Stephen Gowans Correspondent
The United States has invaded Syria with a significant military force, is occupying nearly one-third of its territory, has announced plans for an indefinite occupation, and is plundering the country’s petroleum resources.
Washington has no authorisation under international or even US law to invade and occupy Syria, much less attack Syrian forces, which it has done repeatedly.
Nor has it a legal warrant to create new administrative and governance structures in the country to replace the Syrian government, a project it is undertaking through a parallel invasion of US diplomatic personnel. These actions
— criminal, plunderous, and an assault on democracy at an international level — amount to a retrograde project of recolonisation by an empire bent on extending its supremacy to all the Arab and Muslim worlds, including the few remaining outposts of resistance to foreign tyranny. Moreover, US actions represent an escalation of Washington’s long war on Syria, previously carried out through proxies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, into a full-scale conventional war with direct US military involvement. Yet, despite the enormity of the project, and the escalation of the war, the US occupation of Syria has largely flown under the radar of public awareness.
Atop multiple indignities and affronts to liberty and democracy visited upon the Arab world by the West, including the plunder of Palestine by European settlers and the political oppression of Arabs by a retinue of military dictators, monarchs, emirs and sultans, who rule largely at the pleasure of Washington and on its behalf, now arrives the latest US transgression on the ideals of sovereignty, independence, and the equality of nations: marauders in Washington have pilfered part of the territory of one of the last bastions of Arab independence—Syria. Indeed, Washington now controls “about one-third of the country, including most of its oil wealth”, has no intention of returning it to its rightful owners, has planned for an indefinite military occupation of eastern Syria, and is creating a new Israel, which is to say, a new imperialist outpost in the middle of the Arab world, to be governed by Kurdish proxies backed by US firepower. The crime has been carried out openly, and yet has hardly been noticed or remarked upon.
Here are the facts:
In January, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that US “troops will remain in Syria” indefinitely “to ensure that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will take over areas” the United States captured from ISIS, even though these areas belong to the Syrian Arab Republic, by law and right, and not to Washington, or to Washington’s Kurdish proxy, the SDF. The SDF, or Syrian Democratic Force, is a US-constructed outfit, which, in journalist Robert Fisk’s words, is neither Syrian (it’s dominated by Kurds, including those of Turkish origin) nor democratic (since it imposes Kurdish rule over traditionally Arab areas and dances to a tune called by a foreign master).
Moreover, it’s not much of a force, since, without US airpower, artillery, and Special Operations support, it is militarily inconsequential. “US President Donald Trump’s rollout of an updated Syria policy,” reports Aaron Stein, writing in the unofficial journal of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, “commits US forces to maintaining a presence” in northeast Syria in order to “hedge against” any attempt by Damascus to assert sovereignty over its own territory.
The Pentagon officially admits to having 2 000 troops in Syria, but a top US general put the number higher, 4 000, in an October Press briefing. But even this figure is an “artificial construct,” as the Pentagon described a previous low-ball figure.
On top of the infantry, artillery, and forward air controllers the Pentagon counts as deployed to Syria, there is an additional number of uncounted Special Operations personnel, as well as untallied troops assigned to classified missions and “an unspecified number of contractors” i.e., mercenaries. Additionally, combat aircrews are not counted, even though US airpower is critical to the occupation.
There are, therefore, many more times the officially acknowledged number of US troops in Syria, operating out of 10 bases in the country, including “a sprawling facility with a long runway, hangars, barracks and fuel depots.”
In addition to US military advisers, Army Rangers, artillery, Special Operations forces, satellite-guided rockets and Apache attack helicopters, the United States has deployed US diplomats to Syria to create government and administrative structures to supersede the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Plus, the US “is now working to transform Kurdish fighters into a local security force” to handle policing while US diplomats on the ground work to establish local governments to run the occupied territory’s affairs.
“The idea in US policy circles” is to create “a soft partition” of Syria between the United States and Russia along the Euphrates, “as it was among the Elbe (in Germany) at the end of the Second World War.” On top of the 28 percent of Syria the United States occupies, it controls “half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates Dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land.”
During the war against ISIS, US military planning called for the Kurds to push south along the Euphrates River to seize Syria’s oil-and gas-rich territory. While the Syrian Arab Army and its allies focussed mostly on liberating cities from Islamic State, the Kurds, under US direction, went “after the strategic oil and gas fields”, “robbing Islamic State of key territory,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The US newspaper correctly designated the seizure of key territory as a robbery, but failed to acknowledge the victim, not Islamic State, which itself robbed the territory, but the Syrian Arab Republic.
But this skein of equivocation needs to be further disentangled. It was not the Kurds, who robbed ISIS, which earlier robbed the Syrians, but the United States which robbed ISIS, which robbed Syria. The Kurds, without the backing of the US armed forces, are a military cipher incapable, by their own efforts, of robbing the Arab republic. The Americans are the robbers, the Syrians the victims.
