By Marcus Halaby
“Why would Bashar al-Assad have gassed his own people when he was already winning the war?”
This question is frequently asked by many in the West of a generally anti-war disposition, who see in it a repetition of the arguments made around Saddam Hussein’s alleged (and disproven) possession of weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq. And it is possible to understand their cynicism, especially given the lies that were used to lead us into war in Iraq in 2003.
Nor is it merely the habitual cranks and conspiracy theorists like Gerry Downing and Vanessa Beeley who have asked this question. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing Labour MP Chris Williamson both felt the need to argue against the British government’s participation in US-led airstrikes on 14 April, by at the very least rhetorically questioning the Syrian dictator’s responsibility for the 7 April chlorine gas attack on Douma in the eastern Damascus suburbs that formed the pretext for this military action.
In Williamson’s case, he even echoed speculation that the injuries suffered by survivors of the Douma gas attack attack might have been caused by a “dust cloud” caused by conventional artillery fire. This speculation originated with The Independent journalist Robert Fisk, a once-respected media veteran who has frequently been discredited by his reliance on pro-regime sources, and for his role as an “embedded journalist” with the Assad regime’s army and militias.
And yet to many who have followed the Syrian revolution and civil war with any degree of seriousness, the mere raising of this question looks quite obscene. To them, and indeed to anyone motivated by any sense of solidarity with the Syrian people, a more appropriate question might be: “Why wouldn’t Assad have gassed his own people?”.
The anti-war movement’s confusion
Nor is it even necessary to question Assad’s guilt in this way to oppose the theatrical punishment beating given to him by the Western powers in response. An understanding of their real motives and of their real intentions is entirely sufficient for that purpose.
Far from it: the retailing by many prominent Western “anti-war” figures like George Galloway, of the Islamophobic rhetoric promoted both by Russia and by the West to justify their interventions in Syria, has frequently undermined the case against the war that has actually been waged by the Western powers in Syria to date – that is, against Islamic State and against various Islamist rebel factions.
In particular the “White Helmets” have been the target of a concerted Russian propaganda campaign, which has found an obscene and utterly misguided echo amongst many Western anti-war activists. Having demonised the White Helmets both as “CIA operatives” and as “al-Qaeda terrorists”, Assad and his Russian backers have felt as free to target their personnel (and civilian infrastructure in rebel-held areas more generally) as Israel does with their Qatari-funded counterparts in Gaza, and as Saudi Arabia does in Yemen.
This civil defence NGO receives funding from various Western governments, as well as from some private donors. The false claim that the US-domiciled Hungarian-Jewish billionaire George Soros is amongst the White Helmets’ private donors has frequently been used to promote antisemitic conspiracy theories linking the West’s alleged “regime change” agenda in Syria to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
However, the White Helmets have provided emergency first responder services to the victims of Russian, Assad regime and Western bombings of civilian targets; the last of these increasingly so as US President Donald Trump has loosened the US military’s terms of engagement with Islamic State and other “jihadist” targets of US imperialism’s air war in Syria.
This means that figures like Vanessa Beeley who have spearheaded the slander campaign against the White Helmets – and those who echo them – have not just been promoting the propaganda of “foreign” governments. They have also had to justify, or at least turn a huge blind eye to the atrocities of “their own” governments in the process.
Worse still, these and similar other denials of or justifications for Assad’s crimes rightly fill many with revulsion, and thus play straight into the hands of the advocates of future wars or military confrontations with Russia or Iran; people who will argue cynically that “something must be done” about Assad’s crimes in order to hide their own real agendas, and those of our own ruling class.
The character of Assad’s war on civilians
Nevertheless, it is possible to give an answer to this question, one that involves an understanding of the war that Assad’s regime has been waging against its own people for the last seven years. And the answer is one that does not remotely “weaken” the case against the broadening of the scope of Western intervention to include future strikes on Assad. Rather, it makes clear why we should be opposed to all Western military intervention in Syria and the Middle East, even on those very rare occasions when Assad’s genocidal regime is temporarily the target.
In the first case, Assad’s is not only a regime that is more than capable of the crimes that it stands accused of, but one that has carried out many such atrocities in full view of the world for the last seven years. Only in the two months before this atrocity, Assad’s regime had already killed 1,700 people in the eastern Damascus suburbs with napalm, white phosphorous, barrel bombs and 2,000 airstrikes. And only on 5 March, the regime prevented a United Nations aid convoy from carrying medicines into the besieged areas, while dropping chlorine gas on the town of Hamouriyah, without any response from the Western powers.
The ferocity of Assad’s war on civilians is explained in part by the fact that of all of the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, even Egypt’s and Tunisia’s, Syria’s popular uprising of March 2011 mobilised a much broader cross-section of the population and sank much deeper roots into them. This is precisely why Assad is so afraid of the mass base of the uprising against his rule (even in their defeat) that he feels the need to expel this mass base and its representatives to Idlib, every time his regime captures a new town from the rebels.
Ever since the US and Russian-brokered “nationwide cessation of hostilities” in early 2016 (which in fact marked an intensification of Assad’s war), entire communities have been uprooted and forced into internal exile in this way. Not only rebel fighters and their extended families, but civilian opposition activists and the employees of medical and humanitarian NGOs have joined the scores of thousands who have preferred this option of exile to taking their chances with the regime, following the vengeful return of its security forces to their home towns.
This mass displacement and dispossession of entire communities is no mere accident of war, but a conscious policy designed to re-stabilise the regime’s rule. In particular, the semi-rural, semi-proletarian small-town majority-Sunni communities who formed the mass base both of the initial unarmed uprising in March 2011 and of the subsequent armed rebellion, are regarded as a threat to security and stability.
It is not, one should understand, that all Syrian Sunnis have supported the rebels, or that all members of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities have supported the regime.
In fact the Syrian opposition has contained numerous leading figures of Christian, Kurdish, Druze and even of Alawite origin. And the Sunni Muslim upper-middle class and big bourgeoisie almost to a man (and woman) have remained loyal to a regime that has protected the ill-gotten wealth that they drew from Assad’s savage Western-sponsored neoliberal “economic reforms” in the decade before 2011, especially in western Aleppo and central Damascus.
In turn, it has been precisely these poverty-inducing “economic reforms” that created the mass discontent that exploded into revolution in March 2011.
However, the class character of the uprising against Assad drew a predominantly Sunni urban working class and peasantry into revolt against a regime that cynically claims to be a “protector of the minorities”; and it is this mass base that the regime needs to punish collectively in order to remain in power in the long term.
Assad’s recent “Law Number Ten” is designed to set the seal on this process. Like Israel’s infamous 1950 Law of Return (which made permanent the expulsion of Arab Palestinians during the partition of Palestine in 1947-49), this law authorises the state to seize and auction off the property of “absentees”.
This will allow the regime to re-engineer the demographics of the rump statelet that it now presides over following its grim “victory” after seven years of war. It will effectively prevent the return of “disloyal” communities, act as a severe warning to any future sources of political or social discontent and provide the regime with a means to reward its loyalists for their sacrifices.
The character of the foreign interventions
Once displaced to Idlib, a rebel-held enclave that is rapidly becoming the new Gaza, these “absentees” can then expect to find themselves under the bombs not only of Assad’s warplanes (and those of his Russian allies), but also of Britain, France and the USA.
This trio of Western powers and their allies, who claim the right to “discipline” Assad for his use of chemical and biological weapons, have bombed Idlib and the Aleppo countryside for almost two years alongside and in direct coordination with Russia, as part of a “war on terror” ostensibly directed against “al-Qaeda”. And this bombing spree has produced much the same carnage as the US-led air war against Islamic State in Iraq and in eastern Syria, and Russia’s bombing of almost all of the rebel-held “liberated zones” throughout 2016 and 2017.
Assad thus heads a government that is almost unique in having used its airforce to cling onto power against the opposition of an overwhelming majority of its own people. It has turned roughly half of its 23 million people into refugees in a war that has killed around half a million of them. His regime survives today thanks partly to his having placed his own country under a foreign occupation maintained by his Russian and Iranian protectors.
The latter, incidentally, lead a motley collection of Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemeni and Afghan Shi’ite sectarian militias in Syria. These militias display some considerable hostility towards the Sunni Muslim majority of Syria’s population, even to that part of it that still forms part of the Assad regime’s much-reduced mass base.
But Assad’s survival is also partly a product of the indirect assistance of his Russian and Iranian allies’ Western imperialist rivals, who bombed his Islamic State enemies for him – and thus saved him the trouble of fighting a two-front war – while Russia helped his regime to defeat the popular revolution against his continued rule.
Or to put it another way, Assad’s is a regime that proved to be so weak in the face of popular opposition that it has required the direct military interventions of both major imperialist camps to save it from complete collapse. Each of these camps rushed to bomb Assad’s enemies for him in 2015 when his regime proved to be too weak to continue doing so alone; if each for conflicting reasons that have occasionally brought them into confrontation with each other, and that could yet see them clash with each other directly.
In Russia’s case, this military intervention has gone alongside a rhetoric claiming to be acting in defence of Syria’s now-fictitious “sovereignty”. And in the West’s case, it has gone alongside a lying concern for “democracy” and an entirely hypocritical denunciation of Assad’s crimes, given the Western powers’ own indirect enabling of them – and given their own, often much bigger crimes elsewhere.
Islamic State and the US-Russian “war on terror”
In both cases, it has involved a poisonously Islamophobic “anti-terrorist” rhetoric that has turned Muslim communities in the West into potential “suspects” in this unstable “war on terror”, much as the “global war on terror” waged by Britain’s Tony Blair and the USA’s George W Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan did over a decade ago.
The Western powers, however, have found themselves primarily bombing Islamic State, an “enemy” of Assad’s whose continued existence was convenient enough for his regime that the regime did not even bother to bomb this enemy itself; an enemy that posed a much greater threat to Western oil interests in Iraq than it did to Assad’s rule in Damascus.
The Assad regime preferred to leave this particular “enemy” alone, allowing it to fight his mainstream rebel adversaries instead. Its existence also allowed the Syrian regime to use the bogey of “it’s Assad or chaos” to frighten Syria’s non-Sunni minorities into submission. And last but not least, it provided the Western powers with a convenient pretext for their own implicit (and now increasingly explicit) acceptance of the continuation of his regime’s rule.
This effective non-aggression pact between Assad and Islamic State had consequences. One of them was that the parts of Syria held by Islamic State were amongst the few regions outside of the regime’s control that were not under the constant bombardment of the regime or its allies. It was previous US President Barack Obama’s expansion of his intervention against Islamic State in December 2015 that brought these areas under bombardment from the air, albeit by Western instead of Russian or Syrian warplanes.
The only other such example was the US-backed Kurdish Rojava statelet, with whom Assad’s regime had a similar non-aggression pact at the time, albeit one that now shows signs of breaking down.
Indeed, many thousands of civilians fled to Islamic State’s Syrian capital Raqqa from rebel-held regions in 2014 and 2015, not because Islamic State rule was more pleasant, but because at least there they would not have to brave Assad’s bombs. And during that same period, Islamic State marketed Raqqa to European Muslim jihadists as a “safe place to live” on much the same basis; something that must have caused considerable annoyance to Western governments facing Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks at home.
The rebel enclaves’ desperate last stands
This big picture also helps to explain the desperate resistance against the odds of the rebels that remained in the eastern Damascus suburbs throughout almost six years of siege and bombardment. They have been fighting not only quite literally for their own lives, but also for the continued existence of their own communities.
This indeed was the picture throughout late 2016 and early 2017 in much of southern Syria, where the anti-Assad opposition was dominated by secular-nationalist forces rather than by Islamists. Towns like Darayya, Madaya, Zabadani, Moadamiyeh and Qudsaya were emptied of up to half or more of their populations in the course of a few days each, with the expelled residents having to cross numerous regime checkpoints and military front lines to reach their new places of exile.
