Syria: behind the diplomatic game, the impasse of a murderous system

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The hideous spectacle of the children’s bodies exhibited after the chemical attacks of 21 August on the outskirts of Damascus didn’t truly move the world leaders, whose hypocritical reactions were dictated solely by their imperialist interests. The use of gas by both sides during the First World War, the unleashing of chemical agents in Vietnam and of the atomic bomb against Japan are all proof that our wonderful democracies have never hesitated to resort to the most murderous weapons. The declarations coming from the government offices are all the more hypocritical because the bombing and massacre of the Syrian population, the over 100,000 deaths since the war began, the flight of millions of refugees fleeing the carnage have, up till now, not been a ‘red line’ as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned. 

An aggravation of imperialist tensions

It’s possible that the use of chemical weapons was a Syrian/Russian provocation (Assad had been warned several times by Obama in 2012 that he must not cross this ‘red line’) in the direction of rival powers, principally the USA and France. But in any case the ‘red line’ was never more than more than a highly mediatised pretext to prepare ‘public opinion’ for an eventual military intervention. In the face of the growing tragedy, all the comings and goings between the various states are no more than a jockeying for imperialist interests in which the populations on the ground are of no importance . And it’s precisely the relations between the rival powers which explain the length of the conflict and the atrocious suffering of the populations: by comparison, other regimes swept away by the ‘Arab spring’, like Libya, didn’t last anything as long because it was less crucial as a focus for inter-imperialist rivalries.

Russia scored a diplomatic coup when it proposed placing Syria’s chemical weapons under “international control”; this produced a flurry of further diplomatic initiatives by its rivals, which have not hidden the impotence of the latter, and of the USA in particular. But whatever the outcome of this latest crisis and the decisions taken in government ministries, and whether or not there is a direct military intervention in Syria, we are seeing a spectacular rise in warlike tensions against a background of mounting chaos, of an increasingly uncontrollable situation which has made the clash of arms more and more widespread. The use of chemical weapons on several occasions already, the extension of the conflict to Lebanon, the presence of all kinds of vultures in the region, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Iran, whose involvement in the conflict is a particular source of anxiety for Israel, are all evidence that the conflict reaches well beyond the borders of Syria. Even more significant is the presence of the bigger imperialist powers, which illustrates the level reached by imperialist rivalries since the end of the Cold War. Thus, for the first time since 1989, we are seeing a major political confrontation between the old bloc leaders, the USA and Russia. Although very much weakened by the disintegration of the eastern bloc and of the USSR, Russia has been going through a revival, after carrying out a scorched earth policy in Chechnya, Georgia and the Caucasus during the 1990s. For Russia, Syria is vital for ensuring its presence in the region, holding on to its strategic links with Iran, restricting the influence of the Sunni Muslim republics on Russia’s southern borders, and maintaining a port to the Mediterranean.

This sharpening of tensions can also be measured by the fact that China is much more openly opposing the US than in the past. Although during the period of the blocs China moved very far from Russian influence, having been neutralised by the American camp following the bargain struck with Nixon over the war in Vietnam, it is now becoming a major opponent which is worrying the USA more and more. With its meteoric rise on the economic level, China has also been advancing its imperialist interests in Africa, the Far East, and Iran, a primary aim being to ensure its access to energy. As a late arrival on the scene it is a major factor in the further destabilisation of imperialist relations.

