By Stephen Gowans

March 27, 2024  What’s Left


It is astonishing that US journalists can continue to implicitly accept that the conduct of their own government is guided by human rights concerns, when even a cursory knowledge of the US record in foreign affairs unequivocally refutes this notion. To believe Washington conducts itself on the world stage with the promotion of human rights as a significant goal represents an instance of the epistemology of ignorance—failing to see glaring evidence that refutes a dearly-held view even though the evidence is staring you in the face.

An example of how it is that many US journalists are committed to a religious-like faith in their country’s imagined devotion to human rights can be found in a March 25, 2024, Wall Street Journal article, “A Ticking Time Bomb: In Syrian Camps, Fears of an Islamic State Revival,” by Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon.

The article concerns a network of prisons, including the Al-Hol refugee camp, run by the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in the US occupation zone in Syria.

The phrase “US occupation zone in Syria,” and the idea that the United States is occupying part of a foreign country, are absent from public discourse, and therefore demand an explanation. The United States admits to maintaining 900 troops in northwest Syria, backed by 2,500 others in neighboring Iraq, but at the same time acknowledges that the number is only “a construct” and that there are uncounted US forces in Syria, whose number it refuses to disclose. The reason for keeping a US military presence in Syria is ostensibly to suppress a revival of Islamic State, and, perhaps so, but also to deny Damascus access to the oil-producing region and its revenues. The US presence in Syria also serves to help the US government impede the flow of arms from Tehran through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon

US forces may play a useful role in suppressing an ISIS revival, but they were never invited into the country by the Syrian government. Their presence is opposed by Damascus, and represents a flagrant violation of international law. We could even say it is an affront to the vaunted rules-based international order, were the phrase not simply a reference to whatever arbitrary set of rules Washington, at its own discretion, defines for itself and others, to suit its momentary interests. There is no rules-based international order apart from international law and the United States is flouting it in Syria and elsewhere. The fact that Washington has invented a new phrase to replace the term ‘international law’ is nothing more than a transparent attempt to make ius gentium equivalent to US diktat.

All to say, that the United States is occupying a part of Syria—illegally, despite its dishonest posturing as the paladin of international legal standards. It is helped by a Kurdish military, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the late journalist Robert Fisk called neither Syrian (it is led by Turkish Kurds in the main) or democratic (it has imposed its rule on the Arab population per vim as a contractor to the US occupation.) The SDF is to the Arabs in Syria what Israel is to the Arabs in historic Palestine—a client of the United States, which has rented itself out to Washington as an instrument of US foreign policy in exchange for support in setting up and maintaining a homeland in someone else’s country.

By the way, the United States isn’t the only foreign power to carve out its own zone in Syria. Israel (the Golan Heights) and Turkey (northern Syria) have done the same. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have their own military presences in the country, though, unlike the United States and Turkey, are in Syria legally, at the request of the government in Damascus.

During its war on ISIS, the United States captured thousands of ISIS fighters, and rounded up their families, which are now held in a network of prisons in northwest Syria. The prisons and camps are run by the SDF under US droit de regard [right of inspection].

In writing their article, Lubold and Gordon were concerned to answer the question: What should become of these camps and the people within them? The “daunting question” they wrote, “is how to ensure thousands of the camps’ residents and imprisoned fighters are repatriated to their home countries before the region is racked by further turmoil. If a future U.S. administration were to pull its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, or withdraw American forces, security at the camps and detention centers could collapse, potentially sparking a revival of Islamic State.”

One option is to transfer the facilities to the Syrian government. But this won’t happen, the reporters wrote, because Damascus “has been accused of massive human rights abuses.” It’s true that it won’t happen, but the fact that it won’t happen (or is very unlikely to happen) has nothing to do with Syria having been accused of massive human rights abuses, and everything to do with satisfying the US goals of denying Damascus access to its oil resources and interdicting arms transfers from Iran to Lebanon.

The implication in the Lubold and Gordon article is extraordinary, on two levels.

First, the United States has not only been accused of massive human rights abuses itself, but it has manifestly committed them, and yet, the tacit message of the article is that it is better to leave the facilities under the control of the United States rather than transfer them to the control of Syria, because the latter has a record of torturing and abusing prisoners. This judgement can only be made if we turn a blind eye to the magnitude of US human rights violations around the world. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay—bywords for torture and prisoner abuse—come to mind. So, if we believe Lubold and Gordon, it’s unacceptable to transfer control of prisoners to Syria, because it has tortured and abused prisoners, but acceptable to keep them under the control of an occupying power which has also tortured and abused prisoners.

