Day after day the public in the West is submitted to a constant barrage of horror stories emanating from Syria. Such scenes are used by those who are experts in the business of shaping public opinion according to certain interests. Alan Woods explains that it is the duty of Marxists to cut across the fog of propaganda, to expose its cynical nature and to lay bare the real interests that lie behind it.
The saying goes that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. To this list we must add diplomacy, which is lying raised to the level of an art form.
Diplomacy is part of war and is the political equivalent of war. The purpose of diplomacy is to conceal the real war aims of a given state from its citizens and to lay the blame for war and all its attendant horrors and crimes on the other side.
We see this now expressed in a laboratory fashion in the current hue and cry over Aleppo. Day after day the public in the West is submitted to a constant barrage of horror stories about the deliberate bombing of hospitals and aid convoys, heart-breaking images of injured children and dead bodies of civilians being dug out of the rubble.
It is only natural that such images arouse profound feelings of horror and disgust among any people with normal human feelings. But these feelings can easily be manipulated by those who are experts in the business of shaping public opinion according to certain interests. It is the duty of Marxists to cut across the fog of propaganda, to expose its cynical nature and to lay bare the real interests that lie behind it.
Boris’ bluff and bluster
In an emergency House of Commons debate, Boris Johnson, the official court jester of the Conservative Party, said that he would like to see protests outside the Russian Embassy against the bombing of civilian targets in Aleppo. It is worth asking why he has never called for protests outside the Saudi Arabian embassy against the bombing of civilian targets including schools and hospitals in Yemen.
In his tirade against Russia, the British Foreign Secretary warned that it risked becoming a “pariah” state. He assured the House that the UK government was “taking the lead” over Syria. It seems odd then that he did not explain why such a leading player had not been invited to the talks on Syria in Lausanne, Switzerland that were due to take place the following weekend.
It is even more puzzling that the Russian “pariah” state was not only invited to Lausanne, but played a rather important role in the proceedings. This little detail tells us far more than a dozen speeches by Boris Johnson. Despite the absurd pretensions of its government, Britain is no longer capable of playing a leading role in world politics, and after Brexit it is even less relevant in the eyes of Washington.
The appointment of a circus clown as Foreign Secretary was the final cherry on the cake of Britain’s declining prestige in the world. Having failed to invite either Britain or the EU to the conference table where all the important decisions were taken, the Americans at least had the delicacy to come to London to tell the British and other Europeans what they had decided in their absence.
Standing as close to the American Secretary of State as decency would allow, Boris Johnson resembled a respectful butler waiting for orders to serve his master his afternoon tea. All the time Kerry was speaking, the British Foreign Minister stood nodding his head in total agreement, pretending not to notice that every word that Kerry uttered was like a kick directed at a most sensitive part of his anatomy.
Rejecting the demands for military intervention in Syria, Kerry remarked acidly: “I haven’t seen a big appetite in Europe for people to go to war. I don’t see the Parliaments of European countries ready to declare war; I don’t see a lot of countries deciding that that’s the better solution here.”
In a barely disguised rebuff to the man standing beside him, he added: “It’s easy to say where’s the action, but what is the action? I have a lot of people who have a lot of trouble defining that.” And he concluded “we are pursuing diplomacy because those are the tools that we have.”
The expression on Boris’s face was a painful struggle between obsequious respectfulness and an inane grin. He looked like a poodle dog wagging its tail in the presence of his master, and that is the precise nature of the so-called special relationship between Britain and America.
Who is responsible?
It is by no means our intention to justify Vladimir Putin who stands for the interests of the Russian capitalist oligarchy, not those of the Russian people, the working class or the people of Syria. Like their counterparts in the West, the Russian leaders deal in international politics from the standpoint of their own selfish interests.
Nevertheless, we must point out it was not the Russians who plunged the Middle East into bloody chaos. The present catastrophe is the direct result of a brutal act of aggression organised by an American president and a British prime minister who repeatedly fed the public with a pack of lies. If we are talking about atrocious acts, mass murder, the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, the torture of prisoners and the killing of little children, the first people that should be brought before an international court of justice would be George W Bush and Tony Blair.