It was also the picture in eastern Aleppo, from which more than 40,000 people (and maybe even double that figure) were expelled or otherwise displaced during and following its fall to the regime in December 2016. And for all of the Western media’s denunciation of Assad’s crimes there – and those of his Russian ally Vladimir Putin – one thing that is rarely mentioned is that the single largest force that was besieging eastern Aleppo for Assad was not even his own conscript army or its allied militias, but the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces.
This Iranian-controlled Iraqi government militia also just happened to have been armed by the USA. And at the precise moment of the fall of Aleppo, it also just happened to be fighting alongside US and British forces against Islamic State in Iraq’s second largest city Mosul. This in turn helps to put into perspective the cynicism of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pantomime search for Western support for a “no-fly zone” over Aleppo in the months prior to its fall.
Johnson knew perfectly well that Obama would never agree to a “no-fly zone” that not only ran the risk of provoking a Russian military response, but that would potentially target a military force that was an ally of the West in Iraq just as much as it was an ally of Russia and of Assad in Syria. And this must have been especially obvious to him given that the US imperialists’ principal response to the Russian-led carnage in Aleppo was to ask Russia for permission to bomb eastern Aleppo themselves a little, as per the “pizza vodka agreement” that Obama’s State Secretary John Kerry tried to reach with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in September 2016.
In any case, Obama was already enforcing an effective “no-fly zone” over Rojava in support of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Western powers’ principal strategic asset in Syria during their direct military interventions there since September 2014. Johnson’s whole exercise was designed merely for domestic consumption, in particular to embarrass Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And this embarrassment in turn is one that Corbyn could easily have avoided merely by being as vocal in opposing Russia’s bombing of Syria as he quite rightly already was in opposing the West’s.
The mini-Assads in the Syrian opposition
Other reasons for holding out, however, have been somewhat less honourable. The last rebel faction to remain in the Damascus suburbs prior to its forced surrender following the Douma gas attack was Jaysh al-Islam. This Saudi-sponsored Salafist Islamist militia had been the largest of the three or four major rebel factions active in that area. And to say that this outfit enjoys a poor reputation – and quite poor relations – with the rest of the Syrian opposition would be putting it mildly.
Jaysh al-Islam claims to its credit that it played the major role in having kept Islamic State out of the Damascus suburbs throughout 2014 and 2015. This is a role that was effectively forced on Jaysh al-Islam (and on other rebels) by the Assad regime, which left Islamic State unmolested and busied itself with bombing the rebel-held enclaves, thus forcing the rebels to fight a two-front war both against Assad and against Islamic State simultaneously.
Jaysh al-Islam however also holds the dubious distinction of being notorious for its ritualised public executions of captured Islamic State fighters, who by and large have received much more humane treatment at the hands both of the regime and of most other rebel factions. Worse still, Jaysh al-Islam is similarly notorious for its use of Druze and Alawite civilians as human shields against Assad regime airstrikes, and for its repression of the secular anti-Assad opposition.
Its former leader Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, is widely held responsible for the kidnapping of the secular opposition-aligned human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh. She “disappeared” in Douma in December 2013, along with her husband Wael Hamadeh and two of their colleagues from the Violations Documentation Centre, a civilian NGO that monitored human rights abuses conducted both by the regime and by armed rebel factions. Their whereabouts even now are not known, and Jaysh al-Islam continues to deny any involvement in their likely forced disappearance.
At the precise moment of the Douma gas attack, however, Jaysh al-Islam was holding out there not in expectation of any defiant “last stand”, but in anticipation of a Saudi and Russian-brokered deal that would have left Jaysh al-Islam in Douma as a regime-approved anti-Islamic State militia.
