Would be emperor Donald Trump has announced the ‘Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act’, to tighten the genocidal siege on the Syrian people. Without a hint of irony, this new edict imposes even more serious obstacles to the Syrian people getting access to energy, food and medicines, while claiming its purpose is to ‘protect’ those same people.
However the move comes as (1) a shrinking US military presence faces resistance attacks in both Syria and Iraq, (2) Washington’s allies are abandoning the US-led ‘coalition’ in Iraq, (3) Trump has undermined his local allies in Lebanon and Iraq, by threats and economic turmoil, (4) US open support for further ethnic cleansing in Palestine has helped drive the international image of Apartheid Israel to an all-time low, (5) European states have serious tensions with Washington over US-driven economic wars on Iran, Russia and China, and (6) US allies including the UAE and Kuwait are re-establishing their ties with Damascus.
In these circumstances, the enhanced siege of Syria seems a desperate measure and, far from an assertion of strength, more a signal of looming failure. The ‘New Middle East’ project, started by Bush, developed by Obama and inherited by Trump, is in very poor shape. Trump initially spoke of a pragmatic withdrawal from Syria but, since he took office, has only managed to sink deeper into a series of multiple failing interventions across the region: in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen.
The reference to ‘Caesar’ in the latest measures against Syria is not to the Roman Emperors – emulated in their arrogance by the Orange Man in Washington – but to an anonymous Syrian defector at the center of a war propaganda scam a few years back. Using photos of dead bodies from a central Damascus morgue, those waging war on Syria claimed that all were victims of ‘regime’ torture (Black 2014; SJAC 2020). This is the way the worst of criminals try to vilify their victims, and so distract attention from their own ongoing crimes.
However, as Syria has been under severe siege from both the US and the EU for more than eight years, we must ask: what is the purpose of the new measures? The answer lies in expanded economic war on the entire region, and in Washington’s fear that some of its allies are breaking ranks to normalize relations with Damascus (Christou and Abdulssattar Ibrahim 2020). Is this a ‘last gasp’ (Souri 2020) of Washington’s failing ‘New Middle East’ gambits? Escalation while losing does signal desperation.
The new US ‘Caesar’ law pretends to give global power to the US President to impose fines and confiscate the assets of those, anywhere in the world, who “support or engage in a significant transaction” with the Syrian government. This is part of an omnibus law called the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) (SJAC 2020) which, in typical US fashion, has nothing to do with its name, either regarding ‘defense’ or ‘protection’.
None of this really adds much pressure to Syria’s allies like Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela, and Cuba, who already face similar economic aggression. However, it does have a focus on US allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Several European states, after expressing dissatisfaction with the constant US wars, aggravations and interventions, have sent representatives to discuss renewed relations with Damascus. At the same time, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (both former sponsors of jihadist terrorists in Syria) have reopened their embassies in Damascus and are investing in reconstruction projects (Reuters 2019).
Meantime the US has blocked UN agencies from financing reconstruction projects in Syria (Lund 2018), including blocking UNESCO help for reconstruction of the World Heritage cities of Aleppo and Palmyra. This contrasts sharply with the UNESCO funding of reconstruction projects in the (non-World Heritage) city of Mosul in Iraq (UNESCO 2019).
The WHO has noted, since 2017, that US-EU sanctions have damaged Syrians’ access to essential medicines, including those for children with cancer (Nehme 2017; Xinhua 2019). The UN Rapporteur on Human Rights issued a report in 2018 which said:
“Prior to the current crisis, Syria enjoyed some of the highest levels of care in the region. The demands created by the crisis have overwhelmed the system, and created extraordinarily high levels of need. Despite this, restrictive measures, particularly those related to the banking system, have harmed the ability of Syria to purchase and pay for medicines, equipment, spare parts and software. While theoretical exemptions exist, in practice international private companies are unwilling to jump the hurdles necessary to ensure they can transact with Syria without being accused of inadvertently violating the restrictive measures” (OHCHR 2018).
The Trump regime – mired in a terrible COVID19 epidemic said to have killed over 110,000 people in the US alone, and racked with demonstrations after the latest in a series of racist police murders – has chosen this time to add to the suffering of the Syrian people. Unable to topple the government in Damascus, Washington seeks to prevent other countries from helping with critical needs or in post-war reconstruction.
