Rivalry and cooperation: the USA, Russia and “regime change” in Syria

23 May 2017

The attitude of the USA towards “regime change” in Syria has been a source of considerable confusion within the left and within the anti-war movement. Many have assumed that the USA, whatever it said in public, surely must be secretly plotting and organising the downfall of Assad and getting ready to play a direct role in the fighting, at the very least by bombing Syrian regime forces.

Others, motivated by a desire to defend the beleaguered Syrian revolution from the accusation of merely having been the product of a US-led conspiracy, have denied any significant US role in the arming of the Syrian rebels. Indeed, many in this camp were willing to call for intervention by the Western imperialist powers, primarily in the form of a US-enforced “no-fly zone” like the one imposed on Libya, which rapidly turned into a NATO intervention that helped to bring down Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during that country’s 2011 revolution and civil war.

However, in the actual event the Obama administration never chose a direct intervention in Syria against Assad, either through “boots on the ground” or by bombing. It is worth understanding why, and what this tells us about US imperialist policy in Syria to date.

Hillary’s hawks and “humanitarian intervention”

A “war party” of “liberal” or “humanitarian” interventionists, more willing to take the risk of direct confrontations with Russia (or of the emergence of a power vacuum in Damascus) certainly existed. Its principal figure was none other than Obama’s sometime Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it included CIA Director David Petraeus and a large part of the foreign policy establishment in Congress, both Democrat and Republican. The “neoconservatives” who egged on and provided an ideological justification for President George W Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and who had found themselves out of favour with Obama’s election in 2008, found themselves a new sponsor and champion in Hillary Clinton, and a public spokesman in the form of the opposition Republican Senator John McCain.

This wing of the US administration managed to get what they wanted in Libya and later on in Ukraine, where the Western powers successfully did back a “regime change” that brought to power a government hostile to Russia and seeking integration into the West’s global sphere of influence. Libya’s subsequent power vacuum and fragmentation between rival governments would later convince Obama himself that direct intervention there had been a mistake, while the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine plunged the country into a civil war that has not yet come to an end, and gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a pretext to annex the Russian-majority Crimea region, with its strategic Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol.

The efforts of the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies to extend their approach to Syria however failed, as the Obama administration repeatedly refused or delayed adopting a concrete plan for “regime change”, fearful producing a repetition of either Libya or Iraq.

It is not, of course, as if there were not tempting strategic prizes for US imperialism in Syria in the event of the Assad regime’s downfall. One such prize was to decouple Syria from its alliance with Iran (and with the pro-Iranian Shiite armed movement Hizbollah in Lebanon), while the other and most obvious prize was to deprive Russia of its Syrian naval base at Tartous, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.

The first of these prizes however became largely redundant with Obama’s search for detente with Iran from 2013 onwards, culminating in the US-Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. And as regards the latter prize, however game-changing its achievement would have been for US imperialist policy, Obama was never willing to pay the price for it, at least not if that price involved the Iraq-style collapse of Syria’s state apparatus, or direct armed clashes with Assad’s Russian sponsor. Obama, far more so than Trump, had after all been elected as an opponent of “precipitous” US military action abroad; his preferred strategy was one of “offshore balancing”, of surrounding and containing Russia and China with a belt of US-allied regional powers.

Preserving the stalemate and “letting Syria bleed”

It would therefore be a gross exaggeration to say (as some in the Syrian opposition do) that Obama was opposed to Assad’s removal, or even that his administration supported Assad’s regime. What is true however is that in contrast to Russia, which stood entirely behind Bashar al-Assad’s pursuit of a “military solution” to Syria’s March 2011 popular uprising, Obama never threw his weight behind an outright military victory for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other rebels, either in early to mid 2012 (when that victory looked like a real possibility) or subsequently. Rather, the USA’s effective policy under Obama was to “let Syria bleed”, to keep Russia and its allies busy in Syria by indefinitely preserving the stalemate between the parties.

Where Russian imperialism can be accused of having supported a brutal dictatorship, and even of having encouraged its excesses, US imperialism is guilty of an altogether different crime: of deliberately keeping the war going on for as long as possible, without a decisive victory for any side.

Both imperialist powers share responsibility, along with the Assad regime of course, for the horrible suffering of Syria’s population. No “peace deal” or “safe zones” in which these powers (or Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia) play a role can make up for the monstrous crimes that they have committed.

Throughout the war, Obama outsourced to the USA’s Turkish, Saudi and Qatari regional allies the task of giving the Syrian rebels just about enough support so that Assad could not crush them, but not quite enough for them to be able to overthrow him. Obama feared that total military defeat for Assad would turn into a full blown revolution in which the Syrian army and police state would disintegrate, and “stability” with it.

This outsourcing brought its own problems, since each of these allies had their own competing agendas, often distinct from the USA’s, with each of them arming their own favoured Syrian rebel factions.

The USA, suspicious of some of the “jihadi” groups that its allies were sponsoring, cautiously allowed a supply of light arms and “non-lethal” military equipment and logistics to reach some vetted and suitably “moderate” rebel factions, although its Turkish and Gulf Arab allies did a great deal more than that. However, US imperialism consistently prevented any of the rebel factions from gaining access to anti-aircraft weapons that might have tipped the balance of forces decisively in the rebels’ favour. This left the populations of the rebel-held “liberated zones” at the mercy of Assad’s airforce, and later on of Russia’s.

