Syria: covert intervention and the failure of the British left

Conflict in Syria has raged for 18 months. International and regional powers, whilst talking of ‘diplomatic solutions’ and ‘ceasefire’, continue to stoke an unpredictable fire which could engulf the entire Middle East. Competing warships manoeuvre in the eastern Mediterranean, signalling the scale of the interests involved. Different imperialist powers are sponsoring different interventions, while Russia and China continue to resist these attacks on Syrian sovereignty and their own strategic and economic interests. The scale of the human suffering increases and the capitalist media trumpet their fickle concern about massacres and refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that 234,368 people have fled Syria, fuelling calls for a ‘no-fly zone’. In this context, where does the British left stand? Where is the anti-war movement? Syria has seen the British left hopelessly divided. There is a need for an understanding of imperialism: the international threat it poses and how we are to challenge it. Toby Harbertson reports.

When considering Syria, the bottom line for imperialism, given the increasing capitalist crisis, is that it will not allow a politically independent country, which has not fully opened its borders to imperialist capital, and retains a strong military, to remain at the heart of the Middle East.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) has moved further rightward in its coverage of Syria. Alex Callinicos, prominent SWP ideologue, claims that ‘[t]hose in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy’. He understands the opposition on the ground to be genuine revolutionary forces, with a basis in the people and strong working class leadership. This analysis allows him to impose conditions on opposing imperialism. For the SWP, however – unlike the Syrian people – imperialism is not a major concern. Callinicos argues that chances of intervention by ‘troops’ or ‘even air cover’ are ‘remote’. No one knows how the war in Syria will play out, but to rule out overt military intervention is to ignore the severity of the crisis and competition which is driving the imperialist nations. Simon Assaf, who writes a large part of the Syria coverage in Socialist Worker, argues: ‘For the revolution to succeed there must be no Western intervention.’ This displays a complete refusal to acknowledge, despite all the facts, that there is already significant intervention by imperialism, and has been since before the first unrest.

Covert war

It is convenient for the SWP and others to identify ‘imperialism’ only with overt military intervention. This is a legacy of overt military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan where ‘imperialism’ was forced back into the SWP vocabulary and the only option was for the SWP to reduce its content. The resistance to these imperialist occupations, however, has led to a change in imperialist strategy, and covert intervention has been the preferred option since. Combinations of methods are used: funding and arming opposition groups, special forces, proxy armies, the creation of puppet governments. We have seen all of these strategies employed in Syria. US and British imperialism are keen to maintain this covert strategy, despite calls by French President Francois Hollande’s ‘socialist’ government for more direct intervention. The ground has been laid for this eventuality, with US President Obama invoking the threat from Syria’s chemical and biological weapons as a potential pretext for direct intervention. This would only be a last resort if the interests of respective imperialisms could no longer be maintained through covert war. France does not have the military power to intervene unilaterally, and direct intervention would rely on US military strength, as we saw with Libya. Hollande’s bellicose declarations are attempts to curry favour with opposition groups in Syria, to gain a larger share of the spoils following the hoped for regime change.

Covert intervention has taken two main forms: special forces on the ground, and what the US ruling class and their British counterparts have been calling ‘non-lethal assistance’. It was revealed in August that Obama had authorised ‘intelligence finding’ earlier in the year, allowing the CIA and other agencies to provide support for the rebels and Associated Press reported a ‘modest surge’ in the CIA presence in Southern Turkey in the last few months. The Sunday Times (19 August 2012) applauded the reality of British imperialism’s ‘non-lethal’ assistance. A British official told them that ‘the British authorities “know about and approve 100 per cent” of signals intelligence from their Cyprus bases being passed through Turkey to the rebel troops of the Free Syrian Army... the most valuable intelligence so far has been about the movements of troops loyal to President Assad towards the stricken second city of Aleppo.’ This information proved to be far from ‘non-lethal’: ‘The official said rebels ambushed troops and a column of more than 40 tanks in a valley near Saraqib, cut them off and destroyed many of them using repeat attacks with rocket-propelled grenades.’ It is clear that much of the capability and tenacity of the rebel forces is down to the assistance of imperialist powers.

A popular revolution?

So what of the Syrian ‘popular revolution’? Which bodies are leading it and what do they represent? The SWP insists that working class leadership remains strong, despite frequent reports of the rising influence of reactionary fundamentalist groups, with an agenda which will destroy the rights of cultural and religious minorities and the rights of women. What are the SWP’s criteria for supporting particular groups? Assaf, at the Marxism 2012 festival, explained: ‘I am 100% behind the Syrian revolution... I am very, very proud to be part of a tradition that in 1956 supported the Hungarian uprising, that in 1968 supported the Czech uprising, that supported Solidarity in the 1980s... that supported the Mujahedin that were fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, so part of the tradition that has as its starting point that you are with the oppressed.’ Such a statement of utter reaction comes as no surprise from this political tendency. In such a list, the absence of any real revolutionary forces – the Palestinian resistance, the Irish and South African liberation struggles – speaks volumes. Anti-communist and anti-Soviet positions dominate in the SWP. This party supported the sending of British troops to the North of Ireland in 1969. In the case of Syria, are the SWP supporting reactionary forces once again?

