Syria: The Story of A Civil War Foretold

On February 8 this year the American Defense Secretary, former CIA chief Leon Panetta, made a strange statement when he appeared on TM News [Italian version of CNN – translator]. According to Panetta’s public pronouncement there was a clash of views between the Pentagon and the White House, that is between himself and President Obama, over a plan to arm the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria mired in a bloody civil war. For Panetta and Petraeus, who also comes from the ranks of the CIA, as well as the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there was no need to make fine distinctions when donating military aid to the opposition, while for President Obama it was necessary to assess who would get their hands on weapons supplied by the U.S. government. Nothing unexpected here, there may be differences in evaluation within a government, particularly over a sensitive issue like this, as happened in the early Sixties between John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense, McNamara on the strategies to adopt in Vietnam, but a couple of things are puzzling and allow us to introduce our take on the Syrian crisis. The first concerns the strange opportunity gifted by Panetta to Obama during the presidential election. The statement, dropped in the context of the election campaign ran like this: "I'm the bad guy, he is the good and considerate one and has had the upper hand as in the logic of things." A sort of assistance, apparently not required, to the re-elected president. The second is that aid in money, weapons, military technicians, etc. began at the outset of the Syrian crisis and not from January 2013. In April, Obama himself took no risks with public opinion and announced the sale of arms to the rebels for about $190 million. In fact, the alleged clash between Obama and the Pentagon-CIA was not over US imperialism’s attempt to overthrow the Assad regime — that would have to have been at least two years ago, and then such a question was never raised — but the position to have on the opposition forces (jihadists and al-Qaeda) who received the weapons from the beginning of the Syrian crisis. In other words, the question was: either continue to subsidise this opposition with the possible result of finding an Islamist regime in power, with all the risks that entailed (see Egypt, Tunisia and even Afghanistan not so long ago), or to identify, even create from scratch, a new "secular" or "moderately religious" political entity which would better fit US needs.

Wiping Out Rogue States

Despite the Obama Administration’s statements giving on promoting international detente to gradually reduce American imperialism’s aggression in the "hot spots" of the Far and Middle East, things have not changed since Bush’s time. The much publicised withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, as a demonstration of good will and in keeping with election promises, aren’t worth very much. In the first case the decision to withdraw troops had already been taken by Bush, Obama’s task was only to see it through. The tragic as well as failed "Babylon" campaign was finally closed after the al-Maliki government turned its back on the American administration and began dealing even with U.S. Enemy No. 1, the much demonised Iran. The inability to govern the country despite the military commitment and monumental amounts being paid by the U.S. Treasury, the defeat of some American oil majors in the Baghdad auction, did the rest. The consolation prize, built with imperialist ferocity and pragmatic purpose, was the creation of the Kurdish Republic of northern Iraq under the management of Massoud Barzani, who finally granted to Exxon and Chevron the right to benefit from the oil which, in 2003, had started the war operation, smuggled in as the "forced injection of democracy" or, if you prefer, forced export of the same thing.

As for Afghanistan, we have the same scenario of defeat but without the consolation prize. It has made the "democratic" Obama see fit to announce U.S. withdrawal, but only in 2014 and still holding a series of military garrisons to guard an area that in many respects continues to play a very significant strategic role in the key area of Pakistan and, ultimately, against Iran.

The two clumsy operations are now almost archived, but the dirty work continues as ever. Even if certain statements are well-known it is always useful to repeat them. In 2007, when Bush was still host in the White House, the American General Wesley Clark, in an interview with Amy Goodman, candidly stated that the then administration had long been planning to eliminate seven countries in five years from the international political scene because they hampered the pursuit of U.S. interests in an area starting from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East generally. The list went from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, to Syria. Strangely, the General forgot Afghanistan but for the rest of the identified targets they have been more or less directly affected by the military and "intelligence" activities of Washington. The first step towards Syria was taken in 2005, starting from Lebanon, the second in March of 2011 directly against Damascus, in the middle of a series of events linked to oil routes, strategic deployment, and key imperialist alignments against Iran and Russia.