The strengthening of these two powers has been possible, above all, because of the increasingly evident weakening and isolation of the USA, whose attempts to play the role of world cop have met with utter failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. We can get some idea of how difficult things have become for the US by comparing its ‘intervention’ in Syria with the role it played in the first war against Iraq, back in 1991. Using Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait as a pretext for a huge display of its military superiority, it succeeded in building a military ‘Coalition’ involving not only a number of Arab countries, but also the principal members of the western bloc which were already tempted to break free of the USA’s grip following the disintegration of the eastern bloc. Germany and Japan, though not involved militarily, bankrolled the adventure while Britain and France were directly ‘called up’ for the fighting. Gorbachev’s ailing USSR did nothing to stand in America’s path. Just over a decade later, with the second invasion of Iraq, America had to deal with active diplomatic opposition from Germany, France and Russia.   And while in both in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, America could count on the loyal support, diplomatic and military, of Britain, the latter’s defection from the planned military intervention in Syria was key to the Obama administration’s decision to call off the intervention and to listen to the diplomatic option put forward by Moscow. The vote in the Commons against Cameron’s proposal to support military intervention is testimony to deep divisions in the British bourgeoisie resulting from the country’s involvement in the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq[1], but above all it is a measure of the weakening of US influence. The sudden discovery that France, which continued to support the push to intervene, is America’s “oldest ally” should not give rise to any illusion that France is going to take on the role of loyal lieutenant which Britain has (notwithstanding its own ambitions to seek a more independent role) played in most of the USA’s imperialist enterprises since the end of the Cold War.  The alliance between the US and France is much more circumstantial and thus unreliable as far as the US is concerned. To this we can add the discretely discordant notes coming from Germany, whose quiet rapprochement with Russia is another concern for Washington. 

At the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, President George Bush Senior promised a New World Order, with the US Marshall keeping things nice and peaceful. What we have actually seen is a growing imperialist free for all, dragging the world towards barbarism and chaos.   

The strategic importance of Syria

In the context of this new battleground, Syria is a very important strategic prize. Modern Syria emerged early in the 20th century with the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. During the First World War, Britain mobilised Syrian troops with the promise that the country would be granted independence after the war was won. Britain’s aim was of course to maintain its control of the region. But already in 1916, following the secret Sykes/Picot accords, Britain ceded control of Syria to France. The main aim of this agreement was to block the ambitions of Germany, which had already envisaged the construction of the Baghdad railway in order to “bring Constantinople and the military strongholds of the Turkish Empire in Asia Minor into direct connection with Syria and the provinces on the Euphrates and on the Tigris”[2]  Today, because of the instability of the traditional maritime routes through the Persian Gulf, Syria has become one of the terrestrial routes for the transport of hydrocarbons. Opening onto the Mediterranean through a corridor on the Levant (which is also used for the transfer of weapons from Russia) and to the east towards the oil-producing countries, this will be an increasingly important factor in the politics of the region.

The tensions developing today are this to a large extent linked to Syria’s historic importance in the region. They are also fuelled by the role played by Israel, whose threats against Syria and Iran[3] are a further source of disquiet for the large imperialist powers. Regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are deeply involved, being the main purveyors of arms to the ‘rebels’, while Turkey is also seeking to defend its interests by playing on the presence of a Kurdish minority in northern Syria.

And there is also a major polarisation around the Shia regime in Iran, which controls the strategic oil route through the Straits of Hormuz. This is intimately linked to the naval build up in the area, particularly of the US fleet. It also explains Iran’s commitment to its nuclear programme, which Putin provocatively supports, calling for “aid for the construction of a nuclear power station”.

Towards unprecedented chaos

Up till now, the blood-soaked Assad regime has been seen by all the imperialist powers as one that ensures a certain stability and predictability, as something less worse than what might take its place. Today, if the Syrian opposition ended up on top, there’s no doubt that there would be a chain reaction leading to incredible chaos and all kinds of unpredictable scenarios. The Free Syrian Army is a real patchwork and there is no truly united opposition. This weak political conglomeration, despite the discrete support of pro-American and pro-European forces, who have been ensuring the flow of arms without any ability to control their circulation, has been infiltrated, or at perhaps flanked by jihadi terrorist groups, many of whom have come from outside Syria and are acting for their own interests like the warlords who flourish in Africa today. There is more or less zero possibility of the western powers being able to rely on a real opposition that can offer an alternative to the regime.

