Last month Britain joined the many states dropping bombs on Syria. Simon Assaf talks to Socialist Review about the causes and implications of a crisis in which none of the players have control.
With such a messy situation in Syria, where do we even start?
It’s always a difficulty when you have deep complexities on the ground to start with what’s going on there, it just becomes more and more complex. So I think the best way to view it is from the top.
We talked about the era of the Arab revolutions from 2011, we talked about this huge movement from below that was shaping everything, it was changing everything: the state, imperialism, the dynamic of the region, social movements. Since the defeat — well, defeat is really too strong a word — since the retreat of the revolutionary forces the initiative is now with the ruling classes.
So when we talk about understanding Syria and Iraq’s role in it we have to start with the fact that this is a region of inter-imperial rivalry which is becoming a region now of inter-imperial crash.
Why is that?
We have almost all the global forces at play here. China has a huge stake in the Iraqi oil fields that it is unable to defend. It relies on other imperial powers to do so — the US, local actors and so on. Russia is attempting to stabilise its Mediterranean base and build some kind of imperial outpost in the rump of what are now Alawi areas of Syria, the Western coast. Turkey sees Syria as its back yard, and there is this continually explosive situation with the Kurds.
And then you have imperialism in the form of the US, which is in the process of attempting to do the “Asian pivot” away from the Middle East to Asia, with the Middle East becoming less important for the wider US strategy than it was in the 20th century. There are plenty of reasons for this: they’re not so dependent on the Middle East oil — as a source of mega profits, it’s not the same as it was in the 50s or 60s, so now most of the oil is owned by the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and so on. So there is a massive reluctance in the US ruling class to commit ground troops to secure the area and it’s looking for others to help do it, and looking for local actors, no matter how ugly they are, who will help to provide some kind of stability.
Then there are the regional powers — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE). These are the main actors with the forces that support the rebels but are themselves in competition with each other. Regional competition isn’t simply between Syria and Israel, it’s also between the Arab states themselves. So they’re all backing different factions and so on.
How much influence do the big powers have over these factions?
This is an extraordinarily dangerous situation, in which you as an imperial army don’t have control of the forces on the ground. You have some influence, that’s really about it. These things can run out of control very quickly — for example, the way in which Iran has intervened with Hezbollah, with the Iraqi militias, the Afghan militias and so on. As these things develop, originally to act as a buffer, they themselves get dragged further into it, with sectarian massacres, then a general rise in sectarianism.
The forces on the ground are not puppets. The Assad regime is not a puppet; neither are any of the other rebel groups. But they are dependent on outside forces to continue their battles. They themselves have their own interests that don’t necessarily match up imperially but they are in the game.
All this makes for an extremely complicated picture on the ground. There is an effective alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, the US, France, Britain and Russia. Even though they pretend not to talk to each other, we know they do, especially the Iranians and Americans in Iraq.
On the other side you have the Turks, UAE, the Qataris and the Saudis backing different rebel formations — who again don’t simply take orders but are dependent for their survival. Inside of that you have the Al-qaida branch, which is effectively on the side of Turkey, effectively on the side of the Saudis.
And then ISIS, which rises out of the complete destruction of Iraq and the stirring up of sectarianism in Iraqi society. The degeneration of the Syrian revolution also creates the conditions under which ISIS can expand. What ISIS can say that none of the others can say is that they are dependent on no one. They can present themselves as being not in the pay of any foreign forces or foreign governments.
This situation is highly combustible, as we saw with the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey in November. This was followed by the arrival of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that are now being deployed inside Syria with a range over Israel and Turkey. The Russian fleet off the coast of Lebanon has declared Lebanon a no-fly zone, completely overriding the Lebanese government. The Russians have essentially taken over Lebanese airspace.
The whole mess that is Syria is so out of control, it’s also out of control for imperialism. This means that the heightened, more aggressive Russian imperialism is now in severe danger of clashing with Turkey, which could mean triggering Nato. All kinds of quite dark scenarios could emerge out of it.
This extremely fractured imperialism is becoming more and more aggressive, as we saw with Ukraine in the past couple of years. It’s now blowing up again with Armenia — the Russians are rearming Armenia because they’re in a war with Azerbaijan. An old dispute that goes back years and years has now been revitalised by this upsurge of Russian support for the Armenians, and suddenly now Turkish support for the Azerbaijanis. So you begin to see how this contagion of war spreads.
Some people have made comparisons with the run up to the First World War.
There is clearly an analogy — that sense in which it was loads of incremental things taking place, and logically it made no sense to have a world war, but the events themselves were beginning to escalate and then you just need one wrong trigger. After the Turks shot down the Russian plane the Russian embassy in the UK tweeted a poster from 1906, a racist poster of a Turkish dwarf at the feet of the Tsar. Then someone from Turkey retweeted an image from the 1904-05 Russian-Japanese war of a Japanese officer buggering a Russian officer. They’re borrowing the old imagery from these old conflicts.
We’re seeing a slip-slide to war. More and more countries are signing up to this anti-ISIS coalition — which is basically everyone who wants to be a player in what’s going to happen in the region over the next period. There’s no central plan and everyone’s being dragged in.
People say, what’s the use of French bombing after a year of US bombing? What’s the difference between the French air force and the US air force? What do the three or four British planes add to this? On the ground it adds nothing but it means they’re all now players in this war.
This was the situation in the Middle East pre-1917 — the Ottoman Empire collapses and everyone piles in. They eventually came to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which set the boundaries that have largely lasted for a century.
The rivalry between France, Italy, Britain, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all of these were players in the Middle East, and they were all backing religious sects, which then created the conditions of the 20th century Middle East: fractures and division and foreign interference.
