The War in Syria and Shifting Imperialist Positions

Introduction

The following article is translated from the latest edition of Prometeo, theoretical journal of our Italian comrades of Battaglia Comunista. It should be read in conjunction with the article on Qatar we published on this site in July. The overall argument of both documents confirms the outlines of the analysis we published in Revolutionary Perspectives 09 entitled “Russia, China and the USA’s New World Disorder” (leftcom.org). The key factor in the rising tensions around the world is the global economic crisis which has now produced a decade of recession without much sign of a revival. The continuing need to devalue capital in order to restart a new round of accumulation is the elephant in the room that global capital cannot contemplate. For devaluation on the scale requires more than a few bankruptcies (which, as the Quantitative Easing programmes to bail out the banks show no state is ready to countenance anyway). Instead, besides stepping up the exploitation of the working class, they seek to gain every economic and strategic advantage they can in a number of theatres and using a variety of means, some old like outright use of air power, some new like the use of drones and cyberwarfare techniques. We shall be analysing more of these potential sources of conflict, including both China’s advances in Central Asia and the Korean standoff, as well as their likely consequences, in future articles.

Trump and Obama

The comparison was inevitable. One is a Democrat, the other a Republican. One is a reformist and the other a conservative. Obama was calculating and cautious, Trump is arrogant and disruptive. Superficially they could not be more different, but is this really the case? The war in Syria gives us some indication of the common denominator that presides over the most powerful imperialist country in the world.

The common view which predominates in international opinion is that with Trump the relaxed approach of the Obama administration is over. From now on we are in for the dangerously expressed imperialist révanchism of the US, softened, if not halted, during eight years of a Democratic presidency. In other words, "America First" will mean an entirely new imperialist scenario with a "leader" who will bring back the hegemonic role of the United States, like Reagan, and the Bushes, father and son. This is like saying that imperialism is not just a behavioural choice from a political point of view, a military choice in terms of the use of force, but it is also based on the imprint a single individual can give to his Presidential mandate. In short, the "Democrat Obama" withdrew from wars, made peace with Castro and with Iran, and reduced the US to just one among many international players by renouncing its dominant role. The “go-getting" Trump would do exactly the opposite, attacking anyone who is seen as a direct or indirect opponent of American interests anywhere on the planet.

Of course, personalities and political background can play a role within the strategic framework of any government. Foreign policy and economic policy decisions can be made depending on internal and external situations, but also depending on personal inclinations based on previous political choices. What really dictates the underlying choices, and the strategies adopted, are the pressing economic conditions in the life of capital, the most appropriate recipes to cure its crises and, at all costs, meet its needs for valorisation, both on the domestic (containment of labour costs and increased exploitation) and the international front (proxy wars, the state of governments and their policies, and the conquest of commodity, energy and financial markets). Equally certain, it may be a mistake to interpret the needs of capital in carrying out bad economic policies and counter-productive international strategies, but the fact remains that capital has its own life and laws of survival which no-one can avoid, not even a President or a government worthy of the name responsible for maintaining the inevitable source of profits.

Different approach, same imperialist objectives

The difference between Obama’s mandate and the incoming Trump Administration, beyond the obvious difference in style and communication skills, is not that deep: in both cases the two administrations are serving American imperialism but in the two historical phases that, for simplicity’s sake, we can define as "before and after the sub prime crisis". When Obama came to the White House in 2008 with his reform programme, he had different priorities. These were dictated by the squeeze of the financial crisis. He had to "mend" a collapsing economy and launch a series of lifeboats capable of stabilising a drifting economic giant. The Obama administration went to work immediately. First, it sanctioned and accelerated the process of exporting the "financial" crisis by allowing banks, investment funds, insurance companies, etc. to offload "toxic" securities, by investing them on the global financial market. This operation had already begun a few months previously, but, in collaboration with the Central Bank, the first African-American President carried it further, thus unloading much of its own crisis onto global credit institutions through real financial criminal action. At the same time, he saved those American banks most exposed to bankruptcy, and then attempted, though he did not succeed, to reconnect the threads that link financial capital to the real economy. Quantitative Easing cost thousands of billions of dollars, taken from state coffers, i.e. from taxpayers, or from the pockets of those proletarians who in the meantime lost their job or faced increasingly precarious living and working conditions.

