Focus Can Help Momentum Succeed

By KD Tait

SINCE Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide election as leader of the Labour Party, the grassroots network Momentum has formed 90 local groups to coordinate the activities of Labour Party members and supporters who want to champion the policies Jeremy was elected on and spearhead resistance to the Tories.

Local groups have rallied a cross-section of new and returning members enthused by the chance to break with the Blairite politics of privatisation, triangulation and militarism – the policies that lost Labour millions of votes and hundreds of thousands of members between 1997 and 2010.

But it won’t be an easy matter to change Labour policy.

There is a deeply held hostility to the influx of new members from certain sections of the party. The many councillors, MPs, and the apparatus of the party workers, researchers, and advisors who service them exercise a tight grip on the party. This is the prime obstacle to reshaping Labour and winning millions back to support us.

The constant briefing against the Labour leader by shadow cabinet members in the Tory press would never have been tolerated by Kinnock, Blair or Brown.

Caught between the new left wing leadership and the new left wing mass membership, this right wing apparatus is in fact the only active and organised “party within a party”. Many of them seem determined to obstruct and demoralise the new members, doing nothing to bring them to meetings and constantly attacking the leadership with the help of the Mail, the Sun, and even the Guardian.

That is why we need a grouping like Momentum to harness the energy and enthusiasm of new members.

Democracy

So how is Momentum coming together?

The news that Momentum’s interim National Committee will meet within the month to draw up a constitution is a welcome chance for ordinary party members to shape its democratic structure, priorities, and strategy.

An original announcement that this NC would be composed of hand-picked delegates nominated by the leaders of Momentum provoked a backlash by local groups, forcing a U-turn. The NC will now feature elected delegates from regional groups, together with union representatives and others.

It is good that pressure works but it shows that we need to keep it up. Sadly the Labour and socialist left have got used to forming campaigns controlled from the back rooms by influential people – or what a Momentum press release refers to as ‘stakeholders’.

The danger here is that strategy gets decide by compromise between pre-existing groups, stifling democratic participation from the grassroots, instead of drawing on the energy and creativity of new members and supporters.

On the other hand a sense of proportion is vital. Momentum is a new movement which simply would not have off the ground without volunteers offering leadership. We a debt of gratitude to those who organised Corbyn’s campaign and need to build trust as we bring a new national organisation together.

The answer is a straightforward democratic structure. It is too early to prejudge it but we would expect it would likely involve delegated to be elected from local groups to regional committees which would in turn elect their representatives to a national executive. This body would organise a delegate based national conference which would be sovereign, adopting policy, and electing a fully accountable national leadership.

(Dis)organising options

By contrast, trying to turn Momentum into a ‘broad social movement’ like Occupy, would be a mistake. In fact, events in 2015 showed that a broad mass of people were seeking a political, indeed a party political, instrument to fight the Tories. They clearly wanted this party to break radically and fundamentally with the party of Blair and Mandelson.

Duplicating the structures of the Occupy style movements of 2011 – anti-leadership, decentralised, unable to make decisions, with weak or non-existent politics – would disorganise attempts to democratise the Labour Party and win it to consistent socialist policies.

On the other hand, vesting control of Momentum in a small group of self-selected leaders – however virtuous – would simply be to copy the method of operation of the right wing, and, more importantly, it would make us a less effective force for positive change.

Instead we need an open discussion designed to bring differing perspectives and aspirations to the surface: how can we reach decisions efficiently and democratically? How can we make discussion of motions and committees feel less bureaucratic? How can we increase participation without degenerating into a talking shop?

We don’t have all the answers, but we need to to work on these issues because they are at the centre of different behaviours exhibited by returning members and new, young members respectively.

Campaigning

We should suggest an overarching goal, to develop Corbyn’s election platform from a set of policies to a guide to action. We would like to see Momentum adopt a programme with three key elements: proposals to democratise the party, policies for a future Labour government, and last but not least, suggestions for mass activity to resist the Tory government now, in the workplaces, and on the streets.

One obvious place to start is the campaign against local council cuts. Another is the fight to support the doctors and defend the NHS. A third is the fight against the Housing Bill, a fourth – opposition to Trident and the war.

On the doorstep, in every by-election, in every local and constituency election, we should be asking for so much more that people’s vote. We should be spreading the word about what they can do to fight back in the here and now. We should encourage them to join the party, and join Momentum.