In 2005, the "National Endowment for Democracy," of the American State Department began to develop and put into practice a campaign of information and disinformation, including covert funding of social elements in favour of the Lebanese opposition, with provision of weapons and computerised military equipment, all with the declared aim of triggering a "revolutionary" process, what a little later would be the "Cedar Revolution" under the direction of the pro-Western Rafiq Hariri against Syrian and Iranian influence. The long-term aim was to rid Lebanon of the influence of Syria and Iran, offshoots of the sprawling new Russian octopus, which in those years was becoming the world’s biggest exporter of energy (oil and gas) thanks to energy sources in Kazakhstan, in competition with Western Europe and the United States itself.

The events associated with the election of Rafiq Hariri, his killing and the subsequent election of his son Saad Hariri, fall within the framework of destabilisation of the Lebanese regime and the weakening of Hezbollah, as a first step to taking the crisis into Syria itself.

Again in 2005, an expert on the Middle East and Syrian-Lebanese issues, one of the most-listened-to by President Bush, was able to declare: "Let the Syrian government know that the Lebanese government will be replaced, whether they like it or not, through a military coup or some other operation ... and we're working on it." In more recent times, beginning officially in March 2011, Syria has also been affected by the avalanche of the "Arab Spring". The economic crisis and its collateral damage have begun to weigh on the already empty pockets of the population. In the wake of what was happening in other parts of the Arab world it was natural that, the dissatisfaction of workers, proletarians and petty bourgeois in the process of proletarianisation, led to protests against the Assad regime which, in terms of its economic measures and its political-institutional arrogance (it should not forgotten that the Syrian republic operates in fact as a hereditary monarchy of the Alawite Assad family), was not dissimilar from other dictatorships in the area such as Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi's Libya or Iraq of the rais Hussein. The protests against the arrogance of power, against rampant corruption and the process of pauperisation were common elements in the different experiences of northern Africa. The partial difference, because the CIA and the Pentagon even had a hand in the preceding episodes, is that the American intelligence operation was carefully planned in advance, in conjunction with NATO, as in the previous Libyan episode.

As a first step the American State Department sanitised the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, tolerated by NATO and the U.S. government itself despite being classified as a terrorist organisation in no. 27 of the special list, (banned by UN 1267 Committee after 9/11, JN) so that it could start to operate in Syrian territory. Simultaneously, the CIA under cover of NATO "comme d'abitude", financed, armed and protected the organisation of Abdul Hakim Belhadj linked to the "franchising" of al-Qaeda in the sphere of Damascus and other groups in the anti-Assad galaxy. This was the political and organisational start to what would be, a little later, christened as the Free Syrian Army. Here a space and role were found for the most reactionary forces linked to fundamentalist Islam, including the domestic version of the ubiquitous Muslim Brotherhood. Weapons, various deliveries, money and support of all kinds also came from Saudi Arabia, Qatar as well as from the aforementioned promoter, the United States. Guerrilla activity and disturbances broke out immediately against "military" targets such as railways, pipelines, police stations but also including attacks on public transport and residential buildings. The regime responded with counter-demonstrations in major cities, also leading to heavy repression that indiscriminately hit political opponents and civilians. But the Syrian scene not only reveals the American attempt to erase Assad's regime from the political map of the Middle East, it is not merely about the strenuous attempt by the "tiny Alawite Goliath" to retain power, a wider game is also afoot which includes the active presence of China and, above all, Russia and Iran. For the Moscow-Beijing axis Syria is, and must remain, a bastion in the south east Mediterranean to guarantee the stability of an oil and gas zone which has its northern summit in Kazakhstan, its south-east in Iran and the south-west in Syria. This is not because Syria is key from an extraction point of view, but because its port of Latakia on the Mediterranean could act as an alternative to the already-established marketing routes. Last but not least, given its strategic location on the border with Iraq, which provides a path towards Iran, and given the unreliability of Turkey, the regime in Damascus "enjoys" the political protection of Russia and China. Not only did these allies act inside the UN Security Council (February 2012), thus preventing it coming out with a resolution that would allow an armed intervention against Assad, as happened to Gaddafi's Libya, they also co-operated practically in the provision of weapons and military support to Damascus by sea, thanks to the Russians’ use of the ports of Latakia and Tartus, Russian military bases since the days of the USSR. At stake, therefore, is not the survival of the Assad dynasty — as in reality a movement that wants to overthrow the regime in the name of "democracy" is as unlikely as support for the regime itself — but the economic and strategic domination of an area within which the great international imperialist interests are shaped.

