UPDATE: Since this article was written, a new round of talks has begun in Vienna on Syria’s possible “political transition.” Early reports from that meeting point suggest a ceasefire and negotiated agreement has become more likely — although such an outcome remains far from certain.
The biggest immediate question right now in the Syrian war is whether there will be a local ceasefire between the Syrian government and some foreign-backed insurgent forces as part of a renewed international effort to create a larger ceasefire and political framework.
A ceasefire followed by negotiations and national elections was the essence of the agreement that emerged from the second round of the so-called Vienna Talks on Nov. 14. The participants in Vienna included Russia, United States, France, the UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon and others.
Secretary of State John Kerry was publicly optimistic that a ceasefire or multiple ceasefires might take hold.
But in the recent days there have been mixed messages about the viability of such an effort. There is clearly divided opinion and debate within the imperialist establishment in Washington and among its allies.
Saudi Arabia, from which ISIS or ISIL has received huge amounts of material support, was present in Vienna, and formally agreed with the final resolution.
Al Arabiya, a Saudi-financed media outlet, reported on Nov. 19, 2015:
“A powerful Syrian insurgent group said on Thursday it was studying a local ceasefire proposal tabled by an international mediator aimed at halting fighting near Damascus.
“Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam group, told Reuters the ceasefire proposal had been presented by the mediator to the former head of a sharia board that operates in rebel-held areas, who in turn had presented it to rebel groups and civilian organisations in the opposition-held area. …
“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war, earlier reported the failure of negotiations aimed at achieved [sic] a local ceasefire between rebels and government forces in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.”
Is there a policy shift from the centers of world imperialism?
The rebels are backed by Western governments and in the week since the Paris attacks, there has been a discernible shift in U.S. and French rhetoric on Syria and Russia. This could signify a larger turning point in their policy there, with important ramifications in regional and global politics.
On Sunday, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin met directly. A White House official told Reuters, “President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be proceeded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well as a ceasefire.” According to Reuters, “Obama welcomed efforts by all countries in confronting the Islamic State, noting the importance of Russia’s military efforts in Syria focusing on the group.”
The meeting followed on the heels of a new peace plan — agreed to by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — for talks between Assad and the Syrian opposition by January 1, and new elections in Syria within 18 months. Secretary of State John Kerry announced, “we’re weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria.” It is worth remembering that only two years ago Kerry was advocating the bombing of the Syrian army.
Obama still maintains “we do not believe [Assad] has a role in Syria’s future,” and clearly is working — with combined pressure from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and his EU partners — to entice Russia to abandon Assad. But this hard line could also be grandstanding so as to conceal the shift that is taking place. The rhetoric around Syria’s “political resolution” suggests the White House is subtly backing off its “Assad must go” precondition for negotiations.
Even more noteworthy is the changed U.S. tone towards Russia’s intervention. Just last month the Obama administration deemed the Russian airstrikes “not helpful” and “doomed to fail.” Now the White House says Russia’s military efforts are “welcomed” and “appreciated.”
The discussion of a ceasefire between the Syrian rebel groups and the Syrian state signifies a potential pause in the West’s campaign against the Syrian government, and opens the possibility of a larger truce. To be clear, there is no certainty things will move in this direction, and Washington has not yet taken action to decisively reverse its policy. As The New York Times remarked, such an “alliance remains largely theoretical” at this point.
Washington has not declared an end to its regime change efforts. Washington has not normalized relations with Syria. It has not forced the cut off of military and financial support to those rebel groups, linked most closely to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that are besieging the Syrian Arab Army’s positions.
France too has for years has been funding armed rebels, including extremist elements in Syria, and even introduced a resolution to bring Assad before the International Criminal Court. Without formally turning away from this course, it is now directly coordinating with Russian air force “as allies” and Hollande has announced, according to Sputnik News, “In Syria, we’re looking for the political solution to the problem, which is not Bashar Assad. Our enemy in Syria is ISIL.” France and Russia are proposing separate resolutions on Syria at the UN Security Council, and France has already suggested a willingness to combine them.
For its part, the Syrian government declared a willingness to cooperate with France if it was genuinely changing its policy to fight ISIS, but has not directly responded to the unilateral French bombardment of Raqqa. Such Western bombings of ISIS territory have been condemned by Damascus in the past as a violation of international law and Syria’s national sovereignty, part of the West’s double game.
