SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 165 February 2013

Syria: turning point in civil war?

The uprising in Syria has descended into a protracted, bloody civil war. Tens of thousands of people have been killed as the regime’s forces battle an array of militias which are, in turn, struggling for position among themselves. ARNE JOHANSSON reports, in material first published in Offensiv, the weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden).

THE UNITED STATES, EU powers and more than 130 governments have recognised the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), formed in November 2012 and previously known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. This is now considered, in US president Barack Obama’s words, as the only legitimate and "sufficiently inclusive, reflective and representative" agents of the Syrian people.

The recognition was made public at a big meeting with ‘Syria´s friends’ in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, on 12 December. It shows that western powers are now prepared to step up their political, economic and military measures to achieve an as controlled and pro-western regime-change in Syria as possible. The indirect support that has long been channelled through US allies in the region, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is no longer considered to be enough.

The US administration’s simultaneous designation of the most militarily effective, well-equipped and feared Salafist militia, the al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist organisation, received less attention. Yet, the fact that it was met with public protest from the SNC’s leader indicates how far the relationship of forces within the armed opposition has mutated in a sectarian direction. More than a hundred opposition groups inside Syria demonstrated behind the slogan ‘we are all al-Nusra’, sending shivers down the spines of many ethnic or religious minorities. They fear being turned into second-class citizens by those who want to make Syria a Sunni Islamist state after the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The west’s recognition of the SNC coincides with an increasingly difficult military situation for the Assad regime, which has lost two military bases on the outskirts of the country’s largest city, Aleppo. Nonetheless, the regime’s bloody death agony can be very protracted, for several reasons – even though NATO general secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says it is on the ropes, and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, has recognised that a victory for the opposition "cannot be excluded".

Western military build-up

THE DECISION BY the US, Germany and the Netherlands to deploy 1,200 troops and six batteries of Patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria underlines the seriousness of the escalation. Warships are in position off the Syrian coast. The claim is that the military build-up is for ‘defensive purposes’ only, although it comes coupled with a warning to the Assad regime not to use the chemical weapons it is said to possess.

The political climate in the US hardly supports an invasion with regular ground forces inside Syria, on the lines of that carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even an air force operation, such as that by NATO against Libya. The logic of the military build-up, however, points in the direction of some form of military intervention. The establishment of a so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’ to rebel-controlled areas is denied, although British prime minister, David Cameron, claims that the message to Assad should be that ‘nothing is off the table’.

The deployment of NATO troops at the border serves several purposes. One is to try to limit the real risk that the Syrian civil war will spill over into Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbouring states. It fosters closer relations with the military command centre that the SNC is building in Turkish Antalya. It also provides opportunities to infiltrate and try to control Syrian rebels, primarily through the use of ‘advisers’, spies and special forces. This could facilitate direct military intervention in Syria later, if deemed necessary by the US.

Western powers want a regime-change as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, they have good reason to worry about the political Islamist forces they have let out of the bottle, which could pave the way for years of internal strife, a new exodus of Christians and Alawites, and the further destabilisation of the entire Middle East.

The Free Syrian Army

PATRICK COCKBURN WROTE in The Independent about a horrific video "that every Syrian has seen", in which two captured regime officers from the Alawite minority, which is one of Assad’s main power bases, are beheaded by Syrian insurgents. Worst of all is the scene showing a 12- or 13-year-old boy being persuaded to cut the head off a middle-aged man. Although the regime’s bombardment of houses and neighbourhoods under the control of Free Syrian Army militias is responsible for the overwhelming proportion of civilian suffering, death and destruction, its self-serving justifications for these acts are increasingly confirmed by the rebels’ abuses.

In a report published by the Christian website, Agenzia Fides, a young Syrian Christian, who identified himself with the opposition, described the horrific scenes when militias from the Free Syrian Army attacked Kurdish outposts in Ras al-Ein and invaded the city "as conquerors, not liberators". He asks: "Who gave the militia orders to kill on the basis of religious affiliation?"

