By Marcus Halaby
The overwhelming priority of the Labour movement today is to prevent Britain from taking any further military action in Syria, or from joining any new Trump-led escalations of conflict with Russia or Iran. And we can do that without pretending that Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad is anything other than a fascistic monster at war with his own people; and without pretending that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is anything other than a warlord for billionaire Russian kleptocrats.
Only a year on from US President Donald Trump’s last confrontation with Assad, and sixteen months into his continuation of his predecessor Barack Obama’s bloody bombing of Assad’s Islamic State enemies, Trump has done it once again. And this time it has been with the support of Britain’s Theresa May and of France’s Emmanuel Macron, who even threatened to go it alone.
In the actual event, the barrage was carefully timed and targeted by the Pentagon to avoid hitting Russian assets in Syria; although Iranian occupation forces in Syria reportedly have have been hit, either by British or by Israeli warplanes.
Little or no damage however appears to have been done to Assad’s airforce, or to the bases from which Assad barrel bombs (and gasses) civilian populations in the rebel-held areas. The claim that Trump’s airstrikes were intended to “deter” Assad’s use of chemical weapons is simply a propaganda fraud, one aimed at public opinion in the NATO countries and in the Arab Gulf states.
These airstrikes will not and are not even intended to hold up for a minute the Assad regime’s liquidation of rebel pockets in other parts of Syria; a mission that Assad’s 7 April chlorine gas attack has already achieved in the eastern Damascus suburbs. A full three days before the Western airstrikes, Trump tweeted: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”.
Fierce as this sounded, however, in reality it literally just meant what it said: “hey Putin, get your assets well out of the way”.
In fact the USA and Russia have maintained constant military coordination and intelligence-sharing throughout their interventions in Syria, precisely in order to avoid such direct clashes. The playground bluster from Trump on Twitter – and the braggadocio from Russia’s strongman – certainly give the impression of the New Cold War turning hot. But for the moment, this remains remain a war of words. How long for though remains another question.
And whether to not this military action by three NATO countries temporarily “deters” Assad from using chlorine or sarin gas to speed up his impending victory, most of Assad’s inhumane decimation of civilians has been conducted with perfectly “legal” conventional weapons; the sort Britain and the USA have used aplenty in eastern Syria and in northern Iraq, and that Israel uses all the time in Gaza.
The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran – alongside Turkey – are poised to “win” their respective wars in Syria and to reorder the country according to their interests. And while this may well require further bloodbaths, in rebel-held Idlib and in Kurdish-held Rojava, these are bloodbaths that US imperialism both cannot prevent, and does not even intend to.
Certainly, it is not excluded that Trump, Macron and May might have to resort to another set of “limited strikes”; and indeed May is threatening to do just that. They have after all acted to demonstrate their “credibility”, a very slippery objective that could well force them into a “mission creep” from which they might not be able to extricate themselves.
But the defeat of Syria’s 2011 revolution against Assad is now almost complete; and Trump has next to no intention of “aiding” the remaining Syrian rebels in Idlib that his country has just spent two years bombing alongside Russia. The Western powers understand perfectly well that when push comes to shove, Syria is in Russia’s sphere of influence, and will remain so this side of a world war that none of them are confident about being able to “win” just yet, and indeed that they probably still hope to avoid.
Trump’s most likely strategy is that by demonstrating the “credibility” of US threats and US power, he will be able force Russia to agree to Iran’s withdrawal from Syria, the better to keep Israel and Saudi Arabia happy.
This in turn would allow US imperialism to pull out of its Kurdish protectorate in northern Syria, the better to avoid a conflict with Trump’s own increasingly pro-Russian NATO ally, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And this will leave Syria’s Kurds at Erdogan’s mercy and leave Assad (or some “legitimate successor”) in power to continue to victimise his own people, while allowing Trump to restart a regional cold war with Iran, possibly involving Trump’s threatened suspension of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran in May.
This is what lay behind Trump’s off-the-cuff remark on 30 March that US forces would be withdrawing from Syria “like soon”; and what lay behind May’s insistence on 14 April that this is “not about intervening in a civil war” and “not about regime change”.
This however assumes that Trump even succeeds in achieving his present objectives. Only Macron has already joined calls on Trump previously made by Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain the USA’s 2,000-strong Special Forces (and its three airbases) in Rojava, and claims to have succeeded in convincing Trump to do so.
This helps to demonstrate that this is a very dangerous game that could very easily blow up in his face, and everyone else’s; a game in which three nuclear-armed powers test the patience and the resolve of a fourth. And the wildcard agendas of unstable Western allies like Turkey and Israel could bring about yet more mayhem, were they to try to “wag the dog” of US power, in the same way that Assad has just successfully forced Russia to stand by him at the cost of Russia’s international isolation and humiliation.
No-one should be in any doubt that the Western governments that killed thousands of civilians in Syria and Iraq in their war against Islamic State are most unqualified to “protect” the Syrian people from a dynastic tyrant who has already “won” his genocidal war of survival, and whose regime’s continued existence practically all of the major powers now accept.
Even if Russia does not retaliate militarily for Trump’s airstrikes on Assad and his Iranian allies, the consequences of Trump’s military action will raise the temperature, and will make the risk of future wars between nuclear-armed powers that much greater.