National Sections of the L5I:

Statement on Eastern Ghouta

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The slaughter of civilians continued as the United Nations Security Council finally passed the resolution proposed by Kuwait and Sweden, calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. Few believe that it will be either comprehensive or total since the Syrian envoy shrugged off the resolution, asserting his government had a right to defend its territory and would continue to “fight terrorism, wherever it is.” The last few days in New York witnessed the disgusting spectacle of the UN ambassadors of the United States and Russia trying to blame one another for delaying a ceasefire in the Damascus suburb, which has been under siege by government forces since 2013 and is home to some 400,000 people.

On February 23, the UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 417 citizens, including 96 children and 61 women, were killed in a five-day period alone. These were the result of 564 airstrikes by warplanes, while the regime’s helicopters dropped more than 219 barrel bombs. This massive escalation indicates that the Assad regime sees itself in a similar endgame where it can enforce an evacuation of fighters from Ghouta as it did in East Aleppo at the end of 2016.

Russia threatened to cast its veto until the resolution on the ceasefire had so many holes punched in it that it allows them and their Syrian ally to continue their onslaught on the mainly Islamist defenders of the enclave. This will mean they continue wreaking “collateral damage” on the population, as they have since early in the New Year.

The Kuwaiti-Swedish draft already excluded Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of Islamist forces led by the Nusra Front, formerly the official Al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, insisted it should also exclude "groups co-operating with them". This means the two biggest rebel forces; Jaish al-Islam and its rival Faylaq al-Rahman. Both the UK-based Syrian Observatory on Human Rights and veteran Middle East commentator Robert Fisk, often embedded with the regime forces, report ongoing negotiations to withdraw Tahrir Al-Sham fighters.

This “ceasefire”, therefore, excludes actions against the main forces resisting Assad and Putin. Like other recent ceasefires, it is likely that the rockets and barrel bombs will continue to hit hospitals and housing complexes. Obviously, one must hope that, in the interest of saving face, the Russian and Iranian forces will allow some food and medical supplies in and the seriously injured and traumatised to be evacuated.

All civil wars are necessarily vicious, since an entrenched ruling class and regime has its spoils to defend and its crimes to conceal. In Syria, as across large parts of the region, this has been exacerbated by sectarian hatreds between religious communities. These are not "ancient" enmities as facile journalists and Orientalist commentators say, they date from the divide-and-rule strategy of the French and British colonialists who tore apart the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, but they have been fomented by repressive regimes for their own ends.

The fighting in the Syrian Civil War, however, has been prolonged and rendered doubly vicious by the intervention of the two rival imperialist powers, Russia and America (plus its shield bearers, Britain and France) as well as the two main regional ones, Turkey and Iran. The unequal weaponry of the combatants; fighter-bombers, heavy artillery, helicopter barrel bombs, versus side arms, rocket launchers and mortars, gives a whole new meaning to the term asymmetrical warfare. Add to this the “mediaeval” techniques of starvation, severing medical and water supplies and there can be little doubt as to the final outcome.

Robert Fisk reports with an unpleasant tone of satisfaction that, “... vast quantities of Syrian armour have been humming along the highways to the capital in broad daylight from Aleppo and Homs in the north, from Deraa in the south, and from the countryside of Damascus itself. The Syrian authorities want them to be seen, so the Islamist rebels of Ghouta know how their battle will end.”

The regime and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, know that another decisive victory is within their grasp and that they can then turn to the large Idlib enclave in the North and the remaining rebel areas in the South, though there they may face an Israeli intervention. Idlib is a military problem because of Turkey’s intervention and its ongoing assault on the neighbouring Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, though they have only managed to occupy 15-18 percent so far. It is also a political problem since it concentrates huge numbers of determined anti-Assad refugees from other rebel areas, retaken by Assad. Whether the dictator will be either willing or able to re-impose his totalitarian regime is another question.

