By Andrew Williams
The guerrilla military campaign in Syria significantly escalated in July this year when Russia and China vetoed for the third time a proposed UN Security Council resolution against Syria.
Armed Syrian opposition forces entered the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo to mount attacks and seized a number of border control posts.
A bomb in Damascus killed four of the Syrian government’s top defence personnel, including the Defence Minister and his Deputy.
Vetoing Chapter Seven
The unsuccessful UN resolution was drafted by Britain and co-sponsored by the US, France and Germany. Its aim was to step up pressure on the Syrian government, by giving it ten days to withdraw its troops from populated areas or face more sanctions. No sanctions were proposed on the armed opposition forces that are operating in civilian residential areas.
Russia and China again blocked the resolution with South Africa and Pakistan abstaining. Their reasons were straightforward. The proposed Syria motion invoked Chapter Seven of the UN Charter – which authorises actions including military assault. It was a similar reference to Chapter Seven in the UN motion on Libya that the imperialist subsequently claimed authorised their bombing of Libya last year. Both Russia and China consider they were tricked into supporting the Libya motion which was followed by action that went further than they had been led to believe.
A Russian drafted resolution, proposing the UN observer force in Syria focus on promoting a political solution to the conflict, was not even discussed.
Imperialism seeking a military solution
As set out in a previous article here the ultimate goal of imperialism in this region is to eliminate all resistance to its interests and replace relatively independent regimes with compliant, pro-Western ones. This would allow the US and its allies greater control over the region’s oil, which would in turn give it increased leverage against any country that tries to stand up to it. For example, it would increase the economic pressure on China which is highly reliant on imported oil.
As with Iraq and Libya, imperialism’s aim is to completely destroy the regime. Whereas in Yemen a change in regime personnel was orchestrated, which left its structures intact, this is not an acceptable outcome for imperialism in Syria. The US and its allies, their Gulf client states – particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia – and Israel are united in their determination to not just bring Assad down, but root and branch replace a regime which has been a key support for the resistance to Israel in Lebanon and Palestine.
So while Russia promotes dialogue between the regime and its internal opponents to achieve a transitional government formed on the basis of ‘mutual consent’, the imperialists block any step in this direction. A negotiated Syrian compromise would not produce a sufficiently supine regime.
That is why April’s ceasefire was not allowed to take hold; the Syrian government agreed to it, but the imperialist sponsored guerrilla activity was instead stepped up.
Likewise the UN monitoring operation was made unworkable; the unarmed monitors found their lives at risk as the guerrilla offensive intensified, so the operation had to be suspended.
As a June FT editorial explained it: ‘…any workable political solution to the Syrian conflict … involves some military pressure in the here and now’ – contradicting the official UN goal of achieving a ceasefire, which the FT did not even mention.
The sectarian strategy
Having toppled the regimes of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, by 2004 the US-led occupations of both countries were meeting determined resistance. The US concluded it faced a significant defeat in Iraq unless it re-orientated its political strategy to divide its insurgent opponents.
As Seymour Hersh reported, US strategy in Iraq shifted; an accommodation was sought with Sunni resistance groups and al-Qaeda was no longer deemed a principal enemy. Instead an alliance was constructed against the Shia resistance forces and their strategic backers – the regimes in Syria and Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia particularly welcomed the shift of US orientation.
To foster sectarian division between followers of these different branches of Islam a reactionary ideological campaign has been whipped up that demonises Iran and the Arab Shia communities in the region. In Syria the target is the minority Alawite community from which Assad and many of the regime’s top personnel originate.
One aspect of the opposition violence in Syria is clearly aimed at escalating these divisions, seeking to turn communities against each other and build up support for sectarian political solutions.
The US and its Contra campaigns
The Syrian conflict unfolding these past 16 months follows a familiar pattern. Imperialist military jargon refers to this as ‘unconventional’ or ‘irregular’ warfare, where proxy forces are used to overthrow foreign governments. The US has experience in pursuing these types of war. The most well known example is when Reagan co-ordinated the Contra attacks against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government throughout the 1980s.
Various US military manuals on how to stimulate and direct insurgencies can be read here, here and here. Many of the steps set out in this US Army training circular are already being implemented in Syria.
In the Army circular it defines the US role as the ‘sponsor’ and in the early stages encourages ‘agitation’, with ‘dissenters’ assisted with the organisation of strikes and demonstrations. This is made possible by the ‘infiltration of foreign organisers and advisors and foreign propaganda, material, money, weapons and equipment.’
Later on ‘national front organisations and liberation movements’ are established – similar to the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army.
To develop the armed insurgency local guerrilla forces are trained in the use of mortars, anti-tank systems, machine guns, demolitions, etc.
The US Army expects its personnel to be centrally involved in the planning of guerrilla attacks. The potential political effects of actions are considered as important as the economic and military damage that can be inflicted.
The guerrilla conflict in Syria
For several months now the US has acknowledged its participation in the organisation of guerrilla operations in Syria. Britain is less up front, but its involvement is also reported.
The US with its NATO allies and Israel, working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are coordinating a complex array of military operations. Mercenaries and foreign fighters inspired by the sectarian campaign are being infiltrated into the country, whilst Syrian guerrilla units are also trained and armed.
Weapons and fighters are entering Syria from Lebanon and Iraq and also from Jordon where there are training camps. The principal base of operations for the offensive is reported to be in Turkey near the Syrian border from where the US air force operates.
The counter-revolutionary forces of the FSA and Syrian opposition are being equipped with anti-tank rockets, anti-aircraft guns, roadside bombs and other explosives.
The Syrian regime and its supporters are targeted with assassinations; many of those captured are being executed, tortured or kidnapped. The economic infrastructure, such as pipelines, is being bombed and offensive operations are launched in the middle of civilian populated areas.
The objective is to grind down the regime and its mass base, sabotage the economy and divide the population.
The capacity of imperialism’s various proxy forces has strengthened since February to the point where towards the end of July its forces entered into residential areas of the two main cities to engage in offensive actions.
Imperialism is keen for the guerrillas to establish an urban foothold as this would help justify a Libya-style bombing campaign, if a so-called ‘safe haven’ can be claimed to be established that requires ‘protection’. However, the guerrilla incursion into Damascus was quickly repelled.
In Aleppo the Syrian Army has expelled the fighters from some neighbourhoods and is still trying to dislodge others. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to evacuate their homes as residential areas have been turned into battlefields by the opposition’s violence.
Syria’s borders have become increasingly militarised with ‘conventional’ forces building up on its northern and southern flanks and off its western coast.
Turkey has closed all its border gates with Syria, moved tanks and artillery to the frontier and conducted provocative reconnaissance flights over Syria. Jordan has been hosting manoeuvres involving its forces alongside those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and NATO countries – including the US and Britain. In the eastern Mediterranean the US and Israeli navies have been increasing their presence.
The threat of ‘conventional’ attacks
The Syrian government is more robust than Libya’s was last year. In Libya almost the entire state apparatus in the East of the country went over to an alliance with imperialism. In contrast, despite some high profile assassinations and defections the Syrian regime remains intact and in control of most of the country.
So whilst guerrilla warfare is grinding away at the situation, imperialism is not confident the proxy combatants can achieve a breakthrough without a significant assistance. Hence the frequent warnings that a ‘conventional’ military assault is planned – either an invasion, a bombing campaign or both.
Israel says it may invade using the pretext of stopping chemical weapons ‘falling into the wrong hands’, whilst it also continues to threaten an attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
In the context of the announced US foreign policy ‘pivot’ to focus its military resources on China and the Pacific, it is insisting that the burden of the assault on Syria needs to be carried by its Middle Eastern clients and the Europeans. This is similar to the position it took on last year’s war against Libya, retaining overall control through its international leverage, but insisting its allies ran and paid for the intervention.
However, leading Republicans consider US engagement to be wholly insufficient so are currently agitating for a decisive increase in US action.
A feature of the situation is the constant racking up of potential casus belli – alleged massacres, chemical weapons, etc – as ‘justification’ for a stepped up use of force.
Before the guerrilla infiltration campaign started in 2011, Syria was enjoying significant economic growth; above four per cent each year from 2005 to 2009 and three per cent in 2010.
Imperialism’s assaults have reversed this – the combination of contra attacks and sanctions resulted in the economy contracting three per cent in 2011, and continuing to slow this year. Towards the end of last year, inflation also took off, reaching 30 per cent in April. Overall the population are experiencing growing hardship.
Imperialism’s propaganda offensive
An ocean of misinformation in the media accompanies all imperialist military offensives. The propaganda effort is needed to sway the domestic populations in support of military action, which their first impulse is to oppose. An article in the Guardian rebutting some of the current ocean of misinformation on Syria and setting out in detail who are the West’s principal propagandists for the Syrian counterrevolution can be read here.
Imperialism’s narrative often includes totally fabricated stories. It is now evident there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the claims that Gaddafi was committing genocide against people in Eastern Libya have also proved to be false.
The distorted propaganda surrounding the current Syrian conflict crudely demonises the Syrian government; even its acts of self-defence are depicted as offensive actions.
On the other hand the media presents armed opposition fighters as if they are mere civilian activists. Their involvement in the execution, torture and kidnapping of civilians, as uncovered by the UN-mandated commission of inquiry in February, is barely reported.
When opposition militias briefly seized the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs in February, the British media presented Syrian government efforts to dislodge them as an attack on civilians. There was no account of how the fighters treated the civilian population. According to Spiegel Online, they formed their own laws, courts and death squads – with one commander indicating that his unit alone had executed more than 200 people.
The sectarianism has widened to attacks on Christians, which the Vatican news agency amongst others has reported on.
Opposition atrocities are also deliberately misreported in the media as acts of the Syrian government – as Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of St. James Monastery explained in her account of a massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs. The guerrillas gathered Christian and Alawi hostages together in a building which they then blew up with dynamite and attributed the crime to the Syrian army.
The Houla massacre
In May it was widely reported that 108 people, nearly half of them children, had been massacred in the town of Houla – in Britain the entire media claimed responsibility lay with the Syrian government.
Given the propaganda offensive it is no doubt difficult to determine what took place, but credible reports attributing the atrocity to the opposition forces were just ignored in Britain. Russian and German journalists interviewed witnesses in Houla who blamed the armed opposition forces. The Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung also spoke to anti-government elements that admitted responsibility for the deaths and explained that the victims were almost exclusively from pro-Assad Alawite families.
When a panel from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva looked into Houla it was unable to determine conclusively who was responsible for the massacre. It also reported that ‘a Free Syrian Army soldier told the panel that captured soldiers from the Alawite sect, from which President Assad draws strong support, are usually executed immediately, while soldiers from other sects are given the option of joining the opposition.’
Whatever the initial views of the various political currents who took to the streets against the Syrian government in early 2011, the current situation is entirely clear. An imperialist funded and inspired armed conflict against the Syrian government has unfolded since March 2011 – assisted by Western funds, arms, transport, communications, training and intelligence.
The fundamental issue at stake in this conflict is therefore very clear – there will either be a victory or defeat for an imperialist backed counter-revolutionary offensive.
If the opposition forces win in Syria then, as in Libya, imperialism will establish control. It plans to install a regime that capitulates to US-Israeli demands, stops backing the resistance movements of Hezbollah and Hamas and breaks Syria’s alliance with Iran.
To prevent this outcome it is necessary to mobilise to defend the country, opposing imperialist covert intervention in support of the armed opposition and campaigning against any escalation of imperialist involvement.
The violence and repression that imperialism is responsible for far exceeds the undoubted crimes of recent Syrian governments. The slaughter carried out by the US in Iraq since 2003 and by Israel in Lebanon in 2006 are just recent examples of sheer scale of violence carried out at imperialism’s behest.
Opposing imperialist intervention and the proxy forces it has established in the FSA and the SNC is the necessary defence of Syria’s sovereignty and its capacity to obstruct imperialism’s goals in the region.
The anti-war left
Over recent months there has been a welcome shift in Counterfire’s position. Unlike the position it took on Libya, Counterfire now does not support the military victory of the imperialist counter-revolutionary side in Syria.
John Rees for example here makes a number of important points. His fundamental conclusion is that ‘the best support we can give them [the Syrian population] is to defeat their enemies: the imperialists and those Syrians who support the imperialists.’
Rees points out that ‘those who cry … ‘victory to the revolution’ without analysing imperialism and its influence … are handing over the masses in Syria to the leadership of pro-imperialist political currents.’
He also makes clear it is not possible to judge the situation by only looking at the internal forces without reference to imperialism’s role.
Hopefully Counterfire will reassess the wrong methodology that led them into earlier errors in their position on these unfolding conflicts. Especially as confusion clearly continues as reflected in a recent piece on the Counterfire web-site, by Dan Poulton, which describes the counter-revolutionary FSA and SNC as mere ‘rivals’ of a progressive movement – when they are in fact its deadly opponents.
Regrettably the SWP has not altered its view and continues to promote the counter-revolutionary side and its fighters. This weakens the anti-war movement.
In Jonathan Maunder’s piece in International Socialism, the imperialist proxies are mistaken for revolutionaries and it is suggested that a desirable outcome would be for working class strike action to help bring down the Syrian government in favour of the armed opposition.
Maunder’s analysis almost entirely ignores imperialism’s role in Syria, so fails to take account of the totality of the forces acting in the situation. He pours scorn on the idea that imperialism is the principal protagonist driving the conflict, arguing such ‘geopolitical’ factors are minor.
Starting from the view that every popular revolt by a section of the masses must by definition be progressive, he fails to analyse all classes and political currents acting in the situation, and ends up on the wrong side.
The outcome of the conflict in Syria will not just determine the fate of its population, but to what degree imperialism will be able to spread its offensive across the Middle East to Lebanon, Iran and against the Palestinians.
All progressive forces internationally should support calls for peace in the Middle East and end to the imperialist intervention.
In Britain the Stop the War Coalition initiatives taken to mobilise opposition to this offensive should be given whole hearted support.
Other articles to read on Syria