A reply to the Speak Out on Syria Open Letter

By KD Tait A recent Open Letter (Speak Out on Syria) correctly calls on Jeremy Corbyn to “say clearly and unequivocally that the actions of Assad and Russia in Syria are barbaric war crimes and that [he] will seek to end them and hold their perpetrators to account”.

We agree with this, and believe that all socialists and labour movement bodies should condemn the actions of the Assad regime and its allies in Syria, and oppose both the existing and threatened military interventions by all the imperialist powers, whatever their declared motivations.

From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, our current has been amongst the few consistent defenders of the Syrian people’s legitimate struggle to overthrow the Assad dictatorship and to determine their own future, free of subordination to any imperialist power or their interventions.

Whatever our criticism of its present leadership, we reaffirm our support for the revolution against Assad and urge those who do likewise to oppose any role, in any capacity, for Western imperialism or its agents.

Whilst we recognise the anti-war and anti-imperialist intentions of many of the signatories to the Open Letter, we believe that the idea that “airdrops of aid to besieged civilians by British military forces” would constitute a “non-violent and humanitarian way to pressure the regime into a negotiated political solution to the conflict” demonstrates fatal illusions in the motivations behind Britain’s role in the Middle East, and ignores the consequences of what such an intervention would be.

New cold war

The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict has primarily been the result of the escalation of hostilities between the imperialist powers, and principally between the USA (with its NATO allies) and Russia. The weakening of US hegemony in the Middle East has in turn encouraged the USA’s own nominal allies to act increasingly autonomously of it in pursuit of their own regional ambitions.

The Syrian people’s uprising has therefore been subjected to enormous pressures and interventions not only from Russia and its allies (Iran and Hezbollah etc.), but also from the USA, Britain, France and their regional allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc.).

This has taken place within the context of a new cold war in which Russia has faced economic sanctions and the increase of NATO air, sea and land forces stationed on its borders, aimed at containing Russia and surrounding it with a belt of NATO-aligned states and military bases.

Ultimately these moves have been shaped by the USA’s strategy of containing its Eurasian imperialist rival Russia, which has sought above all to preserve its client Assad, to exert influence on the wider Middle East through Iran’s alliance with Assad and others, and to preserve access to its naval base on the Mediterranean at Tartus.

Putin’s blood-drenched defence of the Assad dictatorship has to be seen as part of this developing inter-imperialist rivalry, one in which all the global powers are pursuing reactionary objectives, however much they might claim to be defending “democracy” (in NATO’s case) or “national sovereignty” (in Russia’s). And whatever limited aid either imperialist bloc might occasionally provide to their rivals’ immediate victims in the course of pursuing these aims, this does not make those aims any less reactionary or self-interested.

Russia’s concrete goals in this case are to set a limit to US aggression against Russian interests (as Putin did in Ukraine by annexing Crimea), to retain the naval base at Tartus and to preserve Assad as a client of Russia, rather than of Iran.

We stand closer now to the danger of military clashes between the two major nuclear armed imperialist powers than at any time since the 1980s. Such a clash could have incalculable consequences and cause immense suffering, far greater even than the terrible suffering already endured by the Syrian people at the hands of Putin and Assad. To call for the NATO powers to confront Russia militarily, or even covertly or indirectly to support such a policy of confrontation, would be a political crime of the first magnitude, even if the pretext is to deliver humanitarian aid.

No-Fly Zone

The Open Letter calls for the British military to carry out aid drops on Aleppo. This aid could only be delivered either through an agreement with Russia (and Assad) or through the USA and Britain imposing a No-Fly Zone. But there will be no agreement (unless there is a miraculous breakthrough in the Kerry-Lavrov talks) and the Russians have made clear that they will retaliate against any unauthorised incursions. Open conflict between Russian and British or US air forces would thus escalate the conflict into a major world crisis. What it wouldn’t do is result in aid reaching the people of Aleppo.

So, whilst respecting the intentions behind this demand, it amounts to a call for an intervention by the Royal Air Force that is simultaneously both militarily naive and politically utopian. And for socialists to make this call contradicts both political principle and the likely practical consequences.

It should be a principle for revolutionary socialists that we are for the defeat of our own imperialist ruling class in any conflict with any other imperialist power: “the main enemy remains at home”. In a period of mounting rivalry between the global imperialist powers, this principle can become a practical necessity very quickly.

Faced with the threat of war between the imperialist powers, socialists should reject all and any attempts to give imperialist governments a mandate to pursue military action, even if the ostensible purpose of such action is in support of progressive aims, or of forces waging entirely legitimate struggles of their own. All imperialist powers seek such pretexts to cultivate popular support as cover for their own aggressive designs.

Western imperialism’s policy

Any attempt to use the RAF for humanitarian purposes in a war has to rest on a mistake view about the character and policy of any “democratic” Western imperialism in the Middle East. The British state that will only accept a shameful 2,000 Syrian refugees is not going to risk a military conflict with Russia over the question of humanitarian aid for Syrians.

Western imperialist policy during the Arab Spring in particular has been characterised by (a limited and contradictory) support for progressive revolutionary movements only where this reinforced its interests in the region. If faced with the choice of supporting a democratic movement or siding with a strategic ally, the imperialists’ geostrategic interests will always prevail. This is most clearly the case with the Saudi suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, or the Saudi invasion of Yemen today.

All the rhetoric about democracy and human rights from the butchers of Fallujah and the backers of Saudi Arabia is hypocritical cant. The “democratic” imperialisms of the West are no more the champions of democracy than the “authoritarian” imperialisms of Russia or China are the champions of national sovereignty.

In order to preserve their alliances with Turkey and the Gulf States, the Western imperialisms did nothing to stop these states from funding and aiding the most reactionary elements within the Syrian armed opposition, at least until this threatened the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2014, prompting the US-led air war against Islamic State.

If Western imperialism had genuinely wanted the Syrian rebels to be able to defend civilians from Assad’s barrel bombs, then it would have provided them with the anti-aircraft weapons necessary to do so. It didn’t because this would have threatened the air supremacy by which the US is able to dominate the whole Middle East. Thus its imperialist imperative – to be able to bomb where and when it likes – trumped the need for civilians to defend themselves from the war criminals in Moscow and Damascus.

Likewise, the longer term geostrategic interest of preserving Western imperialism’s regional alliances, combined with the USA’s search for a deal with Iran, trumped the shorter term aims of overthrowing Assad and removing Syria from Russia’s sphere of influence. And so the Syrian rebels were abandoned to their fate.

The USA and its European allies including Britain can never act as the disinterested agents of human rights, democracy or the struggle against “terrorism” and “religious extremism”. Their own crimes, from the original invasion of Iraq in 2003 to their support for the Iranian-backed Iraqi government’s recent destruction of Fallujah testify to this.

It should be clear from the above that we should not only denounce the duplicitous and hypocritical role of Western imperialism in the whole Arab Spring in general, but also categorically reject the idea that the British military can be an agent for progressive goals in Syria in particular.

What policy?

The war crimes of Russian imperialism in Syria are abhorrent, and well-known thanks to the bravery of those Syrians who manage to document and circulate evidence of these crimes. However, the answer to the war criminals of the East is not to appeal to their more powerful and globally active counterparts in the West.

The Western powers would never risk or undertake military action against a nuclear power like Russia unless absolutely overriding geostrategic aims of their own were involved. To the extent that they have intervened through their allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc.), this has been to weaken Russia and to recover their own influence and prestige in the Middle East, an influence and prestige eroded by the Iraq war and its ongoing consequences.

They wanted to demonstrate that the USA and its allies can still make their power felt. In fact, as during the Afghan and Iraq wars themselves, they have merely demonstrated the reverse and allowed Putin to humiliate them into the bargain. But the NATO powers cannot simply swallow this, and need to reassert themselves.

It would therefore be quite wrong for the imperative of solidarity with the defenders of Aleppo and Idlib against the Assad regime’s barbarism to slip into any weakening of the need for socialists to oppose every step towards inter-imperialist conflict. Socialists should no more cover up the barbarous crimes of the USA, Britain and France by calling on them to act as humanitarian policemen, than they should cover up the barbarous crimes of Putin and Assad in Syria.

If the labour movement worldwide had immediately espoused the cause of the Syrian revolution and mobilised to collect and transmit aid, including arms; had it clearly and unequivocally opposed both what Russia was doing in Syria and what Western imperialism was doing in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, then things might have been very different.

When either imperialist bloc undertook its bloody attacks on civilians elsewhere, it would have been possible to initiate “workers’ sanctions” against it, along the lines of those imposed by trade unionists globally against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, or of the actions of the British trade unions that undermined British imperialism’s attempted interventions into the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Had this course of action been followed, then around the world a mass anti-war movement similar to that of 2001-04 could have come into existence, able to check the plans of the warmongers both East and West. And not only that, but it would have created the potential for struggles to remove the warmongers from power altogether, in the only real answer to imperialism: socialist revolution.

It is not too late to start again – or more correctly there is no alternative to doing so – unless we wish to be dragged remorselessly and helplessly towards another world conflagration.

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