In Syria, the main criminal, apart from Bashar al-Assad and his totalitarian regime, is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia should indeed be openly and loudly condemned for gross crimes against humanity, in the siege of East Aleppo in 2012-16 and now in Ghouta. With the invaluable ‘boots-on-the-ground’ assistance from outside allies, Assad recovered from near disaster in a civil war he looked to be losing in 2015. Thanks to Putin, who did not want to see his only foothold in the Mediterranean lost; thanks to his Iranian and Lebanese allies who did not want a post-Assad Syria under Saudi or Turkish hegemony, he is now poised to complete the counterrevolution.

An Assad victory will be like the famous quotation; “they make a desert and they call it peace”. Even then, his state will be dependent on foreign and private paramilitaries and it will be highly unlikely that there could be a return to the “stable” status quo before the revolution. Above all, he will face a sullen and hostile population in many cities and the basis for a continued guerrilla war in the countryside.

United States imperialism is another fomenter of counterrevolution, although not so obvious because Syria is not itself a US vital interest and so its intervention has been on a limited scale. Obama and Hilary Clinton were happy enough to see rebel forces put pressure on Assad, without bringing down the entire Baathist dictatorship in ruins, as happened in Iraq and in Gadhafi’s Libya. The chaos in both was a terrible lesson to US imperialism. Nonetheless, causing trouble for Russia and its ally was part of the Cold War the US had started over Ukraine and Crimea.

A by-product of this cautious policy in Iraq was the rise of the so-called Islamic State, IS, whose capture of Mosul brought a rich haul of funds and US weaponry, and then its seizure of a huge swathe of north-east Syria. This obliged the US under Obama to intervene more directly than it wished. Its only available allies, who had faced and heroically beaten off the IS attack on Kobane, were Rojava Kurds (The PYD and its Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PYG). They then formed a front with Syrian allies in the region to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). These are the “moderate rebels” that Obama talked about.

Even after Trump abandoned as much as he could of Obama’s legacy, US policy on Syria hardly changed. Indeed, he backed up support for the Kurds with heavy air attacks against IS strongholds in North East Syria, plus 2-3000 US special forces. This enraged Turkey's increasingly dictatorial Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who responded with his Afrin adventure. The US bombing has resulted in horrendous civilian casualties that the Western media only mention as a footnote.

Meanwhile, Assad is playing a double-game of attacking the YPG in the East (where the US controls the skies) while allowing them to move forces through his territory in the West, although thus far he has stopped short of “relieving” them in Afrin, firstly because this might mean a clash with the Turks but also because he hopes to march into it without conditions and completely unopposed after the Kurds have been defeated. On the other hand, the YPG have apparently handed over Tall Rifaat and parts of Aleppo to regime forces on the pretext of “moving their forces there to Afrin”, hoping in return for “assistance” in Afrin. The game of double cross between the various forces goes on with the progressives, Syrian and Kurdish, the most likely losers.

Despite the enormity of Putin’s crimes, the United States, Britain and France are in no position to pose as defenders of human rights or accusers of crimes against humanity. The atrocities they committed in their conquest and occupation of Iraq (e.g. the two sieges of Falujah) were on as great a scale as Putin’s and Assad’s. As recently as the siege and capture of Raqqa in 2017, US airstrikes reportedly caused heavy civilian casualties for which they have shown little concern.

As for wielding the veto at the UN Security Council, who can forget how many times the US has used it, or the threat of it, to prevent condemnation, let alone any sanctions, on Israel for its blitzkriegs on Gaza, which remains a devastated landscape to this day. These are crimes equal to Putin’s and Assad’s. Moreover, Donald Trump is repeatedly giving the green light to further Israeli outrages so that Netanyahu will probably use the “distraction” of the world’s attention to Syria to make assaults either in Lebanon or southern Syria or in Gaza, or all three.

France's UN ambassador François Delattre said the UN's inability to help Syrian civilians would result in a devastating loss of credibility. Syria he said "must not also become a graveyard for the United Nations". In fact the UN Security Council is, as Marxists have always said, nothing other than a thieves' kitchen where the big thieves, the US, the European powers, particularly Britain and France, plus Russia and China, divide and redivide the world. Resolutions and “peace plans” only pass when these powers have reached a deal behind the scenes.

This dirty game by the imperialist and regional powers is clearly not yet over; the workers and poor farmers of Syria are still treading the road to Golgotha. The United Nations Agencies, the NGOs and human rights organisations can at best reveal the horrors but can only wring their hands over them

Only revolution, arising out of the Arab Spring, could have saved them and indeed will do so one day, in spite of today’s horrors. Events in 2011-13 were the critical conjuncture at which secular and democratic forces lost out to Islamist forces, both salafist and “moderate”, who were sponsored by powers like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. America and the EU made friendly verbal noises but refused to arm the rebels with the surface to air missiles that could have defended them against Assad’s warplanes and barrel bomb helicopters.

The Islamist forces within the opposition only finally gained the upper hand in early 2013, after the FSA’s failure to take Damascus and western Aleppo in mid-2012, and partly as a result of this failure. This was a veritable counterrevolution within the revolution. Another factor was the failure of the revolutionary forces to tackle the national question. The democratic resistance acted like Syrian nationalists, failing to recognise the justice of the Kurdish population’s struggle for self-determination.

On the other hand, the PYD colluded at several points with the regime, standing aside from the struggle to overthrow it. Only internationalism could have been a sure basis for uniting the maximum forces against the dictatorship. In the end, the Syrian Revolution failed because it did not recognise early enough that a people disarmed will always be defeated and that it was vital to undermine Assad’s social base amongst urban workers and the various minorities, ethnic and religious.

Socialists and democrats outside the region, especially in Europe and North America, need to help Syrian revolutionaries to regroup their forces, because, as we have said, the Assad regime will prove far from stable. Once the effects of sheer exhaustion and material suffering, and the demoralising effects of the people’s defeat, wear off, contradictions will emerge amongst those who supported him and the element of “foreign occupation” will fuel further resentments. The huge Syrian Diaspora, the enduring refugee camps, will be a seedbed of resistance.

Socialists in the imperialist democracies, in the trade unions, need to help their Syrian sisters and brothers; first by putting pressure on their governments to give asylum to all refugees without imposing any bans on their political activities. As with the Russian exiles in the 19th and 20th centuries, as later with the Palestinians, exile can be used to draw the lessons of the conflict and to build a revolutionary party based on a strategy for working class power, not just in Syria but across the whole Middle East.

Last, but not least, the treacherous and brutal interventions of both imperialist camps, Moscow as well as Washington (and London and Paris) need to be exposed and mobilised against. As long as their interventions in Syria and the entire Middle East continue, there is a serious danger of a clash between them. At the very least, they are using each other's crimes to fuel a new cold war and race for rearmament. If not tomorrow, the prospect of an inter-imperialist war is no longer a mad leftist fantasy.

For this reason, the antiwar movement that reached mass proportions in 2000-2003 needs to be revived. In present conditions, this will require it to be resolutely equal in its targeting of imperialist war moves and crimes. Whilst we all have to act on the basis that “our main enemy is at home” this does not mean this enemy’s enemy is our friend. In Britain, the USA and Germany, the long tradition that anti-imperialism meant being anti-US and anti-Nato, has too often meant silence on the crimes of Putin and even Assad, as if they were in some sense anti-imperialist themselves.

The right wings that dominate many of the Labour and Social Democratic parties follow their own ruling classes in uttering calls for “humanitarian” interventions or UN or US-UK sanctions against Russia. This, too, needs to be exposed and fought. We are in a period marked by moves to redivide the world amongst the camps of imperialist thieves Against this, the working class has to form an international camp of resistance and revolution.