From the colonial-imperial wars of the early 19th century through to the 1950s in Syria and the early 1980s in Afghanistan and beyond, the objectives of the Western powers has always been the same – the drive for profits.
This article is follows-up on ‘‘How western imperial power set out to destroy Syria‘, broadening the debate by critiquing the role both the Right and the Left in Britain have, and are, playing in the propaganda process. Has there ever been an ethical dimension in relation to UK foreign policy in Syria and elsewhere?
An ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy has invariably invoked regime change predicated on violence. Under current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the UK government approach toward Syria has sought the imposition of an anti-Russian leader within the power structures of the Syrian state. Johnson is well aware that regime change in Syria cannot be achieved without the aid of ISIS and their various offshoots on the ground who have gained access to weapons exported by the UK to the Middle East in the wake of the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion.
However, gaining access to weapons is not possible without access to money to purchase them. The main source of ISIS funds is from the sale of oil from nearly a dozen oil fields in northern Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa province. It then passes through Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan region. In September 2014, in a briefing to the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, EU Ambassador to Iraq, Jana Hybaskova, conceded that some European countries have purchased crude from ISIS from the areas in northern Iraq and Syria they have captured.
As early as 1834, David Urquhart, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Constantinople organised a committee of mujahideen to run guns to jihadists. This continued through to the late 1940s in response to the Baath Parties support of Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, the second President of Egypt’s anti-imperial policies and its close ties to Moscow. By 1956, Britain began promoting the idea that the Syrian people needed to be saved from the egalitarianism of the Syrian state.
Working in conjunction with the U.S, the British agreed that a serious attempt should be made to establish a pro-Western government in Syria by means of an engineered coup that enlisted the use of Turkish, Iraqi and Lebanese forces as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. In December, 1954, the British ambassador in Damascus, Sir John Gardener, told Anthony Eden, then foreign secretary, of “monster demonstrations arranged by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria”, which took place after Egypt’s clampdown against the movement.
However, this strategy proved counterproductive. The coup, known as Operation Straggle, ultimately failed. It was replaced in September, 1957, by another plan. Backed at the highest level in Britain, this strategy principally involved the provoking of an internal uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Damascus as a prelude to the Syrian government’s overthrow.
Carried out in coordination with the Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese intelligence services, the ‘Preferred Plan’ involved further divide and conquer and false flag tactics, the use of Syrian MI6 agents working inside the Baath Party and the CIA to augment tensions in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Syria had to be made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments.
The Anglo–American plan also involved Prime Minister Harold Macmillan authorising the assassination of key Syrian officials. The head of Syrian military intelligence, the chief of the Syrian general staff and the leader of the Syrian Communist Party, were all approved as targets. Yet in the end, the 1957 plan never went ahead, mainly because Syria’s Arab neighbours could not be persuaded to take action.
Once again, the parallels with today are remarkable.
The policy of using false flag incidents as the justification for military engagement in Syria differ only in terms of the specifics.
Hence, the notion that the UK governments current official enemy was responsible for the chemical attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013, was the pretext needed for invasion.
This was the year former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas announced that Britain had been planning the war on Syria “two years before the Arab spring” which was to involve the organising of an invasion of rebels into the country.
One day after the attacks, a lead article by The Guardian claimed there was not “much doubt” who was to blame for the Ghouta attacks, as it simultaneously assailed its readers with commentary on the West’s “responsibility to protect” – a liberal ‘ethical’-based justification that harked back to Robin Cook’s foreign policy strategy in East Timor during the late-1990s under Blair.
When the Blair government came to power in 1997, Cook ensured, under cover of the Official Secrets Act, that arm shipments to East Timor’s oppressors, the regime of General Suharto in Indonesia, were increased exponentially. Cook was aware of an exhaustive investigation by the foreign affairs committee of the Australian Parliament that concluded Suharto’s troops had caused the deaths of ‘at least’ 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population. In New Labour’s first year in office, under the umbrella of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, Britain was the biggest weapons supplier to the Suharto regime. (See: Hidden Agendas, John Pilger, pp.115-52).
It is under the guise of an ‘ethical’ responsibility to protect policy – or as one US official put it, “pre-emptive retaliation” – that the reconfiguration of international law has become established. This allows an attack on any potential adversary to be undertaken without evidence of any wrongdoing. The invocation of the R2P doctrine is the context that explains the current phase of mission creep and war in Syria.
In response to public opposition to this state of affairs, the BBC produced the now infamous documentary, Saving Syria’s Children, arguably the most overt piece of war propaganda ever made. Sequences filmed by BBC personnel and others at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on 26 August 2013 that purported to show the aftermath of an incendiary bomb attack on a school in Urm Al-Kubra were, in the words of independent researcher, Robert Stuart, “largely, if not entirely, staged.”
Broadcast on the day the House of Commons was due to vote for military action in Syria, the documentary was clearly intended to influence the vote which the Cameron government ultimately lost. Stuart’s brilliant and meticulous analytical demolition of the documentary is discussed at this link or at the video below.
Another cynical piece of BBC-produced anti-Assad propaganda, involved their distorted interpretation of a report commissioned by the Qatari government which claimed that the Syrian government had “systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” Former UK diplomat, Craig Murray, described the BBCs presentation of the report as “a disgrace” that again, was clearly intended to influence public opinion in favour of war.
