Syria: Changing context

The 29 August House of Commons vote against committing British forces to an overt attack on Syria was greeted by claims that it signalled the end of imperialism; ‘Once the West set out to conquer the world. Those days have gone for ever’, Andreas Whittam Smith announced in The Independent on 10 September 2013. He argued that public opinion had stopped governments from launching another war. The Stop the War coalition platform speakers in Trafalgar Square on 31 August proclaimed the end of the special relationship with the US and beginning of an independent British foreign policy. The idea that imperialism has ended with a vote in Parliament and in accordance with the majority of public opinion is ridiculous. The British state is imperialist and imperialism sustains the existence of the British ruling class. Britain’s covert war against Syria will continue and, for as long as the US and British ruling classes consider their special relationship to be to their benefit, so it too will continue. However, Trevor Rayne argues, the disputes among the US and European ruling classes do signal that a change has taken place in the decade since the war on Iraq in 2003.

Public opinion polls in Britain, the US, France and other countries show considerable opposition to a missile attack on Syria, but that opposition is not organised or mobilised. What primarily forced the No vote in Britain’s Parliament were divisions in the ruling class. In the US, the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces opposed an attack on Syria. At the 5-6 September G20 summit in St Petersburg, US President Obama realised that his proposal to attack Syria had very little support. US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that countries supporting a US-led strike had reached double digits. The US government listed ten countries in support of the attack: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the UK (despite the House of Commons vote). The majority of the European Union countries were opposed to an attack. When the US and Britain led the invasion of Iraq in 2003 they had a ‘coalition of the willing’ consisting of 30 countries. Among those not supporting the proposed attack on Syria were Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, who the US might have expected to enlist. For diplomatic reasons Israel did not say whether it supported strikes; it has carried out its own attacks on Syria in the past year and the Israeli government wants the war in Syria to drag on, weakening both sides. Germany opposed any US attack and the German intelligence service said that it did not believe the claim that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in Damascus.

To reassure waverers and win a few more supporters to the US side, Kerry told a British press conference on 9 September that the strike proposed would be ‘a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort ? That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort’. The following day President Obama contradicted Kerry saying, ‘The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.’ US government policy was in disarray, confused and floundering without support. ‘Unbelievably small’ – but what if Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or anyone else strikes back, to paraphrase the US generals?

How far we have come from the delusions of the 2000 Project for a New American Century published by the clique surrounding George W Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, with its visions of the US military having ‘full spectrum dominance’ on the land, in the sea, in the air and in space. The US was to have no rivals, neither globally or in any region of the world. The US ruling class has not abandoned its intention to exercise global hegemony and ‘the US [still] intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: Syria first, then Iran’, (John Pilger, Counterpunch, 11 September 2013). However, despite its military superiority, the US is declining economically relative to other nations, and this is undermining its ability to assert its power and to wage war. The US’s failure to assert favourable outcomes for itself in Afghanistan and Iraq undermines the perception of US power and influence.

Russia and Germany

Russia has remained defiant against any US-led attack on Syria. It views Syria and Iran as strategic allies in the Middle East and fears that any success for jihadist organisations in Syria will have serious repercussions in Russia’s southern Islamic republics and hence for the Russian state. With the prospect of the Obama administration losing a vote on the proposed attack in the US House of Representatives and Senate, a vote timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 11 September 2011 attacks on the US, Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov exploited the weaknesses of US policy to isolate US bellicosity. They proposed an agreement on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical weapons’ producing capacity as a means of forestalling an overt attack on Syria. It was noticeable that the former socialist countries, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic etc, (Rumsfeld’s ‘New Europe’), who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, were opposed to an attack on Syria.

During the 1984-85 British miners’ strike the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial linking Arthur Scargill and the miners to Soviet plans to transport oil and gas to western Europe; the journal warned of a threat to US hegemony over western Europe. In 2003 German Chancellor Schroeder, along with French President Chirac, opposed the invasion of Iraq. In 2005 the now former Chancellor Schroeder joined the directorate of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and then headed its Nord Stream System, completed in 2011, bringing Russian gas through the Baltic Sea region to western Europe. During Putin’s November 2010 visit to Berlin, German Chancellor Merkel said that Germany wants Russia to be ‘a major supplier of natural resources ? Europe and Russia are strategic partners whose potential for co-operation is far from exhausted.’

Germany is now Russia’s second most important trading partner after China, and Russia is the largest exporter of oil and gas to the European Union (EU), supplying about one third of EU oil and 40% of its natural gas. The national shares of Russian natural gas supplies range from 100% of consumption in Finland, 76% in Greece, 49% in Austria, 38% in Germany, 14% in France to 0% in the UK. There are US plans to build gas pipelines across Syria from Qatar and Saudi Arabia that would reduce European dependence on Russian gas supplies (see FRFI 233 June/July 2013).

Whatever the significance of the relationship between Russia and Germany, as yet neither Russia nor the EU is prepared to challenge the US for a globally dominant role. The US spends $682bn a year on the military, followed by China with $166bn, Russia $90.7bn then the UK with $60.8bn. Germany is the world’s ninth biggest military spender with $45.8bn. As a proportion of their Gross Domestic Products the US spends 4.4% on the military, the EU 1.6%, Germany 1.3% and Britain 2.6%. However, in recent years, Germany has overtaken Britain to become the world’s third biggest arms exporter, and in 2013 its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries are expected to exceed the almost $2bn reached in 2012. Arms exports are a potential platform for building up the domestic arms industry.

Russia’s intervention in Syria makes the Syrian government dependent on Russia and Russia’s power and credibility internationally are now tied to the fate of the Syrian state.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013


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