pieces of missiles with traces of sarin gas and estimates of missile trajectories whose origin were in the most secure area of the Syrian government  (for a full analysis click here).  Administration claims (they never showed the public any evidence) seemed confirmed.  Yet surprisingly there was no public shift towards  approval of  war.

As the days and weeks passed,  the Russians and the U.S. worked out a deal and created a Security Council resolution.  The Syrians would get rid of their chemicals, and if they didn’t the Security Council would …take notice (there was no military consequence in the resolution).

So who won?  It’s true that without the chemicals weapons the Syrian government is much weaker in the face of Israel, but on the other hand Assad never reacted directly to Israeli attacks so what good were the chemicals?   As far as the rebels are concerned they have one less thing to worry about, but Assad’s forces are already overarmed with Russian “conventional” weapons.  Obama was able to save some face.  Instead of facing a humiliating defeat in Congress he could claim that U.S. threats had weakened Assad.  Putin seemed the biggest winner.  His ally’s air force and missiles were not smashed by the U.S.   He came up with the idea for a settlement.  He was the man of the hour.

Despite being helped by Syria giving up chemical weapons, the biggest loser in the story may have been Israel and AIPAC.  MJ Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer and now fierce AIPAC opponent, wrote in his blog that AIPAC’s work was a complete failure.  On September 13 he said, “ AIPAC’s big lobbying day for war with Syria changed no votes. Not one.”  This is staggering.

On the 17th Israel doubled down.   Michael Oren, its ambassador to the U.S. announced that  Israel’s policy was seek the downfall of Assad.   Israel had never said that before.  Yet instead of getting reluctant Congressmen in line  the  proclamation had no effect .

Obama did made the deal with Putin.  What is more he’s responding to the overtures of the new president of Iran and that’s driving Netanyahu bonkers.

So what changed things?  Michael Karadjis an Australian sociologist had a long piece printed in the “Socialist Worker” of the ISO.  He properly boxed the ears of the Imperialsm-is the-Only-Bad-Thing-in-the-World groups on the Left that were willing to explain away Assad’s chemical attack and defend his regime no matter what.  Yet Karadjis noted the small size of U.S. anti-war actions and wrote,   “Is it just possible that …. the U.S. did not want a war on Syria, did not want to intervene in any way?”  He speculates that all the U.S.and Israel wanted was war without end in Syria.

My answer to his question is,  “no”.  It is not possible that this was all a charade.  Yes, Israel and Obama had been happy to let Syria bleed indefinitely, but after the chemical attack they went for the jugular and they overplayed their hand.   Obama wanted to attack and went through all the usual steps to prepare for it only to see almost all his support fall away.

It’s true that anti-war rallies over Syria in the U.S. were insignificant compared to the gatherings and marches of hundreds of thousands in the streets in 2003.  Yet why did the U.S. public turn against the war?  The corporate TV news played the usual ominous warlike music, showed the usual heart wrenching scenes and called on the usual “security” experts.  But something has changed.   After war upon war with nothing to show for it Americans are finally wising up.  They were listening to what  dissidents had to say on Syria and honking their horns in support as they passed by their anti-war demonstrations.

Ten years of rallies have had their effect.


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