On the imperialist front, Obama started with the promised withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to exit these disastrous wars. The previous Bush administration had so deeply invested in them that, both at home and abroad, such adventures had become unpopular. However it is also a fact that Obama did not just wait wringing his hands as he contemplated a world which the crisis and the ravages of war were making worse. He reconfigured the US’ imperialist role by using tactics of varying degrees of intensity. Inside a little-used foreign policy framework of “soft power”, Obama alternated between the use of "intelligence" operations and the incitement of social tensions and civil wars, as well as military intervention through support for belligerent factions, or direct intervention in cases of greater necessity. "Intelligence" manoeuvres were evident in the role the US played in stoking and politically manipulating anti-Russian feeling in the "Colour Revolutions" in Eastern Europe. This was especially obvious in Ukraine, but also took place in other countries once belonging to the defunct Warsaw Pact, such as Hungary and Poland. Soft power, with the help of diplomatic intelligence, has also been used against Iran (to reach agreement on stopping its nuclear programme in exchange for the ending of trade and political sanctions) as part of a failed attempt to break the country from Russia's influence. The aim here was to overturn the oil and military axis that operates in the Middle East in an open competition with the interests of US oil corporations. The sanctions imposed on Putin's Russia also bear the mark of Obama diplomacy. He did everything he could to isolate Russia from the rest of Europe, both in terms of energy dependence in Europe (Ukraine) and in military terms (extension of NATO to the Eastern European countries), forcing Putin into drastic countermeasures such as the annexation of the Crimea (disguised by a referendum) and a state of war with Ukraine itself.

As an alternative to "soft power" based on the role of "intelligence" and diplomatic pressure, Obama also resorted to the open use of indirect force, behind the scenes in war zones and civil wars. The US has directly encouraged or appropriately exploited these conflicts in places that required the power of the Stars and Stripes to “save” them. Let’s take three examples: In 2011 in Libya and Syria and in 2015 in the war against the IS.

In the Libyan case, the US allowed France and Britain to intervene against Gaddafi's government creating a war and an international humanitarian crisis that persist to this day. Not only that, but in a second phase they collaborated with their airpower in the violent removal of their old enemy, the Colonel. This settling of accounts gave France the hope of some kind of monopoly in the management of Libyan oil whilst Britain saw an opportunity to increase its presence in the Mediterranean. The US finally got rid of an awkward character as well as demonstrating once again that nothing, from Gibraltar to Malta happens (including wars), without the support or participation of the world's leading imperialist pole.

The Syrian crisis and the US

The Syrian crisis and the ensuing civil war between Assad loyalists and his opponents had already started but was then developed by US economic, military and logistical aid in close collaboration with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The same happened with the birth and growth of IS. Given Russia's naval presence in the Mediterranean, Obama, in anti-Assad mode, did not shrink from financing and arming Baghdadi’s militia until it became a small force between Iraq and Syria. He only tried to get rid of him when this "diabolical creature" ran away from him by declaring partial and hostile autonomy. In this "second half" Obama even organised a coalition that would take charge of physically eliminating the Black Caliphate, now more an obstacle to American imperialistic projects than a malleable instrument to use against "Russian-Alawite" opponents. Of course, this was without the US military setting foot on the ground where the fighting was taking place; their role was to bomb Assad and his allies, leaving the "dirty work" to Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The same was true of the intensification of the bombings in Syria. This produced so many civilian deaths that the Obama administration was forced to apologise on more than one occasion. So, to argue that the Obama administration’s eight years were characterised by a political withdrawal from war scenarios in a sort of "rethinking" of the horrors perpetrated by the Bush administration, and are now being resumed by Trump, does not correspond to the truth. It is possible to discuss the respective merits of their foreign policy choices, their ability on how to intervene best, or about the domestic and international conditions that have led to these choices and strategies. However it cannot be argued that the “red thread” of American imperialist interests has ever been broken. It runs through a series of episodes where continued aggression and use of force has been proportional only to the severity of the international crisis and to the need to provide "ideal solutions" for the ferocious depredations of American imperialism.

It is true that Trump's arrival on the international political scene has been disturbing. He is atypical in terms of his manner and timing, as well as being both impulsive and contradictory. But it is also true that his actions, though with less media noise, would have been taken by Hillary Clinton as head of government, as with former President Obama, for the simple reason that the Syrian war and North Korean manoeuvres do not leave many options for a US economy with "pharaonic deficits" to finance. Russia and China thus had to be sent warning messages by force given the increase in imperialist tensions due to the continuing crisis on the financial and commercial markets. It is not just about the “personal whims” of each President, though Trump is doing everything to take personal credit for the latest decisions as opposed to the supposed lack of action of the previous President.

