Israel: Sharon's warmongering against Syria

Recent suicide bomb attacks in Israel have been used by Sharon as an excuse to attack Syria. Sharon is clearly distracting attention away from his own internal problems. But there is clearly a section of the Israeli ruling class, backed by at least a part of the US bourgeois, who would like to wage war on Syria. Leon Cohen of the In Defense of Marxism circle in Israel/Palestine looks at the background to this situation and offers a socialist way out of the impasse.

A bill to impose new economic sanctions on Syria was debated in the US Congress last Wednesday, October 8, after the Bush administration gave the green light for the measures. The sanctions were to go before the House of Representatives later in the week, and later to the Senate as well.

The daily Guardian recently reported, "The White House has been blocking the Syria accountability bill for a year, while it pursued negotiations with Damascus, but this week the state department took a conspicuously neutral stance, saying the administration had no position on it. The administration also refused to join international condemnation of Israeli air strikes on Syria over the weekend. President George Bush yesterday said the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had the right to 'defend his people' but urged him to 'avoid escalating violence'."

It added, "The change in position is a victory for US conservatives who have long advocated a tougher stance against Syria because of its support for Hizbullah, and other armed anti-Israeli groups. After the fall of Baghdad, right-wingers in the Pentagon promoted a contingency plan for military action against Syria but it was vetoed by the White House. Under pressure from Washington, Syria closed the offices of radical Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and it handed over several officials from the Saddam regime that had fled across the border. However, Washington has remained unconvinced by the measures."

Sharon's deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (who serves also as the minister of industry, trade and labour), stated that Israel had coordinated, with its ally Washington, further steps against Damascus "in spheres to which Syria would be well advised to listen." Olmert said "the Americans have twice passed the Syrians very harsh warnings" regarding Syrian support for terrorism. "In my view, it would be very well worth the Syrians while to pay attention to these warnings, because the price they could pay could be heavy."

The US President George W. Bush explained on Monday of last week that Israel had the right to self-defence, but the White House cautioned against taking steps to spur escalation in the region.

The Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a warning statement. Assad said in a newspaper interview that the Israel Air Force raid was an attempt by the Israeli government to extract itself from its big crisis by trying to terrorize Syria and drag it and the region into other wars. "This [Israeli] government is one of war, and war is the justification for its existence," he stressed.

Amram Mitzna MP, former Labour Party chairperson and a former IDF general who was the first that openly broke with then defence minister Sharon over the conduct of the Lebanon war in the early 1980s, said on Tuesday (of last week) that, "This government is simply irresponsible, endangering its own citizens with - there is no other way to describe this - adventures. What was the point of attacking Syria? Who can even explain the goal? Was the goal to calm down the Israeli public? To divert the public's attention from our day-to-day problems here and the government's inability to deal with terrorism?"

The daily Haaretz defence commentator Amir Oren compared the Israeli attack to a tried-and-tested method for dealing with a headache or a toothache: "Give a wall a nice, hard kick, until one's leg screams with pain. This may do nothing to cure the original pain, but it makes one forget it for a while." Was the air strike "a shrewd plan, or a wild gamble? The answer depends upon Syria's response," Oren continued. "Faced with a strong Israeli and American military presence, Assad is likely to show restraint; but he might expand leeway given to Hezbollah and other militants for attacks on Galilee, including the firing of Katyusha rockets".

"Should Israeli civilian communities (and not only military bases) be hit in such attacks, then the fifth of October will be remembered as the start of a wider conflict, one which will not solve Israel's headache." As Oren noted, writing in the Tuesday (of last week) edition of the paper, "major air battles on April 7 1967, and September 13 1973, were preludes to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars."

The Israeli-US motivation to attack Syria

Any person with eyes in his head who can read the newspapers knows very well that the allegations against Syria regarding its so-called "support" for terrorism are nothing but a smokescreen created by the imperialists and the Zionists. The support provided to the major Islamic resistance factions, the Hamas movement and the Islamic Jihad group, comes from Iran and the fundamentalist section of the Arab bourgeoisie. Syria is associated with passive and moribund guerrilla organizations, mainly the Stalinist factions - the Popular and the Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP/DFLP).

