U.S. Policy in Syria: Regime Change or Regime ‘Facelift’?

Ashley Smith says Assad and the international players in Syria share a common goal: undermine popular revolt

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The United Nations says it is resuming the humanitarian aid convoy to Aleppo after its initial attempts were bombed several days ago which killed at least 20 people. The announcement comes just days after the US dropped bombs on the Syrian army which killed over 60 soldiers. The Syrian government responded with saying it will no longer adhere to the ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia earlier this month. The US says the attack was a mistake. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Associated Press, I don’t believe the United States will be ready to join Russia in fighting terrorist in Syria. Assad also said that peace won’t come until Turkey, US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar stop supporting terrorism in Syria.

And in his final speech to the United Nations, President Barack Obama told the general assembly that the conflicts throughout the Middle East including Syria are the product of an oppressive political elite. This is what he had to say.

BARACK OBAMA: There, so much of the collapse in order has been fueled because leaders sought legitimacy not because of policies or programs but by resorting to persecuting political opposition, or demonizing other religious sects, by narrowing the public space to the mosque, where in too many places perversions of a great faith were tolerated. These forces built up for years, and are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL.

PERIES: Joining us now from Burlington, Vermont to discuss the geopolitics of Syria is Ashley Smith. Ashley is a researcher for the Center for Economic Research and a member of the International Socialist Review Editorial Board. His most recent article on Syria is titled The Ceasefire That Will Increase War in Syria. Ashley good to have you with us again.

ASHLEY SMITH: Thank you for having me again.

PERIES: So let’s take up these recent remarks by both Assad and Obama. Assad says the conflict is fueled by external forces while Obama says the conflict is a result of state repression and sectarianism. Your opinion on who and what is fueling this war in Syria.

SMITH: Well let’s start first with the comments from the dictator Bashar al Assad. It’s a bit rich when you think today the combined forces of Russia and the Syrian regime are bombing relentlessly, civilian targets in the city of Aleppo and its liberated areas. This is part of an ongoing counter revolution that the Assad regime launched from the very beginning of what was one of the most important popular revolts that occurred back in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.

Assad’s whole strategy since that revolt was to try to defy and conquer the resistance. First by repressing it with the barrel bombs that have obliterated whole sections of Syria and then by releasing sectarian jihadist, Islamic fundamentalist that he had jailed in his own gulag that he runs as part of his own dictatorship in Syria to try and create a 5th column within the revolt of sectarian terrorist that would go after the [all-white] Christian and other religious minority populations so that then Assad could paint the entire opposition, the entire revolution as a terrorist one.

That’s been Assad’s essential strategy and he’s tried to paint the whole situation as a confrontation between his regime and terrorism. One in fact that’s been a counter revolution against one of the most important popular revolts that happened back in 2011. So it’s complete hypocrisy and deflects the blame from the main culprit of the problem in Syria which is the regime itself. Now of course other international powers have intervened some on the side of the Assad regime. Others on the side of various Islamic fundamentalist forces and they’re all poles of the counter revolution against the popular revolt that happened.

In responding to the Obama administration, it’s unbearable hypocrisy from Obama again. What you think about what the US does domestically right now we’re seeing the national guard deployed in the city of Charlotte to repress the population there that’s protesting another horrific example or racist police murder of an innocent black man sitting in a car reading a book. This is a whole string of police murders that we’ve seen. And that’s on top of what’s an ongoing elite that is engaged in repression of the population of the United States. So Obama is a hypocrite at home. He’s also a hypocrite abroad.

When you think about who one of the biggest forces has wrecked the Middle East, it’s certainly the United States. Both directly through its war on Iraq and then indirectly by it itself backing their various forces of counter revolution within the region. Most importantly one of the most sectarian fundamentalist and reactionary states on the planet, Saudi Arabia, which Obama is promising now a giant new arms deal even as Saudi Arabia carries through a horrible sectarian war on the people of Yemen. So he’s a hypocrite on that front.

Finally, he’s a hypocrite when he’s supporting many of the regimes that he’s criticizing like Sisi’s regime in Egypt which is engaged in a horrible campaign of oppression and repression of trade unionists, democratic activists, and anybody that dissents with the regime and one that embraces Sharia law. So this is a complete hypocrisy and I think they have little to stand on. Including they support the Iraqi state which is one of the most sectarian Shia fundamentalists states in the region.