Obama did this, partly because he could never be sure into whose hands such weapons would eventually fall, and partly because of what this would have meant for the USA’s own capacity for aerial warfare in the region. It was far better from his administration’s standpoint to preserve a stalemate (and to use it to extract concessions from Russia) than to risk outright “chaos”.

Nevertheless, the loud rhetoric of the “interventionist” party in favour of “regime change” in Syria, invariably more popular in European capitals than in Washington itself, still served a number of purposes for both wings of the US administration. In the first instance, it gave the USA a means of placating its frustrated Turkish and Gulf Arab allies with the promise of action tomorrow, if not today. In the second instance, by pointing to Assad’s (and later Putin’s) bloody war crimes against civilians in Syria, they could distract attention from their own war crimes elsewhere, in Yemen and in Iraq in particular.

And most importantly of all, it allowed the Western imperialist bloc to maintain a propaganda offensive against Russia, impressing upon Western (and Arab) public opinion their own “democratic credentials” as against Russia and China, and in this way preparing public opinion for any future changes of policy in Syria, or for future confrontations with Russia or China in other parts of the world.

Assadism without Assad

Obama’s preference for an indefinite stalemate in Syria was also reflected in the political objectives of the US diplomacy that accompanied this military policy. In the first seven months of the Syrian uprising, which were characterised by unarmed mass protests repeatedly shot down by Assad’s security forces, not only Obama but even Clinton referred repeatedly to Assad as being a “reformer”, and called on Assad to make “reforms” in order to end the crisis, without which Assad would be “in danger” of “losing his legitimacy”. Indeed, both Obama and Clinton came under fire from the “liberal interventionists” that were Clinton’s own natural constituency, for their repeated failure in this period to mouth the “magic words” that Obama used in demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation during the January 2011 revolution in Egypt.

With the Syrian revolution’s transformation into an armed uprising in November 2011, US diplomacy shifted towards demands for a “negotiated settlement” towards a “Yemeni-style transition”, one in which they hoped that Russia would pressure Assad himself (and quite likely some of his immediate circle) to step down from power, while his army and state apparatus remained in place as a guarantor of “stability”.

The projected outcome of this transition was to be a set of arrangements like those that accompanied Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Saudi-brokered replacement by his vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in the course of which some US stooges in the Syrian opposition would share power with Assad’s ruling Baath party, and following which an apparently more “stable” and broad-based Syrian regime could be used to bring the revolution to an end, by isolating and repressing any remaining “extremists”.

That is to say, US policy was for “Assadism without Assad”, for a “reformed” dictatorship like Mubarak’s with maybe some facade of parliamentary pluralism, but without any of the democratic civil freedoms for which thousands of ordinary Syrians had been willing to lay down their lives, and certainly without any resolution of the massive social discontent with Assad’s savage neoliberalism that had been the detonator of their uprising against Assad to begin with.

This political objective would remain a constant of stated US policy objectives from early 2012 until the end of Obama’s presidency in January 2017. Indeed, until Assad’s gas massacre at Khan Shaykhun in April 2017, and President Donald Trump’s punitive attack on Assad’s Shayrat airbase a few days later, all that had changed at that level is that Trump had altogether abandoned the demand that Assad should step down in advance of a “negotiated transition”, or as a precondition for it. Its incoherent revival since demonstrates real contradictions in US policy, that Trump will no more be able to resolve than Obama could.

Russia’s inability to agree to such a “transition” itself is the product of multiple factors. But reasons of prestige aside, one of highest amongst them must be Putin’s own fear and partial recognition of the fact that the Assad regime is no longer a regime of institutions, if indeed it ever was, and that it is even less so now after six years of war. This means that the removal of its figurehead could easily lead to its disintegration into its rival components, unlike the removal of Mubarak and of Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which both provided their state machines with a breathing-space for the restoration of a degree of counter-revolutionary “stability”.

Obama’s policy however stood in contrast with Saudi policy (which aimed at an anti-Iranian secular-Sunni regime in Damascus, like Lebanon’s from 2005 to 2011), with Qatari policy (which favoured the outright overthrow of the Baath and their replacement with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-style “moderate” Islamists), and with Turkish policy (which above all else feared the emergence of a Kurdish entity on the Syrian-Turkish border in the event of the Assad regime’s outright collapse).

Saudi Arabia’s attempt in 2012 to co-opt some middle-ranking Sunni officers into the Syrian armed opposition, like former General Manaf Tlass (the nephew of Assad’s former defence minister Mustafa Tlass), was aimed at convincing the USA that Saudi Arabia’s protégés in Syria could “preserve order” in the event of Assad’s downfall, making Obama’s fear of “chaos” in the event of a rebel capture of Damascus redundant on this basis. The Saudis, however, abjectly failed to convince Obama’s administration of the merits of this alternative strategy, as they later did again in early 2014 with their attempts to construct a “moderate” opposition in the form of the Islamic Front and the secular Syrian Revolutionaries Front.

The Ghouta massacre and the rise of Islamic State

The element of bluff involved in Obama’s policy became apparent quickly enough. Since November 2012, Obama’s administration had repeatedly invoked a “red line” against the use of chemical or biological weapons in Syria, fearful above all of a spillover of the conflict across Syria’s borders, and in particular of any threats posed by this to Israel.