It is no coincidence that US president, George W Bush, decided to back Ariel Sharon after the Israeli Air Forces attacked Syria. True, Sharon tried to divert the anger against his corrupt and ultra-capitalist rule and channel it into a nationalist-populist direction. The Israeli public, busy in its struggle for its social rights and gains, has had to deal with the brutal and barbaric massacre of 19 Israeli innocents by Palestinian terrorists. Nonetheless, Sharon's motivation to open a war with Syria is much more sophisticated, complicated and calculated than the reason mentioned above.

We live in an historic epoch; a period in which capitalism is in crisis and the only way for the world capitalists to save the economies of the major imperialist countries is by waging wars of occupation and robbery against underdeveloped “Third World” countries. Leon Trotsky asserted that we live in an epoch of wars and revolutions. The fact that the Iraqi ministry of oil was the only ministry (apart from the Ministry of the Interior) that was not bombed in Iraq by the US-UK military is just another sign that imperialism invaded Iraq in order to rob its oil wealth in order to bolster American capitalism. The fact that wealthy American companies associated with senior American leaders, including George Bush's deputy, are already involved in exploiting Iraq's oil as a means of extricating themselves from the crisis at home, explains what this war was about. We have explained it many times. The imperialists are eager to take control of traditional markets such as that of Iraq in order to save the capitalist system from its inevitable death agony. Capitalism cannot solve its contradictions within the borders of the Nation State; it must strive to expand itself in order to gain a breath of fresh air which will allow it to survive.

The United States has a clear objective. After the death of the old Assad three years ago they believed that Assad junior would be more open to accelerating the “reforms”, by which they mean the privatisation of the major companies and the dismantling of the planned economy. Their idea is to open up divisions within the Syrian regime and to cooperate with the openly bourgeois elements within the regime that bases its wealth on foreign investment, in order to complete the restoration of capitalism inside Syria.

The imperialists' goal is to weaken the Syrian economy, to destabilize the Syrian regime, and get their hands on Syria's resources. In the mid and late 1980s foreign oil companies discovered large deposits of good quality oil in Syria. And between 1985 and 1995 oil output rose and it became a key element in the balance of payments. By 1995 oil export revenues had reached $2.4 billion, 60% of Syria's total export earnings. If the imperialists could get their hands on these resources this would mean a disaster for the Syrian people. The nationalised planned economy in Syria (albeit under the control of the bureaucracy) allowed for a dramatic improvement in the living conditions of the masses. Just a quick look at the figures clearly demonstrates this.

In 1960 the mortality rate among Syrian children was 201 per thousand. The number of deaths among Syrian children was 15 per thousand in 1997. This can be compared to the rate in countries like the Philippines which was 83 per thousand and in Pakistan where it was 714 per thousand. The availability of clean drinking water was also massively increased. By the 1990s 95% of the water supply in the cities was clean, and even in the rural areas the figure stood at 77%. Average life expectancy in Syria in 1970 was 56, but by 1997 it had reached 69 years.

All this was possible on the basis of the planned economy. But in the 1990s the Syrian regime was shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it gradually started introducing some initial measures of privatisation and it had committed itself to promoting a degree of private investment. As of 1991 it began to offer incentives to the private sector. Businesses were allowed to retain 75% of foreign exchange earnings.

This proves our point that the continuing rule of the bureaucracy endangers the very survival of what is left of the planned economy. However, the complete privatisation of the economy and the dismantling of the planned economy and the reforms that go with it is easier said than done. Privatisation usually means large-scale dismissals and a host of other problems. Therefore there has been resistance both from the Syrian masses and from a wing of the regime. The British magazine, The Economist, in fact complains that, “its stabs at reform have failed to stir either economic growth or political liberalisation.” Basically the transition to capitalism has been stalled.

This one of the reasons why Syria has been targeted by the Bush administration as a part of the insane military drive of "war against terror". Although many American and British soldiers are being killed on a daily basis in Iraq, the US is willing to pay any price in order to prop up the ailing capitalist system. The price - the lives of so many working class soldiers who joined the army just to get a monthly salary and make a living - will inevitably be painful.