There have been numerous other accusations made against the Syrian government, all of which have been rebuked. The propaganda effort was stepped-up after the UK government failed to persuade parliament to support military action against the Assad government. In the autumn of 2013, the UK embarked on behind-the-scenes work to influence the course of the war by shaping perceptions of opposition fighters. It was during this time that the media began describing Islamist extremist obscurantists who routinely behead people, as ‘rebels’ and ‘Syrian opposition’.
It was also around this time that the foreign office, working with the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s Office began forming contracts companies for the express purpose of creating ‘targeted information’. In effect, the British government is funding a comprehensive top of the range advertising campaign to promote sectarian extremists in Syria who function as units of al Qaeda and ISIS.
This involves the production of videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups by contractors hired out by the Foreign Office and overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which are all linked to, and funded by various think-tanks, NGOs, lobbyists and governments. These organisations include: Avaaz, Hand In Hand for Syria, White Helmets, Mayday Rescue, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Aleppo Media Centre (AMC).
Boris Johnson, conceded that, under the guise of humanitarian aid, the UK government has donated a £65m funding package to the various groups promoting regime change in Syria which is used in conjunction with ‘hard’ military power. This was reiterated in July, 2016 when, during a speech that echoed Thomas Friedman’s famous aphorism “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist”. Admiral Sir Philip Jones openly admitted that “the hard punch of [British] military power is often delivered inside the kid glove of humanitarian relief.”
The imperialism of David Urquhart of the early 19th century is in essence no different from the imperialism of Boris Johnson in 2017. Then, as now, wars of aggression, are motivated by the financial imperatives associated with big business. In his book Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan, Noam Chomsky argues that:
“If we hope to understand anything about the foreign policy of any state, it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure.
Who sets foreign policy? What interests do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power?
It is a reasonable surmise that the policy that evolves will reflect the special interests of those who design it?”
Unfortunately, as the Robin Cook example illustrates, the Left are not immune from the kind of domestic social structure outlined by Chomsky. Even under Corbyn, Johnson’s counterpart, shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, appears to hark back to the liberal interventionism that typified the Blair government.
In Parliament, Thornberry championed the use of a no fly-zone (euphemism for regime change) in Syria and appears unaware of the covert support given by the current UK government to the Islamist propaganda outfit, The White Helmets.
It gets worse. It would appear that until relatively recently, George Galloway contrived to falsely equate the overwhelming public support of the secular government’s in Libya and Syria with the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in the Islamist dictatorships of the Arab Gulf peninsula as well as those in Tunisia and Egypt.
Galloway declared his support for the Arab Spring in a strongly worded critique of Gaddafi in a radio broadcast in February 2011:
Galloway repeated this sentiment again at the Oxford Union in October 2012, in relation to Syria. Rather strangely, the former Respect MP appears to have been unaware of the huge demonstrations in support of Gaddafi in Libya, which independent journalist, Lizzie Phelan provided personal on the ground testimony, in addition to the huge rallies in support of Assad in Damascus and Aleppo.
Meanwhile, British journalists Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill, both dedicated supporters of illegal regime change in Syria, were instrumental in preventing Mother Agnes Mariam, a nun based in Homs, from speaking at the Stop the War Coalition. I recently tweeted to Galloway inquiring whether as Convener for the STWC he played any part in the decision to ban Mother Agnes from sharing a platform at their conference. Galloway didn’t reply.
Then, most significantly and depressing of all, has been the attempts by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in his role as chairman of the STWC, to suppress debate and dissent about STW policies regarding Libya and Syria. Also on Corbyn’s watch, the STWC continued its affiliation with the Islamists, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).
In December 2015, in his speech to the debate about air-strikes on Syria, Corbyn made a most revealing statement about what he terms ‘the Syrian Civil War’ in which he regurgitated the crudest of anti-Assad propaganda, (full speech below).
“By suggesting that Assad is worse than ISIS, Corbyn is buying into the NATO narrative on Syria, heavily dependent on the myth of the genocidal Bashar al Assad, which has been created in order to justify the goal on regime change, in preference to actually stopping ISIS or other terrorist groups in Syria.
So while ostensibly opposing overt intervention in Syria, Corbyn is underwriting the reasons given for that intervention, and thus facilitating it.”
The desperation by many to see Corbyn elected as the next Prime Minister of Britain, ought not to be used as a way of absolving both him and Emily Thornberry of criticism in their foreign policy approaches towards Syria and the middle east more broadly. And yet, so appalling have the foreign policies of the Tories been, that it’s perhaps easy to overlook the evidence which seems to suggest Labour’s foreign policies wouldn’t be much better.
Certainly, Corbyn’s failure to acknowledge that the culpability for the war is not of Assad’s making, or to properly critique the insidious role played by both the White Helmets and the Jo Cox Foundation (the latter has earmarked money to the former), are serious flaws in his analysis crucial to a proper understanding of the conflict in Syria.
The near foreign policy consensus between the two major political parties in Britain is historically embedded – bound as Chomsky acknowledges, by a rigid domestic social structure. From the colonial-imperial wars of the early 19th century when the British aligned themselves with Islamist extremists, through to the 1950s in Syria and the early 1980s in Afghanistan and beyond, the objectives of the Western powers has always been the same – the drive for profits.
It’s the concentration of wealth into the executive arm of the state which defines the logic of a capitalist system driven by war that enables this state of affairs to continue. For centuries the powerful have consistently sought to justify the initiation of wars against the powerless as the prelude to stealing their resources.