Syria: Brutal repression and imperialist manoeuvres

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After four months of protest, generalising from the region’s popular protest against unemployment, repression and a lack of a future, events in Syria are taking a distinctly darker and more dangerous turn. Under the guise of fighting “armed gangs” and “terrorists” the Syrian regime has unleashed its own brand of terror on the population: air-strikes, tank-fire, anti-aircraft fire, sniper fire, torture, deprivation of water, electricity and baby food and, reminiscent of the most sinister regimes of Africa and Latin America, herding whole numbers of people into sports stadia for “questioning”. At least 2000 mostly unarmed protestors have been killed to date, with tens of thousands of refugees and many more made homeless in their own country. These events have been accompanied by large numbers of deserting soldiers refusing to fire on their own people.

Just a few years ago politicians like David Milliband (as British Foreign Secretary) and Nicolas Sarkozy were sucking up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his regime of murderers and torturers; but now the democracies of the west are lining up to tell him to quit. The powers of the US, Britain, Germany and France have all played a very cautious hand up to now, all but directly complicit in the repression and the atrocities of the Syrian military, allowing the smaller regional powers to exert pressure – while also backing their own “oppositional” forces within the regime (Britain, for example, backing the leading dissident, Walid al-Bunni and his connections). In mid-August, the major powers above, along with the EU, jointly called on Assad to stand down and threatened many of the leading figures in the regime with possible arrest. Reports say that the US told Turkey not to press ahead with its “buffer zone” between the two countries, to stand back from such a provocation. In the meantime the US has considerably strengthened its naval build up in the Med opposite Syria’s coast, in the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, with a particular concentration on carrying anti-missile missiles and large numbers of marines. The democracies of the west are not interested in the suffering of the population in Syria; Britain amongst others has been supplying the Syrian military with weapons of repression for years. What they fear most, and this is played on by Russian and Chinese imperialism, is Assad’s possible removal creating further instability and dangers from the “devil you don’t know”: Iran in particular looms large in this nightmare of the foreign ministries of the west. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, which sent its troops and British-supplied APC’s to Bahrain to crush protests and protesters, is increasingly concerned with the growing strategic relationship between Syria and Iran, including their backing of Hezbollah and Hamas. Further, “It has been rumoured for some time that the Saudis, with the UAE and Kuwait, are quietly financing elements of the Syrian opposition”[1].

The chaos of imperialist relations and growing tensions between the US and Iran

In the bi-polar world of NATO and the Warsaw Pact everything was relatively easy in imperialist relations; but the collapse of the Russian bloc has unleashed centrifugal forces where alliances between or against nations are contingent and change with prevailing imperialist winds. Even if the Turkey/Iran/Israel/Syrian relationships, in their different combinations, have shown some changes in the recent past, the abiding cornerstone of US policy, and its necessary war plans, is to protect Israel and target Iran. An Iranian/US rapprochement is not impossible but, with the course of events, military confrontation looks much likelier, particularly given the aggressive policy that American imperialism is driven to undertake in order to maintain its role as the world’s Godfather.

Continuing US difficulties in Iraq, as well as a tendency to US weakening overall, are being kept on the boil by Iranian influence in that country, primarily from the most powerful force in Iran, the al-Quds Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to a report in The Guardian (28.7.11), the above force is virtually pulling the strings of the Iraqi government in what has really been a proxy US-Iranian war in Iraq over the last 8 years. Last year, at the meeting in Damascus that formed the present Iraqi government, General Suleimani, the leader of the al-Quds Corp, “was present ... along with the leaders from Syria, Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah: ‘He forced them all to change their mind and anoint Malaki as a leader for the second term’”. The report goes on to say that “all but two US troops killed in Iraq in June – the highest number for two years, were killed by client militias under ... (the Revolutionary Guard’s) control, the Keta’ib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigades”. The US ambassador to Iraq had already reported that Iranian proxies accounted for roughly a quarter of US casualties in Iraq (1,100 deaths and many thousands of injuries).

Growing Iranian influence in Iraq and in Syria too; according to the Wall Street Journal, 14.4.11, unnamed US officials said straightaway that Iran was helping Syrian security forces in their repression against a whole range of protesters. Syria has long been a conduit for Iranian arms and influence towards Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon where it has increased its role since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 and alongside the weakening of pro-US forces in the country. While they have their own national interests to defend, and while there are some differences – over Israel for example -  the Damascus-Iranian alliance is stronger than ever and though the latter would prefer the Assad clique to stay in power, if it fell then their “partners” would work to install an even more pro-Iranian regime.

As long ago as May 2007, the US Institute of Peace reported that Iran-Syrian relations have deepened. Even allowing for bias here there is no doubt about the stronger imperialist stamp of Iran over the country. A mutual defence pact was agreed in 2006 (the protocol being unreleased), plus an additional military cooperation agreement in mid-2007. Investment and trade between the two countries has also deepened and Syria’s economic woes – worsening with the effects of the crisis – can only strengthen the Iranian hold over it. In fact the development of the economic crisis would seem to make it more unlikely that the US will be able to flip Syria away from Iran.

Turkey’s role

None of this is good news for the interests of Turkish imperialism and its aspirations to play a major role in the region. The waves of Syrian refugees have been a big headache for the Turkish bourgeoisie and Prime Minister Erdogan had condemned the Syrian regime’s “savagery”. Just as worrying for it is the blow to its efforts to suppress the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in its south-east region. The Guardian reports (Simon Tisdall, World Briefing, 9.8.11) that many of the PKK fighters in the region encompassing Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq are of Syrian origin and recalls the 1990s flashpoints when Turkey and Syria almost went to war over the same issue. PKK attacks on Turkish troops and the resulting air strikes over the 17th/18th of August in northern Iraq are surely not unrelated to a larger and potentially more destructive increase in tensions. Tehran has also rebuffed all Turkish attempts to act as a mediator towards the west.

Even though, beyond the manoeuvres of all the major powers around Syria with its cliques and clans, there is still a strong and extremely brave social struggle going on in the country, it stands to be completely overwhelmed and torn apart, not just by Iranian assisted repression, but by the existing and developing imperialist tensions involving much wider areas of the region.

Baboon, 20.8.11.


[1] Ian Black’s recent analysis in The Guardian.

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