United States and World Politics

Syria, Descent Into Barbarism: Imperialism To Blame

By Chris Kinder

The Syrian upheaval, which grew out of a series of peaceful protests in 2011 against the cliquish dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, has now become dominated by a vicious sectarian conflict. The protests, based mainly among the Sunni majority population, were met with a brutal crackdown by the Alawite-Shia-based regime, which repeatedly shot down unarmed demonstrators in the streets. This would soon lead to both a military response from within Syria, as well as foreign fighters who began pouring in from throughout the region. International support for both sides mounted quickly, and the conflict now threatens to embroil the world in a widening conflagration.

Casualties mounting

With 120,000 dead and climbing, as many as four million internally displaced and more than two million refugees, Syrian civilians are bearing the brunt. Malnutrition, and diseases such as measles and even polio are rising, particularly among children.1 But things were already bad before the war.

The original Syrian protestors of two-and-a-half years ago—calling for removal of Assad, ending corruption and for a democratic government—came in the context of the U.S. financial crisis and the resulting world wide “recession,” which included huge hikes in the cost of food and declining job opportunities throughout the Third World. Just as in Egypt and Iraq, privatizations of formerly nationalized industries, dismantling of various social benefits (such as free education and healthcare) and the enrichment of a small handful of comprador capitalists in league with imperialism has contributed to the impoverishment and increasing desperation of the masses of working people. In Syria, this process began in 1970, when Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, began dismantling reforms of his “Arab socialist” Baath Party.

While Assad’s backers include Russia and Iran, his opponents in the Middle East include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey (a former ally of Assad’s, which switched sides under allied U.S./NATO pressure) and Israel, which while technically neutral, has launched several air strikes against Syria in order to destroy sophisticated missiles being supplied to Assad by Iran. But chief among Assad’s enemies internationally now, is the U.S.—the dominant and most violent imperialist power on the planet.

U.S. hands off Syria! 

The U.S. interest in Syria is replacing Assad with a more compliant head of state, called the “Yemen solution,” as Obama said over a year ago2. But Assad was already compliant, in implementing neo-liberal reforms, and accepting prisoners in U.S. rendition programs. The more fundamental interest of the U.S. in Syria must be seen in its regional and global context. In association with client state Israel, the U.S. has the Islamic Republic of Iran in its cross-hairs, allegedly for trying to build nuclear weapons. Assad is targeted partly because Iran, along with imperialist rival Russia, are Syria’s closest allies. With Syria closely in U.S. clutches, Iran would lose not just an ally, but also its connection with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

Into this mix, after about two years of both surreptitious and public support to the bourgeois opposition, the U.S. has now raised the specter of direct military intervention against the Assad regime, in defiance of most of the U.S. population, as well as socialists and working people worldwide. The excuse for this—Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons “against his own people” in a contested Damascus suburb on August 21st—fairly screams lies and hypocrisy.

Arrogant lies

The arrogance of U.S. imperialism, which covers up Israel’s well-known and decades-long possession of nuclear weapons, is apparent to anyone paying attention. The only power to have dropped atomic bombs on civilians, the U.S., also used napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, uses depleted uranium ammunition regularly, and aided Saddam Hussein in his use of chemical weapons against Iran and against his own people. The U.S. also blocked a Syrian effort to end weapons of mass destruction in 2007, and is itself in violation of the international ban on chemical weapons, by refusing to destroy its huge stockpile.

Whether committed by Assad, or by Islamist opponents trying to provoke a U.S. response (see below), this chemical weapons attack pales in comparison to the death toll from conventional weapons on both sides. In a slick diplomatic upstaging of the U.S., Vladimir Putin of Russia put the U.S. threat on hold for the time being by promoting UN-monitored destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. Yet bellicose statements from both reactionary wings of the U.S. political elite (Democrats and Republicans) underscore that the threat of U.S. air strikes still exists. Marxists can find no side in this vicious civil war, but we must clearly oppose imperialist threats. No political support for Assad, but defense of Syria against imperialist attack!

An organized opposition forms

As attacks on the anti-Assad movement grew in 2011, elite elements from the ruling circles began to defect, seeking to improve their lot by capturing the oppositionists’ wave. The Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group based in Istanbul was formed with U.S. support, but it had no real connection to the Syrian uprising. This was followed by the Syrian National Coalition, which was also based on elites whose chief goal is regime change. Its leadership includes Riad Sheif, a prominent businessman who was edged out of favor in Damascus by an even richer loyalist rival3. The Coalition brought together myriad groups, such as a revived Muslim Brotherhood4; the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC), which unites left groups and local urban councils in “liberated” areas; as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was formed in July 2011 by Riad Al-Assad, a former Syrian army colonel.