In Defence of Marxism asserted many years ago that Syria had undergone a transformation of its social relations. We recommend to our readers a reading of Ted Grant's brilliant analysis in the book The Unbroken Thread - The Colonial Revolution and the Deformed Workers' States. The Syrian economy was nationalized by the Ba'athist regime in the 1960s, like the Cuban and the Chinese economies. Unlike the national capitalist economy of the traditional capitalist countries like Iraq, Libya or Egypt, in which the economy was partly nationalized and an alliance was created between the national bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy, the nationalization of Syria's economy was total. Despite the privatisation of the lighter industries like the textile industry, the major means of industrial production (plus the services) remained owned by the state. The imperialists believe, and they have good reasons to do so, that the nationalized economy - defended by a wing of the Ba'ath party and the Syrian masses - is the main barrier to the imperialist robbery of Syria's oil. The first task of the sanctions is to provoke a crisis in the Syrian economy and to create mass unemployment, poverty, misery, starvation, hunger etc. The aim is to destabilize the whole regime.

In spite of the fact that the bureaucracy in Syria has actually initiated some privatisation of the economy, its success has been limited due to mass opposition within Syria, including from those who have been oppressed by the Ba'athist bureaucracy. As in China, the Syrian bureaucracy that rules over the state will not be able to privatise the major industries and services without provoking social unrest. A movement of the working class would threaten the ruling bureaucracy and this would create an opportunity for a revolutionary tendency to overthrow the Assadite bureaucracy by carrying out a revolution, a revolution in which power would be placed in the hands of the workers, but the basic economic structure of the old planned economy would be maintained. Of course, considering the privatisation that has taken place the workers would also be faced with the task of taking back any of the key industries that have been privatised. A struggle would be waged between the revolutionary-proletarian tendency and the neo-liberal, pro-imperialist, camp. It would indeed mean destabilization for the Syrian regime, but not of the kind envisaged by Bush and his friends. This would be exactly the opposite of the traditional Assadite policy of “stabilization”.

The United States know very well that a new imperialist war against Syria would not be so easily tolerated as the war in Iraq. The working class is not prepared to pay even one more dollar to finance Bush's adventures. After the lies of Bush and Blair were exposed over the war in Iraq, the international working class will not accept another doubtful war in order "to save the world's peace". Moreover, European imperialism refused to support the war against Iraq because it was aware of the fact that the dividends would go directly into the pockets of Bush and his insane clique. This is why France, Germany and other countries were against the war. A new imperialist war in the Middle East would not benefit the European imperialists, just as the brutal war against the Iraqi people did not benefit them.

A new protest movement would emerge and the crisis of the capitalist system would pose the need for a genuine alternative to the rotten capitalist system. The prospect of organizing a world movement against capitalism is exactly the opposite of what Bush and the other imperialist gangsters want. Bush believes that a policy of cruel economic sanctions can be much more effective than direct war. That is why the US killed one million Iraqi children through its economic sanctions before it embarked on direct war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Marxist perspective

It is no wonder therefore that George Bush backed Sharon after the Israeli F-16 airplane attack on Syria. Sharon is trying to exploit as much as possible the anger and shock provoked among ordinary Israelis by the recent terrorist suicide bombing in Haifa City in order to connect Syria with terrorism and thus to help Bush in his attempt to present Syria as a "terrorist state". This is similar to the way Bush linked Iraq to the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11. He was fully aware that Iraq had nothing to do with it. He had his own reason fro attacking Iraq. The attack on the Twin Towers was just a convenient excuse. These two war criminals Bush and Sharon - are merely acting in the service of the Israeli and American capitalists. Sharon is expected to receive dividends from his firm support in the war on Iraq and the active role played by his regime in attacking Syria will benefit the Israeli capitalists sooner or later. The rulers of the US may not want to be involved directly on another front. However, Sharon will try to convince them that Israel alone and by itself is capable of doing the job.

The Marxists rejects the claims that behind the coming war against Syria are such abstract ideas as "nationalism", "racism", "hatred towards Islam" or the "hatred towards the Third World countries". These ideas have been argued by Maoists and some pseudo-Marxist sectarian groups in Israel, who have raised their objections to our analysis in a public discussion forum which was held in the Independent Media Center website.

The truth is that behind Israel's warlike stance against Syria stands US imperialism. The fact that Syria does not have any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is further proof that our class analysis is correct. The goal of the imperialists is clear: to overthrow any regime that refuses to accept its policies and run its economy according to instructions dedicated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The imperialists will remove any regime that does not accept their plans for the creation of so-called "free" trade zones where there would be cheap labour, capitalist economic relations and total privatisation of any state-run industry.

