Syria: What Is to be Done?

September 1, 2013 6:13 pm

Nobody can deny the horrendous nature of events that have befallen the people of Syria in the last period during its increasingly bloody civil war.

The latest outrage – the appalling, ghastly use of chemical weapons – has been relayed around the world. The disgusting spectacle of men, women and children being subjected to these despicable weapons has taken revulsion to ever greater heights sparking anger, disbelief and a desperate search for a suitable response.

President Obama has been quoted as saying that the Assad regime in Syria has ‘crossed a red line’ in the use of such weapons – as if the death and destruction already taken place over the recent months with more ‘conventional’ weaponry wasn’t enough.


Why has the bloodshed been allowed to continue and reach such a dangerous tipping point? Why is it that the United Nations, originally founded in 1945 to counter such crimes against humanity, seems unable, or unwilling, to intervene effectively in such events? It appears almost as a helpless bystander. It can only be that its effective governing  body – the Security Council members – remains, as ever, divided. The reasons for this are many.

Geo-political chess game

During the immediate post-1945 period, the world was divided between the capitalist nations and the Stalinist ‘communist’ powers. This was reflected by the Security Council members: the USA, Britain, France representing the so-called ‘Free World’ diametrically opposed to the totalitarianism of the USSR and the Republic of China. It seemed the politicians of all these powers played a deadly game of geo-political chess as they moved their pieces around the board. The crumbling away of old empires left a vacuum  to be filled by the rise of newly-liberated nation states who had finally thrown off the shackles of imperialism whether their former masters were British, Japanese, French, Dutch, Belgium, German or Italian.

The major powers (primarily the USA and USSR) were only too ready to step in and gain ‘spheres of influence’ in defence of their mutually antagonistic socio-political systems. In South-East Asia, we saw the wars in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1945-1975). We had murderous guerilla campaigns in Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, partition and near civil war in the Indian sub-continent. In the African continent, former colonies proclaimed independence and, in some cases, had to fight  prolonged, bloody campaigns for freedom (against the French in Algeria, 1954-1962; the British in Kenya, 1956).

The freedom-loving American political class had regarded the whole of the South American region its own exclusive ‘back yard’ off limits to any other outside influence. For a whole historical period, the American ruling class installed an array of bloody dictatorships in Latin America with the watchword for this tyranical general or that corrupt ruler: ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s OUR bastard.’ Similarly, the USSR’s ruling clique from Stalin onwards regarded Eastern Europe as virtually part of its own property portfolio for a generation. Until, of course, in both cases, ‘people power’ from below brought the walls crashing down. Europe was, geographically at least, once more undivided. Latin Americans, generally, have managed to unseat the vicious military-police dictatorships so beloved of Washington DC in their day. Certainly, there’s room for improvement in both hemispheres but let’s call it a ‘work in progress’.

Apex of Imperialism

No different the region we know as the ‘Middle East’.

Since time untold, this area of the globe was important for its crossroads between east and west, the silk roads, spice routes and sea links between continents for trade and lucrative riches. For centuries, the Middle East was dominated by the old Ottoman Empire, the centre of which we know as Turkey today. This took in not only the Middle East but extended along the entire length of North Africa, all the Arab lands, even taking in South-East Europe upto the gates of ‘Christendom’ itself, stopping short at Vienna. Decades of uprisings, and campaigns from the then expanding Austrian Habsburgs, meant the Turks were pushed back, out of Europe, until the final liberation of Greece in the 1820s.

syria warThe Turkish Empire was the first political entity to be known as ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. Its ruling class were unable to modernise. It remained mediaeval in outlook and was prey to inroads from other rising empires at that time – notably France and Britain. Both those western powers had extensive empires that began to slowly gnaw at the Ottoman Empire’s vitals acquiring Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and, importantly, Egypt by the 19th centuries. The Suez canal was built by the French and British to service their trade from Asia. By the turn of the century, the Middle East, as a region, became ever more important as the industries of the west began to ever more rely on oil.

The First World War was fought, basically, because the world had been finally divided up between the major powers, there was literally nowhere else to go. Any further division could only mean war – THAT was the basic cause of the obscene bloodletting of 1914-1918, forget the rhetoric of ‘the war to end all wars’ or ‘the war for democracy’.

And, as with all wars, to the victors the spoils. The Turkish ruling class chose the losing side, thus its possessions were divided up between Britain and France. It’s no coincidence that, if you study the maps, many of the borders of the Middle Eastern states are straight lines. They were literally drawn up by Allied representatives Sykes and Picot, regardless of ethinicity and cultural needs, and parcelled out. Whole populations were thus handed over from one set of rulers to another. France received Syria and Lebanon while Britain got the lion’s share. It was the apex of imperialism and it all came crashing down after the Second World War.


A series of ‘hard men’

Exhausted by the demands of war, Britain and France were broke and gradually, unwillingly, had to let their property go especially in the face of growing national liberation movements. The ‘neo-imperialists’ – the USA and the USSR – were only too happy to step in with a new form of control.  The USSR forged links with new revolutionary movements, new communist parties in other countries, careful to make sure they weren’t ‘too revolutionary’ or too democratic. After all, they didn’t want their own population to get any ideas.

