The major powers are at deadlock over Syria, but the US and its allies are still finding ways to intervene argues John Rees

The bloody attack at Houla by the Syrian regime, or militias supporting it, is the latest in a long line of such atrocities. The deaths at Houla have become the latest opportunity for those who care little for the rights of the Syrian people, British foreign secretary William Hague and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to demand regime change in Damascus.

The Syrian uprising is now more than a year old and blood is still being shed on a daily basis. Over 10,000 have now lost their lives. The government of Bashar al Assad has been unable to crush the movement, but the movement has been unable to overthrow Assad. But however horrific the events in Syria are we should not allow our sympathy for the victims to carry us into support for Western intervention. Here is why.

We have been here before. The millions of lives lost in the Iraq war were justified as ‘humanitarian intervention’. In fact this is the major imperial ideology of the last 20 years used successively in the Balkans, the First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Many years after the massacre of the Kurds at Halabja had actually taken place it was being used as a justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before that, the first Gulf War in 1991 was justified in part by a news report that asserted that Saddam Hussein’s forces were tearing babies out of hospital incubators in Kuwait. Understandable outrage at this act was channelled into support for war by the mainstream media and the government. But, as it turned out, the story was entirely invented.

We know that in Iraq the cost to Iraqis of Western intervention was out of all proportion greater even than the brutality of Saddam’s regime.

Again in Libya, the brutality of Gadaffi’s regime was used as a justification for intervention. Some 30,000 deaths later, more than in any other country swept by the Arab revolutions, there is still no elected government in Libya and the country stands of the verge of political breakdown.

We have also been here before in another sense: there have frequently been sections of the oppressed themselves who have turned to the imperial powers for aid. The Kosovo Liberation Army did in the Balkan War. The Iraqi Kurds and some other opponents of Saddam did so in the Iraq War. The Trans National Council ended up doing so in Libya.

And we have been here before in a third sense: in each conflict some on the western left have decided that the prospect before them is so horrifying that it justifies supporting imperialism, or supporting those forces on the ground who are calling for imperialist aid.

Fred Halliday, a noted left-wing critic of imperialism, supported the first Gulf War. A variety of leftists backed NATO in the Balkans to ‘save the Kosovans’. David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen, to name only two former Communist sympathisers, and Christopher Hitchens from the Trotskyist left, supported the Iraq War. There was never a return to the left after these departures.

A similar propaganda campaign is now being waged about Syria. The propaganda is at such a high pitch precisely because the actual situation is in stalemate. The US, Britain and their allies want to see regime change in Damascus. But China and Russia are opposed to intervention.

The Syrian opposition itself is now divided. Some are calling for the West to intervene. But others want to fight on without foreign intervention. This is a revolution in deadlock.  How did this happen?


The Syrian revolution was born from the same conditions that have produced revolutions throughout the Arab world. The Syrian government is a decaying dynastic dictatorship. Authoritarian rule replaced limited democratic government when the Ba’ath Party staged a coup in 1963. Hafez al-Assad became President in an internal power struggle in 1970.

Until the current repression of the revolution, the regime’s brutality was nowhere more starkly in evidence than in the 1982 massacre of the uprising in the town of Hama, in which many thousands were killed by the Syrian Army under the command of the President’s brother. Thirty years later Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded his father after the constitution was altered to lower the minimum age of the President from 40 to 34.

The elite around the Assad family amassed huge wealth as they drove through free market policies. Unemployment averages 25 percent but is much higher among the young. The rule of the Assad family has been repeatedly challenged during its long rule…and on each occasion protest has been brutally repressed.

Just as the Tunisian revolution encouraged revolt in Egypt, so the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions encouraged revolt in Syria. The first protests started on January 26th 2011, only a day after the Egyptian revolution began. But in the first weeks protests were sporadic and did not challenge the regime in its capital, Damascus. Indeed the first Day of Rage in early February, called on social media, was repressed relatively easily by the regime.

It was not until March 15th 2011 that the protests really began to escalate. The southern city of Deraa became the focus. Protests then spread to Homs, Hama, Latakia, Aleppo and Damascus itself. In April the protests became even more widespread. But they were met with deadly force by the regime. Much the same pattern has been reproduced in the months since, with neither side gaining the advantage. Part of the problem has been that the intervention of the West has helped to divide the uprising.

Turing point: the West intervenes in the Arab revolutions

The West has a long record of interference in modern Syria. At the end of the Second World War the British army occupied the country as they drove out pro-Nazi forces.

Syria became a democracy but in 1949 a US backed military coup overthrew the government. Only an internal uprising briefly restored democracy before the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963.

But, over the years, there came to be a difference between the Syrian regime and the other Arab dictatorships. Many post-colonial Arab disctatorships moved in to the Western camp. Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia and Mubarak’s government in Egypt were great allies of the US, Britain and the Western powers. The US however regarded the Assad regime as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, as the administration of George Bush described it. In fact, the West wanted regime change in Syria.

The West’s dislike of the Assad regime had nothing to do with its record of domestic repression~after all the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes were also internally repressive and the West continued to support them. The difference lay in foreign policy.

Syria has a long standing conflict with Israel. In the 1967 Six Day War Israel attacked Syria, Egypt and Jordan and seized 30 miles of Syrian territory. Indeed Israel still militarily occupies the Golan Heights. And Syria is allied to Iran, the main strategic threat to US interests in the Middle East. In addition the Syrian regime has given support to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As neo-con booster Con Coughlin recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph: ‘

just imagine how the region’s fortunes would be improved if the Assad regime were overthrown and replaced by the first pro-Western government since the overthrow of the Syrian monarchy in the Twenties. Iran’s supply lines to Hizbollah would be cut, thereby denying the militia access to the stockpiles of powerful missiles it uses to threaten Israel. At the same time Russia, the Assads’ only significant ally outside the Middle East, would no longer enjoy its favoured nation status in Syria’s capital and ports.’

