Russian intervention wrong-foots NATO campaign against Syria

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Russia bombs Syria

On 30 September Russian planes began airstrikes on the Islamic State group (IS) and other armed groups in north and east Syria. A NATO-led coalition of twelve international powers, including the US, Britain, and the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC), are already bombing Syria, with IS also the stated target. Unlike the NATO-GCC coalition, Russia began airstrikes at the request of the Syrian government. The reaction from the British and US leaders and press has been one of hysteria and hypocrisy. The US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, claimed that Russia's strategy was 'doomed to failure'. Unlike the NATO-GCC coalition however, Russia does have a clear strategy – to support and defend the Syrian government to win back territory from an array of hostile groups. This is in direct opposition to the NATO-GCC coalition’s real objective – to destroy the government of President Bashar Assad. In launching military intervention in Syria, Russia has sent a defiant signal to the NATO imperialists that they can no longer get away with their international reign of terror without resistance. Russia sees Syria as in its sphere of influence and has significant interests in the Assad government remaining in power. Russia,  a weak nuclear-armed imperialist power, is demonstrating that it will defend its own strategic interests with the significant military power it has available. The threat of even larger wars looms on the horizon.

Only hours after the upper house of the Russian Parliament had given President Vladimir Putin the authority to launch military action outside its borders, Russian airstrikes on targets in Syria began. These strikes have been concentrated closer to the frontline between the Syrian army and 'rebel' groups than US-led strikes. They have sought to provide air cover for a counterattack by the Syrian army to regain territory from these 'rebel' groups, many of them supported, funded and armed by the NATO-GCC coalition. The Syrian army plan to launch an offensive to retake the historic city of Palmyra – where the destruction of ancient artefacts by IS has made international headlines. The NATO imperialists have made much of the fact that Russia is bombing other groups alongside IS. Russia has maintained that it is bombing IS and other terrorist groups. It is committed to defending the Syrian state, and will destroy its enemies, whether NATO like to call them 'moderate' groups and supply them with arms or not. Russia's objective in strengthening the state is an end to the war and instability – with their ally remaining in power. In contrast to this, the NATO imperialists have been arming and supporting forces opposed to the Syrian government, and continue to insist that President Assad must step down. Their allies in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been directly supporting IS. The NATO strategy is one which will create instability across the region and lead to the expansion of groups like IS.

The Russian decision to intervene came at a time when the NATO campaign against the Syrian government was advancing, and sends a clear signal that Russia is not willing to let the imperialists do to Syria what they did to Libya in 2011. Russian diplomatic negotiations with the US had not achieved anything. The Syrian army, after four years of hard fighting and up to 130,000 troops and militiamen dead, was stretched. Russian diplomatic negotiations with the US had concluded without agreement. In late July, Turkey had finally agreed for US planes to use the Incirlik base in the south of the country. Plans for a no-fly zone were advancing with the Financial Times reporting that US officials were close to declaring a such zones in both northern and southern Syria based on plans drawn up by Turkey and Jordan (4 October). Russia’s military put a stop to this. In the days before the Russian airstrikes began, they concentrated more than 30 fighter planes – including six SU34’s designed for air-to-air combat - along with tanks, and anti-aircraft guns at its base at Tartus, Latakia province, in the heartland of support for Syria’s Ba'athist government. Russia's intervention was accompanied by an escalation of military support from Iran. On 7 October, Russia launched cruise missile strikes on IS in Syria, from warships in the Caspian Sea. The missiles had to travel over Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Russian intervention in Syria is a major blow to the NATO-GCC campaign against the country. They have responded with a ridiculous and hypocritical media offensive. Suddenly the NATO imperialist leaders and their press are terribly concerned about the casualties of airstrikes and the refugees which airstrikes cause. The BBC carried live coverage of the Russian strikes and their casualties live. Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and anti-war activist, pointed out that the bombing of the Libyan city of Sirte in 2011 was 500 times more intense than Russia's airstrikes, but was not covered by one BBC report at the time (craigmurray.org.uk, 1 October). British newspapers have been filled with reports of casualties from Russian strikes and pictures of dead and injured children. None have mentioned the up to 1,704 civilians killed by the US-led intervention against IS (airwars.org). Putin explained that, ‘the first reports about civilian casualties emerged even before our planes got in the air’. The BBC website even dared publish an article with the headline: 'Russia's media offensive on Syria war', without a hint of irony.

David Cameron told the BBC's 'Andrew Marr Show', on Sunday 7 October, that Russia is 'backing the butcher Assad, which is a terrible mistake for them and for the world'. He continued: 'It’s going to make the region more unstable, which will lead to further radicalisation and increased terrorism.' Such hypocrisy is utterly beyond parody. Britain has made at least 49 military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa since 1945, and has been central to developing the chaos, instability, and radicalisation which exists across the region today. Cameron is now eager for Britain to join the US-led coalition in bombing Syria, and is considering putting the question to parliament when he is sure of securing enough support from Labour MPs. He attempted to get the British military to bomb the Syrian government in 2013, but was stopped by parliament. He led the push for Britain to get involved in bombing IS in Iraq, which it continues to this day. His concern about radicalisation and instability is a pathetic cover for his concern that Russian intervention will strengthen Russia's regional role, extend its sphere of influence, and put a stop to the NATO campaign to destroy the Syrian state.

With Russia now engaged militarily in Syria, fighting in the same war as the US and its allies – ostensibly on the same side, but actually on opposing sides – the stakes for the powers involved in the war have significantly increased. Russia gave the US one hour of notice before launching its strikes. There have already been accusations of Russian planes entering Turkish airspace, and standoffs between Russian and coalition planes. NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, told a conference on 8 October that NATO was ready to defend Turkey against violations of its airspace. Discussions are planned for Russia to coordinate its strikes with Israel, and the US-led coalition, in order to reduce the chances of an unpredictable clash. Currently, the imperialists are paralysed by the Russian move, but there will be a response. As the demonisation campaign continues, we can expect to hear a lot more about the casualties of Russian bombs, and very little about other casualties of this hugely destructive war. Our task is to build a movement against our own warmongering demons in Whitehall.