29 May 2012. A World to Win News Service. The photos of dozens of dead little children – their bodies lying side by side in a row, each upturned face tearing at the heart of anyone who has ever loved a child and bringing to mind other children all over the world – convey only a part of the horrifying situation that the Syrian people face.
It may be that the Bashar al-Assad regime and/or its allies carried out the massacre in Houla, not as an act of madness or simple revenge but a calculated attempt to divert the anti-regime revolt into an inter-religious civil war. At the same time, the UN Security Council resolution condemning this crime is an obscene act of hypocrisy and worse. The US and Russia are trying to use this tragedy as an occasion to step up their contention and negotiations over who will dominate Syria. The interests of the Syrian people and the just demands of the movement against the regime, and the lives of the people, including children, count as nothing in this reactionary manoeuvring.
The Security Council resolution reflected not a concern with human life but the contest between the US and its allies on one hand and Russia on the other as to how foreign domination of Syria is to be divided up in the near future. Bizarrely, the resolution mentions Syrian government tank and artillery fire, and not the apparent close-quarter executions of many of the victims. This has allowed the Syrian government room to claim that the killings were carried out by “terrorists”, presumably meaning Islamic fundamentalists, an explanation for which no evidence has been presented. Western diplomats assert that the resolution’s wording was designed to gain Russian acceptance for what turned out to be a unanimous Security Council vote. But this unanimity had criminal purposes on both sides.
The UN pretends to be working for a peaceful solution to the crisis through a ceasefire, a kind of freeze-in-place. This is the least likely alternative, one that none of the imperialist powers involved really believe possible, and one that the US and its allies are working to make impossible. The US is determined that Syria, often described as a Russian “client regime”, will become an American client regime at any cost.
The US and Russia seem to be in agreement in seeking to preserve the essential structure of the Assad regime, especially the military and security forces, without Assad. How this could happen is currently being negotiated between the US and Russia. The US has a powerful argument: either Russia can accept some continuing influence in an American-dominated Syria, or it risks having no influence at all.
This situation was laid bare in an article in The New York Times (26 May 2012) that was in its own way as shocking and cynical as the Houla massacre, in terms of the future of the Syrian people. At the recent G-8 summit in Camp David, Maryland, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told US President Barack Obama that Russia was not willing to see the UN Security Council authorize a regime change in Syria on the Libya model, where an American-led military intervention under the guise of protecting civilians allowed the US to topple a regime it deemed problematic. Russia apparently has come to consider Assad a “liability”, meaning that it no longer believes he can remain in power, but Moscow is not willing to be entirely forced out of a country where its interests predominate militarily (Russia has a small naval station, its only outpost in the Mediterranean), economically (Russia has extensive investments in Syrian gas and oil, and Syria is a leading buyer of Russian arms) and politically, although the US has also had relations and influence.
According to the article, Obama countered by proposing the “Yemen model”: Assad would step down but the regime would be basically unchanged, except that it would become dependent on Washington. The Times went so far as to say that American diplomats prefer to refer to this plan as the “Yemenskii Variant,” as if it were the end move in a chess game, keeping the Russian name so as to minimize the fact that this would amount to a strategic advance for the US.
The facts alone of what happened in Yemen show how reactionary this “solution” would be. In the face of a popular movement against the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, the US, working with and through Saudi Arabia, negotiated a deal in which Saleh was bundled off for medical treatment and replaced by his vice president, Abu Rabbu Mansour. Subsequently an election was held. Mansour, the only candidate, was magically transformed into a “democratically elected” president whom the US could embrace in a more public way than previously possible with Saleh. American military involvement in Yemen was stepped up.
That demonstrated the imperialists’ complete contempt for the will and interests of the Yemeni people, and something similar would be no better in Syria.
One scenario would be a military coup against Assad and his inner circle whose goal would be to keep the Syrian power structure as unchanged as possible. According to Hassan Khaled Chatila, a Syrian revolutionary living in Europe, a conceivable replacement might be one of Syria’s two vice presidents, Farouk Al-Sharaa, a Baathist strongman who has the advantages of being a Sunni, a civilian and a former Foreign Minister who has worked with Western diplomats. Further, he is not known to have played a direct role in the regime’s repression since the popular revolt began in March 2011. Recent rumours of the death by poisoning of four top regime figures at a dinner in a building owned by the Defence Ministry, which Assad’s representatives have been unable to dispel, could, Chatila said, represent a power struggle within the regime in this context.
But the US is not leaving the situation to Syrians to decide. Force is being displayed and readied for use. Since mid-May Syria’s neighbour, Jordan, has been the theatre of the biggest set of military exercises the Middle East has seen in a decade. Operation Eager Eagle 2012 involves more than 12,000 foreign troops from 18 countries under the command of a US Special Forces general. (US Defense News, 15 May) The US’s close relationship with the Hashemite monarchy, which won American support when it tried to wipe out the Palestinian movement then headquartered in Jordan, is another indication of how Washington decides which regimes it considers “democratic” on the basis of imperialist interests.
While these war “games” went largely unnoticed in the Western media, the US made sure its military threats were understood. Just after the Houla massacre, the head of the US armed forces, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, said on American television, “You’ll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because we’re never entirely sure what comes out the other side. But that said, it may come to a point with Syria, because of the atrocities.” (Guardian, 28 May) He added that the US was prepared to launch a military intervention if it were “asked to do so.”
It does seem that under the current circumstances, the US would prefer not to become directly involved in another war, especially since the Syrian regime has more firepower than anyone else that the US has tangled with lately. To some extent the threat of military intervention is meant to pursue political goals: to encourage a Syrian army coup that would dump Assad (and if needed back one faction against another), and make it clear to Russia that accepting the American offer of reduced influence in Syria is its best available option. But the threat is not a bluff.
Such intervention might very well be welcomed by the two main Syrian opposition groups playing a role on the international level, especially the Syrian National Council whose head, Burhan Ghalioun, chose Istanbul as the venue to once again call for foreign military intervention to “protect civilians” in Syria. (NYT, 29 May) France (which formerly ran Syria and Lebanon and cultivated ethnic/religious antagonism) and the UK have been particularly vociferous in backing these groups. The Council and the Coordination Committee of Democratic Forces, another exponent of imperialist intervention, have sought a negotiated settlement with the Assad regime. Neither seems to have much organized presence within Syria, where the declared goal of the movement in the streets is to bring down the regime.
To return to the subject of the UN Security Council resolution, those who do not see it in light of the imperialist interests at stake will not be able to understand that rather than an attempt to bring about peace, it represents an attempt to resolve both the conflicts between rival imperialist powers and between the people and the regime by force and the threat of war. Anyone who doubts that should ask themselves why the UN Security Council and especially the US have suddenly become interested in Syrian lives, after often ignoring the Assad regime’s crimes for decades. Why is the Security Council worrying about civilian lives now, after declaring the cost in Arab lives irrelevant when Israel invaded Lebanon and Gaza, and when Israel and its Falangist allies carried out an even bigger massacre in the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon?
The imperialist powers – all of them – are especially determined to see their competing interests prevail at any price because Syria, as important as it is, is only part of the picture. For the US, the time has come to seek regime change in Syria, preferably one under its control, in the context of a broader campaign to reconfigure the entire region, transforming or eliminating all obstacles to its unchallenged hegemony, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose main allies are the Assad regime and the Assad-dependent Hezbollah in Lebanon. For the US, this is not the immediate life-or-death situation that it is for the Syrian and Iranian regimes, but success or failure in this potential theatre of war is crucial to whether or not the US will consolidate its dominance or suffer greater losses – which, ultimately, is an existential question for the American empire and US imperialism.
In the last several weeks the spontaneous movement of millions of Syrians against the regime has shown signs of the possibility of reaching a new level. While for a long time it was mainly confined to villages and provincial towns and cities, a 17 May student demonstration calling for the downfall of the regime in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, won significant support beyond the university. After the Houla massacre, shops and stands in Damascus, especially the bazaar, closed down in protest.
But the situation for the Syrian people’s movement is dire. They face extremely powerful enemies on all sides. They also may be vulnerable to manipulation.
In addition to the killing of Sunni civilians in Houla, reportedly by pro-regime Alawite militiamen (Shabihah) from nearby villages, there has been the mysterious kidnapping of Shia pilgrims and a wave of apparent suicide bombings attributed to Shia fundamentalists that kill mostly civilians and leave government targets largely untouched. Some or all of these incidents may have been organized by the regime to solidify its support among Alawites and other minorities by stirring their fears of the Sunni majority in a communitarian civil war. But it is not impossible that other forces are also seeking to foment that kind of reactionary conflict.
When the Syrian representative to the UN Security Council compared the Houla killings to the 1990s massacres of civilians in Algeria (Al Jazeera broadcast, 26 May), he was not necessarily off the mark, except that the example, a civil war where the military government and its Islamic opponents competed in killing intellectuals and wiping out communities, condemns rather than justifies the Assad regime. In fact, his attempted defence of his government with this example could also be seen as a threat: support the regime or face even worse.
Despite the popular will to keep this movement focused on opposing the regime and avoid sectarian splits among the people, when shooting starts it is very hard to keep the people united without a clear sense of exactly what the problem is beyond the immediate question of Assad and his predominantly Alawite inner circle, and what could be a solution in the interests of the vast majority of the people.
The spontaneous revolt of millions of people in Syria, despite the absence of a vision of fundamental social change and all the political and organizational weaknesses that flow from that, is incontestably what has brought the regime to the brink. It is this movement that the imperialists and their friends are seeking to betray and perhaps crush by force. The problem of leadership – who will lead the people, for what interests and goals and therefore to struggle by what means – is starkly posed.