Final thing I’d say about Obama, it’s a bit of liberal Islamophobic line to say that Mosques are somehow at fault for the development for Islamic fundamentalism. I think we have to say that’s a liberal form of Islamophobia to equate Mosque with Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism is both a creature that the US helped spawn into being through direct support of the Saudi regime and it’s blow back from the various forms of American intervention, beginning in Afghanistan, on through the rest of the Middle East.

So really both Obama and Assad are two poles of counter revolution, along with many other poles of counter revolution from Iran to the Russian state, all who have Syrian blood on their hands and have no moral high ground to be preaching to the remnants of the popular revolt which are still struggling for a democratic order in Syria.

PERIES: Now Ashley, I will be a great critic of Assad and some of what he’s doing in his own country. What he said there about Saudi Arabia, the US and Qatar funding terrorisms directly or indirectly is appoint to be taken. How do respond to that?

SMITH: Of course. But you have to begin with the reality that the mass bulk of the people who’ve been massacred, the people who’ve been displaced, have been displaced and massacred by the Assad regime. We’re talking about half a million people. 11 million people displaced overall and 5 million people driven from the country and most of that are people who are trying to fight for democratic order. So the beginning point is a condemnation of state terrorism by Assad’s regime itself and then other powers have gotten involved.

Saudi Arabia’s one, Qatar is another, Turkey is another, who see have their own regional imperial ambitions as well as Russia and the United States. All of them as I said earlier are counter revolutionary. People on the left should oppose all the various forces that are intervening in Syria because they are all counter revolutionary, reactionary and have played nothing but a negative role and should be standing on the side of what had been a popular democratic revolution against a horrible tyrannical dictatorship had oppressed and repressed his people and used all sorts of instruments of torture to maintain control over what was a horrible neoliberal state.

PERIES: Ashley you argue that it’s incorrect to describe the US policy in Syria as a pursuit of regime change despite repeatedly calls of Assad to go by high ranking officials such as John Kerry. In that case what is actually going on in terms of US involvement in Syria?

SMITH: Well we have to go back and remember that the Bush administration did have a policy of rolling regime change that it wanted to begin with its intervention and occupation of Iraq and it did want to go on to Syria and Iran as the access of evil, as the horrible Bush administration called the various regimes, it’s opponent regimes although you could name many of the countries that Bush supported as part of an axis of evil tyrannical dictatorship. Nevertheless, that was the ambition of the Bush administration was to take down the regimes and impose client regimes. But as we know, the Bush administration’s war and occupation blew up in its face and the US suffered perhaps its worst defeat since the Vietnam war.

Since then both the second term of the Bush administration and the Obama administration have been retreating from any policy of regime change for a policy of trying to stabilize the existing state system. You can see that in how Obama responded to the Arab Spring. He first responded by trying to support the existing regimes. And then when that became obtainable in the face of a mass popular uprising throughout the region, he adopted a strategy of orderly transition in which the idea would be to get rid of the head of state but retain the existing regime with little modification. A kind of facelift to the regime so it could maintain the state system because it drew the conclusion that the worst thing that you can do in the Middle East is leave a power vacuum by destabilize the system of existing states.

So the policy that’s been very forthright and honest and in many diplomatic documents that you can read from the Obama administration, our policy throughout the Middle East has been in some cases to get rid of the dictator and maintain the state with little modification and corporation of obedient lackeys it can integrate into the existing state. In some cases, support the existing state structure. In the case of Syria, his position was that we would want to get rid of Assad. We being the American empire would want to get rid of Assad but retain the state as it exists.

He’s retreated from that even more. Especially in the most recent negotiation, the so called ceasefire which is actually not a ceasefire. It was a strategy to try and get Assad and Russia on board with an ongoing war on terror against what has been called an Nusra Front and ISIS. So they went so far as to even open collaboration with the Assad regime in what can only be called a political Freudian slip. John Kerry went so far as to say the US would approve the bombing runs of Assad against the Nusra Front and against ISIS.

