Syria: Huge blow to NATO powers /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

The policy of the US, British and French imperialists towards Syria is getting increasingly desperate. On 8 May the Syrian army retook Homs, once known as the ‘capital of the revolution’, through a deal with opposition fighters. A few days later, Iranian officials declared victory for the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah – the ‘resistance axis’ – in an interview with the Guardian (11 May). President Bashar Assad will stand for re-election on 3 June. Three years since the beginning of the war, the Syrian state remains intact, and the imperialist-backed rebels are losing ground, or fighting amongst themselves. Strategically, this is a huge blow to the NATO powers and an important success for the ‘resistance axis’. A frantic increase of support for opposition groups has been the imperialist response. Toby Harbertson reports.

Army gains amid rebel chaos

Homs was returned to the Syrian army in the most recent in a series of negotiated ceasefires through which the government has consolidated control of western Syria, from Damascus, north along the Lebanese border, to Homs. Around 1,000 rebel fighters were allowed to leave Homs for rebel-controlled areas further north. Soldiers taken hostage were released by the rebels. Hundreds of civilians are now returning to Homs to rebuild their city and lives. This will be a difficult process as large areas have been destroyed and looted and building material prices have risen 400% in two years.

In response to this government victory, the Saudi-backed Islamic Front (IF) detonated explosives under Aleppo’s Carlton Hotel, which the army had been using as a base, killing at least 14 soldiers. Aleppo, in the north-west, Syria’s most populous city and key industrial centre is becoming the focus of the war. With support from nearby Turkey, much of the north is still controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups, significantly the jihadist Jabhat al Nusra (JN), Ahrar al Sham (a major group in the Islamic Front) and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Despite this, increasingly large parts of Aleppo are controlled by the government. On 3 May JN cut off the water supply to Aleppo. Parts of Aleppo are suffering desperately as we go to press, with the threat of water-borne diseases as people are forced to drink whatever water they can find.

Much of the oil-rich east of Syria is a battleground contested between brutal rebel factions. ISIS, known for its ultra-reactionary interpretation of Islam, was formally disowned by Al Qaeda in February 2014. JN remains Al Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria. Fighting between JN, IF, ISIS, and what remains of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) has become standard. In-fighting between JN and ISIS around Deir ez-Zor has recently displaced more than 60,000 civilians. ISIS is conscripting whole populations, forcing women and girls to marry their fighters and performing crucifixions (Daily Beast, 30 April, Al-Monitor, 14 May).

Imperialist response

The imperialist powers have created chaos in Syria with little return for their efforts. But they are not giving up in their quest to destroy the Syrian government – too much is at stake with Iran and Hezbollah strengthened and Russia directly challenging their interests. British imperialism hosted a meeting of the misnamed ‘Friends of Syria’ in London on 15 May. The previous day, the leader of the imperialist-backed Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, met with Barack Obama to ask for anti-aircraft missiles. The meeting agreed to massively increase support for ‘moderate’ rebels, with Saudi Arabia providing a key gateway. US Secretary of State John Kerry explained: ‘Every possible avenue [to support the rebels] will be pursued by one country or another’ (Guardian, 15 May).

US anti-tank missiles reached rebels in Syria in April. The US sold 15,000 of these missiles to Saudi Arabia in December 2013. Any transfer to a third party would have required US approval. Relations and military co-operation between the US and Saudi Arabia have improved in the last two months. Whilst Jarba pleaded for missiles, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel visited Saudi Arabia for talks with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in the first ‘US-GCC Strategic Defence Dialogue’. Key topics of discussion were Iran and Syria. Hagel reassured the oil-rich monarchies of the continued presence of 35,000 US troops in the region. Following this meeting, Hagel visited Jordan where 1,000 US personnel are co-ordinating the Syrian rebels ‘Southern Front’, and then Israel. It is no wonder that UN peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned on 14 May in frustration.

French ‘Socialists’ rabid for war

Even this murderous response is not enough for French imperialism. The French Socialist Party is eager for a replay of the 2011 NATO destruction of Libya. After meeting with Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of the US decision not to launch air-strikes in summer 2013, ‘We regret it because we feel that it would have changed lots of things’ Instead an agreement was made for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction, and the government has complied with this beyond all expectations. Fabius is not impressed however. He stated that the Syrian government has destroyed ‘only 92%’ of its chemical weapons, and that ‘some have been hidden’. Fabius claimed the Syrian government had used chlorine gas 14 times; whilst it is a banned weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria is not required to destroy it as part of the agreement. The remaining weapons began to be prepared for destruction on 21 May. The French ruling class will no doubt find other levers for war, in order to reassert its influence over the Middle East.

Human rights?

In a detailed report on 13 May, the US NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also accused the Syrian government of repeatedly using chlorine gas. HRW accuses the Syrian government based on interviews with ‘activists’ and Youtube videos, despite repeating throughout the report that it cannot independently verify or corroborate the information. HRW clearly has an agenda. An open letter was sent on 14 March to HRW from two Nobel peace prize laureates and over 100 academics. It claimed that ‘HRW’s close ties to the US government call into question its independence’, backing this up with a list of HRW employees who have entered their jobs from and/or left to, US government positions. It is clear that HRW acts as a lobby group for the US government.

Despite recent gains against the rebel groups, Syria faces serious challenges in the coming months. The NATO-GCC alliance is determined for these gains to be reversed. More support for rebels at the northern and southern borders may be enough to hold back the Syrian army’s advance. The chaos of heavily-armed jihadist groups which the imperialists have nurtured will be difficult to dismantle. With large parts of the country destroyed by three years of war, millions displaced and more than 150,000 dead, domestic and sectarian divisions have been fuelled, which will provide a cover for the imperialists for years to come. Punishing economic sanctions remain on Syria’s economy, and those of its major trading partners, Iran and Russia. With so many powerful enemies, rebuilding the country will not be easy.