Regional Strategies and the Role of Turkey

Starting as always with U.S. pressure against the government of Bashar al-Assad, American imperialism has, among other pieces of disinformation, maintained that we have in Syria a sort of religious war between Sunnis, who represent the diverse world of the opposition, and the Shiites to which the small Alawite sect of Assad belongs, and for the time being is still in power. This "little game" is as old as the history of the world, but it still seems to work at least in pulling the wool over the eyes of those who, either out of ignorance or self-interest, fall into the trap or make use of it to the fullest extent. It is a fact that race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation or religion have in the past and still have, played a role in social aggregation in these political latitudes, and therefore can explain the basis for social movements and civil wars. But it is equally true that behind and within such superstructures other political and economic interests are the determining factors. Religion, or any such ideological tinsel, only captures the external appearance, the superstructure, to be used for concrete and material ends. In this case the narrative purports to describe a clash between a despotic power, in Damascus, ruled by a Shiite religious minority and a "democratic" opposition of Sunni religious inspiration. Thus, it can also explain the international alliances that have been put together with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Jordan on one side, and the Syrian government, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah on the other. The "good guys" to support, assist, finance and arm are amongst the first group, while those to be fought by any means possible, the "bad guys", are the second lot. The same narrative does not say that things would be any different if the terms were reversed. Nor does it say that operating behind the two religious blocs are powerful and inescapable economic and strategic interests of enormous proportions, related to oil revenues, and the various hegemonic roles in a region of ​​small and big imperialisms. The religious factor serves as a powerful weapon of propaganda and social action for these imperialisms, both in subversive and conservative terms, depending on the precise roles and requirements of the moment.

Within these imperialist interests Turkey's role deserves a special mention. It has always been an ally of the United States. Ankara has played an important role in the political and military balance of the Mediterranean, both as a support base for the American Sixth Fleet, and as a factor of "compensation" in the age-old question between the State of Israel and the various fringes of Palestinian nationalism. Its place within the sphere of American politics reached the point of entering into a military alliance with Israel (1996), effectively creating a mini bloc to act as a bulwark against the rival one of Russia and its allies, "primarily" Iran and Syria. The treaty also provided for a series of economic and financial agreements between the two countries, even if the military had a higher specific weight, both for the signatories, and in the United States itself. The accord sponsored by the U.S. and sustained by the governments of Ankara and Tel Aviv seemed to move into deep crisis only twelve years later. A first element of discord was "Operation Cast Lead" in December 2008 - January 2009. A second episode was the fierce reaction of Israel to the attempt to force the naval blockade of Gaza by a "fleet" of international peace activists on May 31, 2010, with the deaths of eight Turks and which led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations. The friction, while not going so far as to cancel the Treaty of 1996, led to more tension a few months later, when a NATO naval exercise between Turkey and the U.S., did not have the participation of Israel. This breakdown in relations therefore jeopardised diplomatic and economic relations between the two. What is more important, it endangered the functioning of the mini-bloc as an American strategy in the Mediterranean.

Though this was how the events played out we need to add something about the causes. If the episodes mentioned above, like Operation "Cast Lead" and the "flotilla" incident, were factors leading to the crisis between the two countries, the fundamental reason is mainly a change of attitude on the part of the Turkish government over the balance of power and the roles it has previously defended and interpreted.

