Syria and the Management of Public Opinion

On August 26th US Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the case for the coming US-NATO attack on Syria. Like Colin Powell’s 2003 speech at the UN that prepared Ameri-can public opinion for war with Iraq, Kerry’s speech was framed in such way that no per-son with even a shred of good will could possibly dissent; and also like Powell’s speech, it was built on lies and shot through with cynicism.

Essentially, Kerry’s argument is simply that the use of chemical weapons, as a general matter, is a moral evil: “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.” Beyond this uncontroversial proposition, Kerry offered zero proof that regime forces had carried out the attack. What we got instead were vague generalities:

“Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience, and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground ... all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets.” [1] 

In other words, all we know is that chemical weapons were used in the attack on Ghouta, that the regime has these weapons, and that it has the capacity to use them. Combined with the fact, passed over by Kerry, that rebel forces have also gained access to these weapons, have likely used them, and have every reason to do so [2]—while the regime has every reason not to—the case for an attack based on the stated grounds looks thin, to say the least. To put these facts forward as grounds for war is just plain dishonest.

But just as with the lies that laid the groundwork for the Iraq War, the given rationale does not matter; what matters are the real strategic and economic interests behind the proposed action.

The function of the publicly-presented case is simply to manage public opinion, which as of this writing stands at about 10 percent support for an attack on Syria. In 2003 they used our fear of the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists along with a supposed need to “defend freedom” to achieve the real goal of asserting US hegemony over the region, and now they are cynically appealing to our best moral instincts as a cover for geostrategic goals, largely the same as in 2003, described by influential national security strategist Anthony Cordesman: 

“If Bashar al-Assad wins or survives in ways that give him control over most of Syria, Iran will have a massive new degree of influence over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in a po-larized Middle East divided between Sunni and Shi’ite and steadily driving minorities into exile. This will present serious new risks for an Israel that will never again be able to count on a passive Assad. It will weaken Jordan and Turkey and, most importantly, give Iran far more influence in the Gulf. BP estimates that Iraq and Iran together have nearly 20 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, and the Middle East has over 48 percent.

...The control of these reserves and the secure flow of oil exports impacts directly on our strategic position, on every aspect of our economy, and on every job in America.” [3]    

If this is right, then the real issue is basically control over oil, not the tragic deaths of 355 people in Ghouta. The chemical weapons attack is clearly a mere pretext. This is plainly shown by Kerry in the same speech when he says that “the UN investigation will not de-termine who used the chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used, a judg-ment that is already clear to the world.” He goes on to say the Syrian government’s agreement to allow UN weapons inspectors into the site of the attack is “too late to be credible.” It does not matter, then, what the investigation shows about the identity of the perpetrators, or whether it is possible to identify them; the judgment has been made, and the attack will be carried out. In addition, many of the proposed targets have no relation to Assad’s capability to carry out chemical weapons attacks but are designed to achieve the goal of regime change (for example, strikes against infrastructure and airfields).

Moreover, given the U.S. government’s tacit support for the Egyptian military’s massacre of thousands of unarmed protestors (to cite just one example illustrating the real nature of U.S. foreign policy), it is impossible to believe that the Obama Administration is acting out of genuine humanitarian concerns. And of course, no serious student of the behavior of American power could believe anything of the sort. For instance, when Saddam Hus-sein gassed the city of Halabja in 1988, killing 5,000, US support for him, an important ally, never wavered. When the same establishment was preparing public opinion for the 2003 invasion, this very atrocity became a compelling moral reason for Americans to send their sons and daughters to die in the deserts of Iraq.

Are the control of Middle Eastern oil reserves and the guarantee of oil exports morally sufficient reasons to wage war? The hegemonic bloc that runs the show on our behalf clearly thinks so, but the national debate will take place, not on these terms, but, as usual, on those laid out for us by the government and our corporate and state-controlled media.

Doran Hunter

Doran Hunter is a member of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.