So it was no big surprise, except for the very short time it took or that it was done like a neighbourhood bully if, on the night of April 6-7, Trump, without the Pentagon's agreement, without waiting for the UN to complete its investigation to see whether the massacre of 72 civilians in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun could be blamed on Assad, ordered the launching of 59 missiles against the Syrian air base from which any chemical raid might have occured. The airfield was destroyed, oil storage facilities and weapons were blown up and there were at least 5 deaths among Assad's military, who also alleged that there were civilian casualties.

The immediate justification Trump gave for his decision was the unbearable horror at the sight of the twenty children who died in this criminal operation. It was a demand for vengeance unleashed by a particularly pious and God-fearing man. But since then he has grudgingly admitted to other reasons which have little to do with humanitarianism. At the same time, the US President has heavily criticised his predecessor, Obama, accusing him of not having what was needed to complete the military mission against the dictator Assad. It’s a bit like saying, "Now it's up to me to do what you couldn’t." And then more motives emerged. The continuation of the Syrian crisis, in terms imposed by the Russia-Iran duo, seriously puts at risk the defence of American interests. It also could bring "uncontrollable" numbers of Syrian migrants to the US, with the added danger of importing terrorists as well as giving a chance for those who would “steal jobs”.

Most of this is nonsense, of course. Trump’s drastic action has many other roots, both domestically and internationally. The domestic one lies in the fact that with the lowest popularity rating a newly-elected American President has ever had, he needed to do something "extraordinary" to give credibility to his loudly-proclaimed intentions.

The economic crisis *…*

Moreover, the much-trumpeted revival from the economic crisis has left doubts and a lot of confusion amongst American analysts themselves. The US economy has improved but at a very low rate, too low for the expectations it has aroused or to counter the heavily negative numbers that accompany it. Public debt of $19.200 billion is 105% of GDP. It was $18.992 billion in 2015, after years of Quantitative Easing. It was "only" $9.267 billion in 2007 at the beginning of a crisis which, we should not forget, started from the economic and financial contradictions of the US economy. If the Trump’s tax cut reform is passed, public debt will rise to 135%. The supposed economic recovery is still based on a huge shift in production, with entire sectors such as manufacturing and steel industry in the hands of China and Japan. To reverse that trend is practically impossible. German competition in engineering (mainly, but not only, in vehicles) is at very high levels. The deficit in the balance of payments with foreign countries has reached the historic record of $500 billion.

The millions of jobs, created by the Obama administration as well as the 600,000 in one hundred days of this administration, are deceptive because they are based on dodgy statistics, which claim that it's enough to work 15 days a year to be considered employed. In addition, the new posts are very often in the black economy, or are short-term temporary contracts and underpaid (in many cases the rate is three dollars an hour). As we said, the figures for the US economy make clear the real state of the internal market in terms of the production of goods and capital flows. US gross domestic product grew only 0.7% in the first quarter, at a much slower pace than the analysts who expected +1%. This is the worst increase since the beginning of 2014. In the first quarter of 2017, consumer spending in the US grew by only 0.3%, well below 3.5% in the previous quarter. In this case, this is the worst since 2009. In addition, cash flows to the US economy have decreased, despite the unsuccessful efforts to maintain a "high" dollar capable of attracting investors and speculators. Flows calculated as a percent of gross domestic product fell from 57% in 2007 to 36% in the first half of the year when the crisis began. This was accompanied by a sharp fall in foreign investment which went down by 50% in the same period.

In addition, households, businesses, and many state governments that survive through central government subsidies should be added to the list. In post-crisis US there is great dissatisfaction both in the environments of the small bourgeoisie in advanced state of proletarianisation and in the world of dependent labour. Official figures speak of real wages that have not risen for forty years. From 1979 to 2015, the wage bill went from $528,524 to $533,297 billion in 2015, while the income of the 1% richest in the same years went from $269,102 to $671,061, widening further the pay gap between the holders of capital and the workforce. The result is that two of the wealthiest families in the United States, Walton and Koch, have a wealth equivalent to the total holdings of 150 million US-based nationals.

