100 years on from Sykes-Picot imperialists push to divide Syria

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19 May 2016 marks 100 years since the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement, when British and French diplomats carved up the Middle East, laying the basis for a century of regional oppression and war. March 2016 marked five years of brutal war in Syria, with the NATO imperialist powers, and their regional allies, fuelling and funding insurgents to overthrow the government of Bashar Assad. They have created one of the most destructive wars in decades, which has sent millions of refugees fleeing the country. NATO’s campaign has disastrously failed. Brutal jihadists including the Islamic State group (IS) and the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) have dominated the opposition. The Syrian state is still standing with support from Russia and regional allies. Major Syrian victories against the opposition are mounting, with the crucial liberation of Palmyra at the end of March. In recognition of this reality, the major imperialists talk once again of redrawing borders, this time the division of Syria along sectarian lines. Toby Harbertson reports.

Palmyra retaken

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of the majority of Russian military forces from Syria on 14 March. Since intervening in Syria on 30 September 2015 on request from the Syrian government, the Russian military has succeeded in tipping the balance of the war against the imperialist-backed rebels. Russia has provided airstrikes to support ground offensives carried out by the Syrian army – with Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – which have cut off the supply lines of rebels operating from Turkey, and recaptured much of Aleppo province. On 25 March, the Syrian army re-entered the important central city of Palmyra – which dominated headlines in May 2015 when IS occupied the city and began to destroy the city’s unique archaeology. The liberation of Palmyra, with the support of Russian airstrikes, marks the biggest defeat for IS forces since Kurdish forces defeated them at Kobane. The US launched just two airstrikes against IS in the battle for Palmyra, demonstrating its reluctance to fight IS when it might lead to Syrian government gains.

The failure of the NATO regime change strategy in Syria has led to moves to end six years of fighting. Russia’s intervention led to the NATO powers seriously supporting ceasefire negotiations for the first time. A ceasefire began on 27 February, which has largely held for a month at the time of writing. IS, JN, Ahrar Al Sham, and other groups which the UN lists as terrorist organisations, are excluded from the ceasefire. The NATO imperialists have continually accused Russia of bombing so-called ‘moderate rebels’ under the guise of bombing IS or JN. However, clear boundaries between these groups and other armed ‘rebel’ groups do not really exist. One of the major rebel groups – the Saudi-backed Jaish Al Islam (JI) – describe JN as their ‘brothers’ whom they ‘fight alongside’. JI is known for parading caged civilians through war zones, and using them as human shields (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). Alwiyat Al Furqan – one of the largest factions of the fragmented Free Syrian Army (FSA) active in the south of Syria, declared that it would ‘not accept a truce that excludes Jabhat Al Nusra’. NATO has been arming, training and funding rebels without concern for the acronyms they fight under, and Russian bombs have been routing them.

Russia’s intervention came as Turkey planned to establish ‘buffer zones’ in northern Syria – meaning invasion and occupation. It was a declaration that Russia would not accept the campaign by the NATO imperialists, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey and Israel, to destroy the Syrian government. It was a demonstration of Russia’s willingness to use its substantial military power to defend its interests. Its withdrawal was timed to ensure that Russia did not get dragged into a quagmire like the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it battled imperialist-backed jihadists – the precursors of today’s IS and Al Qaeda – at huge cost. An expanded long-term Russian military presence remains in Syria, with 1,000 military personnel between a new airbase at Khmeimim, and the Tartus naval base. The formidable S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system will remain, preventing Turkish jets from intervening in northern Syria. Putin made clear that the withdrawal is reversible: ‘If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing’ (17 March). The withdrawal was timed to coincide with the beginning of a new round of peace talks in Geneva. Syria and Russia enter the talks in a strong position.

Dismantling Syria?

The Sykes-Picot agreement drew borders to demarcate the spheres of influence of major world powers, with little regard for the people of the region. Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague (now Lord Hague of Richmond), raised this possibility once again in the House of Lords debate on bombing IS in Syria, on 2 December 2015: ‘If communities and leaders cannot live peacefully together in Syria and Iraq then we will have to try them living peacefully but separately in the partition of those countries.’ US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this position on 23 February, claiming it may be ‘too late to keep Syria as a whole, if we wait much longer’ and that a ‘significant discussion’ was being had about this option. Russia has raised the possibility of the federalisation of Syria, but insists that it will support whatever solution the Syrian people propose. On 17 March, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syrian Kurdistan and its allies declared a federal system autonomous of the Syrian government.

The outcome of negotiations and where borders lie will be determined by the relative strength of positions on the ground. The NATO imperialists and their rebel allies enter the peace negotiations in a weak position. The liberation of Palmyra opens the way to the IS capital of Raqqa. Many rebels are defecting and returning to government-controlled areas. The pressure IS is under in Syria has led to divisions deepening within the group, and fighters moving to Libya and Yemen. The Syrian government has called new elections to be held on 13 April. The war in Syria may be slowly coming to an end, but there is no doubt the NATO powers will continue to use all means to achieve an outcome which suits their interests.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 250 April/May 2016