For conjunctural and self-interested reasons it has found itself opposed to the Western powers. But it has also been willing to attack the Palestinians when it suited its purposes, and to suppress its opposition to Israel.

But, in general, the Assad regime is not popular with the US and its allies. This contributed to the Syrian government having a greater level of support among the population than, for instance, Mubarak could boast in Egypt. When the revolution came in Egypt Mubarak’s pro-American foreign policy, including the regimes economic links with Israel was one factor that fed the government’s unpopularity. The same was not true in Syria.

The imperial powers did not intervene effectively in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and this made the business of supporting them uncomplicated for the left. In March 2011 the imperial powers developed a response to the Arab revolutions and began a systematic programme of intervention. This transformed the situation and made the simple-minded repetition of slogans from the previous phase of development impossible.

The Western powers had been caught off guard by the speed of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They were slow to distance themselves from the dictators they had backed for decades. And by the time they did the revolutions had already toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak.

This left the Western powers struggling to develop a strategy to regain the initiative as revolution swept the most sensitive and economically important area of the globe, the Middle East. But just as the Syrian revolt was gathering strength in March 2011 the West was developing a new strategy towards the Arab revolutions. This strategy came in two parts.

The first part was straight-forward repression. This is what happened when the revolution in the small island Kingdom of Bahrain was crushed by a military operation which combined an invasion by Saudi Arabian armed forces and the indigenous military. The operation came just two days after the visit of US Secretary of State Robert Gates to Bahrain.

The second approach was more complex. It involved a military operation in support of the uprising in Libya. This, like the operation in Bahrain, had the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar but it was led by the US, Britain and France. The aim was not only to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It was also designed to buy the loyalty of the rebel forces by providing them with decisive military support. The deployment of an advanced Western military capability massively increased the level of casualties.

The Libya air war conducted by the US, France and the UK took a long time to come to fruition, but by the end of the summer 2011 it was all over. The West anointed the Libyan government it wanted at a conference in Paris. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt there have still been no democratic elections in Libya and with every new report the situation in the country is revealed as more and more desperate.

The West and Syrian revolution

Initially the West wanted to repeat the Libyan strategy in Syria. President Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to go. With every new atrocity by the regime, these calls are renewed. The US and its allies have considered direct military intervention in Syria of the kind that they mounted in Libya. But so far they have been unable to do so. Why?

Firstly, the major powers themselves are divided after the Libya intervention with China and Russia unwilling to see their influence undermined in a state with which they traditionally have strong ties. Secondly, the danger of igniting a long war in a state which borders Israel, Iraq and Lebanon carries risks of creating a regional conflict which the Libya campaign did not. Thirdly, anti-war sentiment in the US and Britain was opposed to the Libya intervention and remains opposed to a Syria intervention making military deployment risky in domestic politics.

So after the initial attempt to secure a UN resolution which would have paved the way for military intervention the US and its allies have increasingly turned to methods short of direct military deployment of their own troops to achieve regime change.

Extensive sanctions are now in place against Syria. The US designated Syria a ‘state sponsor of terror’ in 1979 and imposed a series of sanctions at the same time. The Bush administration added to these in 2004.

In the current conflict Barack Obama signed a new executive order, imposing sanctions on Syria’s energy sector and freezing all Syrian government assets in the US. But the US is not alone. The European Union, Britain, Turkey, Canada, Australia and the Arab League have all imposed sanctions on Syria.

These sanctions have hurt the Syrian people more than they have hurt the regime. They are also be designed to prepare public opinion for more direct forms of intervention.

Direct military assistance to the Free Syrian Army, based around units who have defected from the Syrian Army plus local militias, is now significant. At the Istanbul Free Syria conference earlier this year representatives of 60 countries pledged financial assistance to the main Syrian opposition group.

Hillary Clinton said the US has agreed to pledge an additional $12 million for a total of $25 million and to provide communications equipment to help the Free Syrian Army. The Gulf States are now promising to pay the wages of the Free Syrian Army. One eyewitness, a TV reporter, just returned from Syria saw Saudi arms dealers going about their business freely.

Leading US Republicans, like Newt Gingrich, are calling for the US to commit itself to covert operations in Syria. The Obama administration has refused to do so, but it is likely that such operations are in any case already underway. Wikileaks revealed a conversation between a member of the Strategic Forecasts (Stratfor) think-tank and high ranking US military officers in the Pentagon which they implied that ‘Special Operations Forces teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce missions and training opposition forces.’

The US and Britain are trying to break the deadlock

The refusal of Russia and China to back intervention at the UN is still a major obstacle to intervention. But the US and western governments could  go-around the Security Council, as they did in 1999, when NATO set about bombing Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. The US ignored Russian objections then and they could do so again, but probably only if they had the active support of both Turkey and the Arab League.

Of course the support of the Saudis and other Gulf states is already assured. ‘People exaggerate and overestimate the power of the Syrian army,’ says Riad Kahwaji, a military analyst based in Dubai. ‘Syria has a sophisticated anti-aircraft system, but most of its equipment is from the Soviet era and could easily be out-powered.’ A Turkish decision to set up a buffer zone would require air raids on Syrian defences.

No one can minimise the barbarity of the Assad regime, nor want to defend it from the justified rage of its own people. But those in Syria who want to deliver their country into the hands of imperialism are mistaken because no one began the Syrian revolution wanting another Libya as the result.

The thunder roll of war is getting louder, the chatter of the propagandists flying ahead of the storm is getting louder. Time is running out for the Syrian uprising.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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