In this way we can transform the Labour Party from what is has been up until now – an apparatus that disciplines the working class and holds us in check – into what millions of workers and youth have always wanted it to be: a party that can defeat the Tories and effect a socialist transformation of society. In many areas Momentum supporters have already started the process of bringing Labour’s policy into line with the views of the members – by supporting campaigns to defend local public services and revitalising opposition in local parties to Labour councils carrying out Tory cuts.

Party or movement? 

This brings us to the crux of Momentum’s incipient identity crisis. Is it to be yet another campaign that runs in parallel with the Labour Party? Or is it a vehicle to coordinate and consolidate the rapid change Labour needs?

We believe Momentum must avoid the trap of ducking an open struggle with the right wing. We should not just be an auxiliary to the Labour Party but a force for its transformation. There is no need for Momentum to see itself as yet another umbrella movement against the cuts, of which there are already several – instead we should promote an active alliance of trade unionists and campaigners inside and outside the party to secure the most effective and widespread action against the Tories. We can do this without losing focus on the work of transforming the party.

The Blairite right have the Progress groups campaigning inside the party without a hint of criticism from the press. Momentum should be similarly focused in the opposite direction, shrugging off the barrage of media criticism we will doubtless continue to be subjected to.

Briefing: EU referendum

THE referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, EU, is now likely to take place no later than the Autumn. David Cameron was forced to promise a referendum in his election manifesto under pressure from UKIP. Now he wants to get it out of the way as quickly as possible because he knows a lengthy campaign will deepen the divisions in his party.

His opponents will argue that his “renegotiation” of the terms of British membership has been completely superficial and does not alter anything fundamental. In this, they are right; the fundamentals are laid down in treaties that cannot be changed except by unanimous agreement of all member states and that was always impossible in the time available. What Cameron is trying to achieve, however, was never meant to be fundamental. His aim is to make changes that will be advantageous to a wide range of UK employers but to present them as a victory for Britain against the encroachment of “Europe”.

Cameron’s strategy

At two EU summits, in February and March, he will try, first, to get an agreement that excludes Britain from any further steps towards fiscal (tax raising) union. This would maintain his government’s ability to manipulate taxation to maximise profits and avoid funding development in the poorer parts of Europe.

Second, he wants to reduce the “burden” of excessive regulation, meaning workers’ rights and environmental safeguards, and “extend the single market”. In short he wants to move towards the EU being a free trade zone, restricting the free movement of labour whilst encouraging the free movement of capital.

Third, he wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrant workers and students, stopping them claiming benefits until they have been resident for four years. This, of course, would force such workers to accept poverty wages, undermining the living standards of all workers.

Lastly, in the clearest appeal to nationalism, he wants an explicit opt out for Britain from the EU’s founding goal of an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe. The real content of that is to give Westminster the power to block EU legislation. This would doubtless be used to further erode labour rights.

If Cameron is successful on any of these, and the referendum question was ‘do you support this deal?’ then the obvious answer would be no. But that is not the issue. The referendum will be about the much bigger question of remaining in the EU or not. For socialists, the issue is whether the working class, in the UK and in the other EU states, can better fight for its interests with Britain as a separate, more “independent” state or with it remaining within the supra-national framework of the EU.

Red Flag believes that Britain remaining within the EU offers the better prospects. Labour is right to support a Yes vote and to run its own campaign, distinct from that of the Tories. A wise move given the disastrous effect of their joint campaign with the Tories in the Scottish independence referendum. This collaboration with the most hated party in Scotland saw Labour throw away a century of overwhelming support north of the border.

What Corbyn says

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn, who was previously anti-EU, now said he was “proud” to support Labour’s Britain In Europe campaign. But on Radio 4 he also spelled out that his support for EU membership was very critical and certainly does not mean any support for David Cameron’s negotiating terms:

“We are determined to build alliances across Europe for progressive reform to make the EU work for working people. Labour backs Britain’s continued EU membership as the best framework for trade and co-operation in 21st-century Europe, along with defence of the European convention on human rights. But we need to make EU decision-making more accountable to its people, put jobs and growth at the heart of European policy, strengthen workers’ rights in a real social Europe, and end the pressure to privatise services.”

What socialists say

Socialists have no reason to prettify the present European Union, especially given the role that the European Central Bank and the European Commission have played in Greece since 2010. This was proof positive that the EU and the Eurozone are indeed instruments of big capital and of the big imperialist powers like Germany and France. The EU is a bosses’ club, but so is the British state, in or out of the EU.

