Workers Hammer No. 224
Missile attack on Syria on hold, for now
US, Britain: hands off the Near East!
SEPTEMBER 21 — A huge sigh of relief around the world greeted the news that Barack Obama was shelving his plans to bomb Syria, while exploring the Russian proposal to place the Damascus regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons under “international control”. The missile attack has been put on hold, at least for now. Barack Obama had already encountered unexpectedly strong opposition to the bombing, beginning in London. In a surprise rebellion on 29 August, Parliament rejected a motion by David Cameron to authorise Britain to join the US in air strikes. The Tory leader became the first prime minister in decades — some say centuries — to have lost a vote on military action.
Both Obama and Cameron justified their 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 US imperialism’s power to brutalise any country whose leaders don’t toe the line. Factoring heavily in the US 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. It is a measure of the intense opposition to a US attack on Syria that Putin has been mentioned, at times without tongue in cheek, for the prize normally given to war criminals who, however briefly, resort to diplomatic wheeling and dealing. Meanwhile, calls on Obama to forfeit his prize have been on the increase. In Syria as well as Iran, Russia is motivated by its efforts 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 US.
The humiliation of Cameron was welcome news to working people in this country who face relentless attacks on healthcare, jobs and living standards at the hands of this vicious coalition government. The vote also led to an outpouring of illusions that Parliament reflects the opinion of the majority of the people in the country, as Stop the War Coalition spokesmen claimed on the night. This is nonsense: Parliament is a “democratic” disguise for the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the class the government exists to serve. The vote on Syria reflected the views of those sections of the capitalist ruling class who are wary of getting bogged down in another intractable mess like the Iraq occupation — or worse — and worried about aiding the Islamists, who make up a significant component of the Syrian “rebels”. In the days before the vote in Parliament there was a steady drumbeat of statements from former military leaders and others saying that a brief bombing campaign made no strategic, military or political sense. “It cannot be in the British national interest to see Assad disintegrate under the pressure of cruise missile attacks” opined the former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, “such that his stocks of chemical weapons fall out of his control into the hands of the extremist Jihadists among the rebels” (guardian.co.uk, 28 August).
In the face of opposition among the public and mounting ruling-class unease, Labour leader Ed Miliband had second thoughts about backing Cameron and tabled a motion specifying conditions for a military strike — notably that the UN inspectors be given time to report. Labour’s motion was defeated by an even greater margin than that of the government. It probably didn’t help the pro-war lobby that Tony Blair publicly urged support for attacking Syria. Blair’s lies that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” fuelled public scepticism about the intelligence claims that the gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus was carried out by the Assad regime.
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 US ruling class and supported by lesser powers such as Britain, 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 military attack by the rapacious imperialists. Our call for military defence of this semicolonial country does not imply political support to the capitalist 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 Near 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 US military build-up in this oil-rich region. In June, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that top US commanders were seeking permission from Iraq and Lebanon to deploy troops in those countries. This would be in addition to the US Patriot missile batteries and fighter planes stationed in Jordan and Turkey, the two British military bases in Cyprus and the massive US military presence in the Persian Gulf. We demand: All British troops and bases out of Cyprus and imperialist military withdrawal from the Near East!
It is sheer hypocrisy for a British prime minister 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 US imperialists are no less hypocritical, as our comrades of the Spartacist League/US have pointed out:
“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. During the Vietnam War, U.S. 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 Falluja 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.”
— Workers Vanguard no 1029, 6 September
During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the US and British governments were complicit as 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 airstrikes. The US 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 US veteran of the operation told the New York Times (18 August 2002). “It was just another way of killing people.”
The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher helped arm Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq War. Some of this came to light in 2003 amid the hue and cry about Saddam’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction”, when a chemical plant known as Falluja 2 was identified by British intelligence and the CIA as “one of Iraq’s principal CW [chemical weapons] facilities”. The Guardian disclosed that the plant had been secretly built by a British company in the 1980s. “British ministers in the Thatcher government knew there were clear signs of chemical warfare purpose, but gave it UK government financial backing” (guardian. co.uk, 6 March 2003). Imperialist support to Iraqi forces continued right through the 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which the Iraqi regime slaughtered 5000 of its own citizens. Later, when they were gearing up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US and British imperialists cynically decried the attack on Halabja as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s brutality.
As in the case of Saddam Hussein, Assad’s past services to the imperialists were quickly forgotten once he no longer served their purposes. In the early years of the “war on terror”, Syria was a prime destination in the “extraordinary rendition” programme in which the US and Britain sent terrorism suspects to other countries to be tortured. That didn’t prevent the Obama administration or the Cameron government, once civil war broke out in Syria, from providing financial support and small arms to some insurgents. London and Washington, as well as the European Union, have been ratcheting up economic sanctions that have crippled the Syrian economy. Even more punishing sanctions have been imposed on Iran for years. Although the Tehran 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!
“Little Britain” reformists
The Syria vote in the “Mother of Parliaments” was greeted with euphoria by reformists and liberals, for whom little Britain had finally stood up to the American bully. Tariq Ali proclaimed it the “vassal’s revolt”, no less, and exulted:
“Rejoice. Rejoice. The first chain of vassaldom has been broken. They will repair it, no doubt, but let’s celebrate independence while it lasts. For the first time in fifty years [since the 1956 Suez crisis], the House of Commons has voted against participating in an imperial war.”
— lrb.co.uk, 30 August
Try selling this obscene line to the countless thousands of victims of British and US imperialist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The notion that Britain is oppressed by its status as a poor relation of US imperialism has long been expressed by Tony Benn, elder statesman of the Labour “left”. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq under Bush and Blair, Benn made the demented claim that “Britain, like Iraq, is now a US colony” (RMT News, June 2003). In response we wrote:
“the only part of these isles that is occupied by rampaging imperialist troops is Northern Ireland. And those troops are British not American, dispatched to suppress the oppressed Catholic minority by the Labour Party government of Harold Wilson of which Benn was a prominent cabinet minister. Notably today, opposition to this occupation doesn’t feature among the demands of Benn’s ‘left’ camp followers in the Stop the War Coalition. Instead all of their fire is directed against ‘Bush’s war’ and denouncing Blair as ‘Bush’s poodle’.”
— Workers Hammer no 185, Autumn 2003
The Stop the War Coalition claims that the Syria vote in Parliament vindicates their whole reason for existence. Indeed, the Syria vote is about the maximum that Stop the War hopes to achieve. Its whole premise, and indeed that of its original founders, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), is not the overthrow of capitalism but rather a change in foreign policy. The strategy is to appeal to a presumed “rational” wing of the ruling class that believes British imperialism’s interests are being damaged by mindlessly following US military adventures abroad. As Stop the War spokesman Andrew Murray declared: “The possibility is now open for Britain playing a different role in the world, breaking with the policies and preoccupations of imperialism” (stop war.org.uk, 31 August). The notion that British capitalism will break with the “policies” of imperialism is a bourgeois liberal idiocy, designed to pull the wool over the eyes of young activists. Whether or not the imperialists decide to yet again attack a weak semicolonial country, it is in the nature of the imperialist beast to plunder, conquer and subjugate weaker nations. Wars and militarism are no more than a concentrated expression of the normal workings of the capitalist system, which condemns millions of people around the world to death by starvation, lack of medical care, poverty and exploitation.
Murray’s statement did not forget to add that “Ed Miliband deserves a measure of credit too, of course”. This is the same Miliband who backed Cameron foursquare in the 2011 bombing campaign against Libya. And Labour’s motion on Syria left no doubt that Miliband would support an attack on Syria, under certain conditions.
It is ludicrous to suggest that Britain can somehow “opt out” of the world system of imperialism, short of workers revolution and the establishment of a workers state that expropriates the capitalist class. Particularly since World War II, British imperialism lacked the wherewithal to rule the waves and was forced to concede this role to the US. The Suez crisis, to which Tariq Ali harks back, made this clear: when Britain, together with France and Israel, launched an attack on Egypt following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the US slapped them down and a humiliated Britain immediately pulled out. Labour’s opposition to the Suez War was led by the Hugh Gaitskell wing of the party, who were hardly motivated by opposition to imperialism, but rather by anti-Communist hostility to the Soviet Union and Cold War loyalty to US imperialism.
Particularly since Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Britain’s capitalist rulers have consigned its industrial base to decay and ruin while bolstering finance capital. The City of London, built on the exploitation of working people around the world, plays a junior-partner role to Wall Street that is analogous to British imperialism’s military relationship with the US. Compared to its US counterpart, British capitalism is weak and decrepit today, but certainly no less rapacious. Back in the days when they still had the economic and military clout to dominate the globe, the British imperialists wrote the book on racist divide-and-rule and ruthless exploitation of their colonial “subjects”. In so doing, they could count on the leaders of “Her Majesty’s Labour Party”. During WWII, the British rulers denied India its right to independence and caused a famine in Bengal by withholding food shipments, while the Labour Party played a vital role in whipping up patriotic “unity” at home. Decades later, British imperialism carried out brutal subjugation of the Catholics in Northern Ireland, including the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, as well as vicious repression against Britain’s working class and racial minorities.
For a socialist federation of the Near East!
The ruling classes of the imperialist countries are directly responsible for the conflagration that is erupting in the Near East today. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are not nations but rather patchworks of different peoples and ethnicities that, following World War I, were carved out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire by the British and French imperialists. 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.
Much of the British left today opposes US/British imperialist air strikes in Syria, while simultaneously joining the imperialists in supporting the rebels one way or another. Foremost among these is the SWP, which resists any attempt to identify the Syrian slaughter as reactionary on both sides and insists that what is unfolding is a “revolution” against the Assad regime. As for the reactionary Islamist brigades, the SWP says: “There are good reasons to oppose a war on Syria, and there are dreadful ones. And one of the worst is to avoid being on the same side as Islamists” (Socialist Worker, 3 September). From supporting the Islamic forces that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, to hailing the mujahedin fighting a “holy war” against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian elections last year, the SWP has a long history of prettifying Islamic reactionaries.
One doesn’t have to be a revolutionary Marxist to abhor the impact of the Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, particularly on women. In an article opposing imperialist involvement, Labourite columnist Owen Jones warned about the Islamic influence among the rebels, pointing out that “Abu Sakkar, the rebel commander filmed cutting out and apparently eating the heart of a government soldier while ranting against Syria’s Alawite minority” belongs to the Farouq Brigades who are “actually among some of the more moderate Islamist groupings”. He refers to Jabhat al-Nusra, a spin-off from Al Qaeda in Iraq which took the Syrian city of Raqqa earlier this year and “swiftly imposed strict Islamist laws, intimidating women and smashing up shops selling alcohol”. Noting that “it would be perverse indeed if the West ended up de facto allies of al-Qa’ida”, Jones says: “There is a frightening precedent. In the 1980s, Western arms to Afghan jihadis were funnelled by the Pakistani secret services to the most radical groups” (Independent, 25 August).
The increasing prominence of political Islam, and of religious reaction internationally, is part of the price paid by the working class and oppressed for the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. That historic defeat resulted in a catastrophic devastation of living conditions in the former Soviet Union. It has also emboldened US imperialism, which proclaimed itself the world’s only superpower while aggressively asserting its dominance over the globe. Today, the SWP joins a host of reformist “socialists” internationally who cheered the demise of the Soviet Union and now line up behind the imperialist-backed rebel forces in Syria. For his part, Jones speaks for the “left” of today’s Labour Party, a party stamped from birth by tepid parliamentarism, loyalty to British capitalism and anti-Communism. Jones’s article posits that the only solution for Syria is a “UN-brokered peace process” — the same UN that imposed starvation sanctions on Iraq and whose weapons inspectors facilitated the imperialists in the run-up to the invasion.
The Near 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 Near East. 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’s Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Russian Revolution.
This perspective must necessarily 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 and North America. 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.