As unusual as this arrangement sounds, the regime has had numerous such arrangements in the past, albeit most commonly with Islamic State and even with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate that split from Islamic State in late 2013. It is almost as if Assad and all the authoritarian wannabe little Assads in the Syrian opposition recognise each other as kindred spirits, and regard the Syrian opposition’s secular-nationalist and “moderate Islamist” mainstream as being their real common enemies.
Assad exploits divisions in the rebel camp
In Jaysh al-Islam’s case, it had a ceasefire with the regime as recently as December. Its purpose was to allow them both to attack the Free Syrian Army’s Rahman Legion, a Qatari-sponsored rebel faction with a politics close to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and to Palestine’s Hamas. And it was as a result of this skilful division of the opposition that the regime was able to take the rebel-held Damascus suburbs piece-by-piece.
The regime forced Ahrar al-Sham (a Turkish-sponsored faction that also took part in Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-majority Afrin a few weeks earlier) to surrender Harasta on 21 March. The Rahman Legion’s surrender of Hamouriyah, Jobar and three other towns followed two days later.
Having allowed this disaster to unfold, Jaysh al-Islam expected in return to be allowed to remain in Douma, the largest town in the region with around 150,000 inhabitants. And Assad’s Russian sponsors appeared to be happy enough to agree to this, for the time being at least.
Assad, however, wanted total victory, and was confident that he could force Russia to stand by him. This makes his use of chemical weapons there something that is not remotely as strategically inept as is suggested by the many people who question why Assad would have chosen deliberately to provoke a Western military response at the precise moment that he was “winning”.
In any case, the “military response” in question did not remotely threaten the continuation of Assad’s war, and was not even intended to. Assad got what he wanted – a full evacuation of all remaining rebels and rebel-supporting civilians from the Damascus suburbs – something that Jaysh al-Islam would never have agreed to otherwise. The price that Assad paid for this total victory was minimal; and it even allowed him to claim the kudos of successfully having “defied the West” in the eyes of his supporters.
Assad’s gas attack was thus intended partly as a warning to remaining rebel-held pockets elsewhere in the country, and as a lesson to future generations about the serious price to be paid for defiance and disloyalty.
But it was also intended as a warning to his own Russian sponsors: that they have to continue to stand by his regime, and that they should refrain from forcing him into accepting uncomfortable compromises. Behind this lay the threat for future reference that otherwise, the regime will do something that will force the Western powers to get involved, in a way that will absolutely force Russia to stand by its Syrian protege, in order not to be seen as being “weak” in the face of its global rivals.
That Assad would be reckless enough to play at provoking a global confrontation in this way tells us something about the instability of his regime, which feels itself politically weak and vulnerable even at the height of its military victories. But the fact that Donald Trump and his British and French allies Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron were more than willing to oblige Assad in this dangerous little game tells us just as much about their priorities.
The West’s complicity in Assad’s crimes
Having bombed Assad’s enemies for him for the last four years, and thus having indirectly assisted Russia in keeping Assad in power, Western governments are just as responsible for having encouraged his excesses as their Russian allies-cum-rivals are. Contrary to popular belief – both in the Western anti-war movement and in the Western pro-war camp – this “intervention” of theirs in Syria has been on an exponentially larger scale than the paltry and limited “support” that the Western powers allowed their Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies to provide to the Syrian rebels in 2012-14.
And the Western powers did not provide this service to Russia and to Assad for free. They expected in return to have a role in deciding the terms of the “political solution” that all the powers intervening in Syria regard as being necessary to “stabilise” the country following the Assad regime’s eventual victory. For all of these outside parties, this “political solution” explicitly includes the preservation of Assad’s bloodstained repressive state apparatus as a guarantor of “stability”, whether it is Assad himself or some “legitimate successor” that stands at the top of it.
Even the one face-saving concession that the Western powers have occasionally asked for – that Assad himself would go while his regime remained – is one that they no longer raise. And even when they did raise it, it was always hedged with the proviso that Assad could remain in power for up to two years as part of a “negotiated transition”, during which his regime would be allowed to supervise “elections”.
