Australasian Spartacist No. 221
Missile Attack on Hold, For Now
Imperialists' Hands Off Syria!
A huge sigh of relief around the world greeted the news that Barack Obama was shelving his plans to bomb Syria in favour of exploring a Russian proposal to place the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons under “international control.” The missile attack has been put on hold at least for now although Obama has maintained his “right” to act unilaterally if he is not pleased with the outcome of the weapons deal. Meanwhile, slavishly declaring America is Australia’s “greatest friend,” newly elected prime minister Tony Abbott told Obama that the U.S. could count on Australia’s support if military force was required (Australian, 12 September).
Obama had justified his plans to bomb Syria on the grounds that it would be retribution for a poison gas attack on 21 August, allegedly carried out by the Syrian bourgeois regime of Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the threat of missile strikes is an assertion of U.S. imperialism’s power to brutalise any country whose leaders don’t toe the line. Factoring heavily in the U.S. calculations is Assad’s ally Iran, with Secretary of State John Kerry arguing that Tehran would “feel emboldened in the absence of action [against Syria], to obtain nuclear weapons.” Backing the Syrian regime is capitalist Russia’s strongman president, Vladimir Putin, who has now assumed the unlikely role of peace broker. Putin led the carnage against Chechen independence fighters over a decade ago and has provided Assad’s brutal regime with sophisticated missile defence technology.
In Syria as well as Iran, Russia seeks to maintain and enhance its substantial investments in the production and delivery of fossil fuels throughout the region. Furthermore Russia has enough military might, largely in the form of its nuclear arsenal, to command the respect of the U.S. To emphasise its opposition to Obama’s threatened bombing, Russia dispatched two warships to the Mediterranean Sea in August and later sent two more to the area, including a “carrier killer” missile cruiser. The CIA has initiated light arms and munitions shipments to Syrian rebels, who are likely to receive more such aid in spite of the deal.
The Assad regime lauds Putin for obtaining an agreement it describes as a victory. The Syrian rebels, on the other hand, had hoped that the campaign against the purported use of chemical weapons would provide the basis for imperialist bombardment on their behalf and have bitterly denounced the agreement. We do not know who is responsible for the 21 August gas attack. But as Marxists, our position is not guided by who was behind it. Our starting point is that the imperialists, led by the U.S. and supported by lesser powers such as Australia, constitute the greatest danger to the working people and downtrodden of the planet. It is the duty of the proletariat, especially in the imperialist countries, to stand for the defence of Syria against any military attack by the imperialists. Our call for military defence of semicolonial Syria does not imply any political support to the capitalist Assad government. The Ba’athist regime has terrorised, starved and slaughtered untold numbers of workers, political opponents, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities. Nor do we support the rebels—who are largely Sunni-fundamentalist reactionaries.
An imperialist missile attack against Syria would necessarily strengthen the insurgents and further inflame communal tensions. The Syrian civil war is increasingly escalating into a Middle East-wide Sunni versus Shi’ite communal war extending from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. In Iraq, Sunni forces linked to Al Qaeda have stepped up bombings in Shi’ite neighbourhoods, threatening a return to the orgy of sectarian bloodshed that engulfed the country in 2006-07. Lebanon is also suffering its worst sectarian violence in years, including car bombings in Beirut suburbs controlled by the Shi’ite Hezbollah, which has troops in Syria fighting on behalf of Assad. Meanwhile, since mid-July rebel forces have been carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Kurds in northeast Syria.
The spreading communal violence is being seized upon as a pretext for further U.S. military build-up in this oil-rich region. In June, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that top commanders were seeking permission from Iraq and Lebanon to deploy troops in those countries. This would be in addition to the U.S. Patriot missile batteries and fighter planes already stationed in Turkey and Jordan and the massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. U.S.-led depredations, supported by the Australian military, have decimated the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan and are ongoing in Afghanistan as are murderous drone strikes throughout the region. We demand all imperialist troops and military out of the Middle East and Afghanistan!
Imperialist “Democracy” and Chemical Warfare
It is sheer hypocrisy for the imperialists to pontificate against the use of chemical weapons. When imperialist forces intervened in Russia in 1919 in a failed attempt to crush the Russian Revolution, British warplanes bombarded Red Army troops with a chemical nerve agent. That same year, when Kurds in Mesopotamia (roughly corresponding to Iraq today) rose in revolt against British occupation, Winston Churchill declared: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”
The Washington politicians lamenting civilian casualties in Syria represent the only ruling class to have used atomic bombs in warfare, incinerating some 200,000 Japanese civilians in August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This atrocity was enthusiastically backed by the Australian imperialists who during World War II secretly stockpiled close to one million chemical weapons for use against the Japanese military should they land on Australian shores.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. and Australian forces employed massive quantities of Agent Orange defoliant and CS gas—the latter was used against insurgents holed up in tunnels—as well as burning alive untold numbers of Vietnamese villagers in napalm strikes. In Iraq, the U.S. used shells made of depleted uranium that produced radioactive dust. Scientists investigating widespread birth defects in the city of Fallujah describe it as now having “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied” and point to the depleted uranium as the likely culprit.
