The declaration of Obama that the USA will step up its support for the rebels in Syria represents a change in the situation. The White House announcement means that the US is to supply direct military aid to the Syrian opposition for the first time. Spokesman Ben Rhodes did not give details about the military aid other than to say it would be “different in scope and scale to what we have provided before”.
What attitude should Marxists and the Labour Movement take to this?
The reason for this change is alleged to be that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people. The US had previously warned any use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line”.
Whoever believes that the actions of US imperialism are dictated by humanitarian considerations for the fate of the people of Syria should think again. The allegation about chemical weapons immediately brings to mind the accusation of weapons of mass destruction that served as the excuse for the US invasion of Iraq ten years ago. They lied then and they are lying now.
The cynical nature of this claim can be seen from the way it has been presented. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr Obama, said the US intelligence community believed the "Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times over the last year." (our emphasis).
He said intelligence officials had a “high confidence” in their assessment, and also estimated that 100 to 150 people had died from chemical weapons attacks, “however, casualty data is likely incomplete”.
“We have consistently said the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses red lines that have existed in the international community for decades.” Rhodes said.
The White House announcement came on the same day the United Nations said the number of those killed in the Syrian conflict had risen to more than 93,000 people. Everybody knows that this figure disguises an even more monstrous reality. Nobody really knows how many people have been killed in this bloodbath, but the real figure may be as much as 150,000. The report found at least 5,000 people have been dying in Syria every month since last July, with 30,000 killed since November. More than 80% of those killed were men, but the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says it has also documented the deaths of more than 1,700 children under the age of 10.
How were these people killed? Not by chemical weapons, but by bullets, bombs, shrapnel or simple knives. Thousands have been slaughtered, many have had their throats cut. Children have been shot in front of their parents. Yet none of this was considered to be a “red line” for the ladies and gentlemen in Washington.
The western coverage of the Syrian war is hypocritical in the extreme. The media sees only the atrocities perpetrated by the government forces. They do not see a child being employed by the rebels to cut off a Syrian soldier’s head, or Abu Sakkar, commander of the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade, cutting out a soldier’s heart and liver and putting the heart into his mouth with the exultant cry: “Oh, my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!”
On 27 May the rebels massacred the Christian village of al-Duvair on the outskirts of Homs. This was just the latest in a genocidal persecution of varied methods: in Khalidiya, Christians and Alawites were imprisoned in a building which was then dynamited. Christians are 10 per cent of the population, Alawites 13 per cent: the Sunni rebels are committed to eliminate 23 per cent of the Syrian people. Up to 400,000 Christians have already fled the country. Who mentions this? Their sufferings do not exist for our “free press”.
When they are sometimes forced to acknowledge such atrocities, they do so only to sanitise them and excuse them. Only last week Senator John McCain remarked: “Horrible things are happening on both sides but with Bashar al-Assad’s forces it is a tactic that they use to intimidate and cow the population.” So what is the purpose of the atrocities committed by the jihadists? Perhaps they are just youthful high spirits? When a child is shot in front of his parents for a chance remark about the Prophet, was that perhaps a manifestation of religious fervour? Senator McCain does not see fit to enlighten us.
These disgusting hypocrites were happy to sit with their arms folded, taking advantage of these atrocities to score propaganda points against a government that did not suit their interests and which they hoped would fall without them having to risk the lives of American soldiers.
Having impassively observed the slaughter of over 100,000 men, women and children by conventional means, they now try to argue with the most brazen cynicism, that the deaths of a hundred or so (they are not sure how many) by sarin gas (they think) gives them the green light to intervene.
Note that the use of sarin gas (on a “small scale”) was supposed to have taken place “multiple times over the last year." If this were the case, why did they not decide to intervene earlier? Why wait till now?
We also note that the claim that the regime has used sarin gas has not been confirmed by the United Nations, which has repeatedly said that it is not sure who was responsible for it. It could well be that some jihadi groups have used small quantities of sarin, supplied by the Saudis or Qataris, as a means of provoking a US intervention.
The fact is that the rebels had every interest in providing the US with the excuse to intervene, whereas Assad had no interest at all in this. It is no secret that the Syrian opposition has been pushing and praying for this outcome for months. Now they have got what they wanted.
The hypocrisy of imperialism regarding chemical weapons is compounded by the fact that in the past they supported the Iraqi regime when it used them against its own population. The small detail is that at the time, Saddam Hussein was their faithful ally.
