Workers Vanguard No. 1025
31 May 2013
Imperialists Fuel Communalist Slaughter
Syria: Trip Wire for Regional Conflagration
U.S. Hands Off!
MAY 27—The two-year-old civil war in Syria, pitting Sunni rebels against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, is threatening to escalate into a Near East-wide communal war extending from Lebanon, through Syria and across Iraq. Israeli airstrikes against Syrian military installations in early May were a further indication of the regionalization of the conflict. In turn, the Israeli raids galvanized the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah, which is essentially the state power in parts of Lebanon. Already heavily involved in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah militiamen have recently joined Syrian government troops in a major offensive to retake Qusayr. The fierce fighting for that strategic Syrian town on the Lebanese border has triggered renewed sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Meanwhile, large quantities of arms supplied to anti-Assad rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the approval of the imperialists are flowing to Sunni fundamentalist forces in Iraq. Iran, whose main Arab ally is Syria, looms large in the calculations of the imperialists, the Zionist rulers and the Gulf states.
In the past several months, Iraq has also again been engulfed in sectarian warfare pitting forces in and around the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against an array of Sunni militias. Casualties have mounted steeply since the beginning of the year in a resurgence of the interethnic bloodletting in Iraq unleashed by the 2003 U.S. imperialist invasion and subsequent occupation.
Ironically, the U.S. occupation installed a Shi’ite-dominated regime in Iraq that is now tied to Iran. The Israelis see Iran as attempting to challenge their monopoly of nuclear arms in the region, as do their U.S. imperialist allies who have subjected the country to increasingly punishing sanctions. Although the Iranian government denies that it is developing nuclear weapons, Iran clearly needs nukes to defend itself against the imperialists. We demand: Down with the sanctions against Iran and Syria!
As Seumas Milne observed in a London Guardian article (7 May) following the recent Israeli airstrikes, which were the largest Israeli offensive against Syria since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:
“It is Syria’s role as the pivot of Iranian influence across the Middle East that has turned the Syrian war into a potential regional conflagration.
“Having hedged its bets, Israel has now started to make clear it regards the prospect of Islamist and jihadist groups taking over from the Assad regime as less threatening than the existing ‘Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis’, as the Israeli defence ministry official Amos Gilad put it recently.”
The imperialist powers, whose global “war against terror” has taken the lives of countless victims, are throwing their lot in with the reactionary Sunni fundamentalists who dominate the Syrian opposition forces. For over a year, the U.S. imperialists have provided financial support and “non-lethal” aid to the Sunni insurgents in Syria. Today, under pressure from France and Britain, both of which last year mooted the possibility of imposing a “no-fly” zone over Syria, the European Union (EU) ended its weapons embargo on Syria so that EU powers can help arm the rebels. The U.S. and European imperialists have imposed a broad range of economic sanctions on Syria, whose main casualties have been working people, especially the poor, the sick and the aged.
The Obama administration recently began talking about providing direct military aid to the rebels when anti-Assad forces—without a shred of evidence—accused the regime of using sarin gas on the population. Previously, Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons would be viewed as a “red line” by his administration. Yet while upping its support to the rebel forces, the White House has been far from eager to intervene directly into the Syrian quagmire. More broadly, there is little popular support in the U.S. for military intervention in Syria.
The rulers of the imperialist countries are directly responsible for the conflagration that is erupting in the Near East. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are not nations but rather patchworks of different peoples and ethnicities that, following the First World War, were carved out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire by the British and French imperialists. In the secret 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,” WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012). The publication of the treaty by the Soviet workers state in late 1917 exposed the imperialist intrigues and had an electrifying effect, helping to spark a series of national revolts and popular uprisings across the region.
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 Syria.
U.S. imperialism’s invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, aimed at perpetuating and extending its world domination, manipulated and reinforced those divisions by playing Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish forces off against each other. Similarly, Washington’s drive to effect “regime change” in Syria, a pivotal country in the oil-rich Near East, is inflaming communal tensions. Meanwhile, Russia has been a major backer of Syria, providing the Assad regime with sophisticated missile defense technology and presenting an obstacle to Washington’s ambitions.
For its part, Turkey—NATO’s bulwark in the Near East and a key sponsor of the Sunni anti-Assad opposition—spotted the Syrian conflict as an opening to extend its own influence in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. A newspaper expressing the views of the “moderate” Turkish fundamentalist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed at the end of last year that “the World War I borders” are melting away, and Erdogan’s foreign minister has asserted that the end of the Sykes-Picot period is near.
Both sides in the communally-based Syrian civil war are deeply reactionary enemies of the working class. But in the event that the U.S. and/or European imperialists go beyond their present support to the anti-Assad forces and launch a military attack on Syria, working people in this country and internationally must stand with Syria against the imperialist forces. As Marxists, we would maintain proletarian political opposition to Assad’s bloodsoaked rule. Our aim is to win workers to the understanding that predatory imperialism is the main force for reaction in the world and that the imperialists and their regional lackeys must be overthrown through international socialist revolution.
Imperialist Depredations and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism
There was nothing inevitable about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and intercommunal conflict in the Near East, although these have tended to dominate political life in that region for at least a generation. At bottom, the turn to Islamism is a product of despair, conditioned by the political bankruptcy of the large Stalinist Communist parties that existed in many Arab countries in the 1940s and ’50s. Despite the revolutionary aspirations of their ranks and supporters, the Communist parties of the Near East helped install bourgeois-nationalist regimes, which then crushed the left and workers movement and persecuted national and ethnic minorities.
As we underlined in “Near East, 1950s: Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism” (WV Nos. 740 and 741, 25 August and 8 September 2000), Communist parties in that period attracted the most class-conscious workers and radical intellectuals throughout the Near East. They were virtually the only political organizations with a base that cut across the myriad national, ethnic and religious lines in the region: Jews played a major role in the Egyptian Communist movement, as did Kurds in the Iraqi.
The Communist militants were inspired by the example of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet Union, albeit degenerated under Stalinist rule, remained a workers state embodying historic gains of the October Revolution of 1917, centrally the planned economy and collectivized property. As a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Muslim regions of the former tsarist empire—Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Transcaucasus—had advanced from conditions even more socially and economically backward than the Near East today to modern societies in which women were no longer enslaved by the veil and education and medical care were available to all.
However, revolutionary upheavals in the Near East, exemplified by the Iraqi revolution of 1958-59, did not result in new October Revolutions. Instead, these opportunities were sacrificed on the altar of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy’s futile and treacherous pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. The Iraqi CP in 1958 had the overwhelming support of the multinational Iraqi working class and clearly could have taken power. Yet the Moscow Stalinists sold out the revolution in the interests of placating the U.S. And the Iraqi CP went along, putting the brakes on the movement. The CP threw its support behind the government headed by the bourgeois-nationalist officer Brigadier Qassim, who then turned on the Communists. In 1963, the reactionary, nationalist Ba’ath party, which included Saddam Hussein in its ranks, came to power and carried out a bloodbath of thousands of leftist workers using lists supplied by the CIA.
Today, Iraq, once one of the more advanced countries in the Near East and a regional cultural center, lies in ruins. Two U.S.-led wars and over a decade of UN sanctions, which killed over one and a half million people, devastated Iraq’s economy and infrastructure. This devastation and the widespread desperation felt by the population have helped nourish the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in that country.
The legacy of Stalinist betrayals in the Near East, combined with the bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism and the desperate misery of the masses, helped create the vacuum that would eventually open the floodgates to the ascendancy of political Islam as a predominant force in the region. Political Islam, in turn, has inflamed the already pervasive communalism that has long plagued the region. Two key events in the rise of political Islam were the 1979 “Islamic Revolution” in Iran and the war in Afghanistan waged by reactionary, U.S.-backed Islamic fundamentalists against Soviet military forces that moved into that country in December 1979.
In Iran, where mass protests erupted against the dictatorial regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1978-79, the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party had a mass base among the working class, notably the powerful and strategic oil workers, while the more left-wing guerrillaist Fedayeen attracted tens of thousands of youth to its banners. Yet these groups chained the combative working class to the reactionary Shi’ite mullahs led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Uniquely on the left internationally, we championed the proletariat’s class interests against the forces of Islamic reaction. Our battle cry was: “Down With the Shah! Don’t Bow to Khomeini! For Workers Revolution in Iran!”
Upon coming to power, the Khomeini regime embarked upon the mass slaughter of leftists, trade unionists and unveiled women as well as Kurds and other national minorities. As we noted in our “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (adopted in 1998): “The 1979 ‘Iranian Revolution’ opened up a period of ascendant political Islam in the historically Muslim world, a development which contributed to and was powerfully reinforced by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union.”
In Afghanistan, reactionary Sunni mujahedin (holy warriors)—among them, Osama bin Laden—were armed, funded and trained by the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to kill Soviet soldiers. The Red Army had entered the country at the request of the modernizing nationalist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime, in order to defend the USSR’s southern flank and to prop up the besieged government. The PDPA’s introduction of minimal social reforms—especially those benefiting women, such as the lowering of the bride price—had provoked a jihad led by the landlords, tribal chiefs and mullahs. As the CIA undertook its biggest covert operation ever in support of the mujahedin, Afghanistan became the front line of the imperialist crusade to destroy the Soviet Union.
We underlined that for this extremely backward country with its minuscule proletariat, progress would have to be brought in from the outside. While the bulk of the left internationally lined up with the imperialists by denouncing the Soviet “invasion,” we said: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and called to extend the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples.
The mujahedin forces, who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and murdered those who dared teach schoolgirls to read, included those who went on to found the Taliban and Al Qaeda—Washington’s Frankenstein’s monster. Yet Washington’s alliance with murderous religious fundamentalists hardly began in Afghanistan. In 1950, Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles pointed to a “common bond” with “the religions of the East” in fighting Communism. Today in Syria, the imperialists are once again allied with Islamic reactionaries in pursuit of their great-power interests.
For a Socialist Federation
of the Near East!
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 had a profoundly negative—albeit uneven—impact on working-class consciousness throughout the world. It also removed the central challenge to U.S. ambitions, allowing the American ruling class to project military power—not least in the Near East—and ride roughshod over anyone they perceive as standing in their way.
As Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi discovered to their misfortune and Assad is now learning, the imperialists have no compunction about turning on those local satraps who previously served their interests. The U.S. imperialists gave their approval when Syria under Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar, intervened in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 to combat Palestinian forces. And in 1991, Syrian troops fought alongside U.S. forces in the first Gulf War against Iraq. Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, according to a February report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Syria was one of the “most common destinations” in the “extraordinary rendition” program by which “terrorism” suspects were sent by the U.S. to other countries to be tortured.
Following a well-trodden path, the U.S., British and French imperialists are justifying their campaign for “regime change” in Syria by singling out the Assad government for creating an “abhorrent humanitarian situation.” As in their overthrow of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, the U.S. rulers’ current campaign in support of anti-Assad forces in Syria is being carried out in the name of “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights.”
Striking a similar note is a statement published by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on May 1 and signed by leading members of that organization as well as a host of liberal intellectuals and Arab nationalists. The “Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution” statement hails the rebellion in Syria as a “revolution for freedom and dignity.” Such “dignity” was on display in a recently revealed video that shows one Abu Sakkar, the commander of a rebel militia fighting in Qusayr, cutting an internal organ out of the body of a dead government soldier and biting into it.
This same commander has been widely quoted calling for the slaughter of all Alawites. According to the London Guardian (14 May), before forming his own militia late last year, “Sakkar was a well-known member of the Farouq Brigades,” a “militia with mainstream leanings” that “became one of the rebels’ best resourced fighting forces” due to financing from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. One could scarcely imagine a sharper contrast between our revolutionary Marxist perspective and that of our “socialist” opponents, who look to imperialist-backed forces that welcome such a monster as a leader.
We look to the proletariat of the Near East as the force with the social power and class interest to lead all the oppressed masses in a revolutionary overthrow of their capitalist rulers. The proletariat in power, having swept away all the capitalist regimes of the region and fighting to extend socialist revolution to the imperialist heartlands, can begin to resolve in an equitable way the murderous conflicts that threaten to rip the Near East apart. Only in a socialist federation of the Near East will there be a full and equal place for all the myriad peoples of the region—Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians as well as the Kurdish, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish nations.
From North Africa to Iran, sizable proletarian concentrations have the potential power to topple the capitalist regimes that subjugate hundreds of millions of people—all under the heel of imperialism. From Egyptian textile workers to workers in the Turkish auto plants and Iranian oil fields, the objective basis exists to forge the nucleus of revolutionary proletarian parties in the Near East. To bring to the fore the principle of international working-class unity across all national, religious and communal boundaries, Trotskyists struggle to build revolutionary workers parties throughout the Near East that will be forged in opposition to all forms of bourgeois ideology, religious reaction and imperialism and that will resolutely defend the right of all the peoples in the region to exist. In close collaboration with their comrades in the advanced industrial countries of North America, Europe and Japan as well as elsewhere in the semicolonial world, revolutionary workers parties in the Near East will be dedicated to the struggle for socialist revolutions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
We have no illusions that this will be an easy task. There is a vast gulf between the workers’ present consciousness and the Marxist program of proletarian revolution. Notwithstanding the role of workers struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, the so-called “Arab Spring,” hailed by reformists internationally as a revolution, in fact was nothing of the sort, resulting in the rise of Islamist regimes. Through their own experience in struggle and the intervention of revolutionary Marxist cadre, the workers of the Near East must be won to the program of proletarian internationalism that animated the October Revolution.
The alternative to this revolutionary perspective can be seen in the charnel house that is the Near East today, with tens of thousands of dead and millions displaced just by the Syrian civil war, not to mention the enslavement of women by religious fundamentalism. In the words of the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, the choices facing humanity are socialism or barbarism.