This bluff was called most dramatically with the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas on civilians in the eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013. Up until that point, the “war party” in Washington had appeared to be getting the upper hand in their calls for direct Western intervention, aided by UK prime minister David Cameron’s search for another prestige-enhancing military adventure to follow the NATO intervention in Libya. Indeed, they might have succeeded were it not for then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s successful opposition to British military action in the House of Commons, which gave Obama the opportunity to kick their proposals into the long grass.

This can with some justification be claimed as having been a victory for Western anti-war movements, albeit primarily for their past rather than their present. While public demonstrations against military action in Britain and in the USA were on nowhere near the scale of those against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the ghost of the Iraq war’s consequences was enough to frighten some Tory MPs away from voting for an intervention without clear objectives, and to ensure that Labour MPs did not rebel against Miliband’s opposition to war, as some later did against Jeremy Corbyn’s in December 2015.

Obama’s reticence here was not humanitarian in origin. In part it reflected his own fears of an unpredictable “power vacuum” in the event of the regime’s collapse. But equally, it was that Assad’s Syria was and is even more so today a protectorate of Russia. And after Obama’s “betrayal” of Russia in Libya, and even more so after the subsequent “regime change” in Ukraine, Russia is not remotely inclined to take chances in Syria, which provides it with a naval base and airfields that give Russia its only foothold in this vital geo-strategic region. Any direct attack by US forces on Assad therefore risked a direct confrontation with Russia. This risk became even clearer with Russia’s own direct intervention in Syria in the autumn of 2015.

The deal struck between Obama and Putin in September 2013 allowed them to avert war by obliging Assad to be seen to deliver his stocks of chemical weapons under international supervision, in this way allowing Obama’s “red line” to be seen to have been enforced, without crossing Putin’s “red line” of direct US military action against Assad.

Many of the US “interventionist” party (although not, at the time, Clinton herself) would assert that this had been a mistake; while Obama’s defenders would argue that however limited the “incredibly small” airstrikes proposed by then State Secretary John Kerry, their outcome would have involved not just confrontation with Russia, but the prospect of “radicals” in power in Damascus whose friendliness towards US regional interests was far from assured.

In Syria and in the wider Arab world however, this was seen as a sign that the Syrian rebels were, in effect, “on their own”. It was this more than anything else that set the stage for the “radicalisation” of the Syrian uprising, as Qatari-supported Salafist factions began to displace the Saudi-supported secular-nationalist and the Turkish-supported conservative-Islamic rebel factions that had originally dominated the Syrian armed opposition in 2012.

And in a supreme irony, one unintended consequence of Obama’s preservation of a stalemate in Syria was that it created exactly the “power vacuum” that it was intended to avert. Into that vacuum stepped Islamic State, an offshoot of al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq that had previously conducted an armed insurgency against the US occupation there. It expansion, first from Iraq into Syria throughout 2013, and then from Syria back into Iraq in mid 2014, turned it into a threat to Russian, Iranian and US interests alike.

In particular, Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in Iraq in June 2014 turned it into a direct threat to control of oil reserves in Iraq’s Kurdish northern region. This set the stage for the USA’s direct intervention in the region, first in Iraq (where a US bombing campaign succeeded in expelling Islamic State forces from Iraqi Kurdistan, although not from Mosul) and shortly afterwards in Syria, where US forces aided the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in breaking Islamic State’s siege of Kobane. The YPG-controlled Rojava statelet quickly became US imperialism’s own protectorate in Syria, one whose existence Russia found it difficult politically to oppose for the time being.

A US-Russian “War On Terror”

In the meantime, the Assad regime’s weakness in the face of a two-front war with Syrian rebels and with Islamic State became ever more apparent. The fall of Idlib to Syrian rebels in March 2015, the rebels’ expulsion of Islamic State forces from Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus the following month, and a rebel offensive in the Damascus suburbs and in the south of the country in the following months produced panic in Moscow. It raised the real possibility of the Assad regime’s downfall for the first time since July 2012, when rebel forces captured the eastern half of Syria’s largest city Aleppo, and came close to capturing the capital Damascus itself.

This prompted Russia to begin its own direct intervention in Syria in September 2015, in turn prompting a more extensive US-led intervention to begin in earnest in three months later. In place of an Iraq-style war for “regime change” in Syria in opposition to Russia, the Western powers were now involved in an Afghanistan-style “War On Terror”, in an unstable and antagonistic “cooperation” with Russia against Islamic State.

This in turn would inflict on Syria the bloodiest phase of the war so far, as both imperialist powers bombed civilian populations in pursuit of their distinct but overlapping objectives: Russia bombing the rebel-held regions in support of the Assad regime, and the USA bombing the Islamic State-held regions in support of and in alliance with the YPG.

US imperialism was now bombing one of Assad’s enemies (Islamic State) in defence of one of his allies (Iraq) and in alliance with another of his allies (Iran). However, the nebulous nature of the threat posed by Islamic State made it into a convenient pretext for various forms of intervention by all the regional powers, Turkey and Saudi Arabia included. This complicated the USA’s involvement and required it to continue to make rhetorical concessions to its anti-Assad allies.

