Syria: Caught in the Vice of Imperialism

In early May multi-party elections were held in Syria. These were the first, so called, “free” elections since the Syrian Ba’ath party seized power in 1963. A referendum, held in February, paved the way for these elections by securing a vote to permit constitutional changes which would allow multi-party democracy. As we go to press the results of these elections have not been announced, but they will be largely irrelevant since the country remains on the brink of civil war and the opposition has boycotted the poll. However, the fact that the regime has organised these elections shows it is responding to the pressures being put on it by its enemies.

In February an organisation calling itself “The Friends of a Democratic Syria” and having amongst its members the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, met in Tunis to demand, in President Obama’s words that:

A message is sent to President Assad that it is time for a transition (to democracy).

The Syrian regime has, therefore, formally more or less implemented the US demand. Whether this will make any difference to the outcome in the country is highly doubtful as this is not, in any sense, the real demand of the US and its clients.

An internal accommodation between the regime and its enemies within the parameters of a democracy controlled by the Ba’ath regime is also very unlikely. Too much blood has flowed. The UN estimates that 9000 have now been killed in the 14 months since the uprising started (1). The majority of the dead were civilians, many shot after arrest and some tortured to death. In addition whole areas of cities, such as Homs, have been reduced to rubble in artillery barrages lasting weeks. The brutality of the regime is legendary. February saw the 30th anniversary of its massacre of its opponents, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, in the city of Hama. Between 20 000 and 30 000 people were killed in this atrocity (2). The Hama massacre ushered in a period of relative stability for the Ba’athist regime, and no doubt there are elements of the regime who think the same can be achieved today. However, as the regime is discovering to its cost, today’s uprising is based on much more general economic hardship brought about by the global crisis and is much more widespread. It cannot be ended with a short sharp bloodbath.

The UN has put forward a plan which is supposed to end the violence via its special representative to Syria, Kofi Annan. The Annan plan, as it is known, has been approved and issued as a statement from the president of the UN Security Council. It is therefore not binding, but the Syrian regime has agreed to it with the condition that it will respond to attacks by the rebels. Under this plan the army is supposed to withdraw from civilian areas and there is to be an end to the killing. UN observers are supposed to monitor its implementation. At present only a few dozen observers are in place rather than the 300 proposed and the requirements of the plan appear to have been widely violated. The opposition claim tanks and personnel carriers remain hidden in the cities and the snipers only stop killing civilians during the period when the UN inspectors are in the area. The regime, for its part, claims its soldiers are being ambushed and roadside bombs are still being used against the military. The best that can be said for the Annan plan is that the rate of killing has decreased.

These few facts illustrate the principal forces at work in the Syrian crisis. Firstly, the Syrian masses, suffering under the pressures of the economic crisis and savage repression by a hated regime, and prepared for a desperate fight-back. Secondly, external opposed imperialist interests determined to dictate the outcome of the present crisis. These forces are setting the stage for civil war.

Vultures of imperialism

Syria is strategically positioned in the matrix of imperialist relationships in the Middle East. It is the ally of Iran and the artery for support to forces opposing Israel, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Syria has always been a client of the US’s rivals in the Middle East. In fact after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, during the period of euphoria, the US openly called for regime change in Syria. Donald Rumsfeld famously threatened Syria with the message “you’re next.” The US is trying to direct the present uprising in a direction which will lead to regime change. The hypocrisy involved in this process is breathtaking. The organisation “Friends of a Democratic Syria” was formed after the Russian and Chinese vetoes of UN Security Council motions condemning Syria, as a means of channelling support to the uprising. This organisation includes key US allies, the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Their detestation of democracy was illustrated by the Saudi invasion of Bahrain to brutally put down the democratic protests by the Shia majority. The US made no criticism of this anti-democratic invasion by its ally since Bahrain is the base for the US Fifth fleet. It is clear that the issue of democracy is camouflage for a wider ambition in Syria which concerns US domination of the Middle East. A more honest statement of US intentions is spelt out by the American Enterprise Think Tank whose spokesman, D. Pletka writes:

Syria is the soft underbelly of Iran, Tehran's most important ally, conduit for arms and cash to terrorists... A unique confluence of American moral purpose and America's strategic interest argue for intervention in Syria... It's time to start arming the Free Syrian Army.

