Syria: Changing context/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

The 29 August House of Commons vote against committing British forces to an overt attack on Syria was greeted by claims that it signalled the end of imperialism; ‘Once the West set out to conquer the world. Those days have gone for ever’, Andreas Whittam Smith announced in The Independent on 10 September 2013. He argued that public opinion had stopped governments from launching another war. The Stop the War coalition platform speakers in Trafalgar Square on 31 August proclaimed the end of the special relationship with the US and beginning of an independent British foreign policy. The idea that imperialism has ended with a vote in Parliament and in accordance with the majority of public opinion is ridiculous. The British state is imperialist and imperialism sustains the existence of the British ruling class. Britain’s covert war against Syria will continue and, for as long as the US and British ruling classes consider their special relationship to be to their benefit, so it too will continue. However, TREVOR RAYNE argues, the disputes among the US and European ruling classes do signal that a change has taken place in the decade since the war on Iraq in 2003.

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War in Syria Imperialists enforce their own chemical weapons monopoly/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

The war in Syria has exposed significant splits in the imperialist ruling classes, with divisions emerging about how best to achieve their objectives in the Middle East. Following a rabid push for open war by David Cameron, Barack Obama, and François Hollande, first Cameron, and then Obama, were blocked from carrying out air-strikes and missile attacks by resistance within their own political establishments. Neither could present a coherent strategy for open military intervention, or explain how this war would not go the chaotic way of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. In proposing a diplomatic solution, Russia gained political standing and offered a way out for Obama who was isolated. Now, the imperialists will try to tip the balance of forces against the Syrian government in other ways. Britain has played a central role in the campaign to destroy Syria for more than two years through support for opposition groups, sanctions, and special forces involvement. Along with the US, France, Israel and others, they will continue their campaign to destroy the Syrian government. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.

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Syria - British government forced back from open war by ruling class splits

In his anxiety to speed up the military attack on Syria, Prime Minister Cameron shot himself and British imperialism in the foot. The House of Commons vote on 29 August was lost 285 to 272, with the British Parliament rejecting increased and overt military intervention in Syria. Many of Cameron's own party voted against the government's motion. Britain will now be unable openly to take part in military action without a further vote – something the humiliated Coalition government is unlikely to rush into again. The British state will continue to wage covert war.

The alleged chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta, Damascus, on 21 August 2013, were the pretext the war-mongering Coalition government needed to push for air-strikes against Syria. The balance of forces in Syria's war was tipping in favour of the Syrian government and imperialism wants to tip it back. The dash to open war exposed big splits in the British ruling class, and both motions for intervention were defeated – the Coalition's and Labour's. This will not mean an end to the covert war the British state has been fighting against Syria for more than two years. Imperialism cannot tolerate a strong, independent state at the heart of the Middle East. US and French imperialism are preparing for a direct attack. The dangers of the conflict engulfing the Middle East and beyond remain. Already 100,000 people have died in this imperialist-orchestrated 'civil war'. Almost two million people have been made refugees. However, the bottom line will always be its financial and strategic objectives – never the ‘humanitarian’ concerns it claims to have. The war on Syria must be opposed.

Syrian opposition forces have used rumours of chemical weapons on previous occasions to encourage imperialist intervention and increase their supply of heavy weapons. These rumours have met with scepticism; UN official Carla del Ponte even stated on 6 May 2013 that there were 'strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof' that the weapons were used by rebel forces. Over a year ago US President Obama set use of chemical weapons as a 'red-line' for US intervention in Syria. The US used rumours of previous chemical weapons use to begin openly arming opposition forces in June 2013. The alleged Ghouta attack was quickly accepted as the responsibility of Assad's government by all those gearing for intervention. The Syrian opposition rapidly circulated extensive footage of hundreds of people having trouble breathing and suffering convulsions, claiming 1,300 fatalities. Medecin sans Frontieres reported treating 3,600 Syrians suffering from symptoms consistent with the use of chemical weapons with 355 fatalities (24 August, MSF). UN weapons inspectors were given a mandate to determine if there had been an attack, and what agent was used. However, determining blame was never within the UN remit – this was always going to be a political decision, where evidence was secondary. Cameron explained in Parliament on 29 August that he had made a 'judgement' that the Syrian government was responsible, but he could not be '100% certain'. This was enough for him to push for war.

