Imperialism Against the Syrian People
By Lucien Gauthier
Images of war, killings and desolation in Syria can be found readily in media outlets around the world. The big imperialist powers are using the legitimate emotional response to try to substantiate the idea that there is no other course than that of “humanitarian” intervention by those same big powers.
In a speech he gave on 4 September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was obliged to acknowledge at one point that “those who provide arms to either side are only contributing to further misery” for the Syrians. One UN agency responsible for humanitarian issues had already pointed out — without this being picked up by the press — that massacres were being committed on both sides. The situation in Syria has swung towards civil war. It forms the latest link in the chain of countries that are being broken up following the imperialist intervention in Libya, which blew apart, with one immediate consequence being the breaking-up of Mali, leaving the north of the country controlled by Islamist militias. Militias, mafia-style groups and mercenaries throughout the region are carrying out military operations, kidnappings, massacres and trafficking.
The whole Sahel region is under threat, especially Algeria, which is facing the threat of a new attempt to dismember it. At the same time, Sudan — which has been split into South and North under the aegis of the UN — is seeing the two new countries clash militarily for control of the oil wealth. Iraq and Afghanistan, which for so long have been occupied by imperialist troops, have been broken up and given over to violence; and as a result of that situation, Pakistan is itself on the brink of blowing apart, while the number of wars and conflicts is growing in Africa. With the civil war in Syria, all the countries in the region are under threat, especially Lebanon, where armed clashes are becoming more frequent. In this situation, Iran is being targeted and is facing the threat of military intervention.
Imperialism against the revolution
This situation of the region’s nations and peoples being broken up is the direct result of imperialism’s reaction to the revolutionary processes in Tunisia and Egypt, which began almost two years ago. The imperialist powers tried to support the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak at whatever cost. When, faced with the revolutionary power of the masses’ movement, the two dictators fell, imperialism — with the collaboration of all forces capable of blocking the revolution’s path — had to protect the regimes that took power by repainting them in “democratic” colours, a process christened the “democratic transition”.
In order to do this, imperialism had to rely on “yesterday’s enemies”, the Islamist movements, including them, together with “secular” forces that emerged from the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, in governments whose first task was to contain the revolutionary process. But although this condition was necessary, it was not enough. It was necessary to show, for the benefit of all the peoples of the region, that the path of revolution for overthrowing regimes would lead nowhere. Libya was the testing-ground and the example chosen by imperialism, provoking and unleashing a civil war. Imperialism used this as a pretext for intervening militarily, and in the process taking direct control of the country’s oil production.
Syria in the eye of the storm
This is why the Syrian regime no longer meets the needs of imperialism in the new situation opened two years ago. Hafez al-Assad, the current President’s father, seized power in a coup d’état in 1970. He then created a single-party police state. The leaders of the regime, which was based on one of the minorities, the Alawites, very quickly allied themselves with the business community from the demographic majority Sunni and with parts of the Christian community — which prospered as a result — in order to establish the regime’s domination. Its policy was characterised by regular oscillation between imperialism and the Soviet Union. The regime played on this situation and thus maintained a certain degree of autonomy. In 1974, following an agreement with the Israelis to disengage militarily, Assad received US President Nixon in Damascus. From 1976 to 1982, an armed offensive by the Muslim Brotherhood with the support of Jordan and Iraq sought to overthrow the regime, provoking a wave of bloody repression in response. Syria then drew close to the Soviet Union.
But at the same time, Syria was also used by imperialism to maintain order in Lebanon. Following the civil war which broke up Lebanon, Syria was to contribute towards re-establishing order. In 1987, Syrian troops occupied Lebanon and guaranteed order for the benefit of regional stability, including therefore the existence of the State of Israel. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Syrian regime supported Iran, while US imperialism supported Iraq, which was given the task of defeating an Iranian regime which, since the Shah’s fall from power, had opposed the US government. But with the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its collapse, the regime once again had to draw close to US imperialism. Thus in 1990, Hafez al-Assad took part in the US war on Iraq, sending in 20,000 troops. On the other hand, he rejected any involvement in the Oslo Accords which marked the creation of the Palestinian Authority. The regime, which for decades had used socialist-sounding and Arab nationalist phraseology, made use of the Palestinian question to present itself as an anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli regime.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Bashar al-Assad, who had assumed power when his father died a year previously, collaborated with the United States in the so-called war on al-Qaida (which formed the pretext for intervening in Afghanistan and then Iraq, two years later). However, Syria remained on the US list of countries linked to “terrorism” due to its opposition to the Jewish State, which still occupied the Golan Heights, belonging to Syria.
The United States required the Syrian regime to go much further in submitting to imperialism’s demands, in order to be removed from the list. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005 allowed US imperialism and the State of Israel to ramp up their pressure, by accusing Damascus of being behind the killing. It was on this basis that the Syrian troops left Lebanon, which they had occupied since 1987, resulting in the stabilisation of order in the region.
In 2006, regarding Syria as an essential element of regional stability, the report on the Middle East by US Senators Baker and Hamilton advocated the resumption of dialogue. In 2008, President Bashar al-Assad went to France for the Summit for the Mediterranean, and was received by Sarkozy. While still regularly describing Syria as a rear base for terrorism, the United States called on it to break off relations with the Lebanese anti-Israeli organisations or with Iran. US imperialism increased its indications of warmer relations, regarding the Syrian regime as a factor for order in the region.
But after the outbreak of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the existence of a centralised Syrian state — whose decisions did not depend directly on US imperialism and which was playing an essential role in Lebanon, also refusing to isolate Iran — could have been a factor for stability, but was actually in contradiction with the policy of US imperialism, as was demonstrated through the imperialist attack on Libya.
The Syrian regime no longer meets the requirements of the new situation
The reorientation of the Syrian regime’s policy since Bashar al-Assad’s accession to power, responding to the demands of the IMF, aggravated all the regional inequalities which until then had been tempered by the massive subsidies distributed by the regime. This reorientation had provoked strong contradictions within the regime, between those who wanted to go further in collaborating with the United States and those who were against this, resulting in the settling of accounts and executions.
Immediately following the fall of Ben Ali, the Syrian government — through fear of revolutionary contagion — announced that it would pay eleven dollars per month to the most underprivileged families. The IMF immediately started to call on Syria to stop all forms of food subsidy. It also recommended increasing electricity prices, which were very low thanks to state subsidies. The privatisation of the Syrian economic system, the result of pressure from the United States, certainly received the blessing of the leading caste, but it undoubtedly plunged a large proportion of the population into poverty. At the same time, it accentuated the corruption of those groups linked to the government, which sought to monopolise the result of the privatisations.
This situation sharpened the existing specific characteristics, helped in the process by various groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, foreign secret services and some factions emerging from the regime. Syria is a mosaic of populations and religions (Sunnis, Shi’ites, Alawites, Druze, Eastern Christians, Kurds, Arabs, etc.), “held together” for half a century by a regime whose leaders, especially the military officers, come from the Alawite community and rely on the Sunni and Christian commercial bourgeoisie.
With the march to revolution underway in the region, and particularly with the destabilisation of Egypt, the regime reacted with brutal repression, as it had always done, but at the same time it sought to negotiate with the United States. But the United States does not wish to negotiate, as this would involve acknowledging a relative autonomy on the part of the Syrian regime. What they want is a puppet regime. In the last decade, the Syrian regime has done a lot to show willing to imperialism. But the very nature of that regime, the fruit of a consensus between different factions that was centralised as a military and police state, cannot “reform” itself as imperialism might wish.
Putting into question the balances that underpin the regime would make it blow apart. US pressure in trying to provoke a coup d’état within the regime and its use of the “Free Syrian Army” as a tool for putting on that pressure have resulted in a genuine civil war, because the core group of the regime is not divided.
Qatar, imperialism’s pilot fish
Once again, as was the case in Libya, Qatar has played a crucial role by training, funding and arming the so-called “Free Syrian Army”. The Qataris are close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who have a central role in the so-called “Syrian National Council”. Turkey is the conduit for arming the Free Syrian Army, financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Numerous mercenaries and Islamists from Libya and elsewhere, as well as special forces from the imperialist countries, have entered Syria. The economic interests of the Americans and Qataris are well represented.
The Emir of Qatar has long been close to Bashar al-Assad. There was even a gas pipeline project linking Qatar with Turkey via Syria. This pipeline would have allowed Qatar to export directly to Europe, avoiding the Hormuz Strait under Iranian control. In 2004, Iranian special forces destroyed a Qatari drilling platform, on the grounds of the emirate drilling too far into the natural gas field shared by Qatar and Iran. At the time, Bashar al-Assad had turned down the pipeline project in order to avoid going against the interests of its ally Iran. On the other hand, a new Syrian government financed by Qatar could allow the project to be relaunched. Furthermore, Turkey and Europe were in favour of building the gas pipeline in order to be less dependent on Russian gas, which among other things explains Moscow’s support for Damascus.
It is in these conditions that imperialism’s reaction to the revolutionary process, which focused on the peoples’ and nations’ sovereignty, is unleashing a march towards widespread barbarism. It is also in these conditions that all kinds of adventure are possible, allowing the Israeli government to threaten to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations in the autumn.
Up to now the US administration has tried to rein in the Israelis, not in order to defend Iran’s sovereignty, but out of fear of even more widespread destabilisation. But it is clear that, as far as the US administration is concerned, its “Greater Middle East” project, which is based on breaking up nations and redrawing the region’s frontiers under puppet regimes, entails resolving the Iranian problem and finding a “solution” in Palestine. The very existence of the Palestinian people, in other words, not only the populations of the West Bank and Gaza, but also those living in Israeli territory, Jordan and Lebanon, posed the question of the right of return for all the refugees, something which neither the United States nor the State of Israel could accept. The spread of wars is a looming threat.
The peoples’ right is in contradiction with imperialism
This is why, as early as January 2011, the Fourth International took a position of supporting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, because it is the struggle of the workers and people that can achieve national sovereignty by breaking the links of subordination with imperialism (like, for example, the Association Agreement with the European Union in Tunisia). This fight to break the links of subordination with imperialism and for the expropriation of businesses being pillaged by foreign capitalists constituted the foundations of national sovereignty.
Considering world imperialism to be the peoples’ main enemy, the Fourth International could not possibly think that imperialism could help the peoples through acts of military intervention. This is why it took a clear position against military intervention in Libya, just as it denounces the threat weighing upon Syria, unlike the Socialist International, which support “humanitarian interference”, and numerous Communist Parties and the United Secretariat which, while not coming out openly in favour of intervention, are calling for the fall of the Syrian regime by arming and funding the “opposition”, which Qatar and the United States have been doing for months!
It is significant in Tunisia that the “secular Islamist” government of national unity is maintaining all the association agreements with the European Union and those made with the IMF, and is carrying on with Ben Ali’s economic policy. The revolutionary process, which has been contained but not crushed, is seeing the masses seek out the paths to sovereignty. From this point of view, it is significant that after the Congress of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) in late December 2011 adopted the slogan “Neither Qatar nor United States, Free Tunisia!”, this slogan has been taken up in every demonstration since then. The UGTT has also taken a position against the threat of intervention in Syria.
The interests of the Fourth International are no different to those of the workers, and the workers have no interest in war in Syria or in bombing Iran, which would strengthen their subservience to imperialism even more. They need their sovereignty, they need to drive out imperialism.
[article reprinted from Issue No. 75 (September 2012) of La Vérité/The Truth, theoretical magazine of the Fourth International]