The obvious equation that presented itself was that US imperialism would be able to trade concessions to Russia in Syria, where Russian imperialism had the upper hand, in return for Russian concessions in Ukraine, where the Western imperialist powers had the upper hand. Obama sought implicitly and indecisively what Donald Trump would advocate far more openly: a deal with Putin based on mutual recognition of each imperialist bloc’s respective spheres of influence in the region, again as part of a regional “negotiated settlement”.

This war, however, would have a very different lineup to the “regime change” war that many still expected. A US-Russian brokered ceasefire over Aleppo and other besieged rebel-held regions in February 2016 quickly proved to be no such thing, with Russia and Assad using a loophole that excluded from the ceasefire the al-Qaeda offshoot then still known as the Nusra Front as a pretext for continuing to bomb and besiege eastern Aleppo and all of the remaining “liberated zones”, in particular those in the vicinity of Damascus like Madaya, Douma and Darayya.

An offer that same month by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join the US-led intervention, by giving direct support to their rebel protégés through Turkish air support and through Saudi “boots on the ground”, was quietly ignored, as the USA concentrated on a policy of consolidating and expanding the YPG’s Rojava statelet, at the expense of both rebels and Islamic State, to the rage and frustration of Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for whom a US-backed Kurdish enclave on its own borders threatened to undermine his war against Turkey’s Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and was the principal reason for Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels to begin with.

The limited supply through Jordan of US aid to some “moderate” rebels did not cease altogether, but it came with very heavy and self-defeating conditions attached. The FSA’s secular-led Southern Front in particular was diverted away from its planned march on Damascus from Daraa on the Jordanian border, and towards a turf war with the Nusra Front, according to a timetable and an agenda that suited Obama’s “anti-terrorist” priories far better than the defence of the remaining democratic gains of the revolution from the threat posed by Salafist extremists. Meanwhile, the entirely US-created “New Syrian Army” (since renamed as the “Revolutionary Commando Army”) near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders in the vicinity of Deir Ezzor fought exclusively against Islamic State, and not at all against the Assad regime.

The “moderate rebels” that Obama wanted to support appear primarily to have been those rebels that didn’t rebel, who were willing to suspend their struggle against the regime in favour of participation in Obama’s “War On Terror”, or who like the YPG-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) had already been brought under the umbrella of Obama’s pro-Rojava strategy.

Washington even turned a blind eye to the YPG’s role in cutting off rebel-held Aleppo from the outside world, something that indirectly reinforced the Assad’s regime’s continuing siege, and similarly ignored the YPG’s opportunistic tactical alliances with the regime and its simultaneous attempts to court Russian support.

Turkey’s alienation leads to Aleppo’s collapse

Erdogan had tried to disrupt what he clearly saw as a US-Russian convergence whose main beneficiary was the YPG by shooting down a Russian fighter jet in December 2015, in a bid to use Turkey’s NATO membership to push Obama into a premature confrontation with Russia. This attempt to “wag the dog” of US power failed however to achieve its objectives. Turkey received little more than kind words from Obama in the wake of this incident, and even earned a rebuke from Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, whose “security coordination” with Russia allowed Israel to strike at Hizbollah targets in Syria in that same month while Putin turned a blind eye.

Erdogan’s subsequent isolation contributed to his later decision to seek a separate deal with Putin at the expense of the YPG and its US benefactors. This developed in particular after the YPG’s capture from Islamic State of Arab-majority Manbij in July and August 2016, the outcome of a ten-week siege (backed by US aerial bombardment) that put the YPG one the wrong side of Erdogan’s “red line” against the expansion of the Rojava enclave west of the Euphrates.

This roughly coincided with the attempted military coup against Erdogan, which Erdogan appears to have interpreted (with or without justification) as having been the product of a US plot with his Gulenist opponents to bring Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds more closely into line with that of the USA.

Erdogan’s immediate response was to turn against his US allies and towards a rapprochement with Putin. That this was directed against the Kurds was visible from the first significant military action that followed it, namely Assad’s attempt to bomb Hasakeh and seize it from the YPG. This provoked a US military response in the form of an effective “no-fly zone” protecting Rojava from Assad regime (and potential Russian) attack from the air, an option that Obama notably did not later even consider with regard to the Russian aerial campaign against rebel-held Aleppo, even if UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did.

However, the second stage of this Turkish-Russian rapprochement saw Turkey launch “Operation Euphrates Shield”, using its protégés amongst the Syrian rebels to seize Jarabulus from Islamic State, before then clashing with the YPG around Manbij. Russian media, which until only weeks before had referred to the entire Syrian rebel camp as “Western-back terrorists”, now began to describe the rebels involved in this operation as being involved in an “anti-terrorist” operation themselves, the “terrorists” in this instance being not just Islamic State but also the YPG.

Against this realignment, Obama was forced to concede, and instructed his Kurdish clients to withdraw from Manbij and keep their forces east of the Euphrates. Turkey and Russia combined had thereby placed a limit on the USA’s attempt to create a direct sphere of influence in Rojava that might ensure it a place at the negotiating table.

At the same time, the diversion of rebel military resources away from Aleppo and towards the Euphrates Shield operation contributed directly to the fall of Aleppo. This has been interpreted – in Russia, Turkey, and the West – as having been part of a “goodwill gesture” by Erdogan towards Russia, achieving through Turkey’s influence what Obama had frequently promised but failed to deliver: a separation of “moderate rebels” from “al-Qaeda extremists”, in order that Russia and the USA together could begin to eliminate the latter as part of a regional settlement.

