Syria: The struggle for the future of the Middle East

british forces syria
British forces in Syria

The declaration by Iraqi military forces of the liberation of Mosul, Iraq, from Islamic State (IS) forces on 9 July marks a major step in the defeat of the organisation’s once powerful caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The organisation now holds only 9% of the territory it held at its height in 2015. IS is not yet defeated, and the battle to remove it from the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor in Syria continues. However, as gains are made against IS, regional and imperialist actors are shifting their priorities to broader strategic questions. Syria, and the continuing war there, remains at the heart of a power struggle for influence across the region and beyond. The fight to retake important IS territory is central to the struggle between a weakening US imperialism, supported to different extents by other NATO powers, and the rising influence of Iran and Russia. This battle is being played out in a complex web of alliances and conflicts on the ground: from the fight for Kurdish autonomy, to a struggle between US and Iranian influence in south-east Syria, these conflicts look set to fragment the Syrian nation.

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No to imperialist war on Syria! RCG statement on US airstrike on Syrian airbase

On Thursday 6 April, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from US aircraft carriers and struck a Syrian airbase at Al Shayrat, near Homs, killing at least six people, and destroying six aircraft. This was the first openly acknowledged US military strike against the Syrian government in the course of the long war in Syria. Although the US and other imperialist powers, including Britain and France, have been funding and organising the insurgency against the Syrian government for years, this attack marks a dangerous escalation at a point when the Syrian government was beginning to win the war. This could drive further imperialist slaughter and barbarity in the Middle East and beyond. All progressives must oppose US airstrikes on Syria, and fight to build a real movement against imperialist war.

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Syria: the battle for Raqqa

UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein declared, on the sixth anniversary of the war in Syria, that it is ‘the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II’. Despite the government victory in Aleppo in December 2016, which marked a turning point in the war against imperialist-backed and jihadist groups in Syria, it is clear that the country will remain at the epicentre of a regional and global proxy war for a long time to come. The focus has now shifted to the struggle to retake the eastern city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group (IS), with hundreds of US troops openly building up within Syria’s borders, alongside Turkish, Russian, Syrian, and Kurdish forces – all with competing interests and alliances. The threat of wider war in the region has not receded.

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Syria: Government victory in Aleppo a major setback for NATO imperialists

Syrian army units

On 14 December 2016, in perhaps the most important battle of the war, the Syrian military and its allies won complete control of the major city of Aleppo from jihadist and imperialist-backed rebel groups. As well as a major victory for the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad against a waning insurgency, this was a victory for a whole constellation of powers – notably Russia and Iran – over the NATO imperialist powers and their allies. The changing role of Turkey has proved crucial as the focus of the war in Syria looks set to shift to the struggle between Turkey and Kurdish forces in the north and east. The Syrian government has entered 2017 in a position to begin mopping up the last pockets of rebels in western Syria, before turning its focus to rebuilding its devastated cities and infrastructure, and facing the Islamic State group (IS) threat. The legacy of the NATO imperialists’ attempts at regime change in Syria is hundreds of thousands of corpses, many more maimed and disabled, and a country taken back in time. As reconstruction contracts are handed out, it will be those that stood with Syria against NATO who will benefit and increase their regional influence. Toby Harbertson reports.

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Syria: will Russia and Trump end the war?

On 20 November 2016, outgoing US President Barack Obama admitted that he is ‘not optimistic about the short-term prospects in Syria’. US imperialism has grounds for pessimism. The Syrian military and their Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies continue to make gains against the imperialist-backed armed groups which have plagued Syria with six years of brutal war. The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutznetsov was deployed to the Mediterranean in mid-November, warning NATO off open intervention against the Syrian government. NATO plans for regime change have failed, and with the election of Donald Trump as US President, many commentators insist that a U-turn in US Syria policy is imminent. This may mean a shift in strategy, but US war in the Middle East will continue. However, the military power of Russia, and its growing influence in Syria and the Middle East, is a major challenge to US imperialism and its allies. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.

