Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Israel pushes for war

It is Israel and Israeli lobbyists in the United States who are pressing for war on Syria, writes Jeremy Salt

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two million refugees have now been forced out of Syria, some of them Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 and some of them Iraqi refugees from 2004.  They are the consequences of war, and yet the raging beast that is devouring the Middle East is still not satiated. Another war looms. Another country already devastated is to be shattered by missile attacks. Who wants this war? Who could want it? Who could even think of avenging the dead by calling for more killing?

It is not the people of the world. All the polls show they are against it. Not just the peoples of Latin America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China, but also the American people, the British people, the French people and the Turkish people. It is only the politicians who want this war: Obama, Kerry, Hagel, McCain and others in the US; Cameron and Hague in Britain; Hollande in France; and Erdogan in Turkey.

None of them has any proof of their accusation that the Syrian army used chemical weapons around Damascus, but proof is beside the point. Their Muslim contras have failed to destroy the government in Damascus, and now in the chemical weapons attack they have their pretext for doing the job themselves.

The US administration is now deciding how long this attack should last. Should it be a few days, or a few months? Should it be aimed at just punishing the “regime,” or should it be aimed at destroying it altogether, which seems to be the emerging consensus? They are talking this over confidently, almost nonchalantly, McCain playing poker on his mobile phone because he is so bored, as though their missile attacks on other countries have lulled them into thinking that their military power is so great that they could not possibly be hurt themselves.

Erdogan wants a “Kosovo-style” aerial campaign. In 1999, NATO aircraft flew more than 38,000 sorties over Yugoslavia, of which 10,484 were strike attacks. Operation Allied Force lasted for 78 days, not the 30 days claimed by Kerry when being questioned by the US Senate committee which finally voted for war on Syria. In 2011, NATO launched Operation Unified Protector against Libya “to protect the people from attack or threat of attack.” This particular operation lasted for seven months, during which 26,500 sorties were flown, 9,700 of them strike sorties. 

Even the National Transitional Council, the incoming government after the destruction of the government in Tripoli, said 25,000 people had been killed. A similar operation over Syria, a country much better able to defend itself, and with powerful allies besides, would cause enormous further destruction and the deaths of many thousands of people. This is the meaning of “Kosovo-style” aerial warfare. In fact, what is shaping up is even worse – an air war that will have more in common with Iraq than the bombing of Yugoslavia. The targets and objectives are being expanded all the time.

Saudi Arabia has no politicians and no public opinion polls which would tell us what the Saudi people think of their government and its role in the destruction of Syria. The only country in which the government and the people are clearly united in their support for an attack on Syria is Israel. Polls show that nearly 70 per cent of Jewish Israelis — Palestinians are fully against it — are in favour of the US striking Syria, while thinking that Israel should stay out unless Syria or Hizbullah retaliate with strikes against Israeli targets.

The British parliamentary vote against war and Obama’s hesitation have forced Israel and its lobbyists in the US to break cover, ending the silly pretence that Israel is not involved in Syria and does not really care who wins. Israeli journalist David Horowitz, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, wrote an infuriated piece about “how a perfect storm of British ineptitude and gutlessness sent the wrong message to the butcher of Damascus and left Israel more certain than ever that it can rely only on itself.”

The Israeli novelist Noah Beck accused Obama of being spineless. Others in the country’s media called him weak and unreliable. By “blinking”, he had sent a dangerous message to “cruel regimes” and terrorists everywhere. Debkafile, an outlet for disinformation and other scrapings from the floor of Israeli intelligence, echoed this line. Obama’s “about turn” had let Iran, Syria and Hizbullah “off the hook,” creating a “military nightmare” for Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

The same lines of attack and support were duplicated by Israel’s formal and informal lobbyists in the US. Journalist Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post sneered at Obama for hesitating: “perhaps we should be publishing the exact time the bombs will fall lest we disrupt dinner in Damascus.” William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard: “is president Obama going wobbly on Syria? No. He’s always been wobbly on Syria — and on pretty much everything else… the worst outcome would be for Obama not to call Congress back or not to act at all but to falter and retreat. For his retreat would be America’s retreat and his humiliation America’s humiliation.”

Kristol’s stablemate, Thomas Donnelly, thought Obama content ‘‘to see Assad kill his own people — which he has done in the tens if not hundreds of thousands — as long as Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons.” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that the most likely option for Syria was partition, “with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest.”

The fragmentation of Syria on ethno-religious lines, of course, has been a Zionist objective for decades. No mention by Friedman of the Druze, but never mind that: in the interim, America’s best option is not the launching of Cruise missiles “but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought.” Friedman thought this might increase the influence on the ground of the “more moderate groups over the jihadist ones.”

At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the entire stable was off and running. “Forget the red line and engage in Syria,” wrote David Schenker, as if the US has not been intensely engaged in Syria for the past three years, fomenting the violence which has built up to the present catastrophic situation. Robert Satloff wrote: “given the strategic stakes at play in Syria which touches [sic] on every key American interest in the region, the wiser course of action is to take the opportunity of the Assad regime’s flagrant violation of global norms to take action that hastens the end of Assad’s regime… this will also enhance the credibility of the president’s commitment to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability.”

Michael Herzog thought the US could learn from Israeli air attacks on Syria: “in Israel’s experience Assad has proven to be a rational (if ruthless) actor. He was deterred from responding to recent and past strikes because he did not want to invite the consequences of Israeli military might. Therefore, the United States has a good chance of deterring him as well.”

In the US magazine Commentary, journalist Max Boot called on the US to use air power in cooperation with ground action by “vetted” rebel forces to “cripple and ultimately bring down Assad’s regime, making impossible further atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons.” How these forces are to be “vetted” and how they, rather than the Islamist groups who are doing most of the fighting, could bring down the “regime” Boot does not say, most probably because he doesn’t know. Daniel Pipes, the long-term advocate of Israeli violence in the Middle East, writing in the journal National Review Online, wanted not a “limited” strike but something that would do real damage and bring the “regime” down.

Outside these journals and the think tanks, former US “government advisers” and “foreign policy experts” signed a petition calling for “direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime.” Many of the names will be familiar from the Project for the New American Century in the US and plans laid long ago for a series of wars in the Middle East: Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, Gary Bauer, Max Boot, Ellen Bork, Eliot A. Cohen, Paula Dobriansky, Thomas Donnelly, Douglas Feith, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Bernard-Henri Levy, Michael Makovsky, Joshua Muravchik, Martin Peretz, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Leon Wieseltier and Radwan Ziadeh.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Jewish organisations piled the pressure on Congress and the White House. AIPAC’s statement on Syria stressed the sending of a “forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hizbullah” at a time when “Iran is racing towards obtaining nuclear capability.” The Politico website quoted unnamed AIPAC officials as saying that “some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week to persuade lawmakers that Congress must adopt the resolution or risk emboldening Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon… they are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress.”

Their “stepped-up involvement” comes at a welcome time for the White House, wrote the Politico correspondent, given its difficulty in securing support for the resolution. The two top Republican leaders in the Senate, minority leader Mitch McConnell and minority whip John Comyn, had already been urged “by top Jewish donors and AIPAC allies” to back the war resolution.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations in the US called for an attack that would demonstrate “accountability” to “those who possess weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hizbullah.” Morris Amitay of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee thought that “for our [United States] credibility we have to do something.” Bloomberg reported the Republican Jewish Coalition as sending an “action alert” to its 45,000 members “directing them to tell Congress to authorise force.” The same message of support for an attack was sent out by the National Jewish Democratic Council and Abe Foxman of the so-called Anti-Defamation League, who stressed that while “he’s not doing this for Israel,” the attack may have serious consequences for Israel.

With the exception of the Foxman statement, these organisations carefully kept any mention of Israel out of their public statements. In off-the-record discussions, however, it was the central concern. On August 30, Obama had a conference call with 1,000 rabbis, with Syria, “at the White House’s request,” according to Bloomberg, being the first question that was asked. Iran was not mentioned either but, said a leading rabbi from New York, “we have a strong stake in the world taking seriously our insistence that weapons of mass destruction should not proliferate.”

Bloomberg quoted Obama as “arguing” that “a military response is necessary to uphold a longstanding international ban on the use of chemical weapons use and to deter Assad from using them again on his own people or such neighbours as Israel and Jordan.” Of course, this was not an argument at all but Obama telling the rabbis what they wanted to hear. In a separate approach, 17 leading rabbis “covering the religious and political spectrum,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, sent a letter to Congress calling on it to authorise force against Syria. The language could scarcely be more Orwellian: “through this act, Congress has the capacity to save   thousands of lives.”

Another conference call was held between representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations and White House deputy national security advisors Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes. The representatives waited until Blinken and Rhodes were “off the call” before advising constituent organisations “not to make their statements ‘Israel-centric’,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. A powerful figure wheeled out by the lobby was Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who funds settlement in Jerusalem and on the West Bank and who spent (along with his wife) $93 million trying to see Obama defeated in the presidential elections last year.

Adelson is a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition in the US and supports the pressure it is putting on Congress to authorise a military attack on Syria.

The carefully crafted outlines of this deceitful campaign are very evident: this is not about Israel; this is about America’s national interest; this is about punishing a government which has used chemical weapons on its own people; this is about saving lives; this is about a government that has no respect for international law and norms;  this is about sending a “forceful message of resolve to Hizbullah and Iran;” this is about showing that Obama’s red lines are not empty threats.

Obama’s own “full court press strategy” includes interviews with six television anchors ahead of the congressional vote. The moment Obama said everything AIPAC wanted to hear during the primaries was the moment he took the first step into the tight corner in which he now finds himself. This is now a global confrontation with a lot at stake besides Israel’s interests, but the latter is pushing as hard as it can to make sure this war goes ahead. Like the vote received by British Prime Minister David Cameron, a congressional vote against war will allow Obama to back out of the corner by saying that the American people have spoken and he cannot take them into war against their wishes.

But will he do that, or is really going to plunge his country into war irrespective of what Congress or the American people think? By the end of the coming week we should have the answer.


The writer is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

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