Calling upon imperialism is complete madness

Yassamine Mather delivered this opening to the October 16 CPGB and Labour Party Marxists aggregate

There are a number of reasons why we have to discuss Syria, not least because arguments for a no-fly zone are being debated, and because sections of the left are actually collecting signatures for what is essentially a plea to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to support ‘air drops’ for the ‘moderate’, non-jihadist opposition. The list of signatories is quite long: it includes the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and some members of Socialist Resistance, plus others who are weak politically.

Syria is also one of the issues on which Corbyn is clearly going to come under attack. I personally have never been a fan of Corbyn’s foreign policy when it comes to the Middle East - any more than I am of the Stop the War Coalition, which on Iran failed to address the repression of workers and the left and turned a blind eye to the regional ambitions of the Islamic Republic. However, what we are facing now is a completely different issue: a barrage of propaganda about a fictitious ‘moderate Islamic opposition’ inside Syria.

In fact, contrary to what The Daily Telegraph is telling us, the problem with Stop the War is not that it is pro-Russian or pro-Syrian regime. The problem is that, generally speaking, it is quite a conservative group. The whole concept that it is part of a pro-Russian conspiracy, as declared by Boris Johnson, is nonsense. In recent weeks Donald Trump has shown himself to be far more pro-Russian than the STWC.

I will now set out a number of facts and then summarise why we should oppose motions in support of imperialist intervention. Above all else we should explain the situation in Syria - which is complicated, but not so complicated as some are making out.

I think you have to see the situation in Syria in conjunction with what is happening in Yemen. This week 150 people were killed and 500 injured at a funeral there because, Saudi Arabia now says, it was misidentified as a gathering of Houthi rebels. Now, the Houthis have been bombed regularly for the last few weeks by the Saudis. This is an obsession of the Saudi rulers, because the Houthis have some connection with Iran - Iran does support them, but the escalation of this situation to a full-scale war is unbelievable. As far as the US is concerned, this war has to be won and Saudi actions have to be defended. The Americans are contributing a lot financially and have sent ships to assist the Saudi effort.

There was recently a very interesting interview with a pro-Saudi analyst on the BBC and even he expresses disbelief at the Saudi paranoia about the Iran-Houthi connection. That is because the Houthis could never rule Yemen - they are just one community amongst many, but the Saudi obsession with Iran is driving them to this action. The same analyst argued - and this is the US Republican line - that the conflict is the fault of Barack Obama, for being such an ineffective president over the last few months. The interviewer rightly put it to him that he could not have been that ineffective, having paid billions of pounds to the Saudis, sold them a lot of arms to help with this, and sent warships to the Gulf. What would a Republican president have done? Nothing more, surely. So this is not about the US being weak or ineffective. The US is trying to be effective - but on the side of Saudi Arabia in this case. It is backing the same side in Syria too.

Syria and Israel

The Syrian question can be summed up in a number of news stories we have heard in the last week or so - and quite a lot of them have come from Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails, which speak volumes. If I were a strategist for the Clinton campaign, I would have put out the stories disparaging Trump a week earlier, because it overshadowed everything that came up in those emails. And they are pretty damning - not just about Clinton, but about US foreign policy.

In August 2014, Clinton writes that “we must put more pressure on our allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are providing financial and logistical support to Isis and other Islamic radical groups in the region”. This is very clear: there is no doubt. It is not some Saudi prince using his casino money in London to pay Islamic State: she is asking the US administration to talk to the Saudi government itself. In another email concerning Syria, in December 2015, she says that, for the Israeli leaders, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran attacking Israel is a serious one: “The Israelis are worried they would lose their nuclear monopoly.” I had to laugh at this: officially, of course, Israel is supposed to have no nuclear weapons!

In addition, if Israel were to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran could retaliate in Syria and in Lebanon. So it is clear that the woman is not stupid.

Here I must admit - and I know this might not be very popular with some comrades - I do not think this is simply about incompetence, or simply about the decline of the US as hegemonic power resulting in a lack of intervention. It is a dangerous, difficult world, and the US has chosen to support Saudi Arabia and Israel for its own reasons, whatever those reasons are. It is not working very well, but that does not necessarily mean that a laissez-faire attitude prevails in US policy toward either Syria or the conflict in Yemen. In both circumstances it has got itself deeply involved, with likely very dangerous consequences. But, as far as the strategy is concerned, there is a blind spot: supporting Israel at all costs.

And it is here that the anti-Semitism argument in the Labour Party is so important. It is not just a side issue; it is not just about ‘safe spaces’, etc. This is the Achilles heel of the left in the current situation.