Popular resistance to the Ba’athist state no doubt exists and it is clear that some Syrian people were, and are, demonstrating against the repressive government. However, populist resistance is not identical to a progressive movement. The balance of forces internationally has meant that, as with many of the movements of the ‘Arab Spring’, imperialists have manoeuvred to dominate and control them, sponsoring reactionary elements which can be co-opted. Any popular uprising has been hijacked. In Syria, this process has accelerated in the last few months as earlier attempts such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacked structure and gave too much room for hostile and unreliable Salafist and Wahabist groups to challenge for influence. Imperialist powers are taking a greater role in setting up, vetting and funding bodies which they claim to represent the Syrian people – while representing the imperialists’ own interests.

French imperialism is calling for the opposition to declare a government in exile. Hollande guarantees that, ‘France will recognise the provisional government of the new Syria as soon as it’s formed.’ An agreement between France and Turkey has recently led to the declaration of a Syrian National Army (SNA) under recent defector Major General Muhammad Hussein Al Haj Ali. This is intended to supersede the FSA, which has failed to unite the 2,000-plus militias fighting the government (The Economist). A stricter structure, under more direct supervision of imperialist intelligence agencies, is intended.

British diplomat John Wilks explained how British and US imperialism are collaborating to ‘lay the foundations of democracy in a post-Assad Syria’. This involves vetting opposition activists in Southern Turkey, as an attempt to limit the increasing influence of fundamentalist groups over the fractured opposition, and to present a more credible alternative to the Syrian National Council (SNC), a group of exiles who struggled to have influence, and which has largely imploded. The process to develop a new government is not ‘about promoting political platforms in Syria’, Wilks assures us; instead ‘it’s about creating a patchwork of people who share common values’. These ‘common values’ are certainly lucrative business, with the US setting aside, ‘$25 million for political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad while Britain is granting £5m to the cause of overthrowing the regime’ (The Daily Telegraph).

The US and British ruling classes continue to make a show of refusing to provide arms to the opposition. But still the arms come. Bassma Kodmani, a spokesperson from the SNC, told France’s Europe 1 radio, that they continued to receive weapons from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and ‘maybe a little bit Libya’. Cryptically, she added that other countries were ‘providing money to the rebels so they could buy weapons on the black market.’ Bearing in mind the steady stream of revelations regarding imperialist aid for the ‘rebels’ in Libya, we can expect to find a lot more out about the use of this US and British money in future months. The Independent’s Robert Fisk, whose reporting on the ground in Syria has offered a welcome respite from the intervention cheer-leading of most of the capitalist media, asks why the UN observer mission withdrew on 19 August. Could it be ‘because the Western nations and Gulf sponsors do not want UN observers snooping into the amount of new and more lethal weaponry which they may be planning to send to the FSA’? It is these groups, the representatives of imperialism, keen to implement a reactionary, anti-working class agenda, that have become dominant in the opposition and, whilst imperialism continues to pour in money, weapons, and intelligence personnel, this is unlikely to change.

Counterfire and Stop the War have taken a formally correct position against intervention in Syria. Callinicos attacks Tariq Ali for presenting the intervention in Syria as part of a ‘re-colonisation’ of the Middle East. This, Callinicos argues, ‘implies that it is a long-standing Western priority to remove the Assad regime. But there is no evidence of this’. Whilst the Syrian government has at times cohered with the shifting agendas of competing imperialisms, we can point Callinicos to the 2001 memo from US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatening: ‘to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran’ (Sami Ramadani). The priority of the imperialists has been to replace Assad, whilst maintaining stability for Israel and their oil-rich Gulf allies. This does not fit into Callinicos’ analysis.

Callinicos and Assaf have implicitly come out on the side of their own ruling class, parroting the lines of the capitalist media, and cohering with the interests of British imperialism. ‘Support for the oppressed’ is manipulated into support for the City of London. This international political trend has been characterised by Mazda Majidi of the US Party for Socialism and Liberation as ‘cruise missile socialism’. Majidi refutes the argument that imperialist intervention played a progressive role in Libya and that revolutionary forces in Syria are calling for air strikes. Far from being in support of the oppressed, Callinicos and Assaf’s position is built on privilege and the suffering of the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

The repressive government of Assad and the Ba’athists was complicit with the suffering of the Palestinian people, supported the imperialist invasion of Iraq and participated in the US-led rendition programme – Syria has a bourgeois state. However, the government certainly has a strong social base, but whilst most of the Syrian population favour the current government over the plethora of acronym alternatives imperialism offers them, their political and economic needs are not being met. As thousands die and tens of thousands are made refugees, fleeing across the borders of colonialism into puppet states of imperialism, we must break from all this nonsense. Imperialism cannot play a progressive role in the Middle East.

Hands off Syria! Imperialism out of the Middle East!

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229 October/November 2012


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