The concern simulated by imperialist leaders about the use of chemical weapons is sickening hypocrisy. Where was this outrage when the US used white phosphorus and depleted uranium against the people of Fallujah in 2004, or Agent Orange throughout South-East Asia in the 1960s? The US and British governments expressed no concern when the Israeli state used white phosphorus and other banned weapons against the densely populated Gaza Strip in 2009? There was no US and British government outrage at the gassing to death of over 5,000 Kurds at Halabja by Iraq in 1988. The US, Britain and others supplied the gas with which Iraq killed tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war.

NATO powers justified the war in Iraq in 2003 with 'evidence' of the state's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Several years later there were over one million Iraqis dead, and no WMD. The imperialist destruction of Libya, led by Britain and France, was justified with assertions of an imminent massacre in Benghazi. This was another fabrication – the only massacre was the 50,000 dead from NATO bombs. We cannot trust their 'evidence' for war, or anything else they tell us. The British ruling class and its allies are willing to do whatever it takes to defend their financial and strategic interests.

In the motion that his government put to Parliament, David Cameron was asking too much of the British ruling class. They are divided over deeper military involvement in the Syrian war and conflict in the Middle East. The Labour Party’s caution expresses a section of the ruling class’s apprehensions – it is no principled stand against imperialist war. Only a minority of the US and British people support the proposal that their states’ attack Syria. Germany, a major imperialist power, with an election approaching, has made clear it will not take part in military action.

Interviewed by the Russian newspaper Izvestia, President Assad warned that if Syria is attacked, the US will face 'failure' as it has in 'every war since Vietnam' (26 August 2013). We must oppose any imperialist attack on Syria and all covert warfare against that country. All US, British and French forces should withdraw from the Middle East. The same imperialist system which attacks Syria is driving down living conditions in Britain, France and the US. Fighting against this system must be based on opposition to the ruling class at home and abroad. The 29 August parliamentary vote may have gone against the open escalation of war, but the British state will resort to more covert forms of warfare against Syria. The imperialists’ actions are likely to spark a major conflict, the extent and repercussions of which are uncertain. The stakes are huge for both the imperialists and the resistance. There is no room in the struggle for the apologists of imperialism in the Labour Party, the left or elsewhere. We must resolutely oppose all British intervention in Syria and that of any other imperialist power. Hands off Syria! All imperialist forces out of the Middle East!

Revolutionary Communist Group

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!


Syria: International proxy war /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

UN peace talks aimed at ending the war in Syria continue to be pushed back indefinitely. The major imperialist powers have instead focused on war. June’s ‘Operation Eager Lion 13’ demonstrated their intentions when the armies of Britain, the US, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and 12 others gathered for huge military exercises in Jordan, close to Syria’s border. Soon afterwards, Israel launched its fourth attack on Syria this year, targeting Russian missiles. The Syrian government’s recent major military gains, supported by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have forced the imperialists into further action in their campaign against the ‘resistance axis’ of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. These forces oppose the complete hegemony of imperialism over this region and its resources. In a time of desperate capitalist crisis, this resistance will not be accepted. The war in Syria has gigantic international stakes, and is accordingly being waged by numerous international powers. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.

The Syrian military is steadily making gains against armed groups throughout Syria. The battle for Qusair, previously a major stronghold of armed opposition groups close to the Lebanese border, was finally won on 8 June. The support the Syrian army received from Hezbollah was seized upon internationally as a reason for further intervention. On 23 July the EU categorised the group’s military wing a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Syria’s military is now turning its attention towards Homs and Aleppo, previously strongholds of the jihadist groups Jahbat al Nusra (JN) and The Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) in the northeast.

For the Syrian military it has been a bloody war. Recent figures from the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights list 100,000 dead, with 42,000 of these government fighters, 36,000 civilians, and 18,000 ‘rebels’. This didn’t stop The Guardian from reporting on 23 July that Bashar Al Assad had ‘slaughtered’ 90,000 people. This is far from a massacre by the government forces – they are fighting well-armed groups. Now the government is winning, and the imperialists and other interested powers have been unable to do anything to reverse this.

The coalition of powers clamouring to dismember Syria and redraw the borders of the Middle East has been pouring weapons into Syria for over two years. Much of this has come directly through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, relying upon the active assistance of US, British and French special forces. More than 3,000 US ‘advisers’ are reportedly in Jordan, where the CIA has been stockpiling Soviet-era weapons and training opposition fighters since long before their public decision in June to directly arm the rebels.

For the British government, the objective of overturning the EU embargo on supplying arms to Syrian opposition forces was achieved on 28 May. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, supported by his French equivalent, blocked suggested compromises. The final vote in favour of ending the embargo was 27-25. Many EU foreign ministers were angry at the manner of the Anglo-French victory.

This issue has also provoked divisions within the British ruling class. Many Conservative MPs strongly oppose sending arms to Syria, even those in favour of military action. A vote in the House of Commons demanded 114-1 that David Cameron gain the ‘explicit’ consent of Parliament, before providing lethal assistance.

Each new announcement of ‘non-lethal’ aid to Syrian opposition groups is a major statement of propaganda and policy. On 16 July, Hague announced a donation of £650,000 worth of equipment to protect against chemical weapons. This will be given to the ‘moderate forces’ of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Still pushing the long-discredited hysteria around chemical weapons use by the Syrian military, this ‘gift’ is calculated to define the media narrative – that these heroic rebels fighting for democracy are in urgent need of protection against imminent chemical weapons attack by the brutal Assad government. We heard a similar narrative spun about Libya in 2011. Hague declared this a ‘matter of special urgency’, allowing the decision to be made without going through the proper parliamentary procedures. This precedent should worry those MPs opposing ‘lethal’ assistance.

The spectre of strong Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria continues to be an obstacle to sending more arms. JN and the ISIS are the two major organisations fighting for an Islamic emirate in Syria, and these control most of the rebel-held territory. The imperialists try to define the FSA in opposition to this – as ‘real’ rebels, fighting for a democratic, secular Syria. But the FSA means little inside Syria beyond three letters. Some of the diverse groups of militants may use this to refer to themselves but there is no central organisation, ideology or discipline.

On 6 July, with the world’s media watching events in Egypt, Israel attacked the Syrian port of Latakia. The target was reported as Russian Yakhont SS-N-26 anti-ship missiles, with some sources claiming that surface-to-air missiles were also destroyed. The Israeli government did not acknowledge or deny the attack. These weapons could have seriously hindered Israel’s ability to strike at will within Syria.

The alliance between Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran is the target to be destroyed. Syria was considered the weakest link. However, with determined support from Russia, and splits within the imperialist ruling classes, the alliance is gaining momentum. The imperialists are being forced to rethink their strategy. With Syria on the offensive, it will take more than weapons and phoney peace talks to re-divide the Middle East. August will see further imperialist war games in the region with ‘Exercise Cougar 13’ bringing British helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious along with 650 Royal Marines to Jordan. With each exercise, more military hardware and personnel are left in Jordan, raising the stakes. The Syrian and Iranian economies are in ruins due to imperialist aggression, and tens of thousands of Syrians have died. We must oppose all British military interventions in the Middle East and say Hands off Syria!

Syria: Israel attacks/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013

On 5 May Israeli fighter planes launched massive air strikes on targets near Syria’s capital Damascus. Accounts of the number of targets vary, but it was reported that at least 43 Syrian soldiers were killed at Jamraya Scientific Studies and Research Centre. This followed Israeli air strikes two days before, and came at the end of a week in which Israeli jets violated Lebanese airspace daily. Coming at a pivotal moment in the war for Syria, as government forces began to overturn gains of the ‘rebel’ militias, and in the midst of the orchestrated chemical weapons scare, the imperialists wanted decisive action. Competition for oil and gas and markets underline this recent escalation. The aim of the imperialist and Zionist agenda to destroy the ‘resistance-axis’ of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah has been openly revealed.

These strikes were the fifth time Israel has intervened militarily in Syria in ten years. Armed to the teeth with weapons donated by the US, Israel has again fulfilled its role as an extension of US and British imperialism in the region. Israel’s intervention has set a precedent for dismantling Syria’s military defences and raised the question of a ‘no-fly zone’. Israeli military officials declared that the targets were missiles being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Robert Fisk of The Independent raised the question: why would Syria get rid of its weapons when it needs them most?

