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The parliamentary vote against UK participation in any US air strikes on Syria, and the consequent weakening of Western power as a whole, is a welcome outcome for anyone who thinks that Arab countries should determine their own future. Less heartening is the response from a large part of the Western left: to oppose the imperialist machinations of their own government by simply accepting the narrative of an opposing imperialism.

It is quite possible, and necessary, to oppose both. This means opposing the proposed US attack, and giving solidarity to the Syrian revolutionaries being attacked with all the weapons – including chemical ones, as I argue below – of the Assad regime.

First of all, why is the US – hobbled and hesitant, far from the grand strategy of a decade ago – so concerned with this ‘red line’ and not others? The so-called taboo on chemical weapons use is meaningful for the US: it preserves a monopoly of destructive and terrifying force in the hands of nuclear powers and deters the development of such force by poorer states using the cheaper technology of chemical warfare. Of course this taboo does not apply when the US or its allies use chemical weaponry of their own in Fallujah or in Gaza, or when (US made) tear gas is used to suffocate to protestors to death in Egypt. The prohibition on chemical weapons is hypocritically enforced by the US – the dropper of horrific weapons from Hiroshima to Iraq – for power-political, rather than humanitarian reasons. But the aim of maintaining that prohibition (for these strategic reasons) is a genuine one.

There is a further reason why the US is willing to launch a war at this point. Obama, and his tin-pot allies filled with colonial nostalgia, has painted himself into a corner. Having insisted that the use of chemical weapons was a rubicon that must not be crossed, and avoiding judgement on previous claims of their use, the flagrant nature of the attack on the Ghouta puts the Americans in a position of attacking or looking weak in the face of a Russian ally. To talk so big, and to do so little in the end, would be a very dangerous statement of decline for the US.

What will they do then? The nature of the air strikes being planned is so far unclear.  The tone of leaks on the matter has changed from ‘limited punishment’ to ‘wider damage’. Given the unclear aims of the operation (how would they know when Assad has been sufficiently ‘punished’?) it is entirely likely that the former would pass into the latter. As this statement by Syrian and other Arab leftists makes clear, neither of these would serve the revolution against the regime and the dalliance of certain Free Syrian Army officers with providing intelligence to the strikes is ‘skipping over the movement and of the masses and their independent decision’. Even if Assad were deterred from further use of chemical weapons by a so-called ‘punishment’ strike, he would be completely free to carry on killing thousands and thousands of people with conventional forces. A wider offensive would, even more than the former option, only boost the Arab nationalist credentials upon which the regime relies and in the event of its fall could only lead to the kind of sectarian divide et impera previously practiced in Iraq.

So, supporting an imperialist strike on Syria in the hope that it will weaken the Assad regime is a bad idea. This does not mean, as unfortunately seems to have been taken to be the case by many in the anti-war movement, that one should swallow the line of the US’s imperialist rival, Russia, that to claim Assad’s responsibility for the attack is ‘ridiculous’.

Now, when it comes to weapons inspectors in an Arab state, we have of course all been here before. Scepticism of the claims of Western intelligence agencies is a wise precaution. However, unlike in Iraq circa 2002, there is no need to rely on such sources to support the claim that chemical weapons were used against the civilians of the Ghouta by the Assad regime.

The contrary claims – that there was no attack or that it was mounted by rebel forces – are rarely made in specific detail, relying only on dark hints that not all is what it seems, no one can have full knowledge of the situation and so forth. Of course all of that is true, as much as it is about the statement ‘Abraham Lincoln was president of the USA between 1861 and 1865’. I was not in the room when the order was given to launch the attack. Very few people can have been. If that is the standard of proof being required here, then let’s just drop making statements about anything. But if you apply equal doses of scepticism to the claim ‘the rebels gassed the Ghouta civilians’ and ‘Assad forces gassed the Ghouta civilians’, you can only come to the conclusion that the latter is true. The first story has changed without explanation and relies on speculation and false dilemmas. The second one is believable based on what we already know.

First of all, Russia claimed that there had been no attack at all. Everything was (presumably) faked, as demonstrated by the time-stamp of the videos uploaded to YouTube: apparently the day before the attack. When it was explained that this was due to the time difference between Syria and California, where YouTube videos are time-stamped, the claim was dropped with no explanation and the pro-Assad argument shifted to say that the attack was a false-flag operation by the rebels to encourage Western intervention.

