Frustrated by the absence of any organized big protest against the proposed war on Syria, I accepted an emailed invitation from MoveOn.org on Friday evening to organize a neighborhood candlelight vigil on Monday night Sept. 9. I figured that maybe 10-15 people would show up, and so I situated the event down at the corner where a locally famous store, the Monterey Market, is located. The event went up on the MoveOn.org website on Saturday morning, Sept. 7. I made up a flyer and had Krishna run off 1000 copies. I passed out about half at the door of the Market on Saturday and the rest at the Solano Stroll on Sunday.
By Monday evening the event had snowballed, and more than 150 people came out. We occupied all four corners of the intersection and spilled into parts of the store’s parking lot. (Apologies to a few customers who found us blocking one of the three store driveways.) Lots of people in cars, as well as bus and truck drivers, honked their support at the intersection.
Thanks to three guitar players and a harmonica player, led by Occupella’s Bonnie Lockhart, the vigil rang with songs of peace and civil rights, ranging from standards like Down by the Riverside to Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and John Lennon’s Imagine.
This was one of more than a hundred vigils held across the country on the same day.There were no speeches at this one; none were required. In private conversations, a couple of people pointed me to an op-ed published that morning in the S.F. Chronicle by Elizabeth Barrett. Barrett is described as a local attorney and mediator with an expertise in global conflict resolution.
Barrett’s piece is in some ways abominably blind. Noting that many of the Mideast boundaries are artificial and were drawn by colonial powers, she advocates redrawing the boundaries of Syria and some other Middle Eastern countries to fit “natural ethno-linguistic groupings.” She would cut Syria into three parts. This echoes similar proposals that Joe Biden made at an early stage of the Iraq war. Barrett passes over in silence the gross and systematic violation of those same natural ethno-linguistic groupings by and in the state of Israel, whose present boundaries are the most artificial, arbitrary, and unsustainable of all the states in the area.
Nevertheless, the piece is worth reading for the light it sheds on the energy interests that lurk in the background of the conflicts. Syria, she writes, has “vast proven oil-and-gas reserves,” and is a key transit point for pipelines. These assets are in the hands of the Syrian state, not private companies. The Assad government follows a secular nationalist policy. Like others in the region and in the world, it has made strategic oil and gas deals with China and Russia. And that’s the rub.
“The Arab ‘rebels,'” she writes, putting the word in quotes, “collaborate with the big Western oil companies, and their backers, the United States, the European Union and the Arab Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.” Their victory would mean “reorganizing the governmental structure” which “profoundly affects oil, gas, and pipeline interests.”
I’ve been a rebel most of my adult life and my sympathies naturally go out to most anyone who wears that tag. They have had cause to rebel. The Assad regime is one of the narrowest and harshest of the old-line hereditary dictatorships in the region. At the beginning, the protests and civil uprisings had a widespread appeal, and the regime’s repression was abhorrent. Today a sympathetic observer is caught between a rock and a hard place.
As civil protest turned to civil war, the “rebel” groups have fractured into two main groupings. The so-called mainline groups, reports from the field show, have largely degenerated into warlords, gangsters, and bandits who exploit the chaos to line their own pockets and pursue private vendettas.
The main fighting force increasingly comes from the jihadists, the Sunni sectarians openly allied with Al Queda, and sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Between these main groupings, as well as within them, there is vicious and brutal infighting.
Viewing this scenario through Barrett’s lens, both sets of rebels are proxies in a war for oil, gas, and pipelines.
Noam Chomsky recently remarked that whenever “the West” has had to choose between secular nationalist and jihadist forces, it has chosen the jihadists. The reason is that the jihadists play ball with the oil companies. They just want a cut, whereas the nationalists nationalize and act independently. It isn’t a perfect pattern, but it explains much about American policy toward Syria.
Seen through this lens, Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark that the US would not bomb Syria if Assad handed over his chemical arsenal was indeed the gaffe that several commentators have called it. Thanks to adroit Russian maneuvering and Syrian ratification, Kerry virtually pulled the rug out from under the U.S. case for open military intervention at this time.
The gas attack, it’s been obvious for some time, was only a convenient pretext for military intervention. Gas really has nothing to do with it. The planned bombings couldn’t stop the gas and aren’t designed to do so. The real concern is not the gas but the victories that the Assad regime has won on the ground during the summer. The balance of power has shifted decisively toward the government, and the end of the long civil war is finally on the horizon.
But that’s not the outcome that “the West” wants. Hence the plans for intervention. The bombings are designed to tip the balance of power just enough to prolong the civil war. Not necessarily to bring these rebels to power any time soon, but to keep the bloody slaughter going. As Israeli commentators quoted in the NY Times recently put it, with rare candor, the objective is to have the two sides kill each other, so that Syria as a strong actor in the region ceases to exist. The so-called “humanitarian” goals of the proposed missile strikes are the most cynical of hypocrisies.