The FSA and U.S.-supported coalitions offer no alternative to Syrian working people. Their program is “regime change,” i.e., Assad’s removal. “Democracy” means nothing to them, short of their own accession to power; nor does it mean much to the masses in the absence of a class analysis and revolutionary program to overthrow capitalism and bring workers to power. The SNC also rejects the right of self-determination for the Kurds, a major national minority located in Syria’s East (as well as in parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran). Although left groups affiliated with the LCC add Kurdish rights and “socialism” to this cross-class mix; as well as opposing hardline Islamists, and conducting a programmatic discussion, only a clean break from the bourgeois-democratic coalitions can begin to address the crying need for revolutionary leadership in Syria and the Middle East.

Assad reclaims the initiative 

Assad’s forces were much better armed, were willing to shell civilian areas indiscriminately, and were probably the worst perpetrators of the sectarian violence in Syria. This included destruction of historic mosques, and ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in some areas, such as Homs.5 Yet they seemed to be losing ground at first.

Now, aid from Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Shia-based Hezbollah, which sent fighters in to back Assad, has helped the regime shift the tide against the opposition. The regime still has a real basis of support in the population, among the Alawites, a Shia-offshoot sect, the cornerstone of Assad’s support; as well as most Christians, other minorities, and even a segment of the Sunni majority as well (mainly among urban upper classes).

Enter the Islamist fighters

Within a few months of Assad’s crack-down, Sunni Islamic groups began coming in from Iraq, Pakistan and other areas (including Chechnya), armed principally by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with look-the-other-way back-up from the ever-watchful U.S. Linking up with local Syrian Islamist groups, the Jihadis began to dominate and take over the fight against Assad’s forces, including by attacking FSA fighters, and even murdering members of the FSA. Chief among these is the (mostly foreign) Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, (ISIS), and Jabhat al-Nusra, both associated with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others.

These groups did not just emerge out of nowhere. The absence of revolutionary working-class forces is a major factor in the Middle East, where it contributes to the rise of religious and ethnic identities, and to the Jihadist Islamist reactionary groups which plague these countries today. Islamist militants are a small minority of all Muslims, but they have been nurtured both by the desperation of extreme poverty and joblessness, and by the sense of Arab unity they convey, which has its attractions in a world of inter-mingled peoples extending across artificial national boundaries. But these groups are hardly unifiers of Arabs, let alone of workers or people in general. Militantly sectarian, they grow out of particular Islamic traditions, and make war on all other sects and religions, with little regard for human life (even their own, in the case of suicide bombers).

As they dredge up reactionary dreams of the caliphates of the 7th Century Islamist Empire, the Jihadists reflect the fact that the countries of the Middle East, Arabia and North Africa never had a bourgeois revolution. Enemies of women, Marxism, the working class and indeed anything rational, they seek to impose Sharia Law wherever they have a secure foothold, as they do in some parts of Syria. Besides forced veiling of women, Sharia Law can mandate stoning women to death for adultery (never male adulterers); flogging for some crimes, which can include having an abortion; and chopping off a hand for theft.6

Assad, imperialists promote Islamists

Assad has actively aided Islamists, in order to divide and undercut the secular mass movement, including by letting jihadists out of jails “in order to boost this current within the uprising.”7 The FSA does the same, in effect. While complaining that the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) comes in to control areas liberated by the FSA, and in some cases “execute[s] a child in a public square,” FSA General Salim Idris nevertheless asserts that “...we in the FSA were and still are trying to stay away... from inflaming the issue, because we believe all should now be focused on fighting Assad.”8

This follows a familiar pattern, in which the U.S. actively promoted the development of these medievalist gangs by recruiting and arming mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979, thus giving rise to al Qaeda. Similarly, the Israeli government promoted Hamas and its early Islamist predecessors in Gaza, as a counter-weight to the then more militant PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). In the Libyan uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, the U.S. leapt at the chance to get rid of a shifty and unpredictable regime by giving air support to the local militias, many Islamist-dominated, which have now turned Libya into a conflict-ridden sinkhole. What better enemy could an imperialist have than reactionary murderers who divide rather than unite the working people?

Democracy movement still exists

The unarmed movement that hit the streets against Assad in 2011 does still exist.9 It has been overshadowed by the sectarian civil war, and ignored by the bourgeois media, and even much of the left; but in various forms, it has continued opposing Assad, while also challenging the Islamists with mass protests. But efforts to organize civil administrations to perform the unattended-to social services in “liberated areas” are constantly threatened by Islamists. In Raqqa, Azaz, Manbij and Tall Abiad, among others, the ISIS has tried to take over.