The mass media and the governments that manipulate them have taken all the necessary steps to draw a thick curtain over these crimes and concentrate on the far more interesting subject of the brutality of the man in the Kremlin. The shrill propaganda against Russia has provided the perfect excuse to bury the damming Chilcot enquiry and divert attention away from the criminal actions of Britain and the United States that caused this mess in the first place.
Just as a criminal wears gloves before committing a robbery or murder, those who organise the most piratical acts of aggression present themselves as the champions of peace, humanitarianism and democracy. An excellent example of this is the hue and cry over Aleppo. The Americans and Russians agreed a ceasefire that was supposed to allow the free flow of humanitarian aid to a number of besieged cities in Syria, including Aleppo. But this ceasefire broke down within a few days. The West immediately blamed Russia and its Syrian allies. What are the facts?
The first condition of the agreement was that that the Americans would put pressure on the so-called moderate Syrian opposition to distance itself from the Jihadists. But this was impossible, since the only effective fighting forces against the Assad government are Jihadist outfits like Al Nusra (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah Al Sham). The moderate opposition is militarily insignificant and entirely dependent on the Jihadis without whom they would collapse immediately.
It is no secret that Jabhat Fatah Al Sham is linked to Al Qaeda and has exactly the same reactionary ideology and methods as ISIS. In fact, it was set up by ISIS at the beginning of the war to secure a stake in the American backed flow of men and money into Syria.The lines of division between ISIS and Nusra are extremely vague In ideological terms, nobody can say where Jabhat Fatah Al Sham ends and ISIS begins. Moreover, the distinction between the so-called “moderate” opposition and the Islamic extremists is a fiction.
Al Nusra is backed by Turkey and the Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar) which supply it with weapons and unlimited funding. Moreover, the sophisticated arms that the US has supplied to the tiny US supported groups are merely a thin cover for support for the Jihadis. They operate as tiny groups within the umbrella of huge Jihadi organisations who could crush them any time they choose. Very often the loss of US support by these groups has just meant that they have reintegrated into the Jihadi organisations.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, explained the breakdown of the ceasefire as follows:
“The first obligation envisaged by this deal was to separate the terrorists from the moderate opposition with whom the US coalition works. This provision has yet to be fulfilled despite the fact that back in February 2016 they said they could do it in two weeks or so.
“The obligation to unblock Castello Road to provide safe humanitarian access to Eastern Aleppo was set forth in great detail in the Russia-US agreement, including specific distances for withdrawing government troops and opposition forces. Again, the US said that it was unable to honour this obligation because the opposition was not listening to them. And there are many other examples like this. (My emphasis, AW)
“It seems that it is for the very reason that the US was unable to fulfil its commitments regarding the withdrawal of forces along Castello Road that they decided to withdraw from these agreements or suspend them, if not slam the door on them. They chose to present the situation differently. In fact, there was a specific reason behind this failure: they undertook an obligation to make the opposition retreat by fifteen hundred metres.
“The government troops were withdrawing, but the opposition tried to take over the vacated territory immediately. However, instead of admitting the specific cause that resulted in the failure of the agreements, the US opted for an abstract explanation. They argued that Russia was unwilling to put an end to hostilities that inflict suffering on civilians. We are used to this kind of rhetoric, so we keep working at it.”
Lavrov’s aversion also appears to coincide closely with observable events. Western television showed scenes of an alleged offensive of rebel forces (during the ceasefire) that apparently succeeded in occupying an area that had been under the control of the Syrian army. In fact the Syrian army was withdrawing from this area under the terms of the ceasefire. The rebels who had no intention of observing the ceasefire, took advantage of the situation to seize territory which shortly after was retaken by the Syrian army. Of such stuff are myths and propaganda legends made.
Of course, Lavrov and Putin have their own axe to grind, and there is no obligation to accept this version of events. But several things are clear. Firstly, everybody knows that the rebels were determined from the very beginning to sabotage the ceasefire. They desperately wished to avoid a situation where the Americans and Russians could combine to launch an effective campaign against the Jihadis.
