Since early 2011, when the Arab Spring threatened to sweep away one after another of the pro-U.S. dictatorships in the region, a counteroffensive has been organised by imperialism. This has been aided by the West’s allies in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia, assisted by Qatar playing the role of ‘front man’.
These two dictatorships present themselves as the champions of ‘democracy’ in the region, contributing to the assault first against Gaddafi, and now against Assad in Syria. The laughable nature of this pretence in light of Saudi Arabia’s record of autocracy, repression, discrimination against women, torture, imprisonment of opponents and absence of the slightest semblance of democracy, is conveniently never mentioned in the Western media reports of outrage about Syria from the Saudi-dominated Arab League.
The negative perception in the populations both of the Middle East and the West about the nature of the Saudi dictatorship explains why it has tactically chosen to mainly act through the agency of Qatar.
Qatar has built up a quite undeserved reputation as somehow more acceptable than other dictatorships in the region, primarily through establishing Al-Jazeera, providing a haven for key spokespeople for the Muslim Brotherhood and its slightly better record on women’s rights. It is therefore worth taking a few sentences to consider Qatar.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy, whose present Emir came to power through a coup d’etat in 1995. There are no democratic institutions, no elections are held (although the Emir recently promised elections to an advisory national council in 2013), trade unions are banned, and immigrant workers denied any rights. Qatar hosts the U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and Combined Air Operations Centre for the region, was a key base for launching the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and remains key to US military strategy in the Gulf.
Qatar set up the Al Jazeera news network and allowed its development as a voice of Arab nationalism, including against Western atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera accrued huge credibility for this genuinely progressive role at that time, and Qatar basked in reflective glory.
But the Qatari dictatorship has radically changed tack since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
After the role of Al Jazeera in aiding the mass struggle in Tahrir Square, Qatar closed down this experiment. Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera's director general since 2003, was removed and replaced with a member of the Qatari royal family and the politics of the station brought back in line. It is scant consolation that its viewing figures have slumped since the take-over of what had previously been the widest source of genuine news in the Arab countries.
Qatar then joined the sharp-end of the imperialist counter-offensive, using the influence it had accumulated among some Islamic and Arab nationalist currents to broker support for Western intervention in Libya. It was among the first to recognise the NTC and while NATO bombed from the air, it had troops on the ground training and arming the opposition forces.
It is now playing the key role in campaigning for sanctions and intervention in Syria, while covertly arming the Contra-type forces being built up in and around the country.
The stakes are very high. The ultimate aim of imperialism and its regional allies is to eliminate all resistance to the interests of the West and its allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and Israel, with the Arab countries. The Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain in Iraq was one weak link that was successfully eliminated. Gaddafi was another. The ultimate target is Iran, and its key ally, Syria. As a senior Saudi official told the US: ‘The king [of Saudi Arabia] knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.’
The aim of getting rid of Assad pre-dates the Arab Spring and the demonstrations of Spring 2011. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have implemented a strategy of building up radical Sunni Islamist forces in Syria opposed to the secularism of the Assad regime and displaying sectarianism to the Shia and Shia-related Alawite minorities in the country.
These efforts bore fruit with the emergence of demonstrations against Assad that included such forces, particularly in Homs, in the early summer 2011. Broader democratic currents participated, but among the latter the predominant line was for negotiations with the regime with the aim of achieving concessions on the legalisation and participation of pro-reform currents of various kinds.
Imperialism, in order to justify its attempt to gain control of Syria via overthrowing Assad, used lessons learned from success in Libya.
· Imperialism and its allies moved rapidly to marginalise the case for negotiations with the regime, delegitimising it through almost immediate suspension from the Arab League and taking a variety of steps to support, arm and encourage the most radical and pro-imperialist – but not necessarily most democratic! – forces in the opposition.
· Media campaigns run down any Syrian efforts at reform or negotiations. Unreasonable deadlines are set. Conditions are applied to the regime before negotiations, but not to the opposition.
· As with Gaddafi, Assad is demonised by the media to wall off support for any kind of settlement that retains him in power. Even suicide bomb attacks against regime targets are presented as possibly stage-managed by the regime itself to win international support.
· Stepped up sanctions are aimed at eating away at the support for the regime through creating economic hardship in the mass of the pro-Assad population.
· The demonstrations in support of Assad are always dismissed as stage-managed or coerced or just not reported. At the same time, every opposition demonstration is puffed up in the media and reported as though it provides conclusive evidence for the views of the majority of the population.
With the support of Turkey and the Saudis, imperialism hurriedly orchestrated the setting up of a ‘Syrian National Council’ (SNC) as ‘sole representative of the Syrian people’. However, unlike in Libya where the division of the country between East and West meant that the Transitional National Council was based in Libya, the SNC is composed entirely of exiles without any actually existing presence inside the country.
The political character of the SNC could scarcely be clearer. Burhan Ghalioun, its Paris-based president, in an interview with the Wall St Journal on 2nd December, set out his approach. Describing Syria’s relations with Iran as ‘abnormal’, he said that this alliance would be replaced with a closer relationship with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, while arms supplies to Hezbollah and Hamas would be cut off.
On the Golan Heights, he argued: ‘We are banking on our special relationship with the Europeans and western powers in helping us in reclaiming the Golan as fast as possible’. That is a hope that will be in vain, as Ghalioun must be fully aware, and is anyway only aimed at quelling the anxieties of Syrian nationalist forces that an SNC regime would betray the country to Israel – which it evidently would.
However, the decisive step has been the use of regional allies to feed in arms and armed insurgents from neighbouring states, particularly Turkey, but also Jordan and Northern Lebanon. To Syria’s North, Turkey has provided a base for the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ and it is known to be covertly helping arm and train it. It has received particular support from the victorious Libyan National Transition Council, installed in power by imperialism, which has offered finance, arms and volunteer personnel. From the south-east, Gulf finances and arms are finding their way across the border from Jordan.
With the continuing failure to gain support for a UN security council motion supporting direct intervention – due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes – alternative methods are being deployed, as last extensively used under Reagan in the 1980s, and seen in the Contra-war against Sandinista Nicaragua. In other words, where intervention is not agreed by the UN, to build up an imperialist armed proxy force, presented as legitimate local resistance, but whose capacities are entirely created by imperialism and its allies.
At the same time, proposals for a ‘humanitarian corridor’ protected by a ‘no-fly zone’ – in fact it would be the NATO enforcement of a safe transit zone for the Free Syrian Army in and out of Syria from Turkey – are an attempt to find a route to military action that might garner sufficient support to deliver a UN motion or avoid having to have one through a sleight of hand.
And, of course, constant pressure is being applied to Russia to withdraw its veto on military action at the UN.
Despite the clear reality of all this, sections of the ‘left’ persist in viewing the opposition through their own rose-tinted spectacles, with the un-Marxist view that ‘masses on the streets’ necessarily mean there is a progressive development. Such approaches fail to see how the manipulation of the West is turning the opposition to Assad to its own ends.
This view also ignores the extensive reports of sectarian, factional and racist attacks by the opposition forces, especially in Homs.
In Libya, imperialism not only racked up a military victory, but also succeeded in dividing the political forces – both in the West and in the region – that had opposed its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many currents that had contributed to the unprecedented global response to the Iraq war in particular, either supported or did not oppose the intervention in Libya, or at best opposed the intervention while calling for a victory for the imperialist-backed forces.
Having disoriented and split the anti-war movement, imperialism is relentlessly taking advantage of this to move against Syria with little opposition so far in Europe or other parts of the West.
The project of replacing the Assad regime in Syria with a compliant, pro-Western and anti-Iranian regime is the next step in imperialism’s counter-offensive against the challenge posed by the Arab Spring.
With the Persian Gulf being the source of over 40% of the world’s oil, imperialism’s grip on the Middle East remains a vital global concern. The US’s widely announced ‘pivot’ in military policy to prioritising confrontation with China does not mean that it has changed its concerns about the Middle East.
Getting rid of would Assad deliver twin long-standing goals of the US and its allies – to weaken and eventually bring down the resistant regime in Iran and to cut the supply chain from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah in South Lebanon that defeated Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon.
The imperialist success in Libya – and the greater urgency to shore up Israel after the overthrow of Mubarak – turned this aim into action
The situation in Syria is far more decisive that Libya to the relationship of forces, not only in the region, but internationally. Firstly, it is a much bigger and more powerful state than Libya. Its population is 22 million as opposed to Libya’s 6.5 million But it is also far more strategically significant than Libya, because of its position next to Israel, as a regional buffer for Iran, in the supply chain to Hezbollah, and as a supporter of Palestine and Gaza.
If imperialism succeeds in Syria – and can isolate Iran – then it would have far tighter control than at present over the entire access to Gulf oil. As well as delivering imperialism a considerable advance in the Middle East, it would have negative global consequences. It would eliminate any effective resistance in OPEC, weaken Venezuela and increase economic pressure and threats against China.
The imperialist advance in Libya was significant, but not enough to make up for the shift in the relationship of forces against imperialism represented by the fall of Mubarak. That is why it is now rapidly seeking to turn its Libya advantage into a real reversal for Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism in the region through overthrowing the Syrian regime, further steps against Iran and cutting the supply chain to both Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance.