Workers Vanguard No. 1084
26 February 2016
U.S. Out of the Near East!
Syria: Imperialists Fuel Bloodbath
FEBRUARY 22—For four years, the U.S. imperialists and a host of lesser powers have been stirring the Syrian cauldron, inflicting untold bloodshed on the Syrian people. The result of this all-sided intervention and carnage: Much of Syria has been laid waste, its economy is in ruins, and more than half its population has been driven from their homes, either as displaced persons within the country or as refugees abroad.
The Western bourgeois press explains those refugees as caused solely by the undeniable crimes of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations. What about U.S. bombing? Kobani was “liberated” from the control of the reactionary fundamentalist Islamic State (ISIS) by being leveled. Likewise, in Iraq, Ramadi was retaken from ISIS by an Iraqi army that heretofore had proven itself to be a hollow shell. The secret of that remarkable success? The city was first reduced to rubble by U.S. airstrikes.
The rebel forces in Syria have received arms and financing from countries intent on pursuing their own agendas at the expense of the Syrian people. The Sunni Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are determined to deliver a blow to the Assad regime, which is based on the Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ite Iran, the great bugbear of these Gulf states, is Assad’s principal backer, and in recent months Russia has provided air support to the Syrian army. Turkey wants to see Assad replaced by a compliant Sunni fundamentalist regime that would serve as a platform for projecting Turkish power and influence in the Near East. Since the start of the war, Turkey has opened its borders to the flow of jihadists into Syria and provided funds and military hardware to support them.
Meanwhile, the U.S. imperialists, backed up on occasion by their junior imperialist partners Britain and France, are mainly directing their bombs against ISIS, while providing support to “moderate” rebel forces. Most recently, the U.S. carried out airstrikes in Libya on February 19 to target an ISIS camp, killing over 40 people, including two Serbian hostages held by ISIS. Libya itself has been fractured by fighting between warring factions since the U.S.-backed overthrow and murder of Libya’s former bourgeois strongman, Muammar el-Qaddafi, in 2011.
As Marxists, our starting point is that the main enemy, not only of the Syrian people but of the working masses of the world, is U.S. imperialism, as well as the other imperialist powers involved. The bloody mayhem that has been visited upon the Syrian people is the direct consequence of imperialist domination of the Near East. We have no side in the Syrian civil war, which is reactionary on all sides. But we do have a side against U.S. imperialism.
Any defeat or setback inflicted upon the imperialists in the Near East is in the interests of working people internationally, not least in the U.S., where workers have been ground down by years of economic crisis and a “recovery” from which they have not benefited. Thus, while we are die-hard opponents of everything the reactionary cutthroats of ISIS stand for, we are for the military defense of ISIS when it aims its fire against the imperialist armed forces and their proxies in the region. These include the Syrian Kurdish nationalists as well as the Baghdad government, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Kurdish pesh merga in northern Iraq, who have all acted as the ground troops of the U.S. military intervention in the area.
Any blow that helps to impede the imperialists’ designs in the Near East can only aid the proletariat and oppressed of the region. The peoples of the Near East will not know peace, prosperity or justice until bourgeois rule is overthrown through a series of socialist revolutions. Only in a socialist federation of the Near East will there be a full and equal place for all the myriad peoples of the area—Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians as well as the Kurdish, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish nations.
The focus of recent fighting in Syria is a crucial strip of land linking Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and industrial hub, to the border with Turkey. Here various forces backed by regional and international rivals are clashing in what could well be a turning point in the war.
From the south, the Syrian army has pushed to within 15 miles of the Turkish border, threatening to seal off what for years has been the main conduit of aid to rebel forces battling Assad. After suffering serious setbacks, the regime’s military has been greatly strengthened by almost five months of escalating intervention by Russian warplanes, which have been bombing rebel positions and residential neighborhoods.
From the east, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, also benefiting from Russian airstrikes, have rapidly seized territory lining the Turkish border—sometimes battling other forces supported by the U.S. Kurdish advances have infuriated Turkey’s rulers, who throughout the Syrian war have sought to prevent the consolidation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria. This is all the more vital to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan now that he is engaged in a brutal offensive against the nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in Turkey. Since February 13, Turkey has been shelling positions in Syria held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Committees (YPG), which are affiliated to the PKK.
The YPG declared its intention to seize the entire 68-mile-long stretch of border from the Euphrates River to the town of Azaz, essentially uniting the western and eastern border regions that it controls. Turkey’s prime minister threatened “a severe response” if that happened. He warned: “We will not let Azaz fall.”
