George Bush Snr meets and greets after first Iraq war in 1990

No support for either side

War crimes investigations and trials are not just a continuation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict by other, legal, means. There is, Yassamine Mather shows, a grisly connection with the Middle East

According to Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s investigative committee, speaking to the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, over 1,300 criminal cases against Ukrainian prisoners of war are being examined.

It is proposed that the accused will be tried before an international tribunal backed by Iran, Syria and Bolivia - countries that could be considered allies of the Russian state (Syria and Iran voted against a United Nations resolution in March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Bolivia was amongst the countries that abstained).

Russia has charged 92 members of the Ukrainian armed forces with crimes ‘against humanity’, and apparently 51 armed forces commanders are also on Russia’s wanted list. Moscow also keeps repeating the claim that Ukraine is overrun by neo-Nazis as justification for Russia’s “special military operation”. No doubt there are Nazis close to the current government - the military militias of the far-right Azov battalion have, according to state officials, including president Volodymyr Zelensky, been integrated into Ukraine’s army.1 However, Putin’s Russia relies heavily on internal ultra-nationalist and Nazi support and its main European ally is Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán. So it would be foolish to accept Russia’s claim of ‘deNazification’.

Ukraine too is investigating some 21,000 war crimes and crimes of aggression allegedly committed by Russian forces since the start of the invasion in February, and the International Criminal Court now has a team of investigators and forensic experts in Ukraine.

Of course, truth is the first casualty of war, and neither side can be believed when it comes to either accusations of war crimes against their enemy or protestations of innocence regarding their own troops. However, the Russia-Iran-Syria alliance in the proposed ‘international tribunal’, a week after Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei praised Putin’s ‘initiative’ in starting the war in Ukraine, is truly frightening. Iran and Syria - two countries renowned for repressing their own people - are joining with Putin’s Russia in deciding the fate of prisoners of war (I am afraid I do not know much about Bolivia’s internal politics, so I will confine my comments to Iran and Syria).

Iran’s Islamic Republic openly admits to - in fact boasts about - the number of socialists it has killed over the last four decades. Recently a court in Sweden issued a life sentence against an ex-Iranian official, Hamid Noury, for his part in the 1988 massacre of leftwing political prisoners. Of course, 1988 represents just one period of repression in Iran: there have been a number of such episodes during the rule of both supreme leaders, ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. So Iran is clearly well qualified to help run Russia’s ‘international tribunal’.


Then we have Syria - another bastion of civil rights! Dictator Bashar al-Assad has presided over more than 10 years of bloody civil war. Of course, we should refute the ill-informed opinions of those sections of the left who only see Syria, Iran and Russia as the culprits. True, they are guilty of terrible crimes, but they are not the only ones. Some of the comments made by pro-Nato, pro-imperialist forces about Syria, repeated ad infinitum during the Ukraine crisis, are part of the fake news that has been presented as ‘undisputed fact’.

No-one should be in any doubt about the brutal, undemocratic nature of the Syrian state. However, as I have written on a number of occasions, it was the destruction of Iraq and prior to that the war in Afghanistan that paved the way for the Syrian civil war and many other disasters in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq led to the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad, changing dramatically the balance of forces in the region and leading to the rise of militant jihadism, often supported by Sunni states fearful of losing their influence in the region. Soon after the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings a decade ago, the desire to kill off the burgeoning democratic movements, as well as the need to regain the upper hand in the region, led countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to wage war not just against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, but against Qatar, Iran, …

This is how the creation of a civil war (wrongly dubbed a Sunni-Shia conflict) in Syria took off. In other words, it was not just Assad and his allies, along with the reactionary clerics in Tehran, who started the civil war in Syria. There was a lot more to that conflict, but some of those who clearly have the most superficial understanding of the region amongst the social-imperialist ‘left’ - those who have no sense of history and are completely ignorant of the dynamics within the region - end up consciously or unconsciously acting as apologists for US/UK policy, and indeed for the Saudi/UAE position.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in Syria should also be condemned, while Russia was acting in its own geopolitical interests (access to a warm-water port and revenge on the jihadi Chechens). However, no-one in their right mind believes that the financial and political support from Arab regimes for Islamic State (completely brushed under the carpet by the US and its allies) in Iraq and Syria was simply aimed at defeating the Shia government in Iraq or the Alawite, Assad. The real enemy was Iran.

