All Sides Squalid in
Syria/Iraq Sectarian Civil Wars –
Drive U.S./NATO Imperialists Out of the Middle East!
Russian fighter jets preparing for bombing mission at Latakia air base in Syria, October 1.
Starting in late August, Russia launched a major intervention in Syria aimed at shoring up the deteriorating military position of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, under attack by a host of Islamist militias backed by Western imperialists and their Middle Eastern allies/flunkies as well as by the Islamic State (I.S.). Russian president Vladimir Putin’s move took the Pentagon and other NATO war planners by surprise, as did Russia’s lightning takeover of Crimea last year in response to the imperialist-backed fascist/nationalist coup in Ukraine. The Syria intervention is being called “a geopolitical earthquake,” “a huge, potentially decisive, turning point, the most significant moment in global affairs since the end of the cold war” (Guardian, 6 October).
Coming as pressure was building to impose a NATO-enforced “no fly zone” and a Turkish-dominated “safe area” for Islamist “rebels” in northern Syria, Moscow’s action qualitatively raised the costs of such imperialist aggression. Instead of having uncontested control of the skies, as they did in Libya in 2011, NATO warplanes would face Russian jets and air defense systems. This would likely result in significant losses of aircraft and personnel and could set off not just regional but global war. Left-over Cold Warriors and saber-rattling U.S. presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton) are clamoring for action to counter Russia. Cooler heads may prevail, but the chances for miscalculation or accidents are enormous. And don’t forget the Israelis.
As Barack Obama bombs away in western Iraq and eastern Syria, now joined by France and possibly Britain, revolutionaries and class-conscious workers seek above all to drive the imperialists out of the Middle East. Every blow struck against the NATO marauders, even by the atavistic jihadis (holy warriors) of the I.S., is in the interests of the exploited and oppressed. The “democratic” militarists are by far the biggest mass murderers (and exploiters and oppressors) on the planet. But while geostrategically Putin’s move may stymie (for now) a direct imperialist assault on his Syrian client, it does not alter the nature of the sectarian civil war, in which the victory of any side could lead to slaughter or expulsion of the defeated religious/ethnic groups.
As Lenin and the Bolsheviks insisted in the first World War, communists unconditionally defend oppressed peoples against imperialism, and workers in the imperialist countries seek the defeat of “their own” bloody imperialist rulers through revolutionary struggle. At the same time, in the overlapping conflicts proletarian internationalists are for the defeat of all sides in the inter-ethnic and sectarian-religious wars now ravaging Syria and Iraq, while upholding the right of communal self-defense against a genocidal threat. This was clearly the case of Kurds in Kobanê in late 2014-early 2015, and we called to defend them against the advance of the Islamic State, while warning of the dangers of allying with imperialism.
While hard-line imperialist politicians and right-wing media like Fox News hyperventilate against “Russian aggression” in Ukraine and Syria, social-democratic pseudo-socialists rail against “Russian imperialism.” In reality Moscow’s moves have been defensive in nature against the threat of U.S./NATO encirclement. Post-Soviet Russia is neither imperialist nor a global superpower but an intermediate capitalist country and regional power with imperial ambitions.1 At present Moscow is intervening on the side of the Assad regime in the fratricidal civil war in which the working class has no side, but should U.S./NATO forces directly attack Russian or Syrian government forces, revolutionary Marxists should be for the defense of Syria and Russian forces against imperialist domination.
Syrian government “barrel bombs”? No, U.S. “precision bombing” lays waste to Kobanê, 18 October 2014. Drive the imperialists out of the Middle East!
But ultimately the Kremlin is seeking a prominent place for a resurgent Russia in a “multi-polar” imperialist world order. In his September 28 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Putin called for an “international coalition against terrorism … similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” of World War II. The rhetoric of fighting “terrorism” only serves to justify imperialist domination while Marxists fight to drive the imperialists out of the Middle East. As for WWII, Trotskyists militarily defended the Soviet degenerated workers state, despite the sabotage of that defense by Stalin’s bureaucratic regime, but opposed both the German-led Axis and U.S.-led Allies who were fighting over colonies, raw materials and imperialist hegemony rather than for “democracy.”
A key component of this “coalition,” the Russian leader argued, would be “Muslim nations,” including the Islamist regimes of Shiite Iran and Iraq and Sunni Wahabist2 Saudi Arabia. To this end, Putin met on October 10 with Saudi defense minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud where they agreed to cooperate in Syria, and on September 21 with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his military chiefs to reassure them that Russia would safeguard the interests of the Zionist state. Against Putin’s defense of these oppressive capitalist states, Trotskyists fight for workers revolution to overthrow Zionist and Islamist rule, as well as Egypt’s military dictatorship and the authoritarian Syrian regime.
At the U.N., Putin hailed the 1945 Yalta conference of the “anti-Hitler coalition” that he said gave rise to a “Yalta system” which supposedly “saved the world from large-scale upheavals.” In fact, Yalta demarcated Soviet and Western imperialist spheres of influence, leading to the defeat of potential socialist revolutions at the end of the war in Greece, Italy, France and elsewhere. The “system” was soon replaced by the anti-Soviet “Cold War,” with imperialist wars directed at the USSR and its allied deformed workers states, as well as others deemed to be Soviet “proxies,” from Korea in the 1950s to Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s, and Afghanistan and Central America in the ’80s, ultimately leading to counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc.
Moreover, Russian spokesmen have called for the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) backed by the U.S. and armed by the Saudi and Gulf monarchies, to join the “political process” and foresee (as does Assad) a coalition government with some of these reactionaries. Yet all the Syrian “rebel” militias, whether the Islamic State, the Al Qaeda franchisee (al-Nusra Front) and other hard-line salafis (Ansar al Sharia), or the largely phantom FSA, seek to impose a theocratic regime of Islamic law (sharia), posing a mortal threat to the working-class, secular and religious/ethnic minority populations. Putin could well strike a deal with Obama or his successor that would put the Alawite, Shiite, Druze, Christian and other communities in Syria in grave danger.
Washington now cynically claims that Russian presence in Syria is creating more jihadis. The reality is that the very existence of Al Qaeda and its offshoots, including the I.S., is the direct result of U.S. imperialist domination and wars in the region: first in Afghanistan in the 1980s when Washington bankrolled Osama bin Laden and Islamist mujahedin to fight Soviet and Afghan government troops; then in Iraq from 2003 on, where bin Laden’s Al Qaeda garnered support from Sunnis under attack by the Shiite regime installed by the U.S.; and now in Syria, where the U.S. financed and armed hard-line Islamists through its Saudi allies to fight against the Assad regime, eventually giving rise to the Frankenstein’s monster of the Islamic State.
A secular, democratic Syria under bourgeois rule is impossible, as it is throughout the Middle East and in semi-colonial countries generally. Under imperialist domination, the local ruling classes are so weak that they cannot tolerate any semblance of democracy for the impoverished masses. Armed with Leon Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution, Fourth Internationalists fight for workers revolution leading all the oppressed throughout the region and extending to the imperialist centers. Key to this are the millions-strong Egyptian and especially Turkish proletariats, but also Israeli workers breaking from the straitjacket of Zionism. Such a revolutionary socialist force would necessarily seek to obliterate all the Islamist armed groups.
Imperialist Offensive Stymied
Washington has been arming Islamist gangs against the Syrian government for years. 2013 graphic documents more than 3,500 tons in one year of U.S.-financed, CIA-organized arms deliveries from Saudi Arabia and Qatar via Turkey.
While the Western media portray Russian intervention as an expansionist offensive by a demonic Vladimir Putin, it was actually in response to the escalation of imperialist intervention. The U.S. is not only bombing the Islamic State but also supplying advanced TOW anti-tank missiles to Islamist militias attacking the Syrian Army. In an article titled “Did U.S. weapons supplied to Syrian rebels draw Russia into the conflict?” (Washington Post, 11 October), the well-connected Post correspondent Liz Sly (who like her counterpart Anne Barnard at the New York Times acts as a conduit for Syrian “rebel” and CIA propaganda) noted that TOW missiles delivered by covert U.S. programs were key in “driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria”:
“Supplied mostly from stocks owned by Saudi Arabia, delivered across the Turkish border and stamped with CIA approval, the missiles were intended to fulfill another of the Obama administration’s goals in Syria – Assad’s negotiated exit from power. The plan, as described by administration officials, was to exert sufficient military pressure on Assad’s forces to persuade him to compromise – but not so much that his government would precipitously collapse and leave a dangerous power vacuum in Damascus.
“Instead, the Russian military intervened to shore up the struggling Syrian army – an outcome that was not intended.”
The U.S. claims that the TOW missiles were only distributed to “carefully vetted” Syrian militias. But accounts of the spring offensive that dislodged government troops from northern cities make it clear that the anti-tank weapons were in the hands of the recently formed Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), an Islamist coalition dominated by the Nusra Front. It also includes “more moderate” FSA units funded and armed by the CIA, until they were cut off last December after turning over their weapons to the Al Qaeda affiliate. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia purchased some 14,000 of these weapons, which it has sent directly to the Ahrar al-Sham jihadis. Since the Pentagon requires “end user” certificates, U.S. approval is implicit.
When the Russian build-up was first reported, various U.S. Middle East “experts” reacted with consternation, having previously discounted the possibility of Moscow entering the Syria imbroglio. The Institute for the Study of War headlined a Warning Intelligence Update “Russian Deployment to Syria: Putin’s Middle East Game Changer” (17 September). It dawned on them that, “The Russian mobilization may be aimed at precluding expanded U.S. action against the Assad regime,” which the Institute has long advocated. A second update concluded that “It can compel the U.S. to accept a de facto combined coalition with Russia, Syria, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah” (“Putin Ushers in a New Era of Global Geopolitics,” 27 September).