By striking inside Syria and destroying Syrian army weapons, Israel has provided air support for the opposition forces. With reports of Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups, why would Israel do this? The jihadist group Jahbat Al Nusra (JN) has continued to gain weapons and militants whilst other groups have suffered from lack of discipline and support. On 10 April JN was incorporated into Al Qaeda in Iraq, forming the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But Britain, the US, France, and Israel are willing to use JN as a disposable tool in their plans for Syria. JN is an unreliable ally but as Israeli Defence Ministry official, Amos Gilad, said about any threat from JN: ‘with all due respect to that threat, it is not the same threat as one posed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah together, which is much more difficult.’ For the imperialist and Zionist agenda, JN can be dealt with later. With Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, their time has come.

The continued rise of JN begs the question: where are their weapons coming from? The answer is the Arab allies of US, British and French imperialism. Saudi Arabia and Qatar lead the field followed by Jordan. The Financial Times (17 May 2013) reports that Qatar has spent $3bn over the past two years supporting the revolt and that this is now exceeded by donations from Saudi Arabia. This transfer of weaponry has the imperialists’ active support.

What of the official Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), so beloved of Britain’s David Cameron and William Hague? The BBC’s Paul Danahar put it well: ‘the Syrian opposition’s political leadership – which wanders around international capitals attending conferences and making grand speeches – is not leading anyone. It barely has control of the delegates in the room with it, let alone the fighters in the field.’ Cameron and French President Hollande have a lot invested in this body; Britain and France are set to overturn the EU embargo on arming the opposition. With the absurd argument that arming the rebels will bring them to the negotiating table, Britain proposed exempting the SOC from the embargo or removing the phrase ‘non-lethal’; allowing an unchecked flow of arms. Cameron announced the doubling of Britain’s ‘non-lethal’ support to the SOC on 14 May.

For the imperialists’ agenda to progress, Russian opposition must be overcome. Russia has defended Syria’s sovereignty and supported the government with military equipment and training. Syria bought four S-300 missile batteries for $900 million, including six launchers and 144 missiles, with a 125-mile range. Most of Syria’s strong anti-aircraft defences have been bought from Russia. This strength complicates interventions such as Israel’s air strikes. US and British attempts to lever Russia from its position have met with little success although a diplomatic offensive is underway, with an international ‘peace’ conference, called by US President Barack Obama, supported by Britain, to discuss with Russia the shaping of a future ‘transitional government’. Russia will seek to protect its interests on the ground.

Oil and gas

What is on the ground in Syria are high stakes: plans for a natural gas pipeline from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and potentially into Europe, are in place and in May Iraq agreed to the route, with the first section to be completed in June 2013. What this project could mean for Iran – blockaded into poverty despite holding the world’s second largest gas reserves – is unthinkable for the imperialists. A steady stream of Iranian gas into Syria and Iraq could yield Iran up to $2m per day. This gas pipeline has a rival – a proposed pipeline from Qatar, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and again to Europe. Russia wields power over Europe through dependence on Russian gas, and either pipeline would reduce this. Turkey would play a major role in either project, as the crossroads between Asia and Europe. A stable Syria is essential for either plan and its government’s stance is critical for those looking to profit. With the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline taking the lead, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and their western backers will redouble their efforts to destroy the Syrian government.

Syria has the world’s 33rd largest oil reserves – much of it high quality. Before the war most of this went to Italy and Germany – imperialist powers not currently active in the fight for Syria. The EU lifted its sanctions on Syrian oil exports on 22 April, but only for rebel-controlled territory. The hitch is that most of these are controlled by JN. However, General Selim Idriss, the head of the western-backed opposition Supreme Military Council, told the Financial Times that he wants to assemble a 30,000-strong force to secure these oilfields.

Despite the efforts of British, US, and French imperialism, the Syrian state remains largely intact and in control of most major cities and roads. This has come at huge human cost; with the UN claiming 80,000 killed on both sides. Hezbollah and Iran recognise the stakes for their own existence if Syria’s Ba’athist state falls and have committed to this proxy war. With Iraq moving towards the side of Iran, and huge gas and oil profits at stake, the struggle can only intensify.

Toby Harbertson