Fred Leplat, a supporter of Socialist Resistance and of the Syria Solidarity Movement, reviews the situation in Syria as Putin intervenes in Syria.
The war in Syria took a dramatic turn on the 7th October when Russia launched cruise missiles against Assad’s enemies. This is both an escalation of the war in Syria and a change as Russia demonstrates its blatant and open support for the tyrant, whose military campaign had stalled over the last year.
It is an escalation because Russia has had a long presence in Syria. There is a Russian naval base at Tartus and an air base at Latakia. It has been backing the regime since Hafez al-Assad led the Ba-ath coup d’état in 1970. It has also been maintaining a regular supply of weapons to Bashar al-Assad during the last four years of war, a supply that has dwarfed that given to the Free Syrian Army and the non-Islamic “jihadist” forces. This has allowed Assad to be responsible for the overwhelming majority of 250,000 people that have been killed and for half of the country’s population fleeing their homes.
The Russian imperialist intervention is also a change in the situation. The US defeat in Iraq, and the disastrous outcome of intervention in Libya, has paralysed Western imperialism. Despite a military defeat of Saadam Hussein, the US has no bases in Iraq and the government of Prime Minister al-Abadi is friendlier to Iran than it is to the West. This has been a disaster for the US and the West from a strategic but also a humanitarian point of view. The 2011 popular and democratic uprisings in Arab countries against the authoritarian regimes backed by the West, further isolated and paralysed US imperialism in the region.
Putin has seized the opportunity of Obama’s inability and unwillingness to intervene to launch his own military action to restore Assad’s fortune in the war ravaging Syria. In doing so, Russia is attempting to reassert its geo-strategic role in the region and to ensure that it will have a say in Syria’s future. But the use of cruise missiles is also a showcasing of its military hardware with an eye to future sales to Egypt, Iran and elsewhere.
Russia argued that it was directly intervening in Syria in order to fight the terrorist threat of ISIS and to back what it claimed was the legitimate government of Assad. This line of argument allowed the US to appear to be not too concerned by Russia’s action. After all the US and the West claim they also want to defeat ISIS and while not recognising Assad’s regime as legitimate, they certainly are not seeking “regime change”. At the beginning of the war, Obama made it clear he wanted a “Yemeni” solution: the Assad regime should remain without Assad, and there should be no total “regime change” as in Iraq. But since the nuclear deal with Iran, which lifts sanctions on that country, it is now being suggested that Assad could be allowed to stay for a while during a transition period. With Iran part of the “troika” with Ahmadinejad, Assad and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, part of the bargain for a nuclear deal must have been to ensure survival at least of the Assad regime if not for the man himself.
All this bodes very badly for the people in Syria. Assad has suppressed the movement for democratic change with his murderous gang of shabbiha, viciously militarised the conflict in his country and promoted the formation of ISIS by releasing Al-Quaida prisoners from his jails in 2012 to attack the more progressive opposition. In this context, the possibility of a political settlement is impossible while Bashar al-Assad is still in power. His departure is a pre-condition for a political solution that will end the war. The people of Syria may therefore continue to suffer from the “clash of barbarisms”, as Gilbert Achcar puts it, that is the assault from the reactionary forces of the religious fundamentalists of ISIS, and from the counter-revolutionary Assad regime tolerated by Western imperialism and blatantly supported by Russia.
Both of these “barbarisms” feed off each other. The US helped create the Taliban to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then Assad releases Al Quaida prisoners to fight the more progressive opposition. The US and imperialism would rather deal with loyal, although brutal dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Assad, than allow a popular movement to topple these regimes in a fight for democracy and social and economic justice. But the religious fundamentalists are also relatively independent as these movements started to fill the vacuum left by leftist progressive movements, in particular the Moscow-backed Communist parties, who supported the nationalist regimes such as those of Nasser and even of Saddam Hussein in the 1950s and 1960s only to be eliminated by them politically, and sometimes physically. That vacuum grew even larger when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
At the moment, the main objective for the Russian intervention is to provide cover to allow the Syrian regime forces, backed by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, to attack the non-Islamic “jihadist” forces in Aleppo and Deera, areas which are more strategic for the regime rather than the mainly desert areas controlled by ISIS. By eliminating the more progressive elements of the Assad opposition, the situation can then be put as a choice between the terrorists of ISIS or the Assad regime, with whom it is possible to do business. The attacks on the FSA and others in Aleppo by Russia are a dilemma for the West, but it never really had its heart in helping them to be a serious force that could topple Assad. After all, the popular Arab uprisings of 2011 could have developed into a movement that threatened Western imperialism’s political and economic interests in the region, and give momentum to the Palestinian cause. Despite initially giving some minimal and tentative support to the FSA, the US and Britain have now given up on them, and are now reconciled to letting Russia “get on with it”, albeit with some mealy-mouthed protests. For them, there is a to a large degree a coincidence of interests: defeating ISIS and maintaining the regime.
In this quagmire and slaughter, there are still progressive forces that are fighting both ISIS and Assad. The heroic resistance of the Kurds at Kobane, with their YPG fighting units are an inspiration, although unfortunately up until now they have taken a somewhat neutral position in the fight against the Assad regime. There are still Free Syrian Army and other non-Islamic “jihadist” forces. Their exact strength is unclear, and their forces have been depleted through the relentless assault over the last four years from both ISIS and Assad.
In Britain, socialists and anti-war activists must oppose any military intervention by the government, and loudly condemn the Russian bombing. This is a necessary starting point but not sufficient. We must also call for Assad to go and for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country so that the people of Syria are able to determine their future freely and in peace. This must also include supporting the right of self-determination for the Kurds. And Britain as well as Europe must open its borders to let in the refugees and migrants fleeing from Syria, mainly from Assad’s brutal war and the havoc left by imperialist interventions in the region since 2013.
As the war continues, the progressive and democratic opposition should be allowed to obtain arms from wherever they can and without conditions to defend themselves against ISIS and Assad. To be effective they also need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, they would then not need to call on imperialism to help them with a “No Fly Zone”. Such a NFZ would hand-over control of military operations to Western imperialism who could turn it on or off as it suits them and not according to the needs of the people of Syria. Socialists in Britain cannot support a call on the government to intervene militarily including with the use of a NFZ, but we should understand the desperate plight of Syrians opposing ISIS and Assad when they make such a call.
Western and Russian imperialism, along with the regional powers of the Gulf States and Israel, want to maintain the status quo in the region. We cannot choose a lesser evil on the grounds that the main enemy is US imperialism. On the contrary, we must side with the people of Syria and the progressive and democratic forces, however feeble they may be, in their fight for peace, democracy, and social and economic justice.