Let’s apply some of the famous scepticism to this claim. The main, indeed the sole, logic offered in its support is that there was no motive for the regime to use chemical weapons because it is ‘winning the war’ and the UN weapons inspectors were in Damascus at the time. But this is a false dilemma based on an incorrect reading of the military situation. There is a stalemate in Syria, with partial breakthroughs for one side or the other. Using Hizbollah (as an aside, it is odd that this ‘foreign Islamist militia’ inspires no horror at all amongst those who use the same language to damn the opposition) Assad scored a major victory at Qusayr. However, in the Eastern suburbs of Damascus and down to the Jordanian border, the opposition has been advancing. No one denies that the regime possesses chemical weaponry and it has hardly shown itself held back by concerns about civilian life. The simplest explanation for the attack is this: the regime used one of the terrifying weapons in its arsenal to kill its enemies, in order to win its war. This is what you would expect it to do.

What about the presence of the weapons inspectors? What about them indeed, you might ask. For two and a half years, Assad has slaughtered people while the world looked on and his Russian backer on the UN Security Council protected him with all the tenacity with which the US protects Israel. The attack may have been a gamble, or the result of a decomposition of the chain of command: at any rate, the last two years would be enough for the regime to calculate that it could get away with pretty much anything.

If you knew that your opponents had mounted a false-flag chemical weapons attack to discredit you, what would you do? Would you continue bombing the area, destroying evidence, or would you produce such evidence for all the world to see? Where is it? Apart from a few half-hearted pictures of medical supplies, there is none. If there were, the Syrian state media, Russia Today, and the anti-anti-Assad commentariat would be pushing it morning, noon and night.

What about the attack itself? Two kinds of missiles have been found in the area after the attack. The first of these appears to be a Soviet 140 mm M14 artillery rocket. The second is an unknown kind of apparently improvised munition, but one which has been spotted 14 times in use by regime forces in Syria and never by the opposition. It has been claimed that these are opposition ‘Hell cannon’ missiles but they are not: both the shape and the length are quite obviously different. A video showing Hell Cannons being launched, purportedly on the Ghouta itself, was posted weeks before the attack. There is a video of Liwa-al-Islam, one of the opposition groups, allegedly ordering sarin gas to be launched: but it is not video of the Ghouta and it is not even the original soundtrack. It is surprising how readily people can believe footage of children dying of chemical weapons asphyxiation is fake, but a one-minute video with dubbed-over voice is real.

It has also been claimed that the attack was in fact an accident caused when opposition forces mishandled ‘tube-like’ chemical weapons given to them by Saudi Prince Bandar. This doesn’t make any sense at all. How could so many people have been killed by such an underground accident? Why are there missile fragments (of the regime kind described above) all over the site? Why haven’t the dead handlers of the weapons been identified – presumably they would have been right next to them? The Saudis have not been shown to possess such weapons, so where did they get them from to give them to Syrians? If we are going to follow such interminable chains of tenuous speculation, we might as well go the whole hog: Bashar al-Assad is a long-term creation of Prince Bandar, designed to discredit secular leftism (given how difficult most such people have found it to support the revolution against him) and promote reactionary religious doctrines instead. After all, when you really ask yourself, who benefits?

If you believe that the FSA launched the gas attacks on the Ghouta, you have to believe that they acquired weapons they never had before, with no one knowing about it, and decided then not to launch them at military positions in areas where they might turn the tide, but on their own supporters in an area they control, with no evidence of any communications directing such an attack. It does not stand up. To believe the regime did it all you have to say is that they used weapons everyone knows they have to kill their enemies in a war already characterised by extremely brutal behaviour on Assad’s part.

The attack on the Ghouta is another entry in a dreadful legacy that will last Syria a generation or more. That legacy is the responsibility of the regime, which used the most violent measures at its disposal to crush the Syrian revolution from the beginning. Progressives are entitled to propagate fantasies about the Ghouta, and the rest of the past two and a half years, if they wish: but don’t be surprised if the Syrians who survive listen to imperialists, obscurantists and reactionary murderers instead.

Jamie Allinson is a researcher specialising in Middle East politics. This article first appeared at New Left Project.