The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Syria:
Civil War and Big-Power Maneuvers

Sep 16, 2013

The following article was translated from the September-October 2013 issue of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the revolutionary workers organization in France.

For about two weeks, there seemed to be a serious international crisis provoked by the debate over whether Bashar alAssad’s regime had used chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels on August 21st. Western leaders, especially in the United States and France, threatened to resort to “strikes” on the Syrian soil – “strikes” being a politically correct word, which apparently has replaced the unpleasant old word of “bombings” in journalese. However, the word makes no difference as far as what happens. And the threat to use “strikes” proves that imperialist leaders have not given up gunboat diplomacy. They may have to conceal their real intentions behind humanitarian reasons, readymade indignation, and the manipulation of information, and they sometimes engage in bluffs and threats they cannot enforce, but it’s obvious they still think it is well within their own right to intervene militarily all over the world.

The issue of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons is no exception. But in this case, it quickly appeared that Barack Obama’s threats to strike Syria, which France’s president, François Hollande, repeated, were put forward to conceal other calculations. Imperialist leaders wanted to get out of the Syrian crisis with as little damage as possible, that is to say, as little damage as possible to their interests. As for the Syrian people, the damage has already and tragically been done. The Syrian population is paying for all the maneuvering which has been going on for the last two years, maneuvers in great contempt for the population’s fate.

Saving Face for Each Other

Thanks to a proposition opportunely made by the Russian leadership, the United States and Russia have now agreed to engage in a process meant to make the Syrian leadership submit Syria’s chemical arsenal to international monitoring and to destruction. It will be a difficult process, talks are likely to last for a long time, and obviously they will not put an end to the Syrian civil war and the atrocities perpetrated on all sides. But the length of this process is probably the main advantage for the American and Russian leaderships right now. They may be old foes, but they also can behave like old accomplices when it’s necessary. It’s a way to help each other save face.

Thus, Obama, who found it difficult to get a majority in Congress for military intervention, and who was not really eager himself to engage in it, is getting some more time, possibly a long time. While avoiding disowning his Syrian ally, Vladimir Putin has established himself as a necessary partner for an international settlement. As for the Assad regime, it does not risk anything other than to have to part, in the end, with an outofdate arsenal of little use.

The use of chemical weapons was raised by Obama and Hollande as the crossing of a socalled “red line.” While endlessly talking about whether or not the line was crossed lets them pretend they are concerned about the fate of the Syrian people, it also implies that other weapons can be used, whether by the rebels or the Assad regime. All this diplomatic agitation and debate can’t hide the fact that the war is still going on, having already almost destroyed the whole country.

Western leaders say they are motivated by humanitarian concerns, but in fact this is not at all a part of their calculations. For more than forty years, they made do with Bashar alAssad and his father Hafez alAssad and the dictatorship they imposed over Syria. Despite the end of the cold war and of the USSR, this Arab nationalist regime looked toward the Russians for support. And Russia’s support has allowed the Syrian regime to maintain some sort of independence facing the imperialist powers. At the same time, the regime has always come to terms with the imperialist powers and been useful for them in its own way. It did so, for example, when starting from 1976, it sent troops to Lebanon to help keep the status quo which could have been upset if the left Lebanese militias and the Palestinians had been successful during the civil war then tearing the country apart. The Syrian regime kept its troops in Lebanon until 2005 because the neighboring powers and the Western leaders agreed that this would freeze the main positions of the contending players in Lebanon, and thus would keep a sort of minimal existence for the Lebanese state.

The Assads, father and son, would have liked their actions to be reciprocated, for example, with Western pressure on Israel, forcing it to give back the Golan Heights territory which it had occupied since 1967. But it did not happen that way, and that was obviously a factor encouraging the Syrian leaders to keep their alliance with Russia, facing Western leaders who were not offering anything. Nonetheless, Western leaders, and in particular the American leadership, for decades knew what to expect from the Assad regime and were convinced that he was a useful partner for keeping the status quo among the different states in the Middle East. French President Sarkozy even invited Bashar alAssad for the 14th of July 2008 commemorations in Paris, hoping to get some big orders from Syria for the French military industry.

This was the situation up until the “Arab spring” at the beginning of 2011, when the American leadership decided to abandon old proteges like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, backing the sham of a transition towards democracy in both countries. But when youth demonstrations started up against the Assad dictatorship and faced a violent repression, Western leaders would not have been able to act in the same way in Syria, even if they had wanted to. They did not have the same kind of connections and influence with high ranking Syrian military officials that they had with the Egyptian and Tunisian armies, which allowed the Western leaders to convince those militaries to dump their old dictators in order to remain in power. Above all, they did want Assad to be overthrown so long as they did not know for sure if the regime that would replace him would be trustworthy, serving the interests of the Western powers.