Washington’s alliance with the YPG has heightened tensions between the U.S. and Turkey. Addressing his U.S. ally, Erdogan asked: “Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist PYD and PKK organizations?” From Washington’s point of view, the answer is both: On the one hand, Turkey is a key U.S./NATO ally, and Washington joins Ankara in labeling the PKK “terrorist.” On the other hand, the Syrian PYD/YPG fighters have served as the ground troops for the U.S. imperialist intervention, coordinating battlefield operations with U.S. military planners, operating with U.S. special ops forces and serving as spotters for U.S. bombing runs.
The close cooperation between the Kurdish nationalists and their supposed U.S. benefactors will not stop the latter from turning on them. Last July, in exchange for use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to launch operations against ISIS, the U.S. gave the Ankara regime the green light to launch airstrikes in northern Iraq against the PKK. As we have warned, by selling their souls to the U.S. imperialists, the Kurdish nationalists have committed a crime for which the long-dispossessed Kurdish masses will pay the price.
The struggle for Kurdish self-determination—that is, to form a Kurdish state—is a just one, requiring the defeat of four capitalist states: Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. We have long raised the call for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan. However, in Syria and Iraq the Kurdish nationalists have subordinated the fight for Kurdish self-determination to their alliance with U.S. imperialism. Any fight for Kurdish independence must take as its starting point opposition to U.S. imperialist intervention and to the nationalist parties that serve it.
In recent weeks, Ankara has called on the U.S. and its coalition partners to launch a ground invasion in northern Syria. So far, the U.S. has sidestepped the issue of a possible ground invasion of Syria—the Obama administration has limited itself to sending special ops forces. Turkey has also reiterated its longstanding call for imposing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. This is a not-so-veiled threat against Russia, which has provided the crucial air support for the rapid advances by the Syrian army and the YPG. In November, Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet as it was carrying out raids in Syria’s northern Latakia province, an area where rebel Turkmen militias have operated with artillery support from the Turkish military across the border. In response, Russian president Vladimir Putin denounced the Erdogan regime as “accomplices of terrorists.”
Our main opposition is to the imperialists, but we also oppose the other capitalist powers involved in Syria and call on them to leave. That includes not only Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the Russian and Iranian forces, which were invited in by the Syrian government.
Imperialist Depredations and Aspiring Commanders-in-Chief
U.S. policy in Syria is as incoherent and bumbling as it is ruinous to the masses of the Near East. Behind this incoherence is the fact that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are among the U.S.’s key allies in the region. At the same time, Washington’s main target is ISIS, which is tacitly backed by Riyadh and Ankara.
When the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf states began heavily supporting the Syrian rebels four years ago, Washington filled the airwaves with horror stories about the brutality of the Assad regime. In fact, in earlier years of the “war on terror,” the U.S. shipped suspects to Damascus for “interrogation”—i.e., torture. When the civil war escalated, the U.S. expected Assad’s military would collapse. After all, the Alawites, who constitute the regime’s main base of support and account for most of the officer corps, make up a mere 12 percent of the country’s population. Yet the Syrian regime, defying the imperialists’ expectations, showed remarkable staying power. Meanwhile, the U.S. rulers, blinded by their great-power arrogance, could not fathom why rebel groups owned and operated by the CIA did not strike a chord among the Syrian people.
It soon dawned on important figures in U.S. ruling circles that Barack Obama’s goal of “regime change” necessarily meant replacing Assad with Islamic fundamentalists. As reported by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books (January 7), the Pentagon, starting in the autumn of 2013, went so far as to secretly funnel military intelligence and tactical advice to the Assad regime to be used against the very rebels that the White House was backing. Today, rebel forces are reportedly worried that the Obama administration is preparing to abandon them as it seeks to negotiate, centrally with Russia, a “political transition” that would keep Assad in power, at least for a period of time.
However, even that “peace plan” is in trouble. An administration official recently opined that there may in fact be a military solution in Syria—“just not our solution” but that of Putin’s Russia. Perhaps. Putin might also use his strengthened position in Syria to bargain for concessions on sanctions against Russia or on the growing NATO presence in the Baltics and elsewhere in East Europe. While the U.S. is eager to curb Russia’s influence in the Near East, it also feels compelled to cut some kind of deal with Putin on Syria.
What explains the Assad regime’s unexpected resilience? While most of the Syrian military, including a significant number of its generals, are—like the rebel forces—Sunni Muslim, defections by individuals were not accompanied by the predicted breaking away of chunks of the army. More generally, the inescapable fact is that for many in Syria the Islamic jihadists are scarcely viewed as an improvement over the Assad dictatorship.
In ISIS-controlled territory, as has been widely reported, those who are not Sunni are beheaded if they refuse to convert; untold numbers of women have been kidnapped and sold into forced marriages. Less widely reported by the servile media is the fact that sharia law has also been imposed by sections of the Free Syrian Army, the so-called “moderates” touted by Washington. Rebel groups have repeatedly perpetrated massacres in Alawite, Christian and other minority villages. Likewise, Sunni Arab and Turkmen villagers have been driven out by YPG forces.
