Murder and Manoeuvre in the Middle East

Syrian Massacres

Last year as the death toll in Syria began to surpass that of all the “Arab Spring” deaths put together we wrote an article for our website (1) which analysed the origins of that crisis and the social roots of the Assad regime. We recorded that the kind of massacre by the state that was going on them was nothing new. We wrote:

In February 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood organised a rising of 5000 armed men against the current Assad’s father, Hafez, in the town of Hama. The result was that the Army surrounded the town, cut off the water, electricity and telecommunication lines and began to bombard it. Not a single person could escape and it is reported that even supporters of the regime were killed by the Army. As many as 20,000 people may have died in that massacre. The message was clear and understood. Any resistance would be dealt with without mercy. Since then, until this March there have only been intellectual voices raised in protest at the corruption of the regime and the stagnation of the economy. The current risings in different places broke out when the regime arrested a dozen children for putting up anti-regime graffiti in Daraa.

Since then the death toll during the present bloodbath has risen to more than 5500 (on a conservative estimate) as we go to press. The regime’s strategy in Homs is a repeat of the one used against Hama in 1982. That is, obliteration of anything and everything that moves in the areas where the “Free Syrian Army” is thought to have any toehold. The same is being applied in scores of Syrian cities from the suburbs of Damascus to Aleppo.

Imperialist Games

There has been much handwringing by the “international community” but little so far has been done to put an end to the misery of millions. The reasons are fairly clear to anyone who has a Marxist understanding that the so-called “international community” is just the diplomatic face of imperialist rivalry. Western papers blame the continued violence entirely on the Shanghai Cooperation Council trio of Russia, China and Iran. In the first week of February China and Russia vetoed a so-called peace plan in the UN Security Council which had been proposed by the Sunni Islamic monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council via the Arab League. This called for Assad to step down as a precursor to talks with the Syrian Opposition. As a result the resolution failed and the shelling of Homs has increased apace with horrific results.

Russia’s position is that it now regrets having abstained on the motion to create a no-fly zone in Libya so that NATO airstrikes could tip the balance against their former ally, Ghaddafi. (2) They are not prepared to see the same thing used against their much closer and more critically important ally, Assad. Russia has a military base in Syria and supplies the regime with weapons. If Assad were to fall Russia would lose the last ally it has in the Arab world and would leave it with only the fair-weather ally of Iran as consolation in the Middle East.

And the West, as usual, plays an even more hypocritical role. When it suits them the Western powers can ignore the niceties of international legal constraints (as in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which took place without a clear UN mandate) (3) but Syria is not Libya. It does not have sweet crude oil in abundance so there is no immediate opportunity to be exploited. And the Assad regime is also, to a certain degree, useful to the West and Israel. Sure, it backs Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza but it is also a stable regime which has brutally suppressed the dreaded Islamic fundamentalism. It is less of a threat as it has been on the retreat in imperialist terms for a decade (pulling out of Lebanon and forced to seek a better relationship with the West). As Iraq and Libya (already) show signs of instability as a result of the outcome of Western actions the idea of maintaining the Assad regime in power is not such a bad one. It is even better if you can portray your imperialist rivals as the real cause of the massacres whilst all you do is wring hands and shed crocodile tears for the victims of the brutality of the Ba’athists.

Sanctions as a Weapon

Of course the West will say that by withdrawing their embassies and steadily increasing sanctions they are doing all they can to put pressure on Damascus but sanctions take a long time to work. Those being massacred in their hundreds today can hardly wait for them to take effect. There is no “humanitarian” case being made today for going against the norms of international diplomacy. There is not even a big propaganda campaign on the need for democracy in Syria. After all, as Egypt shows, democracy in the Arab world can have the nasty consequence of favouring Islamic fundamentalists over secularists. It is also a bit difficult to play the democracy card when your main agents in the Arab League are the Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Saudi invasion of Bahrain last year (4) demonstrated just how committed to democracy they were and they remain the bedrock of US imperialist strategy in the Middle East.

What the Syrian horror story reveals is a new clarity of the fracture lines on the international imperialist stage. It clearly poses Iran, Russia and China against the West and their Arab allies. At the same time it brings the Middle East back to the centre of imperialist tension. Syria is not the only game on this playing field. The Iranian drive to acquire nuclear power has brought international tensions to an even higher pitch. Israeli intelligence is upping the ante by claiming that Iran is moving its nuclear research facilities deep underground so that it would be immune from an air strike such as that inflicted by Israel on Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1980, or Syria’s in September 2007. Their argument is that the West should not wait for the Iranian nuclear programme to become capable of producing a nuclear device (which the CIA thinks is a long way off) but should deal with it sooner rather than later. (5) Turkey will not stand by to watch whilst Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UK and the USA are moving their pawns around even if this is done in hidden ways.

And to stoke up tension still further Israeli agents are assassinating leading Iranian scientists known to be working on the nuclear programme. This is useful to the hardliners in the Khamenei part of the ruling apparatus in Tehran who use it to stir up nationalist agitation in defence of the nuclear programme.