It is no coincidence that 90 million people eligible to vote in the last Presidential elections thought it better to stay at home because they could no longer kid themselves that any ruling class faction, right or left, could offer even a partial solution to their serious economic and social problems. 50% of those 90 million live below the poverty line, have had no fixed jobs for years, survive on food handouts, and have no health cover. They move to the periphery of big cities and survive in their social decline. These are all factors that could, sooner or later, bring about a social explosion inside the most advanced capitalist country in the world. Hence, the calls about the need to "defend themselves" from external enemies, who are seen as the source of America’s internal ills. It’s a line backed by blatant use of force that speaks louder than words, and may be a strategy for preserving the system, like promising the Earth to the depressed American people. Let’s take two examples amongst many. The first is the promise to drastically lower taxes, the second concerns employment growth with a rise in wages. The promise is to "restart the real economy", to become more competitive with the good (high-tech investments) or the bad (taxation and protectionism) on the international market: More production, more employment, more competitiveness, more profits and higher wages. The corollary is the encouragement of businesses with less taxes on the production of goods and lower tax rates on income from productive investment. In the first case it would drop from the current tax rate of 35% to 15%, in the second from 39% to 35%.

Did that happen? No. First of all because Trump's idea has to be approved by the Congress, which is not in step with him. The plan also has a number of flaws. The first and most obvious is that just lowering taxes, however consistently, will not convince a huge mass of capital which has been speculating for years because of low profits and a low rate of profit, to return to the real economy. To those who already are in the real economy low taxes might give a huge dose of oxygen, but a high dollar to attract capital from the four corners of the world, would outweigh many of the advantages of the tax break itself. This is without mentioning that the scheme would deny state coffers anywhere between $2500 and $5000 billion thus increasing the already overwhelming public debt. The idea that this would lead to economic revival creating new jobs, more income, more wages and more demand to drive the capitalist motor of the national economy, has yet to be confirmed. First, because future investments would be in high tech with the creation of few jobs and the loss of many of those that already exist. Second, to go alongside the new massive investments, the lowest possible wages are needed, thus diminishing and not expanding "domestic" working class demand.

… and its consequences for US imperialist policy

On the international scene, Trump realised that he has to remain alert, as the previous administration had partly done, to anything that could cause significant damage to US imperialism, if competing imperialisms increased in size and scope. From the trade issue, where the new President threatened to crack down on all international treaties such as NAFTA (with Canada and Mexico), TPP and TTIP, not to mention accusing China of unfair competition and threatening to impose heavy customs duties in the same way as Europe (read Germany), in an impossible attempt to make up lost ground in the US trade deficit. It does not matter if Trump is having a rethink on NAFTA, or if he has contradicted himself so often on China. The same goes for Russia: before the elections Putin was the bosom buddy of the aspirant President of the United States, three months later he was an enemy to be halted on both the East European and Middle Eastern fronts. There is also Trump’s contradictory attitude to the North Korean President. First he was to be punished with an immediate bombing, and was then transformed into somebody worth talking to, who Trump declared he would be "honoured" to meet. Trump's contradictions can be taken with a pinch of salt. What is at the moment most pressing for the new American administration is the strong and visible return of American armed forces to the hottest areas on the international chessboard, the Middle East, Syria, the Mediterranean and everything going on around the Sea of Japan, including the role of China and its Korean ally. A clear example of this is Trump's recent visit to Saudi King Salman in Riyadh. The US government signed an agreement with him to provide $300 billion for infrastructure, as well as selling weapons to the "Saudi" clan for $100 billion, officially to be used against ISIS, but actually to counter the Iran/Russia axis in the Middle East. The move, in addition to having a sense of international strategy by re-launching the old alliance with the Saudis, who have not always been reliable, but who now face a heavy economic and financial crisis, also has value back home. Trump himself in a "wonderful" synthesis of an odious imperialist flavour, promises to sell weapons abroad to buy the workforce at home. In concrete terms he has promised jobs in exchange for threatening wars. Exploitation and death go together in this unending capitalist nightmare.

Returning to the "Assad issue," it would be irrelevant, if linked only to the dictatorial figure of the character in question. The real Trump problem, as with Obama, is to impede Russia’s support for the "dictator of Damascus’" regime and with it Putin's ability to maintain his commercial fleet and, above all, his navy in the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus, since the US wants the commercial and military control of all seas. In theory, the US Navy can stop anyone from sailing and landing in strategic ports, through the unchallenged superiority of its navy. The III, IV, V, VI and VII fleets are present in Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific waters, through which 90% of world trade flows. Normally, Admirals Nora Tyson, Sean Buk and Kevin Donegan allow access to international navigation routes, which can be easily denied or revoked if American imperialism considers it appropriate. So giving the Russian adversary a free hand in the Syrian question would intensify naval competition and massively upset the Pentagon's plans. Trump has thus increased the defence ministry budget by at least 10% (approximately $52 billion) for both immediate war operations and a short-term programme of rearmament with a high-tech content.