NATO out-manoeuvred

After a pause of nearly a month, on 15 November the Syrian air force resumed air strikes on eastern Aleppo. This area is largely controlled by the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh Al Sham - formerly Jabhat Al Nusra (JN), an Al Qaeda affiliate. Estimates of the number of civilians remaining in the area range from 30,000-250,000. The Syrian army maintains exit corridors but JN are laying mines to trap civilians in. This has provoked protests - 1,500 took to the streets on 17 November. Protests have been met with machine-gun fire and the executions of organisers (21st Century Wire, 19 November). Syrian forces are retaking key areas of Aleppo, in a bid to eject the insurgency from its last major urban stronghold outside of its eastern capital, Raqqa.

UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, accused JN of war crimes in its shelling of government-controlled areas of Aleppo (Guardian, 31 October). Accusations of Syrian and Russian war crimes in Aleppo however, fill the British media – especially the bombing of hospitals. Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson, Major General Konashenkov, explained that the US has refused to provide coordinates of medical facilities in eastern Aleppo. He continued: ‘If we count the number of “hospitals” and “mobile clinics” bombed in Syria over the last year, according to American and especially British sources, one might conclude there were nothing but “hospitals” in Syria’ (Russia Today, 18 November).

NATO is once again being out-manoeuvred by Russia in the international proxy-war in Syria. The Admiral Kutznetsov, the flagship of the Russian Navy, is now launching bombing raids over Syria. Peter Ford, the former British Ambassador to Syria, called its deployment ‘a quantum jump in Russia military capabilities’ in Syria (Russia Today, 15 November). This came at a time when US and British military figures were calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria, and proposing ‘cratering’ Syrian airfields. The Admiral Kutznetsov cannot be ‘cratered’ without an act of war on Russia. Warships and planes from Britain and other European nations were mobilized to escort the Admiral Kutznetsov through the North Sea and English Channel. Britain and others put pressure on the Spanish government forcing it to prevent the Russian fleet from refuelling in the Spanish-occupied enclave of Ceuta in North Africa.

Trump to lead a policy shift?

Amidst this increasing tension, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US election brought confusion, and speculation of a looming change in US foreign policy. Whilst Hillary Clinton fought the election with rhetoric about escalating the war on the Syrian government, Trump promised to focus the US intervention in Syria on destroying the jihadist Islamic State (IS), praising Presidents Assad and Putin. Trump has pledged to stop US support to armed groups in Syria, much of which has ended up supplying jihadists including IS and JN. De Mistura praised Trump’s priorities (BBC Hardtalk, 15 November). However, most US and European leaders and media have explicitly condemned Trump’s strategy. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who held similar opinions on Assad and Russia to Trump before he assumed his cabinet role - is due to visit Trump in the next few weeks to persuade him of the need to put Assad’s removal at the centre of his Syria policy (Sunday Telegraph, 12 November).

The initial indications suggest that any policy shift at the top will not give respite to the people of the Middle East. Trump’s new National Security Adviser – Mike Flynn – was the top US intelligence official in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He has argued for further US support for Turkey, whose soldiers are illegally in both Syria and Iraq. Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn explains that one member of Trump’s foreign policy team, John Bolton, has been ‘advocating a war with Iran since 2003’, and ‘proposes carving out a Sunni state in northern Iraq and eastern Syria … As a recipe for deepening the conflict in the region, it could scarcely be bettered.’ (18 November). Trump is reported to have plans to expand the US military. His unstinting support for Israel will force him towards protecting its regional interests.

Obama’s government, supported by its NATO and Middle-Eastern allies, will do all it can in its final weeks to tip the balance against Assad’s government and Russia. The assault on Mosul, an IS stronghold in Iraq, launched by Iraqi, Kurdish and US forces in late October, will drive thousands of IS militants into Syria. On 21 November, surface-to-air missiles reached rebels in Syria for the first time, suggesting that the US prohibition on such weaponry has been relaxed, or that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have now decided to ignore it (Middle East Eye). Trump will be taking his place at the heart of the world’s most powerful military machine, which is currently engaged in wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa, surrounded by a top team of proven imperialist warmongers. Only a struggle against imperialism can win peace in the Middle East.