Anti-Muslim bigotry and state repression
The immediate cause of this possible shift is of course the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris. It is a travesty that it required bloodshed in France to potentially move the West away from the policies that have empowered ISIS and devastated so many lives in the region. As British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn put it, when ISIS was killing Arabs, Turks and Kurds “hardly any publicity” was given to “the bombing in Beirut last week or the killing in Turkey.”
The racist media coverage, combined with the new war drive, is already reverberating powerfully on the homefront. Hollande has declared three months of emergency (martial) law and has empowered the police to raid houses without warrants. He intends to eviscerate existing civil liberties protections from state surveillance. French police conducted hundreds of raids in the first days after the attacks, while refugees and immigrants, especially Arabs and Muslims, have been viciously attacked by racist groups.
Many progressive and workers’ organizations are standing up to this wave of repression, but Hollande is marshalling the full power of the state in the wake of the massacre.
Like Hollande, ruling-class politicians in the United States are whipping up a frenzy, calling on one hand for war against ISIS, and on the other demonizing the Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS. The Republican-led House of Representatives, joined by 47 Democrats, voted to suspend the Syrian refugee program as part of their racist fear-mongering campaign.
Donald Trump has called for closing mosques and a special ID card for Muslims. New measures are being proposed to strengthen NSA surveillance and give the government backdoor entry into civilians’ encrypted communications.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the Republican establishment have called for expanded military intervention in Syria, pointing to the failure of existing policy.
The Obama administration appears to be calculating differently, however. Whatever U.S. strategic aims existed back in 2011 — principally, neo-colonial regime change — these were definitively altered by the forceful intervention of Russia last month and the joint re-commitment of Iranian and Hezbollah forces. Unable to knock over Assad as they planned, the Obama administration is now coming face to face with the blatant contradictions of its Syria policy.
Fighting those who fight ISIS?
The potential reorientation of U.S. policy in Syria, which would temporarily downplay its goal of regime change so as to partner with those fighting ISIS, at least temporarily, must be recognized for what it is. It is a de facto acknowledgment that for the last four years Washington’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster.
This imperialist policy in Syria, combined with the earlier destruction of Iraq and Libya, has given rise to ISIS as a significant power in each of these countries. Rather than democracy and freedom, Washington’s non-stop overt and covert wars have led to death and destruction for Syrians, Kurds, a whole spectrum of the region’s religious and ethnic minorities, the 224 passengers on the Russian plane, the people of Beirut, Ankara and now Paris.
Nearly 85,000 Syrian army soldiers have lost their lives in four years of the many-sided civil war. The Syrian army has done the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, as have the Kurdish-based People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the country’s north. But the CIA and Pentagon have been cultivating instead a large spectrum of fundamentalist reactionary groups that are fighting against the Syrian Army.
In funding, supporting and arming a range of extreme reactionary, fundamentalist and other armed groups to fight the Syrian Arab Army, Paris and Washington have forced the Syrian government to fight on many fronts, and take considerable territorial losses. ISIS has in fact been the main beneficiary of U.S. and French policy.
The chest-thumping from French President Francois Hollande, and flurry of airstrikes on the ISIS capital of Raqqa, cannot hide this reality. In fact, the airstrikes on Raqqa — a city of 1 million people — will certainly be ineffectual except in killing more civilians, and may cause many more to sympathize with and join ISIS.
ISIS will not be defeated by airstrikes. But the Obama administration, the Pentagon and the American public have little appetite for a full ground invasion — which would be another quagmire, result in the deaths of huge numbers of Syrians and thousands of U.S. troops, and repeat the very conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the beginning. It is clear that ISIS can only be defeated by forces on the ground who are from the region itself. But the only ground forces with the experience and capability to take them on are the Syrian Arab Army, the YPG and their allied militias. That is the central contradiction in U.S. policy, and it cannot be wiggled out of.
Unless both France and the United States turn away from this contradictory and catastrophic policy, their newly declared war on ISIS must be exposed as pure demagogy. It will be more of the same.
Makings of a failed strategy — ISIS not contained
Washington first carried out its offensive against the Syrian state by backing any rebels they could find. The rapid growth of Al-Qaeda and allied fundamentalists in Syria led the U.S. interventionists to promise to only support the “moderate” opposition. Then whole divisions of such “moderates” joined Al-Qaeda, which split into ISIS.
