Syria: Conflict threatens to spread across the Middle East

Urgent need for independent working class socialist organisations

The capturing of the strategically important city of Qusair by pro-government forces, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shias, marks a new stage in the bloody quagmire of Syria and is likely to have wide ramifications, both for the country itself and the region as a whole.

This war has lasted over two years, with no end in sight, having already cost the lives of 80,000 Syrians with at least half a million refugees driven into Lebanon – already with a refugee population of four million – and further untold numbers scattered into Turkey and other neighbouring countries. In the wake of this ‘victory’, the government of Bashar al-Assad is reported to be now marshalling its forces for an assault on Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, with the rebels claiming to hold half of the city.

Therefore, the war will go on, with reports of unspeakable atrocities on both sides: “Without a video of him doing so, who would have believed that a rebel commander had cut open a dead government soldier and eaten his heart?” [Patrick Cockburn – London Review of Books.] There have even been reports of the use of chemical weapons by both sides.

Western capitalist powers debating what to do

But as with Iraq and the dodgy dossier over mythical weapons of mass destruction, this is being used to justify increased Western capitalist intervention, led by Anglo-French imperialism.

Out of 27 EU countries just two, France and Britain, were in favour at this stage of increased military support, and particularly the supply of armaments, to the rebels. Cameron and Hague face opposition even within their own party, with a growing band of Tory MPs and ministers opposing the call for armed intervention. Moreover, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have come out in opposition to Cameron, not because they are at all ‘Liberal’ but they can at least envisage the possibility of bloody retribution in Britain itself, if the government is associated with armed intervention, as the Woolwich stabbing demonstrated.

Based upon the cushion of a powerful empire, the strategists of British capitalism in the past carefully thought about the consequences of their actions abroad. They planned for decades and even centuries. Now Cameron and Hague just hope to sneak around the next corner!

The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, with a huge ‘blowback’ in Britain and other advanced industrial countries in the form of increased terrorism, are lost on them. Britain’s intervention in the furnace of Syria and the Middle East today will surely reap a whirlwind. The supply of weapons will merely increase the body count in the country without in any way solving the problems of the peoples of Syria or the region as a whole.

Patrick Cockburn, in a penetrating analysis, shows that most reports – because they appear through slanted TV accounts and sometimes ‘illusionary’ YouTube videos – tend to exaggerate the degree of damage inflicted in the conflict, particularly by the rebels.

The alleged weaknesses of the government’s position, leading to the ‘imminent’ overthrow of the Assad regime, have also been overplayed. As Cockburn points out, “the insurgents [have] succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.)”

Nevertheless massive and terrible damage and suffering has undoubtedly been inflicted on the country. After the capture of Qusair, the devastation of the town evokes the famous words of the Roman historian Tacitus: “They create a desolation and call it peace.”

Drawn out conflict

No side has scored a decisive victory. Nor are they likely to. Therefore a bloody drawn out conflict – the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years – is a real possibility unless the working class and the poor take matters into their own hands through independent class and socialist action, and organise a movement to overthrow all the reactionary, sectarian and dictatorial forces through a change in society.

The events in Syria confirm the analysis of the Socialist and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), made at the outset of the conflict. Virtually all the international pro-rebel supporters, including the government of Cameron in Britain, the right and some even on the ‘left’, claimed that Assad would be rapidly evicted from power.

We argued that Syria would not be a re-run of Libya. Assad had greater reserves of support from the minorities within the country – who were driven into his camp by the more and more sectarian character of the rebels – and the Shias in the region.

Initially there was a popular uprising of “hundreds of communities” in Syria, inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’, against the monstrous police state of Assad. Previously, there had been movements of trade unions and workers against reductions in living standards and the privatisations carried out by Assad.

It appeared in the first instance that a genuine movement had developed against a dictatorial regime and, moreover, one striving to bridge the divide between the majority Sunni population and the country’s minorities, including the biggest minority, the Alawites (a branch of the Shias) to which Assad belongs.

But this changed with the outside intervention of the reactionary forces opposed to revolution in the region – notably the semi-feudal monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar – backed up by imperialist forces. They hoped to repeat their success in Bahrain and particularly in the derailing of the Libyan revolution.

