Syria, Lebanon, Iran resist U.S. offensive

Over a million Lebanese gathered in Beirut for a pro-Syria rally, March 8, 2005.

Photo: Ayoub/an Nahar/SIPA
For three weeks starting on Feb. 14, Washington’s campaign to retake Lebanon and bring down Syria seemed to be an unstoppable locomotive. Bush, other U.S. leaders and their media hacks were supremely confident that nothing could stop them.

But on March 8, their train was derailed by the one factor that the imperialists and their paid thinkers always leave out of their calculations: the intervention of the people.

In a stunning show of force, some one million Lebanese—more than 25 percent of the entire population—marched and rallied in Beirut on that day. They demanded that the United States, not Syria, get out of their country. One popular sign read, “Bush—Lebanon is not your playground.” Another said “No to American Interference.”

The demonstration was many times the size of the largest U.S.-financed right-wing rallies in the previous weeks. The Lebanese prime minister, Omar Karami, who had been forced out of office for being “pro-Syrian” only eight days earlier by U.S. and French pressure, was restored to his position two days after the biggest demonstration in Lebanese history. The U.S. interventionist hand was momentarily pushed back.

Of course, one march—no matter how massive—does not decide a struggle. The imperialists have vast resources and are set on reordering the Middle East in their interests. On March 14, part of those resources was used to help organize a large anti-Syria demonstration, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It followed by one day another anti-imperialist pro-Syria demonstration of more than 200,000 people in the small southern Lebanon city of Nabatiya. The struggle is far from being resolved.

To say that the March 8 demonstration took Washington by surprise would be an understatement. But it wasn’t the first time that they have suffered such a shock. None of the top policy makers anticipated the fierce resistance in Iraq that has tied down a large part of the U.S. military. And in earlier decades, the forerunners to the current national security leadership discounted the danger to their puppet regimes in Iran, Vietnam, Cuba and other countries where revolutions swept them away.

What explains this recurrent “stupidity” on the part of people who hold doctorates from the best universities? Above all, it is their class position. They really have nothing but contempt for the “common people,” for the workers and the oppressed of the world, including those who live in this country.

‘Enlarging the problem’

Unable to solve the “problem” of popular resistance to the occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration’s new foreign policy team has adopted Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s 2003 advice—“If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it”—moving forcefully to expand its intervention in the Middle East. Since the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, the United States has stepped up its aggressive maneuvering in the region, targeting Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan.

Syria has been a particular focus. In February, the U.S. unleashed an intense international campaign demanding the removal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and French President Jacques Chirac have spearheaded the anti-Syria campaign.

The bitter irony of these three posing as anti-occupation “liberators” cannot be lost on the people of the Middle East and the world. Bush today presides over the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and part of Cuba. The United States has 750 bases in more than 130 countries.

Israel occupies not only all of historic Palestine, but part of Syria as well. In the 1967 war, Israel conquered and later illegally annexed most of the Syrian province of Quenitra, also known as the Golan Heights. The Israeli army razed 240 Syrian villages and expelled 170,000 Syrians and Palestinians.

From 1978 to 2000, there was fierce Lebanese resistance to the Israeli occupation of large swaths of Lebanon. In the southern part of the country, the organization Hezbollah led the resistance. In 1982 to 1983, Israel occupied more than half of the country.

France is the former colonial master of Syria, Lebanon and many other countries in Asia and Africa. Under French rule, Lebanon was split off from Syria—at the expense of the impoverished Lebanese workers and peasants—and turned into the banking center and playground for the rich of the Middle East.

Expanding U.S. aggression in the Middle East

One could ask Donald Rumsfeld the question: How could expanding a problem help to solve it? The answer in this case lies in understanding Washington’s real objective in the area—the total domination of not only Iraq but also the entire oil-rich and strategically vital Middle East.

Control of the Middle East is a key element in the National Security Strategy, the official foreign policy of the United States since 2002. At the core of the NSS is the determination that the there should be one unchallengeable superpower on the planet—the United States.