Iran has been a lot more circumspect than its enemies and, to their chagrin, has actually not suffered greatly from the aggressive action of the US in the Middle East. Iraq now has a Shia government whilst Turkey has broken with Israel over the Gaza issue. Iran’s economy is, however, in poor shape (6) but the regime has been able to blame the problems of inflation, unpaid wages and shortages on the sanctions regime. At the same time it is quite prepared to take on its opponents at the sanctions game. When the EU announced it was going to institute sanctions against Iranian oil production the Iranians announced immediately that they would cut off oil to the EU. In fact Iran increasingly depends on China and Russia for its oil market whilst the EU is increasingly asking for more Saudi oil. But this growing economic apartheid is yet one more sign of the increasingly clear political split between the Russian, Chinese and Iranian grouping against the West, Israel and their monarchist allies in the Middle East. Although we cannot put a time frame on it the increasing stability of these line-ups will mean increasing instability in future issues of conflict in the Middle East.

Quo Vadis Syria?

In the immediate term it looks as if the agony of the Syrian population will go on. The Russians and the Iranians have both been to Damascus to try to help Assad find a way out of the impasse. What they said we do not know. We do know that the Iranians (or at least the Khamenei faction) have also sent leading generals from their elite Revolutionary Guards Quds force to advise on how to deal with “unrest” (following their “success” against the Green Movement in Iran in 2009). This bodes ill for Syrians and not just those actively involved in the opposition as the people of Homs can testify.

But the Assad regime is also burning its own boats. Most Syrians were prepared to tolerate even the repressive regime of the Ba’athists as long as it guaranteed a kind of stability and did not interfere in the economic activity of the locals. Both these have been blown away in the last eleven months. From a GDP growth of 6% in 2009 GDP has fallen to an estimated -6 or less this year whilst inflation is rising dramatically from 2% in 2009 to nearly double digit figures this year. (7) Sanctions are only likely to make this worse unless Russia becomes incredibly generous in its support. On past performance this is hardly likely.

Paradoxically the shelling of the population in towns across Syria is actually also undermining one of the regime’s previous assets – the fear factor. If you are already being murdered when you go to the shops there is nothing worse the regime can do to you. The incentive to fight back is all the greater. Here the balance of forces is, of course, quite badly tilted against the Army deserters who are known as the Free Syrian Army. With few weapons getting in (supposedly from Qatar) and only a few weapons taken from the regular Army this is certainly an “asymmetric conflict”. As long as the regime can rely on the crack regiments largely staffed by Alawites the prospect of major defection is not likely. At the same time the opposition is divided between different squabbling factions like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coordination Committee. Its leaders are abroad (in Turkey) with one ex-army officer Colonel Riad al-Assaad coordinating the Free Syrian Army there calling later defecting (but more senior) officers traitors. According to the Syrian National Council no foreign power is financing their project to get arms into Syria (possibly true given the West’s ambiguity about the situation but they would say that anyway) and they claim that all their funding comes from Syrian exiles. This is obviously not true as it is almost certain that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the opposition to the Assad Government and Britain and the USA have sent military advisers to train the Free Syrian Army in Turkey.

Absent from all this is any kind of class movement. Factories are closing and opening all the time, but not because workers are striking. This is apparently due to the factory owners responding to successive threats against them by both the Free Syrian Army and the regime. Workers are generally not involved via strikes and unsurprisingly we have yet to hear of any autonomous workers’ movement arising. Information is scarce (so scarce that the BBC are begging bloggers to send them news) but it seems that nationalism, democratism and Sunni jihadism seem to be the dominant ideologies in the opposition. All the signs are currently that this particular capitalist disaster is set to run for some time.

In conclusion, for the moment the assumption that there is no solution to this crisis has been confirmed. If the social tensions remain on the level of clashes between the local bourgeois factions, themselves representatives of international imperialists it will be like what happened in the Tunisian and Egyptian events though in different ways. Either the Syrian proletariat, unlike that of North Africa begins to raise its head and organise its own vanguards with a revolutionary political programme, outside of and against the imperialist framework and the egoism of their own bourgeoisie, or the whole thing will end up in the biggest bloodbath which capitalism has so far succeeded in bringing us in this "Arab Spring".


The above document is a combination of the articles which appeared in Revolutionary Perspectives 60 and Battaglia Comunista 3/2012



(3) And the fact that Bush and Blair distorted a UN Resolution to justify the invasion of Iraq has not been forgotten by the Russian Government. This is why today they will not support any resolution on Syria.

(4) For our analysis see

(5) See David Gardner “West must move to exploit the tide turning against Iran” Financial Times 7.2.2012

(6) See

(7) See “Syria’s political crisis shatters dreams of business growth” in the Financial Times 7.2.2012


Forces of imperialism bomb, invade and occupy other countries. For instance, Hitler's forces destroyed most of Warsaw. However, they were not ordered to bomb Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. Stalin's forces shelled Berlin, but not Moscow and Leningrad. So 'anti-imperialists' who wholeheartedly support the Assad regime might consider the foregoing remarks. People change, so that whereas an individual (leader) might have been thought traditionally to be anti imperialist, later on, by attacking local and thus international workers, would seem to have shifted right away from what Marxists would tend to regard as acceptable and necessary behaviour.

As for 'entitlement' of any nation to have nuclear weapons, who is doing the granting of 'entitlement'?! I guess the vast majority of the world's workers oppose any nuclear weaponry, remembering the hibakusha, all those suffering from radiation, from bombs and uranium mining etc. The website of the international-communist-party has an excellent article 'From Hiroshima to Fukushima', which contains the call 'Not yes or no to nuclear power, but yes or no to capitalism'. It printed to six pages of A4.

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