Unbelievably, the Libyan intervention was ‘critically’ supported by some on the left and even some ‘Marxists’. The result has been – as we predicted – the descent of Libya into undemocratic fiefdoms of vicious ‘Islamic’ warlords with competing militias, including the presence of al-Qa’ida type organisations. The latter have now proliferated in Libya and North Africa, and so alarmed imperialism that they are now considering another intervention through Nato – a ‘training mission’ – to root them out.

Dangerous sectarian conflict on a regional scale

The uprising against Assad has been skewed now into a sectarian conflict and has, moreover, unleashed a dangerous battle between the Sunnis and the Shias on a regional scale.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of May about the situation in Syria: “In parts of this battle torn country, a second civil war has begun. In the north and the east bordering Turkey and Iraq, a stretch of Syria in rebel hands is split into competing fiefs. In some places, Islamist extremists with agendas that extend far beyond Syria are pushing aside the rebel battalions that started the insurgency against Basher al Assad’s regime in 2011.”

Al-Qa’ida has publicly stated that half its budget is devoted to building up experienced fighters and strengthening its armed wing, Al Nusra, in Syria which Cockburn says “militarily is the most effective rebel group”. This process has been furthered by the intervention of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the latter tending to support Islamists from the more ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood, while the former seeks to arm and finance the fundamentalist Salafists.

Qatar, sitting on top of one-third of the world’s gas reserves and the colossal wealth that goes with this, has spent at least $3 billion on supporting the rebels over the last two years. It has offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family.

In coordination with the CIA, Saudi Arabia has organised at least 70 military flights from Turkey with arms and equipment for the insurgents. Therefore the claim that the rebels are under-armed and require urgent supplies from the West is completely bogus. It is just an excuse for further imperialist intervention.

And this in turn has unleashed regional and sectarian tendencies in neighbouring countries and throughout the region that could result in a wider war, even involving Israel, which has already intervened through a missile attack on Syria.

Russia and Iran

Russia has responded by supplying Assad with more rockets. Those supporting the rebels – particularly Saudi Arabia – made it clear from the outset that they saw the overthrow of the Assad regime as a direct blow against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Therefore Hezbollah –now fighting on the Syrian government’s side as well as Iran – see the defence of Syria and its present government, including supplying oil to prop up Assad, as virtually a life-or-death question.

It has led to the threat of increased Iranian intervention. These tit-for-tat moves could lead to an all-out attack on Iran by Israel, which it was itching to do before the outbreak of the conflict, with all the terrible consequences that could flow from that.

The outbreak of the war in Syria was seized on by predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, backed up by Qatar, as an opportunity to strike a blow against Shia Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran was in turn fuelled by the outcome of the war in Iraq, which led to the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein Sunni regime. Despite a Shia majority, the Sunni leaders had held power in Iraq since its creation in 1921. Saddam was replaced by a Shia-dominated state, presently controlled by the Maliki government. This was followed by the sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2006-07 with tens of thousands killed.

Re-shaping the region

We warned at the time that imperialist intervention in Iraq would result in the removal of Saddam Hussein but what would follow would not be the democratic Iraq promised by Bush and Blair but the eventual breakup of the country, and the establishment of a number of ‘mini-Saddam Husseins’.

The chain reaction which the Syrian conflict has unleashed now means that this could come into being accompanied by the possible separation of the Kurds in northern Iraq – with its considerable oil reserves – with the encouragement of the Turkish Erdogan regime, which is deficient in energy resources. To this end, it began to deal directly with the Kurdish minority in Turkey, represented by the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Öcalan, with Erdogan agreeing to some of the Kurdish demands.

The separation of northern Iraq will not be achieved without violent clashes, including the possibility of another civil war in Iraq itself. The Iraqi government enhanced the prospects of this in April with the suppression of the Sunnis through a military crackdown, backed up by the use of tanks in a town near Kirkuk.

At the same time, the Kurds in Syria – who account for 10% of the population – have taken advantage of the war to effectively carve out an autonomous enclave in the north of Syria. The Kurds are scattered among different states. But they now envisage that they could possibly first achieve autonomy within these states and maybe later coming together in a common state. Ironically, the Syrian conflict, which is loosening the grip of centralised states, has fundamentally changed the prospects for the Kurds.

The 30 million Kurds – the largest nation in the world without a state of its own – could, as PKK leader Öcalan envisaged in calling an unofficial ceasefire with Turkey, now come together in a ‘stateless union’; in other words a loose federation, which may or may not develop as a unified state at a later stage.