Complete military domination of the Persian/Arabian Gulf area—home to two-thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves— would not just mean trillions of dollars in future revenues for Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco and other U.S. oil companies. It would also be an immense asset in the geopolitical struggle between U.S. imperialism and its rivals, present and future. The European Union, Japan and China all have “energy deficits,” and all are heavily dependent on Middle East oil.

Securing domination of the Middle East requires eliminating all opposition, whether in the form of anti-imperialist national governments or popular movements. The Washington foreign policy makers hope that undermining or crushing the governments of Syria and Iran will enable them to isolate and defeat the Iraqi resistance.

An unsustainable Iraq strategy

The Pentagon cannot sustain the strategy it has pursued since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. At least 1,500 U.S. troops have been killed in combat, although evidence is emerging that the real figure may be much higher. More than 27,000 have suffered serious wounds, injuries and illness. Iraqi casualties have been much higher. Over 100,000 Iraqis died during the U.S. invasion alone, according to an Oct. 29, 2004 report by the British medical journal, The Lancet.

Both active-duty and reserve units of the U.S. Army and Marines are considered by military experts to be “over-deployed,” and both branches of the armed forces are having problems recruiting and retaining soldiers. Tens of thousands of soldiers are subjected to forced extensions of their tours of duty in Iraq, and thousands of previously discharged troops are involuntarily recalled. As these measures continue, discontent grows inside the military.

The Iraq war costs around $200 million per day. While some corporate members of the military-industrial complex like Halliburton and Bechtel have benefited greatly, the Iraq war has not yet resulted in the type of super-profits the capitalist establishment had expected. Those multi-billion dollar profits could only come from the large-scale exploitation of Iraq’s vast oil reserves, estimated to be the second biggest in the world. The unstable climate created by the widespread resistance—including the repeated blowing up of pipelines and other oil facilities—has made that scale of exploitation impossible any time soon.

The ruling establishment faces a choice: begin to disengage from Iraq and cut its losses, or plunge ahead, widening the conflict. Clearly the decision has been made to expand U.S. aggression in the region—“enlarge” the problem.

Today there are 150,000 U.S. ground troops in Iraq and 20,000 in Afghanistan. The Pentagon does not have sufficient ground forces to undertake major new wars that would require hundreds of thousands of soldiers in an invasion and subsequent occupation.

But U.S. leaders have other powerful military, economic and diplomatic instruments at their disposal. These include massive air and naval power, equipped with nuclear weapons and deployed in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region, economically debilitating trade and financial sanctions and domination of the UN Security Council. And while Washington generally prefers to employ force and coercion against those viewed as opponents, “financial incentives” (bribes) are also available to persuade governments and leaders to accede to U.S. demands.

Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye
U.S. policy towards Palestine

In Palestine, the United States, together with its Israeli junior partner, is attempting to dismantle the resistance movements and bring a re-configured Palestinian National Authority into its orbit. With the full backing of Washington, the Israeli military has applied brutal iron fist tactics in a concerted effort to crush the Palestinian Intifada—uprising—that began in September 2000.

More than 3,500 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the Intifada, compared with 900 Israelis. Tens of thousands more have been seriously wounded. Thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished. More than 8,000 Palestinians, including leaders and cadres of all the resistance organizations, have been imprisoned under extremely harsh conditions. Hundreds of checkpoints and an apartheid-style wall have destroyed much of the Palestinian economy, causing the poverty rate to soar.

The United States and Israel sought to completely isolate the PNA leadership diplomatically, economically and physically as long as PNA President Yasser Arafat was alive. Arafat, who negotiated the Oslo Accord with the United States and Israel in 1993, was demonized for refusing to sign a “final status” agreement proposed by the United States and Israel in the summer of 2000 that would have created a Bantustan-style semi-state for the Palestinians. The agreement would have also included renouncing the right of return to their homeland for millions of exiled Palestinians.