The US has robbed Syria of “two of the largest oil and gas fields in Deir Ezzour”, including the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest.
Last September, the US plundered Syria of “a gas field and plant known in Syria as the Conoco gas plant” (though its affiliation with Conoco is historical; the plant was acquired by the Syrian Gas Company in 2005.) Russia observed that “the real aim” of the US forces’ (incontestably denominated) “illegal” presence in Syria has been “the seizure and retention of economic assets that only belong to the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The point is beyond dispute: the US has stolen resources vital to the republic’s reconstruction (this from a country which proclaims property rights to be humanity’s highest value.)
Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor, who specialises in Syria, has argued that by “controlling half of Syria’s energy resources . . . the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced.” Bereft of its petroleum resources, and deprived of its best farmland, Syria will be hard-pressed to recover from the Islamist insurgency — an operation precipitated by Washington as part of its long war on nationalist influence in the Arab world — a war that has left Syria in ruins.
The conclusion that “Assad has won” and that the war is over except for mopping up operations is unduly optimistic, even Pollyannaish. There is a long road ahead.
Needless to say, Damascus aspires to recover its lost territory, and “on February 7 sent a battalion-sized column to (recuperate) a critical gas plant near Deir Ezzour.” This legitimate exercise of sovereignty was repulsed by an airstrike by US invaders, which left an estimated 100 Syrian Arab Army troops and their allies dead. The significance of this event has been under-appreciated, and perhaps because press coverage of what transpired disguised its enormity.
An emblematic Wall Street Journal report, for example, asserted that the US airstrike was a defensive response to an unprovoked attack by Syrian forces, as if the Syrians, on their own soil, were aggressors, and the invading Americans, victims.
We might inquire into the soundness of describing an aggression by invaders on a domestic military force operating within its own territory as a defensive response to an unprovoked attack. Likewise, we can inquire into the cogency of Washington’s insistence that it does not intend to wage war on the Syrian Arab Army.
That this statement can be accepted as reasonable suggests the operation of what Charles Mills calls an epistemology of ignorance — a resistance to understanding the obvious. It should be evident — indeed, it’s axiomatic — that the unprovoked invasion and occupation of a country constitutes an aggression, but apparently this is not the case in the specially constructed reality of the Western media.
Could Russia invade the US west of the Colorado River, control the territory’s airspace, plunder its resources, establish new government and administrative structures to supplant local, state, and federal authority, and then credibly declare that it does not seek war with the US and its armed services? Invasion and occupation are aggressive acts, a statement that shouldn’t need to be made.
Washington’s February 7 attack on Syrian forces was not the first. “American troops carried out strikes against forces loyal to President Bashar Assad of Syria several times in 2017,” reported the New York Times. In other words, the US has invaded Syria, is occupying nearly a third of its territory, and has carried out attacks on the Syrian military, and this aggression is supposed to be understood as a defensive response to Syrian provocations.
It is incontestable that US control of the airspace of eastern Syria, the invasion of the country by untold thousands of US military and diplomatic personnel, the plunder of the Levantine nation’s resources, and attacks on its military forces, are flagrant violations of international law.
No country has more contempt for the rule of law than the United States, yet, in emetic fashion, its government incessantly invokes the very rule of law it spurns to justify its outrages against it. But what of US law?
If, to Washington, international law is merely an impediment to be overcome on its way to expanding its empire, are the US invasion and occupation of Syria, and attacks on Syrian forces, in harmony with the laws of the US? If you ask the White House and Pentagon the answer is yes, but that is tantamount to asking a thief to rule on his or her theft.
The question is, does the US executive’s claim that its actions in Syria comport with US law stand up to scrutiny? Not only does it not, the claim is risible. “Under both Mr Obama and Mr Trump,” explains the New York Times’ Charlie Savage, “the executive branch has argued that the war against Islamic State is covered by a 2001 law authorizing the use of military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks (my emphasis) and a 2002 law authorising the invasion of Iraq.” However, while “ISIS grew out an offshoot of Al Qaeda, the two groups by 2014 had split and became warring rivals,” and ISIS did not perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. What’s more, before the rise of ISIS, the Obama administration had deemed the Iraq war over.
Washington’s argument has other problems, as well. While the 2001 law does not authorise the use of military force against ISIS, it does authorise military action against Al Qaeda. Yet from 2011 to today, the United States has not only failed to use force against the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s largest branch, it has trained and equipped Islamist fighters who are intermingled with, cooperate on the battle field with, share weapons with, and operate under licence to, the group, as I showed in my book “Washington’s Long War on Syria”, citing the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, which have extensively reported on the interconnections between US trained and armed fighters and the organisation founded by Osama bin Laden.
Finally, by implication, since the law does not authorise the use of force against ISIS, it does not authorise the presence of US aircrews in Syrian airspace or US military and diplomatic personnel on Syrian soil. In addition, it certainly does not authorise the use of force against a Syrian military operating within its own borders.