The USA saw new business opportunities. The American capitalist class already had most of Western Europe in hock with the Marshall Plan for post-war recovery, not only to increase profits but to ensure no further expansion of ‘communism’ was likely.

As in South America, so in the Middle East, since the 1950s, a series of ‘hard men’, brutal dictatorships ,were installed throughout the Middle East, aided and often abetted by the CIA, MI5, Deuxieme Bureau. Israel was supported as a useful enclave for imperialists, an ally to act on their behalf by proxy should any of the Arab states step out of line.

We have seen the rise (and subsequent fall) of the likes of the Shah of Iran, likewise the notorious Saddam Hussein. All of these states have been supported by western capitalist governments. They’ve been armed to the teeth, blind eyes have been turned by our business elites  to the poverty, to the lack of civil rights, trade union rights, women’s right. We helped build these powerful armies and sold chemical weapons to Saddam who used them against the Iranians AND against his own people. It was only when he offended western interests that the western imperialists turned on him.

Israel was backed as a counterbalance to the likes of Iraq, Jordan, Syria. Almost as a matter of course, the now capitalist Russian state continues its friendly links with Syria, a leftover policy from the Cold War. Syria provides a useful strategic naval base for Russia in the Mediterranean. Syria itself is closely allied to the pariah state of Iran, one of George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ and both are opposed to the very existence of the US client state of Israel.

After years of dictatorship, coupled with oppression, poverty, ignorance and religious backwardness, the free for all, rampant global capitalist system that came crashing down in 2008 has only aggravated this state of affairs throughout the region – a surefire factor in the historic ‘Arab Spring’ that brought a string of dictators to their knees, western-backed or otherwise.

A murderous game

syria warAnd that is what we see in Syria today, the ongoing struggle of people attempting to free themselves, at base, for a better life. Except, without the presence of genuine, democratic, mass movements to carry through their revolutions – in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and now in Syria. Dictators, like Assad, like the Egyptian military, armed to the teeth by the West and Russia, hang precariously onto power while factions of terrorists, posing as ‘freedom-fighters’ – muddy the water.

The failure of capitalism has brought only more poverty, death and destruction – in short, barbarism – in its wake.

The West cannot so readily intervene as before. Their own economies are in trouble. Their own populations are only too aware of the drawn-out deadly stalemates of the Iraq and Afghanistan affairs, and the disgracefully dishonest way our leaders dragged us into them at great loss of lives and treasure.

Even a limited punitive missile attack, with or without the consent of the UN, would, at least, only mean more deaths of civilians. At worst, it could lead to Assad upping his murderous game, even bringing in Iran, Turkey, Israel which could only result in a devastating military conflagration meaning a massive loss of life and untold disruption of the already fragile world economy and everything that goes with it.

Politicians may waver, like Obama, mindful of their electorate. Cameron may be eager to restore cheap popularity in jumping aboard a bandwagon and even an opportunist like Miliband may seek to bolster his weak showing in the polls by hiding behind a ‘democratic’ figleaf.

Miliband didn’t display much democracy in his dealings with the UNITE union’s so-called ‘scandal’ of Falkirk when union members fairly and squarely won nominations for that constituency’s by-election candidature. A point he now seems to have grown quiet about as bigger fish appear on the horizon.

But he would do well to listen. As Labour become ever more indistinguishable from other capitalist parties, there will come a time when ordinary people will tire of so-called consensus politics, as they will tire of the greed and failures of the capitalist system itself.

If ordinary working people can find no political party to represent its interests here in Britain, or France, Germany, the USA, throughout the Middle East, then they will have to form a party of their own that will put the mass of the population’s interests first: jobs, homes, services and a decent standard of living.

That can only mean and end to the barbaric capitalist system and a step towards democratic socialism that will use the wealth created by ordinary working and middle class people to benefit the majority.


  • AdminCharlie

    As always, an interesting point of view and a well informed article Chris. I do have a question – what do you think Britain should do/should have done in this instance with Syria. I don’t mean in an ideal world – but what would you have liked to see happen in parliament with regards to going to war and potential military action by the UK?

  • CHrisRobinson

    I think it is for the Syrian people themselves to take their own destiny into their hands. It is extremely difficult but quite possible for non-sectarian organisations there to begin to build a mass campaign of civil disobedience based on local community self-defence committees.

    We, and others, can support this in a variety of ways. Support democratically elected non-sectarian community leaders in building such a campaign (put our secret services to some positive use for once). Use diplomacy with those neighbouring countries who have some influence with Assad and the rebel factions. Negotiate with the likes of Saudi Arabia who support Assad. Use the forthcoming G8 meeting as a platform to bring issues to the UN. Call for a genuine debate on what the UN means. Call for a ban on ALL weapons of mass destruction. The international labour movement can use their contacts to support workers across the Middle East.

    As I write this, it’s clear that, as long as we have the same people in charge who have no other solution other than to use direct military strikes, whose policies have only led to these countries being armed to the teeth in the first place, these ideas will never even be considered.