So you can see that the administration has retreated from any policy of regime change to actually regime stabilization and in some cases getting rid of the head of the regime but retaining the core of the state to impose stability. That’s even more so in the case of Iran which the US has no policy of regime change. In fact, the US is trying to reach an accommodation with Iran. You can see with its deal over nuclear weapons to its collaboration with the Iranian state in the war against ISIS in Iraq.

The US main strategy is to stabilize the Middle East, even if that means cutting deals with previous enemies and engaging in common efforts with so called enemies. There’s no permanent friends, no permanent enemies in imperial politics. There’s permanent interests and the US thinks its permanent interests is served by cutting deals right now and stabilizing the system and certainly not through regime change which it fears will destabilize the entire order which is already rocked to its foundations in the Middle East right now.

PERIES: And recently in mainstream media and of course analysts are often referring to what’s going on in Syria as well as what’s going on in Ukraine as a resumption of the Cold War between the United States in Russia. Particularly when it comes to Syria and Ukraine. In Syria, are they at odds or are they working together? Because, because of all the proxies and people that they’re negotiating on behalf of, the situation is kind of confusing.

SMITH: Well I think there are two things to say about that. First there’s no doubt the case that after the defeat the US suffered in Iraq combined with the economic crisis and the political deadlock in Washington, DC, the US has suffered a relative decline as an imperial power and in that circumstance, new imperialist powers have risen and are increasingly challenging the United States for power in regions and internationally. The most obvious being China and the other being Russia. Especially regionally in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East which Russia’s increasingly assertive as an imperial power. So you see the development not of a unipolar world order but what I call an asymmetric multipolar world order in which the US is still the number 1 cop on the planet but there are other cops which are contending for regional and international power. There are many of them regionally and internationally. But the most important is that three quartered fight between the US, Russia, and China. In any inter-imperial dynamic, you have cooperation and conflict. Famously Karl Marx said, that the capitalists were a band of warring brothers and I think that makes it very clear. They’re brothers in a sense of they’re all capitalist powers that exploit workers and oppress nations. But they’re also contending for power within a world system. So that helps explain the seeming incoherence of American policy towards Russia in this case.

In Ukraine and Crimea, the US and Russia are at loggerheads. In Syria, they have been at loggerheads but Russia has also salvaged the US from mistakes it might have made in terms of destabilizing the country even more. Think back to when the Assad regime dropped the chemical weapons as it’s been doing in an ongoing way onto the people of Syria and Obama had called that a redline. But Russia quickly stepped in and cut a deal with the Assad regime and the Obama administration quickly backed down.

So there’s been a cooperative and confrontational relationship between the US and Russia in Syria. And I think that was very clear in the ceasefire where you both have a dynamic where the powers seem to be on a verge of cooperation towards a new escalated war on terror to go after the Nusra Front and ISIS. On the other hand, they’re angling for the best deal in the counter revolutionary piece that they’re all headed for in Syria. So there’s competition and collaboration going on which is characteristic of inter-imperial conflict in the whole history of capitalism.

PERIES: Finally, Ashley I’m just going to take you up on this issue of the chemical warfare. There’s been a lot of debate in the left among people as to whether there’s evidence of chemicals used by Assad against his own people. What are your references here and how do you know for sure?

SMITH: Well certainly there is Fog of War in all these debates. But we have to remember these are dropped from the air. The vast bulk of the chemical weapons. They’re being dropped from the air. There’s only one real air force that’s inside Syria, that is the Syrian regime itself. So they’re the only ones with the technical capacity to drop the barrel bombs and drop the chemical weapons on the civilian population. Of course there’s the Russian air force that’s there and the American air force as well as its other coalition allies, “coalition allies” are engaged in bombing runs mainly targeting ISIS and Nusra Front.

But only really the Syrian air force that has the capacity and the interests to massacre the population with chemical weapons that resistance, the revolutions have no interests in gassing and killing their own people. These are attacks that have happened inside the areas where the Free Syrian Army and other rebel forces have been operating. They’re not going to bomb their own popular support against the regime.

So I think we can get into the technicalities of which many people have written and know the details inside and out. I think a pretty conclusively proven that chemical warfare has been conducted by the Syrian regime and not the rebels or the resistance.

PERIES: Alright Ashley, thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to having you back.

SMITH: Thanks so much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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