Syria: at which stage is the war?

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Even before they started, the so-called peace talks about the future of Syria have collapsed. UN special envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura, has called for a “pause” in the talks and a resumption on 25 February. Meanwhile the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have dealt a crushing blow to western-supported Jihadists in northern Aleppo. As the balance of forces shifts in the war, none of the parties on the ground have any reason to take serious steps in the talks.

While the US and European Union would like to see a speedy resolution to the conflict which is having a destabilising effect on both, the warring parties on the ground have no interests in leaving the battlefield as it is. Russia, Assad and their allies are making steady progress and the so-called moderate rebels, supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are losing  ground.

These traditional “allies” of the US now want the superpower to step in and save the forces they have been backing, but for the US these allies are becoming more of a liability than the supposed “enemy”. US imperialism is in its deepest crisis ever and has completely lost control of the situation in the Middle East. Having missed the opportunity to overthrow Assad its only hope of evading a new Iraq or Afghanistan is to save the regime in the medium term and to fight the reactionary trends it itself has unleashed.

Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei have suddenly become the “go to guys” in Syria, and the Americans must dance to their music. Meanwhile resentment has been building up in the US camp as Erdogan and King Salman sink deeper into their existential struggle.

Regime advancing

azaz-corridor-and-northern-aleppoThe entrance of Russia into the war completely changed the balance of forces on the ground. The Assad regime, which only a few months ago seemed to be on the verge of collapse, has been reinvigorated by Russian support.

Yesterday the army, supported by Iranian controlled militias, reached the Shia enclaves of Nubl and Zahraa, which had been isolated and partially besieged for three years. The regime had been attempting to achieve this for the last three years, but without any success. With Russian air support, it has now been achieved in just two days.

This was a major PR victory and a boost for the morale of the regime’s supporters who had been demoralised by the lack of effective government support for the numerous besieged enclaves of anti-islamist communities. The biggest gain, however, has been the cutting off of the Azaz corridor, which was the most important and second to last remaining logistical route linking the Jihadis to their masters in Turkey.

Today the advancing forces have continued north in tandem with Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been moving east from the neighbouring canton of Afrin. There are reports that the SDF had already reached the outskirts of Azaz. With the simultaneous onslaught of ISIS forces from the East, it seems the defence lines of the Islamist rebels in the corridor could collapse.

Further south, yesterday’s advance also opens up the possibility of besieging and taking those parts of the city of Aleppo where the rebels have been holding onto large areas for three years. A defeat for the rebels here would be significant if not decisive for the outcome of the war.

Syria Latakia Hama Idlib January 24 2016 3pmThis significant victory comes as the latest of a series of advances by regime forces. Besides Northern Aleppo, loyalist groups have been advancing against the Islamists on the fronts in in western Aleppo countryside where they have managed to cut the main supply lines into Aleppo city as well as in the southern Aleppo countryside where they have gradually been gaining for three months. In Latakia the regime has managed, over the past few weeks, to take the towns of Rabia and the strategically important town of Salma, leaving Kinsabba as the only major town left to be taken in the whole governorate.  If Kinsabba falls, the road will be cleared to the two key towns of the Idlib governorate of Jisr al-Shughur and further on to Idlib city itself. By launching offensives on rapidly switching fronts in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia, the rebels’ logistic and communications lines have been stretched to the extreme having to move reinforcements around constantly.

Meanwhile the southern rebels, who are supported by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the CIA have also seen a string of setbacks. After a series of highly publicised but abysmally failed offensives last year, they are showing significant signs of weakness in the face of slowly advancing regime forces. Beside several defeats in Daraa city they lost the strategically important city of Sheikh Miskeen about a week ago. The fall of Sheikh Miskeen, frees up forces to begin an offensive towards the town of Nawa. A step in that direction was the fall of Atman today. A defeat in Nawa would cut across rebel logistics and communications throughout the region and clear the path for taking the rest of Daraa city as well as the border crossing with Jordan.

It is also becoming clear that the southern rebels have lost the support of the Jordanian regime. Besides the lack of trust in the competency of the rebels, Jordan is in serious danger of destabilising under the weight of the 600,000 Syrian refugees. This could even lead to a deal with Assad to send some of the refugees back in return for an end of support for proxy groups.

The Syrian regime has also made some gains against ISIS, in particular in the Eastern Aleppo countryside. Although in the city of Deir Ezzor, it has been somewhat on the backfoot against the organisation for the past month.