During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. government was complicit as former Iraqi president and butcher Saddam Hussein carried out horrific chemical weapons attacks. Determined to prevent an Iranian victory, Ronald Reagan’s administration provided Iraqi forces with satellite photographs of Iranian troop deployments as well as critical hands-on assistance in planning for battles and air strikes. The U.S. did so with full knowledge that Iraqi commanders had been using chemical weapons against Iranian troops since 1983. Washington “wasn’t so horrified by Iraq’s use of gas,” one U.S. veteran of the operation told the New York Times (18 August 2002). “It was just another way of killing people.”
The sordid history of U.S. involvement in the atrocities carried out by the Hussein regime was highlighted by a number of recently declassified CIA documents published by Foreign Policy (26 August). A March 1984 CIA report noted that Iraq was using nerve gas and called it “a very good offensive as well as defensive weapon” that “could have a significant impact on Iran’s human wave tactics, forcing Iran to give up that strategy.” U.S. support to Iraqi forces continued right through the 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which the Iraqi regime slaughtered 5,000 of its own citizens. That attack was later hypocritically decried by the George W. Bush administration as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s brutality as the U.S., Britain and Australia were gearing up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
As in the case of Saddam Hussein, Assad’s past services to the imperialists were quickly forgotten once Washington decided that he no longer served their purposes. In the early years of the “war on terror,” Syria was a prime destination in the “extraordinary rendition” program in which the U.S., assisted by Australia, sent terrorism suspects to other countries to be tortured. That didn’t prevent the Obama administration, once civil war broke out in Syria, from providing financial support and small arms to some insurgents while ratcheting up economic sanctions that, along with those imposed by the European Union, have crippled the Syrian economy.
Even more punishing sanctions have been imposed on Iran, which Washington and Tel Aviv perceive as attempting to challenge the Israeli monopoly of nuclear arms in the region. Although the Iranian government denies that it is developing nuclear weapons, Iran clearly needs nukes as a deterrent to the imperialists. We demand: Down with the sanctions against Iran and Syria!
Obama Backs Off Immediate Attack
Obama encountered widespread opposition to the projected bombing, beginning in London. In a surprise rebellion on 29 August the British parliament rejected a motion by prime minister David Cameron to authorise Britain to join the U.S. in air strikes. The Tory leader became the first British prime minister in decades—some say centuries—to have lost a vote on military action. In the countries of the European Union (EU), many of which remain mired in recession, the widespread unpopularity of the U.S.-led war/occupation of Iraq provided the main basis for large-scale opposition to the proposed attack on Syria. Cameron’s failure to deliver parliamentary support for an attack left François Hollande, Socialist Party prime minister of France (Syria’s former colonial overlord), as the only EU leader to back the U.S. Russian resistance to the U.S. bombing plans stiffened the resolve of the other European imperialist chiefs, whose countries have their own interests in the region. When the assassin Putin provided Edward Snowden with temporary asylum, thus seizing the tattered mantle of “human rights” respectability from the assassin Obama, those heads of state were further pleased. All of these run their own nations’ spy apparatuses (normally in collaboration with the NSA and CIA or, in Britain and Australia’s case, in lockstep). But many of them resent the mammoth scope of the surveillance they are subjected to by the U.S. spymasters.
The rapidity with which the U.S./Russian understanding was reached indicates that Obama had little taste to go it alone. His 10 September speech indicating a willingness to try the path of diplomacy was for the most part a paean to American imperialism as the seven-decade-long “anchor of global security”—in other words, the world’s sheriff.
Absent international support, Obama’s eschewal of an immediate armed attack on Syria signifies some recognition that such a venture is opposed by the war-weary majority of the American people, many of whom voted for him in 2008 as the “peace” candidate. In this context, the majority of the U.S. Congress, many of whom will stand for election next year, were undecided or opposed to endorsing Obama’s “limited” attack on Syria. Although the president is not greatly favoured by the populace at the moment, Congress is very widely and vigorously despised, inspiring the following headline in The Onion (5 September): “Poll: Majority of Americans Approve of Sending Congress to Syria.” From their own standpoint, many among the U.S. capitalist rulers share the appreciation that this Congress (whose job is, after all, to serve their class interests) can accomplish nothing and are ill-disposed to getting bogged down in another Middle East quagmire. This is especially the case in Syria, where the strength of the rebel forces resides in Islamic fundamentalists who are devoted to the extinction of the Great Satan (America). And Putin gave Obama a way out of his mess.
For a Socialist Federation of the Middle East!
The ruling classes of the imperialist countries are directly responsible for the communal conflagration that is erupting in the Middle East today. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are not nations but rather patchworks of different peoples and ethnicities that were carved out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire by Britain and France following the First World War. In the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, France took Syria (including present-day Lebanon) for itself while Britain acquired Jordan and Palestine—all against the wishes of their inhabitants (see “Syrian Civil War: Legacy of Imperialist Divide-and-Rule,” Workers Vanguard No. 1009, 28 September 2012). In Iraq, the British imperialists forcibly cobbled together a single state consisting of different peoples, including Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs as well as Kurds and Turkmens. In furthering their policy of divide-and-rule, the imperialists promoted ethnic or religious minorities like the Syrian Alawites to lord it over the predominantly Sunni population.
The international proletariat and semicolonial peoples are paying the price for the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. That historic defeat resulted in a catastrophic devastation of living conditions and culture in the former Soviet Union. It has also emboldened U.S. imperialism, which proclaimed itself the “world’s only superpower” while aggressively asserting its dominance over the globe.
Today, much of the Australian reformist left who cheered the demise of the Soviet Union say they oppose air strikes on Syria while simultaneously lining up behind the imperialist-backed Syrian rebels. Foremost among these have been the Cliffite groups Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and Solidarity, who resist any attempt to identify the bloody slaughter in Syria as reactionary on both sides and insist that what is unfolding is a “revolution” against the Assad regime. Both SAlt and Solidarity tout the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) as being key to this mythical Syrian revolution. In fact, the LCC openly calls for U.S. military intervention in its country. In a 1 September statement posted on its Facebook page, the LCC criticises Obama for planning a “limited strike to merely warn Assad” instead of seeking to “paralyze” the Syrian military. The LCC demands that Obama’s military assault be “accompanied by close coordination with, and sufficient support to the Syrian opposition, both political and armed.”
While the Cliffites proclaim their solidarity with the pro-imperialist rebels, the Stalinist Communist Party of Australia (CP) and the misnamed Trotskyist Platform (TP) give political credence to the blood-soaked Assad regime. The CP eulogise this bourgeois regime as “progressive” and a “key member of the resistance to imperialist domination in the Middle East” (Guardian, 16 October). For their part, in the article “Oppose All NATO/Australia Diplomatic, Military & Political Intervention in Syria!” (17 January), TP claim to be politically opposed to the Assad regime while conjuring their own apologia for the government. Arguing that, “in the future, the Baathist rulers of Syria will have to be swept away” (emphasis in original), for now they stand with the Assad regime in the reactionary civil war. According to TP, “only through the triumph of this anti-imperialist struggle can a truly progressive revolution be posed” in Syria.
This is but a rehash of Stalin’s “two-stage theory” of revolution, which has served time and again to subordinate the independent struggles of workers for socialist revolution to a mythical “first stage” led by the “progressive” bourgeoisie. From China in the 1920s to Indonesia in the 1960s, history has shown that this disastrous program, when implemented, leads not to a second stage but to the massacre of the communists and their working-class supporters. In sharp contrast to this treacherous conception, with its anti-Marxist talk of “progressive revolution,” genuine Trotskyists struggle for permanent revolution based on an independent and internationalist proletarian program. For the proletariat to emerge as the contender for power, it is necessary to build vanguard workers parties that stand opposed to the imperialists and all domestic bourgeois forces—from military bonapartists and liberal political figures through to reactionary political Islam.
The Middle East is a cockpit of imperialist rivalries and deep, all-sided oppression—of women, of national, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as homosexuals and others. At the same time, the last half century has seen the considerable growth of a modern proletariat in urban centres throughout the region. This industrial working class has the social power to lead the oppressed masses in struggle to overturn the capitalist order and open the road to socialism. The key is forging a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat, on the model of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Russian Revolution.
This perspective must necessarily be to sweep away the bloody bonapartists in Syria and Egypt, the medieval fundamentalists in Iran and Sudan, the reactionary monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as well as the Zionist rulers of Israel. It must be an internationalist struggle linked to the fight for socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. It is necessary to forge Leninist-Trotskyist parties in Syria and elsewhere, which will fight to win the working class of the region—standing at the head of the peasantry and oppressed nationalities—to the banner of proletarian internationalism.
In the article “Imperialists’ Hands Off Syria!” (ASp No. 221, Spring 2013) we incorrectly referred to François Hollande as the Socialist Party prime minister of France. He is in fact the president of France; the prime minister is Jean-Marc Ayrault. (From No. 222, 31 Autumn 2014.)