Whether by design or in pursuit of altogether different priorities, the rival great powers involved in the Syrian chessboard through this combination of events managed to bring about a strategic defeat for the Syrian revolution. Whether or not there is any revival of the popular mass movement against Assad’s rule, without Aleppo Assad’s overthrow is now extremely unlikely to take the form of a continuation and successful consummation of the Syrian rebels’ armed struggle against his regime, at least not without a full-scale US intervention whose outcome would not be a “victory” for the remaining revolutionary-democratic forces, but only for one of the Syrian revolution’s enemies amongst many.

Trump and the instability of US policy

What then do events since tell us about US imperialism’s changing intentions in Syria under Donald Trump? Trump’s election, after all, was taken in Moscow as a welcome sign that the USA was now more willing to “cooperate” with Russia, without the Damoclean Sword of a possible future turn to “regime change” dangling over Assad’s head.

In the first instance, we should here make the observation that US intervention in Syria did not at all end with Trump’s inauguration, but had in fact been ramped up significantly, to the point where in March 2017, civilian deaths caused by US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq outnumbered those caused by Russian military action for the first time since both countries simultaneously had a direct military presence in the region.

This in turn did not mark a major change in US policy, but was merely a continuation and escalation of a policy that had already begun under Obama. In the three months before Trump’s first (and until 18 May, his only) strike against Assad, a US bombing campaign had primarily been directed not just against Islamic State but also against “extremist” Islamist rebels like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, meaning “Front for the Conquest of the Levant”), the Nusra Front’s successor organisation.

With both global powers targeting the Assad regime’s only two remaining enemies of any serious battlefield significance, one might be forgiven for believing that Trump had brought the USA into the war on Assad’s side, were it not for the fact that this had also been part of Obama’s military policy, with all of its own internal contradictions.

In the week before the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack on 4 April, the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Trump’s new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both made statements that they had no objection to Assad remaining in power, and that the USA’s focus was on fighting Islamic State. This incidentally almost certainly encouraged the Assad regime to test the boundaries of what it could get away with, on this occasion receiving an unwelcome blow to the face in response.

On Friday 7 April, Donald Trump launched some 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase near Homs, killing 8 soldiers and 9 civilians. This indeed is the first ever time in the course of this war that that US forces have intentionally attacked the Syrian regime’s, although a failure of US and Russian intelligence coordination did previously result in Obama unintentionally bombing regime troops near Deir Ezzor in September 2016.

In the days immediately afterwards, Tillerson and Haley both made statements that contradicted each other and their stated policy only a week beforehand. In an interview for CNN on 8 April Haley stated that “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria”, and that “There’s not any sort of option where political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime, if you look at his actions if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad”.

This however was mitigated by a statement from Tillerson to CBS on the same day that the USA’s “first priority is the defeat of ISIS”, and that by “defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we’ve now eliminated at least or minimised a particular threat not just to the United States, but to the whole stability in the region”, adding that “once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilising the situation in Syria”.

By 10 April, Trump’s administration had managed to make five different and contradictory statements of policy in less than two weeks. First Assad could stay; then his use of banned weapons showed that he must go; then the issue was the use of chemical weapons rather than the regime itself; and then the priority was fighting Islamic State, with Russia called upon to pressure Assad to step down as part of a negotiated settlement (a return to the original position under Obama).

The fifth and most risky statement of policy came from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who suggested that the USA would respond militarily to the use of barrel bombs, which given the regime’s dependence on this improvised weapon in its war on civilians was, if taken seriously, almost equivalent to declaring for an full-scale intervention against Assad.

It was however contradicted hours later by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who avoided mentioning barrel bombs, and who described the Shayrat airfield strike as “a measured response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons”, one intended to “deter future use of chemical weapons”, adding that these weapons were “prohibited by international law” and that the regime had perviously declared them to have been “destroyed”. Spicer would later “clarify” that he had meant only barrel bombs that had been weaponised with chlorine gas.

An even more divided US administration

The apparent incoherence of stated US policy under Trump (in contrast to Obama’s) reflects a number of factors. One was the need to improvise a retroactive justification for a military decision quite visibly made at short notice. Yet another is the struggle that is taking place within the US state apparatus, with a large part of this apparatus alarmed by Trump’s declared search for a “detente” with Russia that only a minority of the US ruling class see any obvious advantage in.

This struggle within the US state had already claimed the scalp of Trump’s Putin-admiring ideologue and Rasputin Steve Bannon, who was removed from the US National Security Council only the day after the Khan Shaykhun massacre, although he remained and remains now in place as White House Chief Strategist. Bannon’s opposition to a strike against Assad was apparently overruled by Trump’s Senior Advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Supported from the outside by Clinton’s wing of the Democrats, the “interventionist” party within the US state apparatus had sought systematically to block any attempt at “detente”, in part by allowing charges to fly around about Trump’s corrupt business and political relations with Russia, and of his being an agent of “Russian influence”.

But if Assad’s’ sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykhun was too good an opportunity to miss for the hawks in forcing a change in Trump’s priorities, then equally it was too good an opportunity to miss for Trump in silencing or neutralising his domestic critics. A large part of the US media and political class that had been hostile to Trump during his election campaign and since his inauguration have now revealed their price for abandoning their opposition to him: military action abroad in the name of “humanitarian” objectives.