The decisive factor in its strategic position concerns the interplay of the achievements and projects for old and new pipe-lines from Central Asia to Europe. The BTC oil pipeline passes through its territory running from Baku to arrive at Ceyhan in Turkey, via Tbilisi. Turkey actually holds most of the energy routes in the area. Various pipelines connect Istanbul and Ankara with the major industrial centres of the country. A pipeline connects the terminal in Ceyhan with Tel Aviv. In addition, Turkey imports gas from Georgia, the Caucasus and from Iran. The Russian South Stream project will pass through Ankara’s territorial waters and permission has already been granted for its shipment to Moscow.

The Nabucco gas pipeline project will link the Central Asian energy source to Turkey and then on to Europe. There are at least two options for this project: one Georgian, and one Iranian which is advocated by Russia and opposed by the U.S.. It follows that Ankara's sights were, at that time, most oriented towards the Moscow-Tehran axis, including Syria, but no longer to that of the United States-Israel.

With the explosion of the Syrian crisis the U.S. has tried to break the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis by working diplomatically on the Ankara government to recover a valuable ally that oil politics were leading towards other alignments, if not to other genuine partnerships. A little more than a year after the start of the civil war in Syria, the Obama administration began to weave its web around the Ankara government. In May 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations invented a hybrid body, not easily identifiable on the institutional level, but with the express purpose of re-establishing relations with Turkey. At the head of the Body the former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and former National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, produced a protocol document significantly entitled "Relations Between The United States And Turkey, A New Partnership". The strategic objective it outlined was the use of Turkey’s territorial proximity with Syria for asymmetric warfare. The "Holy Alliance" of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel were to use the Turkish border as the means for getting arms and supplies to the anti-Assad militiamen, both incoming and outgoing, depending on the needs of the guerrillas. In return, the Pentagon pledged to tip the scales in favour of Turkey, promising to assist with a number of Ankara’s projects such as support over the unresolved Kurdish question (the autonomy demanded by the PKK), a green light for the construction of a dam on the Tigris River against the wishes and interests of Syria and Iraq, and securing a dominant role for Turkey in the region as a strategic hub for the transit of oil and gas pipelines. If the already mentioned Nabucco, under the sponsorship of the U.S., were to become reality Turkey's strategic role and economic interests would increase enormously. Further, the alliance with the Autonomous Republic of Iraqi Kurdistan of Massoud Barzani would make the maintenance of the pipeline that comes to Ceyhan more secure against the possibility of it going to Latakia in Syria.

In capitalist terms alliances are made ​​and broken on the basis of economic and strategic interests, and Turkey under its astute premier Erdogan, twists and turns in its international relations according to its immediate and future interests. At the moment this means that it is important to stand against Assad's Syria by accepting offers from the Americans, while maintaining a safe distance from its former Israeli ally. But it also means that the government in Ankara is careful not to jettison its alliances with Russia and China. With Russia, Turkey has not only signed an agreement for the construction of the South Stream pipeline that must pass through its territorial waters, but plans to take advantage of many of the estimated $100 billion that will represent the amount of trade between the two countries in the first five years of operation of the pipeline. It will not turn its back on Russian investments in its territory in important sectors such as industry, communications, and, not least, the twenty billion dollars for the construction of a nuclear power plant. The same goes for the alliance with China. In the past year Turkey has been allowed to participate in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as observing partner as a prelude to its ultimate entry. This has led to a significant improvement in trade relations with China, and a kind of revival of the "Silk Road" in key energy and commercial sectors with Beijing and Ankara as its two terminals.

Turkey’s aggressive attitude towards Syria could irritate its partners, including Iran, and cause problems in the UN, but the result would hardly lead to a break with them for the reasons set out above. Such a break, which Washington’s rapprochement would like to bring about, cannot take place without a change in the overall picture, i.e. unless there are more drastic upheavals that, at the moment, do not seem to be on the horizon.

