By Alex Callinicos
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Proxy war in Syria is part shadow boxing

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
Issue 2356

The Great powers seem to be squaring off over bleeding, war-torn Syria. Britain and France have bludgeoned the European Union (EU) into ending its embargo on arms supplies to the rebels. 

Russia has retaliated by announcing it will deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has no air power, this move seems aimed at any Western attempt to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, as well as at Israel.

Probably more dangerous is the growing involvement of regional powers in the war between Assad and the FSA. 

Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement, won the acclaim of anti-imperialists throughout the world when it fought the Israel Defence Force to a standstill in 2006.

It is now escalating its military support for the Assad regime. Hizbollah fighters are reported to be playing a crucial role in the government offensive to retake al-Quasir. 

This unhappy town is strategically placed in the Homs Gap, which links the Syrian capital Damascus to the north west coastal areas that are the heartland of the Alawi sect from which the regime draws its base.

The battle of al-Quasir underlines how Hizbollah has stepped in to prop up Assad. According to the intelligence website Stratfor, “external help also enabled Syria to create a new militia, known as the National Defence Force, to offset the losses incurred by the army. With the help of Iranian and Hizbollah advisers, the regime was able to rapidly train and deploy members of this militia. The National Defence Force has brought reliable manpower to the loyalist cause, but equally important, it has helped free up the conventional army to execute difficult offensive operations.”

Hizbollah and Assad have long been allied to the Islamic Republican regime in Iran. But Hizbollah has deep popular roots in Lebanon that stem above all from its role in resisting Israel. The growing intervention in the Syrian struggle is a disastrous decision by the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.


Assad is desperate to transform the popular uprising into a sectarian civil war between the Sunni Muslim majority and a coalition of Alawite, Shiite and Christian minorities. The more he succeeds, the greater the danger that the war will spill over into Lebanon, re-igniting the bloody sectarian conflicts that ripped the country apart during the 1970s and 1980s.

Assad has little to lose if the conflict spreads. On Thursday of last week he threatened to “open a front of resistance” on the Golan Heights, Syrian territory seized by Israel in 1967. Israel has threatened to prevent the S-300s from becoming operational.

These developments underline that, because of the strategic importance of the Middle East to Western imperialism, the Arab revolutions have developed in two dimensions. This is first in the domestic dynamics of popular revolt and counter-revolutionary reaction and, secondly, the geopolitical struggles among the Great Powers and local power brokers.

Some on the left have insisted seeing the Syrian revolution entirely through the prism of geopolitics. They have supported Assad on the basis of exaggerated claims about the regime’s “progressive” role in the struggle against Israel. 

This was a mistake because it ignored the deep social roots of a rising against, not merely the dictatorship of the Assads, but also the crony capitalism that they have promoted in Syria since Bashar al-Assad took charge.

But there is a definite danger that geopolitics will overwhelm the revolution in Syria. This doesn’t mean that there is a serious prospect of a direct confrontation between Britain and France and Russia over Syria.

The Russians seem determined to prop up their key Middle Eastern ally, but there’s a lot of shadow boxing on both sides. The missiles may not arrive in Syria for more than a year. The scrapping of the EU embargo seems aimed to increase the diplomatic pressure on Assad.

Moreover, US president Barack Obama shows no sign of having any stomach for another war in the Muslim world. The US intervened to restrain Qatar, the biggest arms supplier to the rebels.

But the proxy war that outside powers are trying to wage in Syria may precipitate a widening sectarian implosion.

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