Syria: The accelerating catastrophe

Will there be ’Geneva II’ negotiations?

The western imperialist powers have changed their current focus on Syria from war to negotiations. The aim now is to convene a Geneva II conference before the end of the year. On the ground in Syria, fighting and suffering continues in a country increasingly divided into enclaves and religious/sectarian fragmented areas.

The war has huge effects in the region. In Lebanon, there are officially 773,000 refugees from Syria. In Jordan and Turkey, each has over 600,000. Conditions in the huge refugee camps are very difficult, with child labour, prostitution, and lack of food and water. In the Kurdish north of Iraq, 200,000 refugees have fled, most of them Kurds from Syria. Another 300,000 refugees in Egypt face harsh treatment.

More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and more than 5 million are displaced inside the country (the total figure, 7.5 million, is a third of Syria’s population). The situation for most people is intolerable. One in five families can only buy food once a week. In rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, which have been under siege by the Assad regime for over a year, religious leaders gave permission to eat cats and dogs.

Diseases such as polio and carnivorous parasites have returned. Half of all hospitals are destroyed by bombs. The data on how many have been killed, so far, during the war varies from 120,000 to 150,000.

The hopes that existed amongst many Syrians when the revolt against Assad’s rule broke out in early 2011 – for democracy and economic justice – are hugely setback. People’s greatest wish at the moment is for peace.

‘Opposition’ with no roots

The regime’s military response to the uprising began in April 2011. In the same year, the Syrian ’opposition’ in exile, the Syrian National Council, was brought together at the initiative of Western powers, the Gulf states and Turkey and later became the National Coalition. Military officers defected from Assad’s forces and formed the ’Free Syrian Army’. The perspective of many in 2011-12 was that the Assad regime could soon fall.

But the Syrian opposition "lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience", noted the International Crisis Group. This also applies to the ’Supreme Military Council’ under Brigadier General Salim Idris, which "at best [is] a loose weapon-and supply-distribution network lacking ability to coordinate activity even among groups theoretically under its umbrella".

Commentators such as Gilbert Achcar (from the USFI ) is therefore wrong to claim that the opposition consists of "forces with a spread similar to the forces that were involved in the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia."

He disregards the fact that the decisive forces in Tunisia and Egypt were the huge protests against dictatorial rule, massive workers’ strikes and the role of trade unions, including the official UGTT in Tunisia and the independent unions in Egypt. In both countries, there was also important local organisations and youth movements that included those with a socialist outlook.

With this absent in Syria the mounting popular opposition to Assad was not able to prevent the regime exploiting national and religious divides within Syrian society. Rapidly the opposition fell under the influence of sectarian religious elements while orientating towards western imperialist and semi-feudal Middle Eastern regimes.

As the civil war began in earnest, the Assad regime seized the opportunity to label the uprising as being led by imperialism in an alliance with al Qaeda and to strike with all available military force. This year alone, the regime has been bombing targets 60-times, every day, using weapons from Russia and backed by Iran and the Shia-based Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

Regional power struggles

Other regional regimes saw the war in Syria as an opportunity to increase their influence and power. Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanted to overthrow Assad as part of efforts to weaken the regime in Iran. Prime Minister Erdogan in Ankara wanted to establish Turkey as a regional power. They immediately gave open military and economic aid to the armed rebels. The Syrian uprising became a civil war.

In last year’s battles over Aleppo, the country’s largest city, it was apparent that rebel groups fought among themselves for control of areas, and that the civil resistance was marginalised.

Both the rebels and the "leaders of the opposition" in exile are badly fragmented. Qatar (a country of 250,000 citizens and 1.9 million migrants) allied from the beginning with the Syrian businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, who, in turn, set up a network with representatives from "local councils". Sabbagh and Qatar initially also had support from the Muslim Brotherhood .

But Qatar, which was imperialism’s chief ally in arming the Islamists in Libya in 2011, has lost much of its influence. In May, influence within the Syrian opposition ’Coalition’ moved towards the “secular oppositionist” Michel Kilo, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, which also won over the Muslim Brotherhood. Similar manoeuvres are played out in Egypt. Qatar supported the toppled Muslim Brotherhood president Mursi, while Saudi Arabia backs General al- Sisi.

But "the five star hotel opposition" – both Sabbagh or Kilo – are viewed with enormous suspicion by both the armed rebel forces and civilians in Syria.

The regional superpowers provide direct military support to rebel groups. Regional salafists donate billions and weapons, such as rockets and anti-tank weapons, to various opposition forces .

The jihadists

The hard-line, right-wing Salafists and jihadists have won an increasingly strong position among the rebels. "Through superior organisation and access to steady funding streams, they emerged as the most effective rebel forces in parts of the country," the International Crisis Group summarised. The jihadists have been able to recruit groups and soldiers from the ’Free Syrian Army’ by offering better pay and equipment and more military prowess.

The two groups linked to al-Qaeda, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al- Nusra, have also taken control of and make profits from border crossings with Turkey, and from controlling oil and gas facilities. ISIL militarily defeated the Northern Storm, one of the few groups with direct ties to the US, at Azaz border town.

Of the approximately 100,000 troops on the rebel side, US intelligence says that 20,000 are "extremists". British IHS Jane’s also say 20,000 fighters are with al-Qaeda groups and another 30,000-35,000 are linked to similar groups but with no formal international connection.

