Syria - The civil war and the games of the world powers

From Lutte de Classe #154 - Sept-Oct 2013 (published in Class Struggle #100 - Britain)
September 2013

The purported use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's regime against Syrian rebels on August 21st was the cause of a serious international crisis lasting over two weeks. Western leaders, especially in the United States, Britain and France, threatened to resort to "air strikes" against Syria - "air strikes" being the politically correct word which apparently replaced the certainly too unpleasant word of "bombings" in journalese. However, what it describes is no different - showing that imperialist leaders have not given up on "good old" gunboat diplomacy.

These leaders are still of the opinion that military intervention in different parts of the world is their right, even if they conceal their real intentions behind humanitarian rhetoric, ready-made indignation and misinformation... and even if it means bluffing and engaging in threats they cannot enforce. In this respect, the issue of the al-Assad regime's chemical weapons is no exception. But this time, it quickly transpired that Barack Obama's threats of air strikes, which David Cameron and Francois Hollande unashamedly repeated, were calculated to hide their reluctance to get involved. Indeed, the imperialist leaders would like to extricate themselves from the Syrian crisis with as little damage as possible, that is to say, as little damage to their own material interests as possible - because as far as the Syrian population is concerned, the damage has already been tragically done. It is paying for the manoeuvring which has been going on for the last two years by political leaders who are contemptuous of its fate.

How to save face for one another

Thanks to a proposition opportunely made by the Russian leadership, the United States and Russia have now agreed to engage in a process which submits the Syrian regime's chemical arsenal to international inspection and destruction. It will be a difficult process. Talks are likely to last for a long time, and obviously they will not put an end to the Syrian civil war and the atrocities perpetrated on all sides. But protracted nature of the process is probably its main advantage for both the American and Russian leaders. Old foes they may be, but they also know how to behave like old accomplices when required, by saving face for one another.

Thus, Barack Obama, who had difficulty in getting a majority in Congress to allow a military intervention, and who was not really eager himself to engage in one, will now have a lengthy breathing space. While avoiding having to disown his Syrian ally, Putin has established himself as a necessary partner for an international settlement. As for the Assad regime, it has not risked much more in the end than having to part with an outdated arsenal of little use anyway.

The use of chemical weapons is raised by the western leaders as the crossing of a so-called "red line". While endlessly talking about whether or not the line was actually crossed allows them to pretend that they are concerned about the fate of the Syrian people, it also implies that the use of other kinds of weapons is permissible, whether by the rebels or the Assad regime. But this competitive diplomatic agitation cannot hide the fact that the war is still going on and that it has already almost destroyed a whole country.

The calculations of the Western leaders have definitely nothing to do with their supposed humanitarian concern. For more than forty years they made do with Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad and the dictatorship they imposed over Syria. Of course, despite the end of the Cold War and of the USSR, this Arab nationalist regime has kept seeking support from Russia. This support allowed it to maintain a degree of independence towards the imperialist powers, while at the same time it has always known how to come to terms with them and be useful in its own way. It did so for example when, starting from 1976, it sent troops to the Lebanon to help maintain the status quo, which could have been disturbed if the left-wing Lebanese militias and the Palestinians had scored victories during the civil war which was tearing the country apart. And if Syria was able to keep its troops there until 2005, this was thanks to the agreement between neighbouring powers and Western leaders that the presence of these troops would "freeze" the position of the main players, allowing the minimal stability required for the existence of the Lebanese state.

The Assads, father and son, would have liked their actions to be reciprocated, for example with the exertion of western pressure on Israel for the return of the Golan Heights - which Israel had occupied since 1967. But it did not happen that way and this fact obviously contributed to the choice of Syrian leaders to remain allied with Russia, given that Western leaders offered them nothing. However, and for decades, the Western powers and in particular the US, knew what to expect from the Assad regime and were convinced that after all, it was a useful partner to maintain the regional status quo. So much so, that French president Sarkozy invited Bashar al-Assad to the 14th of July 2008 commemorations in Paris, hoping that this invitation would be reciprocated by some lucrative contracts for the French weapons merchants.

All of this was allowed to go on until the "Arab spring" at the beginning of 2011, when the American leadership preferred to abandon old protégés like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt and backed a sham of transition towards democracy in both countries. But when the youth demonstrations started against the Assad dictatorship and faced violent repression, western leaders were not able to act in the same way, even if they had wanted to. Indeed, they did not have the same kind of connections and influence with Syrian high ranking military officials which they had with the Egyptian and Tunisian armies and which had allowed them to convince these people to abandon their allegiance to the old dictators in order to remain in power themselves. Above all, they did not wish Assad to be overthrown, as long as they did not know for sure if the regime which replaced it would be trustworthy and would act in their interests.

Turkey and the Gulf States help the anti-Assad forces

At the beginning of 2011, Western leaders stood by and watched protesters in Syria being repressed, as they watched the suppression of protest in a number of other allied countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. However they did not prevent their own close allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, from providing some aid to Syrian opposition groups likely to destabilize the Damascus regime and possibly prepare a political alternative. Money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar made it possible to supply them with weapons. The same Turkish government led by Erdogan who had declared not long before that Bashar al-Assad was like a brother to him and that he wanted "not a single problem with his neighbours", sponsored the creation of one of the bodies describing itself as the "free Syrian army", apparently composed mainly of Syrian army deserters. He allowed armed groups - with or without Syrians in their ranks - to train on Turkish soil, before they crossing over to Syria - the Turkish-Syrian border being especially permeable and stretching more than 800 km.

Bases have also been established in Jordan, under the supervision of Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari militaries but also with the collaboration of American, French and British intelligence officers in order to train and send fighters into Syria. A series of heterogeneous groups composed of Syrian, Turkish, Chechen, Iraqi, Afghan or even European recruits were added to the various "free Syrian armies", all having at their disposal the money and weapons provided by the Gulf States. Fundamentalist Islamist groups have thus grown in authority within the ranks of the armed rebellion against Assad.

This armed opposition quickly replaced the opposition expressed by people's demonstrations against the regime, but they were clearly following another agenda. For that matter, the regime's violent repression against the demonstrations helped these armed groups, because for each demonstration, the police would shoot and kill a great many people. One of the main consequences of the subsequent "liberation" of some cities or districts by the rebels' armed groups was to make them the targets of Assad army's bombings. The civilian population who had been "liberated" in this way was then crushed by bombings, while it often had to suffer the law of armed groups behaving as if they were on home ground and willing to impose their conception of Islamic law on everybody, first and foremost on women. In many cases, the inhabitants only found salvation by fleeing their cities and districts destroyed by the bombings and subjected to the law of armed gangs.

The US and their Western allies merely intended to use the initiative from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to test the resistance of the Assad regime so that, if it were to fall in the end, it could immediately be replaced by a regime compliant to their interests. That is why at the same time, there were a long series of attempts to find a political alternative to Assad. After the "Syrian National Council" - a first attempt backed by Turkey - a "Syrian National Coalition" was set up, which was meant to offer an acceptable front for Western leaders. It immediately received the backing of most European governments. But up to now, western leaders have refused to engage their own forces in direct military actions against Syrian army bases, or even to supply the rebels with the heavy weaponry they have been asking for - officially, at least.

While the coalition of opposition political forces created outside of Syria did everything to win over the confidence and support of the western leaders, it is now clear that they do not control the armed militias on the ground. For the most part, these militias are divided, with some dominated by jihadists or organised along ethnic lines. Some are just involved in trafficking. What's more, the Assad regime has now challenged Turkey, by allowing the northern part of the Syrian territory to fall under the control of Kurdish militias of the PYD party - an ally of the PKK, which is itself fighting the Turkish army along the Turkish side of the border. Not only does this complicate things for the Turkish army and for Erdogan, but on the Syrian side, Kurdish and Islamic militias groups, vying for control of the rebellion against Assad, are now engaged in violent confrontations.

Obviously, the US leaders are now reluctant to throw their military weight behind these armed groups, over which the political opposition in exile seems to have little influence. All the more so, because while chaos reigns in the so-called liberated areas, the Damascus regime is showing a resilience that the US probably did not expect. The al-Assad government was even able to take advantage of the armed groups' behaviour towards the population and especially towards minorities, like Christians for example, which ended up siding with the regime. Indeed, many people came to the conclusion that between two evils, the lesser was still the Assad regime. And it now seems strengthened, since its army has begun to regain much of the ground lost to the rebellion.

Would a "draw" be the best solution?

As a matter of fact, and more so than fate of the war's victims, the evolution of the military relationship of forces in Assad's favour is probably much more of a concern today for the western leaders. In an article published in the French daily Le Monde, Edward Luttwak, a consultant from the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies, clearly explained the difficult choice facing the US: if the Assad regime - allied to Russia, but also to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah - was to win, it would be a political setback for America and its allies in the region. And he added: "But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East". That would almost certainly mean the development of an Islamic dictatorship in Damascus and no guarantee that it would remain allied to the United States.

Still, according to this consultant, the only other option would be "a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime", that is, "another costly military adventure in the Middle East". This is why he concluded: "There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favour: an indefinite draw", and he suggested one method: "And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad's forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning". All things considered, the consultant also noticed that fostering an ongoing civil war has been the policy chosen by the US leaders since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. He continued saying cynically that of course, the fact that this was the "best option" was "unfortunate" and "tragic" for the Syrian population but that it couldn't hope for a better perspective in the present situation.

The story does not say if Barack Obama is following or will follow Edward Luttwak's advice. The way Luttwak thinks says a lot more about the imperialist leaders' real concerns than their selective indignation. Within Syria, they are mainly concerned about maintaining a relationship of forces which will allow them to continue to play their own game and defend their interests, as well as those of their companies in the region. That is what was revealed by the chemical weapons saga. Without putting any demand on Assad to stop using his conventional arsenal, the US leaders have used enough threats to get a favourable compromise from Russia and the Syrian regime. It not only allows them to save face. It also allows the US to assert themselves as full-fledged players in the coming diplomatic game which will now take place - while they could have well been left out of it - which will require time for all of the participants to find what they call "a political solution" to the Syrian crisis.

Negotiations which may hide other talks

The negotiations over the chemical weapons are probably going to continue, while the still raging war will allow the relationship of forces to be assessed on the ground. But the situation conceals more serious on-going negotiations over a "political solution". In reality, Russians and Americans have been talking about it for more than a year. It would consist in bringing a number of the opposition representatives into a remodelled Assad regime, with a possible promise to organise elections within a certain time frame. This would exclude representatives from the uncontrollable Islamic militias and other Jihadists who came to wage war in Syria. Indeed, not only do both Assad and the Russian leaders want them out, but today the US are no longer so eager to support them, except maybe for tactical purposes. And that amounts to admitting that the policy of supplying the fighters with weapons, under the patronage of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, has been a disaster, and has led to the proliferation of armed Islamic militias that nobody can control any more.

Even if all of this has been played out under the discrete scrutiny of the French, British and US intelligence services, the United States now seem ready to abandon in midstream the Turkish and Arab leaders who have stuck their necks out in the process. It will be left up to them to sort things out with the Islamic militias they chose to support without knowing how to control them, and whose only use will have been to test the Assad regime's resilience. The whole affair may obviously appear as a failure for these too zealous allies, but the US leaders would prefer that it does not appear the same way for US diplomacy. And that is precisely what Putin seems ready to secure for Obama.

It is also very likely that it won't be the end of the story. As always, when world powers agree to put an end to a conflict, one of the areas in which talks are held is that of reconstruction and the markets which go with them. Putin is said to have already inferred to Obama that in a conflict like this one, those responsible for the damage will have to pay. Which may be translated as: Qatar and Saudi Arabia have coughed up big money to fund the arming of Islamic militias which failed to overthrow Assad; they will have to cough up more money in order to pay their share of the reconstruction of Syria. Once this is agreed, there will then be space for talks between the US and Russia, the two initiators of the agreement, for the awarding of reconstruction contracts, which are likely to be substantial. It is, however, very likely that other countries like France, despite its eagerness to side with and serve the American ally, while reminding the US that Syria was once part of its colonial empire, will get a tiny share in the contract deals. And so will Britain too. But the balance of power is what it is, between imperialist countries.

This is how the two world powers are trying to be as thick as thieves in their attempt to find a way out in the Syrian crisis, while securing their respective interests. It may be a while before there is any conclusion, and in the meantime, as the American expert previously mentioned put it, there can be an "indefinite draw", meaning the continuation of this bloody civil war. It is not even certain that the United States and Russia will reach the "political solution" they seem to hope for, because things do not only depend on them. No one can tell, in particular, if the armed Jihadist militias which have been let loose on Syrian ground thanks to the US complicity will now toe the line defined by the US. Should they have to leave Syria, they may well turn up again on other battlefields. The destabilising effect of the Syrian civil war on the whole of the Middle East may have repercussions far beyond what the world powers would wish. But even if they some form of "political solution", the disastrous consequences of the civil war will remain.

The population's hopes in a dead end

The Syrian demonstrators who, at the beginning of 2011, were demanding, like in other Arab countries, more freedom, more justice and less repression, are now forgotten. The Assad regime answered as it usually does, brutally repressing them. But all those who claimed to be aiming to rescue the Syrian population - neighbouring countries or imperialist powers - did not show the slightest concern for it. They just threw their weight into this unending civil war, substituting the bullets of the armed militias for the struggle of the Syrian population and only seeing in the situation an opportunity to defend their own interests against their rivals.

The balance sheet of all this - which, unfortunately, is still very incomplete - is a destroyed country, tens of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees or displaced persons, immeasurable damage and the continuation of dictatorship in one form or another as the only future. After what happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the Syrian civil war is an even more dramatic illustration of the dead end into which the democratic and social aspirations of the people were led, during the so-called "Arab spring". In an Arab world divided by a system of rival states armed against one another, under the supervision of imperialist powers, a revolutionary perspective can only be developed on the basis of the entire region.