Socialists oppose the bludgeoning of southern European states into austerity, but equally we oppose Britain and other European Nato members’ military and diplomatic aid for the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or its New Cold War in Ukraine. An independent Britain would remain a dangerous imperialist power in the Nato camp.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to abandon the Brexit perspective of the old Labour Left without falling for the pro-EU position of the Labour Right. He is right that leaving the EU would be of no benefit to workers in Britain or the rest of Europe. He is right, too, that the EU needs a radical social transformation. Red Flag would go further and say it requires a revolutionary change, both in its goal, a socialist not just a “social” Europe, and in the means that the workers of our continent use to break the political power of the bankers and industrialists.

Internationalism

However, a minority of Labour Party members and a larger proportion of the non-Labour left, in England at least, remain vehemently opposed to EU membership. The Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party have stuck by the position they took in the last referendum, forty years ago, whilst the majority of the Left in the Labour Party and the unions have moved on. For the CPB, at least, this is rooted in the belief that Britain’s institutions offer a better starting point for their “parliamentary road to socialism”.

It is nonsense to imagine the interests of any working class in Europe would be served by breaking the EU into separate national entities. The productive forces of capitalism, primarily labour, have long outgrown the borders of Europe’s individual states.

Re-imposing border controls and customs barriers, severing ties of economic and cultural exchange, restricting the free movement of labour, would divide yet further the working classes of these states in the name of a fictional national independence. Overall, it would only foster economic decline and increase friction between states. Inevitably, this would promote even more reactionary nationalism everywhere.

Above all, Brexit would put barriers in the way of the unity that the workers of each European country need to fight their own ruling class as well as the international agencies of capital. The Greek workers lost in 2015 because there was not enough international solidarity action against their persecutors in Germany, France and Britain.

A reformed, social Europe?

However, to imagine that the institutions of the EU are any more capable of being reformed into the organisations that the working class needs to rationally and democratically plan the optimum development of Europe’s economy would be as utopian as any national reformist programme.

The means by which we can achieve a continent without austerity, racism, exploitation and war is by active solidarity between the workers of all countries, spreading struggles, like those in Greece, beyond national borders into a Europe-wide revolution. That is why socialists should vote Yes to staying in the EU but unite with workers across the continent to fight for a Socialist United Sates of Europe.

Catalonia independence referendum a headache for right and left

When Spain adopted its post-Franco constitution there was a fierce battle over the character of the state. The Right insisted on its unitary character with all its inhabitants simply “Spaniards”. The Left wanted a “plurinational state” with a federal character.

The Right basically won and the 1978 constitution referred to “the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards…”. However, there was a degree of compromise because it also guaranteed “the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed”.

Under the PSOE government, 2004-11, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia increased the authority of the Generalitat de Catalunya. This was approved in a referendum in June 2006 (73.9 per cent Yes, and 20.7 No, on a 49.4 per cent turnout) but in July 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court, declared references to “Catalonia as a nation” to be invalid. The Court has likewise obstructed all attempts to hold a referendum.

Artur Mas, leader of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, CDC, has waged a ceaseless campaign for independence but his liberal bourgeois party has carried out harsh austerity measures during the crisis. This put him at odds with the other significant Catalan nationalist party, the Popular Unity Candidacy, CUP, which defines itself as anticapitalist.

Catalonia is Spain’s richest province and Mas stresses Madrid’s transfer of Catalan tax revenues to the poorer provinces. This utterly selfish capitalist regionalism has nothing to do with ending national oppression of the Catalans. Over the past three decades, this has largely been reduced to denial by the Spanish state of their freedom to secede if they want to. Of course, working class Catalans and youth have suffered under the crisis, but Mas in Barcelona has been no more their friend than Rajoy in Madrid.

In last September’s Catalan elections, which Mas declared a referendum on independence, only 47.7 percent voted for candidates supporting secession. Nevertheless, thanks to the electoral system, which advantages rural voters, the CDC and the CUP together won a majority in parliament.

Both parties have good reason to fear a democratic referendum campaign. The majority of the Catalan working class and the population of Barcelona, its largest city, are opposed to total separation and this majority would probably be even bigger if there were an anti-austerity government in Madrid. Therefore Podemos is correct to defend the Catalans’ right to hold a referendum. The PSOE’s refusal to do is not only a scandalous breach of democratic principles but the major obstacle to the formation of an anti-austerity government in Madrid.