The report says: "Kurds, Arabs and Christians, more than 70,000 people, fled mostly to Hassake. Within a few hours, the city became a ghost town. Alawites were hit the worst; they were killed just because they were Alawites. One of the victims was a schoolteacher who loved the city so much, and for many years taught all the families’ children. Some militiamen found, captured and killed him in front of his wife and children, who were kidnapped".

The Assyrian Democratic Organisation has urged the SNC to "act forcefully to reduce the growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Mesopotamia, which has a negative impact on peace and unity in the social fabric".

Sectarian mutation

VERY LITTLE OF this is being reported by the Swedish media which, in a simplistic manner, give a rosy picture of the Syrian disaster. Some of the armed insurrections most uncritical supporters on the left – as unfortunately seen on the blogs of socialist veterans like Göte Kildén and Benny Åsman (members of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) – are only now gradually realising that they can no longer ignore the growing power of Syria’s right-wing Islamist forces. Nonetheless, they try to play down the dangers in the situation and blame the US and western powers for only belatedly arming the ‘more moderate’ groups!

But without independent working-class struggle – a critical factor in the overthrow of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt – this sectarian mutation of an originally genuine but, today, largely muted and dispersed mass movement against the dictatorship is a logical development. It is the tragic consequence of a protracted civil war that has been sponsored mainly by some of the world’s most reactionary and least democratic powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with imperialism behind them.

The seriousness of the growth of al-Nusra is also downplayed by Kildén and Åsman who argue that its main attraction for Syrian youth is because of its superior weaponry and military clout than other militias. Despite the bloody experience and practices that al-Nusra veterans have brought with them from the civil war in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, Kildén and Åsman try to reassure their readers that al-Nusra has its roots in Syria and does not include al-Qaeda’s right-wing Islamist jihadism against ‘unbelievers’ worldwide.

Kildén and Åsman always appealed for more military aid to the Syrian opposition from western imperialism. They now criticise the designation by the US administration of al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation as "counter-productive". The fear of many of the minorities, who make up over 30% of the population – Kurds, Alawites (Shia Muslims), Christians and other minorities – is that the best they can hope for is to survive as second-class citizens in a state ruled by right-wing sectarian Sunni Islamists. Viola Furubjelke, former Swedish ambassador to Syria, commented: "The most militant sections of the opposition do not exactly have a political agenda for what will happen after Assad’s downfall and the more this drags on the more sectarian the situation becomes".

In the meantime, very little attention has been paid to the efforts of Kurdish groups to consolidate control over their territories and their refusal to submit to both the Assad regime and the various militias that make up the Free Syrian Army.

A long hard winter

THAT THE REGIME is cornered does not mean that the militias of the Free Syrian Army are widely perceived as liberators and worth dying for. Even the Qatar-based news agency, Al-Jazeera, reports that many Aleppo citizens blame the regime’s assault on the rebels, who have consolidated their positions in the neighbourhoods they have entered. "Our country is destroyed. If this is the revolution I do not want it. I emphasise that I do not support the regime, it used to oppress us. But now we are oppressed a hundred times more", said a trader from Aleppo.

There is no immediate sign that the regime will suddenly split or implode, since the ethnic/religious groups on which the ruling Alawite elite rest can see little alternative but to fight for their lives to the bitter end. This means that we can expect a disastrous winter in Syria, characterised by prolonged and desperate house-by-house combat, with different communities being expelled from areas or forced to migrate to enclaves protected by ‘their own’ sectarian militias, or else forced increasingly to leave the country as refugees.

Class-conscious workers and socialists can support neither the doomed Assad regime nor the militias run by religious extremists or those who subordinate themselves to western imperialism and the reactionary Arab states. The task must be to build alliances for the mutual protection and security of all threatened neighbourhoods and anyone who refuses to be drawn into this sectarian civil war, irrespective of all religious and ethnic boundaries.

Alongside this, working people need their own independent movement against Assad, the sectarian forces and imperialism. On that basis, Syrian workers, democracy activists and youth could then begin to construct a new socialist movement, drawing inspiration from the on-going struggles of workers and youth in Tunisia and Egypt, fighting to stand free against reactionary regimes, religious fundamentalism and imperialism.

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