This process is repeating now, with most of the old players returning. What used to be a region of relative stability under the dictatorships and wider US hegemony is now collapsing. Add to that Chinese expansion to the west and the US’s fear of it and you see the point at which all these forces are getting sucked into a great black hole which seems to be located somewhere over Aleppo, as far as I can gather.
So what is going on on the ground?
Against all the claims that are made about bombing ISIS is the mass of suffering that is taking place. The Russians are not really bombing ISIS at all, they’re bombing the rebel formations. The US has been bombing ISIS but it has also been bombing Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Nusra Front), ISIS’s enemy and key players in the Syrian rebellion. The Assad regime has huge parts of the country under siege, coming to a point where there’s nearly a mass surrender in Damascus. Aleppo is nearly isolated. The rebellion is very close to defeat.
The Russian military might that has now entered on the side of the Assad regime is phenomenal. The next step is more anti-aircraft weaponry coming through. There were rumours that the Russians were promising the Kurds anti-aircraft weaponry to knock out Turkish planes. At what point does someone hand someone an anti-aircraft missile? That’s the point at which conflict goes up into another stage.
So the decision by David Cameron to enter into this fray is a line in the sand for Britain. Thank god for Jeremy Corbyn! What Corbyn represents is a pullback in the other direction.
There’s now a Turkish military incursion into Northern Iraq. What’s at stake for Turkey in Iraq and Syria? The first, most primary question is keeping control of the Kurdish autonomy movement. The second one is Turkish capital invested in Northern Iraq. So the construction of the new airport, new oil fields, all of that is Turkish capital. It’s not simply the nationalist question for Turkey, it’s also a material question about securing that area.
The Kurds have the sympathy of a worldwide movement, people historically fucked over, historically dispossessed, after 1917 — the Palestinians and all that. You have left wing Kurdish organisations fighting under the air cover of US planes. The Kurds’ fight against ISIS was carried out in cooperation with the US. So you have the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) — what is called a communist terrorist organisation — on the ground actually cooperating with US imperialism in Syria in its battle against ISIS. You have the Iraqi militias, most of which are backed by or have some kind of alliance with Iran, a US enemy, enjoying that same relationship with the US military.
It’s almost irrelevant whether these organisations are Islamist or secular or whatever. What matters is how in hock they are to various imperial powers. The big powers talk about it being a battle against the Islamists. Cameron talks about 70,000 moderates that Britain will work with. Actually that’s an underestimate, there’s probably more than 70,000, but all of these people are trapped in a war with Assad; they have no interest in heading into the desert to finish off ISIS. Even though they’re hostile to ISIS they can’t simply break out of Damascus. So there are no real ground forces of which the west can say “this is our army”.
Are there any signs of the Arab Spring re-emerging?
What remains of the Syrian rebellion is becoming more and more unstable, desperate, and all their backers are being dragged into a wider confrontation. In the middle of that you have the sudden emergence of a social movement in Lebanon. There are still echoes of the Arab Spring, and you get reminded that all those conditions that created it are even harsher and sharper than before. The difference between the height of the Arab revolutions and the period now, which is the darkest night almost, is that huge mass movement.
Before 2011 people used to say the Arab revolutions can never happen, and now people say oh but they could never be victorious or could never happen again. Actually it was a dramatic shift.
Syria and Iraq are in a terrible state, as is Yemen, but places like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria — the rest of the Arab world — are nowhere near that state and you can see the possibility of the Arab revolutions re-emerging. That is the key to unlocking it all — not short term bombing campaigns.
It sounds like that Monty Python sketch, Mary Queen of Scots, when they pronounce her dead and she says no I’m not, and it keeps going on — she’s dead, no I’m not. So it’s like people keep pronouncing the death of the Arab Spring and then it suddenly re-emerges. The tiny Lebanese social movement suddenly erupts, almost overthrows the government and then says oh there’s something peculiar about Lebanon — but there isn’t.
So the imperialists’ war on ISIS has no prospect of succeeding.
Even though they’re a nasty, sectarian, reactionary force in so many ways, ISIS represents something real, which is what our rulers don’t seem to understand. It’s not good enough to think of them as a bunch of head cases. They are building a state. The continuous bombing of ISIS has not lost it territory, it’s lost a little bit here and there in Iraq and so on but nothing substantial after what, a year, a year and a half? It’s still able to maintain itself. What is that telling you about ISIS? That you can’t simply drop some bombs on a couple of cars with some militants in and expect the whole thing is gonna fall apart.
Because of that the pull towards ground troops is becoming harder and harder to resist. So there are already rumours of US Special Forces — there are always rumours of that, but much firmer rumours now about direct use.
The Free Syrian Army elements are now beginning to work together on the ground because of the pull. And the right wing press are quite right about this. “We’re against the bombing, against Cameron’s war on the basis that this is not enough; if you really want to do this properly then you need to say bring in ground forces.” But that didn’t seem to work very well in Iraq. So whichever way they look, there’s no solution for the crisis they’re in.
They’d like to pull it back, so French premiere Hollande goes to Russia after the Paris attacks to bring Putin in from the cold. Instead they disagree over Assad and the press conferences are a mess with Hollande essentially saying if you don’t get rid of Assad then we’re not going to do anything with you.
And then others such as Boris Johnson say Assad’s dictatorship is the only viable alternative, so we have to back him. Every solution brings deeper problems. And everywhere the imperialists look it’s really dangerous. They try and tiptoe around each other but you see with the Russian-Turkish incident, that doesn’t quite work. The Turks themselves have been involved in ground incursions as well in northern Syria, again this is a direct fight with the Russians.
It’s all extraordinarily dangerous.