As Arab states seek peace, US insists that Syrians suffer

May 17, 2023
Syria flag

After the Arab League re-admits Syria, Washington threatens new sanctions to prevent reconstruction.

Syria’s re-admission to the Arab League is a milestone in the country’s continued recovery from a decade-long war that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and widespread destruction.

For the US, the move has different implications. “The decision to readmit Syria to the Arab League represents a rejection of U.S. interests in the region and shows that Middle Eastern countries are forging policies independent of Western concerns,” the Wall Street Journal observes.

Having spent billions of dollars on a dirty war to overthrow Syria’s government, and then imposed crippling sanctions to prevent the country’s reconstruction, Washington is not pleased with the Arab League’s new expression of independence toward Damascus.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has responded with a measure that would intensify US sanctions and punish states who engage with Syria any further. “The readmission of Syria to the Arab League really infuriated members and made clear the need to quickly act to send a signal,” a senior Congressional staffer told Reuters. Accordingly, “The legislation is a warning to Turkey and Arab countries that if they engage with Assad’s government, they could face severe consequences.”

Those severe consequences include US sanctions on any country that lets a Syrian airliner land at its airports. Given that Syrian civilians travel on these flights, the bill’s authors effectively seeking a global “Syrian Ban” in the image of Trump’s original “Muslim Ban.” The Congressional measure also calls for a review of “any grants of $50,000 or more to Syria,” — a warning shot to anyone helping Syrians in need.

The Biden administration meanwhile insists that it “stand by our core sanctions principles”, and that “our sanctions remain in full effect.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken explained the core sanctions principle in October 2021: “Our position is oppose the reconstruction of Syria.”

US officials apparently see no contradiction in expressing concern for the Syrian people while imposing policies that inflict mass suffering on them. According to the United Nations, Syria’s “economic and humanitarian situation is at its worst since the start of the conflict” in 2011. This includes an “800 per cent rise in food prices since 2020.” As US officials openly brag, US sanctions — particularly under the bipartisan 2019 “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” — have played an instrumental role.

James Jeffrey, the former US envoy to Syria, writes that the United States has “crushed the country’s economy through sanctions.” The EU and Israel, he boasts, have also pitched in to help “choke the regime’s economy through sanctions, holds on reconstruction assistance, and maritime interdiction” – i.e. seizing and even bombing ships that defy the US-led blockade. These sanctions give the US “considerable influence” in Syria’s future, Jeffrey explains, along with military occupations that have left “30 percent of Syrian territory… controlled by the U.S. and Turkish armies and their Syrian allies.”

Andrew Tabler, another former senior US official for Syria policy, likewise boasts that US sanctions have destroyed Syria’s currency, leading to “corresponding cuts in regime subsidies that have exacerbated fuel and food shortages for everyday Syrians.” In welcoming “fuel and food shortages for everyday Syrians,” Tabler is not only making plain the sadism of US policy, but cutting through the propaganda used to justify it. Whereas US officials claim to only target the Syrian “regime,” Tabler is admitting that, in the real world, this means targeting the “regime subsidies” that provide for ordinary civilians’ basic needs.

As another former Syria envoy, Joel Rayburn, explained, US sanctions are able to so freely immiserate Syrians because the Caesar Act managed to “lower the bar” for imposing them.

“With sanctions, oftentimes there can be a very high hurdle for the evidence that you have to gather in order to prove legal sufficiency under certain sanctions authorities,” Rayburn gushed in June 2020. “The Caesar Act really lowers the bar for us. We don’t have to prove for example that a company that’s going in to do a reconstruction project in the Damascus region is dealing directly with the Assad regime. We don’t have to have the evidence to prove that link. We just have to have the evidence that proves that a company or an individual is investing in that sector — in the construction sector, the engineering sector, most of the aviation sector, finance sector, energy sector, and so on.”

In short, US policy is to destroy ever major “sector” of the Syrian economy, regardless of whether or not there is any “evidence to prove” a “link” to its nominal “regime” target. In the name of helping the Syrian people, the US ensures that their economy is besieged, and the rubble of their destroyed buildings and factories left in place.

Ahead of Christmas last year, Rayburn celebrated his success: Syria’s “economy and state are collapsing”, he declared, with “no fuel/electricity”, “basic needs unaffordable,” schools shuttered, and “people desperate.”

As to why US diplomats would hail a country’s torment, they, along with their media allies, are equally candid that Syria’s independent existence is an affront to US hegemony.

According to Jeffrey, allowing an “Iranian and Russian strategic success in Syria, coming on the heels of the Afghan pullout, would endanger the decades-old American regional security system and the general security which it has provided.” The notion that US has provided “general security” to the Middle East happens to be at odds with public opinion there. In annual polls, Arab populations routinely list the US and its proxy Israel as the top threats to their security. But Jeffrey is not concerned with the actual security of the Middle East region; instead, he recognises that allowing Syria to evade US control would endanger a “decades-old American regional security system” based on US hegemony.

Accordingly, when Arab states increased outreach to Assad in late 2021, Jeffrey complained that “None of them have been told not to” by the US — the region’s real master.

Echoing Jeffrey, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin declared that the Biden administration “is sorely mistaken if it thinks that allowing regional players to reestablish diplomatic and economic ties with Bashar al-Assad will lead to greater stability.” Rogin does not explain who has granted Washington the authority to “allow” Arab states to have ties with their neighbour. This is presumably because Rogin, like the neoconservative diplomats he parrots, simply presupposes the US right to dominate their region. Indeed, as Rogin makes clear, for Washington’s Dirty Warriors, “stability” means continuing to suffocate Syria, in a Middle East where Arab states only do what Washington “allows.”

Rogin has particular disdain for Jordan’s King Abdullah II. In “leading a rapid regional normalisation” of Assad’s government, Rogin fumed, the Jordanian monarch is running “counter to U.S.-Syria policy and counter to U.S. law.” Following Rogin’s logic, Jordan is not allowed to “counter” US policy in its relations with its own neighbours, and “U.S. law” does not just govern U.S. territory, but the Middle East as well.

Although the US has not blocked its Arab allies’ full re-engagement with Syria, it has long made clear that it will maintain the crippling sanctions that make reconstruction impossible. Whereas Arab states have “scoped out investment opportunities,” the New York Times noted in October 2021, “the cash has not followed, largely because of American sanctions.” Indeed, these sanctions allow the US not only to keep Syria impoverished, but remind its neighbours who is really in charge. As one senior US official explained: “We are actively telling the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, ‘Don’t go building shopping malls. Don’t unfreeze Bashar’s assets. Don’t give the government in Syria access to any kind of revenue for rebuilding or reconstruction.’”

That said, the US ruler was “allowing flexibility,” the Times added, by permitting Syria’s role in “the provision of electricity to Lebanon” and — even more generously by Washington’s standards – “some kinds of aid inside Syria.” This “flexibility” is part of what the same US called a “humane, sensible policy.”

According to the Biden administration’s avowed standards, it is thus “humane, sensible” to let Syria receive “some kinds of aid”, while nonetheless pressuring its neighbours to deny it “any kind of revenue for rebuilding or reconstruction.”

The prevailing US colonialism toward Syria has been abetted by an establishment US media that has gone to extraordinary lengths to normalise it, as the Paper of Record has recently made clear.

In the aftermath of February’s devastating earthquake, the New York Times made the mistake of briefly acknowledging that “Syria is not able to receive direct aid from many countries because of sanctions.” This narrative error was quickly corrected: within one day, the Times erased that wording and replaced it to read that “the Syrian government tightly controls what aid it lets into opposition-held areas.”

Days later, the Times’ Declan Walsh followed up by noting that “the Syrian economy has nose-dived, strained by chronic food and fuel shortages” – not strained, of course, by US sanctions that – as more candid US officials like Jeffrey and Tabler openly admit — have caused those shortages.

The February earthquake posed a particular dilemma for supporters of US sanctions, which hinders Syria’s ability to rebuild. The Times’ Raja Abdulrahim captured this quandary in reporting of concerns from the Syrian opposition that the government may “now funnel money into the country under the guise of earthquake relief and instead use it for reconstruction of buildings damaged in the civil war.” Indeed, for the forces that tried to destroy Syria in one of the most expensive dirty wars in history, it would be unfathomable to allow the government to engage in the “reconstruction of buildings” destroyed in the process. The fact that the Biden administration subsequently allowed a six-month exemption for some humanitarian aid to Syria was a tacit admission that US sanctions explicitly hindered it.

From the US point of view, it is all the more unfathomable to let Syria rebuild given that its resistance to the dirty war was backed by two other Western foes, Iran and Russia. “Syria was one example of the effort by both to find ways to sap American strength and prestige wherever they could in the world,” the Times’ Neil MacFarquhar noted last year. Because these US rivals were able to help “sap American strength and prestige” in Syria, the country’s civilian population must accordingly pay the price.

The current policy of preventing Syria from rebuilding from a war that the US itself fuelled reveals a fundamental contradiction that US officials and their media stenographers never acknowledge. Whereas the US claims to be punishing Syria for human rights violations during the war, it is an uncontested fact that the Syrian government was defending its own territory from an insurgency backed by the world’s wealthiest countries and dominated by sectarian death squads, namely Al Qaeda. (Additionally, when the US claims to be holding Syria “accountable” for using chemical weapons, it is never acknowledged that in all major cases, these allegations have been undermined by extensive Western leaks, including from the world’s top chemical watchdog, the OPCW).

“We often talk about the US policy as non-intervention,” Ryan Evans, the CEO of the military affairs website War on the Rocks, recently observed. “But the armed Syrian opposition was the most well-supported insurgency probably in the last 100 years.”

Indeed, the US proxy war in Syria was “one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A.,” the New York Times reported in 2017. Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a budget of nearly $1 billion per year, or around $1 of every $15 in CIA spending. The CIA armed and trained nearly 10,000 insurgents, spending “roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program,” U.S. officials told the Washington Post in 2015. Two years later, one U.S. official estimated that CIA-funded militias “may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”

In his memoir, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledges that various covert US programs in Syria came “with enormous price tags” and became “black holes of taxpayer dollars,” with US weapons “ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.” That was the inevitable result of a US decision to ally with Al Qaeda. As Biden’s current National security adviser Jake Sullivan wrote in February 2012: “Al Qaeda is on our side in Syria.” Having sided with Al Qaeda and other jihadist death squads, the US fuelled an insurgency bent on what the New York Times’ Robert F. Worth described as “sectarian mass murder.”

Although the CIA’s program has long been shuttered, the guiding sadism prevails. For defending their country from US-backed sectarian mass murderers — and renewing ties in a region that the US has long dominated — the message from Washington is that while Syria’s devastating war has ended, its suffering will not.


Republished from May 15, 2023

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