Some of these ultra-left groupings have been attacking us for our analysis of the Syrian regime. They refuse to accept that what was set up in the 1960s was a deformed workers' state, i.e. a regime based on a nationalised planned economy but with power firmly in the hands of a privileged state bureaucracy. The Syrian bureaucracy's model was that of the former Soviet Union. Of course it is now under enormous pressure and many concessions have been made, but fundamentally it still remains a regime based on that model. Ted Grant wrote in The Unbroken Thread:

"The army is a mirror of society and reflects its contradictions. That and not the mere whims of the officers concerned, is the cause of the upheavals as in Syria. It is an indication of the agonized crisis of society, which cannot be solved in the old way. These strata of society can espouse 'socialism' of the Stalinist variety - proletarian Bonapartism - all the more enthusiastically because of their contempt for the masses of workers and peasants".

He added, "In Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Burma, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin, Ethiopia and as models, Cuba and China (which in their turn had the model of Eastern Europe as a beacon showing the way) there has been a transformation of social relations. The movement of the classes in turn had its effect on the new ruling junta in the army. It produced splits and individual and group conspiracies of officers. These reflected the classes in battle in Ethiopia and the developing civil war in the whole country. Whatever the individual whims of the officers, they reflected (as in Syria) - and had to reflect - the class struggle taking place. Hardly any wished for a return to the old regime… Where - as in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Syria, Ethiopia - the overthrow takes place with the support of the workers and peasants certainly but without their active control, clearly the result must be different. The petit-bourgeois intellectuals, army officers, leaders of guerrilla bands use the workers and peasants as cannon fodder, merely as points of support, as a gun rest, so to speak."

We fully endorse comrade Grant's assertion. First and foremost we defend the Syrian working class, its gains and rights. Part of that must include the defence of what remains of the state-run Syrian economy, in spite of the lack of any form of workers' democracy. We are not indifferent to whether the nationalised planned economy of Syria stands or finally falls. If it falls and is replaced by widespread privatisation it will be the workers of Syria who will suffer at the hands of the imperialists and their local stooges.

Having said this we make it clear that we have never given any political support to the Syrian bureaucracy. That bureaucracy carries within itself the danger of capitalist restoration. For the past ten years they have already been travelling down this road. The only long term guarantee against complet capitalist restoration lies in the overthrow of that bureaucracy with power passing into the hands of the workers.

Precisely because the aims of imperialism are to restore capitalism in Syria and destroy the social gains won by the workers, we would defend Syria from any imperialist attack. The fact that political oppression in Syria is greater than in any of the bourgeois democracies has nothing to do with our defence. We defend Cuba against imperialism although the bureaucracy has crushed the leftist opposition, including the "Trotskyists". Leon Trotsky defended the Soviet Union, in spite of the Stalinist bureaucracy, not because of it. He often stressed that without the social structure of the regime, i.e. the nationalised planned economy, the state apparatus of the USSR under Joseph Stalin's rule (and the methods it used) was in many ways similar to a fascist regime.

The small nationalist inclined sects turn against us by claiming that unlike Syria, Cuba is a healthy workers' state (and they also adopt the model of the former weak and deformed workers' state of South Yemen!). Thus they maintain that any defence provided to Syria should be different. The very basic truth is that these sects wish to cover their own nationalism with a red veneer. For this purpose they see the Syrian regime as not being “red” enough. It is easier for them to cosy up to the Islamists and guerrilla fighters by supporting Cuba which in their eyes has more acceptable “red” credentials. They refuse to recognise that fundamentally there are no major differences between the regimes in Cuba and Syria. Neither of them are socialist regimes. They are both based on the Stalinist model.

If you start from the basic postulate of Marxism that you can't build socialism in one country then it is easy to understand what we are affirming here. The fact that there has been no glorification of the Syrian regime by many leftists around the world (unlike Cuba) is a problem for the sects. But as Marxists we cannot base ourselves on impressionism. We have to look at the fundamental characteristics of each regime. The fact remains that in Syria the rules of the market economy did not apply for decades. There was a plan. That in itself was an enormous advantage for the workers. Just look at the state of the working class in Russia today, more than ten years after the fall of the old regime, with what it used to be before. The dismantling of the planned economy (however bureaucratic it may have been) has meant an absolute disaster for ordinary working people. Of course, there is also a small layer that has done rather well, but these are not the layers we are interested in.