It is not surprising then that the Syrian operation, though planned previously, was carried out suddenly, without the UN Congress's approval, and before any International Criminal Court investigation had shed light on the use of chemical materials. It was a warning to those who needed it: To Russia over military hegemony in the Mediterranean, and to China to keep North Korea and its "extrovert" President Kim Jong-un under control: "Otherwise we will think of doing something ourselves." But it is against China, in its own right, that the missile barrier in South Korea is also being built. To reinforce this warning, Trump sent an aircraft carrier and an atomic submarine into South Korea's waters to impress the belligerent North Koreans. Even in this case it does not matter much that he then backed down, declaring himself willing and "honoured" to meet Kim Jong-un. The important thing was to make the “boss’s” voice heard while creating a situation of international tension and nuclear danger not seen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

It was also a warning to Iranian imperialism, which participates in the war against ISIS, in trying to occupy both territory and oil fields against the US’ Saudi ally. And to the Shiite groups, which have been formed as fronts for Iran, Iraq and the Syrian Alawites during this war crisis that has lasted for six years. This also includes the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi-Iranian Shiite-oil axis that defends Assad under the leadership of the Russians and who, furthermore, fought in Ukraine after the Crimean peninsula was taken over. As for the Taliban, Trump experimented on them with the dropping of the most powerful non-nuclear warhead ever designed and the biggest to be exploded since World War II. Although, it must be said, the act was more for show than effect since the powerful weapon was launched against the rocky walls of the Hindu Kush and not against a designated military or strategic target. Behind all this is the usual war of the "pipelines", the recent and precarious Russian-Turkish project of the “Turkish Stream”, the Russian and Azeri gas pipelines towards Europe and Asia, the struggle for crude oil and control of the Asian gas marketing routes, and the continuation of the monetary and financial supremacy of the dollar on which all US ambitions for domination are based.

Trump's arrogant and rude belligerence might seem astonishing, but it is less so if we consider the factors we have briefly put under the magnifying glass here: the crisis is still making its disastrous consequences felt even despite the insistent declarations that it is now over. Capitalist measures have had some effect on the economic "superstructure", but not on the factors that caused the crisis, from which international capitalism cannot escape. These, like the high ratio between constant capital and variable capital, the permanent lack of satisfactory rates of profit in the real economy, the subsequent increase in speculation that is always lurking with the risk of recreating speculative bubbles even bigger and more devastating than the sub prime, continue to hold back output.

It is in this scenario that imperialism moves with worrying speed and determination, unleashing bloody wars and threatening much more generalised conflict. It is the same scenario that imposes the indiscriminate use of violence and the risk that everything will turn into a global carnage over even more territories, especially the most sensitive from both an economic and military strategic point of view. Faced with such a perspective, which is already partly tragic reality, in denouncing war and the heartbreaking massacres of the unarmed that the barbarism of a capitalist world in a permanent crisis produces more ferociously than ever, we must add a tragic appeal to the masses around the world. If this is the imminent future for humanity, if the barbarity of society leads only to war, to the destruction of everything and everyone in the name of the preservation of an economic and social system like the capitalism which causes it, then we must make war on war, and struggle against capitalism for a world that is no longer based on exploitation, crisis, wars, and millions of dead to survive. Only a revolutionary process can stop the war and with it destroy the economic system that sustains it. Only another type of organisation of production and distribution of social wealth can and must be the guarantee that such barbarism is not periodically repeated with tragic regularity.

FD

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Translated from Prometeo 17 (June 2017), theoretical journal of the Internationalist Communist Party

Error Note

This is a slightly improved translation to the one that appeared in Revolutionary Perspectives 10. The improvements are mainly cosmetic but the middle paragraph of p.19 has a sentence which should read “The first and most obvious is that just lowering taxes, however consistently, will not convince a huge mass of capital which has been speculating for years because of low profits and a low rate of profit, to return to the real economy.“

We apologise for this error.

Monday, August 14, 2017

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