Syria: Turning point in civil war?

Regime causes untold civilian suffering and death… rebels’ carry out sectarian massacres – No to imperialist intervention

Arne Johansson, from Offensiv (weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, CWI in Sweden)

The United States and EU powers and more than 130 governments recognized the newly formed opposition alliance in Syria, the National Coalition of Syrian revolutionaries and opposition forces (SNC). This is now considered, in President Obama’s words, as the only legitimate and “sufficiently inclusive, reflective and representative” agents of the Syrian people.

The recognition, which was made public at a big meeting with “Syria´s friends” in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, on 12 December, shows that Western powers are now prepared to step up their political, economic and military measures to achieve an as controlled and pro-Western regime change in Syria as possible. Now the indirect support that has long been channeled through US allies in the region, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is no longer considered to be enough.

America’s simultaneous designation of the most militarily effective, well-equipped and feared Salafist militia, al-Nusrafronten, as a terrorist organization, has received less attention. The fact that this designation was met with a public protest from the SNC’s leader is also an indication of how far the relationship of forces within the armed opposition has mutated in a sectarian direction.

That simultaneously more than 100 opposition groups inside Syria demonstrated against the US terrorism designation behind the slogan “we are all al-Nusra” also sends shivers down the spines of all Syrian ethnic or religious minorities. They fear to being turned into second class citizens by those who want to make Syria a Sunni Islamist state after the fall of the regime.

The West’s recognition of the SNC coincides with an increasingly difficult military situation for the Assad regime, which recently lost two military bases on the outskirts of the country’s largest city, Aleppo. But even if, for example, NATO´s General Secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argues that al-Assad regime is now on the ropes, and even Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov has recognized that a victory for the opposition “can not be excluded”, the bloody death agony can be very protracted for several reasons.

Military escalation

The decision by the US, Germany and the Netherlands to place six batteries of Patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria, along with 400 US soldiers, 400 from Germany and 360 from the Netherlands, underlines the seriousness of the escalation. More warships are also placed outside the Syrian coast.

So far, they claim that the military build up will be done “for defensive purposes”, although coupled with a warning to the Assad regime not to use the chemical weapons it is claimed to possess. Although the political climate in the United States hardly supports an invasion with regular ground forces against the regime inside Syria, as was carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even an air force operation as was carried out by NATO against Libya, the logic of the military build-up points in the direction of some form of military intervention.

A so-called “humanitarian corridor” to rebel-controlled areas is denied, although the British Prime Minister Cameron claims that the message to Assad should be that “nothing is off the table”.

Deployment of NATO troops at the Syrian border serves several purposes. One is certainly to try to limit the real risk that the Syrian civil war will spill over into Turkey, Lebanon and other neighboring states. The deployment also facilitates intimate relations with the military command center that the SNC is building in Turkish Antalya, as well as opportunities to infiltrate and try to control Syrian rebels – primarily with advisers, spies and ‘special forces’. It goes without saying that this also can facilitate a later direct intervention in Syria, if deemed necessary by the United States.

Western powers want a regime change as fast as possible in Syria. Meanwhile, they have good reason to worry about the political Islamist forces they have let out of the bottle, which could pave the way for years of internal strife, the destabilisation of the entire Middle East and a new exodus of Christians and Alawites.

Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent about one of the, so far, most horrific videos “that every Syrian has seen”, where two captured officers of the Alawite minority are beheaded by Syrian insurgents. Worst of all is the scene that shows how a 12 or 13 year old boy is persuaded to cut the head off a middle-aged man.

Although the al-Assad regime’s bombardment of houses and neighborhoods infiltrated by the armed resistance is responsible for the overwhelming proportion of civilian suffering, death and destruction, the regime’s justifications for these acts are increasingly confirmed by the rebels’ abuses.

In a report published by the Christian website, ‘Agenzia Fides’, a young Syrian Christian, who identified himself with the opposition, described the horrific scenes when militias from the Free Syrian Army attacked Kurdish outposts in Ras al-Ein, and invaded the city “as conquerors, not liberators.”

“Who gave the militia orders to kill on the basis of religious affiliation?” he asks.