The Russian intervention has in general managed to turn the situation around. The regime has strengthened its supply routes and consolidated its hold on strategic areas. This in turn has allowed it to gradually advance on the various fronts. Meanwhile all attempts at counter-attacks by western-backed Islamist groups have been repelled with relative ease.

Only one year ago the situation was completely different. After the sectarian decay of the initial revolutionary movement, Syrian public opinion swung behind the Assad regime which was seen by many Syrians as preferable to the barbaric alternative offered by the Islamists. In 2014 in the elections we saw an increased mass participation, notwithstanding their rigged nature. In spite of the support for the anti-islamist campaign, however, the army was not gaining significant ground.

The situation accelerated around one year ago when the army was routed from the whole governorate of Idlib, leaving behind a huge amount of arms, artillery and armoured vehicles. Shortly afterwards it lost the small town of Palmyra to advancing ISIS forces. The humiliating defeats, clearly the result of incompetency of the officer corps, accelerated the collapse of morale in the army and amongst regime supporters. In spite of having full domination of the skies, one of the world's largest tank fleets and a technically far superior army, the regime had not been able to push back the lightly armed Islamists.

Years of corruption, nepotism and the arrogance of a dictatorship has corroded the Syrian armed forces , particularly at the top. The incompetence of the officer staff, whose appointments were based more on kinship and connections than any kind of merit, meant that easy victories were lost and basic retreats turned into routs. On top of meagre wages and bad treatment, defections became endemic and draft dodging accelerated. The desperate attempts at hunting draft dodgers and punishing them only made matters worse.

Iranian and Hezbollah officers embedded in the army didn't help either as these come from mainly defensive armies with little combat experience in a setting such as the one in Syria. The Russian intervention, placing Russian tacticians at key positions in the chain of command, has transformed the army. Headless offensives with high levels of casualties have been replaced by patient and intelligent advances, and aimless barrel bombing of urban neighbourhoods has been replaced by close support on the ground and targeted bombings of key logistic routes and hubs. Morale has undoubtedly also been raised as a consequence

Albeit much more slowly than the Russians had probably expected, the regime has gradually regained most major strategical positions and is now beginning to seriously squeeze the rebels.

Finally, Russian high-tech military equipment has also barred any other power from intervening on a major scale without Russian permission. By moving a series of new jamming and radar systems as well as aerial defence systems - including the s-400 which is the most advanced system in the world - as well as a growing number of s-35 jets - which are unrivalled multipurpose jets - the Russians have de facto secured air supremacy over Syria something even the US military can’t change. Thus, any talk of US ground intervention and the creation of no-fly zones have had to be shelved.

Of course, this is still the same old Syrian army. Without a huge amount of airstrikes and the support of thousands of Iranian backed militiamen it would have a very hard time advancing against the rebels. In the north Aleppo offensive yesterday there were 200 airstrikes to secure the offensive in a very small area. Nevertheless, Russia has managed to fundamentally change the balance of forces. From the perspective of Russia, Assad and the Iranians there is no need to negotiate at this stage as they still have lots of momentum in order to squeeze the rebels. Any major ceasefire at this stage would only give more breathing space to the rebels and allow them to fortify new defensive positions and prepare a counteroffensive.

The “moderates” and the crisis of US imperialism

Meanwhile, the Russian intervention has dealt a severe blow for the the always elusive “moderate” rebels and their main backers in the west, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On every single front they are now under pressure and have not been able to gain any ground since October. At the same time a series of assassinations of their leaders have left them in disarray and infighting.

The cutting off of the Azaz corridor also closes an important trade route the rebels had set up with ISIS, supplying them with much needed cheap fuel for power generators which they are heavily reliant on. The price of food and fuel is now likely to spike throughout Idlib and Aleppo, leaving the rebels in a tight position.

There are almost 1500 militias within the non-ISIS opposition. However, in the past 2 years the two largest (Al Qaeda linked) groups, Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham have been elbowing out the largest of these to become the central groups in a series of unified fronts supported by the CIA, Turkish intelligence agencies and Saudi Arabia. The most successful of these projects was the Army of Conquest in northwestern Syria. This formation which was coordinated and organised by Turkish intelligence and funded by Saudi Arabia launched a hugely successful offensive in Idlib last spring .

This has, however, revealed the utter failure of US strategy in Syria. None of the groups supported by the US have any interest in seriously fighting ISIS with whom many of them are sympathetic. The main goal of the increasingly radicalised islamists is to overthrow the Assad regime. This is a perspective the US is increasingly at odds with because the removal of Assad, who is the key person holding the state apparatus together, would mean the collapse of the whole state and the overrunning of Syria by Islamic fanatics.

Every attempt of the US to create its own proxies to fight against ISIS has been combatted by the “moderate” allies as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. With the entrance of Russia onto the battlefield, the process of disintegration of the imperialist forces behind the insurgency accelerated.

On the one hand, Russia has effectively ruled out any chance of direct US attacks on Assad as well as the setting up of a no-fly zone to give Islamist rebels a safe haven in northern Syria. On the other hand, it has forced the US to step up its campaign against ISIS - a campaign which had been running at very low intensity since its inception - in order to secure the best possible negotiating position in relation to Russia and Assad who were advancing. In effect Russia has provided the US with a chance of getting out of Syria - albeit on Russia’s terms.

All of this, however, has only added to the crisis of US Middle East policy, as we have previously explained, itself a consequence of the overall crisis of US capitalism. While it has had to accept its weakness on the ground and lean increasingly on Iran to stabilise the region, its traditional allies - Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all faced with their own internal deep crises - have increasingly become the sources of this instability.

In Syria this has been most pronounced in the reluctance of the US to wholeheartedly back the Islamist rebels whom they fear they cannot control. Instead, it has been trying to drag the Gulf States and Turkey into the campaign against ISIS, something they refuse to do as it would only lead to a stronger Iran and also bolster the Assad regime. In fact for the past six months these regimes have hardly participated in the coalition bombings of ISIS. For Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular the outcome of the Syrian civil war will have a deep impact on the future of their regimes. Erdogan, who is staggering from one crisis to another, has made a major bet on establishing Turkish domination over Syria. However, not only is he up against mounting public opinion against the campaign, but significant sections of the army officer caste, who are already frustrated by his recklessness, have been opposing his expansionist ambitions. An out and out defeat in Syria could escalate the disintegration of his regime.

In Saudi Arabia also, the regime is in deep crisis. Under pressure from the rising power of Iran, the regime is also facing a deep internal crisis. The crisis of capitalism, and the slowdown in China bringing the oil prices to record lows, is putting a heavy strain on the regime and its network of patronage which keeps it in place. This is widening the already deep divisions within the ruling elite. At the same time, the regime is being stretched between mounting opposition from the youth, the poor and the oppressed Shia minority on the one side and the Wahhabi zealots on the other. The new king Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman - who seems to be the de facto ruler at the moment - are desperately lashing out in Syria and Yemen in order to try to stop this downward spiral. They thought they could bog down Russia like they did with the USSR in Afghanistan, but now they are the ones who are getting bogged down, and with little room for manoeuvre. Any admittance of defeat, which seems inevitable, could accelerate the crisis. However, holding on is just making things worse. The war in Syria, like in Yemen, could be the beginning of the end for the kingdom and the House of Saud.

Thus, while the US cannot afford to back its allies in Syria, they in turn cannot afford to give up on their investments in the Jihadist camp. The downing of the Russian jet  by Turkey was a desperate attempt to force the hand of the US and stop its detente with Russia and Iran. The result, however, was only to bring the divisions out into public display and accelerate the process. Thus, US backing of “moderate” rebels has been scaled down to the detriment of the troubled US allies.

The fact that rebels disrupted the talks at the UN is a reflection of these deep divisions. Having been cornered internally as well as on the battlefield, they have few bargaining chips left for negotiation. This could lead to a desperate escalation of the situation at a certain stage.

The Syrian Democratic Forces

In the meantime the strongest army in Syria was not even invited to the talks. The Syrian Democratic Forces, comprising up to 80,000 fighters, has been set up by the YPG, a Kurdish leftist militia and a sister organisation of the PKK. It is an irony of history and a testament to the crisis of US imperialism that its main de facto allies in the region are a leftist Kurdish militia whose sister organisation is on the US terror list, Hizbollah and the Iranian mullah regime.

In the early days of the revolutionary movement the regime had to withdraw from the Kurdish areas, thus leaving a power vacuum which was filled by the PYD - the political wing of the movement - and YPG which were the traditional organisations of the Kurds in Syria. Since then the YPG has grown to be one of the most powerful forces in the country.

This is mainly due to it being a popular militia based on a democratic and non-sectarian programme. With up to 80,000 troops it is only surpassed by the Assad army which is inferior to it in training, morale and motivation. With the setting up of the Democratic Syrian Congress it has de facto become a Kurdish statelet.

The PYD/YPG is undoubtedly the most progressive movement in the Middle East at the present time. However, it is being used by the US for wholly reactionary reasons. Seeing its options whittled away in Syria, US imperialism has found a useful model in the Kurdish “autonomous” government, allowing it to break up Syria into small statelets run by different militias and warlords which they can play off against each other to maintain control. This would be a situation like the one in Lebanon after the civil war. For the imperialists the slogan of self-determination for small nations is always a reactionary deception and a trap. For the present, they are obliged to make use of the Kurds to fight on their behalf. However, at a certain stage the imperialists will inevitably attempt to use this divide and rule tactic against the Kurds themselves. At the moment, however, the Kurds are the only forces willing to fight ISIS and therefore the imperialists are leaning on them.

Since the summer the result of this has been enormous gains in the Hassakah governorate where the Kurds have pushed ISIS out of all major towns and cut off their main supply lines into northern Iraq where Mosul lies. Furthermore they have moved south from the Kobani canton and taken the Tishrin dam some 30 miles from the city of Raqqa.

This was the first step in the preparations to take the area between the Euphrates river and the Kurdish Afrin canton in the west. Today a conference in Afrin prepared for the setting up of a new canton in the Shaba area between the Euphrates and Afrin. This would mean a Kurdish statelet covering the vast majority of the Turkish border with Syria. This idea would probably appeal to Assad and Russia as it would give them a buffer on the border with Turkey and thus hinder it from intervening in Syria.

For Turkey this is seen as a major threat, in particular in the effect it could have on Kurdish regions in Turkey itself. Here the rising class struggle has been closely connected to the Kurdish movement which in turn has also been greatly strengthened by the advances of the Kurds in Syria. Thus for Erdogan’s increasingly Bonapartist government the Kurds pose a major threat.

The shift in US policy towards the Kurds has deepened the divisions between Washington and Ankara. This has led to the ironic situation of a low-intensity war brewing between the US-supported SDF and the Saudi and Turkish supported Islamist proxies.

With the cutting off of the Azaz corridor, these tensions seem to be moving towards a full blown war between the proxies of these two NATO allies. Already there are reports of Kurdish forces moving west from Afrin under Russian air support and possibly even taking Azaz already today. This is preparing a complete collapse of rebel forces who are being squeezed from three sides. This would be a major blow to Turkey’s president Erdogan who is seeing all his intrigues in Syria fall apart.

This could lead to Turkey and Saudi Arabia escalating the situation and entering Syria - a move, however, which would most probably lead to another defeat and an unravelling of the pent up tensions inside these two countries.

Final stage

The Syrian civil war is moving into its final stages. The opposing camps are consolidating and the contradictions on every side are being brought to the fore. The Assad regime could not have survived without the support of Russia and Iran, but their common front is now advancing as the rebels are increasingly isolated. Whether Assad will stay in power or not is not the key question. Putin is not particularly attached to Assad the individual. he needs him for now to hold together the Syrian state apparatus. Putin is more interested in reestablishing Russia’s sphere of influence in Syria and its position on an international scale. At this stage, he realises that getting rid of Assad would lead to chaos in Syria. Thus, with no other alternative, Assad will remain in place - at least for now.

Meanwhile, the so-called “moderates” do not have anything to bargain with and thus there is no need for them to participate in any talks until they attain a better position.

Finally, there are the Kurds who have the second strongest force on the ground, but who have not even been invited to the talks. Without counting them in, there can not be any peace negotiations at this stage. As opposed what is often taken for granted, bourgeois diplomacy, in the final analysis, is the concrete expression of the balance of forces on the ground. While at times it can play an independent role, it is always limited by the boundaries set by the economic and military situation. Here it is the continuation of war by other means. However, as the war has not yet played itself out fully, there can be no meaningful talks. Thus the war will drag on a while yet before some kind of peace deal is reached.

This, however, will be a far different kind of equilibrium that Syria knew before the war. The Jihadist insurgency, even if it loses all its territory, will continue for years as regional powers will continue to use them to intervene inside Syria. The newly empowered warlords and tribal leaders, in particular in northern and central Syria, will play a similar role, while the Assad regime will crack internally. Years of instability, as experienced by Lebanon, will haunt the Syrian people.