As with his predecessors Obama, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes, Trump now hopes to benefit from the orgy of triumphalism and “patriotic” self-congratulation that greets every US President who engages in a a speedy and low-cost military adventure. His European allies, many until now quite alarmed by his promise of “detente” with Russia and his scepticism about the USA’s need of NATO, greeted his action with statements of support and “understanding”.

Interventionists, isolationists and US credibility

However, it would be a fatal error to imagine that Trump’s subjective preference for “detente” with Putin makes him any less “hawkish” than the “liberal interventionists”. It is merely that his priorities are for confrontations with Iran and with China, and that “detente” with Russia is intended precisely in order to focus on these apparently more pressing adversaries.

If Trump’s choice of target in this instance was out of character, given his previous pronouncements on the matter, then his modus operandi certainly was not. Trump’s sabre-rattling at North Korea over its planned nuclear test would have been a lot less intimidating if he had not demonstrated in advance that he was actually willing to take the sabre out when he had to, as his generals almost certainly must have advised him.

In this instance, Trump was forced to act in order to preserve US imperialism’s credibility and with it the deterrent power of its military capacity. Trump’s dropping of the “mother of all bombs” (apparently the US military’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon) on alleged Islamic State militants in Nangarhar in Afghanistan on 13 April served a similar political purpose.

Moreover, Trump’s action has allowed him to exorcise the ghost of Barack Obama, who Trump had had previously criticised for involving the USA in Syria to begin with, and for Obama and Clinton’s ultimately deceptive rhetoric in support of “moderate Syrian rebels”, in whose cause Trump at that time had (and probably even now still has) next to no interest.

Indeed, a statement by from Sean Spicer on the day of the Khan Shaykhun gas attack blamed it on the Obama administration’s “irresolution” in enforcing its “red lines” against the use of chemical weapons in September 2013. The same statement (made before the airstrike and the ensuing several days of incoherent and contradictory statements), reiterated that “there is not a fundamental option of regime change”, although Spicer added that Assad’s removal would be “in the best interests of the Syrian people” and that “any leader who treats their people to this kind of activity” presents a menace.

And in his speech alongside King Abdullah of Jordan a day before his airstrike, Trump had similarly said that “the Obama administration had a responsibility to solve the crisis a long time ago”, and that “when he [Obama] didn’t cross that line in making the threat [to launch airstrikes on Assad], I think that set us back a long ways not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world because it was a blank threat”.

While all of this might well be inconsistent with Trump’s previous criticisms of Obama to say the least, his actions have allowed him to demonstrate that US imperialism under his leadership is willing to use force unpredictably and at short notice to maintain its deterrent credibility. Having cast himself as an “isolationist candidate” for the Presidency and having accused Clinton and Obama of being warmongers against Russia, it seems that Trump now wants to be seen as being tougher than both of them.

By demonstrating his administration’s unpredictability, Trump hopes to impress his prospective Russian “partners” that his demands against his declared “enemies” (themselves Russian allies, albeit not all subordinate ones) must be taken seriously. “Detente” and intimidation will go hand-in-hand, raising the real threat of direct clashes between major states. Or to put it another way, “detente” itself was always an illusion.

A change in US policy?

With the benefit of more than a month’s hindsight, it still seems unlikely that Trump will go where Obama feared to tread and pursue a full-scale intervention to topple the Assad regime. Here there is not just a consistency with Trump’s own past pronouncements, but also with the policy of Obama’s administration as pursued in practice.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. Rather, it has revealed a number of contradictions, none of which bode well for the prospect of avoiding war between the major global powers.

One is that the Syrian conflict does not take place in a vacuum, and that for this reason alone US imperialism’s attempt to pursue “security cooperation” with Russia, whether in Obama’s version or in Trump’s, was always destined to fail. It was after all Trump’s aggressive designs elsewhere that compelled him to take action in Syria against the grain of his own stated policy, and this could very easily happen again, in particular with regard to Trump’s hostility to Iran.

The lesson of this will not have been lost on Putin: that Trump’s administration is a far less predictable and reliable “partner” in their “War On Terror” than Obama’s was, for all Trump’s rhetoric in favour of “detente” and for all of Clinton’s rhetoric in favour of “regime change”; that Trump’s administration is far too vulnerable to its own domestic unpopularity, to its own internal struggles, and to the contradictions of its own policy for anyone to feel confident in taking its public declarations at face value. Worse still, this unpredictability encourages other parties to behave even more unpredictably in response.

In the first instance, US credibility has been enforced at the expense of Russian prestige, which therefore has somehow to be restored to resume inter-imperialist “cooperation”. But this will be much more difficult now that the various parties no longer trust each other.

Turkey feels “betrayed” both by the USA and by Russia with regard to Rojava (and it has itself “betrayed” the Syrian rebels in between these two betrayals). The USA feels “betrayed” that Russia would allow Assad to make it look impotent by gassing civilians despite solemn prior agreements. Russia feels “betrayed” that the USA would strike at Assad, when they both know that Assad is weak enough that even a small blow could knock him over.

Secondly, the token nature of Trump’s airstrike, which left the Shayrat airbase still largely operational, itself creates the risk that US prestige might be eroded, if it does not appear to create any visible change in the Assad regime’s behaviour. This in turn creates the risk of a “mission creep” if Trump has to engage in further strikes on Assad in order to restore this eroded prestige.