If Western governments really wanted to “restrain Assad”, or even wanted to help the Syrian people in their resistance to his dictatorship, then they could do so very easily without any military action of their own at all. They could just pull out all of their warplanes and special forces and abandon their own bombing campaign in Syria, thus leaving Russia and Iran alone to bear the burden of propping up Assad’s creaking rump state.
This however would also effectively mean the Western powers having to give up their seat at the table of negotiations whose real content is the re-division, both of Syria and of the surrounding region into more-or-less defined “spheres of influence”. In particular, it would mean giving up their bargaining-chips for Donald Trump’s hoped-for Iranian withdrawal from Syria.
And the most important of all of these bargaining-chips at present is Rojava, which US imperialism has expanded far beyond Syria’s three or four small and disconnected Kurdish-majority regions, to include almost all of Syria east of the Euphrates.
Finally, it would also mean running the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State or some comparably hostile insurgency that might once again threaten the security of Western oil interests in Iraq. The preservation of Assad’s state machine is thus for the Western powers a “lesser evil” to the likely alternatives. All they ask of Assad’s regime in return is that it doesn’t make them look weak by breaching their stated “red lines”.
The token character of the US-led strikes on Assad – on this occasion and previously – is thus explained by their fear of any future collapse of Assad’s state. This is something that would be a real risk for them in the event of any full Western withdrawal from Syria. But this risk would also emerge in the event of any decisive military intervention against Assad’s forces that had any real prospect of changing the balance of forces on the ground. And this, in turn, would mean a direct confrontation with Russia, a price that Western governments do not yet feel like paying for such meagre and uncertain returns.
Being both unwilling to remove Assad and unable to do so without the risk of clashes with Russia that they probably still hope to avoid, Western governments instead are reduced once a year or so to bombing regime targets of secondary importance or less, having given Russia ample notice of their intentions, and even having been given advice from Russia on which targets they are and are not allowed to bomb.
Why Western governments acted
Why then did Western governments act against Assad at all? Here we must understand that while our governments might, on this occasion, be “telling the truth” about their pretext for military action, they are being more than a little economic with the truth as regards their intentions and their motivations.
In the first case, having been saddled with Obama’s farcical “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical or biological weapons since November 2012 – and having been embarrassed by Assad’s blatant breaching of this “red line” in August 2013 – US imperialism under Trump has made a point of being seen to enforce it.
Indeed, US imperialism has frequently ignored breaches of this “red line” where acting on them would have been inconvenient. Obama himself explained this away on one occasion in May 2015 with the factually incorrect assertion that “chlorine itself historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon”. The Douma gas attack however was too big for Trump to ignore, especially given how much effort he has invested in being seen to be “tougher” than Obama in projecting US power onto the global stage.
Notably, the US-led coalition did not act until after the regime’s forced “evacuations” were almost complete and practically irreversible, despite the fact of the regime’s use of similar weapons on several occasions in the weeks and months prior. Western governments thus would have been perfectly happy to have left the Damascus suburbs to their fate – while wringing their hands in public about the ferocity of Assad’s onslaught against them – if only the regime had stuck to using the sort of weapons that they use all the time themselves in Iraq and in eastern Syria, and that Israel uses all the time in Gaza.
This means that the Western powers were acting not to “protect civilians”, but only to protect the credibility of US and Western threats and warnings. In this way they have also set a precedent for future military actions directed against Iran or against North Korea, in which claims around the possession of “banned” weapons – truthful or otherwise – may also become a factor.
Overlapping and unstable alliances
This military action also aided the Western powers politically, by allowing them to gloss over their own divisions over the fate of Rojava. Indeed, Western governments were visibly divided over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invasion of YPG-held Afrin in January.
Britain and Germany both cautiously supported Turkey’s position. So too did Qatar, protected by Turkey and by Iran from a Saudi-led blockade since last summer, despite the fact that Qatar’s territory hosts the massive US airbase that has been used to conduct Western airstrikes in support of the YPG.
France and the USA however effectively sided with the Kurds, albeit not to the point of intervening directly, given that this would have involved the risk of military clashes between NATO members. Instead, both countries sent special forces to Rojava to reinforce the YPG against any Turkish threats east of the Euphrates, while leaving Afrin in the north-west of Syria to its fate.
Erdogan’s Afrin adventure, which has displaced some 170,000 Syrian Kurds from their homes, was conducted with an effective “green light” from a Russia that had clearly warned Assad not to interfere. It was followed by Russia’s announcement of the sale of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey, a long-planned arrangement that nevertheless represents an unprecedented arms deal between Russia and a NATO country.
It thus marked a political achievement for Russia, which since even before the fall of Aleppo had been trying to draw Turkey and Qatar into the Kazakhstan-based “Astana process” towards a “political solution” in Syria, on the basis of their reconciliation with Russia and Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the USA.
However, the fact that the US-led action on 14 April was conducted over the “red line” of chemical weapons usage meant that Turkey and Qatar both had to be seen to be supporting this action, while Britain took part in it and Germany welcomed it.
This has allowed the USA to undo some of Russia’s political achievements on this front, and thus to emphasise Russia’s isolation on this question. A measure of this is that only China and Bolivia voted alongside Russia at the United Nations Security Council in support of a motion condemning the US-led airstrikes on 14 April. Even Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic with a large Russian-speaking and ethnically-Russian population, felt it convenient to abstain.
What it means for next time
The lesson of this will not have been lost on Russian imperialism. It has been forced on this occasion to acquiesce in the punishment of its Syrian client regime by its own principal global rivals. It similarly did so a year previously, with the token US airstrike on an evacuated Assad regime airbase that followed the regime’s use of sarin gas on the town of Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.
On that occasion, Russia “retaliated” by temporarily suspending military coordination and intelligence-sharing with the USA. This meant that US imperialism couldn’t keep on bombing Nusra Front targets in Idlib or the Aleppo countryside without running the risk of hitting Russian or Assad regime targets by mistake. And even this was followed only a month later by a happy resumption of the carefree joint bombing of civilians by Russia and by the USA.
However, for Russia to make a habit of acquiescing in Western strikes on a regional protege that Putin has invested so much energy into preserving would mean undermining the credibility of its own “red lines”. Russia will thus be much less willing to let it pass without a visible response the next time around, or the time after that.
“World War Three” might not have broken out on this occasion and over this particular series of events. But the biggest danger is that military actions like this soften up the Western public to far more serious pre-war manoeuvres with the illusion that there is no threat of war between the powers, and that provocative military actions by “our own” governments will always end in some sort of climbdown by their weaker rivals. They also run the risk of encouraging our own rulers into a similar sense of hubris.
Anyone who “welcomed” Trump’s brinksmanship in the hope that it might bring some little relief to the Syrian people was therefore behaving very irresponsibly, whatever their subjective intentions. And it is in any case as ridiculous to welcome Western military intervention on this basis as it would be to call on Vladimir Putin, the butcher of Chechnya and Aleppo, to “protect” the Palestinian people from Israel’s daily state violence in Gaza.
The prospect of wars with Iran
There is in any case the serious prospect of a new war erupting in the region in the near future, albeit not between the Western powers and Russia, but between a US-led alliance and Iran. John Bolton’s recent appointment as Trump’s National Security Advisor indicates that the USA is moving towards a much more visibly anti-Iranian policy. So too does Trump’s recent announcement of his intention to reverse the nuclear deal that Obama agreed with Iran in July 2015.
As part of this package, Israel has already escalated its periodic strikes on Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets in Syria, like the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist militia Hezbollah. Israel has conducted numerous such airstrikes in Syria over the last two and a half years with Russia’s tacit permission, although the token Russian protests over the most recent of these suggest that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu now believes that he can act unilaterally.