Balance of forces
The real reason for the change in US policy is that the military balance of forces has altered in favour of the Assad regime’s forces. The decisive turn was the taking of the strategically important town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon. The Western media have made a tremendous fuss about the presence of “foreign” fighters (mainly Hezbllah) in Syria, but have remained silent about the presence of foreign mercenaries and jihadi groups like al-Qaeda’s ally, the 10,000-strong Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other jihadists financed by US allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Nor do they mention the interventionist policy of Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (from a NATO member country).
It is true that the Assad government has turned to Moscow and Tehran for help. Hezbollah fighters have also been involved in the government's counter-offensive and may well have tipped the balance in its favour. Now the West is trying desperately to help the rebels in order to restore the balance. But even if they succeed, it will take many months, causing even more bloodshed and destruction. The loss of life, however, is what interests our “democratic” leaders least of all.
The intention of the British and French leaders was to convince President Bashar al-Assad that he cannot win a decisive military victory against his opponents and force him to the negotiating table. But now that the military tables have been turned, Assad is not at all inclined to negotiate anything. He wishes to crush the rebels not share power with them.
For months the civil war in Syria was in stalemate, with neither the government nor the rebel forces being able to strike the decisive blows that would signify victory. As long as neither side could gain the upper hand, the imperialists had room for manoeuvre with Russia to bring about some kind of diplomatic solution, possibly a coalition government that would include elements of the old regime together with bourgeois politicians, imperialist stooges and “moderate” Islamists.
The rulers of Russia are equally cynical in their attitude to Syria. For decades this has been their main ally in the Middle East. They therefore have a vested interest in supporting it. But like the Americans, they thought Assad might be overthrown. They therefore decided to hedge their bets, entering into contact with the opposition.
The BBC pointed out: “Britain and France have argued, that the battlefield cannot be allowed to tilt strongly in the regime's favour, as is currently happening”. The key word here is “strongly”. The military stalemate suited the imperialists very well. They desire the overthrow of the anti-western government of Assad, but they fear the rise of the Jihadi and Salafist forces that would turn Syria into a new Afghanistan.
It is clear that the men in the Kremlin would have been quite prepared to ditch Assad and do a deal with the opposition and imperialism in order to safeguard their interests in Syria. To this end, they were preparing to participate in an international conference in Geneva. But the situation changed, especially with the fall of Qusayr, which altered the balance of forces on the battlefield and gave a new lease of life to Assad.
A negotiated settlement?
As usual, the so-called United Nations has been impotent to solve anything. Ban Ki Moon makes tearful pleas for peace, while the armed conflict continues to rage and becomes more intense every day. He asks outside powers not to send arms to the belligerents, and the CIA will step up the delivery of the military equipment and train the rebel soldiers on how to use it. There is talk about setting up training bases in Jordan. But it is extremely doubtful whether these measures will alter the balance on the battlefield.
It is said that until now, the US has limited its help to rebel forces by providing rations and medical supplies. But some sources say that the CIA has been actively supporting the rebels, including groups linked to al Qaeda. President Putin recently remarked that it was paradoxical that western governments were arming the same terrorist groups in Syria that they were fighting in Afghanistan and Mali.
The USA, Britain and France will doubtless go to the UN and try to argue that Syria has “broken international law” over the use of chemical weapons. But Russia has already said US claims of the Assad government's use of chemical weapons were fabricated, which is undoubtedly the case. Likening it to when the US wrongly claimed Saddam Hussein held chemical weapons in Iraq, Alexei Pushkov, head of Russian lower house of parliament foreign affairs committee, tweeted: “Obama is taking the same path as George Bush.” Therefore, the chances of getting a resolution passed in the UN Security Council are nil.
The military successes of the Syrian army have sunk any chance of a peace conference, which in any case was just a remote possibility. The Washington Post (May 12) writes:
“If things continue as they are, the [Syrian] government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage” in any talks, said Charles Lister of the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “If we press pause on where we are today, it is clear the insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime.”
That fact explains the reluctance of the opposition even to attend the talks. The West has reacted to the military setback by sending more arms to the rebels, and Russia will undoubtedly react to this by stepping up its supply of sophisticated weapons to Assad. The Geneva conference – never a very secure prospect anyway – is dead in the water. The UN is an irrelevance. Diplomacy has been brushed aside by events on the field of battle. War will now decide everything.
What Obama wants
The US decision marks a significant escalation of the proxy war that has been gathering pace in Syria. The reason why Washington has not taken serious steps to arm the rebels earlier is no secret. They fear that any weapons they send to the opposition will end up in the hands of al Qaeda, which stands behind the jihadi forces in Syria. Even now this is a factor that limits the options of the Americans in Syria.
The Wall Street Journal (16 April) writes:
“Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the ‘good guys’ may not come out on top.