Spain: deadlock after elections is a chance for new thinking

With new elections likely, workers’ mobilisations could shift the balance of forces

THE Spanish general election of December 20 created a political impasse. Although the Partido Popular, PP, the governing party under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, won the most seats, this was a hollow victory indeed. With just 28 percent of the vote and 123 seats in the 350 seat Congress of Deputies, Rajoy is a long way short of a majority. Since his only potential partner, the centre-right populist party Ciudadanos, has only 40 seats, he also has little chance even of forming a coalition government.

At the same time, the “grand progressive coalition” pursuing “left-wing policies” called for by Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE, also looks unlikely.

In short, Spain has a hung parliament. For the first time in the post Franco era, the “two-party” system has failed to produce a government. If the impasse continues, a new election is almost a certainty. Despite this, the election result represents a rejection of austerity and a swing to the left by the electorate, comparable to that in Portugal in November.

Traditional left in crisis

Nonetheless, both the traditional parties of the Spanish labour movement suffered serious setbacks. The PSOE had its worst ever result, 22 per cent and 90 seats, while the United Left, IU, which includes the Communist Party, lost 9 of its 11 seats.

Like the PSOE, which imposed a swingeing austerity programme after 2008, the IU’s losses stem, at least in part, from its electoralist opportunism in the face of the capitalist crisis. It participated in governments that imposed austerity measures in Andalusia and Asturias, and even tolerated a PP government in Extremadura.

The decline in the fortunes of the reformist parties, right and left, might not matter if Podemos were a clear, radical, working class party capable of advancing a socialist programme of action, but it is not. Rather, it is a petty bourgeois populist party, proclaiming itself neither right nor left, refusing to refer to itself as socialist or to identify with the working class movement and the trade unions.

In 2015, Pablo Iglesias, its leader, swung the party rightwards, appealing to conservative voters by courting the police, the army and the church. He announced the recruitment to its electoral lists of former judges, police officials and even a retired Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, of whom he said;

“It is an honour for us to be joined by Julio Rodríguez, a man who has devoted his life to defending his country, a uniformed citizen and a democrat who has held the highest rank available in the military, and who contributes the solvency, honesty and commitment of a life devoted to others.”

However, Podemos also gained from the alliances it had made in the local elections last May, most notably in Barcelona where Ada Colau, a prominent anti-eviction activist, headed Barcelona En Comú and won the mayoralty.

The Catalan dilemma

Although Podemos does not itself support Catalan independence, it has correctly called for a referendum in Catalunya on the question. This is a major obstacle to the formation of a left coalition with PSOE, which actually supports the Spanish state’s denial of the Catalans’ right to secede if the majority so decide. Its spokesman, Antonio Hernando, recently said that PSOE had, “an unwavering commitment to the unity and integrity of Spain, our defence of the Constitution and our rejection of the acts that might lead to non-compliance with the law or the constitution”.

What sort of government?

Given the present balance of forces in the country, then, a stable government, either of the right or the left, looks difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Even another election would not, by itself, resolve the problem. For the Left and the working class, changing that balance of forces means a return to the streets, to mass direct action, to working class mobilisation not around the vague utopian slogans of the past four years but around clear demands, focusing on:

  • an end to unemployment, homelessness, the cuts to the welfare and education systems; making the rich pay for repairing the devastation their system has caused.
  • the right of Catalans to hold a referendum on whether they wish to secede from the Spanish state.
  • a workers’ government based on councils of delegates at local and national level, organized to defend themselves against the army, the police and the guardia civil.

To achieve such goals, the workers and youth who, over the last five years, have demonstrated their radicalism and fighting prowess, need to build a powerful revolutionary workers’ party.

Its members will have to come from the rank and file of Podemos, the IU, the PSOE, as well as young people new to struggle. They need to link up at local and state-wide levels to prepare the creation of the new party on a clear revolutionary programme.

The impending economic crisis will pose once again the question of power, and not simply in electoral terms but in terms of which class rules. That question will also be posed in other European countries and the new party will have to be internationalist from the outset, defending the rights of refugees and setting as its goal a Socialist United Sates of Europe. BY DAVE STOCKTON

South Africa miners’ struggles could end ANC’s austerity

By Jeremy Dewar

South Africa, one of the world’s major emerging markets, is about to tip into recession. Its currency has slipped to a historic low against the dollar. The country’s stock exchange, at 320 per cent of South Africa’s annual GDP possibly the world’s most over-valued, is set for an almighty crash.