When the Pentagon first detected prefab material to build
barracks near Latakia, it hopefully opined that this would
only be for base defense of aircraft. When they saw 1970s
vintage Sukhoi SU-24 and SU-25 fighters, mainly used in ground
attack and close air support, they argued that Russia was only
sending outdated equipment. But when the 1990s era SU-30,
specialized in air-to-air combat, turned up and “accidentally”
flew into Turkish air space, it was a clear message that
Moscow could challenge any effort to impose a “no fly zone.”
And when top-of-the-line SU-34 fighter-bombers, first deployed
in 2014, blasted I.S. sites in Raqaa (and buzzed U.S.
warplanes), it signaled that Russia was prepared to match any
In addition, Russia launched Kalibr cruise missiles from corvettes in the Caspian Sea, flying 1,500 kilometers, making a sharp right turn over Iran and passing over Iraq to hit Islamic State sites (reportedly within 3 meters of their targets). By using these missiles, never before seen in combat, and releasing dramatic videos of the pinpoint airstrikes, Putin was using Syria as a proving ground while showcasing Russia’s recent military technological advances. He was effectively warning: “Don’t mess with Moscow.” But most worrisome of all to U.S. strategists:
“Russia is not only bringing some of its most advanced hardware to the fight, it has also deployed large field kitchens and even dancers and singers to entertain the troops – all signs that Moscow is settling in for the long haul, American analysts said.”
–New York Times, 15 October
Who knows, maybe the hip Russian police chorus that wowed audiences at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with their gyrating performance of “Get Lucky” will soon arrive in Latakia.
Once they had recovered from the initial shock of the Russian intervention, Western leaders demanded that it must “stop” (lots of luck with that) and predicted imminent or eventual disaster. Obama’s warning that the attempt to prop up Assad “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work” is mainly wishful thinking reflecting American fears. Others made outlandish claims that Putin was trying to achieve global stature and bomb his way back into respectability, and to overcome economic sanctions over Ukraine which supposedly “walloped the Russian economy” (New York Times, 23 October). But aside from stock market speculators, Russia has barely felt a pinch from U.S./European Union sanctions, and as one analyst wrote:
“Russia didn’t launch this campaign for world power status. Nobody launches an intervention in the Middle East, a graveyard for military power, expecting an easy political victory, certainly not after America’s experiences there. Nor does Moscow need a distraction from Ukraine, where its plans are coming together quite neatly, and a clear alignment is emerging between the German, French and Russian positions on how to close out the conflict.”
–“The Russian Intervention in Syria: Policy Options and Exit Strategies,” War on the Rocks, 21 October
There’s no need to engage in Kremlinology, Putin has been quite explicit about what he is seeking: to prevent an implosion of the Syrian state as occurred in Libya, and “positive results in military operations [which] will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups.” To make sure that Assad was on board with this program, Putin summoned the Syrian president to Moscow to say that the goal was “reaching a political settlement” including “the entire nation.” In short, achieve sufficient military stability so that the Syrian regime isn’t negotiating from weakness, and then bargain over a “transition” that Moscow already agreed to in 2012.
As for the demand that Bashar Assad must go as a precondition, even the U.S. is waffling on that. Washington seriously misjudged Syria from the beginning, considering Assad an isolated dictator like Mubarak in Egypt and failing to appreciate that significant sections of the Syrian population, not only Alawites but other ethnic and religious minorities, saw the ostensibly secular regime as a protector against Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. Even if Assad were forced out, the core of the state apparatus is unlikely to give up, since they (rightly) fear that the result would be a theocratic dictatorship and genocidal ethnic and sectarian “cleansing.” This base of support is why the Syrian government hasn’t collapsed despite huge losses by its army.
The Western public has been so brainwashed by the imperialist media that many haven’t a clue as to what is happening in Syria. While politicians and pundits talk of Assad “killing his own people” and of endless massacres, they ignore the fact that body counts by pro-opposition outfits like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights admit that the largest number of those killed are Syrian Army soldiers (while dead opposition fighters are counted as “civilians”). In denouncing Syrian use of crude barrel bombs, it’s never mentioned that this weapon was pioneered by the Israelis in 1948, then used by the United States in carpet-bombing Vietnam, and it is just as indiscriminate as the unguided 500-lb. bombs the U.S. dropped on Iraq.
Nor do the media report the constant indiscriminate firing of mortars into pro-government districts by Islamist militias in Damascus and Aleppo. And when Turkish legislators held a press conference on October 20 where they presented a local prosecutor’s indictment detailing how sarin gas was procured in Turkey from the government MKE chemical corporation and delivered to Islamist terrorists in Syria – thus corroborating Seymour Hersh’s charge that the September 2013 sarin attack that killed 1,300 people in a Damascus suburb was in fact a false flag operation by the Turkish MIT intelligence agency to blame the Assad government and thereby get the U.S. to bomb Syria – this bombshell was not deemed “fit to print” by the “free but responsible press.”
In the government-held areas of Syria where 80% of the population lives, including several million refugees from the fighting, there are reports of a warm welcome for the Russian intervention, seen as a lifesaver, including by many opposed to the regime. (The main complaint voiced is that it should have come much earlier.) Those rare voices in the bourgeois media welcoming Russian intervention, such as British journalist Patrick Cockburn,3 seek a united imperialist war on the Islamic State. But it is these very same imperialists who spawned the I.S. by fostering the Islamist gangs. And such a “savage war for peace” would hardly bring salvation to the millions who have suffered as Syria was laid waste.
What that would mean in practice, as Putin laid out at the U.N., is upholding the sovereignty of all existing governments. That would condemn the 30 million Kurds to remain the largest nation without a state; it would mean supporting not only the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria but also the sectarian Shiite Islamist government of Iraq, the Zionist oppressors of the Palestinians, the murderous military dictatorship in Egypt and the Wahabi Sunni Islamist monarchy and various emirates and sheikdoms who hold sway on the Arabian peninsula. This defense of the status quo is hardly in the interests of workers, peasants and peoples oppressed by those brutal capitalist regimes.
As for the armed Islamists, neither Russia nor the U.S. would have any fundamental problem in collaborating with these arch-reactionaries, as long as they play by the imperialist rules. Washington has a long history of promoting religious reaction, sponsoring the mujahedin forerunners of Al Qaeda against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and more recently (through their Saudi and Qatari proxies) financing and arming the I.S. and other jihadis against Assad in Syria. For its part, Moscow is quite sincerely offering to buy up the FSA mercenaries. As capitalism decays, it takes revolutionary communists to defend secular democratic principles against those who would subject everyone to the retrograde imagined dictates of their god.
Putin proposes to “strengthen government institutions” and “restore statehood” in places like Libya via the United Nations, the fraudulent body that seeks to mask imperialist domination with the cloak of “international law” and which has presided over monstrous crimes, from the rape of Korea to the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The Russian president condemns “our Soviet past, when the Soviet Union exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.” This distortion is an apology for the counterrevolution that destroyed the multinational Soviet state that issued from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
In fact, under Stalin and his heirs, the Kremlin rulers far from “exporting social experiments” sought to block revolutions at every step in the name of the lie of building “socialism in one country,” while under Lenin and Trotsky the Soviet republic supported revolutionary struggles. Almost a hundred years later, Leninists and Trotskyists fight to bring down all those regimes that Putin would “strengthen,” as well as his own semi-bonapartist rule in Moscow. And that requires above all uniting the working class and the oppressed in international socialist revolution to overthrow the imperialist club that Putin yearns to join. That is the central task in Syria today.
Meanwhile, Syria has been coming apart at the seams. While 60% of the population (some 14 million) are Sunni Muslim Arabs, there are numerous religious sects and remnants of peoples scattered around the country. In addition to 3 million or so Alawites or Alawis (a syncretistic sect historically persecuted by Sunni rulers and considered pagans by salafis), there are religious communities of Ismaili Shiites, Twelver Shiites, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians of Antioch and Melkite Greek Catholics, all Arab-speaking, as are upwards of 500,000 members of the Druze ethno-religious group in the South, There are (or were) 400,000+ Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Syriac and Chaldean Christians in the East, 200,000 Turkomans and over 2 million Sunni Kurds in the North, as well as half a million Palestinian refugees.
All of these minorities are at risk should the Sunni Islamist militias take power, whether the various Al Qaeda offshoots and other salafist jihadis or the supposedly “more moderate” groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Also threatened are many Sunni Muslims in the cosmopolitan cities of what used to be the most secular country in the Middle East. The U.S. has consciously promoted the majority Sunni religious opposition to the Assad regime, which has been based on various minorities as well as the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie. In Iraq, Washington similarly used Islamist sectors of the majority Shiite population, as well as the Kurds, against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq based in the Sunni minority.
The imperialists also whipped up ethnic nationalism to dismember the federal republic of Yugoslavia in the wake of counterrevolution, and spurred nationalist sentiment in the Baltics and Caucasus in their drive to destroy the Soviet Union and restore capitalism. The result has been an orgy of ethnic, national and religious cleansing, including forced population transfers and mass murder. As we have written, imperialist intervention from the Balkans to the Middle East has led to: “a massive escalation of inter-communal and sectarian slaughter, as minority populations are driven out everywhere. The multi-ethnic states resulting from artificial boundaries are being homogenized with a vengeance, with the U.S. pushing the process in the name of ‘democracy’.”4
This is not “unintended consequences,” “collateral damage” or ad hoc decisions, but a deliberate policy that in the case of the Middle East can be traced back to the 1996 policy paper, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” This piece by U.S. “neoconservative” ideologues led by Richard Perle , written for Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, called for ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It also advocated “rolling back Syria” by “a redrawing of the map of the Middle East which would threaten Syria's territorial integrity” using “tribal alliances with Arab tribes that cross into Syrian territory and are hostile to the Syrian ruling elite.” Although Netanyahu supposedly rejected the proposal, the neocon Republicans and warmongering Democrats in the U.S. under the Bush and Obama administrations have carried it out.