Following Arafat’s death in November 2004, Washington moved quickly to encourage the emergence of a new, more compliant PNA leadership. Elections were quickly organized and held on Jan. 6, 2005, resulting in Mahmud Abbas becoming the new president of the PNA.

The Bush administration began providing “aid” to the new PNA leadership, while relentlessly demanding that PNA security forces move to crush the popular resistance movement. In exchange, the United States promised to support an agreement with even worse terms than the agreement rejected by the Arafat leadership five years ago.

Destroying the Palestinian resistance movement has been a long-term aim of U.S. policy, because of the centrality of the Palestinian cause to the overall struggle in the Middle East. On numerous occasions, in Jordan in 1970, in Lebanon in 1982 and with the Oslo Accord in 1993, Washington believed it had defeated the Palestinians. But after each setback, the Palestinian struggle surged back.

United States renews offensive against Iran

In her January Senate confirmation hearings, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealed the increased U.S. aggressiveness around the world. Rice’s belligerence was not confined to the Middle East, but extended to Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and other targeted states.

The nomination of the rabid right-wing neo-conservative, John Bolton, as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations further emphasizes the administration’s aggressive international posture.

The Bush regime is continuing its campaign against Iran. In the Jan. 24 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh revealed that the Pentagon has been sending Special Operations teams into Iran and “over-flying” the country with unmanned drones for over a year. U.S. military power surrounds Iran from the occupied nations of Afghanistan and Iraq to the nuclear-armed U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Meanwhile, Washington ceaselessly vilifies Iran based on its alleged development of a nuclear weapons program.

Bush has promised to bring “freedom” to the Iranian people. The only “freedom” that interests the U.S. government is the freedom that U.S. oil monopolies enjoyed under the former U.S.-installed Shah (king). Under Shah Reza Pahlavi, who the CIA put back on his Peacock Throne in a 1953 coup, the Pentagon and U.S. oil companies controlled the country. The Iranian masses suffered police state tyranny and deep poverty.

In February, with seeming suddenness, the United States launched a new offensive against neighboring and allied governments of Syria and Lebanon, which were seen as not adequately complying with Washington’s agenda.

The United States, Syria and Lebanon today

On Feb. 14, Rafik Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister and the richest person in the country, was killed in a huge explosion in Beirut. The Bush administration responded with lightning speed. Within a few hours, it recalled its ambassador to Syria—a very hostile diplomatic move intended to suggest Syrian responsibility for the assassination. No evidence has been presented supporting that accusation. Moreover, the Syrian government headed by President Bashar Assad was well aware that the United States would seize upon any such incident to intensify pressure against Syria.

Since September 2004, the United States had been putting in place the elements of a new anti-Syria campaign. On Sept. 2, the United States barely succeeded in pushing through the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The minimum nine votes were obtained for the resolution.

On the day after the Hariri assassination and almost every day in the following weeks, Bush demanded that all Syrian troops immediately leave Lebanon. New economic sanctions were threatened against Syria. Much of Bush’s weeklong trip to Europe in late February was devoted to lining up the support of France, Germany, Russia and other countries for the anti-Syria campaign.

In demonstrations supported by the United States and greatly exaggerated by the Western media, pro-imperialist and right wing forces in Lebanon took to the streets, demanding that Syrian forces leave. The Hezbollah movement, which led the resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanon and today has the largest bloc of seats in the country’s parliament, held mass pro-Syrian demonstrations, though these received far less media attention. Hezbollah and other Lebanese nationalist forces have stated that the withdrawal of Syrian troops at this time can only help Israel and the United States.

The history of Syrian troops in Lebanon

Syrian forces have played a contradictory role in Lebanon over the past 30 years. At the height of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, the progressive alliance of the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization was on the brink of defeating the U.S. and Israeli-backed Lebanese fascist/right-wing alliance. The PLO forces were based in the numerous Palestinian refugee camps in the country.