Therefore the rebels made it clear from the beginning that they could not and would not observe the ceasefire. The “moderates” were unwilling and unable to break with the Jihadis, and the Americans were not prepared to break with the “moderate” allies. That is the real reason why the ceasefire collapsed. In reality it was dead before it was born.
The ceasefire received a mortal blow when the Americans bombed the Syrian army killing up to 100 soldiers who were fighting against ISIS around the besieged city of Deir Ezzour which is in dire need of relief. The attack on Syrian army units by warplanes of the US led coalition forces was a clear provocation that was evidently part of a plan to break the ceasefire.
The explanation put forward by the Americans that this was an “error” is simply absurd. The Americans and their allies possess the most sophisticated instruments of surveillance, and it simply beggars belief that they could confuse Syrian army units with the rebels. The Russians say that they have evidence that this attack was planned in advance, and we have no doubt that this was in fact the case.
Human shields in Aleppo and Mosul
The Russians made an offer to establish a corridor that would allow safe passage out of Aleppo, not only for civilians but also to fighters – even with arms. Channel 4 News, which is heavily biased in favour of the opposition, admitted that this same method has been carried out in many areas. If it has not been carried out in Aleppo it is simply because the rebels have not accepted this offer.
This means that a small group of Jihadi fanatics are holding the population of East Aleppo to ransom, using them in effect as human shields in the face of attacks by the regime and its Russian allies. They are attempting to use the resulting carnage as propaganda in order to whip up support for their cause. The fate of the civilians of Aleppo is of little or no consequence to them.
The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura offered to personally accompany the 900 or so Al Nusra fighters out of Aleppo in order to remove Russia’s excuse for bombing the city. The Russians immediately agreed, but the rebels did not. In fact, several corridors that were already established for civilians to travel to government controlled western Aleppo have been shut down by the rebels, and civilians trying to leave the area have been attacked.
The hypocrisy of the West stands glaringly exposed if we compare the attitude of the media in relation to Aleppo to its coverage of the recent offensive to retake the city of Mosul in the Iraq. One has the distinct impression that this offensive is intended as a means of compensating the West for the imminent loss of Aleppo.
According to the media reports, a coalition composed of the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and Shi’ite militias is steadily advancing on that city, backed by airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition. It is said that the fall of Mosul is inevitable. However, these reports are undoubtedly excessively optimistic. The forces of ISIS have had many months to fortify their defences and the attackers will meet with ferocious resistance as they get closer to the city. The real battle for Mosul has not yet begun.
Mosul has one and a half million inhabitants, in contrast to the 200,000 or so in East Aleppo. In order to take it, the attacking forces will have to subject the city to an intense bombardment by air and land. Despite all the claims about “smart bombs” the fact is that all bombing is indiscriminate and leads inevitably to civilian casualties. The scale of the slaughter in Mosul will make the bloodshed in Aleppo pale into insignificance. Already the United Nations is warning of a humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale.
By what means do the coalition forces propose to avoid civilian casualties in Mosul? In the case of Aleppo, the Russians offered to provide an escape route for civilians and even rebel fighters. In Mosul the coalition is dropping leaflets advising the population to stay indoors and take shelter! Even a child can see that hiding in houses on which bombs are being dropped is hardly a recipe for saving lives.
As if to prepare world opinion for the coming carnage, the media is already saying things like: “in such a densely populated city, civilian deaths are inevitable.” No doubt the same media will shed tears over the loss of life in Mosul, but will describe it as “collateral damage”, a regrettable consequence of the cynical policy of the Jihadists who will use the civilian population as human shields. The fact that the jihadists in Aleppo are using precisely the same tactic is conveniently overlooked.
Sanctions on Syria
An internal 40-page UN assessment of the effect of sanctions on aid delivery, written by a key UN official entitled Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures, was leaked by the investigative publication The Intercept. It exposes the stinking hypocrisy of the US and EU, and the cynicism of their accusations against Syria and Russia for impeding the delivery of UN aid supplies to besieged cities in Syria.
