NATO, Russia and the Syrian inferno: The impotence of imperialism

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Shakespeare. Macbeth, Act 5)

When the US army stormed into Iraq there was no al Qaeda present in that country. Now the whole region is in the grip of the Jihadi madness. This is the direct result of the meddling of US imperialism. The politicians in Washington understood nothing and foresaw nothing. Ironically, by destroying the old state machine of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army, they upset the balance of power in the region and created a vacuum into which stepped, on the one hand ISIS and on the other their old enemy Iran.

The USA is faced with the growing threat of Jihadi violence that is spreading like an uncontrollable epidemic through the Middle East and North Africa, crossing the Sahara desert to burst through in Nigeria, dragging in the neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. How is the world’s greatest military power to respond to this threat? By bombing from a great height. America and its allies have bombed IS positions and no doubt have caused the Jihadis some considerable inconvenience. But it is an open secret that bombing alone does not win wars, and least of all wars like the one in Iraq and Syria. The Americans need boots on the ground. Only the boots in question must not be American ones. After the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan the US public has become very weary of foreign military adventures and would not be very happy to see American soldiers involved in yet another one.

How is this problem to be resolved? Some incurable optimists placed their hopes on the Iraqi army. But this was the vainest of all vain illusions. When they destroyed the Iraqi army, the Americans removed the only military force in the region capable of acting as a counterbalance to the power of Iran. Now the pathetic remains of that shattered force is riddled with sectarian divisions, demoralised and not fit to fight IS or anybody else. Its total lack of fighting ability was shown last summer when the Iraqi army ran away like frightened rabbits leaving Mosul to the tender mercies of the IS Jihadi hordes. So now, with many a sigh, the ladies and gentlemen in Washington are compelled to turn for assistance to the only viable option which is to do a deal with Iran.

Belatedly the Americans have woken up to the disastrous state of affairs they themselves have created and which now threatens them. Obama was unable to intervene militarily in Iraq or Syria because of the opposition of the American people who have grown weary of foreign adventures. The same is true in Britain where David Cameron failed to secure a parliamentary majority to bomb Syria (that is to say, to bomb the Assad regime).  American diplomacy in general shows about as much finesse as an elephant in a china shop. Nowhere are these diplomatic contortions more starkly exposed as in the mess that the Americans have landed themselves in the Middle East. The American imperialists and their “allies” (that is, their obedient stooges) in NATO now find themselves in an impossible situation. They are trying to face two ways at once, and in the process they find themselves at every step entangled in new and insoluble contradictions.

Russia intervenes

The Russians have outmanoeuvred the Americans at every step. In Ukraine they have stopped the Americans from taking over and in effect imposed their will by force. The western sanctions have not had the desired effect of undermining Putin. On the contrary, they have (at least for the present) increased his popularity to unheard-of levels. Confident of his strength, the Russian President has decided to challenge the Americans on the world stage, choosing Syria as his main field of operation.

First, however, he decided to put in an appearance at the United Nations. Not long ago Obama and Kerry were breathing fire and brimstone against the man in the Kremlin. Only twelve months ago, following the Ukrainian affair, the Russian leader was regarded as a pariah, to be shunned by all. Then suddenly Putin turns up at the United Nations and becomes the centre of attention. He even appears in public together with the US President and there is a well-publicised handshake – though not a very warm one to be sure.

Apparently Putin was trying to test the ground, to probe the intentions of the American President before acting. For him, the main aim was, and is, to keep Assad in power as a reliable Russian ally and to halt the advance of the Islamist rebels who were getting ever closer to the main areas of Assad’s support in the West – and Russia’s bases there. At least one can say that Putin’s intentions were clear and unambiguous. That gives him an appearance of strength.

Obama, on the contrary, is a man with a sharply divided Congress, a rabid Republican Opposition and a public that is tired of wars and foreign adventures. He has to preserve a deal with Iran over nuclear arms that is hated by Saudi Arabia and Israel and also by their Republican friends in Congress. In short, he has to face all ways at once. That gives him the appearance of weakness. The Russian leader returned to Moscow convinced that with regard to Syria the Americans would do exactly the same as with regard to Ukraine – that is, nothing of any consequence.   