Then, in April 1976, with the blessing and backing of the United States, the Syrian army entered Lebanon and blocked the victory of the progressive forces. While opposed to Israel and imperialist domination, the Syrian national bourgeoisie, represented by the Syrian branch of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, was also fearful of a revolutionary socialist victory in Lebanon.

Therefore, in 1976 the United States, France and Israel all welcomed the entrance of Syrian troops—for reactionary reasons. This fact is rarely mentioned in the corporate media these days.

After the 1982 U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Syrian role shifted. A powerful Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movement developed to fight the Israelis. In 2000, after 18 years of struggle, the resistance succeeded in expelling the Israelis from nearly all of the Lebanese territory.

In the 1980s, Syria supported elements of the Lebanese resistance, while at the same time seeking to prevent the re-establishment of PLO forces in Lebanon. They had only limited success. Two main resistance organizations, Amal and Hezbollah, emerged based mainly in the Shia population of southern Lebanon.

Amal was closely aligned with and supported by Syria. From 1985 to 1988, Amal waged war against its former allies in the Palestinian camps. Though causing tremendous suffering on the population of the camps, the Amal forces were eventually set back by the PLO.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Hezbollah, supported by Iran, grew into the pre-eminent guerrilla resistance movement fighting the Israeli occupation, although it was not the only one. Its alliance with Syria was strengthened.

Imperialism in Syria and Lebanon

In October 1990, the U.S. and France agreed to withdraw their support for Gen. Michael Aoun, whose anti-Syrian government in part of Lebanon consequently collapsed. In exchange, Syria agreed to join the U.S.-British-French-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, helping to give Arab cover to the imperialist alliance.

Syria and Lebanon have long been closely tied together. Until World War I, the province of Syria in the Ottoman Empire included all of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and part of Jordan. The British and French imperialists divided the region between themselves in 1920, laying the basis for the modern states of the region, including the Israeli settler state.

On two occasions, U.S. leaders have sent their own military forces into Lebanon as occupiers. At the height of the rising Arab nationalist upheaval of the 1950s, 20,000 U.S. marines landed in Beirut on July 15, 1958. It was the day after the Iraqi Revolution, in the midst of the first Lebanese civil war. The marines stayed for several months, until they had assured the survival of its pro-Western, comprador bourgeois government.

In 1982, U.S. Marines again came ashore in Lebanon. The United States had agreed to guarantee the security of the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut as a part of an agreement that saw PLO forces evacuated from Lebanon. The agreement came after a three month Israeli siege and carpet bombing of Lebanon, which left tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese dead and wounded, and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Despite the U.S. “guarantee” of safety for the camps, on Sept. 16, 1982, the Israeli military surrounding the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps allowed the fascist Lebanese Phalangist militia to enter the camps. Ariel Sharon, who was then Israeli Minister of Defense was kept fully informed throughout the 48-hour massacre that followed. More than 2,000 Palestinians—nearly all children, women and elderly men—were slaughtered.

For the next year, U.S. forces waged war against the nascent Lebanese resistance movement. U.S. warships off Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast lobbed shells that witnesses described as being “the size of Volkswagens” into unsuspecting Lebanese mountain villages, sometimes obliterating them entirely.

The U.S occupation ended after Oct. 23, 1983, when a huge truck bomb exploded in the marines’ Beirut barracks, killing 241 troops. A similar attack killed 58 French occupation soldiers.

Now, the very governments that have repeatedly intervened with colonial and neo-colonial plans, that have inflicted untold suffering on the Lebanese, Syrian and other peoples of the Middle East, are posturing as the bearers of democracy and freedom.
There is a very real question whether the latest imperialist intervention will re-ignite civil conflict in Lebanon.

Regardless of the historical contradictions in Syria’s role in Lebanon, it is clear that the present U.S. campaign, if it succeeds, will only weaken the position of the people of the Middle East in their struggle against imperialism.

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