“Administration officials fear that with Islamists tied to al Qaeda increasingly dominating the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad , too swift a rebel victory would undercut hopes for finding a diplomatic solution, according to current and former officials.”
Obama wishes to strengthen the hand of the “moderate” elements in the opposition, represented by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and the Syrian Opposition Coalition. But this is easier said than done. Everybody knows that the most effective fighting forces on the rebel side are precisely Al-Nusra and other jihadist outfits. The SMC has been completely sidelined by them in recent months.
The White House hopes the increased support will “bolster the effectiveness and legitimacy of both the political and military arms of Syria's rebels”, Rhodes said, adding that the US was “comfortable” working with SMC chief Gen Salim Idris. “It's been important to work through them while aiming to isolate some of the more extremist elements of the opposition, such as al-Nusra,” he said.
The Americans would like to prop up the SMC, but it is an open question whether they can succeed. They themselves do not seem to be over-confident on this question. This is shown by a significant omission: the list of arms they intend to send to the Syrian opposition.
Rhodes did not give details of the aid, but administration officials have been quoted by US media as saying it will most likely include sending small arms and ammunition. The New York Times quoted US officials as saying that Washington could provide anti-tank weapons. But the rebels have been calling for both anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.
Why were up-to-date anti-aircraft missiles missing from the list? Evidently the Americans fear that if they have to change tactics and use air power in Syria, their planes might be shot down by their former “friends”, using missiles “made in the USA”.
Asked whether Mr Obama would back a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said one would not make a “huge difference” on the ground - but would be costly. This is disingenuous in the extreme. If the Syrian air force could be eliminated from the military equation that would clearly make a decisive difference to the war on the ground.
The reason Washington does not propose a no-fly zone in Syria, is not that it would make no difference but that it does not dare to do so. Washington would have to enforce it, and the Syrian army and air force is equipped with sophisticated weaponry from Russia. It would be indeed a “costly” enterprise, and a very risky one!
The latest step is already sufficiently risky. The experience of Vietnam is a warning of how easy it is to get sucked into a foreign adventure. There is no guarantee that the supply of more arms to the rebels will be enough. Rhodes has already said that “further actions” would be taken “on our own timeline.”
Does this mean that the Americans are contemplating a direct military intervention in Syria? One part of the US Establishment is in favour of stepping up the action. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have been particularly strident in their calls for military aid, said the recent findings must change US policy in Syria.
“A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the president will take this urgently needed step,” they said in a joint statement. However, this seems insufficient to them. They make it clear that they see this only as a first step:
“But providing arms alone is not sufficient. The president must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad's ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air."
McCain and others have been pushing for greater US military involvement for at least 12 months. However, it is well known that the Republicans, who represent the most reactionary and aggressive wing of US imperialism, are of dubious mental stability. Obama represents a slightly less unbalanced section of the US ruling class. The mood in Congress is hardening, with the Republican hawks, as usual, baying for blood. But ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the mood in American society is strongly opposed to any new foreign military adventure.
Revolution or counterrevolution?
The movement in Syria began as a popular revolution with mass support. If that movement had been armed with a genuinely revolutionary programme, it could have succeeded in winning over those sections of society that backed Assad for fear of the alternative. However, in the absence of clear leadership, the movement was hijacked by reactionary elements and pushed in a sectarian direction.
America’s regional allies, those bulwarks of reaction, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been pouring in money, weapons and mercenaries into Syria from day one. Their objective was not at all to help the rebels who were fighting for change in Syria, but on the contrary, to crush the revolutionary elements and transform what began as a popular uprising into a civil war with sectarian connotations.
To the degree that the whole thing became militarised, the struggle was deprived of any revolutionary content. Those who controlled the money and arms were able to dictate terms. The counterrevolutionary Salafists and Jihadis, lavishly backed with money and arms from their billionaire paymasters in Riyadh and Doha, seized control. That determined the nature of the so-called opposition.
It may be argued that there are still revolutionary elements in the camp of the opposition that have not yet been stifled. That may well be true, but those elements do not decide. They try to resist the slide towards Salafist reaction, but since the reactionaries control the money and the arms, such efforts are doomed in advance.
The other element in the opposition is the “moderate” bourgeois elements of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. But these are now completely subordinated to the interests of US imperialism. The latest declarations of Obama will only serve to deepen that dependence. As the saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
It is essential that the revolutionary youth of Syria strives to maintain an independent class position and does not subordinate itself either to the counterrevolutionary Jihadis or to the reactionary pro-American bourgeoisie. That is very difficult in the present situation, but one must think of tomorrow, as well as today. The real question is not whether Assad or the rebels can win, but what does winning mean?