In early October, 11 rebel groups proclaimed they had broken with the opposition in exile. These included al- Nusra but not ISIL. Among the signatories were the Tawhid Brigade, which lead fighting in Aleppo, and Ahrar al -Sham and who ran the military offensive in the region around Latakia, an area dominated by Alewites, where the Assad regime has its strongest base. A village held by rebel forces in this area carried out a massacre of 190 people, among them children and elderly.

A Swedish expert on the region, Aaron Lund, noted that the petition included most of the rebels in the north and large groups around Homs and the Damascus suburbs. The petition stated they represented 50,000 combatants. Aaron Lund emphasises that group loyalty is determined by power, money and momentum, while "ideology does not even come fourth."

There is currently fighting between the Syrian army and armed rebels in several suburbs of Damascus, and in the town of Maaret al-Numan, on the road between Daskus and Aleppo, as well as between rebels in Raqqa, where jihadists are in control. The regime has managed to consolidate its forces, with Hezbollah fighters playing a prominent role. According Reuters, Assad has 60,000 foreign soldiers on his side.

Obama’s turn

Events after the chemical weapons attack in Damascus in August, of which there is still uncertainty, strengthened the Assad regime. Initially President Obama promised "punishment" against the regime. The US Secretary of State John Kerry went on an international tour to gain support for what was described as a "limited" attack against Syria with Tomahawk missiles.

But Obama’s attack plans collapsed against strong public opinion, not least in the US. From the beginning, there were also big doubts within the US military apparatus and even the White House, and also other Nato powers. The experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that US imperialism was unable to establish stable and loyal regimes in those countries. In addition, there is concern over who would take over if Assad is overthrown.

In Iraq, bombs and attacks have taken more lives this year than in any year since 2008. Jihadist right extremists seeking a base among Sunni Muslims carry out indiscriminate attacks against Shiites. This upsurge in sectarian violence is linked to Shiite Hezbollah and Iran’s support for Assad .

Obama’s hesitation over attacking Syria gave room for pro-Assad Russia’s proposal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. This is now seen, both in Washington and Moscow, as a first step towards direct negotiations in Geneva.

US imperialism’s goal is to try to make a transition to a new regime after Assad, with as much as possible of the state apparatus intact.

Turkish leader, Erdogan, who was betting on a rapid fall of Assad, has also pulled in his horns. Last week, the Turkish military, for the first time, bombed rebel strongholds after grenades landed on the Turkish side of the border. Erdogan’s pushed for a US attack but Turkish public opinion was against it.

The Syrian opposition in exile was very critical that Obama did not carry out his threatened attacks and makes further demands for more weapons from the West. But ’President’ al-Jabra from the Syrian opposition ’Coalition’ declared his readiness to participate in negotiations with representatives from Assad, like Syria’s Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa. Dates discussed are November 23 to 24, but it is very likely they will be further postponed.

The Left and Syria

Large parts of the left internationally have struggled to articulate a clear view on Syria. Some, especially Stalinists/Maoists, see the US as a the only enemy and are therefore caught in a situation where they more or less support Assad and Russia. They ignore Assad’s brutal regime and its neo-liberal policies over the past decade, as well as the regime’s previous agreements with the US. They also ignore the Iranian regime, which, despite its antagonism towards the United States, is a brutal dictatorship against workers and the poor .

Well-known members of the Swedish Socialist Party (USFI), Benny Åsman and Göte Kilden, have taken the opposite view, and essentially give uncritical support to what they call the "revolution" in Syria. They did not oppose US plans to bomb Syria and demand that Western imperialism sends more weapons to the rebels .

But for socialists to support a rebellion or one side in a civil war also requires an analysis of political programmes and where the interests of the working class lie. Just as in Afghanistan it was not a question of socialists supporting either the Taleban or the US, or in Egypt supporting the Muslim Brotherhood or the military, in Syria it is not Assad or the rebels. Socialists support neither the ’five star hotel’ opposition nor armed jihadists or Assad-forces.

It seems now that the western imperialist powers and, to a growing degree, Assad now want to make a deal. If that can succeed at this stage is difficult to say, given the Gulf states continue to support the reactionary jihadists. There is, however, no doubt that the masses in Syria want an end to their suffering.

While an end to the conflict would be hugely welcome to the Syrian people, a peace treaty conducted by world and regional powers – should it come about in the next months – in itself is not a long-term solution for the masses. The signatories will be exactly those responsible for conflicts, social misery and repression in Syria and across the Middle East – imperialism and the local regimes. Capitalism, on a world scale, has been living off the region’s oil resources, distributing billions to the corporations, presidents, sheiks and regions’ reactionary, corrupt rulersl, while the population suffer from the effects of neo-liberalism and mass unemployment .

A socialist alternative for Syria and the Middle East must begin with a clear policy of opposing imperialism, local reactionary forces and the Assad regime. We support the struggle for genuine democratic rights and against exploitation, including the right to self-defence by all the different ethnic and religious groups, organised democratically and on a non-sectarian basis. Socialists call for the right to jobs on a living wage, to decent housing, health and education and for the nationalization of oil and the other main levers of the economy under democratic workers’ control and planning. The building of a strong independent workers’ movement, including unions and a socialist party that unites all workers whatever their religious and ethnic background, is needed to fight to achieve these aims.

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October 2013