Syrian sovereignty, U.S. hegemony and Arab liberation

Over 500,000 people demonstrate in Damascus against U.S. intervention in Syria, March 2005.

Photo: EPA/Yousef Badawi

“Iran, Syria and North Korea should heed the lesson of Iraq,” John Bolton told the world on April 10, 2003. It was the day after the fall of Baghdad and imperial triumphalism was running hot in Washington. Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control at the time.

Now elevated to the position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton is spearheading a campaign to bring down the Syrian government by using the assassination of neighboring Lebanon’s ex-leader as a pretext. The goal is to terminate the country’s independence and return it to the status of neo-colony, as part of the U.S. drive to establish complete domination of the Middle East.

The unfolding campaign picked up steam on Oct. 31, 2005, with the passage of a new and menacing United Nations Security Council resolution. Resolution 1636, written by the United States and France, was unanimously adopted. It demands Syria’s “unconditional cooperation” in the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hariri was killed in a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Feb. 14, 2005.

The overt threat of sanctions was taken out of the resolution to gain the votes of Russia and China, which have veto power as permanent members of the Security Council. But the resolution was approved under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows enforcement by military action. If former U.S. government actions are any indication—like the recent wars against both Yugoslavia and Iraq—once a Security Council resolution has been adopted under Chapter VII, Washington sees itself as free to launch unilateral military action against the country in question.

Of course, the Security Council has yet to open an investigation into the illegal imperialist U.S. war against Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, where the bombs fall daily and the casualties are in the tens of thousands. By its actions and inactions, the Security Council demonstrates its role as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in ways that no words can deny.

The anti-Syria campaign went into high gear long before Oct. 31 or Feb. 14, 2005. It began with the surprise passage of Security Council Resolution 1559 in September 2004. That resolution, also introduced not coincidentally by the United States and France, had two major demands: Syria must withdraw its troops from Lebanon and “armed militias” must disarm. By “armed militias,” the imperialist powers meant Lebanese resistance forces and Palestinian organizations defending refugee camps. 

For nearly three decades, Syrian troops had been in Lebanon—at first to the acclaim of the same powers now demanding their departure. For just as long or longer, Lebanese and Palestinians have maintained armed forces to defend themselves against Israel and fascist Lebanese paramilitaries.

Photo: Keith Pavlik

Why the sudden and urgent demand for Syria, whose very existence has been long intertwined with Lebanon’s, to leave Lebanon and for the popular militias to be disarmed? 

Imperialist division of the Middle East

For centuries prior to World War I, Syria was a province of the Ottoman Empire, which at one time ruled most of the Middle East. But Syria then was a much larger entity. It encompassed Lebanon, Palestine, much of Jordan, as well as the present-day Syrian state.

World War I was the struggle of empires to re-divide the world. The British government promised the Arab leaders independence if they would raise armies and fight with the British against the Ottomans, who were allied with Germany. This conflict was romanticized by the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” recounting the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, British military liaison to the Arab forces.

Even while promises were being made, the British and their allied empires—France, Russia and Italy—were dividing the region between them. The British acquired Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. The French expanded their imperial holdings to include Lebanon and Syria. Russia’s interests were negated by the 1917 Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks came to power, they not only renounced all expansionist ambitions, but also published the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty for the world to see.

For the short period of 1918-20, there was a Greater Syria, whose capital was Damascus. Through repression and maneuvering, the British and French armies wiped Greater Syria off the map. They took control of their League of Nations-endorsed “Mandates,” a polite new term for colonies.

The great Arab Revolt of 1920 was eventually crushed. Syria was dismembered. One part, Palestine, was designated for Zionist settlers. Lebanon developed into the western banking center and entertainment capital of the region. Puppet monarchs were placed on the thrones of Transjordan, Iraq and Syria. The petroleum resources of the entire region were reserved exclusively for the benefit of the U.S., British, French and Dutch oil monopolies. 