And now the Israelis are getting into it. After years of harassing pro-Assad forces, striking military/intelligence targets alleging that they were aiding the Lebanese Hezbollah and quietly providing medical care for wounded Islamist “rebels,” Zionist war hawks are now aiming for “regime change” and dividing Syria into ethnic statelets. A paper by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, “Russia’s Involvement in Syria: A Strategic Opportunity for Israel” (20 October) argues that “Israel must gear up for active efforts to topple Assad,” to produce “a strategic loss for Iran and Hizbollah in the bleeding Syrian state.” A second INSS text, “Farewell to Syria” (13 October), calls for carving out Alawite, Druze and Kurdish entities. And Israel is creating “facts on the ground,” stepping up colonization in the largely Druze Occupied Golan.
With this classical colonialist “divide and rule” strategy, the geostrategists in Tel Aviv figure that a greatly weakened rump Sunni state under a pliant Sunni Arab ruler might be easier to dominate militarily and better able to control radical Islamists, while depriving Hezbollah in Lebanon of its corridor to Iran. The smaller ethnic and religious communities would be out of luck. Already the various Christian populations have lost many to emigration, most of them likely never to return, as Patrick Cockburn testified after a visit to the Assyrian region in eastern Syria (“Why Syria’s Christians can never go home,” Independent, 11 October). The same has occurred with the larger Christian, Yazidi and Turkoman communities in Iraq.
The Syrian Army has had to withdraw from some areas due to manpower losses, as Assad himself said in a major speech last July, leading to a growth of local defense forces, many using the name “shield,” allied to differing degrees with the regime, to protect against incursions by the Islamist gangs. Thus a number of new Alawite militias have arisen in the Western coastal region and Druze militias in the Sweida province in the South. The latter was in response to an offensive by the Islamic State and U.S.-armed Islamists in Sweida and following a massacre of several dozen Druze villagers in Idlib province in the North in early June by the Nusra Front, which accused them of blasphemy after earlier demanding forcible conversion to Sunni Islam.
The sectarian massacres and indiscriminate killing continue unabated. In March, the I.S. posted a video of its thugs beheading eight Ismaili Shiites in Hama province. But the dubious claim that “At least seven hospitals or medical facilities in Syria have been hit by airstrikes since Russia entered the civil war there, killing at least four [!] people” (New York Times, 23 October) is an all-too-obvious attempt to take the heat off the U.S. for its October 3 deliberate targeting and bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 patients and staff. In that case, a U.S. gunship plane kept strafing the facility for over an hour, even though it was a known medical facility and long after military commanders had been informed.
After all the adulation in the imperialist press of the Syrian Kurdish-led YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, formerly labeled terrorists but rebranded as freedom fighters since it began coordinating with U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State, reports are now surfacing about Kurdish atrocities against Arabs and Turkomans in recently conquered areas. Residents of ten villages and towns under the Kurdish Autonomous Administration were driven from their homes, their property destroyed or confiscated and in some cases their houses were burned and bulldozed (Amnesty International, We Had Nowhere Else to Go, October 2015).
Christian militias of the Syriac Military Council and Sotoro, which are part of the YPG, have also driven out Sunni Arab residents, and some Assyrian Christians as well, in areas occupied with the aid of U.S. air strikes (Middle East Monitor, 18 October). Last fall we wrote that, so far, Syrian Kurds had “largely stayed out of the fratricidal communal civil war,” since both the Assad regime and the armed opposition oppose Kurdish autonomy. Now, in advancing on Sunni areas currently held by the I.S. the YPG is employing some of the kind of strongarm “Kurdization” tactics that the autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan has used in pushing Turkomans and Arabs out of the oil center of Kirkuk and elsewhere in northern Iraq.
Today, the Syrian Kurdish YPG is a semi-ally of U.S. imperialism against the Islamic State, reportedly receiving airdrops of arms for an advance on the I.S. “capital” of Raqaa. But since July the U.S.’ NATO ally Turkey has been heavily bombarding the YPG’s allies of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in Turkey, has bombed PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and is now directly attacking the YPG inside Syria as it tries to advance across the Euphrates River to the west. Last fall we noted that the YPG “is doing everything it can to become acceptable to the imperialists.” Calling to “Drive U.S./NATO Imperialists Out of the Middle East,” we wrote:
“the U.S. and European imperialists will never accept Kurdish independence, or even real autonomy in northern Syria. That would threaten the Ottoman ambitions of the Islamist Erdoğan and the Turkish nationalism of the army. And NATO Turkey is a linchpin for Western imperialist domination of the Middle East.”