On the other hand, the calculations of Turkey and particularly Erdogan could be upset by the insidious spread of the Syrian conflict. Already, violence has spread over the border from Syria to Turkey, who share a 510-mile (822km) frontier. Bomb attacks have taken place in Turkey which provoked angry anti-Syrian demonstrations. This in turn could provoke increased opposition to the government, which will be blamed for drawing Turkey into the Syrian conflict. The mass opposition, which is already evident in the demonstrations against the ‘democratic’ dictatorship of Erdogan, will be reinforced.

Lebanon itself could break apart in a new outbreak of civil war. Syria could be partitioned with a predominantly Alawite entity, alongside a Sunni state or statelet.

Not least of the consequences of the conflict in Syria is what capitalist commentators have described as a new ‘Cold War’ between Russia and China on the one side, and European and American capitalism on the other.

The original Cold War was between different social systems: capitalism and Stalinism, the latter which rested on the planned economy, albeit bureaucratically controlled. This new ‘Cold War’ now indicates a ratcheting up of tensions between what are mainly different imperialist powers for influence and resources in the Middle East and beyond.

Aspirations of the masses

For the capitalists and their feudal and semi-feudal allies, the interests of the working class and the poor in the region are so much small change. These masses have struggled might and main in the revolution in the Middle East and North Africa against landlordism and capitalism to change their conditions.

In Egypt and Tunisia, they overthrew seemingly invincible dictatorships. In the process they smashed the idea – sedulously disseminated by Blair and his cronies in Iraq – that the dictatorships in the region were so powerful that only outside military intervention could overthrow them. Not only were Ben Ali and Mubarak overthrown by mass movements of the workers and the poor but the present movements are driving in the direction of a ‘second revolution’ to change their social conditions.

They have been disappointed in the initial results of the revolution, which brought to power governments and regimes that displayed the same dictatorial tendencies as the overthrown Mubarak and Ben Ali: “Morsi is Mubarak with a beard!” – is a typical refrain of secular opponents Egypt’s president Morsi.

These governments assume the colouration of different Islamic-type parties. But underneath this, the masses are drawing conclusions from the stormy events which they have gone through. The process of creating independent parties of the working class, as well as trade unions, and uniting in a non-sectarian fashion is beginning to be displayed.

In Iraq the masses only recently marched in the major cities under the banner “not Shia and Sunni, but Iraqis together”. After the horrors which they have experienced since the US-British invasion the most advanced detachments of the working class see the need for a common front of all workers to fight against the landlords and capitalists that dominate the region.

So intractable is the conflict in Syria that even those who worked for and hoped for a quick victory over the Assad regime are now suggesting a Geneva ‘peace conference’. This is unlikely to get off the ground because of the insistence of the rebels’ spokespersons that a precondition for attendance at such a conference is that Assad should not attend. But what has not been achieved on the battlefield – the serious weakening or defeat and removal of Assad – cannot be carried through by ‘negotiations’.

There should be no illusions among the international labour movement that with or without Assad’s attendance anything can be achieved through such a gathering. Would any class conscious worker place any trust in the bosses in a factory or within their own country to ‘mediate’ on crucial issues with benefits to the workers? No more can the bosses come to an agreement on an international level which will enhance the cause of the working class.

The socialist does not support Assad or the ‘rebel’ leadership. We would give all necessary political and active support to workers on the ground fighting for a common front on a class struggle programme.

The only conference worthwhile convening is one called by the organised trade union and labour movement throughout the region. The demands would be very simple:

  • No to imperialist intervention! The withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria and from other occupied countries.
  • Let the Syrian people themselves decide their fate in open, fair and free elections, supervised by elected, democratic workers’ committees.
  • For the building of united, non-sectarian defence committees to defend workers, the poor and others against sectarian attacks from both sides
  • Prepare a movement to fight for a government of representatives of workers and the poor.
  • For a revolutionary constituent assembly in Syria.
  • The implementation of the national and democratic rights of the masses, beginning with the recognition of the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination including, if they so wish, full autonomous democratic rights within the state they live in or the establishment of a common state of the Kurds themselves.
  • Independent trade unions and the building of mass workers’ parties with a programme of land to the masses and the factories to the workers, implemented through a programme for a socialist democratic planned economy.
  • A democratic socialist confederation of the Middle East and North Africa.

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June 2013