Turkey and the Gulf States to the Rescue against Assad

In the beginning of 2011, Western leaders stood by and watched the protesters in Syria being suppressed, and likewise in a number of other allied countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. However they did not prevent their close allies, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, from providing aid to Syrian opposition groups likely to destabilize the Damascus regime and possibly to prepare a political alternative. Money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar made it possible to supply them with weapons. The same Turkish government led by Erdogan, who had declared not long before that Bashar alAssad was like a brother to him and that he wanted “not a single problem with his neighbors,” sponsored the creation of a “free Syrian army” composed of Syrian army deserters and allowed armed groups – with or without Syrians – to train on Turkish soil before they would cross the TurkishSyrian border, a border which stretches more than 800 km and was especially permeable.

Bases were also set up in Jordan under the supervision of Jordanian, Saudi and Qatar militaries, but also with the collaboration of American, French and British intelligence services, in order to train and send combatants up to Syria. Added to the “free Syrian army” were heterogeneous groups composed of Syrian, Turkish, Chechen, Iraqi, Afghan or even European recruits, all having at their disposal the money and weapons provided by the Gulf States. The fundamentalist Islamist groups grew in authority within the armed rebellion against Assad.

This armed opposition quickly replaced the opposition expressed by people’s demonstrations against the regime, and they were clearly following another agenda. For that matter, the regime’s violent repression of the demonstrations helped these armed groups because during each demonstration, the police shot, causing the deaths of a great many people. One of the main consequences of the “liberation” of some cities or districts by the rebels’ armed groups was that those cities became targets for the Assad army’s bombings. The civilian population who had been “liberated” in this way was crushed under the bombs, while it often had to suffer from the law of armed groups behaving as if they were at home, and acting to impose their conception of Islamic law on everybody, first of all, women. In many cases, the inhabitants found salvation only by escaping their cities and districts destroyed by the bombings and placed under the law of unmonitored armed gangs.

The United States and its Western allies wanted only to use the initiative from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to test the resistance of the Assad regime. Attempts to find a political alternative to Assad followed one after the other. After the “Syrian National Council” – a first attempt backed by Turkey – a “Syrian National Coalition” was set up and tried to offer Western leaders a presentable face. It immediately received backing from the French government. But Western leaders have up to now refused to engage their own forces in military actions against the Syrian army, or even to supply the rebels with the heavy weaponry they had been asking for.

If the coalition of political forces outside of Syria did everything to win over the confidence and support of the Western leaders, it is now clear that they do not control the armed gangs on the ground. For the most part, these gangs are divided and dominated by jihadists or even linked to AlQaeda, or made up on ethnic grounds or even on trafficking. What is more, the Assad regime has now responded to Turkey by letting the northern part of Syrian territory come under the control of Kurdish militias allied to the PKK, which faces the Turkish army along the Turkish side of the border. It not only makes things much more complicated for the Turkish army and for Erdogan, but it eases problems for the Syrian regime, since the Kurdish militias are now engaged in violent confrontations with the Islamist groups that would like to control all of the rebellion against Assad.

Obviously, the American leadership has now stepped back from the prospect of throwing its military weight behind these armed groups, over which the political opposition in exile seems to have little influence. Moreover, while chaos is reigning in the socalled liberated areas, the Damascus regime has proven itself able to resist, something Assad’s opponents did not expect. The alAssad government was even able to take advantage of the armed groups’ behavior towards the population and especially towards minorities, Christian for example, which ended up siding with the regime. Indeed, many people came to the conclusion that between two evils, the lesser was still the Assad regime. And it now seems strengthened while its army was able to regain most of the ground it lost to the rebellion.

Would a “Draw” Be the Best Solution?

As a matter of fact, the evolution of the military power relations in favor of the Assad regime is undoubtedly much more of a concern for Western leaders than any socalled humanitarian preoccupation for the victims. In an article published in Le Monde, Edward Luttwak, a consultant for the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, clearly explained the difficult choice facing the United States: if the Assad regime – backed by and allied to Russia, but also to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah – were to win, it would be a political setback for America and its allies in the region. He added: “But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East.” That would almost certainly lead to the development of an Islamist dictatorship in Damascus and no guarantee that it would remain an ally of the United States.

