By Alex Callinicos
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David Cameron plays party politics in Syria

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
Issue 2471

Expect to hear a lot about military action in Syria in the next few weeks. This is all about David Cameron playing party politics. It doesn’t mean that Britain is about to weigh seriously into the war in Syria.

One element in the party politics is that in his desperate attempts to stave off the pressures to let in Syrian refugees, Cameron said, “We need to deal with the problems in Syria.” But genuinely dealing with these problems is way above Cameron’s pay-grade.

Syria’s tragedy is that a real revolutionary uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011 has been transformed into a bloody war of attrition for territorial control. Politically this struggle combines a sectarian civil war with a proxy conflict among rival imperialist and regional powers.

Increasingly Sunni Muslim jihadis backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been fighting Assad and his external backers—primarily the Iranian regime and its Lebanese ally, the Shia Muslim movement Hizbollah.

The war is increasingly stalemated. Assad has managed to hang onto most of the two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo. 

Meanwhile, Isis has exploited the war to carve out its own state in the oil-rich east of the country, which now extends across the border, deep into Iraq.

Outside powers are feeding the struggle. The US says it wants Assad to go. But it’s afraid that if he fell, the main beneficiary would be Isis.

Part of Washington’s response to Isis has been to start a “train and equip” programme for fighters belonging to “moderate” anti-Assad groups.

But this has been going at an excruciatingly slow pace. At the end of July, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, captured a third of the first 60-person batch of trainees. 


Whatever Barack Obama may say, it looks as if Washington prefers to contain the war rather than see either Assad win or Isis take over. Russia’s motives are equally cynical.

US secretary of state John Kerry has been making a lot of noise recently about evidence of a Russian build-up in Syria. There have been military links between Russia and Syria since the 1950s. 

Before the revolution, Russia had a naval facility at Tartous and £2.6 billion worth of outstanding weapons contracts with Syria. A hundred thousand of its citizens lived in the country. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has backed Assad in the civil war. But apparently Russia just in the last few months has been sending additional weapons and military “advisers” to Syria and is developing a naval base at Latakia.

Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said, “You cannot defeat Islamic State with air strikes only. It’s necessary to cooperate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS.” 

But maybe Russia, along with Iran, is preparing for the partition of Syria. Two Hizbollah commanders told the Financial Times that Assad could maintain control of the more populated western side, leaving the east to Isis.

Amid this gigantic tragedy, the British military presence—a squadron of obsolescent Tornado fighters now supplemented by ten Reaper drones—is small fry. Nominally the RAF operations are authorised for Iraq only, but even before the recent drone killing of two British jihadis in Syria, there had been bombing raids there as well.

This brings us to the other element of party politics. Cameron wants to use the issue of Syria against Jeremy Corbyn. Two years ago the House of Commons voted against British military operations in Syria. This was a tribute to the campaigning of the Stop the War Coalition, whose chair is—Jeremy Corbyn.

In other words, banging on about the need to fight Isis is simply a way of supporting Cameron’s mantra that Labour under Corbyn is “a threat to national security”. 

It has nothing to with actually bringing peace to Syria or defeating Isis. 

Imperialist powers such as Britain have nothing to contribute to what Cameron calls “deal[ing] with the problems in Syria”. Only a revival of the Arab revolutionary movement can offer a solution.

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