The EU has imposed wide-ranging prohibitions on commercial and banking dealings with Syria, as well as control of the export of “dual use” items that might have some security application. US sanctions are even more extensive, imposing a blanket ban on exports to Syria or financial dealings with the country. This includes foreign produced goods of which the US content is more than 10 per cent of the value of the finished item.
There are supposedly means available for purely humanitarian goods to reach Syria, but that is a lie. The embargo was supposed to target President Bashar al-Assad and contribute to his removal from power. Instead it is making it more difficult for foodstuffs, fuel and healthcare to reach the mass of the people.
The leaked email shows that the main effect of US sanctions was to obstruct emergency assistance to civilians. Five years of bloody civil war and severe economic sanctions have plunged over 80 percent of Syrians into poverty, up from 28 percent in 2010. The sanctions have contributed to a 300 per cent rise in the price of wheat flour and a 650 per cent rise for rice, following a doubling of fuel prices in the last 18 months.
The report describes sanctions as a “principal factor” in degrading Syria’s health care system. Syria was once largely self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals, but many plants were in the Aleppo area and have been destroyed or rendered unusable by the fighting. The email says that many medicine-producing factories that have survived the fighting have been forced to close because of sanctions-related restrictions on raw materials and foreign currency.
In 2013 the sanctions were eased but only in areas controlled by the opposition. In other words the control of “humanitarian” aid is being used as a weapon of war. At the same time, the CIA began directly shipping weapons to armed insurgents at a colossal cost of nearly $1 billion a year, pouring fuel on the flames of the conflict.
On October 11 Counterpunch.org published an article by Patrick Cockburn – an award-winning writer on The Independent who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East – on the effects of the West’s Economic Sanctions on Ordinary Syrians that says:
“In effect, the US and EU sanctions are imposing an economic siege on Syria as a whole which may be killing more Syrians than die of illness and malnutrition in the sieges which EU and US leaders have described as war crimes. Over half the country’s public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. Syrian doctors in Damascus complained to The Independent about the difficulty in obtaining medicines and spare parts for medical equipment purchased before the war”.
Living conditions have fallen disastrously with the electricity supply about three hours on three hours off even in the capital because maintenance and spare parts for the electricity system have both been hit by sanctions. Since power has become too expensive many Syrians live without electricity. The article concludes: “As Syrians sit in the dark, US and EU sanctions are combining with war to destroy their country”.
The role of the UN
The Syrian army, with the backing of Russia and Iran, is advancing remorselessly and the fall of Aleppo is only a matter of time. That would change the whole direction of the war to the advantage of Assad and his Russian allies. The Americans are desperate to halt this offensive. This, and this alone, is the reason for the propaganda barrage.
Lacking the physical means of intervening militarily to halt the offensive, Washington attempted to mobilise world public opinion. It decided to play the card of the United Nations. The United Nations never has -and never will – prevented war or played any progressive role whatsoever in world politics. It is merely a forum where the big powers can debate secondary questions, but which can never decide anything fundamental. In the last analysis, the great powers do whatever suits their interests. The smaller nations in fact count for nothing.
John Kerry gave voice to his anger and frustration by saying that the bombing of civilians in Aleppo could amount to “a war crime”. His words were faithfully echoed by Boris Johnson in the British parliament and by Matthew Rycroft, London’s UN ambassador and by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It was as though they were all reading from the same script. And indeed they were.
The UN Security Council voted on two rival resolutions on the fighting, one drafted by France calling for a halt to airstrikes and a second by Russia that proposed a ceasefire but, sad to say, made no mention of halting the bombings. Russia naturally vetoed the French-drafted resolution. The bombing continued as normal.
The council moved to the second vote on the Russian-drafted text, but it failed to gather enough votes to pass. The Russian ambassador called it a “spectacle”, which was a pretty fair description. He said, “no one wins” and “we need to go back to diplomacy”. But diplomacy deals in words, whereas in war it is not words but deeds that decide. While the diplomats wrangle about words, the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance continues to conquer territory on the ground. In the end that is all that matters.
Their war crimes, our “mistakes”
The great majority of the coverage in the Western media concerning Aleppo has concentrated on the plight of the civilians in the eastern part of that city that is occupied by the rebels. Little or nothing is said about the situation of the population in West Aleppo, which is daily subjected to indiscriminate shelling and mortar fire by the Jihadis in the East.
Civilian areas, schools and hospitals are routinely targeted by Islamists’ mortar and rocket fire. Many children in government-controlled areas have been killed and mutilated. An elementary school, which lies around one kilometer away from the front line, was recently severely damaged by rockets coming from Islamist-held eastern Aleppo.
“Our school is constantly coming under fire from terrorists,” a local resident told Russia Today. “Just yesterday, a shell landed in the schoolyard. Thank goodness our children were already in the classroom and no one got hurt.”
Hassan, a 10-year-old boy born deaf and mute, has lost his leg in the shelling, but he was fortunate enough to survive. “The day before yesterday he was playing with other boys in al-Hamadaneyah area when the shell landed there,” one of Hassan’s relatives explained. “One of the boys was torn apart completely and my nephew had his foot blown off.”
When a hospital run by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Aleppo was bombed by Russian and Syrian warplanes killing 50 people, it was immediately denounced as a brutal war crime. However, on 3 October 2015, when a United States Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people and wounding a great many more, there was no such response.
The Pentagon announced that it was not a war crime because it resulted from “unintentional human error and equipment failure”. The US military said that the aircrew were “unaware” that they were firing on a hospital. Yet the US army has very sophisticated technology and is able to distinguish even the smallest targets with precision. Moreover, the Pentagon itself admitted that MSF had followed all proper procedures in notifying the US of the location of the hospital.
MSF has said consistently that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation into the Kunduz attack. But its request for an independent and impartial investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission has gone unanswered.
Saudi atrocities in Yemen
The Saudi war on Yemen has imposed a state of siege on the whole country that is producing a humanitarian disaster. According to the UN, an estimated 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2015.
“The scale of suffering as a result of the ongoing conflict in Yemen is shocking. An estimated 21.2 million people, which constitutes nearly 80% of the total population, need humanitarian assistance. Almost half of those in need are children,” said UNICEF Yemen Representative Meritxell Relano to CNN. Yet for the past 18 months, Western public opinion has remained poorly informed, if informed at all, for Saudi Arabia is our ally.
Hospitals and schools are routinely bombed by the Saudis. According to the Yemen Post, no fewer than 178 schools have been attacked. All major infrastructure has been targeted and destroyed or seriously damaged. The aim is clear: to destroy all the elements of civilised life and bomb the people of Yemen back to the Stone Age.
Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab world. It is also the country with the least amount of freshwater and consequently very dependent on food imports. The country imports 90% of its food. The Saudis have deliberately targeted food depots and ports. Its warplanes have destroyed the cabins of the giant cranes that were used to lift heavy containers from ships to storage in the ports, thus rendering the cranes unusable. This is only possible because the planes deliberately aimed at these targets. There is no question of any mistake. Yet it is admitted that British and American officers are participating together with the Saudi air force, “to help them with their targeting.”
UNICEF reports that 1.5 million children are currently malnourished in the country, 370,000 of them severely. Children that are no more than living skeletons are dying every day of starvation. There is absolutely no doubt that the Saudis are using starvation as a deliberate tactic to destroy the Yemen. If this is not a war crime, it is difficult to understand what a war crime consists of.
Very late in the day the media has begun to pay a little more attention to this criminal war. There has even been some timid criticism of British and American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which are sustaining the war. But the lucrative arms sales continue unabated.
What is rarely mentioned is that British and American forces are actually involved in the war. US forces facilitate and support logistical operations, US ships patrol the sea around the country to maintain the embargo that condemns children to death by starvation. US planes participate in aerial refuelling missions so as to allow the Saudi bombers and jets to sustain their bombing campaign uninterruptedly without wasting time with landing and refuelling.
British and American troops also participate in the main operation rooms to select and coordinate targeting. Their success has been impressive. The aim of the Saudi pilots has improved so much that, in addition to a large number of schools, hospitals and food depots, they were able to successfully bomb a funeral, killing hundreds of people in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
After initially denying everything, the Saudis eventually admitted that this had in fact taken place. But it was not, of course, a war crime (only Russians are guilty of that) but merely a “regrettable incident”. The British and American government also expressed their regret – and continue to sell bombs, rockets and bullets to permit the Saudi monsters to slaughter the people of Yemen to their heart’s content.
American warships have been helping maintain the criminal blockade by which the Saudis prevent food from reaching starving people. Shiploads of wheat and other foodstuffs are held up for long periods so that most of it is rotting and inedible when it finally reaches the warehouses. Last week the Houti rebels fired rockets at American ships which were aiding the siege. The latter have launched missiles against the rebels. Thus, the US has begun directly participating in the war against the people of Yemen.
“We must do something”!
People like Boris Johnson say we need to “do something” about Syria. The question is, as Mr. Kerry so eloquently expressed it: do what? One idea that is frequently repeated is to impose “no fly zones” as a means of defending the civilian populations against (Russian) bombing. It is presented as a “humanitarian” measure. In reality, it would be no such thing.
The “safe zones” under discussion would actually serve to protect the rebels from Russian and Syrian bombs and give opposition fighters places to congregate and resupply. One can think many things about Assad and Putin, but one thing that they are not is stupid. Why would they agree to a measure that was calculated to tie their hands behind their backs and allow their bitter enemies to regroup and rearm?
Furthermore, this apparently reasonable proposal raises very serious practical difficulties. Who has the aircraft and the military resources, the logistics and command and control systems to protect the proposed zones, that is, to protect them for an indefinite period of time? That is impossible without putting a large number of troops on the ground. Who will provide such a force? The Americans say to Europe: After you, gentlemen! To which the Europeans reply: No, my dear Sir, after you!
Militarily, America’s current policy is limited to the employment of Special Operations forces to train and support the Iraqi military, and Arab and Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS in Syria. About 300 US special ops troops are already on the ground in Syria helping train and giving advice to the Kurdish fighters in Syria. In Iraq about 5000 US Special Forces are embedded in the various Kurdish and Iraqi militias many of whom are openly hostile to the Americans. This reveals the weakness of US imperialism in this situation.
It is said that Obama is considering arming the Kurds. But the administration has been dithering on this issue for a long time. Although they are the most effective fighters against ISIS, they are looked upon with suspicion by Turkey. And since Turkey is a key US ally, Washington cannot go too far in offending Ankara. At best the Kurdish fighters will receive some small arms and ammunition, but not the kind of heavy equipment like anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons that would make them a formidable fighting force. As always the rights of the Kurds and the cause of democracy in Turkey must therefore take second place before the interests of US imperialism.
Some misguided individuals on the Left have foolishly swallowed the propaganda of the imperialists with regard to Syria. They support the demand for a no fly zone without considering the implications. This demand is both utopian and reactionary. It is utopian because the imperialists are unable and unwilling to introduce it. It is reactionary because it implies that the interests of the Syrian people can be served by appealing to these same imperialists.
We have heard this song before. The same people demanded that “something must be done” in Libya. Something was done. The imperialists intervened to overthrow Gaddafi. What was the result? The people of Libya are suffering under an even more horrific reactionary regime than the one that existed previously.
Tony Blair argued that “something had to be done” to overthrow the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Something was done. The imperialists invaded and occupied Iraq. What was the result? The result was the catastrophe that has engulfed not just Iraq but the whole of the Middle East, ending in the human catastrophe that we now see. It is the duty of Marxists to fight first and foremost against their own capitalist class, their own imperialism.
Our first duty in Britain is to conduct a ruthless struggle against the Conservative government and its ally American imperialism. We must expose the cynical interests that lie behind the hypocritical propaganda, oppose foreign military adventures, and explain that the imperialists can never under any circumstances play a progressive role in the Middle East or any other part of the world. To do anything else is to play into the hands of the ruling class and imperialism, miseducate the working class and end up directly in the camp of reaction.