Indeed, the markets did almost crash in December when President Jacob Zuma sacked his neoliberal Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, not because Nene was too much in the bosses’ pockets, but because he opposed some of Zuma’s more extravagant and corrupt deals with foreign airlines and nuclear companies. Only when Zuma two days later replaced Nene with Pravin Gordhan, another sworn neoliberal, did the markets stabilise; but by then $28 billion had fled the country.

At the heart of South Africa’s pending crisis is the downturn in China, its largest trading partner. This has led to a massive decline in demand for the country’s commodities, especially platinum, coal and steel. China produces more steel than the world consumes, at prices that undercut South African steel by 10 per cent even after shipping costs. Unsurprisingly, manufacturing is in deep recession already.

This recession began in 2012 and dramatically accelerated in the latter part of 2015. And it has battered South Africa’s mining giants, with Lonmin now trading at just 5 per cent of its 2012 value.

But of course it is but the working class, not the CEOs and major shareholders, who have suffered most. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in manufacturing, telecoms and mining. Lonmin recently announced the loss of 35,000 jobs, while mining giant Anglo-American has shed 85,000 jobs, two-thirds of its workforce. And South Africa’s unemployment rate was around 25 per cent even before these job cuts

Their impact cannot be overestimated. Skilled workers, while exploited to an extraordinary degree, form the backbone of the South African working class, providing much-needed incomes and stability in otherwise totally impoverished communities. Officially 53 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line, although analysts believe the true figure is closer to 63 per cent. South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world.

Unions

Yet the same group of workers are world renowned for their militancy. The 2012 Marikana strike is famous because the African National Congress (ANC) government, egged on by former miners’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa, ordered police to open fire on the strikers, killing 43. But it has been followed by many other major walkouts, including the longest strike in the country’s history by platinum miners in 2014.

For years, Apartheid-era bosses showed their contempt for the workers who made their billions, exporting their profits, while keeping their workers on starvation wages and housing them in unsanitary compounds. Now the capitalists are preparing to destroy the country’s mines.

The only way to stop them is to strike all-out, occupy the threatened mines and demand the ANC government nationalise them without compensation and under workers’ control. Politically this means breaking the unions from the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) that has kept the unions under control since the fall of Apartheid.

The biggest union, the metalworkers’ NUMSA has already done this, and has been expelled from union federation COSATU in the process. Unfortunately NUMSA has failed to deliver on its promise to form a new, revolutionary socialist party or to launch its United Front with other unions and community organisations against the neoliberal offensive. NUMSA also failed to take any of the other COSATU unions with it, and is now probably bankrupt. AMCU, the breakaway miners’ union, has also shrunk from its demand for nationalisation.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), formed by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, despite some courageous and supportable campaigns, are marred by Malema’s corruption and the cult of personality that surrounds him. A linkup between the EEF and NUMSA has also failed to materialise.

Nevertheless, this crisis is so severe that it may blow the post-Apartheid alliance that binds the working class to its own bosses apart. The key to that lies with the rank and file of the unions, the network of community organisations and the socialist groups. If they can link up their struggles and build councils of action with delegates from workplaces and neighbourhoods, then a new party can rise from the ashes of the ANC and SACP; and the COSATU unions can play as revolutionary a role as they did in the 1980s, when they brought Apartheid capitalism to its knees.

Cologne attacks spark racist backlash

We need to challenge the social causes of sexist and racist attitudes inflamed by the refugee crisis

ON New Year’s Eve, in Cologne, hundreds of women were intimidated and threatened. At least two rapes were reported. There are now over a hundred reported assaults, often including sexual harassment and robbery at the hands of so-called “waltzers”, that is, men who molest women on pretence of wanting to dance, while accomplices rob them.

Reports of prosecutions from other cities, 53 in Hamburg, show that sexual assault was by no means only a “Cologne” phenomenon.

Reaction

In the context of the arrival of over 1 million refugees in Germany in the last year, these events had an immediate political significance. Both the tabloid press, led by Bild, and right wing organisations were quick to place all the blame on “foreigners”. At first, the talk was of “North Africans” and “Muslims”, later, the stress shifted to “refugees”. This represented a dramatic shift in media coverage. Gone were the reports of refugees being welcomed by masses of volunteers all over Germany, instead there were stories of an official cover up.

Bild, for example, while not openly claiming that refugees were to blame, defiantly asserted, “One can still ask the question”. On January 6, it ran the headline, “Why were the media reports so late?” in order to immediately suggest the answer with its next question: “Was it because of a misplaced concern that the perpetrators obviously came from Arab or North African countries? Because some of them could be refugees?”

