As the Syrian revolution remains locked in civil war for a third year, regional powers have begun to use the conflict as an opportunity to advance their own imperialist agendas. Syria has become a battleground for a proxy war between Iran, Israel, and the Arab states of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Last week saw the renewed bombing of Syria by Israel, and on a scale not witnessed since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Unofficial Israeli sources claimed that the strikes on Damascus targeted Fateh-110 missiles sent by Iran en route to the Lebanese Shi’ite organisation, Hezbollah.
But this is merely the surfacing of a long-term trend as Iran and Israel have vied for geopolitical supremacy in the region. The Iranian government has for some time sought to build up Hezbollah – for its proximity to Israel – as a deterrent to any Israeli airstrikes on Iranian soil. The Assad regime has played a critical role in this process by housing Iranian resources and weaponry ready to be sent to Lebanon. Israel, of course, has long sought to extend its borders, notably in its conflicts with Syria over the Golan Heights. But as with any proxy war, this can only mean the suffering of the people living in the battle zone, namely the Syrian people.
Added to this toxic cocktail is the ascendancy of Islamic extremism, supported and funded by Saudi and Qatari authorities. Many jihadist organisations have gone into Syria and have made no attempt to hide their agenda of trying to divert the revolution to an Islamist cause. The most prominent of these groups is the Jabhat al-Nusra, who have links to al-Qaeda and have become entrenched within the rebel Free Syrian Army. Indeed, al-Nusra have become the leading tendency amongst the rank-and-file of the resistance movement, and one that the liberal, bourgeois leaders of the Syrian National Coalition – the supposed mandated representative body of the revolution – have tried to quash.
This Islamist element has attempted to fuel the sectarian edge of the conflict in order to replace the main aim of the revolution from one of political freedom to one of Sunni ascendancy over Shi’ites. Because the Assad family are Alawite, a sect of Shi’a Islam, and have traditionally protected and favoured Syrian Alawites in a majority Sunni country, the pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces of the war have increasingly tended to align approximately with the Shi’a and Sunni sections of the population, respectively. However, these sectarian lines have been made bolder by al-Nusra’s insistence that this is a religious war against an ‘untrue’ version of Islam, which, in turn, has rallied more Shi’ites to the cause of Assad to seek protection.
This sectarian divide also suits the purposes of other regional powers, especially Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran can use the conflict to mobilise Shi’ites across the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, and present itself as the protector of Shi’ism in an attempt to secure geopolitical supremacy. Already we have recently seen the Shi’ite government of Iraq banning 10 news channels from the country, including Al Jazeera, for ‘sectarian bias’. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s recent announcement that his organisation was now actively involving itself in Syria in order to protect Syrian Shi’ites is an extension of this phenomenon and one that reveals the extent of Iranian interference in the Syrian conflict. In response Saudi Arabia and Qatar have continued to fund militant Sunni organisations like al-Nusra. Therefore, what all these foreign influences have in common is that their aims are hostile to those of the Syrian revolutionaries.
But even if such groups are gaining ascendancy in Syria, it is through pragmatism rather than ideology. Of course, many Syrians are very devout and it would be foolish to deny the importance of religion in their lives. However, many Syrian rebels within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have become aligned with al-Nusra not out of religious inclination but because the Islamist organisation – thanks to the logistic and military support of their patrons – is much better organised and possesses a greater wealth of resources with which to tackle the pro-Assad forces. The commander of a rebel brigade in Hasaka told a New York Times reporter that al-Nusra “are the strongest military force in the area… We can’t deny it.” But he added, “Most of the youth who joined them did so to topple the regime, not because they wanted to join Al Qaeda.” While al-Nusra continues to gain control of government oil fields, the FSA itself it losing territory, which has been blamed on a shortage of weapons and resources. For example, one FSA member who joined al-Nusra told The Guardian, “If you join al-Nusra, there is always a gun for you but many of the FSA brigades can't even provide bullets for their fighters." Indeed, al-Nusra is apparently wealthy enough to support rebels’ families financially during the conflict. In a situation of war, can it be so difficult to see why al-Nusra is gaining support? At the same time, who else can Syrian Shi’ites turn to other than pro-Assad forces and Hezbollah for their survival?
Meanwhile, the West stands paralysed as to how to address the situation. European countries like the UK and France have promoted the liberal Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate government of Syria and have pushed for assistance to be provided to the FSA. The USA, perhaps more fearful of Islamist influence in the FSA, have been more reluctant but no less keen to control the situation, shown by its move to hold talks with Russia about what should be done concerning the conflict. What all this shows is that the Syrian National Coalition is largely influenced by Western powers, and would submit to their will and laws of capitalism should they come to power.
Therefore, the situation in Syria shows a clear lack of genuine revolutionary leadership. While what seems like the most of the world attempts to use the conflict to forward their own agenda, the Syrian people are paying the price. At this current time, a Marxist leadership would provide unfettered opportunities for liberation, not tied to regional or imperialist influences. It would also be the only leadership that could cut across sectarian lines of Sunni-Shi’a in demanding the equality of all, which is perhaps the only foreseeable avenue for peace in Syria. In the absence of such leadership, we can only expect the conflict to escalate, with perhaps even more active foreign interference.