It is also not remotely out of the question that Israel could attempt a new war in Lebanon, with a view to overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome” brought about by the abject failure of Israel’s last war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in July and August 2006.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia has indicated that it might be willing to join France in sending ground troops to Rojava, to pick up some of the the slack from the USA in replacing the US special forces that Trump was promising to withdraw from Rojava “like soon” less than two months ago. This is likely to come as part of the “Arab regional security force” that Bolton has proposed that the USA’s Saudi, Jordanian and Emirati allies should take part in, with a view to limiting or rolling back Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq.
The worst-case scenario is that of a regional alliance involving the USA, France, Saudi Arabia and Israel all hypocritically “defending the Rojava Kurds” against an unholy alliance of Assad, Putin, Erdogan, Iran and Turkey’s wing of the anti-Assad rebels. This really would set the stage for serious direct confrontations between nuclear-armed powers, albeit with a lineup that is liable to confuse and divide the existing Western anti-war organisations.
However, Netanyahu’s recent attendance alongside Putin at Russia’s Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on 9 May, amid rumours of possible future Russian arms sales to Israel, indicates that Russia feels far less protective towards Iran than it does towards Assad. An unrestrained US, Saudi and Israeli attempt to challenge Iranian power in the region is therefore very much on the cards. And the Syrian people will be no better off for it, for all Iran’s nefarious role in assisting Assad’s programme of ethnic cleansing.
The fall of Assad’s regime at the hands of his own people at any point between early 2011 and late 2016 would have been a huge advance for social, democratic and national struggles across the Middle East, whatever the many faults and limitations of the political leaderships acquired by that struggle during that period.
Its victory would probably also have deprived Russian imperialism of its then only major toehold in the region. And this was what encouraged the Western powers to tolerate the limited support given to the Syrian rebels by their unruly Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies. It is also what encouraged the Western powers to try half-heartedly to exploit the Syrian uprising politically and diplomatically themselves.
But a successful revolution in Syria would also have posed a threat to Israel and to the security of the West’s client Arab regimes. This is precisely why Obama was careful never to allow the Syrian rebels to be in a position to win an outright military victory over Assad. A rebel victory would also have brought an end to the Syrian civil war far too quickly from US imperialism’s standpoint. The prospect of a prolonged stalemate by contrast allowed the USA to pursue aggressive designs against Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere, while Russian imperialism was tied up with propping up its Syrian client.
However, the power vacuum created by this stalemate was filled by the rise of Islamic State, which posed an even greater threat to Western interests in the region than it did to Russia’s. This forced US imperialism into an unstable “cooperation” with Russia in a new “war on terror” in the region. This war has both vastly escalated the scale of the bloodshed, and has also brought rival global powers into close enough proximity that it created at the very least the outside prospect of clashes between them at some stage.
The overthrow of Assad’s regime therefore could not have been (and still cannot be) brought about by Western intervention; at least not without a major reversal of Western policy that would have ensured that whatever replaced Assad’s regime would have been little or no better than it, and that most certainly would not have been any sort of “victory” for Syria’s workers and peasants.
However, the defeat of the Syrian revolution at the hands of this unholy alliance of global powers has divided the victors, who are now falling out with each other over the spoils. And the new wars that could ensue as a result carry the real danger of developing into wars with even more horrific and far more global consequences.
Socialists and anti-war activists in Britain and in the West are in very little practical position to “restrain” the genocidal Assad regime, or Russia’s and Iran’s atrocities in defence of it; although we have every right and every obligation to oppose them and to protest against them. We are however in a position to “restrain” own own rulers from engaging in any aggressions of their own, on whatever pretext. And ultimately, it is only revolution at home and abroad that can put an end to the atrocities both of our own ruling classes, and those of their hungry upstart competitors.
This struggle however will require socialists in the Western anti-war movements to sit up and pay attention to the 99 per cent of Western intervention in Syria that has targeted the Assad regime’s enemies, and not just to the 1 per cent of it that has targeted Assad’s forces, or that potentially has that character.
And this in turn will require them to view and to understand the numerous wars in the region from the standpoint of solidarity with these wars’ various victims, and not from the standpoint of an inverted patriotism that views these wars through the ideology, propaganda and global outlook of “our own” governments’ equally bloodstained global rivals.