Right wing organisations like the Alliance for Germany were quick to take up the issue, asking “After the wave of crime and sexual assaults, is Germany now colourful and cosmopolitan enough, Mrs. Merkel?” The former CSU Interior Minister, Friedrich, suggested there was a “cartel of silence” and a “news blackout” that had only been “broken” thanks to Bild.

Because there were no arrests at the time, the routine police report described the evening’s celebrations as “largely peaceful”, there is virtually no official information about those responsible for the attacks but the media have headlined eye witness report of “men of North African or Arab appearance”.

The correct attitude is clear. We should be unequivocally for the defence of women against sexist harassment while opposing attempts by racists to demonise all migrants. Combined actions by women, Germans and migrants along this approach demonstrate the way to respond.

Causes

To explain reactionary behaviour is not to excuse it. Nor does it mean that we do not oppose reactionary attitudes and sexist abuse amongst migrants as decisively as in society generally. Like everybody else, their consciousness is marked by the social conditions in which they live and this consciousness will only be changed through an active, anti-racist and anti-sexist working class policy, which not only combats reactionary ideas but, above all, the relationships that produce them.

As internationalists and anti-racists, we have never based our solidarity with the refugees on the idea that they are “better” people but, above all, on the fact that they are victims of the capitalist system. German imperialism, its ruling class and its government, help to maintain that system and profit from it. BY SUSANNE KÜHN

Saudi Arabia, US ally with problems

By Marcus Halaby

For all David Cameron’s boasting that he has 70,000 “moderate” Syrian oppositionists ready to act as boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS, there is precious little sign of them being brought into action. It now seems that they will only be usable after a “political process” has engineered a split between “moderates” willing to take part and “hardliners” opposed to working with the Western “crusaders”.

To effect this split, Cameron and Obama’s main instrument is the despotic Saudi monarchy, which is the principal sponsor of the “moderates”: the liberal opposition exiles around the Syrian National Coalition, and the secular nationalist-dominated armed factions like the FSA’s Southern Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has been preparing its constituency in the Syrian opposition for the “Vienna process”. An opposition conference hosted in Riyadh on 8 December saw a walkout by the Turkish and Qatari-supported Ahrar al-Sham, the most important Islamist faction in the north of the country; while the opposition negotiating team for the Vienna talks excludes Ahrar altogether, and is dominated by former Baathists. Saudi Arabia’s only notable Islamist ally in Syria, Jaysh al-Islam, which as expected is opposed to this process, has been weakened by the death of its leader Zahran Alloush in a Russian airstrike on 25 December.

But Saudi Arabia has problems of its own, which undermine its ability to act as an effective “peace broker”. In particular, the Saudis are bogged down in a war in Yemen, where the Shi’ite Houthi movement has joined forces with the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and where a Saudi and Egyptian-led coalition supported by the Western powers is trying to restore the government of Saleh’s former Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Hadi was installed in power in February 2012, in a Saudi-brokered “political settlement” like the one planned for Syria today, which effectively brought an end to the 2011 revolution against both Saleh and Hadi. And the Saudis blame Iran for the failure of their bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed 6,000 and left four-fifths of the population dependent on food aid, every bit as much as Putin blames Turkey and the West for Assad’s failure to crush the Syrian revolution.

The execution on 2 January of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (alongside 46 other mainly Sunni Saudi oppositionists) has escalated tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the kingdom using an attack by demonstrators on its embassy in Tehran as a pretext for breaking off diplomatic relations. Nimr himself was an opponent of not just the obscenely wealthy Saud dynasty, but also of Syria’s Assad and the theocratic Iranian regime.

His was a powerful voice against the sectarianism that both states have encouraged in the course of their longstanding regional cold war. However that has not stopped Iran, which executed 27 Sunni Muslim prisoners of its own on 23 December, from exploiting his death in its propaganda.

And while the Western states must feel some alarm at the risk of further clashes between them, they have maintained their usual hypocritical silence when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s numerous human rights abuses. After all, a revolution in Saudi Arabia, when it finally comes, will be an even bigger disaster for Western policy than the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah.

USA prepares to double-cross its “moderate” allies

LIKE Putin’s strategy in Syria, Britain’s and the USA’s also involves double-crossing old allies and co-opting new ones.

