The Fruits of intervention – Imperialism in Syria

The Fruits of intervention – Imperialism in Syria

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Post-Blog

Yasmine Mather’s article in this week’s Weekly Worker is the best analysis that I have read to date of the situation in Syria and the position that the US finds itself on – effectively supporting and opposing IS!  This is what lies at the root of the refugee crisis, a wholly owned creation of Western intereference.

Tony  Greenstein

Yassamine Mather surveys the mess that imperialism has created

Backed by Saudi money

As
Esen Uslu reports in this edition of the paper, on October 10, around 100
demonstrators were killed and many more hundreds were injured in Ankara after a
suicide bomber attacked a rally organised by the pro-Kurdish People’s
Democratic Party (HDP). The party had organised the demonstration to coincide
with the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire to be made by the Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK) later that day. The Turkish government had already
dismissed any ceasefire deal, claiming that it was a tactical manoeuvre by the
Kurdish nationalists, and said Turkey would continue its battle against the PKK
until it gets “results”.

Soon
after the atrocity, acting prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggested that either
Kurdish rebels or Islamic State militants were to blame. Blaming the Kurds or
the left is standard practice for rightwing governments in Turkey, but, given
the PKK’s commitment to a ceasefire in the run-up to the November 1 Turkish
elections, the accusation was ludicrous. Sunday’s demonstrators in Ankara,
Istanbul and Diyarbakır were unanimous in blaming Erdoğan for the bombings,
shouting “Erdoğan: murderer”, “Government, resign” and “The state will be held
to account”. By October 12, Turkish authorities were changing their tune,
pointing the finger solely at IS. While that cannot be completely discounted,
at this stage there is no reason to dismiss other potential culprits amongst a
number of Turkish nationalist groups – the ruling AKP, to start with – or
Islamists such as the Syrian al-Nusra. The same day, Turkish planes bombed PKK
targets in both the south-east of the country and over the border in northern
Iraq.
Syrian link
Of
course, no-one can be in any doubt that the horrendous attack in Ankara is
directly connected to events across the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in
Syria can potentially change the balance of forces in favour of the Syrian
dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey is concerned that its allies in al-Nusra
and other Islamic groups may be defeated. More significantly, last week came
news that US president Barack Obama has decided to end, in the words of the Los
Angeles Times
, the “Pentagon’s failed effort to field its own proxy force
in Syria”. The paper continued: “Instead of trying to back a moderate Syrian
rebel force that the US would train, the administration will focus on
supporting the Kurds and other established rebel groups in the country’s civil
war.”1
Pentagon
press secretary Peter Cook announced: “The Pentagon will provide equipment
packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units, so
that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled
by Isil.”2 IS has, of course, taken control of large
parts of northern and eastern Syria, and remains the main US target in the
country. Cook added: “We will monitor the progress these groups make and
provide them with air support, as they take the fight to Isil.”
Throughout
the week, representatives of the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party, a close
ally of Turkey’s PKK) had been in Washington, trying to convince US authorities
that Russian involvement in Syria does not mean they do not need US air cover.
Sadly this is where asking for intervention from the US (and Russia) takes you.
A senior member of the PYD boasted: “Russia says it wants to work with us to
combat the group that calls itself the Islamic State and other extremist organisations.”3 All this at a time when the Obama
administration and Turkey were accusing Russia of focussing on bombing ‘more
moderate’ Sunni Arab opponents of Assad, rather than IS.
The
PYD view of Russia’s bombing campaign was summed up in this way by spokesperson
Ilham Ehmed: “a good step for the fight against terrorism, but, on the other
hand, it is empowering the Assad regime, which is a bad point”. Ehmed also
asserted, by the way, that there are no members of the US-backed Free Syria
Army in the area around Aleppo and Idlib, which has been carpet-bombed in the
current Russian offensive. The Pentagon has a different view – it claims Russia
is hitting fighters there who have received US funding and training.
To
understand the PYD’s total collapse into calling for and accepting US and
Russian intervention we need to look at the current battle ground in Syria.
According to Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, speaking to Al-Monitor:
The
PYD, which has expanded its territory in northern Syria on the border with
Turkey since a battle for Kobanê earlier this year, wants to unify two pockets
of Kurdish control. The Kurds want to take Azaz, al-Bab, Manbaj and Jarabulus,
which are all west of the Euphrates River.4
Balanche
said Azaz is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra and a brigade of the FSA.
According to her, although the United States supported the PYD in expelling IS
from Kobanê, during the negotiations over the use of Turkey’s İncirlik air base
by US war planes, Washington had assured Ankara that the Kurds would not be
allowed anywhere west of Kobanê. According to Balance, the PYD was unhappy
about this situation and saw it as a major obstacle to its military tactics:
“There are 500,000 people between Azaz, al-Bab, Manbaj and Jarabulus, including
a Turkmen minority … It would be very difficult for the Kurds to capture this
area without heavy US support.”5
Of
course, Balanche had predicted that if the United States does not back the
Kurdish advance, the PYD will look to Russia and Assad, “if that is its only
path to a continuous territory in the north”. Indeed PYD leader Salih Muslim
has suggested that “the group may be seeking a strategic alliance with Assad
and Russia in order to achieve that goal”.6
PYD
officials have consistently blamed Turkey for allowing new recruits for IS to
cross its border into Syria. Referring to Turkey’s role, Ehmed commented:
“Terrorism didn’t come from the sky.” However, unfortunately for the Kurds and
the ordinary citizens of Syria, Iraq, etc, in the current tragic situation in
the Middle East every major power, every regional power is pursuing its own
interests. It is precisely because of this that calling for any intervention is
madness – at the end of the day the PYD on the ground will pay the price for
this type of opportunist manoeuvring. The events of the last few weeks have
proved beyond doubt that foreign intervention, far from resolving the problems,
have made the situation worse.
Who
are the main players and what are their regional/global interests?

USA
The
United States is committed to ending the rule of Assad and therefore so far its
air campaign against IS has been both ineffective and half-hearted. Assad’s
attempts at ingratiating himself with the US authorities have failed.
This
has nothing to do with the dictator’s repressive policies before or after the ‘Arab
spring’ (after all, the US maintains good relations with other repressive
regimes in the area), nor has it got anything to do with the current civil war
in the country. Wikileaks has revealed that as early as December 2006, five
years before the first Arab spring protests in Syria, the policy of
destabilising the Damascus government was a central part of US policy.
Wikileaks has published cables sent by William Roebuck, who was at the time
chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies
for regime change in Syria. Roebuck wrote:
We
believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues,
both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps
(however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the
potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting
Islamist extremists. This cable summarises our assessment of these
vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements and signals
that the US can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities
arising.7
Roebuck
lists Syria’s relationship with Iran as a “vulnerability” that the US should
try to “exploit”. His suggested means of doing so are:
Possible
action: play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence. There are fears in
Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytising and conversion
of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an
element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and
focussed on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities
ranging from mosque construction to business.
Both
the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni
religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should
coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicise and
focus regional attention on the issue.8
Roebuck’s
advice was clear: the United States should try to destabilise the Syrian
government by coordinating more closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fan
sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia. For all the talk by rightwing
apologists of the United States about Salafi ideology and its crucial role in
the rise of IS, Wikileaks documents make it clear who is to blame for starting
this particular sectarian war in the region. Ironically the cable was written
at a time when sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict in neighbouring Iraq was causing
serious problems for the US military.
Throughout
this period the US has also been concerned with “weaning Syria from Iran”.
Wikileaks documents from March 2009, entitled ‘Saudi intelligence chief talks
regional security with Brennan delegation’, give us proof of this:
Brennan
asked Muqrin [bin Abdulaziz, head of Saudi intelligence] if he believed the
Syrians were interested in improving relations with the United States. “I can’t
say anything positive or negative,” he replied, declining to give an opinion.
Muqrin observed that the Syrians would not detach from Iran without “a
supplement”.9
There
can be no doubt that at the time for the US government the main issue was
separating Syria from Iran. “Improving relations with the United States” was
only possible if the Assad regime could be ‘weaned’ from Iran. In other words,
the US couldn’t care less about human rights in the country or the Syrian
dictator’s treatment of national and religious minorities. Its only concern was
the regime’s close relations with Iran.
Having
started the whole debacle, by 2014 US authorities were becoming concerned with
the sectarian Sunni-Shia character of the civil war in Syria.
Here
the Unites States has been facing a dilemma: given the distrust of Assad and
his Iranian backers, given the clear animosity of its regional allies, Turkey
and Saudi Arabia, and by proxy their covert or direct support for Sunni
jihadists (mainly al-Nusra, but also IS), why not back the Syrian opposition, including
IS, and commit fully to the overthrow of the Assad regime?
It
is not just lack of strategy or timidity that has led to the current stalemate
and uncertainty. The problem here is that, although elements within the state
department have over the last few weeks considered the possibility of an IS
victory and the establishment of a Salafist state in parts of Syria and Iraq,
in the US it would very difficult – almost impossible – to sell the idea of
accepting such a situation. After all, the origins of both al-Nusra and Islamic
State go back to al Qa’eda and for the last 14 years the rationale of successive
US administrations in the ‘war on terror’ has been ‘revenge for 9/11’.
So
it is here that the dilemma for the Obama administration lies. Striking a deal
with the jihadists would appease regional allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey,
ensure regime change in Syria and weaken Iran’s regional position. However, for
all those ‘positive outcomes’, it cannot be sold at home. It is this more than
anything else that has created the current stalemate, resulting from indecision
and half-hearted attempts by the US administration in its dealings with IS.
In
addition, the United States is obsessed with countering Russian influence.

Russia
Russia’s
involvement in the Syrian conflict has a number of strategic aims, including
the wish to challenge US dominance in world affairs and the declared aim to
weaken Islamist radicals, who Moscow claims are amongst Russia’s enemies.
The
Soviet-Syrian alliance was forged during the rule of Hafez al Assad and even
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hafez and his son, Bashar, remained amongst
Moscow’s regional allies. In addition the Russian navy keeps a relatively small
but important resupply and light repair facility at the Syrian port of Tartus.
Although this is not a major naval base, it plays a significant role in Putin’s
strategic, geopolitical ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia’s
largest and most important military base in a foreign country is its Black Sea
fleet base in Sevastopol, Crimea. However, in order to be deployed beyond the
Black Sea, Russian warships also need the base in Syria. In addition Moscow
considers Iran’s Islamic Republic as an ally and is willing to support Iran’s
allies and the country’s interests in the region.
The
Soviet navy began using Syria’s deep-water port at Tartus for submarines and
surface vessels under a 1971 agreement with Damascus and Tartus was later
upgraded to become the “720th logistics support point” for the Soviet Navy.
Russia continued to use the base after the collapse of the Soviet Union in
1991. The Assad regime has no particular allegiance to Russia and would have
accepted US bribes for closing the base. However, no attempt has yet been made
to achieve such a rapprochement.

Iran
Iran’s
Islamic Republic has been amongst Assad’s main backers. According to Hojjat
al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar strategic base and a close ally of
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
Syria
is Iran’s 35th province. If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take over Syria
or [Iran’s] Khuzestan, the priority lies in maintaining Syria, because if we
maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. However, if we lose Syria, we won’t
be able to hold Tehran.10
This
is a stance supported by all factions of the Islamic government in Iran.
According to former president Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani, speaking to Iraq’s special
envoy in December 2012, “We must possess Syria. If the chain from Lebanon to
here is cut, bad things will happen.”11
We
should note Rafsanjani’s instructive use of the term “chain”. The rulers of
Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states justify supporting Salafi militias and
jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria with claims that Shia Iran now controls vast
territory in the region – from the western borders of Afghanistan to Beirut and
the Mediterranean coast. Clearly Rafsanjani and other Iranian leaders have a
similar analysis. Of course, neither side would admit that Iran’s regional
success is the inevitable by-product of the US invasion of Iraq and the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Other
Iranian officials – such as Qasem Soleimani, a commander of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards – have talked of Syria as an integral component of the
Iranian-led “resistance” to Israel and the United States. Soleimani is
currently involved in organising Shia militias in Iraq and has played a
significant role in planning military moves against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Last
week, the Revolutionary Guards announced the ‘martyrdom’ of one of its
high-ranking commanders, brigadier-general Hossein Hamadani, who was killed
near Aleppo in Syria. During his funeral it became clear that, despite Iranian
and Syrian denials about the involvement of Iranian ground forces in Syria, the
general had led 80 missions during the country’s civil war. According to the
Iranian press, he was involved in “creating national defence forces for Assad”.
In
the last few years Iranian security and intelligence services have advised and
assisted the Syrian military in order to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.
However, Iran’s involvement in this war is not popular at home. The country is
facing major economic problems after years of punitive sanctions and most
Iranians see their rulers’ obsession with maintaining regional influence as a
waste of money and irrelevant to their daily lives.

Turkey
No
doubt the dispute between Turkey and the Kurds has undermined US military plans
in Syria, in terms of closing a 68-mile section of the Turkey-Syria border that
has been controlled by IS and used for the transit of foreign fighters into
Syria.
However,
the AKP and Erdoğan have other regional ambitions. Erdoğan, in the words of his
advisor, professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, wanted to solve
century-old problems with Turkey’s neighbours, and become progressively the
inevitable regional mediator. In order to do so, Turkey had to become a
political model and build relations with its Arab partners, without losing its
alliance with Israel.12
Pursuing
this policy, Turkey took a dual approach of cosying up to the Saudis as well as
Israel – all part of its ambition to join the European Union as the ‘political
link’ between the east and west. It was this ambition, together with the AKP’s
own Islamic credentials, that led it to side with jihadi forces.
When
Turkey announced in July 2015 that it would allow US military planes to use its
İncirlik air base , Robert Fisk correctly summed up the country’s role in the
Syrian conflict in this way:
Having
spent the best part of the conflict in Syria acquiescing to Isis – which has
been using Turkish territory as a transit point into Syria, and using it to
build a lucrative commercial hub – Turkey has started targeting the jihadis in
Syria.13
Patrick
Cockburn, writing in the London Review of Books, puts Turkey’s help to
Islamic Sate in context:
The
estimated 12,000 foreign jihadis fighting in Syria, over which there is so much
apprehension in Europe and the US, almost all entered via what became known as
‘the jihadis’ highway’, using Turkish border crossing points, while the guards
looked the other way. In the second half of 2013, as the US put pressure on
Turkey, these routes became harder to access, but Isis militants still cross
the frontier without too much difficulty …
When
Syrian rebels led by al-Nusra captured the Armenian town of Kassab in Syrian
government-held territory early this year, it seemed that the Turks had allowed
them to operate from inside Turkish territory.14
In
other words Turkey, the west’s Nato ally, has been an active player in the rise
of both al-Nusra and Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi
support for all jihadists, from al Qa’eda in Afghanistan to IS in Iraq and
Syria and al-Nusra in Syria, is motivated by rivalry, in terms of regional
power and dominance, with Iran. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia has paid for
weapons for the rebels and arranged for them to be delivered via Croatia. In
August 2013, “Saudi Arabia sent a new batch of anti-tank missiles that gave
rebels in southern Syria a tangible boost on the battlefield.”15
The
Saudi intervention has many facets. However, one of most important aspects is
the fact that Saudi rulers consider themselves guardians of all Sunnis in the
region – and that means combating Iran’s influence. The nuclear deal between
Iran and the P5+1 powers was not to its liking. According to classified leaked
cables in 2010, King Abdullah even urged US officials to crush Iran’s nuclear
programme, so as to “cut off the head of the snake”.16

Conclusion
Let
me repeat once again: given the conflicting and at times shifting interests of
both regional and world powers, revolutionary forces should never have had any
illusions about foreign interventions, be it by the United States, Russia,
Iran, Turkey or anyone else.
To
demonstrate this, let me summarise the events of this week – in addition to the
Ankara atrocity:
  • US troops have air-dropped aid to the FSA (in
    reality al-Nusra).
  • The Russians have bombed al-Nusra and on some
    occasions Islamic State bases.
  • Turkish planes have bombed PKK bases.
  • Iranian troops on the ground in Syria are
    allegedly waiting for reinforcements from Hezbollah.
  • It has become clear that the majority of IS’s
    Twitter followers are in Saudi Arabia!
  • In the midst of all this Russian and US war
    planes had a near collision.
What
a mess. Obama might insist that this is not a proxy war with Russia, but to
everyone else it does look like one. The situation in the region is getting
worse day by day, hour by hour, and we are on the verge of a number of other
regional hot wars – in Yemen and in Iraq, for instance.
Those
who fail to see how severe the situation is, those who still call for
‘humanitarian’ interventions have no place in the ranks of our movement. Given
the terrible price paid by the peoples of the region, I take no pleasure in
reminding all those who were calling for US intervention in the war in Syria:
we told you so.

Notes
8. Ibid.

 

 

 

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