Syria: British imperialism takes the centre stage

As the war in Syria continues, British Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear the central role British imperialism intends to play in managing the overthrow of the Syrian government, and in grooming the replacement. The stage has been set, with hundreds of British and US troops stationed on Syria’s borders, and a huge military build-up on the northern border with Turkey. Just hours after the election of the US president a marked escalation in the imperialist aggression towards Syria was evident. Following months of stalemate, with imperialist intervention limited to covert support, an opposition government was needed to be the public face of imperialist regime-change. Cue the Doha conference, a NATO-backed summit to forge artificial unity between opposition factions at all costs. Could the new National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition (NCRFSO) be the final vehicle for London, Washington and Paris to ride into Syria?

On 6 November British Prime Minister David Cameron took a break from selling military hardware to despotic Gulf monarchies to visit Syrian refugees in the Za’atri camp in Jordan. Assuring us of his concern for the refugees’ plight, Cameron signalled a new phase of imperialist aggression towards Syria: ‘Let’s be frank, what we’ve done over the last 18 months hasn’t been enough... now, with a newly-elected American president, we have got to do more to help this part of the world, to help Syria achieve transition.’ Cameron’s visit was a clear manoeuvre to assert Britain as a major player in the struggle for Syria. His visit, lodged firmly in a military context, was the first by any G20 leader, and coincided with an announcement of increased British aid to Syrian refugees to more than £50m, making Britain the second largest donor after the US. Where this money will go is yet to be seen.

Cameron’s visit coincided with the US presidential elections and the Doha conference in Qatar – an initiative spearheaded by Qatar, the US, Britain and France. For Cameron, the conference presented ‘an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition’. This has been key from the start of the conflict: constant power struggles and splits have left the opposition chaotic and fractured, with factions arguing among themselves for huge donations from imperialist and regional powers. After contorting through many forms and acronyms, NCRFSO has become the new opposition umbrella organisation which has been ‘shaped’ by NATO. It claims to represent more than 90% of the Syrian opposition. Influential groups within Syria, such as the National Co-ordinating Councils (NCC) have rubbished these claims. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: ‘We have recommended names and organisations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure’. Indeed one of the three leaders to emerge in NCRFSO, Riad Seif, is one of Washington’s main people in Syria, revealed by Wikileaks to have been meeting with US officials for decades. Now the imperialists can begin the process crucial to their regional aims – granting NCRFSO frozen Syrian assets, turning national embassies over to its people, giving it representation on international bodies, and, crucially, supplying more heavy weaponry without censure.

This shift to a more overt military strategy was declared by British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Doha conference, stating that the British government ‘has authorised diplomats to have direct contact with military figures on the ground’. Despite increasing international awareness of the war crimes committed by some rebel militias, and US concern over growing Islamist influence in dominant sections of the opposition, the British government was among the first NATO powers to call for the direct arming of these militias. Hague hosted a meeting in London on 16 November with the new coalition leadership and discussed options for supplying them with weapons. Previously, the transfer of arms had only been publicly admitted by the Gulf states and Turkey. However, Cameron explained how he was ‘frustrated’ by the EU arms embargo, calling for the text to be adjusted to allow arming the rebels for ‘self-defence’. Syria’s battlegrounds are already awash with foreign weapons: the Syrian army killing with Russian and Iranian products, and the rebels armed by more than three dozen countries including more than half of the membership of NATO.

On 20 November the British government recognised the NCRFSO as the ‘sole legitimate representative’ of the Syrian people. Labour Party shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander backed the government saying, ‘recognition is a vital step forward’.

Direct British intervention is being prepared on Syria’s borders. Several hundred US and British soldiers have been deployed north of Amman in Jordan, 35 miles from the Syrian border. British General Sir David Richards, the Chief of General Staff, stated that plans for British military intervention are being ‘continually brushed over’ whilst acknowledging that it would require a ‘huge effort’. In the north, Syria’s border with Turkey has seen a huge build-up of military strength. Israel has repeatedly fired on Syrian military positions from the occupied Golan Heights in response to a stray shell it acknowledged as ‘accidental’. All these forces hostile to President Assad’s government in Syria are waiting for decisions at the top.

London, Washington and Paris are situating themselves in dominant positions and shoring up their networks of influence in a future Syria. Many commentators and groups on the left in Britain now acknowledge this reality, but underplay the role of British imperialism, preferring to focus on the US. As we saw with the 2011 intervention in Libya, it is again Britain and France that have taken the lead to push for further military intervention. Encouraging the US to bring its military might to bear on the Middle East once again will be the task of the British and French ruling classes. For communists in Britain, it is essential to expose and oppose the role of British imperialism. We cannot let there be a repeat of 2011’s imperialist slaughter with no real domestic opposition.

Hands off Syria – we must take the message to the streets!

Toby Harbertson.

FRFI 230 December 2012/January 2013


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