The USA’s European allies even appear to be banking on this as a means of pressuring Trump towards adopting a more strongly anti-Assad policy, as claims that UK prime minister Theresa May intends to hold a parliamentary vote on supporting future US airstrikes on Assad in the event of her re-election on 8 June appear to suggest. And the Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson is already waiting in the wings to ensure that this time around, any opposition vote against military action will be stymied, either by another attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, or by a much bigger rebellion of pro-war MPs than that which took place in December 2015.

Squaring the circle: Russia, the USA and Iran

Trump’s second strike on pro-Assad forces came on Thursday 18 May, when an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia came under fire from US air forces in the course of a race to control the region around the Al Waleed border crossing near al-Tanf, close to the junction of the borders between Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In this instance, US forces acted in support of the Jordan-based “Revolutionary Commando Army” (RCA), as already noted an entirely US-created formation (and not in any sense part of the Syrian “armed opposition”) that had previously fought alongside precisely the same pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite forces as part of Obama’s anti-Islamic State operation.

US statements have depicted this clash as a sideshow, and as a consequence of Iranian (or Assad regime) violations of US imperialism’s longstanding (and only very recently restored) “de-conflication” arrangements with Russia. But it has a wider significance as part of an attempt to “square the circle” of the contradictions of Trump’s hostility to Iran and his (declared) desire for continued “cooperation” with Russia.

Al-Tanf lies at the southern end of a 500 mile-wide land corridor controlled largely by Iranian-led forces, stretching from western Iraq through Palmyra and part of Deir Ezzor to Assad’s rump statelet. The northern part of this corridor was already narrowing thanks to the US-backed YPG’s assault on Islamic State’s Syrian capital Raqqa, in response to which Iran had already moved much of its desert “land bridge” 140 miles south, to avoid US special forces and Kurdish YPG fighters. US policy now seems to be to set a southern limit on the extent of this corridor also.

This constellation of US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces is nowhere near large enough (and in the RCA’s case however near popularly-supported enough) to conduct any attempt at “regime change” in Damascus. But it most certainly is strong enough and well-placed enough to help US imperialism to secure for itself a larger share in any future territorial carve-up of Syria, in this case at Iran’s expense.

The strategic prize here is to cut the land bridge from Iran (through Iraq and Syria) to Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement (also a major concern for US imperialism’s Israeli ally), or at least to place this land bridge under strong US control. If however, Trump hopes that this move will allow him to drive a wedge politically between Iran and Russia (one of his declared aims during and since his election campaign), then in this objective he is almost certainly doomed to fail.

To this extent, the “change of policy” signalled by Trump’s increasingly unpredictable actions is not a turn towards Hillary Clinton’s declared policy, but a provocative escalation of Obama’s pre-existing policy, albeit in a new and much more dangerous context and towards new and not fully declared objectives. The most obvious continuity with Obama’s policy is that it altogether bypasses the USA’s troublesome Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies and their Syrian proteges, in favour of Kurdish and Arab forces under far more direct US influence.

The salient point here however is that even without any conscious pursuit of “regime change”, the increasingly divergent interests of the various states “cooperating” in Syria are still liable to bring about major clashes between them.

The contradictions of Russian policy

Prior to the 18 May clashes, the most concrete “change of policy” that had been proposed in the USA so far came from from the Clinton-supporting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who advocated suspending US involvement in the “air war” against Islamic State in Syria, thereby forcing Assad to fight a “two-front war” so that US imperialism is no longer doing the heavy lifting (and indirectly preserving Assad in the process), while Russia and its allies use the breathing-space provided by US intervention to pursue their own separate priorities.

This naturally enough has been reported in Russian media as a proposal that the USA should “support Islamic State against Russia”. It also goes very much against the grain of US policy since 2014, and even more so against the grain of Trump’s own subjective priorities.

But the reaction to it in Russia itself exposes a contradiction in Russian policy. Putin doesn’t actually want Trump to end the US intervention in Syria any time soon. It is after all precisely this intervention that has prevented Assad from having to fight the “two-front war” that Friedman advocated inflicting on him. It is also (partly and indirectly) thanks to this intervention that Assad was able to retake Aleppo, and it was in continued pursuit of this intervention that Russia, the USA and Assad were all happily bombing the rebel-held Idlib region together for two or three months, until Assad’s hubris blew it by behaving like it was still 2013.

Putin merely wants to make sure that US intervention is pursued towards ends that don’t put US imperialism on a collision course with its Russian rival. Even so, they may end up on a collision course anyway, whatever their intentions.

To illustrate, the USA’s involvement in this intervention has until now relied upon Russian air traffic control and on US-Russian intelligence sharing. Without this, the various players could very easily have bombed each other or shot each other’s planes down by mistake – and in the current climate, “mistakes” are unlikely to be taken as such, and “accidents” could very easily lead to serious escalations.

But Russia pulled the plug on these channels of cooperation after Trump broke the rules by using them for a purpose for which they most definitely were not intended. This game of chicken raises the stakes quite significantly already, although it also imposes military and political costs on the USA, by throwing a spanner into the war against Islamic State that remains US imperialism’s major priority.

