Time to shed illusions
Only the international solidarity of our class can deliver a lasting solution, writes Yassamine Mather
As the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, and in the wake of renewed political and military efforts led by the United States, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies have gone onto the offensive.
On December 6, Ali Akbar Velayati - advisor to and representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei - met the Syrian ruler in Damascus. Tehran is confident that, given the current situation, if elections are held in the next few months, Assad and his Ba’ath party will win and no doubt in the next round of negotiations, to be held in New York, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran will fight their corner. However, it is not clear if this total support for Assad results from an agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin or if Iran is asserting its position ahead of a compromise by Russia. Apparently Putin is considering the possibility of replacing Assad by a military junta, to include Sunni and Christian military commanders - a solution favoured by the US and its allies. Iran’s reassertion of its support for Assad is an attempt to avert any such compromise.
The reality is that, for all the spin coming from the US administration about the next round of Syria talks in New York, the various options presented as ‘solutions to the crisis’ seem as bad as each other. After more than four years of bloodshed and suffering - including the complete destruction of several major cities, not just by Islamic State, but by the regime itself, not forgetting the air raids by the US, France, Russia and in the last week the United Kingdom - the efforts of the ‘international community’ could well end in the continuation of a minority Alawite-led regime or a military junta.
According to an article aptly named ‘Can Iran live without Assad?’ by Matthew McInnis, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Islamic Republic’s options ahead of a new round of peace talks are clear. In fact the west’s options are not that different. According to McInnis, the alternatives are:
- Someone from Assad’s inner circle taking over. The problem with this option is that the Syrian opposition and presumably their western allies will not accept such an arrangement and, more importantly, there is no likely candidate to fulfil such a role.
- A Christian or Druze as a compromise candidate. Tehran has few allies beyond the Alawite community and it is therefore unlikely that Iran will accept this.
- The replacement of Assad by a Sunni officer, rumoured to be favoured by the Russians. This would clearly be unacceptable to Tehran, and Khamenei would have made Iran’s views on this clear during his meeting with Putin last week.
That is why, as far as Tehran is concerned, Assad’s survival is the best, and maybe the only, option. Again according to McInnis,
Tehran will continue the fight on the ground to improve the Syrian regime’s position, work with Russia to find candidates that have support from the army and the Alawite community, the country will prevent the emergence of any leader too popular or strong to potentially push Iran out of Syria later, and it will ensure Iran retains a veto over the transition process, either directly or implicitly through threats of sabotaging any deal.1
For most Iranians the supreme leader’s 100% support for Assad - support echoed by the most conservative factions of the regime, including the Revolutionary Guards - is bizarre. Khamenei and his inner circle will not tolerate anything approaching secularism in their own country - female members of the Assad family, including Bashar’s wife, Asma al-Assad, would face a flogging for failing to wear a hijab if they were Iranian citizens. Apparently Iran’s adherence to Shia rules was one of the reasons the Syrian dictator refused to accept the offer of a sanctuary for his family in Tehran.
Yet senior clerics, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and close advisors to the supreme leader do not seem to see the irony of their commitment to do all in their power to keep a Ba’athist, secular party in power in Syria. As many Tehranis have observed, there is one rule for Iranians and another for the country’s allies - as always, Iran’s foreign policy is based on pragmatism, not religion. Tehran wants to maintain its current advantageous position in the region - the fall of the Syrian regime would endanger Hezbollah’s grip in Lebanon and Iran cannot tolerate such a situation. However, for the US and its allies Iran’s emerging market and cheap labour force present a golden opportunity not to be wasted.
According to the Morning Star, “the Nato powers and their Middle Eastern allies should stop arming and funding terrorist groups in Syria and start supporting the Damascus regime in its desperate battle against Isis and other sectarian forces.”2 This is precisely the solution put forward by sections of global capital and, although it might bring a temporary respite, it would not deal with the root causes of the current conflict and could be temporary at best.