The Russians immediately redoubled their arms shipments to Damascus, pouring in weapons and equipment. Then, one week ago they launched a series of devastating bombing raids against Isis and other targets. Unlike the American bombing, which has been more or less ineffectual, the Russian air force has attacked the enemy with deadly and merciless efficiency. The effect on a world scale was the equivalent of a political earthquake.

The myth of the “moderate” opposition

radical-and-moderate-syrian-rebels-middle-east-monitorYet again US intelligence agencies failed to anticipate the scale and objectives of the Russian intervention in Syria. Evidently the CIA was far too busy supporting Jihadi cutthroats in their efforts to defeat Assad’s army to pay any attention to what was going on in Moscow. Congress has begun an investigation into this humiliating failure. Washington protests that the Russians are bombing not only ISIS targets but also the “moderate opposition” forces backed by the West, that are attacking the Syrian army in the West.

It appears to be the case that most of the recent fighting has been concentrated in Hama, a central province with a majority Sunni capital that has remained in the hands of the regime since the start of the war. It is key to Assad’s strategy of cementing control over major population centres in a strip of territory from Latakia in the north, through to Homs, Hama and Damascus. Islamist rebels recently attempted to seize control of the strategic al-Ghab plain in Hama’s countryside, drawing closer to Assad’s coastal strongholds. The Russian strategy seems primarily aimed at securing this territory from further incursions. Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of Islamist rebel factions, conquered most of Idlib in a spring offensive, forcing the regime to abandon the province. Russian airstrikes have repeatedly targeted the province over the past week.

However, the protests of the Americans reek of hypocrisy. It is known that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming and financing the Islamists in the West instead of fighting ISIS in the East. Washington never protested about that, for the simple reason that the CIA has been involved up to the hilt in these same activities. So according to this logic, it is fine for the Americans, Turks, Saudis and Qataris to intervene militarily in the West of Syria, but it is not OK for the Russians and Iranians to intervene to redress the military balance.

The tiny groups of anti-Assad rebels being trained by America are too few to make the slightest difference. The fact is that all the groups fighting Assad are reactionary Islamist fanatics of one kind or another. The so-called “moderates” are acting as a bridgehead to channel the arms sent by the Americans to Al Qaeda. The Americans announced that they were  going to form a fighting force of 5,000 “moderates”, but now admit that there are only five left (where the Famous Five are and what they are doing remains a complete mystery). Late in the day the Americans have realised that this was a very bad investment and have now cancelled this expensive and rather farcical operation.

The fact is that there is no such thing in Syria as a “moderate” Islamist opposition. This is a blatant lie designed to fool western public opinion into backing the campaign for “regime change” in Syria – which until recently was the main objective of US imperialism. A source in the Saudi royal family involved in defence and security matters confirmed that the so-called “Army of Conquest,” (Jaysh al-Fateh) the new military coalition which has taken the Idlib governorate and large parts of Northern Syria is fully backed and armed by the Saudi and Qatari regimes. Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham – two extreme Jihadi groups - represent 90 per cent of the troops in this coalition. The Saudis and Qataris have agreed to provide funding for 40 per cent of its needs, while the coalition itself takes care of the remainder, mainly by capturing material.

Who are these people? Jabhat Al-Nusra  is known to be an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, while Ahrar Al-Sham is also believed to be heavily influenced, if not controlled, by Al-Qaeda. A founding member and senior official of Ahrar Al-Sham, Mohamed Bahaiah, has revealed in social media posts associated with the organisation that he is a senior Al-Qaeda operative. Both Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham promised to cut their ties with Al-Qaeda, but in fact have not done so. Both groups also say they have cut their links with ISIS, although Ahrar Al-Sham has fought alongside it in the past.

Ideologically, however, these groups represent the same warped and reactionary ideas as ISIS. The so-called “moderate anti-Assad forces” are in reality extreme Jihadis whose differences with ISIS are merely tactical and of degree, not substance. They are just as enthusiastic about imposing Sharia law, oppressing women, cutting off hands, legs and heads and reducing Syria to a state of barbarism.