So what is the situation in the Middle East? Who are we fighting against? We have been told all along that the enemy is Islamic State, yet Clinton’s emails make clear that we are still selling arms to Saudi Arabia, even though she - and presumably president Obama and everyone else - knew that they were supporting IS. Surely the contradiction is obvious. Clinton once pointed out that “the snakes you keep in your back garden to attack your neighbours could start biting your own hands”. And that is definitely true of IS when it attacks Saudi or Turkish targets.

So let me now say what the conflict in Syria and Yemen is not about:

What the conflict is largely about is the Saudis and Qataris defending Islamist jihadis in order to reduce the influence of Iran. And it is about Israel and the absolute necessity for the United States to maintain the position of the Zionist state in the region. The defenders of that Zionist state are the people who are the main proponents of ‘solidarity with Syria’ and a no-fly zone.

A number of issues relating to this have to be discussed. First of all, no-one should defend the bombing of civilians by Russian planes. The idea that the Russian intervention is somehow progressive is put forward by, for example, Stop the War’s former chair, Andrew Murray of the Communist Party of Britain, who has said that the Russians were “invited by the legitimate government of Syria”, so, unlike US intervention, that of Russia is perfectly acceptable. When the American intervention began, the Weekly Worker explained why this was totally reactionary. Then when Russian bombs started falling, we said this would make the situation even worse. Indeed it has done just that, which no-one can deny.

No-fly zone?

Let me add that it is also complete madness to talk about no-fly zones. First of all, IS has lost a quarter of its territory - it has just ceded control of the town of Dabiq to Turkish-backed Syrian Turkmen. This is interesting, because the BBC interviewed these fighters as they were going in, and none of them could speak Arabic! I am not quite sure how anyone could claim they are Syrian. So Turkey has basically invaded this part of Syria. And IS is losing in Iraq too: the Baghdad government is quite adamant that it is a matter of days before Mosul is retaken.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, other jihadists are losing too. The UN says there are currently 900 al-Nusra fighters there, but Reuters says it is far fewer: a couple of hundred at most. So we are not talking about large numbers. Al-Nusra has taken thousands of people in one suburb of Aleppo as hostages: with every spate of bombing from the US or the Syrians, lots of civilians die and there is more pressure for a no-fly zone to be implemented.

However, what would a no-fly zone do? Well, first of all, why would Syria and Russia accept this, when they are winning there? You agree to a ceasefire only if you think you are in a position of weakness.

I do not think, by the way, that the Syrian government deliberately tricked the Americans into bombing the wrong target, killing 16 Syrian soldiers and wrecking the ceasefire. In a war situation where the US, Russia, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Arab Emirates are all involved, not to mention Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, it is easy to understand how something could go wrong. In Yemen there is only Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Houthis and the Americans, yet the Saudis still managed to get it wrong and bomb the wrong people. When you read what the Arab journalists are saying about Aleppo, or some of the other towns under the control of IS, you will find contradictory information about its strength and level of support.

What about this wonderful group that is currently in control of eastern Aleppo, al-Nusra? About the only positive news I heard last week was the offer by a United Nations official to escort its 900 fighters out of the city - to Saudi Arabia or Jordan perhaps. Aleppo is completely destroyed. The removal of al-Nusra would at least allow for the tens of thousands remaining in the eastern part of the city to be saved. But they did not go. Saudi Arabia encouraged them to stay - like some people on the left the Saudis are also campaigning for a no-fly zone.

But that is just a dead end. I have read what quite a few non-pro-war British journalists have written as well as what the Arab press are saying (including some who are not paid by Saudi Arabia), and they all agree that the only solution in Aleppo is for al-Nusra to leave the city by whatever means. The problem, however, is that al-Nusra is no longer al-Nusra: in a bid to be removed from the ‘terrorist’ blacklist and categorised as ‘non-combatant opposition’, it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, so now it is a ‘moderate’ grouping, according to Saudi Arabia. The same grouping that was the recognised Syrian branch of al Qa’eda until earlier this year!

The House of Lords sent a commission to find the ‘moderate opposition’ inside Syria in 2015. I know a lot of ‘moderate’ Syrian oppositionists in Lebanon, in London and in Turkey… but this commission could not find any inside Syria, and I think that sums up the story for you. It is not that there has never been a pro-west Syrian opposition, but its members have either been killed, jailed or thrown into exile.