Despite the brutality of the colonial occupiers, popular rebellions recurred every few years. The British responded with everything in their arsenal, including poison gas—a decision staunchly defended by the likes of then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, whose racist contempt for the colonized peoples has been whitewashed in Western history books.

The quick collapse of France in 1940, at the start of World War II, led to the British occupation of Lebanon and Syria. In 1943, Lebanon was granted formal independence. Syria achieved the same status in 1946. French imperialism retained great influence after World War II, especially in Lebanon, but they and the British were to be gradually displaced by the United States as the leading power in the region after the war.

Israeli tanks invaded and occupied southern Lebanon in 1982. Syria supported the Lebanese resistance.

Photo: Karamalla Daher/Reuters

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a turning point for the entire Middle East. Israel occupied 78 percent of British Mandate Palestine by defeating the collectively weaker Arab colonial or semi-colonial surrounding states. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians were driven out and forced into refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. From the beginning, Israel was seen as a colonial-settler state and an implantation of Western imperialist power in the heart of the Middle East, at exactly the same time that formal colonialism was forced to an end.

In 1956, Israel, together with Britain and France, invaded Egypt to punish the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal. Eleven years later, Israel—now a highly militarized state—launched a lightning strike against its Arab neighbors. In six days, it defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, conquering the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights.

The aftermath of 1967

The 1967 Six-Day War was fully backed by U.S. imperialism, which put the Sixth (Mediterranean) Fleet on high alert, ready to act in case Israel was threatened with defeat.

Washington’s interest in the war had far less to do with Israeli territorial expansionism than with smashing the rising tide of revolutionary nationalism and socialism in the Arab world, from Egypt to Iraq.

In Syria, the left wing of the Arab Baath Socialist Party under the leadership of Saleh Jadid had defeated rightist forces in the mid-1960s. Jadid launched the widespread nationalization of industry and agriculture and extensive social programs to benefit the workers and peasants. There was not a socialist revolution in Syria. It was a “revolutionary process,” in many ways like what is taking place today in Venezuela. 

All three states—Egypt, Iraq and Syria—had strong relationships with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the Soviet leadership promoted a non-revolutionary, “non-capitalist road” political line, even while it provided indispensable economic and military aid. In Washington’s view, it appeared that much of the Middle East was on the verge of communist revolution.

While the Jadid government in Syria and the Nasser government in Egypt survived the 1967 war, military defeat weakened the more leftist and radical forces within both nationalist regimes. It helped pave the way for more moderate and, in the case of Egypt, pro-imperialist, elements to gain ground. 

Another outcome of the 1967 war was the rise of the Palestinian Revolution. The war showed that the Palestinian people could no longer pin their hopes for return to their homeland on the Arab governments. By 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization was close to being able to seize power in Jordan, whose population was two-thirds Palestinian exiles. King Hussein of Jordan, an agent of the United States and an ally of Israel, was in danger of being overthrown despite his superiority in armaments.

Photo: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

When the all-out struggle broke out in September 1970, the Jadid government sent a Syrian tank brigade across the border in support of the Palestinians. The Syrian intervention had the potential to tip the scales of battle. But the commander of the Syrian air force, Gen. Hafiz al-Assad, refused to provide air cover against the Jordanian air force. 

The Syrians were forced to retreat. In what is now known as “Black September,” up to 20,000 Palestinians were massacred by King Hussein’s army. The Israeli army stood ready to come into Jordan if it looked like the Jordanians might be defeated.

The next year, Assad emerged victorious over Jadid and became president. While maintaining a socialist program in name, he moved toward a more centrist, bourgeois nationalist program.

It is very important to note that Assad did not follow the path of Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor as president of Egypt, who led his country fully into the orbit of the United States.

Syria signed a defense treaty with the Soviet Union and the country was not opened up to large-scale western capitalist penetration.