NATO “reacts”

The Russian air campaign is clearly coordinated with a Syrian army advance in north-western Syria against the above-mentioned Islamist rebels. The Syrian regime army’s chief of staff, Gen Ali Abdullah Ayoub, announced “a vast offensive to defeat the terrorist groups” and restore control over opposition-held areas. Syrian troops, their morale boosted by the Russian intervention, have launched a ground offensive backed by Russian airstrikes and with Iranian support.

The Americas are now furiously complaining that the Russians do not give them enough information about their targets in Syria, that it is impossible for them to co-ordinate the bombing raids, that there is a risk of accidents etc. etc. But the Russians pay no attention to US complaints and continue blasting their targets remorselessly. The spectacle of long-distance missiles fired from Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea hitting targets inside Syria was an impressive display of Russia’s military might.

From a purely military point of view, it was hardly necessary to resort to such methods, since the Russians have sufficient facilities within Syria itself to launch missiles against the enemy. It was clearly an attempt (and a very successful one) to show the world (and particularly countries like Turkey) what the Russians are capable of. Similarly the incursions of Russian warplanes into Turkey’s air space were intended to intimidate. Nobody believes the protests of innocence from the Ministry of Defence in Moscow that all this is just a slight misunderstanding (a “mistake”). That is hardly surprising, since Moscow never intended that they should be believed in the first place.  

Turkey, in case you have forgotten, is a member of NATO (although it is very far from the North Atlantic or any other part of the Atlantic). Therefore Erdogan went immediately to knock on the door of his friends and allies to protest about this gross violation of Turkish sovereignty. The fact that the Turkish ruling clique together with their fellow bandits the Saudis and Qataris has been systematically violating the national sovereignty of Syria for years is never mentioned, in order not to cause offense to the delicate nervous systems of the aforementioned bandits.

At a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels the ministers agreed “to increase a NATO response force intended to move quickly to flashpoints”. True to its basic principles of solidarity, NATO reacted immediately in a manner clearly designed to cause the maximum shock and awe in Moscow. They have made a statement. No! They have made several statements.

US defence secretary Ashton Carter said that Russian missiles had been fired without giving notice to other states in the region and came within a few miles of hitting a US drone over Syrian airspace. “We’ve seen increasingly unprofessional behaviour from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace ... They shot cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea without warning,” the defence secretary moaned pathetically. Despite their alleged “lack of professionalism”, the Russian military have done more damage to the Jihadi forces in a few days than the Americans have done in twelve months. And if Carter is so concerned about the risk of aerial collisions, why does he continue to refuse to coordinate his own air campaign against Isis with the Russian? In answer to the howls of protest from Washington and Brussels, the Russians could well quote the English nursery rhyme:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones

But words will never hurt me.”

What is it NATO going to do, apart from issuing strongly worded statements? What use will be made of the famous “Nato response force intended to move quickly to flashpoints”? Will it be parachuted into Moscow? Maybe it will kidnap Putin, or otherwise dispose of him, as they did with Osama Bin Laden? At the very least, one might expect it to be sent to Turkey as a clear expression of support for a beleaguered member state? Today’s Guardian answers these intriguing questions thus:

“There were no plans to deploy the force to Turkey, though the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, suggested its existence alone should discourage future Russian or Syrian incursions into Turkish territory. “We don’t have to deploy the Nato response force or the spearhead force to deliver deterrence,” Stoltenberg said. “The important thing is that any adversary of Nato will know that we are able to deploy.”

So there we have it! In the words of the poet:

“Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!”

The protests of America’s NATO allies indeed resemble nothing more than the squeaking of a ridiculous mouse. Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said Russia must recognise that if it targeted opposition groups in Syria that are fighting Isis, “Russia will strengthen ISIS and this can be neither in the Russian interest, nor in our interest”. But such friendly advice will fall on deaf ears in the Kremlin, which does not need Ms. von der Leyen to educate it on where its interests lie.