The mass movement has been pushed very far back by these events. A whole generation is shell-shocked and there is no perspective of a new movement in the short term. The only salvation for Syria would be another revolutionary wave developing across the whole region.

Instability

What started out as a democratic revolutionary movement was hijacked by imperialist forces and their Islamist lackeys. The Syrian revolutionaries thought that they could merely repeat the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences, come out to the squares and wait for the regime to fall. When that failed they looked to the experience of the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and thus called for imperialist intervention to overthrow Assad.  Moving in this direction, however, only cut them off from the urban working class. There were still had some gains from the past remaining in terms of in living standards. And with what they had seen in Iraq and the rest of the region, they were not attracted by vague appeals for democracy and foreign intervention. They saw that the only ones who would benefit from the fall of Assad in the given conditions were the most barbaric Islamic fundamentalist outfits. For them the “liberal” programme of the so-called Syrian National Council and other groups - i.e. widespread privatisation and destruction of what still remained of the social gains of the past - merely represented an acceleration of the reactionary drift of the Assad regime.

Having stalled on the political front, the movement turned in the direction of the “armed struggle”, but in a revolution if this is not linked to the organised working class it can turn out to be fatal. In a solely military confrontation, without the full backing of the urban working class, the revolution will always be the weaker party. Having gone down this road, the movement became vulnerable and drifted into the control of foreign imperialist powers who could fund and organise the uprising. The CIA alone pumped $1 billion a year into the war and the Gulf States and Turkey followed through with much more .

The reactionary drift, in turn, strengthened Assad, as many swung behind him to fight against ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and the other monstrous creations of western imperialism and its allies. For them the intervention had a two-fold purpose: to cut through the Arab revolution at its weakest link and to dominate Syria in order to push back rising Iranian influence.

While the local regional powers thought they could finish the job quickly, they set off uncontrollable forces which only led to the exposure of their own internal weaknesses. For Turkey and Saudi Arabia the war is having profound internal consequences. The European Union who, led by France and the UK who have been pushing for increased intervention, has had to stick its tails between its legs as the disastrous refugee crisis threatens to undermine the foundations of the EU itself. One by one the European states are now falling in line and accepting that Assad must stay in power.

For US imperialism, the war has had disastrous consequences. The superpower has been left with very little room for manoeuvre. Stuck between its own crisis and those of its allies its limits have been publicly exposed. In Syria the Americans are forced to accept the status quo as they do not want to create another Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Thus they are forced to retreat. In order to save themselves, they are increasingly having to confront their allies to haul them back. But nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.  All the calls for US intervention will not change the fundamental fact that it is not in the interest of the US ruling class to do so.

The US wants to end the Syrian disaster as soon as possible. But the Russians are in no rush as they are slowly advancing every day. The US has been completely outmanoeuvred by the sanctions-ridden and primitive Iranian army, not to speak of the so-called “rust bucket” army of Russia, which the arrogant US generals did not take into consideration as a serious force. Instead, it is forced to rely on Russia’s mercy in Syria and Putin will exploit this to get the most out of the situation.

On a world scale the evident decline of US imperialism will open a period of instability as more and more regimes, allies or not, attempt to play a more independent role. Impressed by Russian firepower in Syria the west is scrambling to shore it up in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. China is also on the sidelines, waiting to enter at a certain stage. All of this will undoubtedly lead to greater tensions and conflicts between nations, but also revolutions and counter-revolutions just as the decline of British imperialism served to embolden revolutionary mass-movements throughout the world.

The crisis of capitalism asserts itself at all levels, economic, social and political, but also on the military and diplomatic levels which in turn feed back into the general situation. The Syrian civil war embodies this crisis at all levels. The contradictions of world capitalism are all concentrated within Syria’s borders. The Syrian situation poses very sharply the choice before humanity: Socialism or Barbarism.

However, although reaction is in the saddle in Syria at this moment in time, revolutionary undercurrents are being prepared throughout the whole region and beyond. The answer to the mess created in the Middle East by imperialist interventions lies in the hands of the workers of the region, in particular the powerful Egyptian, Turkish and Iranian working classes. A powerful movement by these workers would change the whole set up, and we had a taste of what could be back in 2011 in the movement that overthrew Mubarak, the 2009 movement in Iran and the huge protests in Turkey around the Gezi Park event.

Such movements will inevitably be repeated in the future. The key is to build the forces to lead these to their logical conclusion, the overthrow of this sick system and all the barbarism it entails.

4 February 2016

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