US General Joseph Dunford and Russian General Valery Gerasimov announced a resumption of these “de-conflication” arrangements on 9 May, only a month after Trump’s Shayrat airstrike and in the wake of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow on 12 April. Whether they will survive the latest or any subsequent repetition of US clashes with Assad, however, remains to be seen.

Moreover, Russia and Iran responded to Trump’s threat of further strikes on Assad with threats of their own to the USA’s Kurdish protectorate in Rojava, with a Russian and Iranian joint statement on 9 April describing the Kurdish north of Syria as being “under occupation” and promising to “liberate it”. This, curiously enough, appears to be contradicted by a statement from Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem on 8 May, which referred to the US-backed and YPG-led SDF as being “legitimate in the framework of their keenness on preserving the unity and integrity of Syrian territories”.

The current armed stand-off between Turkish and US forces on the Syrian border by Rojava should be seen in the context of this tug-of-war between Turkey and other parties over the future of the Rojava enclave, and also in context of the deal agreed between Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital Astana on 4 May, in which the USA played no direct role at all.

This deal apparently provides for the creation of four “safe zones” in Syria, to allow for a Turkish and Russian-brokered “deescalation” between “non-extremist” Syrian rebels and the regime. But it also bars the USA from much (although not all) of Syria’s airspace, ironically enough imposing a Russian-enforced “no-fly zone” to protect the Assad regime from US airstrikes.

The message from Astana appears to be that the USA is still allowed to bomb Islamic State, but that it is no longer allowed to bomb JFS or any of the other “extremist” anti-Assad rebels, just in case Trump crosses Russia’s red lines by using this as an opportunity to bomb Assad, on the odd occasion when Assad similarly crosses the USA’s red lines, by using the same campaign as an opportunity to gas his own people, instead of just killing them with conventional weapons like civilised dictatorships do.

The USA naturally enough has rejected this attempt to restrict its freedom of action, with State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez saying that this agreement, to which the USA was not even a party, does not “preclude anyone from going after terrorists wherever they may be in Syria”.

The breakdown of the US-Russian “consensus”

The unstable counter-revolutionary consensus between the great powers over Syria, in favour of “anti-terrorism” plus ethnic partition, that emerged in mid 2014 (and that lasted until more or less the end of 2016) is therefore now visibly in the process of breaking down. This is taking place now, after the Syrian revolution suffered a strategic defeat with the fall of Aleppo, and at almost precisely the point when that consensus looked as if it was in the process of being fully consummated.

And this is happening for reasons that any Marxist who was aware of this convergence between the powers to begin with could easily have predicted: because the imperialist powers are a “band of warring brothers”, who remain “warring” even when they try to “band” together. Because even when contingent factors force them to try to “cooperate” against a common threat to their own interests, their wider global interests and alliances will sooner or later make themselves felt, and reveal themselves to be widely divergent and almost impossible to reconcile.

The result is that the risk of direct clashes between the rival powers East and West is much larger now than it was under a US administration rhetorically far less committed to “detente” and to “isolationism” than its successor claimed to be – which in turn is far less committed to the always deceptive rhetoric of “democracy promotion” and “humanitarian intervention” than its predecessor was.

That does not mean that direct clashes between the powers, if and when they come, will necessarily take place in or even over Syria; it is not, after all, as if there is a shortage of alternative theatres or points of real friction for that. But it is in Syria that the rival powers’ capacity and will to “cooperate” is sorely being tested to its limit. It is in Syria that they are within a short bombing raid distance of each other, and in some places, almost within hand grenade range of each other.

And it is in Syria that the rival powers’ subordinate clients are nervously eyeing each other’s behaviour and opportunistic realignments (as well as those of their own more powerful patrons), and seeking to “wag the dog” to stave off the threat of being sold out by those patrons. Indeed Assad himself has already done so, with a provocative use of chemical weapons that forced Russia to stand by him, instead of letting him take a hit for the team.

Each secondary player threatens to go rogue – Turkey, Iran, Assad, the Kurds and the Gulf states – and each rogue action threatens to drag Russia and the USA back towards direct confrontations that neither want just yet and that neither feel entirely ready for just yet, but that they might still be unable to avoid anyway. This war, if and when it comes, will be fought neither for “democracy” nor for the defence of “national sovereignty”, the deceptive slogans of each respective imperialist bloc. Rather, it will be a war for the re-division of the region, over who gets what and how big the pieces are.

Socialists cannot and should not take either side in this struggle between the great powers, but should oppose the presence and the objectives of all of them, whoever their immediate actions are aimed against, and whoever they claim to be “protecting” in the course of them. Both of these rival imperialist power blocs, East and West, have been directly or indirectly responsible for bloody carnage in their respective spheres of influence; and neither should be awarded the mandate of acting as a “world policeman” monitoring and punishing the other’s crimes.

The anti-war German socialist Karl Liebknecht’s instructive maxim that “the main enemy is at home” here provides a useful guide to action: it is, after all, the ruling class in our own countries that we are most directly able to struggle against, and their own policy that we are in a position to defeat.

At the same time, anti-war activists would do well to remember that even if “the main enemy is at home”, it does not at all follow that this enemy’s enemy is our friend, or that we should follow this enemy’s enemy in demonising its principal victims, even when the “enemy at home” is using those victims as a cover for its own predatory objectives.

A more recent print article from Red Flag issue 14 dealing with the fallout of Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May is available here


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