–“For Workers Action to Defeat Barack Obama’s Iraq/Syria War,” The Internationalist No. 38, October-November 2014
This warning remains true today.
The League for the Fourth International has stated that: “Proletarian revolutionaries would defend the Kurdish areas against attacks by the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army and certainly against the Islamic State whose victory would mean wholesale slaughter of Kurds.” We have also reiterated our call for a socialist republic of united Kurdistan. At the same time, the LFI has consistently stood for revolutionary defeatism on all sides in the communal civil wars wracking Iraq and Syria, while supporting the right of self-defense of threatened communities. As long as the YPG was defending Kobanê and Rojava (Western Kurdistan) it was exercising this right, but as it expands its sway it has joined the all-sided communal/sectarian bloodbath.
In late August 2014, U.S. president Obama admitted that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in Syria. That didn’t stop him from launching an open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State less than two weeks later. Some 7,700 airstrikes since then haven’t rolled back or even stopped the advance of the I.S., which this year conquered Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Despite U.S.-aided advances by the Kurdish YPG along the Turkish border, which provoked the ire of NATO ally Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prospects for Obama’s “coalition of the unwilling” aren’t looking too good these days. The Iraqi army still won’t fight, and now 17,000 U.S. and other NATO troops will stay in Afghanistan at least another year.
U.S. policy in the region is an all-round failure. The $500 million program to train non-existent non-sectarian, moderate Syrian rebels was a fiasco, now terminated, fielding at most “four or five” fighters. The White House and Pentagon are reluctant to get bogged down in the Syrian quagmire, yet all the anti-government militias continue to receive American arms via U.S. proxies (the I.S. from Turkey, al-Nusra from Qatar, Ahrar al-Sham from Saudi Arabia) or directly (FSA and YPG). Washington politicos who want to escalate the bombing have been checked by Russia’s move. And after 14 years, the U.S. population has no stomach for more Middle Eastern adventures.
With a standoff on the battlefield, even if the Syrian regime is able to make a breakthrough with Russian support (for example, taking back rebel-occupied areas of Aleppo or Damascus suburbs), no side in the overlapping conflicts is able to defeat the others. The Saudi and Iranian governments, intent on waging a Sunni vs. Shiite contest for regional hegemony, are not about to back down. Even if a “political settlement” is reached, which would take some time, it will at most be a façade masking an unstable division into spheres of influence. One need only look at the 1989 Taif Agreement in Lebanon that put an end 14 years of sectarian/communal civil war stoked by the Israeli Zionists – a tenuous truce that could blow up again at any point.
Much of Syria has already been destroyed by the U.S.-fueled civil war aimed at toppling the Assad government. The only way out of this morass, the only way to overcome ethnic and religious hostilities dating back to the collapse of the decrepit Ottoman Empire in World War I, the only way to achieve self-determination for the Kurdish nation and defend all the endangered minorities, is through a proletarian-led offensive to drive imperialism from the region and defeat all the warring Zionist, Islamist, militarist and communalist regimes and forces. That requires an internationalist communist leadership on a Trotskyist program of permanent revolution, fighting for a socialist federation of the Middle East.
For Workers Revolution From Istanbul to Damascus, Tel Aviv and Cairo
Turkish workers, key force for socialist revolution in the Middle East. Left-wing unions march in Istanbul on May Day 2015. Government unleashed brutal repression against the workers. But workers have the power to bring down the Islamist capitalist regime.
The bulk of the Western left, however, has once again lined up with their imperialist masters. A year ago, many were calling on NATO to arm the Kurds against the “Islamic fascists” of the I.S. This time around they are denouncing Russian intervention in Syria. The most blatant case is that of the heirs of Tony Cliff, the renegade from Trotskyism who broke from the Fourth International pinning the label “state capitalist” on the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state and refusing to defend it during the Cold War, from Korea on. After decades of denouncing “Soviet imperialism,” the Cliffites have seamlessly gone over to vituperating against “Russian imperialism,” from Ukraine to Syria.
Thus Alex Callinicos, the guru of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), called Syria a “battlefield of imperialist rivalry,” arguing that, contrary to part of the left that “perceives only the West as imperialism .... Russia too is an imperialist power” (Socialist Worker [UK], 6 October). The International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S. likewise argues that Syria is “Caught in the web of imperialist rivalries” and seeks to revive the Cliffite slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow” (Socialist Worker [U.S.], 5 and 13 October). While Cliff & Co. claimed to represent a “third camp” in the anti-Soviet Cold War, in reality their supposed neutrality was just a “left” cover for supporting the “first camp” of Western imperialism. We see this again today.