Both candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have positioned themselves to carry on U.S. imperialism’s devastating policy in Syria. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was consistently on the more hawkish side within the Obama administration. She was a chief proponent of the air war against Libya and pushed hard for retaining a stronger military force in Iraq and for supplying arms to Syrian rebels. Robert Gates, who was defense secretary under both George W. Bush and Obama, recalled in Duty: Memoir of a Secretary at War (2014) how he and Clinton teamed up in 2009 to force the decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and, the following year, to delay the drawdown of forces.
Clinton calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, a position shared by Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and John Kasich. The Obama administration has not ruled out the idea, but a number of Congressional Democrats have voiced (understandable) fears that such a move would risk military conflict with Russia. Clinton countered that the U.S. needs to stand up to Russian “bullying.”
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, while calling the no-fly zone idea “very dangerous,” has also been a loyal supporter of the administration’s bellicose policy in Syria and elsewhere (see “Bernie Sanders: Imperialist Running Dog,” WV No. 1083, 12 February). Both he and Clinton agree on “regime change” in Syria—the overthrow of Assad. Sanders simply proposes a different policy to advance U.S. imperialism’s interests in the region, calling for “putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort” to defeat ISIS. This effectively means calling on Arab countries to provide the ground troops in Syria to support Washington’s objectives.
In fact, the country that would be “leading” Sanders’s “coalition” is Washington’s main Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, which claims adherence to the extreme, Wahabi variant of Sunni fundamentalism from which ISIS derives its theology. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. Without the consent of a male guardian, they cannot go to university or (if under the age of 45) travel abroad, and they risk being stoned to death for adultery. As for beheadings, the Saudi kingdom does not take a backseat to ISIS. In recent years, hundreds of people have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia for offenses including blasphemy, apostasy, homosexuality and sorcery. In a country where public observance of any religion besides Islam is forbidden, foreign workers, with their own religious practices, are especially vulnerable to being convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to 1,000 lashes, long prison terms or beheading. (A special police agency, the Anti-Witchcraft Unit, is tasked with investigating alleged witches, neutralizing their paraphernalia and nullifying their spells.) The bodies of those beheaded are often crucified and publicly displayed for several days, their heads either sewn back onto their bodies or suspended above corpses in plastic bags.
Defeat U.S. Imperialism Through Socialist Revolution!
Next month will mark the 13th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which resulted in a pro-Iran regime in Baghdad and unleashed Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalist militias that have carried out pogroms against each other’s peoples. This set the stage for the current bloody unraveling of the region, in particular by sharply intensifying the conflict between the Sunni Gulf states and Shi’ite Iran. At home, the handmaiden to that war, the occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S.’s other military adventures has been the American rulers’ onslaught against working people, minorities and most everyone else.
The U.S. working class must be won to the understanding that its enemy is its “own” ruling class and that it needs to oppose imperialist aggression abroad. Many working people are understandably repelled by the medieval brutality of groups like ISIS. But the gruesome crimes of ISIS pale in comparison to those of U.S. imperialism, responsible for the slaughter of tens of millions around the world. It is in the interest of American workers that U.S. imperialism suffer setbacks and defeats in its military aggressions and designs.
It is not ISIS, Al Qaeda or some other Islamist force that has taken income inequality here to virtually unprecedented heights. The same ruling class that wreaks death and destruction abroad gorges itself on profits while the workers it exploits have their jobs slashed and their health and pension benefits torn up. This same ruling class unleashes its cops to kill black youth on America’s streets, holds nearly one-quarter of the world’s prison population in its dungeons, lets this country’s infrastructure rot and outright poisons cities like Flint.
What is desperately needed is class struggle against the capitalist rulers, which would both defend the interests of workers at home and hinder the ambitions of U.S. imperialism abroad. On at least a superficial level, many working people in the U.S. perceive that the hardships they endure here are somehow related to the exploitation and oppression carried out by their rulers abroad. Our aim is to win the most conscious layers of the working class to the understanding that what is necessary is the overturn of the U.S. capitalist order through socialist revolution, which is the only way out of this system predicated on exploitation, racist oppression and imperialist war.
We fight to build a workers party, the necessary instrument to lead the multiracial proletariat in the struggle for power. Such a party—section of a reforged Fourth International—must be built in opposition to all capitalist parties and through political struggle against the misleaders of the trade unions, who chain the proletariat to its capitalist class enemy, not least by promoting the lie that the working class and the capitalist rulers share common interests. Only victorious workers revolutions on an international scale can end imperialist slaughter and ethnic bloodletting, opening the road to eliminating material scarcity and building an egalitarian socialist society.