The rationale this time (for a 2016 Bill finalized in 2020) is revival of the ‘Caesar’ scandal of January 2014. Here a defector paid by Qatar (at that time a major investor in anti-Damascus terrorism) launched a propaganda stunt with several photos of dead bodies, some with marks of torture. The New York Times said those photos represented “more than 11,000 bodies in 55,000 photographs … from the secret jails of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, [which] suggest that torture, starvation and execution are widespread and even systematic” (Hubbard and Kirkpatrick 2014). However, the paper also admitted: “only a few photographs have actually been released by lawyers commissioned by the Qatari government, an avowed opponent of Mr. Assad, and the claims about their origins could not be independently verified” (Hubbard and Kirkpatrick 2014). There was only one witness, ‘Caesar’, and his identity was hidden.
Nonetheless, the clear impression given was that as many as 11,000 people had been tortured to death by the Syrian government. The British Guardian shrieked “clear evidence of … industrial scale killing” (Black 2014). Some months later, the Holocaust Museum in Washington hosted an exhibition of “10 or so photographs”, said to be part of the cache of more than 55,000 images. Cameron Hudson, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said the exhibition intended to show “the kind of systematic, organized and industrial nature of the killings” (Jalabi 2014).
But it was all a sham. Later the following year this display was exposed as yet another war propaganda stunt. Although the full cache of photos was never made public: (1) some or all of the photos were shown to have come from the central Damascus morgue, at the Military 601 Hospital; (2) they constituted about 10% of those killed in the US-led war, by that time; and (3) the US-based group Human Rights Watch, having gained access to the file and while attempting to maintain the original story, admitted that almost half the photos were “images of dead army soldiers or members of the security forces”, or “crime scene photographs … of those who were victims of “explosions, assassinations of security officers, fires, and car bombs” (HRW 2015). So much for the 11,000 victims of “torture, starvation and execution” story. There were plenty of dead bodies in Syria, but they were victims of the US-led war and of mendacious war propaganda.
Since Human Rights Watch (HRW) made this admission a virtual footnote, trying to maintain the myth of “industrial scale” killings, and since only a few photos have ever been released, we only have the HRW admission that 24,568 of the alleged 53,275 photos (46%) were certainly not ‘opposition’ figures. As HRW worked with the US-funded opposition to prepare its report, it seems likely that even this is a distorted picture.
Total war dead in Syria by that time were probably in excess of 100,000. Relying on the opposition-linked and England-based ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’, McClatchy reported in June 2013 that “at least 96,431 people have lost their lives in the more than two years of violence that’s wracked Syria” (Enders 2013). The photos were said to cover from May 2011 to August 2013. So the fact that the central morgue in Damascus had photographs of around 10% of the dead is hardly surprising.
The Caesar scam paralleled repeated claims that Syrian President Bashar al Assad was somehow responsible for all the deaths in Syria, even when his fanatical opponents showed multiple videos of their own executions of Syrian soldiers and civilians, and when senior US officials openly admitted that their allies were arming and financing all the internationally banned terrorist groups in Syria (Anderson 2019: 71-76).
Observing the HRW admissions, a US commentator noted the pattern of fabricated war stories, used to back US interventions. Historically, “they all had the goal of manipulating public opinion and they all succeeded in one way or another … [yet] none of the perpetrators were punished or paid any price.” In the case of the Caesar fraud, based on the word of one anonymous defector, the scam was announced: “on 20 January 2014, two days before [U.N.] negotiations about the Syrian conflict were scheduled to begin in Switzerland” (Sterling 2015). Washington never wanted a peace settlement in Syria until they had toppled the independent Syrian Government.
Six years later, in the circumstances of 2020, the Trump regime had enhanced the economic war on all independent forces of the region, a war set in train by Bush and Obama. There was a “maximum pressure” siege on Iran and full blockades of Syria, Palestine, and Yemen alongside coercive measures targeting resistance groups in Iraq and Lebanon. Washington then tried to condemn attempts at ‘money laundering’, as the peoples of the region simply sought to breathe.
Yet the Middle East footholds of the US occupation and its proxies have diminished greatly in recent years and there is discontent amongst Washington’s allies. In 2006, when Israel made its ill-fated decision to again invade Lebanon, hoping to destroy the Lebanese resistance, there were 180,000 US troops in the region, most of them in Iraq (Soleimani 2019). By mid-2020 Trump had 5,200 troops in Iraq; and the Pentagon wanted to halve that number. Further, after Iran’s strikes on the US airbase in Iraq at Ayn al Assad, US allies have been abandoning the US-led coalition in Iraq (Rubin, Jakes and Schmitt 2020). The Iraqi parliament has demanded a complete US withdrawal.