Regional Strategies and the Role of Israel

For Israel, the issue is much more simple. Its stated goal is the elimination of the Assad regime. First of all because it is the friend of its worst enemy: Iran. A further reason is that the political representative of Hezbollah is hosted within the Assad government. Third, because it provides weapons, and finances and defends the Palestinian Islamist organisation, Hamas. Finally, Syria belongs to the pro-Russian bloc opposed to the American of which Israel is the cornerstone in the Middle East. All of this involves no particular problem of allegiance or friction with its main ally, even if, from time to time and in superficial terms, there is friction over the Palestinian issue, but that is another story. Meanwhile, Israel, with or without the backing of America (American officials say Israel would have alerted the U.S. government), has taken the opportunity to bomb weapons’ depots in Syrian territory, as on 4 and 5 May, because they were destined for Hezbollah's military bodies, and as Mossad in Jerusalem suspected they might conceal chemical weapons. In fact Israel's attack aims to resolve a number of issues within the "crisis triangle" which is: Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Syria which arms them both. On the question of the presence and use of chemical weapons (sarin gas) the international judge Carla Del Ponte has officially declared: "the present state of knowledge about who used the gas _leads back to_ the high command of the opposition and not the government of Damascus". While Washington before 6 May, made ​​no official comment, Moscow immediately condemned the act of "aggression" supported by the vehement statements of condemnation from Tehran and then Beijing. Like Israel this move shows the blocs giving solidarity to their own side either by open disagreement or with an equally loud silent assent. In conclusion, a spiral of violence of an endless war that threatens to further destabilise the entire area is gradually increasing. Is this something new? Yes, because it is all that capitalism can offer today, exploitation, wars, massacres of civilians, the use of chemical weapons, in one word: barbarism.

Neither the small nor the great imperialist powers will agree to truces. The international deployments are made. What is going on in Syria is the result of tensions and interests that extend well beyond the boundaries of a civil war, partly spontaneous and partly fuelled from outside. The United States and its allies shout about the massacres perpetrated by the Assad regime in order to justify official aid to the rebels, and to get rid of an awkward character by the use of force as soon as possible. China and Russia argue that the crimes committed by the rebels are just as brutal and that, whatever happens, never vote for any UN resolution that provides for armed intervention against Assad's Syria.

While imperialism continues to pursue its interests in every possible way, including violence and war, minus negotiated solutions that might satisfy the two great blocs, Syrian workers, like all those in the Middle East, are trapped in nationalist logic: the very logic that promotes and defends bourgeois interests. In their turn, bourgeois factions become the instrument of imperialist logic that drags them into international economic and geopolitical strategies which dictate when these sudden explosions occur and their tragic conclusions in a sea of ​​proletarian blood. This happened in all the episodes of the so-called Arab spring, then in Libya and now it's Syria’s turn. The blood shed in the interests of the oil companies, for the control of the marketing routes of their black gold, for enormous profits in dollars, roubles or yuan: this is the horrific saga of imperialism whose aggression and violence are equal only to the intensity of a crisis that is accelerating and making everything worse. As long as the proletarian masses in the region continue to be the cannon fodder of the pro- or anti-Assads, pro-Western or pro-Eastern, nothing new will rise on the horizon of the class struggle in that unhappy land. The only path for the proletarians of the Middle East is one that leads to unity. Only the presence of a party whose political tradition is the antithesis of any nationalistic vision of the struggle, only with a single anti-capitalist, and therefore anti-imperialist, perspective can they start to change the tragic picture we see before us. Otherwise more proletarian blood will be spilled in vain, as more civil wars, and more conflicts give substance to the unending imperialist barbarity of capitalism.


Monday, May 27, 2013


Prometeo - Ricerche e battaglie della rivoluzione socialista. Rivista semestrale (giugno e dicembre) fondata nel 1946.