Syria’s contradictory role in Lebanon 

In the early 1970s, political polarization in Lebanon was accelerating rapidly. On one side were the pro-Western and fascist elements, grouped mainly around the Phalangist Party. The Phalangists were mainly Maronite Catholics, but not all Lebanese Catholics follow them. They based themselves on a fascist ideology and their “special relationship” with the French former colonizers. They liked to think of themselves as “Phoenicians,” not Arabs. Notwithstanding their overt fascism, they were armed and supplied by the Israeli government.

On the other side were the progressive forces grouped in the Lebanese National Movement, with representatives from all the numerous religious and ethnic communities in the country and their allies in the Palestinian resistance. After the repression in Jordan, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon had become the main base of the PLO.

An April 13, 1975, Phalangist massacre of 30 people, most of them Palestinians, was the spark that ignited full-scale civil war. In 1976, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, 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.

In April 1976, the Syrian army entered Lebanon with the blessing and backing of the United States, blocking the victory of the progressive forces. While opposed to Israel and imperialist domination, the Syrian national bourgeoisie was also fearful of a revolutionary victory in Lebanon. 

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

Syria’s role shifts

After the 1982 U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Syrian role shifted. In 1982, U.S. Marines came ashore in Lebanon.

The United States had agreed to guarantee the security of the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut as part of an agreement that called for PLO forces to evacuate 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, the Israeli military surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on Sept. 16, 1982, and allowed the fascist Lebanese Phalangist militia to enter the camps. Ariel Sharon, 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 growing Lebanese resistance movement, which was supported by Syria. 

On May 17, 1983, a U.S.-brokered agreement was signed by Phalangist leader Amin Gemayal and Israel that placed Lebanon’s “security” in Israeli hands. The agreement led to a dramatic escalation in Lebanese popular resistance and U.S. military intervention.

U.S. warships like the USS New Jersey sat off Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast lobbing shells that witnesses described as being “the size of Volkswagens” into unsuspecting Lebanese mountain villages, sometimes obliterating them entirely. 

The U.S. military intervention effectively 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.

A growing and determined resistance movement developed to fight the Israelis. In 2000, after 18 years of struggle, the Lebanese resistance succeeded in expelling the Israelis from nearly all of the country’s territory. 

Syria’s support was vital to the success of the Lebanese resistance.

In the meantime, a major shift in the global relationship of forces had occurred with momentous effects on the Middle East. The overturning of the socialist governments in Eastern Europe, culminating in the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, opened the way for the U.S. war against Iraq. It also severely weakened the position of the progressive movements and independent states in the region, including Syria. The USSR-Syria defense treaty disappeared along with the Soviet state.

Behind the new U.S. offensive

The new U.S. offensive against Syria is driven by the same forces that are behind the war in Iraq, the hostility toward Iran and the maneuvers to undermine the Palestinian struggle. Washington is seeking total domination over the key Middle East region. The Middle East is vital for two main reasons: It contains 70 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves, and it has a strategic position as a crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe. 

Much of the Middle East and Gulf region is under U.S. occupation today. There are U.S. troops and bases in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Qatar and other countries in the area. The United States is leading the occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has established what it hopes will be permanent bases in both countries.

The imperialist occupiers aim to wipe out all opposition to their domination. That is the real reason for the targeting of Iran, the Palestinian movement and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and Syria. 

The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has offered numerous concessions in an attempt to appease the wolf at the door. And the wolf is at all the doors. Syria is today surrounded on nearly all sides by U.S.-allied military powers. 

But without committing political suicide, the Assad government cannot offer what Washington is really demanding: the surrender of Syria’s existence as an independent state and its reduction to the position of a neo-colony.

The U.S. government is utilizing a combination of coercive instruments in its attempt to bring Syria down. In addition to the danger of military attack explicit in UN Security Council Resolution 1636, Syria also faces the implied threat of economic sanctions. Such sanctions had a devastating effect on neighboring Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Obvious attempts are also being made to split the Syrian government and military establishment.

Not coincidentally, numerous U.S. military operations are being conducted very close to the Syrian border in Iraq.

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. The anti-war and progressive movements in the United States, France and around the world must demand: “Hands Off Syria!”

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