According to the report, all Christians were immediately driven away from their homes. “Kurds, Arabs and Christians, more than 70,000 people fled, mostly to Hassake. Within a few hours, the city became a ghost town. Alawites were hit the worst; they were killed just because they were Alawites. One of the victims was a schoolteacher who loved the city so much, and for many years taught all the families’ children. Some militiamen found, captured and killed him in front of his wife and children, who were kidnapped. ”

The Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) also urges SNC to “act forcefully to reduce the growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Mesopotamia, which has a negative impact on peace and unity in the social fabric.”

Sectarian mutation

Nothing or very little of all this is reflected by the Swedish media, which in a simplistic manner gives a rosy picture of the Syrian disaster. Even some of the armed insurrection´s most uncritical supporters on the Swedish Left – as unfortunately seen on the blog of socialist veterans like Kilden and Åsmans (who are also members of the USFI) – can no longer ignore the growing power of Syria’s Islamic forces. They try to play down the dangers in the situation and blame the US and Western powers for belatedly arming the more moderate groups!

But without independent working class struggles, even along the lines of what took place in Tunisia and Egypt, this sectarian mutation of an originally genuine, but today largely muted and dispersed mass movement against the dictatorship, unfortunately is a logical consequence of a protracted civil war that has mainly been sponsored by some of the world’s most reactionary and least democratic forces in the guise of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and behind them imperialism.

The seriousness of the growth of al-Nusra jihadism is also downplayed by Kildén and Åsman with the argument that it mainly attracts Syrian youth because they have better weapons and military clout than other militias, rather than by religious conviction. Despite the bloody experiences and practices that al-Nusra veterans have brought with them from the civil war in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, Kildén and Åsman try to reassure their readers that al Nusra has its roots in Syria and does not include al-Qaeda’s global jihadism against the ‘unbelievers’ worldwide. Although Kildén and Åsman always appealed for more military aid to the Syrian opposition from Western imperialism they now criticise the US terrorist designation of al-Nusra as “counter-productive”! Tell that to the thirty percent Syrian Kurds, Alawites and Christians who, at best, can hope to survive as second class citizens in an Islamic Sunni state.

Very little attention is also given to the Kurdish efforts to consolidate control over their territories and their refusal to submit to both the Assad regime, as well as the Free Syrian Army’s various militias.

“The most militant sections of the opposition do not exactly have a political agenda for what will happen after Assad’s downfall and the more this drags on the more sectarian the situation becomes”, commented the former Swedish ambassador to Syria, Viola Furubjelke.

Although the regime is under pressure, there is in the current situation no clear signs that it will suddenly split or implode, since the ruling Alawite elite can see no alternative but to fight for their lives to the bitter end. For the same reasons, we can expect a disastrous winter in Syria, characterized by a prolonged and desperate trench warfare, where different religious and ethnic groups are expelled or forced to migrate to seek protection in a number of enclaves protected by their own sectarian militias, or else increasingly leave the country as refugees.

That the regime is cornered does not mean that the militias of the Free Syrian Army are widely perceived as liberators and worth dying for. As even the Qatari news agency al-Jazeera reports, many Aleppo citizens blame the regime’s assault on the rebels, who consolidate themselves in the neighborhoods where they are able to enter and remain.

“Our country is destroyed. If this is the revolution I do not want it. I emphasize that I do not support the regime, it used to oppress us. But now we are oppressed a hundred times more”, says a green grocers trader from Aleppo.

Reactionary war

Class conscious workers and socialists cannot support any side of this reactionary war; neither the doomed Assad regime or the militias run by religious extremists or who otherwise subordinate themselves to Western imperialism and the reactionary Arab states that sponsor Syria’s rebels.

The task must be to build alliances for mutual protection and security of all threatened neighborhoods and anyone who refuses to be drawn into this sectarian civil war, irrespective of all religious and ethnic boundaries. Alongside this, working people need their own independent movement against both Assad, sectarian force and imperialism etc.

Based on this, sooner or later Syrian workers, democracy activists and youth will begin the construction of a new socialist movement that draws inspiration from the examples of Tunisia and Egypt’s struggling workers and stand free against reactionary regimes, religious fundamentalism and imperialism.