The case that Cameron made for war included a reference to 70,000 “moderate opposition” fighters, whose existence many have been far too quick to dismiss, given the likely far larger size of the Syrian armed opposition.

Cameron was deliberately vague about the identity of these fighters, saying that this information was “intelligence-based”, and that their safety might be threatened if it was known which groups had agreed to join a US-led coalition involving Britain.

However, previous official statements suggest that at least part of this figure included Syrian rebels who “have formally committed to the UN framework for a political solution for Syria under the Geneva Communiqué, and continue to call for direct negotiations to lead to a transition and new political settlement”.

This has gone alongside suggestions that Assad will “have a role to play” in a negotiated transition, potentially leaving him in power until March 2017, followed by a transitional government that would prepare for “elections” in March 2019.

But previous US-led efforts to persuade Syrian rebel forces to suspend their struggle against Assad and concentrate on fighting ISIS alone have come badly unstuck. Last year’s half-billion dollar “Train and Equip” programme saw only 54 fighters sent into Syria out of the 7,000 “vetted” for the purpose, of which, in US General Lloyd Austin’s hilarious words, only “four or five” are now left. Most of the 1,200-strong “New Syrian Forces” trained under this programme have since joined the YPG-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), and not the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or its various secular and Islamist allies.

Indeed, despite the apparent “urgency” of a Parliamentary vote on Syria, Britain’s only military action there so far has been to bomb the ISIS-controlled Omar oil fields in early December, followed by a drone attack near Raqqa on 25 December. Nine-tenths of the airstrikes conducted by the US-led alliance so far have been the USA’s, concentrating on similar targets in the ISIS-held regions in the north and the east of the country.

None of these airstrikes have benefited the Syrian opposition, which is under siege from both Assad and ISIS in Syria’s largest city Aleppo and elsewhere. In fact, the main beneficiaries of Cameron and Obama’s actions since the siege of Kobane have been the Kurdish YPG and its subordinate Arab allies in the SDF. Like ISIS, they have taken advantage of Russian, Assad regime and now Western airstrikes to seize territory from the Syrian rebels.

In the process, they are tightening the siege of Aleppo, whose fall to ISIS or to Assad would be a mortal blow to the Syrian revolution, and whose vulnerability places pressure on the “moderates” in the Syrian opposition to join the “Vienna process”.

By backing the YPG, the Western powers can both bypass the fractious Syrian opposition (most of whom are rightly opposed to any process that includes Assad), and establish a direct sphere of influence in Syria that Russia will find politically and militarily difficult to prevent. Salih Muslim, the leader of Rojava’s ruling Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has offered to allow the USA to build an airbase there; and it is probably no coincidence that the Russian-backed Assad regime, which only a few months ago declared itself “ready to negotiate” with the Kurds, is now indicating that Rojava’s autonomy “has no future”.

Erdogan’s shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 probably had as much to do with trying to disrupt this developing alliance (by pushing Obama towards a “premature” confrontation with Putin) as with his stated concerns about Russia’s violations of Turkish airspace, or Putin’s bombing of Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies.

Putin’s strange bedfellows

BY crushing the Syrian revolutionaries and leaving only Assad and ISIS standing, Putin hopes to force the West to accept that Assad’s regime (with or without Assad at the top of it) is their least worst option. Putin’s claim to stand for the “unity of the Syrian state” actually means restoring the rule of the totalitarian Baathist security apparatus over as much of Syria as possible (minus the more economically backward of the regions held by ISIS), so that there will be no doubt that a post-Assad Syria still sits firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence.

But Russia also needs to clip the wings of Iran, whose alliance with Hizbollah gives it an interest in keeping the Syrian war going on for much longer than Russia wants. Iran’s involvement in Syria (both directly and through its foreign Shi’ite militia allies) subverts the authority of the Assad dictatorship that they are meant to be there to preserve, and reinforces the belief of Syrians from all camps that they are under an “Iranian occupation”.

Putin’s agreement to coordinate in Syria with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been increasingly friendly towards Russia since the US-Iran nuclear deal in July, has allowed Russia to do just that. Israel assassinated prominent Hizbollah figure Samir Kuntar in an airstrike on 19 December with Russia’s consent, sending Iran a message that Russia will allow Israel to enforce its “red lines” in Syria and Lebanon.