This is a wider phenomenon which we can see in all the other Arab countries that were faced with similar events during the Arab Spring: no real bourgeois opposition able to offer a ‘democratic alternative’ and a minimum of stability. All these regimes have only been able to survive thanks to the strength of the army, which has tried to hold together the numerous clans of the ruling class and prevent society from falling apart. We saw it in Libya and more recently in Egypt following the army coup d’État against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. All this is the expression of a real impasse, typical of capitalist decadence and especially of its final phase of decomposition, where all that can be offered during an economic crisis is poverty, the brute force of the army, repression and bloodletting.

And this situation is all the more disquieting because it is feeding religious divisions which in this part of the world are among the sharpest: divisions between Christians and Muslims, Shia and Sunni Muslims, between Muslims and Jews, between Muslims and Druze, etc. Without being directly at the root of the conflicts in the region, these fractures are deepening the hatreds and hostilities of a society which has no future. This is also a region which in past has been marked by numerous genocides, as in Armenia, by the expulsion of populations, by colonial massacres which have left a legacy of hatred that in turn serves as the source of new massacres. Syria in particular is a focus for these divisions (Alawite/Sunni, Muslim/Christian, etc) and under the cover of war there have been innumerable cases of pogroms against this or that community, with the influx of fanatical jihadis, some backed by Saudi Arabia, making the situation worse than ever.

The catastrophe is all the more serious in that the US, a military super-power in decline, has been spearheading the descent into chaos. It has gone from world cop to pyromaniac fireman. In 2008, when Obama triumphed over Bush, it was in no small measure due to his image as an alternative to the unpopular warmonger Bush. But now the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama has shown himself to be no less of a warmonger, despite his talents as a politician, something his predecessor didn’t possess. Obama is more and more losing credibility. He has to deal with public opinion which is increasingly opposed to war, increasingly affected by the Vietnam syndrome, while at the same time facing an unbearable economic crisis which makes it more and more difficult to lavish money on military crusades. For the moment, the USA’s retreat from punishing the Assad regime with military strikes can be explained by invoking very real geo-strategic difficulties, but this has also led Washington into resorting to new contortions, such as the hypocritical and ridiculous distinction between “chemical weapons” and “weapons which only use chemical components”. Some nuance!

With the increasing number of quagmires, the mystifications which served their purpose in justifying the military crusades of the 90s – “clean war”, “humanitarian intervention” etc  - have lost their impact. The USA is facing a real dilemma which is undermining its credibility with its allies, especially Israel, which has become more and critical of the Americans. The dilemma is this: either the US does nothing, and this can only embolden its rivals and encourage new provocations on their part; or they strike out and his only increases hostility and resentment towards them. What is certain is that like all the other imperialist powers, they can’t escape the logic of militarism. Sooner or later, they can’t keep out of new military campaigns.

The only alternative: socialism or barbarism

The infernal spiral of these military conflicts once again highlights the responsibility of the international proletariat: even if it is not in a position to have an immediate effect on the growing military barbarism, it is still the only historic force that can put an end to his barbarism through its revolutionary struggle. Since the beginning of the events, and above all from the moment when the open armed conflict began to overwhelm it, the weakness of the proletariat in Syria has meant that it is not able to respond to the war on its own class terrain.  As we have already pointed out,    “the fact that the manifestation of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria has resulted not in the least gain for the exploited and oppressed masses but in a war which has left over 100,000 dead is a sinister illustration of the weakness of the working class in this country – the only force which can form a barrier to military barbarism. And this situation also applies, even if in less tragic forms, to the other Arab countries where the fall of the old dictators has resulted in the seizure of power by the most retrograde sectors of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Islamists in Egypt or Turkey, or in utter chaos, as in Libya”[4]

Today, the course of events fully confirms the perspective which Rosa Luxemburg put forward in The Junius Pamphlet:

“Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales”.


WH, September 2013



[1] For further analysis of the Commons vote against intervention, see

[2] Rohrbach, The War and German Policy, quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in The Junius Pamphlet, chapter 4.

[3] Israel has issued virtual ultimatums to Iran over its nuclear policy, while it still has a dispute with Syria over the Golan Heights.

[4] Resolution on the international situation, 20th ICC Congress



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