Syria: Imperialists on the back foot

In the imperialist countries media attention has shifted from Syria to the confrontation between US-European imperialism and Russia in Ukraine. Until recently, Syria was the primary arena for these same economic and strategic rivalries. The fall of the village of Yabroud marked a major advance for the Syrian army in winning back the country from the chaos and reaction of warring jihadist groups and other imperialist-backed bandits. The confused strategy of the imperialists and their clients in Syria has proved unable to deal a fatal blow to the Syrian government. Now, the major belligerents are shifting their strategy. Toby Harbertson reports.

Syria divided

Yabroud fell to the Syrian army and Hezbollah on 16 March 2014. It had been a key stronghold of rebel forces, allowing weapon smuggling from Lebanon to Damascus. Rebels still fighting around Damascus are now isolated, and the government is consolidating its control over the Lebanese border and the roads to Homs. Yabroud was controlled by the jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) and was the base from which many sectarian attacks against Lebanon were launched.

This victory shows the momentum of the Syrian army amid internecine warfare between foreign sponsored armed groups, many of them jihadist. JN and other rebel groups still control parts of north west Syria around Aleppo. Turkish support is vital for the rebels in the north. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) holds the central city of Raqqa where reaction rules and minorities face increasing repression. At least 3,000 rebel fighters are estimated to have been killed in the war raging between these two rebel blocs, leaving many recruits disillusioned. The Kurdish PYG controls two cantons in the north east which make up Rojava, where they continue to build a liberated enclave in the midst of barbarity. Elsewhere, the Syrian army is extending its control.

Gulf power struggle

After more than three years of continued action to bring down the Syrian government, the imperialists and their regional clients in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) have no regime change to show for the billions they have spent. A power struggle has opened in the GCC between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ostensibly about alliances and policy choices, it is really a manoeuvre by Saudi Arabia to declare itself the undisputed vehicle for NATO policy in the region.

Qatar has openly supported most rebel groups inside Syria, without misgivings about their behaviour. Its main partner in the Syrian opposition has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar also supports in Egypt. Saudi Arabia, along with the major imperialists, supports Egypt’s coup government which removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have removed their ambassadors from Qatar and threatened further action over Qatar’s continued alliance. Despite being linked with supplying and supporting the most brutal and reactionary groups in Syria for years, Saudi Arabia has listed the MB, JN and ISIS as terrorist organisations. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian intelligence chief, has been replaced as director of Syria policy after criticism from US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Saudi Arabia is repairing relations with the major imperialist powers, after several years of strained relations over Syria and Iran. The country is indispensable for the US and Britain. US President Obama is in Saudi Arabia as we go to press. British Prince Charles visited in February – coinciding with the conclusion of a deal for the Saudi government to buy 72 Eurofighter jets from British arms manufacturer BAE systems. They will now enter negotiations for another 72.

Shifting strategy

The new strategy is a concerted effort to support and organise more media-friendly rebel groups in the south of Syria, operating around the Jordanian border. The area has become the strategic crux to combat the government and Hezbollah consolidation around Damascus, and to bring Jordan and Israel into a more central and united role. Following the conclusion of the Geneva II peace talks, imperialist intelligence officials have been central to this strategy, directing the formation of the ‘Southern Front’ from their ‘Joint International Operations Room’ in Jordan’s capital, Amman. It has been reported that this centre, staffed by US, European, and Gulf intelligence personnel, came close to ordering Israeli airstrikes in southern Syria, when JN threatened to overrun chemical weapons storage sites (The National, 5 March). Israel has repeatedly bombed Syria, including striking Syrian army positions on 19 March, killing one soldier. They are serving the interests of the imperialists, and acting as air support for the rebels. Despite the presence of JN on the Israel-Syria border, Israel prefers these jihadist forces to Assad’s government, Hezbollah and Iran. Israel’s ex-US ambassador, Michael Oren, explained to the Jerusalem Post (17 September 2013): ‘we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran’ – even if the ‘bad guys’ are backed by Al Qaeda. According to Israeli intelligence website DEBKAfile, the Israeli military plans to create ‘buffer zones’ in southern Syria, which will be handed over to their choice of rebel groups.

Amidst its own political crisis, Turkey is increasing its domestically unpopular destabilisation attempts in northern Syria. On 23 March the military shot down a Syrian fighter jet, claiming it violated their airspace. This provided assistance to the jihadist rebel groups which control the area. Then on 27 March audio recordings were leaked of Turkish ministers discussing open intervention in northern Syria, to defend the tomb of Suleyman Shah – seen as Turkish territory within Syria – from ISIS. This would go some way to establishing northern ‘buffer zones’, with the justification of fighting the same rebels which Turkish policy is supporting. In the recordings, the Turkish Foreign Minister states: ‘justification can be created. The matter is to create the will’. These ‘buffer zone’ plans are the kind of measure needed to reverse the Syrian government’s gains.

The inability of the US and its allies to achieve their aims in Syria (and beyond) has led to savage criticisms from within the US ruling class. Senator John McCain, infamous for his photos with jihadist leaders in Syria and fascist leaders in Ukraine, blamed Obama’s ‘feckless’ foreign policy in relation to Syria for the confrontation over Crimea. Russia has refused to back down in both cases. The geopolitical stakes which turned Syria into a bloodbath remain. Before the imperialists targeted Russia’s key naval base in Crimea, it was Russia’s naval base at Tartous, Syria which was a focus of conflict. Syria, like Ukraine, is home to major gas pipelines transporting Russian gas.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014