The fact that the ruling party in Cuba calls itself "communist" and the ruling Syrian party calls itself "Ba'athist" has nothing to do with the nature of the two regimes. Although the general strike in Havana back in the 1950s played an important role in bringing Castro to power, the working class was not in the leadership of the revolution. It played a passive role. Power fell into the hands of the guerrilla leaders who created a regime modelled on that of China and the Soviet Union. The Syrian officers did the same.

Some groups on the left claim that Syria was a regime of State Capitalism. If we were to accept this then we would have to conclude that China, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, East Germany and others were also state capitalist regimes. For no matter how much one tries to base oneself on the superficial differences what determined our characterization of these regimes was the nature of the economy. There is a twisted logic in many of these ultra-left groups whereby they cannot understand that if State Capitalism existed for so many decades in these countries and was able to achieve the high levels of growth that we saw in the past, then capitalism can merely solve its own internal contradictions by shifting to another form of capitalism - i.e. State Capitalism - and no social revolution is needed. To go down this road means to fall into a trap and blind oneself before the real process that unfolded in these countries.

Let us, however, for arguments' sake, see what our position would be if Syria were a country where capitalism had been completely restored. Our position would fundamentally be no different. Of course there would be no nationalized economy, but we would defend the Syrian people against imperialist attack, as we defended the Iraqi people against the recent US-UK invasion of their country. This is because it would be an attempt by the imperialists to rob Syria of its economic resources. However, the nature of the Syrian economy is not yet capitalist. It is in a state of transition.

We must explain to the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab working classes that they will be the next victims if the plans of the imperialists in Syria are successful. If Syria were to be defeated in such an attack it would open up the road for the plunder of its economy, the total privatisation of its economy and the coming to power of a US-backed puppet regime. This would strengthen the hand of the right wing in Israel, which is already going ahead with plans to dismantle the welfare state in Israel and to privatise the state-run sector, all to the detriment of the working class. Therefore, considering all the above, it is the interests of the international working class to defend Syria despite the ruling bureaucratic regime. Marxist propaganda based on class interests is the only useful way of defending Syria. Simply denouncing Bush as nationalist and Sharon as butcher (which of course they are) will not bring the working class in the US and Israel to take to the streets. We must explain what vital interests are at stake here.

If a war were waged, then the Israeli army (the most powerful in the region) most likely would win. Syria's army has scarcely re-equipped since the 1970s. However, to occupy Syria would be a completely different matter altogether, as the US has discovered in Iraq .A new war would not be a mere repetition of the 1967 war: the whole world situation is very different today.

Therefore we have to say to our Syrian brothers and sisters, the workers and youth, that the best way of defending yourselves is by taking political power into your own hands. If you leave power in the hands of the present ruling bureaucratic elite you leave the road open to a completion of the capitalist counter-revolution both from within and from without. If you base yourselves on an internationalist programme that can offer a revolutionary perspective to the toilers of the entire region, including the Israeli working class, then you will be doing a service the workers of the whole of the Middle East. You would be showing them the way. A successful coming to power of the workers in Syria would lead to a genuine socialist regime in Syria which would extend the hand of friendship to the workers of all the countries. Such a scenario would mark the beginning of the end of all the reactionary regimes in the region, including that of Sharon.

The In Defense of Marxism circle in Israel calls on the Communist Party of Israel and its political front, Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, DFPE), to carry out its duty as a workers' party to warn the workers of the dangers involved in the situation. They can start this by taking the initiative in organizing anti-war committees in all the working class neighbourhoods, the factories, the offices, the schools and colleges. They should link the anti-war campaign to the problems at home. They should explain that while Sharon is warmongering he is also waging war on the Israeli workers. The two things are connected. In fact one of the main reasons why Sharon wishes to wage war on Syria is precisely to distract the attention of the Israeli workers away from their own domestic problems. This is the best way of “defending” Syria from imperialist attack and of stopping the dangerous escalation taking place today in the Middle East.

* Hands off Syria! Stop the Israeli-US aggression!
*Build anti-war committees in the workplaces and working class neighbourhoods!
* Mobilize the labour movement against Bush and Sharon!
* For a federated Israeli-Palestinian workers' state side by side with a Syrian workers' state within the framework of a socialist federation of the Middle East!
* Workers to power in Syria as the only way out of its isolation!