Then Washington promised to build up a mercenary army of vetted “moderates” to fight ISIS. They allocated $500 million but ended up with just “four or five” actual fighters. Still Washington kept up the battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, embedding CIA assets with the Al-Qaeda-led coalition, while demanding “Assad must go” as the precondition for peace talks. They ensured the world that ISIS was “contained.”
If in fact ISIS had been contained, and had not threatened U.S. strategic interests, Washington would have tolerated their medievalist mini-state. Breaking up Syria has long been a dream of neoconservative and Israeli strategists in particular, and the United States is no stranger to relationships of convenience with the most reactionary Wahhabist forces.
But ISIS has no intention of being contained. ISIS has no intention of recognizing the borders of existing nation-states in the region and in fact has an apocalyptic program specifically oriented towards fomenting world war.
ISIS’s global reach was proven with ferocity in the attacks in Paris and in the group’s pledge to carry out follow-up attacks in the United States. The organization’s ability to recruit from and then carry out significant operations within the Western world have changed the game in U.S. and French imperialist policy circles.
Hollande is requesting meetings with both Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other conservative, establishment French MPs were in Damascus this week for a meeting with Assad, and calling for a reorientation towards the Syrian government. Their argument — that Assad was never sending suicide bombers to France — will presumably resonate across broad sections of the French public and political establishment.
Assad never wanted war with the West
The Assad government never asked for war with the West. In fact, it had a considerable history of partnership with the West in the Lebanese Civil War and the first Iraq war, and had extensive relationships with Western financial institutions in the post-Soviet era in particular. As a legacy of the country’s nationalist revolution and orientation, the Syrian government did maintain independent relations with Palestinian and Lebanese resistance forces, and with Iran. In this sense, it has functioned as a thorn in the imperialists’ side from time to time.
Dizzy with success from the 2011 Libya war, the arrogant interventionists and neo-cons in the Obama administration overcame the internal opposition of more restrained voices and pushed to replicate the operation in Syria. Ever since, U.S. policy has been a tangled mess of visionless half-steps and contradiction. As with the Iraq war, the Syria intervention has been a catastrophe for millions of people in the region, but also a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism.
Just because imperialism is an enduring system, predetermining the overall strategic goals of Washington’s policymakers regardless of who sits in office, that does not mean its specific policies are unimportant. Not all policies fit perfectly into a master plan for hegemony. Policies can be failures. They can backfire and they can be reversed.
If the United States were to step back from its current policy of regime change, which has nourished ISIS and devastated millions within Syria, that would be a significant step forward for the peoples of the region. This would constitute a truce of sorts with Syria and would likely push Washington into some sort of informal relationship with the anti-ISIS coalition called for by the Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
No new diplomatic or military orientation — including a potential truce of sorts — can change the essential nature of imperialism. No policy reversal can erase the history of how U.S. militarism and interventionism destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria as unitary nation-states.
It will also not mean the creation of a new multi-polar world system based on joint management, which the Russian government frequently alludes to. Washington will not simply let its dream of long-term unipolar hegemony slide away.
U.S. imperialism has no permanent friends — only permanent interests. The Assad government has already seen how quickly its Western “friends” became bitter enemies when opportunities arose for regime change.
Likewise, the Kurdish-based Democratic Union Party (PYD), which leads the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which called on U.S. air support against ISIS, needs no lessons about imperialist treachery; while the United States claims to support their struggle, the U.S. government has silently authorized Turkey’s bombardment of their comrades. The PYD/YPG has since signaled closer relations with Russia.
Nonetheless, if a Middle East reorientation were to be effected in Washington, the struggle in Syria, and the tenor of world politics, would enter a new complex phase — temporarily drawing the Pentagon to the side of the very governments it has long demonized: Iran, Syria and Russia. As was shown in World War II, the classic case of “strange bedfellows” alliances, this political situation will require careful analysis and creative tactics from all anti-imperialists.
Such a truce or even coalition would be inherently temporary and unstable, as the logic and structural demands of imperialism — not to mention the policymakers’ fundamental allegiance to “American leadership” and “exceptionalism” — prohibit them from functioning as equal partners with independent states of the formerly colonized world, or those states that challenge their world order.