The mice in Westminster add their voices to this squeaky chorus. British defence secretary Michael Fallon gravely warned that Russia’s intervention was making “a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous”. Fallon did not say for whom it would be more dangerous, but instead announced that the United Kingdom, alone of all the NATO states, would take decisive military action to deter Russia from its evil intentions. He would be sending a hundred more British soldiers – not to Syria, and not to Turkey but to -  the Baltic states. In what way the presence of a hundred or so British soldiers (who, incidentally, are not meant to fight, but only to train somebody or other) might “counter Russian pressure” either in Syria or the Baltic is a mystery the solution to which can only be found in only Mr. Fallon’s addled brain. In a word, if the situation were not so serious, it would all provide excellent material for a television comedy show.

The “regional allies”

In reality, the only forces that can drive Isis back are Russian air power combined with the fighters of Hezbollah and the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards on the ground. That explains why the Americans were forced to drop their earlier belligerent attitude to Teheran and reach a shaky compromise with Iran over its nuclear programme in exchange for reducing sanctions. This was undoubtedly a humiliating climb down for Washington and a major diplomatic triumph for Teheran. Iran now has effective control of Iraq and a major influence in Syria, as well as most of Lebanon, the base of the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah.

Those of us who have not completely lost their memory will have had to pinch themselves to realise that they are not dreaming. America is getting into bed with Iran? But is this not that same Iran that not so long ago demonized in the American press as part of “the Axis of Evil”? And was it not so long ago that America was considering bombing the self-same Iran to cure it of its annoying hankering after nuclear weapons?

The reason for this remarkable transformation is not hard to see. For the boots on the ground so fervently desired by Washington have “made in Iran” stamped on their soles. Everybody knows that the brunt of the fighting in Iraq is being borne by the Iranian-sponsored Shia militias and Revolutionary Guard. The government in Baghdad is heavily dependent on Iran. The fear in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region is that Iraq is being turned into nothing more than an Iranian satrapy. This result is not at all what Washington desires, but it is the logical consequence of all America’s actions.

This volte-face has led to further complications for US foreign policy. It has enraged the Saudis who see Iran as the main enemy. Iran is backing the Houthi-Shia militias that swept through Yemen and took control of Aden, driving out the Saudi puppet. In response to this, Saudi Arabia ordered its air force to bomb the rebels. It has formed a counter revolutionary coalition that intends to drown the Yemeni insurrection in blood. They have brutally bombed the country, pulverising its infrastructure, destroying schools and hospitals and killing a large number of civilians. Of course, the “free press” in the West, which constantly denounces Assad for the brutality of his bombing, keeps its mouth firmly shut about the atrocities committed by “our Saudi friends” in Yemen and elsewhere.

The Saudi ruling cinque, the centre of counterrevolution in the entire region, is deliberately stirring up religious sectarianism, arming and financing the Al Qaeda forces for this bloody work. But despite the murderous bombings, the Houthis have not been destroyed and there is a general hatred towards the Saudis and their allies among the mass of the population.

The fact that the Saudis asked Pakistan to join their military campaign against Houthi rebels (they wisely declined the offer) indicates that the prospect of a ground offensive in Yemen would end in disaster. This poses a serious problem for Washington, which has constantly backed the reactionary Saudi monarchy, slavishly swallowing all its vicious actions and licking the backside of the disgusting creatures that rule the roost in Riyadh, as we saw at the funeral of the late unlamented King Abdullah.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia were furious at the deal with Iran and are even more enraged at the inaction of NATO and the Americans in the face of the Russian intervention in Syria. They are said by diplomats to have “despaired of” the US.  Ministers from Qatar and Turkey, the Saudis’ partners in the fight against Assad, are holding talks on their next moves. Riyadh’s anger was reflected in a statement by 55 leading clerics, including prominent Islamists, urging “true Muslims” to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to the fight against Assad’s army as well as Iranian and Russian forces.

So King Salman and his clique and its Gulf allies are preparing to counter the Russian move. In what way will this “countering” take place? Perhaps it will take the form of sending arms and money to the Syrian rebels? But Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been sending arms and money to the Jihadi gangsters for years. The problem now is that there will be rather fewer Jihadis left alive to use the weapons, since they will have been sent straight to paradise by Russian bombs and missiles.

The rotten Saudi regime is playing with fire. There is a growing ferment among the oppressed Shia population of Saudi Arabia and the poor and the discontent in Bahrain, suppressed by Saudi bayonets, may lead to a new uprising. These were major factors that determined the Saudi reaction to events in Yemen. But by intervening militarily in Yemen, Saudi Arabia risks destabilizing its own regime or even provoking an uprising.

In this situation, fraught with contradictions, the American imperialists are trying to face two ways at once, and in the process they will find themselves embroiled in new and even worse contradictions. These diplomatic contortions are a further indication of the mess that the Americans have landed themselves in the Middle East. The United States says it is expediting deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia, yet at the same time the Obama administration is desperately signalling to Tehran that it does not wish to clash with Iran over Yemen. This is the kind of diplomatic clumsiness for which the United States has a unique capacity.

Turkey

Together with Saudi Arabia and Israel, Turkey represents the main counter-revolutionary force in the region. However, the Erdogan regime is not stable. The mass uprising that spread throughout Turkey two years ago served notice on the regime that its days are numbered. Ever since then Erdogan has been manoeuvring to stay in power. Part of this game is to attack the Kurds in a desperate attempt to stir up nationalism. The other part consists of launching foreign adventures, especially in Syria. Neither of these tactics suits the interests of US imperialism.

The reactionary regime of Erdogan in practice has been backing ISIS in its efforts to overthrow Assad and further Turkey’s plan to dominate Syria. They have provided the Jihadis with arms and money and turned a blind eye to the thousands of Jihadi volunteers from other countries that enter Syria through Turkey without any problem, while the Turkish authorities deliberately prevented PKK fighters from crossing the frontier to help the defenders of Kobani.

The Russians delivered a little warning to the leaders of Turkey by invading Turkish air space with their fighters. Turkey is a member of NATO and has appealed to its allies for help. NATO complains, growls and protests and does – nothing. In fact, the relations between America and Turkey have become increasingly strained. US Vice President Joe Biden, answering a student’s question at Harvard University, admitted that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Al-Assad”. “The result”, he said, was that “the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Biden later apologised to Turkey and the UAE for “any implication” that the supply of Al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda had been intentional. Of course, the Turkish support for the Syrian Jihadis certainly was intentional, and so was Biden’s public denunciation of it. What all this reveals is the existence of deep splits and fault-lines within both the US government and state and between states that are supposed to be allies. In reality, Turkey has been pursuing its own aggressive agenda in the region and has been actively supporting the Jihadis in Syria, especially in the West. The same is true of the CIA, which, as usual, is not averse to playing its own game, irrespective of who is sitting in the White House.

The Russian intervention comes at a time when Nato Patriot anti-aircraft missiles are being withdrawn from Turkey. This is a sign of the lack of confidence which the US has in Erdogan. For the same reason no doubt a US battery was shipped back to the US “for modernisation”, Germany withdrew its battery partly in protest at Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish groups in Syria, and Spain is not expected to keep its missiles in Turkey beyond the end of the year.

“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute” (“It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake”). The celebrated words attributed to Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duke d’Enghien might serve as a fitting epitaph for the foreign policies of US imperialism in recent decades.

Not since the Second World War have international relations been so fraught with tensions. The aggressive expansionist tendencies of US imperialism since the fall of the USSR has created a chaotic situation everywhere: in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, North Africa, Pakistan and lately also in Africa. Now the chickens have come home to roost. The instability in world relations is a reflection of the impasse of capitalism on a world scale.

Before the Second World War Trotsky predicted that the USA would emerge as the dominant imperialist power, but he added that it would have dynamite built into its foundations. Today we see that this is literally true. The unbearable situation that exists on a world scale will produce one explosion after another: we have entered a new period – a period of wars, revolution and counterrevolution. Only a fundamental change in the social order can provide a solution. Sooner or later, in one country or another, the working class will succeed in taking power into its own hands. That is the only hope for the future of humanity.

London 9/10/15