Second, the abuses of human rights that Syria has committed in its efforts to suppress an Islamist insurgency (the insurgency amply backed by the United States, it might be added—this too is well documented) are of the same order as the human rights abuses committed by Washington in its own efforts to suppress Islamist insurgencies in allied countries and which spilled over into the United States on 9/11. Whatever crimes Syria has committed in its campaign to quell an Islamist threat have been equaled, if not surpassed, by the United States in its own campaigns to crush Islamist threats to its own interests.

Do not mistake the foregoing for a tu quoque defense of Syrian torture and prisoner abuse. It is neither defense nor condemnation but an attempt to show that the idea, implicit in the Lubold and Gordon article, that prison facilities in Syria can’t be turned over to the Syrian government and must be kept under US control because Damascus is a human rights violator and the United States is not, is totally unsupportable and, in the US case, at odds with the facts. The United States hasn’t imprisoned captured Islamist fighters any more humanely than Syria has, and hasn’t waged its war on Islamist insurgency any more delicately than Damascus has. We cannot conclude, therefore, that because Damascus has tortured and abused prisoners that the United States has not, and that prison facilities in northwest Syria must, as a consequence, be left under the control of the United States and its Kurdish minions.

China, too, as much as Syria and the United States, has struggled with Islamist insurgency.  In China’s case, the insurgency has arisen within the Uyghur population in, what is to Beijing, the strategically important region of Xinjiang. Some Uyghur fighters, inspired by ISIS efforts to build a caliphate in Mesopotamia and the Levant, paused their secessionist activities in China to join the ISIS campaign in Syria. About 100 Uyghur fighters are currently imprisoned in the US-controlled Syrian camps, along with 1,500 members of their families.

China’s approach to combatting Islamist violence relies, as it does in Saudi Arabia and some other countries, on deradicalization. Whether China’s efforts to quell Islamist opposition and secessionist violence, violates human rights norms is a separate question from whether it is comparable in its encroachment on human freedoms to the approach taken by Syria and the United States. I think it can be fairly said that however much the rights of Uyghur militants have been violated in China, they have been violated to a lesser degree than have those of Islamist militants in Syria or those targeted by the United States. That this is true, has little to do with values (China is not more humane intrinsically than Syria or the United States), and has much to do with the differences in the security situations of these countries. A milder response to Islamist violence has been warranted in China’s case, because the challenge of Islamist violence has been milder than it has been in Syria and milder than the Islamist challenge to US imperial interests in West Asia.

For this reason, the United States has treated Islamist rebels much more harshly that China has. It has tortured and abused them at Abu Ghraib, imprisoned some of them indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, choosing its naval base in Cuba as the site for its prison to afford it the freedom from US law it needs to carry out its abuses. It has reduced the Syrian city of Raqqa to rubble, in an effort to eradicate ISIS. Nothing China has done to contend with its own Islamist opposition has risen to this level of horror. And yet Lubold and Gordon write that the Uyghur fighters rotting in a US-supervised SDF prison in the US occupation zone of Syria “can’t be returned to China because of human rights concerns.”  The only way this statement can be considered coherent is if the risible assumption is made that the United States does not, and has not, tortured and abused Islamist prisoners; that it does not, and has not, waged pitiless wars on Muslim-majority countries; that it does not, and has not, shown its utter contempt for human rights, in hundreds of instances, including most recently, in its participation in the genocide against Palestinians. The US scholar of international relations, John Mearsheimer recently observed that “the United States is a brutal country,” and yet, if Lubold and Gordon are believed, it is only US rivals that are brutal.

There is a Manicheanism in the Lubold and Gordon view: the United States and its allies are good and democratic and concerned about human rights while the rivals of the United States are bad and authoritarian and violators of human rights.  This view is untenable. But equally untenable is the view that flips the Manichean equation on its head. The reality that the United States isn’t what it says it is, doesn’t mean its rivals are the opposite of what it says they are. The fact that Shintoist Japan was not the liberator of East Asia that it said it was, but was an imperialist power no different from its rivals, didn’t mean that the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, countries against which Tokyo thundered anti-imperialist screeds, were not the imperialist powers Japan said they were.  If the United States is bad, that doesn’t mean China and Russia and Syria are good. The reduction of politics to an exercise of fitting various governments into dualist moral categories, and then rhapsodizing about the good guys and scorning the bad, is the activity of propagandists, useful idiots, and preachers of pious benevolence.

It is more profitable, at least from the point of view of advancing any kind of progressive politics, to avoid these moral valuations altogether, and to assess the conduct of states with reference to the class that controls them and to the geopolitics and the external, surrounding, and historic circumstances that shape their conduct.


-Stephen Gowans is the author of The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster (2022); Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East: From European Colony to US Power Projection Platform (2019); Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom (2018); and Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017). For notification of updates, send an e-mail to with “subscribe” in the subject line.