Russian intervention wrong-foots NATO campaign against Syria

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.

Syria, Iraq and Iran – which way for US imperialism?

March 2015 marked four years of war in Syria. Despite their best efforts, NATO powers and their regional allies have failed to replace the government of President Assad with one more pliant to their objectives. They have succeeded only in wreaking massive destruction and suffering, and mobilising and strengthening brutal sectarian forces across the region – particularly the Islamic State (IS). Iran – formerly NATO’s main enemy in the region – has managed to gain influence. This was not NATO’s plan, and some in the ruling classes are now pushing for shifts in strategy. Splits in the US ruling class have come into the open, with a powerful section pushing for the US to develop its influence over Iran. From this perspective, destroying the Syrian government can wait.

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Kurds lead heroic resistance in Kobane

Islamic State (IS) forces attacked Kobane canton in Rojava, west Kurdistan, Syria on 15 September 2014. Better armed than the Kurdish resistance, by early October IS had reached the centre of Kobane city. With his troops across the border from Syria, gazing on the battle before them, Turkish President Erdogan said, ‘Kobane may fall very soon.’ Eight weeks later and IS has been driven into retreat; the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), peshmerga from south Kurdistan and some members of the Free Syrian Army have fought heroically. Their fight is for all the oppressed people of the Middle East. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

At the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire was being carved up, the two greatest losers were the Palestinian and Kurdish peoples. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne divided the Kurds up between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. These four states were founded upon the oppression of the Kurds. The British and French ruling classes drew the borders that imprisoned the Kurds. The Kurdish people’s struggle for self-determination is central to the struggle for democracy in the Middle East.

In January 2014 the predominantly Kurdish area of Syria declared autonomy in Rojava, consisting of three cantons: Cizre, Kobane and Efrin. The leading political party is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged armed struggle for self-determination against the Turkish state since 1984, although since March 2013 it has observed a ceasefire. 40,000 people have died in this struggle. Rojava, like the PKK, is seen by the Turkish government as a challenge to its regional power and ambitions.

The Kurdish-led resistance in Kobane demonstrated it is the only effective force on the ground confronting IS. It would have been embarrassing to the US and ridiculed its strategy of reliance on aerial force if it had allowed Kobane to succumb to an IS massacre before the eyes of the world. The US Air Force delivered arms and medical supplies for the resistance on 19 October. Peshmerga from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), south Kurdistan, Iraq arrived in Kobane on 29 October. US planes began airstrikes on IS positions in and around Kobane, with the YPG providing coordinates for attacks. The IS assault on Kobane concentrated its forces, providing US jets with vulnerable targets. Over 11-12 November the resistance fighters drove IS from its headquarters in the east of Kobane city.

There are up to 3,000 Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobane, a third of them women. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that between 16 September and 15 November, 27 Kurdish civilians were killed in Kobane, 17 of them executed by IS, and 387 resistance fighters and 712 IS had also been killed. However, IS does not declare its dead. Approximately 1,000 Kurdish resistance fighters have died fighting jihadists in the past year.

Turkey revives Ottoman ambitions
When Turkish troops sealed the border to prevent Kurdish volunteers travelling to Kobane’s defence, Erdogan explained, ‘Turkey stands against terrorism in all its forms. Turkey is as much against PKK terrorism as it is against ISIS.’ Even the Financial Times remarked, ‘Comparing the PKK to ISIS is grotesque,’ (15 October 2014). Turkish soldiers shot and killed both Kurds trying to cross from Turkey to Kobane to defend it and people fleeing from Kobane. Demonstrations erupted in towns and villages across Turkey between 6 and 8 October. 44 people were killed, 3,000 arrested and 600 remanded in custody. On the occasion of funerals for protesters killed in Diyarbakir, President Erdogan said, ‘The fact that [a demonstrator] was a child does not concern us. He will pay the same price as those who sent him there.’ Turkish police suppressed anti-IS demonstrations, but left pro-IS gatherings alone. On 13 October for the first time in two years Turkish military aircraft attacked PKK positions.

Turkey is accused of allowing IS recruits to reach Syria via Turkey; providing weapons and medical treatment to IS; letting IS transport oil to Turkey for funds; providing engineers to help it operate oil wells and refineries; passing satellite images to IS; allowing its soldiers to fraternise with IS jihadists and inserting special forces into IS ranks. On 29 November IS?suicide bombers travelling from Turkish territory attacked Kobane and its crossing into Turkey.

The Turkish government intends to use chaos and fragmentation in the Middle East to strengthen its position within the imperialist camp. Its priorities are the overthrow of the Syrian government and to weaken the Kurdish movements for self-determination. Turkey refuses to allow the US to use the NATO base at Incirlik, a few hundred miles from Kobane, for operations against IS. It said conditions for such use were a Coalition commitment to establish a no-fly zone against Syrian government aircraft and a buffer-zone in Syria along its border with Turkey. The Turkish government wants the PYD listed as terrorists alongside the PKK. The Turkish government would prefer IS over the survival of the Rojava autonomous region.

Turkey has considerable investments in the KRG (see Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241, October/November 2014). However, when IS attacked it in August 2014 the KRG was shocked that Turkey rejected its appeal for help. The PKK came to the KRG’s defence.

This October, in a gesture of self-aggrandisement, Erdogan inaugurated a $608m, 1,000-room palace for himself in Ankara, far bigger than the White House or the Elysée Palace. The palace is built on protected forest land, in defiance of court orders. Erdogan also bought a $185m official jet. Turkey’s prime minister defended the building of the palace: it would demonstrate Turkey ‘rapidly taking the place it deserves in the world’.

Repression is growing in Turkey; Erdogan condemned the new ‘Lawrences of Arabia’ (the British agent who encouraged Arabs to rebel against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War). Erdogan was referring to journalists, preachers and sympathisers with the PKK. ‘According to the Committee to Protect Journalists Turkey last year jailed 40 journalists, more than any country… for the second year in a row,’ (Financial Times, 7 May 2014). Erdogan says that he does not believe in equality between men and women and said that women should have at least three and preferably five children. Violence against women in Turkey is increasing, laws intended to punish it are not enforced.

Three military coups in Turkey, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, each claimed to be suppressing ‘separatist movements’ and communists. The Kurdish people have risen, they will not be put down, they have something real to fight for, they have defended a trench for humanity. We salute the resistance of Kobane!

 Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 242 December 2014/January 2015

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

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.

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Syria: Imperialists on the back foot / FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

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.