Still, according to the consultant, the only other option would be “a fullscale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime,” that is, “another costly military adventure in the Middle East.” That is why he concluded: “There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw,” and he suggested that “the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.” All things considered, the consultant also noticed that fostering an ongoing civil war has been the policy chosen by American leaders since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. He continued saying cynically that of course it was “unfortunate” and “tragic” for the people of Syria that it would be the “best option,” but that “a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.”

The story does not say if Barack Obama is following or will follow Edward Luttwak’s advice. But the way Luttwak thinks tells a lot more about the imperialist leaders’ real concerns than their selective indignation. They are mainly concerned about maintaining a power relationship in Syria that will let them keep playing their own game and defend their interests as well as those of their companies in the region. That is what the chemical weapons issue revealed. U.S. leaders haven’t asked Assad to stop using his conventional arsenal in any way; they simply have used enough threats to get a compromise from the Syrian regime and from Russia. It not only allows them to save face, but also to assert themselves as fullfledged players in the coming diplomatic game which will now take place, while they could well have been left out of it. That game will require time for all of the participants to find what they call “a political solution” to the Syrian crisis.

Negotiations that Hide Other Talks

The negotiations about Syria’s chemical weapons are probably going to continue, while the still-raging war allows the relationship of forces to be assessed on the ground. Those negotiations will help hide more serious talks on the “political solution.” In reality, Russians and Americans have been talking about that for more than a year. It would consist of bringing a number of the opposition representatives in to a remodeled Assad regime, with a possible promise to organize elections within a certain time frame. It would exclude representatives from the uncontrollable Islamist groups or other jihadists present in Syria who really fight. Not only do both Assad and Russia want them out, but today the United States is no longer so eager to support them, except maybe for tactical purposes. The policy that involved supplying weapons to fighters under the patronage of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has been a disaster, leading to the proliferation of armed Islamist groups that nobody controls anymore, even while the Assad regime strengthened itself.

Even if this whole policy played out under the watchful eye of French, British and American intelligence services, the United States now seems ready to junk it, cutting off the Turkish and Arab leaders who stuck their necks out in the process. Let them sort things out now with the Islamist groups they supported without knowing how to control them. The whole affair obviously has begun to appear as a failure for these zealous allies, but American leaders don’t want its failure to stain American diplomacy. Putin seems ready, with his proposals, to help Obama avoid any responsibility for this affair turning out badly.

But that’s not the whole deal. As always, when world powers agree to put an end to a conflict, one of the areas for negotiation is “reconstruction” and the markets that go along with it. Putin is said to have already let Obama know that the ones responsible for the destruction – he points to the U.S. allies – will have to pay. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have already burnt up big money to support the Islamist groups without being able to overthrow Assad; they will now have to draw on their funds in order to take part in “reconstructing” Syria. A common ground has thus been set up for talks between the United States and Russia, the two initiators of the agreement, to divide up the awarding of contracts, which promise to be substantial. It is very likely that other countries like France, despite its eagerness to side with and serve its American ally, will get the smallest share of the contract deals. But the balance of power between imperialist countries is what it is.

This is how the two world powers, thick as thieves today, are trying to find a way out of the Syrian crisis while each securing their own respective interests. This can go on for quite a while; in the meantime, as Edward Luttwak put it, there can be an “indefinite draw,” meaning a continuation of the bloody civil war. Of course, it’s not sure that the United States and Russia will reach the outcome they want, because things do not depend only on them. No one can tell whether the jihadist groups set up with American involvement will agree to be brought under control when the United States wants it. Should they have to leave Syria, they may well be found on other battlefields. The destabilizing effect of the Syrian civil war on the whole situation in the Middle East may go much beyond what the world powers want. But even if they find a solution, the disastrous consequences of the civil war will remain.

People’s Hopes Led into a Dead End

The Syrian demonstrators who were asking for more freedom, more justice and less repression at the beginning of 2011 are now forgotten. The Assad regime answered as it usually does, brutally repressing them. But all those who pretended to come to the rescue of the Syrian people – neighboring countries or imperialist powers – showed no concern for what the Syrian people were asking for. The big powers and their Arab and Turkish allies instead helped create an unending civil war, substituting their armed gangs for the struggle of the Syrian people, seeing in the situation only an opportunity to defend their own interests against a rival regime.

The results, still unfortunately not a final tally, are a destroyed country, more than 100,000 casualties and millions of refugees or displaced persons, immeasurable damage and the continuation of a dictatorship under one form or another far into the future. After what happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the Syrian civil war is an even more dramatic illustration of the dead end into which the democratic and social hopes of the people have been taken during the wave of what was called the “Arab spring.”

In an Arab world divided within a system of rival states armed against one another under the supervision of the imperialist powers, a revolutionary perspective can be developed only in the entire region.