The reasons for the imperialist offensive against Syria

Photo: james_gordon_los_angeles
US drones fly over Syria

By Andrew Williams

The UN General Assembly motion on Syria agreed last week, condemning President Assad and calling for him to step down, was organised by the US and its closest allies, including Saudi Arabia, to try to give legitimacy to their growing intervention in Syria.

The imperialists’ goals in this are: the overthrow of a regime which on some issues has not adopted positions in the interests of imperialism; to isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon and thereby strengthen Israel; and to remove a key ally of Iran to facilitate military action or further sanctions against it. Syria is therefore the immediate focus of resistance to imperialism’s offensive in the Middle East.

The US, Britain and France, backed by Israel, working with the reactionary Gulf states, were forced to bypass the UN Security Council where they cannot secure a resolution supporting attacks on Syria because of Russian and Chinese vetoes. The US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are therefore proceeding with their plans to intensify the military conflict against Syria by other routes. The Arab League is now calling for a joint UN-Arab ‘peacekeeping force’ – essentially a proposal to insert foreign military forces in to Syria – while the US has started flying its drones into Syrian airspace.

As outlined in a previous article on this website, the ultimate aim of imperialism in the Middle East is to eliminate all resistance to the interests of the West and its allies across the region. Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq and next Gaddafi was toppled in Libya. If the Syrian government can be replaced with a compliant regime then further pressure can be focussed against Hezbollah, which militarily defeated Israel in Lebanon, and against Iran.

The US goal to overthrow Syria

US General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO’s 1999 assault on Serbia, has stated that an attack on Syria became the policy of the US administration in 2001. George W. Bush’s White House ordered the US military to prepare for the invasion and takeover of eight countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

Afghanistan was invaded in 2001 but, aside from Britain, the other imperialists at the time only gave token assistance to this US military action. When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, France and Germany, in alliance with Russia, vetoed UN endorsement of the attack. Faced with this obstruction, in 2003 the US indicated it had no capacity to also invade Syria. With its military stretched in two serious conflicts, plans for a war with Syria had to be set aside at least temporarily.

However, the longer term issue of toppling Syria’s government remained on the US agenda. As the State Department’s John Bolton spelt out on 16 April 2003 Syria, Libya and Iran were all regimes that the US wished to see changed, saying that: ‘We are hoping that the elimination of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein… would be important lessons to other countries in the region, particularly Syria, Libya and Iran.’

In the meantime the US directed its efforts to linking up with and strengthening Syria’s opposition movements. Working alongside France and Britain, opposition currents both within and outside Syria were courted and, as classified material revealed by WikiLeaks indicates, the US was funding Syrian opposition groups by 2006.

In parallel the imperialists started a new sanctions campaign, to inflict economic hardship on the Syrian population as a means to promote discontent. Since 2003 the US, EU, Japan and Canada have all been participating in an increasingly tightening wave of economic sanctions, whose purpose is to reduce the supply of Western products and services to Syrians and to block the country from access to export markets for its petroleum products.

The current offensive against Syria

Against this background, from 2008 imperialism encountered further problems when struck by the financial crisis. Economic growth became slow or absent. At the same time, its influence has also been progressively weakening across Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. A further challenge was the impact of China’s expanding economy, which offers semi-colonial countries better options for trade and development than the terms demanded by imperialism.

Confronted with last year’s wave of popular movements across the Middle East, which would have further undermined its position, a determined counter-offensive therefore had to be launched. This was particularly urged on the imperialists by their closest Arab ally, the Saudi Arabian dictatorship, which feared for its own rule amid an upsurge in the Arab world. Reactionary Saudi interests coincided with imperialism’s goal of maintaining its control over the all-important oil supplies from this region. Therefore the plans to topple ‘non-compliant’ governments in Libya, Syria and Iran shot back up the agenda.

The first objective was to overthrow Gaddafi and install a client regime in Libya. This was successfully achieved by an alliance of NATO, the Gulf States and local opposition forces. A similar alliance is coordinating the current offensive against Syria.

Imperialism’s goal of replacing the region’s independent regimes with compliant ones is what the former EU diplomat Alastair Crooke calls the American and Israeli ‘project’. His analysis on 15 February in Asia Times also outlines how the religiously sectarian goals of imperialism’s clients in the region, such as shoring up reactionary Arab states in the Gulf against Shia communities suspected of being sympathetic to Iran, have been tied into this offensive.

The US and Israel

Within Syria there has been and is widespread hostility both to Israel and to the role the US plays in the region. On the occasions when the Syrian government has stood up to imperialism, such as opposing the US and British invasion of Iraq, its support for Palestinian resistance, and its refusal to agree to a peace treaty with Israel which does not return the Golan Heights, such positions have been popular. Therefore the US and Israel are consciously taking care to ensure their support or involvement with the Syrian opposition movement is discreet, for fear of further compromising it.

As the New York Times reported on 20 September 2011, while discussing how to overthrow the Syrian government ‘the administration does not want to look as if the United States is trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria, for fear that the image of American intervention might do the Syrian opposition more harm than good.’

Israel’s prime minster Netanyahu indicated a similar approach in an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya in July 2011, by ‘signalling his support for the mass anti-government protests against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’ and an awareness that ‘anything he says would be used against the “genuine reform that people would like to see in Syria.” ’. As Ha’aretz on 16 February 2012 reported, Israel backs regime change in Syria but its prime minister is anxious to ensure Israel is not publicly identified inside Syria with this campaign as this would be counter-productive.

With imperialism concerned to mask its role in the conflict, its local clients are correspondingly being pushed publicly to the fore. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are credited with marshalling the support of the Arab League, and Turkey has a high profile as officially hosting the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The propaganda campaign

The media of the imperialists and their Gulf clients is fully behind the unfolding intervention campaign, so naturally misinformation is abundant. A stream of wild unverified claims from opposition sources is constantly reported in the US and European media as if it were fact. The Arab League Monitoring Mission’s report, itself not covered by the Western media, drew attention to the misinformation masquerading as news from Syria.

Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army and the covert war

The SNC and FSA are acting as direct instruments of imperialism, so unsurprisingly both are campaigning for foreign military forces to attack Syria. The Western imperialist states are building international support for the SNC as the ‘regime-in-waiting’. They are also orchestrating a military terrorist campaign in Syria including the attacks credited to the FSA. This covert warfare, with its bombings and assassinations is sustained from military bases in Turkey and Jordan, with supplies of arms and munitions being routed via Lebanon for actions in Homs, Hama and Damascus.

The US and its allies started these military operations before summer 2011. The US has considerable experience of sending counter-revolutionary forces into a country for sabotage and death squad actions. Current activities in Syria therefore have much in common with the way the US supported ‘Contra’ attacks on Nicaragua in the 1980s. By May 2011 the US is reported to have started arming and training Syrian opposition groups from a US base in Turkey near the border with Syria.

According to former FBI officer Sibel Edmunds, weapons were being smuggled into Syria and US political disinformation operations also conducted in Syria. By December the US had established a second training camp for armed opposition groups in Jordan. Some within the US military, concerned about the ‘march to war’, criticised the US’s involvement. Former CIA officer Philip Geraldi told the American Conservative, there was disquiet about the covert war within the CIA and that the Syrian opposition’s claims about civilian deaths were not believed. The accounts of mass defections from the Syrian army to the opposition were also considered fabrications.

In addition to US covert operations, at the beginning of 2012 British military involvement in Syria was also reported in the UK press. The Daily Star on 1 January 2012 in an article headed ‘Syria will be bloodiest yet’ stated that: ‘Britain is gearing up for fighting in Syria that could be bigger and bloodier than the battle against Gaddafi.’ It reported a security official as revealing that ‘MI6 and the CIA are in Syria to infiltrate.’ ‘We have SAS and SBS not far away…’ ‘Syria supports Hezbollah. That threatens Israel and the whole of the Middle East.’ Russian media has reported indications of British and Qatari ‘special forces’ activity in Homs.

Syria – at the top of imperialism’s agenda

The toppling of the Syrian government has now become one of the most central issues dominating imperialism’s agenda. There is a covert war being waged alongside a huge propaganda and diplomatic campaign, with the later dominating the agendas at the UN.

Imperialism’s next steps are openly elaborated in its leading media outlets. For example the Financial Times editorial of 13 February argued for arming the FSA and attempting to split the army on religious sectarian lines (i.e. against Syria’s Alawite minority). This, it claimed, would probably need to be followed by foreign invasion to establish so called ‘safe haven’ and by ‘aerial bombardment’. For the FT Turkey and the Arab League together need to be at the heart of this offensive.

The Economist on 11 February set out its view on the way forward. In a leader headlined ‘How to set Syria free’ it stated: ‘Syria’s fractious opposition must unite. A contact group of outside powers and the opposition could channel money into Syria, as well as help with communications and logistics.’ In addition: ‘Turkey, with the blessing of NATO and the Arab League, should create and defend a safe haven in north-western Syria. The FSA can train fighters there, and a credible opposition can take shape. Turkey seems willing to do this, providing it gets Western support. The haven would be similar to that created for the Kurds in northern Iraq…’

Iran, Hezbollah and Palestine

Should Assad’s government be overthrown the balance of forces in Middle East region will shift significantly. Syria is the principle supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon – Israel’s most successful military opponent. Overthrowing Assad would reduce the aid to the Palestinian resistance movements.

Syria is Iran’s principal ally, so following a successful imperialist counter-revolution in Syria the threat to Iran would increase. As Seumas Milne pointed out in the Guardian on 7 February: ‘the overthrow of the Syrian regime would be a serious blow to Iran’s influence in the Middle East.’

Imperialism and Israel stand to gain from a change of regime, as their commentators point out. Bloomberg Businessweek on February 14 ran an article headed ‘Syria Is Opportunity for Sunni Saudis to “Defang” Shiite Iran’ and stated that: ‘Toppling the Assad regime would deny Iran its most important regional ally and allow Sunni Gulf nations to break Iran’s ‘Shiite crescent” of influence that extends through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and into the Palestinian territories’.

The former head of Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad), Efraim Halevy, made a similar point in the New York Times on 8 February, writing that: ‘The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace’ and that ‘Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles’ heel.’

Build up the campaign against imperialist intervention

Today in the Middle East, the most immediate goal of imperialism is the counterrevolutionary overthrow of the Syrian government. If this can be achieved then imperialism will also be significantly better placed to proceed to attack Iran and Israel’s opponents in Lebanon. It is for this reason that imperialism is ramping up its covert military intervention and publicly discussing plans to introduce foreign troops.

Socialists should oppose this offensive, explain how it can only bring more turmoil and set backs to people in the region, and link up with all those who promote progressive outcomes in the Middle East.

Related material

After Libya: Syria, counterrevolution and Counterfire

The imperialist counter-offensive against the Arab Spring – Libya, Syria, Iran

After Libya: West has Syria and Iran in its sights

No imperialist intervention in Syria