In some cases, such as the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest, a tenuous accommodation between secularists and Islamists has been reached, with both elements contributing to city administration through “a tribunal” which rules according to “the unified Arab Code... a penal and civilian body of law based on the Sharia.” But even here, the threat of radical Islamists persists in the outskirts.10 These local councils should not be considered “soviets,” since their main function is restoring bourgeois normality. But in the occasion of an open conflict between a secular urban council and an Islamist force, revolutionary workers groups would defend the council, without in any way endorsing its political program. 

Why is this happening?

Like the rest of the regional upheavals commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring,” the root-cause of this grueling conflict lies chiefly with the neo-liberal machinations of the imperialist powers over the years, driving down living conditions, and installing dictatorial regimes. Foremost among these is the U.S., which, although taken by surprise by these uprisings, has quickly recovered.

As we have seen, the U.S. readily used the torture chambers of Assad. But, as General Wesley Clark revealed in a Democracy Now! interview in September 2013, the U.S. had, under Bush and Rumsfeld in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, planned to target the “rogue states” of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.11 Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that Saudi Arabia, working through Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, known as “Bandar Bush” for his close association with Bush during his tenure as Saudi ambassador to the U.S., are supporting Syrian rebels, directly in conjunction with the CIA.

As Democracy Now! reported,

“The Wall Street Journal recently revealed new details about how Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud—Saudi’s former ambassador to the United States—is leading the effort to prop up the Syrian rebels. Intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Jordan and other allied states are working at a secret joint operations center in Jordan to train and arm hand-picked Syrian rebels. The Journal also reports Prince Bandar has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime. ‘Really what he’s doing is he’s reprising a role that he played in the 1980s when he worked with the Reagan administration to arrange money and arms for mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan and also worked with the CIA in Nicaragua to support the Contras,’ says Wall Street Journal reporter Adam Entous. ‘So in many ways this is a very familiar position for Prince Bandar, and it’s amazing to see the extent to which veterans of the CIA were excited to see him come back because, in the words of a diplomat who knows Bandar, he brings the Arabic term wasta, which means under-the-table clout. You know his checks are not going to bounce and that he’ll be able to deliver the money from the Saudis’.”12

Who did the August 21st chemical weapons attack?

Now, factor in the likelihood that Assad’s regime was not the perpetrator of the sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21st. Obama himself said the question of who did it wasn’t certain, and the U.S. white paper on the subject included the phrase “short of confirmation,” which is a standard “trapdoor” line, “used by analysts who might need to escape a conclusion if contrary new evidence arrives.”13 The paper itself was a hasty construct from the White House, which means it didn’t represent any consensus from the “intelligence” community. And while the UN report on the incident has been taken to indicate that Assad was to blame, much evidence suggests otherwise. First of all, while the UN itself, under its protocol, could not assign blame for the attack, a senior UN official, in response to a question as to whether the Assad regime was responsible said, “Of course not, he [Assad] would be committing suicide.” When asked who he believed was responsible, he said, “Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.”14

There is evidence that Prince Bandar supplied Islamist rebels with inferior “kitchen sarin” weapons, and that August 21 was either an accident brought on by incompetence or Syrian military shelling of storage areas; or a self-inflicted “false flag” attack. The purpose of such an operation by Saudi-backed Islamist fighters would have been to provoke a U.S. attack on Assad.15 There is also considerable indication that the U.S. may have had advance knowledge of a planned chemical weapons provocation by rebels, and may have allowed it to go forward.16

The Gavlak kerfuffle

With some exceptions, such as the Wall Street Journal piece mentioned by Democracy Now!, the U.S. bourgeois press has walked in lock step with the State Department on Syria. How this works is illustrated by an interesting incident. Dale Gavlak, a regular Associated Press contributor, together with Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian reporter, stated that interviews with Ghouta residents (conducted by Ababneh) indicated that the Saudis had supplied the rebels with chemical weapons, and that rebel fighters handled the weapons improperly, setting off the August 21st explosions. This story appeared not in the Associated Press, which would not have printed it, but in Mint Press, an independent blog site.17

Apparently, someone didn’t like this revelation, which cut directly across the U.S. line that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. So, a few days later, a “retraction” by Gavlak turned up, not at Mint Press, but at, which had earlier reprinted Gavlak/Ababneh’s Mint Press piece on its site.18 Supporters of the “Assad did it” scenario went gaga reporting this “retraction.” But there were some serious problems, starting with the fact that researcher and co-author Ababneh, who did the interviews that the story was based on, had retracted nothing.

Gavlak alone withdrew her signature from the article, while carefully not denying the substance of the report (which was Ababneh’s)! Meanwhile, Mint Press, which had never published the “retraction,” continued to stand by the story, saying that Gavlak, like Mint Press itself, was under pressure from unnamed sources, but that removing her name from the article “would not be honest journalism.”19 What is going on here, if not high-powered Associated Press executives pressuring a reporter of theirs to attempt to discredit this story, which contradicted the official U.S. line, even though it had only been posted on an internet site?

The idea that the Assad regime would have conducted such a chemical weapons attack, right on the eve of UN inspectors’ arrival to investigate an earlier chemical weapons attack, is very hard to believe. But, what is believable is that the failure of this “false flag” operation (or convenient accident) to produce a U.S. attack on Syria (following the Obama’s accommodation with Putin), explains the subsequent frustration with the U.S. by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other allies (likely as well as U.S. hawks).

Weakness in the imperialist

The fact that Vladimir Putin, president and supreme leader of capitalist Russia, managed to head off Obama’s planned strike against Syria points up a certain weakness in the U.S. imperialist center. There is a growing rift within the U.S. government, and between the U.S. and some allies, over Syria. Obama hesitates to go all out with support for Syrian rebels, fearing that heavy weapons might fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked Islamists; while war mongers such as Senator John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seek a more aggressive approach. In the wake of Obama’s deal with Putin, the U.S. has emphasized a probably futile new Geneva conference to bring together Assad and his oppositionists, most of whom are begging off such a meeting while Assad is still in power.

Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are confused and incensed over Obama’s having backed off the military strike. The Saudis reject negotiations, and want to push forward, in order to crush the threat of a Shia resurgence in the Middle East (as in Iraq, where Sunnis who were the basis of Saddam’s regime now languish under the U.S.-imposed Shia-dominated government); and the Turkish Islamist governing party under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of Assad, sees an opportunity in Syria’s distress to expand its influence within parts of the former Ottoman Empire. 

All of this is making Obama look like a wimp, which is a bad place to be if you’re the head of an empire which is beginning to show signs of crumbling.20 But then, how much power or control does a U.S. president have anyway? The president is essentially a figurehead, sitting atop a bourgeois imperialist state, ultimately controlled by this same bourgeoisie. This is not a democracy, and the financial control of all major politicians by their capitalist “donors” (read purchasers) is just the icing on the cake.

Aims of the imperialist

The heart of the imperialist bourgeoisie, the Wall Street financiers, had a plan in the late 1990s to end New Deal reforms and open banking to the lucrative derivatives business, which, as is well-known, took place in the U.S. with actions such as the 1999 overturning of the Glass-Steagall Act (1933), which separated banking from investment houses. This substantially contributed to the financial crash of 2007-08, which included bailout of the banks by their servants in the Bush and Obama governments.

But the financiers’ plan was always meant to be international in scope. While most countries eventually went along with the new financial-imperialist diktat in various ways, certain Islamic states such as Syria, which had state-owned banking systems that banned “usury” (charging interest for the use of money) by Islamic teaching, refused.21

Thus, the targeting of the largely Islamic states, revealed by Wesley Clark, comes into focus. Throughout the entire post-war/Cold War period, the U.S., as the only victor of World War II not to have been scarred at home by the war, was driven by the insatiable need of the financial bourgeoisie to expand its imperialist domination across the globe. From the CIA machinations to overturn regimes such as Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and on to the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the goal was the same. And following the counterrevolutionary collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. drive for world domination has only accelerated. While the immediate targets, and useful allies, vary from time to time, the endless war only continues to destroy the planet and drive it into barbarism. Only the revolutionary working class can sweep away this parasitic plague by making revolution to destroy capitalism forever.

1 Casualty figures from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 30, 2013. Syria was vaccinating 95 percent of children against polio before the war, but social services have broken down.


3 Assad’s corrupt regime favored loyal cronies such as Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest capitalist/financier, and continued his father’s program of dismantling the Ba’athist legacy of Pan-Arab nationalism and “socialism,” in favor of the neo-liberal policies of the U.S. imperialists.

4 Founded in 1930, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Syria following an uprising in 1976-82.

5 As of late October, Homs was under continuous bombardment by Assad’s forces.

6 In Egypt, the mere threat of encroaching Sharia Law under the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi drove masses of oppositionists into the arms of the military, a mistake largely based, again, on the absence of a revolutionary working class leadership.

7 Gilbert Achcar on the Syrian Revolution, October 8, 2013.

8 Interview with Salim Idris in his office in Istanbul.





13 Ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern, September 9, 2013

14 “Questions Plague UN Report on Syria,” by Sharmine Narwana,

15 “Syrian Chemical Attack: More Evidence Only Leads to More Questions,” by Yossef Bodansky, September 10, 2013, and Syria gas attack story has whiff of Saudi war propaganda





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