None of the Arab states which supported the protests against Assad were in favour of the Arab spring or ‘democracy’ in Syria. Their aim was twofold: firstly to destroy or divert the aims of the Arab spring; and, secondly, to weaken Iran’s allies and therefore counter the ‘Shia/Alawi’ influence in the region. Their ultimate goal was weakening Tehran’s influence, so Iraq and Syria were just convenient places to start.


Long before there were any sizeable demonstrations in Damascus, I was in Cairo (in late 2010-early 2011), where every day huge protests took place in Tahrir Square. However, when I switched on the Saudi satellite TV station in my hotel there was no footage of these protests - instead news bulletins were dominated by what looked like very small protests in Damascus. Al Jazeera (later accused by the Saudi regime of supporting Muslim Brotherhood) was the only Arab channel showing the Tahrir Square protests.

Of course, irrespective of their size, the demonstrations in Damascus against Assad were totally justified - they were protests against a dictator - but disregarding the larger demonstrations in Cairo was not accidental. The Saudis were telling us to focus on the Sunni/Shia conflict and take sides in the Syrian civil war. Of course, none of this excuses the use of the Syrian army against civilians, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacking non-IS opposition forces in Syria, or Russia’s substantial military intervention. Yes, some of that was initially aimed at defeating Islamic State, but ended up being used to suppress any opposition to Assad. All of which took place not far from those Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Returning to Russia-Ukraine, it would be absurd to suggest that all the Putin supporters, both in the governments of the global south, as well as amongst large sections of the left in this part of the world, are paid agents of Russia or China. Yes, they are mistaken, but there are good reasons why they side with Russia in the current conflict. They look at US and western policy over the last four decades and know full well that the US, with the support of large parts of what it calls the ‘international community’, have brought nothing but destruction and devastation to the global south, and in particular the Middle East.

This region is not in the condition it is just because of the Syrian civil war. That destruction and devastation started in 2003 with the US-led invasion of Iraq - an example of reactionary imperialist aggression that paved the way for US-led action against potential rivals in the 21st century. This connection was apparent in the Freudian slip by George W Bush when he condemned the invasion of Ukraine. Speaking in Dallas on May 22, he referred to the “decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq”. Whoops! He then corrected himself: “I mean of Ukraine.”2

In the Middle East and the rest of the third world, the US is hated because of its ‘scorched earth’ policy, both when it comes to war and destruction, but also in respect of its support for neoliberal economic policy via the rule of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. However, those who, as a result, think that any US enemy could be their friend are very badly mistaken. Russia is no friend of the peoples of the Middle East and its victory in Ukraine (unlikely as it might be) would be disastrous for the peoples of the region. It would strengthen Putin’s current allies: Iran’s ayatollah Khamenei, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to name just a few unsavoury dictators.

Meanwhile, those sections of the European, US and Canadian left who are attacking the third world left for their pro-Russia positions are themselves guilty of whitewashing imperialist and even colonial crimes. In justifying any support for Ukraine, they have become apologists for Nato and the United States. They do not seem to understand that a victory for Nato would be a victory not just for the United Sates as the undisputed global hegemon, but also a victory for its allies, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, the Zionist state in Israel, the sultan in Oman, the sheikhs in the UAE and the supporters of ‘regime change from above’ in Iran, etc.

That is why internationalists cannot just oppose one side in this reactionary war. We should oppose both sides in the name of the international working class.

  1. ua.interfax.com.ua/news/general/828874.html.↩︎

  2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/21/george-bush-iraq-war-week-in-patriarchy.↩︎