"Obama must do something tangible for Syria," February 8, 2012

Iran remains a thorn in the side of US imperialism in the Middle East. It continues to supply oil and gas to US rivals Russia and China, and to oppose Israel and US client monarchies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The invasion of Iraq has had the unintended consequence of strengthening Iran and installing an Iran friendly regime in Baghdad. The US has attempted to weaken and isolate Iran by sanctions and to manoeuvre the country into a position where it is in defiance of the UN over its supposed nuclear developments, thereby laying the grounds for another war. Regime change in Iran is a key US objective. If it could be isolated from its Syrian ally a strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a lot less risky and make retaliation against Israel less likely.

All these considerations mean that it would not make any difference what democratic or other changes were made by the Assad regime, the US would still want the regime replaced with a US friendly one. The initial steps in this direction have been taken with sanctions against the regime. These have halved Syrian oil production and cut foreign exchange at the same time as Syrian bank assets abroad have been frozen. Inflation is rapidly reducing living standards and deepening the economic crisis. The economy contracted 6% in 2011. The exile group abroad, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has been recognised by France & UK as legitimate representative of Syrian people. This move is similar to that taken in Libya where the Benghazi “Transitional National Council” was recognised as the representative of the Libyan people. This organisation was later given access to the Libyan funds in frozen accounts and presumably something similar is planned if the SNC proves itself to be useful.

The US appears to be starting to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Already Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state has promised $12million to the FSA for communications equipment with more money to come (3). If the civil war can be won then the external organisations, such as the SNC, could be used by the US of to form a friendly government.

For their part the Russians and Chinese are not prepared to offer any assistance to the US in these plans. Both think they have been double crossed by the Libyan adventure. A “no fly" resolution which they agreed to was used to bomb the Libyan regime into submission with NATO acting as the air force of the rebels. For China the result was a loss of oil interests in the country. For the Russians Syria represents the last bastion of Russian imperialism in the area and provides the Russian navy with a base at the port of Tartus. Thus Russia’s stated policy for the last year or so has been non-intervention which means no-one should aid the rebels. To enforce this the Russians appear to now be prepared to veto any US resolution on Syria.

There is thus an imperialist impasse over Syria which is likely to lead to further bloodshed.

The Uprising

The Syrian uprising is part of the Arab Spring. This revolt which started in Tunisia and rapidly spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere was driven by the effects of the capitalist economic crisis. Increasing economic hardship drove people onto the streets and brought open criticism of the entrenched regimes. In Syria criticism of the regime was met with immediate and brutal violence. In the initial response to protest 100 people were killed in the town of Daraa. It is a measure of the desperation and determination of the Syrian masses that this scale of repression has not halted protests.

In both Tunisia and Egypt the working class entered the battle on its own terms by striking, and when this happened the regimes crumbled. Unfortunately this has not occurred in Syria. Workers have taken part in a heterogeneous inter-class movement. The result has been this long stalemate during which killing and destruction have steadily increased while imperialist powers have circled like vultures.

At present bourgeois ideology appears to dominate the opposition. Nationalism, bourgeois democratism and Sunni Jihadism appear to be dominant. All of these ideologies are incapable of solving the Syrian crisis because, in reality, the Syrian crisis is a symptom of the global capitalist crisis, the same crisis which is affecting workers in Europe and the US. The Syrian crisis is a result of the operation of the capitalist system on a global level. The way out of this crisis is similarly global. The path towards this is via the working class struggling autonomously of other classes for its own interests. This struggle needs to form part of a global struggle to replace the capitalist system which is the cause of these disasters.

(1) The opposition estimates that 11100 have been killed.

(2) For background to Syrian history and the Hama massacre see:

(3) Quoted in Counterfire:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

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