There are other big problems about a no-fly zone. First of all, the Russians will not agree to it and the US is unlikely to bring down a Russian plane, because of the huge consequences. Secondly, Turkey is bombing mainly Kurdish areas, now that it is on the side of the Assad regime. So potentially you could have a Nato country being targeted by the Americans for refusing to end its air raids. I do not know where the left advocates of such a zone get their ideas. Have they looked at a map? Do they know that Turkey has changed its position? Do they know that the Kurdish organisations - although they are non-Islamist opponents of Assad and claim to be on the left - are now a problem? Organisations on the left can change positions and as a result become bankrupt.

A year ago I had a debate with a supporter of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) on a BBC programme, and his constant refrain was that they had a mass base in the Kurdish areas, so would never sell out. They could accept support from the United States - this was just after the Americans prevented the fall of Kobanê through aerial intervention - and still would keep their distance. Yet a few days later these Marxist-Leninist leaders of the YPG were arriving in Washington. Iranian and other leftwingers were chauffeured to the White House or the Pentagon. No sooner had this happened than we saw American military forces arriving in Kurdish areas and advising the YPG about its options.

This lesson of the Iranian Kurds should have been learnt. They enjoyed just as much mass support, but they took the disastrous decision to accept aid from Saddam Hussein, and that destroyed them. It was the death of the Iranian left, and these current actions will lead to the death of the YPG. They will not be able to raise their head anywhere in the Middle East, because the people of the region will associate them with the US and the Israelis.

And that is the problem in the region. There is no grey area. You cannot, on the one hand, be a bit of a soft Zionist like the AWL and, on the other hand, claim to support the people of Syria. In fact, the people of Syria will tell you, you are an agent of imperialism.

Then we have the whole question of the Saudis. They have been sold huge amounts of military firepower, and they are using it in Yemen and in Syria. We have to know, what is the justification? Last week there was a fear in Washington, headlined by some news agencies, that the Saudi ‘genocide’ in Yemen might lead to America being implicated in war crimes. I was surprised, because the US has committed so many war crimes anyway that you might think they had stopped caring, but I suppose Saudi Arabia is easier to take to the International Criminal Court! Now, Britain is in a similar position.

And those who support no-fly zones are indirectly supporting Saudi Arabia - I do not know if they are aware of it, but that is what they are doing. It is the same with those who are supporting ‘the Syrian opposition’ - they too are allying with Saudi Arabia. Taking any side in this war other than that of the regime is to support Saudi Arabia.

I have one final comment. The whole situation has become so bad that in the Middle East a lot of concepts have taken on a really nasty connotation. Use the term ‘NGO’ and people say, ‘You must be an American agent’, and it is the Americans’ own actions that have resulted in this. Use the term, ‘human rights organisation’, and they will say, ‘You’re definitely an American agent - don’t talk to me!’ Unfortunately this is not just about Syria. It is also true of Iran. On the Iranian left, never mind the royalists, you can hardly find a group or an organisation which is not tainted by receipt of US funding. I can say with reasonable confidence that Rahe Kargar (Shalgouni faction) and the Communist Party of Iran (Alizadeh faction) are exceptions. But if you think that there are probably over 150 Iranian exile opposition groups in the US, Europe, the Middle East and all over the world, this is a damning situation.

This is what US money has done. And this is what Saudi and US money has done to the Syrian opposition. It has corrupted it, destroyed it. It has done this not just through its funding, but also simultaneously by supporting (in the case of the Saudis) Islamic State and al-Nusra. So, as the left was becoming weaker, groups like IS and al-Nusra were getting all the more powerful. No wonder what remains of the left is now so weak.

In these circumstances, what exactly is the US up to? I do not have an answer to this essential question, but it seems to me that the world has arrived at a situation where whole areas are like a gated community. Within this world the Middle East is the shanty town. We will see many more failed states, and vicious, non-ending civil wars. Someone once called the US Democrats the party of permanent war and I think the Middle East is becoming the area of permanent civil wars.

And with that in mind, along with the unfavourable economic situation, the US is thinking: ‘We can sit and watch, and see what happens. We can get involved, by contributing to the war effort of Saudi Arabia, but we are not going to send troops there ourselves, and even in terms of air intervention we will keep our distance.’ US secretary of state John Kerry, in his talk to the Syrian opposition at the United Nations, confirmed that the United States was opposed to employing military personnel in Syria and I think with Clinton it will be the same.

In another quote from the leaked emails in 2015, she says that we do not know how this civil war is going to end, and we might just need to sit it out, and see what happens. That is the current US position, as far as I can tell.