But London mayor Boris Johnson seems to be competing with the Star in this regard:
I was in Paris at the end of last week, and the Russian leader’s face glowered sulkily from every billboard. “Putin”, said the headline, “notre nouvel ami”. Many French people think the time has come to do a deal with their ‘new friends’, the Russians - and I think that they are broadly right. We have the estimated 70,000 of the Free Syrian Army (and many other groups and grouplets); but those numbers may be exaggerated, and they may include some jihadists who are not ideologically very different from al Qa’eda.
Who else is there? The answer is obvious. There is Assad, and his army; and the recent signs are that they are making some progress. Thanks at least partly to Russian air strikes, it looks as if the regime is taking back large parts of Homs. Al Qa’eda-affiliated militants are withdrawing from some districts of the city. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.
However, both the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Boris Johnson are wrong. The Russia/Iran/Syria ‘solution’ will only delay the final stages of this conflict. If Assad and his Iranian allies were popular or had legitimacy, we would not be where we are today.
Similarly, the talk about ‘illegal’ wars and United Nations resolutions is totally counterproductive. In his speech to the UK parliament last week, Jeremy Corbyn told MPs:
UN security council resolution 2249, passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s government motion, does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, to which the security council couldn’t agree.
The UN resolution is certainly a welcome framework for joint action to cut off funding, oil revenues and arms supplies from Isil. But there’s little sign of that happening in earnest. Nor is there yet any serious evidence that it’s being used to coordinate international military or diplomatic strategy in Syria.3
I rest my case. At least two of the west’s allies are involved in the IS sale of oil, which is said to generate $1 billion a month! Do we really believe that nothing can be done about this trade? US sanctions have meant that European banks have paid billions of dollars in fines for trading with Iranian companies, yet the sale of oil from Mosul and other Iraqi regions cannot be detected and stopped? Are we seriously expecting the UN to punish the countries involved? The US and its allies are not actually attempting to defeat IS - the policy is one of containment, not destruction. In fact the group has its uses for imperialism - or at least imperialist allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states.
For us it is clear that the defeat of the imperialist project involves the shedding of liberal illusions, including in the UN. The statement issued by the Stop the War Coalition on the eve of the Westminster vote on Syria certainly had its fair share of those: “Our parliament must ensure it takes decisions in the interests of the security and well-being of our citizens and must consider the impact of our decisions on the wider world.”4 Hardly an expression of internationalism. It is regrettable that sections of the left have fallen into the trap of using the state’s current opportunistic emphasis on “security”.
Everyone knows that IS has its origins in al Qa’eda - itself a creation of US imperialism - and that it is able to recruit because of imperialist interventions, together with the failure to address historic injustices in the region, including the occupation of Palestine. It is only through the defeat of the imperialist project that a genuine solution can be found.
We are first and foremost for the defeat of the imperialist project - including their jihadist offshoots, such as Islamic State. Even if many of their recruits do not see themselves as such, I would classify IS as part of the imperialist project. They are also part of the problem, the enemies of revolutionary forces. So, while we call for the defeat of the imperialists, we are not necessarily for the victory of their opponents.
The working class in Iran and Iraq are under the neoliberal economic hammer of these Shia states, and the secular peoples of the region are desperately in need of support, which must come in the form of the international solidarity of the working class. As Adam Hanieh rightly points out,
Isis’s rise cannot be explained as simply an outcome of ideology or religion, as many western commentators appear to believe. There are very real social and political roots that explain the organisation’s growth.
One of the most important factors is the defeat of the Arab spring - itself a rebellion against the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies in the region, in circumstances where the weakness of the left allowed reactionary forces to benefit from the political vacuum caused by war, instability and economic hardship.5
Contrary to populist belief, the Arab spring had little to do with the spread of the internet and the growth of social media. It was first and foremost a reaction to economic hardship, the transfer of the effects of the 2008 economic crisis to the third world in general and the Near East in particular.
Its dramatic defeat - predictable, given the weaknesses of radical forces of the left - gave new impetus to the forces of reaction, including Wahhabi Islamists. They were already popular because of their opposition to the rise of Shiism in the region - a direct consequence of another war with no strategy, the one started in 2003 in Iraq.
To defeat the imperialist project we must address the fundamental reasons behind the Arab spring, as well as the issues surrounding the current civil wars - in this case the continuation of politics by reactionary states, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.