A scramble for Syria

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The tragedy in Syria has taken another disastrous turn with the military intervention of Russia. This is being played out in its ruined cities and the waves of desperate refugees attempting to flee their homes.

Warplanes from the US, Russia, Turkey and their various allies have crowded the skies above the country. Now Russian, Iranian, Turkish and US troops are beginning to put boots on the ground.

Millions of Syrians have already fled, but over the past month the Russian bombing has displaced a further 120,000 people, mainly from the relatively safe rebel-held areas south of Aleppo, but vast numbers are now also abandoning regime-held regions.

Russia’s intervention, like that of its imperial rivals, is designed not to speed the end of the war, but to carve out its own area of special interest in a country being ripped apart.

A comment by the chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy summed up Vladimir Putin’s aims.

Fyodor Lukyanov said that Russia wanted an “Alawite Israel…a defensive secular enclave that — with outside support — would be capable of self-defence and serve as an obstacle to an uncontrolled spread of ISIS”.

Russia’s policy is not simply to shore up the Syrian regime, but to reverse the huge territorial gains made by the rebel coalitions over the past year. It is building a number of military bases in regime heartlands.

Despite rhetoric of a war against ISIS, Russia, like the US before it, has concentrated its fire on Syrian rebels. Notably Jabra al-Nusra, the main force in the Army of Conquest, has brought together the majority of Gulf-backed Islamist rebel formations.

Similarly Turkey has shifted its war on ISIS against the Kurds, who have set up semi-independent areas in the north (see page 6).

The Russian strategy has delivered very little gain on the ground for the Assad regime; his forces are too demoralised and unable to take advantage of the intervention. Similarly there is little hope of the Islamist dominated rebels toppling the regime, as they cannot appeal to Syria’s minorities.

The only force making real battlefield gains is ISIS. Rebels in Aleppo now face war from the air, as well as encirclement by the regime in the south and ISIS in the north.

Russia’s intervention has forced the US to invite Iran to future peace negotiations, sidelining the central demand of the 2011 uprising: the end of Bashar Assad’s regime. Iran is a major backer of the regime.

Far from resolving the civil war, foreign intervention has created a bloody stalemate. The popular forces that launched the revolution have been defeated, and although many of those who took to the streets in the mass waves of demonstrations remain on the battlefield, the heart of the rebellion is now on the road.

The spirit of this mass movement has appeared on European borders, where waves of refugees have stormed into Fortress Europe. They have found allies among ordinary people who have come to their aid, whether plucking survivors from the sea or collecting food and clothing for the refugee camps.

David Cameron is using the war on ISIS to make military intervention acceptable again. The Tories see an opportunity to overcome Britain’s “Iraq syndrome” caused by Tony Blair’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The rhetoric of war against “ISIS barbarism” is a cover for the new scramble for control over Syria, and creating a dangerous clash of imperialisms.