Trump’s response has been to increase the arrogance with which he commands Washington’s ‘allies’, having split with the Europeans over the nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015 and still demanding that Germany reject Russia’s NordStream gas project (Schulz 2020). That sort of arrogant pressure will likely spark a reaction.
The Caesar law extends Washington’s existing comprehensive sanctions against Syria by threatening to freeze the assets of third parties who engage with Damascus (Christou and Abdulssattar Ibrahim 2020). Prior to this Washington had relied on “verbal threats and private warnings to discourage governments in Europe and the Gulf from re-engaging politically with Damascus” or investing in Syria (SJAC 2020). But how long can such threats keep US allies in line?
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the US was “practicing economic terrorism” against Syria and held Washington “responsible for the suffering of the Syrians and the impact of sanctions on their livelihoods” (Xinhuanet 2020). Despite almost a decade of war and sanctions, Damascus maintains subsidies on food, free public schools and a free public health system.
As with other US unilateral coercive measures (e.g. against Cuba, Iran and Venezuela), the US response to criticism of the siege measures is typically that there are ‘humanitarian exemptions’ in their laws (SJAC 2020). However, this means an appeal to the US President who – like Caesar in the Colosseum – might see fit to ‘waive’ his own punishments.
Even sources unsympathetic to Syria acknowledge that, while the US unilateral coercive measures (‘sanctions’) “do not technically prevent the import … of food and medicine, … the cost of doing business within such a complicated legal regime, alongside fears of inadvertently violating sanctions, has raised the prices of basic goods and contributed to a shortage in medical goods and treatment”. Aron Lund of the US-based Century Foundation added “people sometimes don’t even apply for those exemptions” (Christou and Abdulssattar Ibrahim 2020).
Washington is not worried about the impact of the coercive measures on the Syrian population, because deprivation and hardship is exactly what is intended. The US has a long history of imposing unilateral coercive measures on independent states, aimed at harming entire populations in the hope of provoking political unrest (Anderson 2019: 35-39). In the case of the Caesar law, US envoy James Jeffrey admitted that the recent fall in the Syrian pound was “because of our procedures” (Syria Times 2020), threatening the Syrian Government with ongoing siege if they did not cut their ties with Iran and the Lebanese resistance (MEMO 2020). But those ties are precisely what has prevented Syria becoming another Libya, with no protective state, rampant sectarian gangs and open air slave markets.
The US can inflict substantial economic damage on small countries like Syria, in the short term, flouting international law and using the famous doublespeak of ‘helping’ the very same people they are attacking. That has already imposed a huge burden on the people of Syria and Lebanon.
But Washington’s medium term prospects do not look so good. It faces increased cooperation between the region’s independent states and peoples (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine) and also cross continental cooperation, as shown by Iran’s recent tanker aid to Venezuela (Al Jazeera 2020).
Further, Russia and China have deepened their roles in the Middle East, in the wake of the multiple, unpopular US interventions. That includes Chinese and Russian military cooperation with Iran (Westcott and Alkhshali 2019) and the construction of a new China-led financial architecture, which seems increasingly necessary to break the cycle of endless war (Rae 2020; Doshi 2020; Ito 2018; Adler and Bessner 2020). This will eventually include greater distance from the US dollar and some alternatives to the US-dominated SWIFT (financial transfer) system. The Europeans do not yet have sufficient independence to break with their Atlantic ‘partner’, but they may well take advantage of Russia or China-led initiatives which manage to subvert US financial monopolies.
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Dr. Tim Anderson is Director of the Sydney-based Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies. He has worked at Australian universities for more than 30 years, teaching, researching and publishing on development, human rights and self-determination in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East. In 2014 he was awarded Cuba’s medal of friendship. He is Australia and Pacific representative for the Latin America based Network in Defence of Humanity. His most recent books are: Land and Livelihoods in Papua New Guinea (2015), The Dirty War on Syria (2016), now published in ten languages; Countering War Propaganda of the Dirty War on Syria (2017) and Axis of Resistance: towards an independent Middle East (2019).
Source: American Herald Tribune