Similarly, France’s direct coordination with Russia in Syria gives Putin some insurance against the risk that any clashes with France’s fellow NATO member Turkey might escalate into a confrontation with NATO. Two days after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber aircraft on 24 November, Israel’s defence minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that “Russia is not an enemy”, and that Israel had not and would not shoot down any Russian aircraft straying into “its” airspace over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

France and Israel’s involvement alongside Russia forced David Cameron to speed up Britain’s formal entry into the war, in order not to be left out of any future division of the spoils. But it also weakens Obama’s ability to maintain an aggressive stance towards Russia over Ukraine, where Britain and the USA are backing a far-right regime that came to power in a fascist-supported coup in February 2014, provoking Russia’s annexation of the majority-Russian Crimea region and an anti-government insurgency in the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east of the country.

Appearing to recognise this, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Putin on 15 December that Russia and the USA needed to find “common ground” on both Syria and Ukraine.

War and Peace in Syria

By Marcus Halaby

A COMMON view in the anti-war movement is that the current war in Syria is effectively a repeat of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with Syria’s as-yet undefeated revolution against the Assad dictatorship simply the product of a US-led attempt at “regime change”.

But in some ways it more closely resembles the situation after the 9/11 atrocities and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, when every major power took advantage of Bush and Blair’s “War On Terror” to attack weaker enemies at home and abroad.

The rise of ISIS, its capture of Iraq’s third-largest city Mosul in July 2014 and its siege of the autonomous Kurdish Rojava region in Syria saw interventions against ISIS involving the USA, Britain, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states.

More recently the blowing up of a Russian civilian jet in Egypt on 31 October, followed two weeks later by coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, appears to have created a convergence between Russia and the Western powers in favour of containing ISIS and ending the war in Syria, by imposing a “political settlement” to be negotiated through talks hosted in Vienna.

But while the threat of ISIS has been the pretext for intervention by all the major powers, it is not the primary concern of any of them. And even within the boundaries of their limited “cooperation”, they are pursuing competing objectives that could cause direct clashes between them, despite their efforts so far to avoid one.

Russia, Assad’s main ally, which claims to be leading the international coalition against ISIS, is in fact bombing the anti-ISIS and anti-Assad Syrian opposition. ISIS has actually made gains since Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, taking advantage of them to seize territory from the Syrian rebels while Assad continues to bomb civilians in the rebel-held towns.

Britain and the USA, which pose as “allies” of the Syrian rebels, are far more interested in containing Russia’s influence by stabilising Syria and especially Iraq, where the pro-Iranian regime that they brought to power during their 2003-11 occupation of that country has invited in US troops to help recapture the Sunni-populated regions held by ISIS.

But this has effectively put US forces into an alliance in Iraq with Assad’s other major ally Iran, whose support for the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hizbollah (currently fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria) has made it a long-term adversary for Israel. And alongside the (pro-Assad) Egyptian military dictatorship and (anti-Assad) Saudi Arabia, Israel is one of the West’s main allies in the region.

Turkey, which alongside Qatar supports the more intransigent elements of the anti-Assad rebels, is primarily concerned with containing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava, whose alliance with the Western powers since they intervened to lift the ISIS siege of Kobane has encouraged Kurdish national aspirations in Turkey, and threatens to create another semi-permanent Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s borders, alongside the existing one in Iraq.

Even so, the hostility of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to both Assad and the YPG, alongside its competition with Baghdad to be the force that retakes Mosul from ISIS, has seen the KRG invite Turkish troops into Iraq, where Obama is backing Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s calls on Turkey to withdraw.

And the Western powers are compensating Turkey’s Erdogan for this headache by turning a blind eye to his army’s siege of Silvan, Cizre, Van and other Kurdish towns in Turkey’s south-east. Turkish police have arrested 18 academics out of about 1,000 who signed a petition condemning this siege, in which about 200 have been killed since August.

So what does this all mean? The claim of the Great Powers – Russia, France, the USA and Britain – to be intervening to bring about peace is a lie. They are in fact fighting to impose reactionary settlements on the Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish people, as part of their new Cold War, which sees Western and Eastern imperialist powers jockeying for position in a new division of the globe.

Their regional clients – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – may, here and there, support progressive struggles, but only in order to strangle others elsewhere. All of them hope to use the rivalry between the imperialist states to promote themselves as indispensable allies and to weaken each other.

Finally there are forces that socialists can and should support in their legitimate aims of national liberation (like the Kurds) or democratic revolution (most of the Syrian rebels). And while these may often not have completely “clean hands”, their aims will, if successful, weaken the forces of reaction in the region and encourage others to fight for democracy and socialism.