Syria: Going backwards in time

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

According to the UN Development Programme, Syria has lost 35 years of human development in just two years. Natalie Roberts, from Médecins Sans Frontières, explains that Syria’s health care system is ‘going backwards in time, at a rate of a decade a month’. The increasing influence of jihadist groups in the war in Syria, has led to continued fighting between opposition groups and sustained fighting has spread to Lebanon and Iraq. This was the context for the Geneva II conference at the end of January 2013. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.

Geneva II

The conference, far from the reality on the ground, provided a stage for an international propaganda war. The Syrian government is negotiating with representatives of the opposition who in fact represent nothing but the interests of their international backers. The rebel groups who have influence on the ground never had any intention of attending the talks. The war for Syria continues as its once modern infrastructure is increasingly destroyed. The imperialist powers, who will not give up their war on the Syrian government, are centrally responsible for one of the worst modern humanitarian catastrophes.

Geneva II coincided with the 2014 World Economic Forum at Davos, also in Switzerland. The ruling classes of the imperialist nations, including 900 company and banking CEOs, had gathered to discuss ‘The Reshaping of the World’. It is the interests of this global financial and political elite which are being served in Geneva. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon must have found the short journey from one meeting to the other, especially convenient.

On 24 January representatives of the Syrian government met in the same room as members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) for the first time. Iran was invited to the talks by Ban Ki Moon on 19 January, but this invitation was withdrawn the next day following pressure from Saudi Arabia, France and the US. The US and Britain had made future support for the SNC provisional on its attendance at Geneva II. The Syrian government entered talks with the understanding that President Assad’s position was not up for negotiation, and arguing, alongside Russia, that their purpose was fighting terrorism. The SNC, backed by the US, Britain and France, insisted that the removal of Assad from power was a necessary precondition for negotiations. This deadlocked conference could not even achieve much-needed local ceasefires and aid deliveries. UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi explained: ‘We never expected a miracle.’

Qatar accuses Syria of war crimes

Just as Geneva II was about to begin, the Qatari government, one of the most active enemies of the Syrian government, revealed a dossier of evidence accusing Syria of systematic war crimes. The 55,000 photos are purported to show 11,000 people tortured and murdered by the Syrian government. The report, commissioned by Qatar and carried out by a British law firm, drew comparisons with Nazi death camps. The photographer was recognised in the report to be a supporter of the Syrian opposition, and has remained anonymous, with the code name ‘Caesar’. It is far too early to say how credible these reports are. In the four months since the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, which came close to triggering open imperialist intervention in Syria, many doubts have been raised about the evidence which was used to point the blame at the Syrian government, in particular Seymour Hersh’s myth-busting article ‘Whose Sarin?’ in the London Review of Books on 19 December 2013. Irrespective of the truth behind the claims by Qatar, the release of the report has clearly been used to undermine the Syrian government in the Geneva II talks, and shift credibility to the irrelevant opposition delegation.

The state of the opposition

The state of the opposition forces in Syria is increasingly difficult for their international supporters to justify. The last few months have seen sustained serious fighting between groups in the north. The US and Britain were forced to cut off their ‘non-lethal’ support to the Syrian Military Council of the Free Syrian Army on 6 December when their headquarters and warehouses were taken by Jabhat Al Nusra (JN), and then the Islamic Front (IF). JN is a major jihadist group, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US. IF is a coalition which includes Ahrar Al Sham, in which a leading member, Abu Khaled Al Suri, has been designated by Al Qaeda head Ayman Al Zawahiri as ‘regional emir’ according to the Daily Beast (9 January). A CIA spokesperson refused to comment on whether US weapons were in the seized warehouses.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Al Qaeda

Many rebel groups have joined together to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a strong Al Qaeda linked group in Syria. However, these alliances and rivalries are more pragmatic than ideological. Most groups continue to fight alongside JN. Others are attempting to win imperialist support by being seen to be fighting ‘terrorism’ in Syria. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front was formed in December 2013, with major backing from Saudi Arabia, in order to differentiate itself from the increasingly jihadist opposition. At Geneva II, the SNC also attempted to use this strategy. Referring to the Syrian government’s stance on fighting terrorism in Syria, Oubai Shahbandar, an opposition adviser explained to the BBC, ‘We want to use Geneva to turn the tables and show the world that we are the solution to fighting Al Qaeda.’ (13 January).

With a perceived distinction being drawn by media and governments between ISIS (‘bad’ jihadists) and the rest (‘good’ jihadists) some imperialist political and military figures are suggesting more of a direct alliance with the IF. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan is also pushing for the US to openly support the IF. On 9 January the New York Times reported: ‘The Obama administration is considering the resumption of non-lethal military aid to Syria’s moderate opposition, senior administration officials said on Thursday, even if some of it ends up going to the Islamist groups that are allied with the moderates.’ This aid was resumed on 27 January, undermining the ongoing talks at Geneva.

Reactionary social policies continue to be implemented in areas which are under control of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadists. All-male courts have been set up in many rebel controlled areas, and restrictions on women’s dress, work, and behaviour have been implemented. Non-compliance has been punished with restrictions on freedom of movement, including the prohibition of buying bread. Access to education and sexual health care has been severely limited. The Syrian constitution protects equality for women, and in government held areas religious and cultural freedoms are maintained. Even US NGO Human Rights Watch are speaking out against the reaction in rebel-held Syria: ‘Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra are undermining the freedoms that Syria’s women and girls enjoyed, which were a long time strength of Syrian society’, (Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch).

The actions of the imperialists and their Gulf allies in their attempts to reshape the Middle East, have led to the threatened breakdown of states and borders across the region. The conditions which have led to the rising strength of jihadist groups operating in Syria and Iraq, and significantly threatening Lebanon were created by invasion, economic warfare, and the huge-scale transfer of weapons and money into the hands of warlords and militants. How imperialist and regional powers will respond to this developing situation is yet to be seen. For them ‘terrorists’ are allies to be tacitly supported, or an enemy to be destroyed, justifying direct military intervention, depending on immediate political and economic interests. Closer security co-operation between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran is likely to continue to develop, in the face of a shared threat. Syria will continue to go backwards in time until the imperialists and their proxies leave or are driven out.