Let’s look again at Washington’s stated reasons for its planned indefinite occupation of Syria: to prevent the return of ISIS; to stop the Syrian Arab Republic from exercising sovereignty over all of its territory; and to eclipse Iranian influence in Syria. For only one of these reasons, the first, does Washington offer any sort of legal justification.
The latter two objectives are so totally devoid of legal warrant that Washington has not even tried to mount a legal defence of them. Yet, these are the authentic reasons for the US invasion and occupation of Syria. As to the first reason, if Washington were seriously motivated to use military force to crush Al Qaeda, it would not have armed, trained and directed the group’s auxiliaries in its war against Arab nationalist power in Damascus.
Regarding Washington’s stated aim of eclipsing Iranian influence in Syria, we may remind ourselves of the contents of a leaked 2012 US. Defence Intelligence Agency report. That report revealed that the insurgency in Syria was sectarian and led by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State. The report also disclosed that the United States, Arab Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey supported the insurgents.
The analysis correctly predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality,” an Islamic state, in eastern Syria, noting that this was desired by the insurgency’s foreign backers, which wanted to see the secular Arab nationalists isolated and cut-off from Iran. The United States has since decided to take on the role that it had once planned for a Salafist principality. A planned Saudi-style state dividing Damascus from Tehran has become an indefinite US occupation, from whose womb US planners hope to midwife the birth of a Kurd mini-state as a new Israel.
The reality that the US operation in Syria is illegal may account for why, with Washington’s misdirection and the Press’ collusion, it has largely flown under the radar of public awareness. Misdirection is accomplished by disguising the US occupation of eastern Syria as a Kurd, or SDF-effort, which the United States is merely assisting, rather than directing.
The misdirection appears to be successful, because the narrative has been widely mentally imbibed, including by otherwise critical people. There are parallels. The United States is prosecuting a war of aggression in Yemen, against a movement that threatens US hegemony in the Middle East, as the Syrian Arab Republic, Iran and Hezbollah do. The aggression against Yemen is as lacking in legal warrant as is the US war on Syria.
It flagrantly violates international law; the Houthis did not attack Saudi Arabia, let alone the United States, and therefore there is no justification for military action on international legal grounds against them. What’s more, the Pentagon can’t even point to authorization for the use of force against Yemen’s rebels under US domestic law since they are not Al Qaeda and have no connection to the 9/11 attacks. To side step the difficulty of deploying military force without a legal warrant, the war, then, is presented as “Saudi-led”, with the involvement of the United States relegated in the hermeneutics to the periphery. Yet Washington is directing the war.
The US flies its own drones and reconnaissance aircraft over Yemen to gather intelligence to select targets for Saudi pilots. It refuels Saudi bombers in flight. Its warships enforce a naval blockade. And significantly, it runs an operations centre to coordinate the bombing campaign among the US satellites who participate in it. In the language of the military, the United States has command and control of the aggression against Yemen.
The only US absence is in the provision of pilots to drop the bombs, this role having been farmed out to Arab allies. And that is the key to the misdirection. Because Saudi pilots handle one visible aspect of the multi-dimensional war, (whose various other dimensions are run by the Americans), it can be passed off to the public as a Saudi affair, while those who find the Saudi monarchy abhorrent (which it is) can vent their spleen on a scapegoat.
We do the same to the Kurds, hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at them, when they are merely pawns of the US government pursuing a project of empire-building. Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, has seen through the misdirection, declaring that it is the West, not the Saudis, who are ‘directing the war’ in Yemen.
It would profit us to heed the words of Ibrahim Al-Amin, who, on the occasion of the White House recognizing Al-Quds (Jerusalem) as the capital of Israel, asked Arabs whether it wasn’t time to realise that the US is the origin of all that plagues them. Let us leave ‘Israel’ aside, he counselled. “Whatever is said about its power, superiority and preparation, it is but an America-British colony that cannot live a day without the protection, care and blind support of the West.” The same can be said of the Saudi monarchy and the SDF.
I leave the last word to the Syrian government, whose voice is hardly ever heard above the din of Western war propaganda. The invasion and occupation of eastern Syria is “a blatant interference, a flagrant violation of (the) UN Charter’s principles…an unjustified aggression on the sovereignty and independence of Syria.” None of this is controversial. For his part, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has pointed out incontestably that foreign troops in Syria “without our invitation or consultation or permission…are invaders.”
It is time the US invasion and occupation of Syria — illegal, anti-democratic, plunderous, and a project of recolonisation — was recognised, opposed, and ended.
There is far more to Washington’s long war on Syria than Al Qaeda, the White Helmets and the Kurds. As significant as these forces are, the threat they pose to the Syrian centre of opposition to foreign tyranny has been surpassed by a more formidable challenge — the war’s escalation into a US military and diplomatic occupation accompanied by direct US military confrontation with the Syrian Arab Army and its allies.