    This is why I’m a firm believer that those who helped cause the situation in the first place have no idea how to undo the damage they have contributed to with their imperialist policies. Remember where Cameron himself was when the Arab Spring first unravelled, he was touring the Middle East with big business people in tow, among them – arms dealers. I become more convinced that we must start the change with ourselves.

    We’re still one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, but the wealth is concentrated in too few hands. This is true of our country as it is true right across the EU and across the Atlantic. Until we have solved our own problems about creating more equality, increased standards of living etc, how can we rely on our politicians who are beholden to maintaining their grip on our economy, and on the economies of the developing world, all in the name of Wall Street and the City of London?

    I don’t think hurling ourselves into military action would be helpful, as I said in my article, more innocent civilians will be killed and there’s a REAL danger the conflict could escalate and spill over across borders, an inflamed Middle East would be disastrous for all.

    I’m as outraged by what is happening as the next person, but I think it’s a bit rich for the likes of our politicians (and I include Miliband in this – I think it’s clear I’m not a fan of the Labour leadership) to wring their hands over this when it is their policies, and the policies of their counterparts elsewhere, over the years, that have brought us to this point.

    In short, as Churchill said (and I’m no fan of his either) ‘It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.’

  • ChrisRobinson

    Your direct question, Charlie, that deserves a more direct answer, namely: ‘What would you have liked to have seen happen in Parliament?’ I take it you mean the vote?

    All I can say is, for me personally, it was the right result. However, I have no respect for Miliband. He savoured the humiliation of Cameron as a cheap political point scroring over him. He is NOT against armed intervention on principle but he used technicalities to make himself appear (ahem) ‘tough on genocide, tough on the causes of genocide’. He is more concerned with his own career. I keep saying, in a number of my articles, you can hardly put a cigarette paper between our political parties.

    Having said that, many of Cameron’s own back benchers were opposed to intervention AND, I think, more importantly, as polls suggest, 2/3 of the public are against entering another potential war after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is quite apart from the state of our economy, people are very angry about the state of our own country. The CONDEM govt keep saying we are in too much debt, we must have more cuts, cuts to benefits, public services, the NHS and pensions yet they have money to cut taxes for the rich AND they ALWAYS manage to find money for war.

    That’s me.

  • sunil

    A very interesting article and certainly a thoroughly-researched history of Western collaborations in the downfall of the middle east, However concerning the situation in syria – hate to be rude – your article seems to be irrelevant until the last few paragraphs. Its easy to draw parallels between the situation in syria and such events in the past but you have not mentioned what really needs to be done in syria. Its seems that you are anti-war and certainly like me and countless others dont seem to have any love for our leaders. but amidst all these catalogue of articles of people espousing their views on the geo-political effects of intervention, nobody seems to be focusing on the suffering of the syrians. What is the best thing for them? Its a lose-lose situation whether we intervene or not. Being in syria myself during the civil war i cannot honestly say there are no good guys on both sides. If we intervene, we will most likely exarcebate the situation;killing more civilians and drawing in Iran, Lebanon and Russia into this Gordian Knot. If assad is deposed it be likely that he will be replaced by another callous regime most likely made of Al-Qaida surrogate groups and counter-insurrections cannot be crossed out. But these are all hypothetical – albeit likely scenarios – but what is a certainty if we do not intervene is that Assad will slaughter more civilians until the country will be on all fours rather than on their knees. It twenty years time the next generation will turn around and look at us and say “why did we allow this to happen? Why did we allow another Rwanda and Sebrenica to took place?”

    You’re right in the sense that we have to put our own country’s interests first when considering the war but i find it quite abhorrent to turn around to say those grief-stricken civilians of syria that we wont save you because we are worried about our own economy? Imagine that happened here and this is the reaction we were getting from abroad.

    Intervention is the noble thing to do, its just a shame that our capricious leaders just cannot be trusted due to their meddling in the last half century.

  • ChrisRobinson

    Thanks for your interesting comments, Sunil, much appreciated. I think, maybe, you’ve answered your own question: ‘What is the best for them (the Syrian people)?’ You go on to point out: ‘If we intervene, we will most likely excarcebate the situation…drawing in Iran, Lebanon possibly Russia into this Gordium knot…’ which is pretty much mentioned in my article.
    If you read one of my replies to Admin Charlie, I offer some things that can possibly be done without resorting to war, I finish with ‘it’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war’. But I still have to ask the question – why has nothing been done BEFORE it reached this stage? Also, as in many other repressive regimes (often supported by the west and Russia) Assad, even before the ‘Arab Spring’ was prone to arrest, imprison without trial, torture and,yes, murder trade unionists simply for organising strikes – and we were deafened by the silence.

    • sunil

      I agree that something should have been done before. i think there is certainly something wrong with our ties and suits in the parliament who seem to think its only fair to intervene now due to death caused by chemical weapons but death caused by missiles and rockets which has been killing people in great numbers in syria, was not enough for military intervention. Why did they wait till things got this bad? How could they not see this coming?

      To be fair i dont think its right to say “what is best for the syrian people?” in this scenario i should have written “what is less worse for them?”

%d bloggers like this: