Four years into a brutal civil war, Syria is back in the headlines because of the massive refugee crisis that has swept the region and Europe. The U.N. has estimated that half of Syria’s population have left their homes, three million of them fleeing the country.
Besides the U.S., a series of Western and regional imperialist powers are now militarily engaged in Syria – either to support the regime, or fight ISIS, or both – including France, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The intervention of these powers, each pursuing its own interests, has not brought peace any closer but, in fact, has deepened the conflict at every step. The war is now also contributing to the destabilization of neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
But the war in Syria is also part of a much larger regional catastrophe with numerous flash points. This disaster was created first and foremost by U.S. imperialism, which has sought – with decreasing effectiveness due to its declining power – to maintain control of this politically and economically vital area:
In Iraq, the reckless U.S.-led invasion in 2003 led to the purging of Sunnis from the state and the creation of a sectarian and oppressive Shiite regime, also backed by Iran. This opened the road to ISIS and led to the country’s de facto dismemberment.
In Afghanistan, President Obama has recently agreed to maintain 10,000 troops through 2017 due to the advance of Taliban forces and the weakening of the corrupt U.S.-backed Afghan government after 14 years of military intervention.
In Libya, imperialist intervention to oust former dictator Muammar Qaddafi resulted in complete destabilization and the rise of Islamist forces, who are now fighting for control.
In Yemen, upheaval following a popular revolt ousted the 22-years-long dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, resulting in the Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels taking over the capital, Sana’a. Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies, backed by Obama, have launched a brutal bombing campaign in order to restore a president more to their liking, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Meanwhile, the United States’ most trusted ally in the region, the Israeli state, is faced with another wave of popular Palestinian revolt. In a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry, they decided to try and bring things back to “normality.” Normality means the continuation of the Israeli occupation, land theft, and ongoing attacks on the Palestinian masses.
The Middle East today is perhaps the most dramatic example of the complete dead end facing human society under capitalism. As world and regional imperialist powers vie for control, the mass of ordinary people in the region face impoverishment and endless conflict, while millions are forced to escape the horror.
Imperialism’s long history in the region, from French control of Syria and Lebanon to British control of Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, through the years of the Cold War and today’s “War on Terrorism,” has always used the tactic of “divide and conquer,” mostly relying on ethnic and religious sentiments. It is no surprise, then, that it has created nothing but sectarian conflicts and rivers of blood.
The burning question is: what is the way out of this endless horror?
Below is an edited article by The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, with which Socialist Alternative is in political solidarity through the Committee for a Workers International.
After four and a half long, bloody years of civil war in Syria – with over a quarter of a million dead and eleven million displaced – there is still no end in sight. On the contrary, the entire region faces being drawn into a sectarian civil war.
While there is a widespread desire among ordinary people to see something done to bring peace to Syria and to defeat the reactionary thugs of ISIS, there is also a deep-rooted scepticism over what further military intervention will achieve.
No wonder, after the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the U.S., which laid the basis for the current quagmire, and then the 2012 onslaught on Libya, which has led directly to the anarchy which now exists there.
As Patrick Cockburn put it in the British Independent: “The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS has not worked. The Islamic militants have not collapsed under the weight of airstrikes, but, across the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions, either hold the same ground or are expanding” (10/03/2015).
After just over a year of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, at a cost of more than $2.7 billion and the killing of many civilians, ISIS still controls at least half of Syria and a third of Iraq. In May of this year, for example, the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS. The U.S. Air Force carried out 165 strikes against ISIS positions in the month before it fell, but they did not alter the outcome. At the time of writing, five months on, ISIS still holds Ramadi despite a prolonged attempt by the Iraqi government to retake it.
In desperation to retake the city, the predominantly Shia Iraqi government has deployed the Shia militias. Given that Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, both predominantly Sunni, this will do nothing to undermine support for ISIS among the Sunni population, who fear mass reprisals against all Sunnis if Ramadi falls.
These fears are not without foundation; earlier in the year, the Shia militia were central to the campaign to retake Tikrit from ISIS. After the city’s recapture, mass executions of Sunnis – all wrongly written off as ISIS supporters – forced thousands to flee.
Ramadi is an example of imperialism’s utter failure – not just because of the events of the last year, but because of everything that has happened since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
The events in Syria confirm the analysis The Socialist made at the start of the conflict. At the time, there were widespread predictions that President Assad would rapidly be defeated.
We argued that, unlike in Libya, this would not be the case. Assad had greater reserves of support from ethnic and religious minorities within the country, with the increasingly sectarian character of the rebels driving them toward the regime.
At the start the uprising was part of the Arab Spring – a genuine popular revolt against the Assad dictatorship. But this changed with the outside intervention of reactionary forces opposed to revolution in the region – in particular, the brutal dictatorial regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar – backed up by imperialist forces. The result has been the unleashing of a dangerous battle between the Sunnis and the Shias on a regional scale. ISIS is the horrendous consequence of this process.
U.S. imperialism – initially, at least – turned a blind eye to the growth of ISIS while attempting to create and fund a pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight Assad.
Senator John McCain was even photographed posing – supposedly with the FSA, but in reality with ISIS commanders! U.S. weaponry sent into Syria ended up in the hands of ISIS.
However, ISIS’s aggressive and accelerating role in tearing apart Iraq and Syria, as well as its contempt toward the world powers has forced the U.S. to act against it.
In reality, U.S. imperialism has no forces it can rely on in Syria. As Robert Fisk explained, “Washington admitted their [the FSA’a] disappearance, bemoaned their fate, concluded that new ‘moderates’ were required, persuaded the CIA to arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish border to fight – whereupon all but ten were captured by Nusrah [the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria] and at least two of them were executed by their captors” (Independent, 10/04/2015).
In reality, there are 20 or more opposition groups fighting Assad, funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE – all with a sectarian Sunni Islamist character.
The United States remains the most powerful imperialist country on the planet, but it is a declining world power. Its complete inability to “police the world” as it did in the past is graphically demonstrated in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin feeling confident to launch airstrikes in support of Assad is only one indication of this.
It is also shown in how U.S. imperialism has been left as “piggy in the middle” between the Sunni regimes funding the fighters against Assad and Shia Iran, which has sent 15,000 troops to back the Assad regime.
That is not to suggest that ISIS cannot be defeated. On the contrary, its underlying weakness has been shown by the military successes won by the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), who have established a territorial base in Northern Syria.
Within limits, it has shown that, when anti-ISIS fighters link their military struggles to appeals for national liberation and social change, it is possible to win victories.
However, these successes rely on the heroic action of guerrilla units rather than on the democratic, mass, multi-ethnic mobilization of the people themselves.
There is a danger that this can lead to the driving out of non-Kurds, in some cases, as has been reported to have taken place by Amnesty International and Patrick Cockburn, although this has been denied by the YPG.
Even if these incidents are rare and not widely endorsed, they are a potentially very dangerous development. In addition, the political leadership of the YPG/YPJ still express hopes that Western imperialism will act in their interests. However, imperialism has shown again and again that it has no interest in the genuine aspirations for self-determination for any national or ethnic grouping.
However, it has repeatedly leaned on one group to try and defeat another, creating the sectarian nightmare that now exists.
The working class and poor farmers of Iraq and Syria and the Kurdish people can only rely on their own self-organization to put an end to this nightmare.
United nonsectarian self-defence of threatened communities and minorities is vital and can be an important lever through which a grassroots movement fighting for socialist change can be rebuilt.
By standing uncompromisingly against all imperialist forces, local reactionary regimes, and sectarian death squads, and supporting the rights of self-determination for all communities, such a movement could find mass support among the regional and international working class.
In turn, workers’ organizations internationally need to spearhead movements against imperialist intervention in the Middle East.
In order to seek a real end to sectarianism and bloodbath, ordinary workers and farmers must demand a complete end to imperialist intervention, as well as open and free elections, to elect a government of representatives of workers and the poor. We call for the building of united, nonsectarian defense committees to defend workers and the poor. This can be the basis of a movement to fight for independent trade unions and mass workers’ parties with a program of land to the masses and factories to the workers, implemented through a program for a socialist democratically planned economy.
The Syrian workers must fight in solidarity with the Kurds for the recognition of the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination – including, if they so wish, full autonomous democratic rights within the state they live in or the establishment of a common state of the Kurds themselves.
But the movement has to go beyond that and link their struggle with those of all oppressed workers and famers in the region. Imperialism and capitalism have devastated the Middle East. There’s no solution under capitalism, but only under a democratic socialist confederation of the Middle East and North Africa.