Although claiming to oppose U.S. imperial aims, the ISO repeats Syrian “rebel” complaints that “promised military aid from U.S. and European governments has never included the kind of heavy weapons, like anti-aircraft batteries, that would help them confront the Syrian military and now Russian warplanes.” While the American Cliffites still affect a pretense of “independence” from imperialism – just quoting the “rebels” they support asking for Western arms, as they did in the NATO assault on Libya – their main “analysis” of Russia’s Syrian intervention is by Gilbert Achcar, who in 2011 pilloried those opposed to the U.N. “no fly zone” in Libya and explicitly demanded, “arms should be delivered openly and massively to the insurgents” (ZNet, 11 March 2011).
Today this appeal for imperialist aid is raised by one Joseph Daher, who writes: “We must also support the delivery of arms and weapons with no political conditions attached from the West to democratic sections of the FSA and of the Kurdish forces to fight and struggle against the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces” (Syria Freedom Forever, 4 October). Daher, who grew up in Geneva, Switzerland and is now at the University of Lausanne, is often quoted in a range of leftist publications as the voice of the non-existent “Syrian Revolution,” just as Achcar, who has for decades been a professor in Paris, Berlin and now at the University of London, is the go-to “Marxist” authority on the Middle East for various pseudo-Trotskyists.
Whether themselves appealing directly to the Western militarists like Daher and Achcar, or using a “cutout” of supporting the Islamists who appeal for U.S./NATO support, all of these fakers are “left” apologists for imperialism. Rather than fighting to defeat the would-be masters of the world, the ISO, SWP and the rest of the social-democratic crowd want a more “people-friendly” imperialism. From Libya to Syria, the pseudo-socialists and imperialist governments back the same “insurgent” forces supposedly fighting for “democracy” against dictators. And today the opportunist leftists line up with the most bellicose imperialists on Syria.
In France, the Nouvel Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) publishes Daher’s denunciation of “Russian imperialism” and appeal for NATO imperialist arms against Assad (L’Anticapitaliste, 8 October), even as Socialist president François Hollande launches French airstrikes against the Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) in Syria while demanding that Assad must go. The NPA is led by the political heirs of Ernest Mandel who are part of what poses as the International (formerly United) Secretariat of the Fourth International. But over time, Cliffites and Mandelites grew closer as the latter abandoned any pretense of defending the Soviet Union, a pillar of authentic Trotskyism, and both hailed the counterrevolution that destroyed the USSR.
For the followers of the anti-Trotskyst Tony Cliff, support for reactionary Islamist forces goes back decades. They hailed Khomeini’s 1979 “Islamic revolution” in Iran that butchered tens of thousands of leftists, women, homosexuals and Kurds, while authentic Trotskyists opposed the mullah regime; in the ’80s Cliff & Co. praised the Afghan mujahedin fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan – while the then-Trotskyist Spartacist tendency hailed the Soviet intervention; for years the British SWP met with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Rejecting Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the need for a proletarian vanguard, they made common cause with whatever bourgeois movement was popular at the time.
If pro-imperialist social democrats like the ISO routinely peddled Western lies about Syria – such as the fabrication that the Damascus regime used chemical weapons on “its own people” when everything points to the Islamist gangs and their Saudi and Turkish backers as authors of that attack, hoping to trigger U.S. bombing of Syria5 – various Stalinist and proto-Stalinist tendencies call to back the authoritarian Assad regime. This, also, is nothing new, as they have for decades regularly given political support to nationalist strongmen in semi-colonial countries. In the U.S., the Workers World Party (WWP) and Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) have made this their trademark.
Both WWP and PSL are heirs of Sam Marcy, who split from the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960s supporting the Mao-Stalinist regime in China. Both sing hosannas to the Kim dynasty in North Korea, one really deformed workers state. WWP leader Sara Flounders penned an article upholding Syria’s “right to defend its sovereignty” and arguing that “Because of its independent economic and political policies and because of its decades of support for the Palestinian struggle, Syria was on the ‘hit list’ slated for U.S. conquest since the George W. Bush administration” (Workers World, 15 October). While the U.S. has certainly gone after Syria, this is a one-sided portrayal of the Assad regime’s relation to imperialism.
Actually, under Bush II, Syria cooperated closely with the U.S. at the outset of the “Global War on Terror.” Washington sent many suspects to be tortured in Syria under the “extraordinary rendition” program. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein – whose military-based regime like Assad’s in Syria was derived from the Arab nationalist Baath (Renewal) party – put an end to that. Assad exported local Sunni Islamist fighters to harass the U.S. occupation (and jailed them when they returned to Syria). Today he would renew the “anti-terrorist” collaboration with imperialism, offering his services as a bulwark of stability in the region, keeping Israel’s northern border quiet while talking “resistance,” if only the U.S. would allow it.
