“Sanctions on Iraq, Syria, Yemen, North Korea or Iran, are the economic equivalent of atom bombs”


On April 13, the US, UK and France launched an attack on Syria. The reason, backed by an enthusiastic mainstream media, was retaliation over an alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta. We have interviewed Stephen Gowans to discuss this incident, US foreign policy in Syria, comparisons to foreign policy in Iraq, and the recent de-escalation in the Korean peninsula. Gowans is one of the most important voices when it comes to dissecting the war propaganda of the mainstream media. He is the author of Washington’s Long War on Syria(2017) and Patriots, Traitors and Empire – the Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom (2018).
Despite a lack of evidence, US, British and French governments have tried to legitimize the latest attack on Syria using the humanitarian approach. What has been the evolution on the ground in recent months and how can we understand those attacks?
The Western missile attacks were carried out ostensibly in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian Arab Army in Eastern Ghouta, an area Syrian forces were about to liberate, and soon thereafter did liberate. A few days prior to the alleged gas attack, US president Donald Trump had called for the exit of US troops from the nearly one-third of Syrian territory US forces occupy illegally.
The conditions on the ground—imminent victory in Eastern Ghouta and the prospect of US withdrawal from Syria—were highly favorable to the Syrian government. It is highly unlikely that Damascus would sabotage these auspicious developments by crossing a chemical weapons red-line that would trigger a US response.
On the other hand, from the perspective of Syria’s Islamist insurgents and high-level officials in the US departments of defense and state (who regard Trump’s withdrawal plans as ill-considered) there was much to recommend the fabrication of an incident, in order to scotch Trump’s troop withdrawal plans. This is not to say that this is what happened, but it’s a far more plausible scenario than one that depicts the Syrian government as acting against its interests.
Based on the reporting of The Independent’s Robert Fisk, a bombing attack in Eastern Ghouta had stirred up dust, which filled the basements and subterranean shelters in which civilians had retreated to escape. Choking on dust, and suffering from hypoxia, many fled to a nearby hospital. With cameras rolling, someone shouted “gas!” The scene, captured on video, resembled the aftermath of a gas attack.
Apart from the question of whether a gas attack occurred, is another, more important, question.
Imagine, if you will, that there was irrefutable evidence that the Syrian military, ignoring its own interests, did in fact use chemical weapons. Would this justify the US, British, French response? The answer, I think, is absolutely not. Hence, the question of whether chemical weapons were used is irrelevant to the question of whether the missile attack was justified.
The missile attack certainly had no legal basis. Neither of the countries that attacked Syria were acting in self-defense. They had no mandate from the Security Council. Even from the point of view of US law, the US contribution to the attack was illegal, since the US president has no legal authorization to wage war on the Syrian state. And while a humanitarian agenda may be invoked as a justification, there’s absolutely no evidence that the countries involved in the missile attack were inspired by humanitarian considerations; on the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence they weren’t.
The United States and its allies have very likely created more suffering in Syria than has been created by all the chemical weapons used in the country. They have done so through collateral civilian deaths related to their air war against ISIS and siege of Raqqa and through a devastating sanctions program that has lasted nearly two decades. This is to say nothing of the United States deliberately inflaming the long running civil war in Syria (which dates to the late 1940s) and keeping it going by financing the Islamist insurgency, both directly and through its allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
If the United States and its allies were truly animated by humanitarian concerns, they wouldn’t be killing Syrians through their own bombs, through the disease and malnutrition caused by sanctions, and indirectly through the insurgents they support.
Finally, let’s consider a parallel. During Friday protests in Gaza leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, Israeli soldiers have killed scores of Palestinians and have wounded hundreds more, who have posed at best a trivial threat to Israel. Would China or Russia be justified in raining a barrage of missiles upon Tel Aviv in response?
The mainstream media has been presenting the Syrian conflict especially as a civil war. In your book Washington’s Long War on Syria, you refute the idea by claiming that the United States started this war before 2011. What is this claim based on?
Civil war between political Islam and secular Arab nationalism has bedevilled Syria since the late 1940s. The intensity of the war has waxed and waned, and the war has assumed various forms at different times—pitched street battles, strikes, demonstrations, riots, and armed revolt, not only since 2011, but also including the bloody 1982 Hama uprising. The civil war has been a constant of Syria’s political life for more than half a century.
The United States has taken advantage of the civil war, supporting one side of it, that of the Islamists, to bring about a long-standing US goal of regime change. As a state committed to Arab nationalist objectives, allied with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, and at war with Israel, Syria has long been a US foreign policy target.
Washington doesn’t seek to replace the Arab nationalist government with Islamists. Its preferred end state is a government of Sunni business people more interested in making money than in politics. But it does exploit Islamists as a means of pressuring the Arab nationalists to agree to an orderly transition to a secular free enterprise-oriented government more to Washington’s—and Wall Street’s—liking.
It is often forgotten that in 2002, Washington added Syria to the infamous Axis of Evil, the list of countries, originally including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but extended to include Cuba, Libya and Syria, that Washington intended to effect regime change in. The Bush administration’s initial plan for Syria was to append it to the invasion of Iraq as Act II. The Pentagon, however, concluded that a Syrian invasion was too ambitious. Resistance forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were stronger than anticipated, and the Pentagon was forced to focus its resources on its two initial invasion targets. Regime change in Syria, then, would have to be brought about through other means.
The other means were sanctions and US intervention in Syria’s civil war. Sanctions would sabotage the Syrian economy, create misery, and foment instability. This would create the kindling that could be ignited at the touch of spark. The spark would be provided by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Principal figures in the Islamist organization—the forerunner to Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Al Nusra–were whisked to Washington to meet with Bush at the White House and with his national security staff. As the sanctions took their expected toll on Syria and deepened fissures in the Syrian economy, US-backed Islamist forces reignited the long-running civil war by launching an armed confrontation with Syrian security forces in the town of Da’ara.
In your essay you describe the de-Ba’athification strategy in Iraq, conducted by US consul in Iraq. Has a similar plan been drawn up for Syria?
“De-Ba’athification” refers to lustration of Arab nationalists from the state. It’s no secret that the United States has conspired against nationalist movements for decades. Indeed, the history of US foreign policy is largely one of efforts to suppress or destroy radical nationalists, whether in Latin America, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran, or elsewhere.
Saddam’s Iraq was governed by Ba’athists, which is to say Arab nationalists. It was predictable that the United States would purge Arab nationalists from the Iraqi state and, in creating a constitution for its post-Saddam neo-colony, build into it provisions preventing the re-emergence of Arab nationalist influence. This was predictable since eliminating Iraqi Arab nationalism was the raison d’etre of US wars against the oil-rich Arab state.
As I’ve already mentioned, Washington linked Iraq and Syria as members of an Axis of Evil to be “taken out,” as former US Army General Wesley Clark once remarked, and initially linked its aggression against Iraq with an intended follow-up invasion of Syria. The nexus between Assad’s Syria and Saddam’s Iraq, in Washington’s view, was their Arab nationalism. Saddam belonged to the Ba’ath party. So too does Assad. If the United States had invaded Syria and toppled the Syrian president, there’s no doubt that de-Ba’athification would have been carried out in Damascus, as well, followed by a US-supervised rewriting of the Syrian constitution with Arab nationalists barred from ever holding elected office, just as in Iraq.
After having analyzed the example of Iraq, in your book you emphasize that some peace activists embraced sanctions “as an alternative, viewing them erroneously, not as a form of warfare, but as peaceful coercion”. What are the consequences of current US sanctions on countries like Syria and Yemen?
The sanctions, imposed in 2003, as an alternative to abandoned plans to invade Syria, devastated the country. In October 2011, The New York Times reported that the Syrian economy “was buckling under the pressure of sanctions by the West.” By the spring of 2012, sanctions-induced financial hemorrhaging had forced Syrian officials to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country.
By 2016, US and EU economic sanctions on Syria were causing huge suffering among ordinary Syrians and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to a leaked UN internal report. The report revealed that aid agencies were unable to obtain drugs and equipment for hospitals because sanctions prevented foreign firms from conducting commerce with Syria.
The sanctions resembled the economic warfare Washington had waged on Arab nationalist Iraq in the 1990s—a campaign which killed over 500,000 Iraqi children due to disease and malnutrition, according to the UN. The British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn likened the sanctions on Syria to the sanctions on Iraq. Sanctions on any country, whether Iraq, Syria, Yemen, North Korea or Iran, are the economic equivalent of atom bombs. They have enormous, but largely invisible, consequences in malnutrition, hunger, disease, breakdown of healthcare and water treatment systems, and death.
Two political scientists, John and Karl Mueller, writing in Foreign Policy, the unofficial journal of the US State Department, showed that sanctions in the twentieth century had killed more people than all the weapons of mass destruction in history, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the chemical weapons used in the First World War. They conferred on sanctions the apt designation “sanctions of mass destruction.” If we’re going to shudder at the horrors of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we ought to also shudder at the horrors of sanctions, which have been far more devastating.
After a period of ever-growing tension between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the announcement of a Korea peace agreement has been a relief for the international community and peace activists around the world. What is your view on this unexpected outcome? What would be the next steps?
The North Koreans have repeatedly petitioned the United States to sign a peace treaty to end the state of war that has existed between the two countries for the last 68 years. Just as often, the United States has dismissed North Korea’s pleas out of hand. Both the North Korean desire for peace, and Washington’s absent interest in it, are explainable with reference to US goals vis-à-vis North Korea and the reality that the United States threatens North Korea while North Korea poses not the slightest threat to the United States.
US North Korea policy is “The End of North Korea,” as John Bolton once dubbed it. This has been US policy since 1948, the year North Korea was founded. Apart from the attempt to destroy the tiny East Asian country by direct military intervention from 1950-1953, the United States has sought to bring about the end of the communist state by ruining its economy. This goal is pursued in two ways: First, by imposing crippling, and nowadays near total, economic sanctions; and second, by maintaining unrelieved military pressure on North Korea, forcing Pyongyang to starve its domestic economy, in order to fund its national defense.
A peace treaty, and normalization of relations, implies abandonment of the US “terminate North Korea” policy. This explains why North Korea fervently desires peace (it brings an existential threat to an end) and why the United States doesn’t (it offers Washington nothing and on the contrary implies the abandonment of a longstanding US foreign policy goal.)
North Korea—even a nuclear-armed one—poses, a best, an insignificant danger to the United States. It can’t strike the United States militarily. A nuclear attack would be suicidal, and US officials acknowledge that the country’s leadership isn’t burdened by a death wish. Moreover, both the CIA and the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, acknowledge that Kim Jong-un is “coolly rational”.
The view within the US foreign policy establishment is that talks between Washington and Pyongyang can have no other goal than North Korea’s capitulation. That’s what peace means to Washington. Pyongyang must surrender its nuclear weapons, agree to intrusive inspections, accept a permanent US troop presence on the Korean peninsula, and accede to integration into a US-led global economic order. If not, the policy of economic strangulation will continue.
Figures in the US administration fear that Trump, seeking to prove he’s a deal-maker of incomparable talent, and besotted with dreams of winning a Nobel Peace Prize, might give away too much, in pursuit of a deal. If this happens, whatever concessions Trump makes, will be revoked in time.
We shouldn’t delude ourselves that the United States is suddenly going to abandon a 70-year-old policy of bringing about the end of militarily inconsequential and non-threatening country that rejects US domination. As Mao once observed, imperialists will never lay down their butcher knives and become Buddhists. And there’s no evidence that Washington is about to make a conversion to pacifism.

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