The victory of the Jihadis would represent reaction in its blackest and most vicious form. It would signify the liquidation of all the gains of the last 50 years, pushing what was a civilized and decent country back into barbarism. It would mean a savage bloodbath of ethnic cleansing of Alawites, Christians and secular people. The slogan “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut!” gives us fair warning as to the character and intentions of the jihadis. Their aim is to provoke a Sunni/Shia war of extermination.
On the other hand, there are reports of massacres of Sunni villagers by Alawite militias in rural areas. This suggests the beginnings of a policy of sectarian cleansing in mixed areas of the country. In the end this would lead to the disintegration and destruction of Syria as a country. It would be a nightmare of reaction at all levels. The chaos unleashed by this would not stop at the borders of Syria. The sectarian madness that has been deliberately unleashed by the agents of reaction inspired and led by the Saudi and Qatari criminals is already spreading to the Lebanon, which stands on the brink of a new and bloody civil war. The fires of sectarianism are blazing in Iraq and threaten the whole region.
Moreover, it is necessary to look beyond the frontiers of Syria. The victory of Islamic reaction in Syria would deal a heavy blow to the Arab Revolution everywhere. It would strengthen the hand of the most reactionary sections in Egypt and Tunisia and weaken the revolutionary forces. It would adversely affect the developing revolution in Turkey. It will embolden the Israeli ruling clique to launch an attack on Iran. It is something to be avoided at all costs.
Would the people of Syria be any better off if their country were under the control of imperialism? For the answer to the second question one need look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. The people of Syria cannot hand over the fate of their country to the so-called democrats in Washington, London and Paris, who are motivated exclusively by greed and the defence of their own selfish interests.
What is to be done?
The first thing to say is what must not be done. At every decisive juncture we always hear the same words: “We must do something!” This usually means abandoning all principles and taking what is said to be the path of least resistance. But that is always a mistake. The easy road always turns out to be the most difficult and dangerous.
Let us remind ourselves of what happened in Libya. The imperialists prepared public opinion for an intervention against Kaddafi by organising an outcry in the media about an alleged danger of a massacre in Bengazhi. That excuse was used to justify the imposition of a so-called no-fly zone and the use of NATO warplanes to bomb the Libyan army and facilitate the victory of the rebel forces on the ground.
As in Syria, the movement in Libya began as a revolutionary movement, taking its inspiration from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But the bourgeois leaders in Bengazhi, by calling on the imperialists to intervene immediately pushed the movement in a wrong direction. The Revolution was derailed, with disastrous results. We ask the people of Syria to take a good look at Libya today and say whether that is what they desire.
The truth is that the Syrian Revolution has suffered defeat. It is not the first time that a revolution has been defeated and ended up in reaction. The First Russian Revolution of 1905 ended in defeat and an orgy of reaction, massacres and pogroms. That was not the end of the story, however. Twelve years later, the Revolution was born again and this time, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, it was victorious.
We understand that it is very bitter for a Syrian revolutionary to accept the idea of defeat. But it is necessary to tell the truth, whether it is unpalatable or not. The search for short cuts, whether in the shape of accommodation to the jihadis or the imperialists is a sure recipe for disaster. Only hopelessly naive people can imagine that the war in Syria is about the struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Whichever side wins in the present conflict, the outcome will not be a pleasant one for the working class of Syria.
Under difficult conditions – and the conditions in Syria are now inexpressively difficult – it is necessary to regroup and prepare for a change in the situation. That change can come sooner than one might expect, but it will come from outside Syria. There is the beginning of a Revolution in Turkey. In Iran, despite all the repressive measures of the regime, the masses are stirring once more. In Egypt and Tunisia, the workers and revolutionary youth have shown their will to fight against the reactionary Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda. The marvellous Arab Revolution has started, but it is not yet finished. All our hopes are based on this perspective, in which we place absolute confidence.
US imperialism is the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet. Nothing good can come from its constant meddling in the lives of other nations. Britain and France are lesser imperialist powers. Their rulers are hoping to divert the people’s attention from the severe crisis that is undermining their living standards by creating a bellicose mood. But the people of the USA, Britain and France do not want war. They remember how they were deceived by the lying propaganda before the invasion of Iraq and will not readily be fooled a second time.
The Marxists in Europe and the United States must do their revolutionary duty. We must oppose by every means at our disposal the plans for a new imperialist intervention in the Middle East. Our duty is clear: we must fight against our own bourgeoisie. Our immediate task is to denounce, expose and unmask the lying propaganda that seeks to prepare public opinion for new wars and slaughter.
- No to imperialist interference in Syria!
- Down with imperialism!
- Long live the Arab Revolution!
London, 14 June, 2013.