Imperialist backed offensive in Syria begins to threaten regional stability

Photo: gregg.carlstrom
Beirut after 19 October car bombing

By Paul Roberts

While the struggle inside Syria appears at present to be in stalemate, the growing threat to regional stability posed by the ramifications of the conflict is beginning to unsettle the imperialists and their regional allies.

The car bomb in Beirut on 19 October, that killed head of security Wissam Al-Hassan, sparked several days of violence in Lebanon, threatening the country’s fragile coalition. Border clashes with Turkey have led to rising opposition inside Turkey to its government’s aid to the Free Syrian Army, while a new wave of armed Kurdish struggle is clearly linked to the Syrian conflict. And in Jordan Al Qaeda militants have been discovered planning a bombing campaign. Threats from Netanyahu of Israeli strikes against Iran add to the sense of regional unease.

As the conflict begins to create problems for neighbouring countries, it is cooling the enthusiasm for the Syrian opposition from some of imperialism’s allies in the region, and raising concerns more widely in the imperialist camp that the conflict is creating dangers of a wider conflagration in the region with uncontrollable outcomes

As set out in an earlier article on this website, since the summer imperialism has intensified its support for the campaign against the Syrian regime. It has funnelled increasing numbers of rebels and arms across the borders from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq to support a relentless military confrontation in Aleppo, Homs and Hama and more sporadic assaults within Damascus.

Although this has clearly taken a toll on both sides, the forces of the FSA have in fact made little headway – they has not been able to establish control over any significant territory, no new decisive blows have been struck. The Syrian government remains intact; the high level desertions of General Manaf Tlass in July followed by Prime Minister Riyad Hijab in August have not been followed by others and the Syrian armed forces are still overwhelmingly loyal to the government.

The situation is widely seen as a stalemate. The protracted character of the struggle is leading to a number of consequences outside Syria’s borders, which are not necessarily what imperialism is looking for.

The free flow of arms to the opposition has created an increased availability of arms to a whole range of groups whose main concerns are not confined to Syria’s borders, threatening increased militarised conflict in the region. The seizure of Northern Mali by armed groups who had participated in the Libya conflict – which France is now planning military action against – is an example of the type of unwelcome side-effects that may flow from imperialism’s intervention in Syria.


Lebanon’s internal political settlement since 1990, following 15 years of civil war, has remained fragile. A spill-over into Lebanon of the rise of Sunni sectarianism seen in the Syria conflict is a deep threat to that stability. While imperialism – and its regional allies – would welcome a blow against Hezbollah, which has grown in influence since it fought off Israel’s 2006 invasion, prolonged internal instability and another round of civil war would create a power vacuum in which armed groups of all kinds would grow unchecked.

The car bomb assassination of Al-Hassan on 19 October was followed by several days of violent confrontations and mounting disorder across the country. Right-wing opposition parties called for the downfall of Lebanon’s current coalition government, which includes Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s opposition alliance of political parties calls itself ‘March 14’ after the date in 2005 when it held a huge demonstration against the Syrian occupation of parts of Lebanon, which had followed its 1982 support for the Lebanese army against an earlier Israeli invasion. March 14 immediately claimed that ‘Hassan’s murder was committed by the regime of (Syrian President) Bashar Assad’ and former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri suggested Hezbollah were also involved in the bombing.

Al-Hassan was publicly identified with March 14. Al-Hassan headed Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, the explicitly anti-Syria security apparatus set up in 2005 as a counterweight to the – pro-Syrian – Lebanese military intelligence. Working closely with the US and Saudi Arabia, it opposes Hezbollah and has been active in assisting the Syrian opposition.

The real perpetrators of the bombing are unclear. Syria and Assad have nothing to gain from whipping up hostility in Lebanon. Similar claims against Syria were made following the 2005 car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafic Al-Hariri, until imperialism decided to switch to blaming Hezbollah.

The US sending an FBI team to investigate this assassination will shed no more light than the US-controlled ‘Special Tribunal for Lebanon’ (STL) has done on the assassination of Al-Hariri in 2005, which simply reached the US’s desired conclusion that Hezbollah had carried it out – despite Hezbollah’s continual and determined denial.

Al-Hassan had significant enemies in the anti-Syrian camp. He had played a role in exposing Israeli espionage networks in Lebanon and WikiLeaks has revealed he was ‘distrusted’ and ‘hated’ within the March 14 alliance.

Some even consider Al-Hassan was responsible for the car bomb that killed Al-Hariri. In 2005 a United Nations prosecutor reported that Al-Hariri’s assassination required the approval and collusion of Lebanese security forces and in 2008 an internal UN memo pointed the finger directly at Al-Hassan.

Since Al-Hassan’s assassination Lebanese opposition parties have been trying to destabilise the situation to bring down the government. As news spread of the car bomb on Friday 19 October armed groups took to the streets in the capital Beirut and other cities.

The port city of Tripoli was paralysed for several days as shops closed down, road blocks went up and the offices of pro-government parties were attacked. For months there has been ongoing violence in Tripoli between neighbourhoods taking different sides over the conflict in Syria with several people killed during the confrontations.

Following Al-Hassan’s funeral on 21 October there were demonstrations In Beirut and calls from March 14 parties for the Prime Minister’s office to be stormed, which led to clashes with the Lebanese army.

This upsurge of instability has exerted pressure on the governing coalition of parties – the March 8 Alliance. This later coalition also dates back to 2005 when on 8 March a mass demonstration in Beirut thanked Syria for helping stop the Lebanese Civil War and for supporting the Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation.

Following the car bombing and demonstrations Prime Minister Najib Mikati offered to resign and make way for a government of national unity.

But while it has whipped up the situation, and would like to see a new Lebanese government that excludes Hezbollah, which has been in the government since June 2011, imperialism does not want a chaotic collapse and armed instability. There is a complex power-sharing agreement in Lebanon so attempts to form an alternative government might fail and are likely to be drawn out. Imperialism does not favour a political vacuum at present. Hence why President Michel Suleiman persuaded Mikati to stay in office while talks proceed.

While imperialism is keen that anti-Syrian parts of the Lebanese state apparatus assist the flow of arms and fighters into Syria, it does not want to spread the conflict into Lebanon – at least until Assad has been brought down and it has a reliable pro-imperialist regime in place. The outcome in Libya is an object lesson that imperialist bombs bringing down one regime does not necessarily guarantee that the new regime will be either stable or reliable!

Turkey, Jordan and Iran

Imperialism and its allies are also concerned by the potential for the conflict to spread to Turkey and Jordan, alongside the on-going concerns that Israel may exacerbate the situation with a premature attack on Iran.

Turkey and its Prime Minister Erdogan has supported the armed opposition groups – and created havens for them to train and organise – since the outset of the uprising in Syria and has repeatedly called for Assad to resign.

But with the extension of the conflict the number of refugees has escalated – in the camps exceeding 100,000, plus an estimated 40,000 or more living in towns and cities – with all the attendant costs. There is also increasing opposition – especially in the 900km long Syrian border area – to Turkey’s high level of engagement in Syria, due to the increasing danger and the economic impact. Major demonstrations against war with Syria took place in Ankara and Istanbul in early October when border tensions led to a threat of outright war with Syria.

A key problem for Turkey lies in the impact on the level of struggle with the Kurds in the east of the country. With Turkey backing the Free Syrian Army, it would not be surprising to find that the Assad regime have essentially given a green light to its own Kurdish minority to step up their aid to the Turkish Kurds in their on-going struggle for national recognition and rights within Turkey. And the generalised flow of arms in the border areas mean that not just the Syrian opposition, but other forces, including Kurdish militants in Turkey, have greater access to weapons and hardware.

Incidents between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have intensified in Turkey since the summer, with PKK actions reaching one of the highest levels since it took up arms for Kurdish independence in 1984.

This resurgence of PKK action is widely understood in Turkey to be linked to the Syria conflict. At the same time it is forcing the Turkish military to divert resources away from the Syrian border into the Kurdish areas.

In the light of this overspill into the long-standing Kurdish conflict and growing domestic opposition to Turkey’s involvement in Syria, it is not surprising that Erdogan is toning down his rhetoric and sounding more open to seeking an end to the conflict, even if that means Assad staying in power.

The conflict also threatens to spill back into Jordan, which has been a key player in the flow of arms and fighters into the Syrian conflict. Despite its support for the Syrian opposition, it is not immune from attack by similar forces within its own borders. On 21 October a Jordanian Al-Qaeda cell was uncovered, that was planning to bomb shopping malls, embassies, foreign tourists and hotels in the capital Aman.

Having encouraged the rise of Sunni sectarianism, and formed a clandestine alliance with Al Qaeda to oppose Assad in Syria, this is now threatening to blow back into a rise of radical Islamist oppositions and armed terrorist groups within the Sunni Arab-run states themselves.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public campaign this summer that the US commits to an early attack on Iran has been a further factor raising concerns about how the conflict in Syria plays out in the region. An attack on Iran, while the situation remains unresolved in Syria, raises the prospect of a regional war in which Iran would be forced to fight back against its attackers, possibly intervene more directly to support Assad in Syria, and would increase tensions across the Middle East.

Israel eventually backed down at the UN in September, claiming the Iranian threat was no longer imminent but would next become urgent in the Spring.

While the imperialists are experiencing some problems with their strategy in the Middle East, including failing to make sufficient headway in Syria, the threat of further intervention – and of a future attack on Iran – need to remain the focus of attention of Britain’s anti-war movement.

Follow the website of the Stop the War Coalition which has been taking initiatives to mobilise on opposition to imperialism’s actions.