For his part, PSL leader Brian Becker writes: “Russia’s intervention was formally requested by the sovereign Syrian government led by Bashar Al-Assad and thus conforms to international law” (Liberation, 1 October). It is telling that would-be revolutionaries would place such stress on “international law,” that fiction that reflects the interests of the dominant imperialist powers, and which they routinely ignore when it doesn’t suit them. Calling U.S. policy “reckless,” “nonsensical” and “short-sighted,” Becker goes on:
“Obama promised ‘no boots on the ground’ in Syria…. But from a military standpoint, the armies of ISIS and Al-Qaeda cannot be defeated by air assault. They can only be defeated by other forces on the ground.”
In contrast to the “incompetence” and downright “weirdness” of Obama’s refusal to “support the Syrian military that is actually fighting against ISIS and an array of other terrorist groups,” Becker recommends Putin’s “fully rational” call on the Charlie Rose CBS TV show for:
“strengthening the effective [Syrian] government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.”
These Stalinoid reformists, like the social-democratic reformists, are merely proposing an alternative policy for Obama & Co. The difference is that while the ISO et al. want the U.S. to back “moderate” Syrian Islamist gangs, the WWP/PSL want Washington to back the Syrian government. Recall that these opportunists all greeted the 2008 election of Democrat Obama. And since they always seek to ally with liberal Democrats, these leaders of the various popular-front “antiwar” coalitions (IAC, ANSWER, UFPJ) called no protest marches when Obama started bombing the Islamic State a year ago, or since. Rather than fighting to defeat “their own” imperialist rulers, they have all signed on to the “anti-terrorist” war against the IS.
In contrast, upholding the program of Lenin and Trotsky, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International call to drive U.S./NATO forces out of the Middle East. While the social democrats buy into the human rights rhetoric that the Democrats bandy about to justify imperialist war going back to Bill Clinton’s two wars on Yugoslavia, the Stalinists and Stalinoids back the nationalist strongmen from Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Nothing remotely revolutionary about either. The IG and LFI defend those countries militarily against imperialism, while fighting for workers revolution to bring down the capitalist regimes.
In opposing all sides in the sectarian religious and ethnic communal slaughter of the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, it must never be forgotten that the greatest mass murderers of all are the imperialists, who have killed millions from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. And while hailing actual blows against imperialism landed even by arch-reactionary forces such as the I.S. in Syria/Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, we look to the international working class – from the Middle East to the imperialist centers – to defeat the “democratic” imperialists and smash the Islamists of all stripes, who would impose the social and legal norms of seventh-century nomadic tribes on modern secular industrial societies.
It was the bankruptcy of the Stalinist policy of backing bourgeois nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Assad (father of the current president) in Syria who could not fight imperialism that led to the rise of Islamism. Because they maintain capitalist rule, they are always at the mercy of the world market which condemns semi-colonial countries to perpetual poverty while stoking reactionary wars squabbling over the crumbs that fall from the tables of the imperialist feast. The persistence of bonapartist (police-military) regimes in Latin America, Asia and Africa confirms Trotsky’s analysis that in imperialist-dominated countries democracy, national liberation and agrarian revolution – the principal tasks of the bourgeois revolution – cannot be achieved under bourgeois rule.
The programmatic conclusion of this is the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution, that in order to accomplish the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions it is necessary for the working class to seize power at the head of the impoverished peasantry and all sectors of the oppressed and to undertake socialist tasks while extending the revolution internationally. This was the program that Lenin and Trotsky carried out in October 1917, against the opposition of the bourgeoisie but also of Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Stalin and others in the Bolshevik Party. The phony “Marxist-Leninists” of today represent the program of those who opposed Red October.
This underscores the urgency of the League for the Fourth
International’s struggle to forge specifically
Leninist-Trotskyist communist parties based on the Bolshevik
program of international socialist revolution, from the
millions-strong working classes of Turkey and Egypt, to the
“belly of the imperialist beast,” fighting for proletarian
class independence from all the bourgeois forces, to put an
end to the imperialist-capitalist system of war, poverty and
- 1. For a detailed analysis, see “The Bugbear of ‘Russian Imperialism’” The Internationalist No. 40, Summer 2015.
- 2. The Wahabi sect of the Sunni branch of Islam dominates Saudi Arabia and is sponsored by the government in exchange for the sect’s support for the Saudi monarchy. Wahabis are salafists who consider the practices of the first three generations of followers of Muhammad to be the model of an Islamic society. They are also takfiri, who label all non-Sunni Muslims, including the tens of millions of Shiites, apostates and infidels. Osama bin Laden was a Wahabi, as are the adherents of the Islamic State and many of the so-called “moderate” rebels.
- 3. See Patrick Cockburn, “The Road to Peace for Syria Means War,” The Independent on Sunday, 27 September, and “Let’s Welcome Russia’s Entry into Syria,” IoS, 4 October.
- 4. See “From Ukraine to Middle East: U.S. Imperialism Strikes Out,” The Internationalist No. 37, May-June 2014.
- 5. See “Defend Syria Against U.S. Imperialist Attack!” (28 September 2013), in The Internationalist No. 36, January-February 2014.