Thursday, 22 August 2013

Understanding the Syrian Situation

(Here is a guest article on a key issue for imperialism today)

Most radical thinking on Syrian is convinced that the West, and particularly the US, Britain and France, are keen to create a situation in Syria that will justify Western intervention so that the major powers can take over the country - as in Iraq and Afghanistan - isolate Iran, and help Israel’s ailing position in the Middle East.
This is a serious misreading of the situation. The dominant Western powers are forced to adopt a policy position on anything that happens in the world because they must constantly remind the international community who is in charge. That does not mean, drawing out the purely logical conclusion of these public policy positions, that they necessarily have any real intention of getting involved or of intervening in any particular conflict. It is important, when judging world events, to avoid the simplistic radical counter-propaganda model and to examine what is really going on.
The conflict in Syria is being driven by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. These countries all have either large Shia communities or majority Shia populations. In addition, the ruling elites in these countries are a tiny minority within the minority Sunni population. It is only a matter of time before democratic and demographic realities impose themselves. Iran has made it clear that it does not want to use its Shia influence in the region to destabilise these regimes. Indeed, Iran has made it clear that what it wants is a strategic but respectful relationship with these Sunni states - particularly as Western sanctions bite more and more. Iranian commercial elites need these Sunni states to prosper.
Nevertheless, these Sunni states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, are not comforted by such Iranian assurances. In a way, they are right. What they fear is not Iranian backed subversion, of which there is very little evidence, but that the struggles of their own Shia communities will inevitably drag Iran in, whether it wants to or not. This is sound reasoning. Iran cannot ultimately remain aloof from Shia struggles that flare up despite its conservative foreign policy.
So, the Saudis and the Gulf States are extremely anxious to deal Iran a knock out blow. Fostering regime change in Iran has shown itself to be a total failure. Iran is a relatively compact and orderly society and any attempts to undermine its internal cohesion do not prosper. A large part of the population hates the rule of the mullahs, but, if the country is attacked, all Iranians close ranks.
In any case, the policy of the Saudis and the Gulf States is too primitive to run the kind of sophisticated strategy needed to undermine Iran internally. The only international politics they know is to offer huge bribes, which is not enough in this case. That’s what happens when you have too much money and you do not have to work or think for a living. Your brain goes to mush. When the Saudis or the Gulf States need to play a more intelligent game, they always get the Israelis to do it for them.
The eruption of the Syrian civil war has created the illusion in the minds of the Saudi and Sunni elites that by financing regime change they can deal Iran a severe blow by isolating it in the region. This is more wishful thinking born of desperation than geopolitical understanding. It is what really fuels the fighting in Syria and why the West does not want to get involved. The Saudis and Qataris are pouring in billions of dollars – but all their money is able to buy is an undisciplined rabble of jihadist head-bangers who could never form an alternative political leadership and which the West does not want to touch with a barge pole.
So, why is the West making ominous war-like noises that sometimes sound very much like the run up to the Iraq war? Actually, carefully analysis shows that, despite surface similarities, there is a marked difference between Iraq and Syria. Every statement that the US, the UK and France has made in the last two years has indeed been full of hype and hot air – but has also been self-limiting and vague on detail and timetable. There is no build up, no momentum, no traction to this phoney war effort. Now, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and Barack Obama's chief military adviser, has made it clear the US is not going to get involved.[1]
If the West continues with this phoney war it is only because its close allies, the Saudis and the Gulf States, have got themselves into a huge jam and need to be shored up diplomatically. If the Syrian regime manages to hang on, and all indications are that it will, it will be a strategic disaster for the Saudis and their allies and, for them, a disastrous victory for the Iranians who will tell the world: 'You see, these dumb Saudis, they have all the money, they can buy anything they want, they have all the power of the United States and the West behind them, and yet they are useless. They are not fit to be leaders of the Islamic world.'
Western politicians must be hugely relieved to have the excuse of Putin ostensibly stopping them from intervening!

David Isbert, 22 August 2013

[1] 'US "will not intervene in Syria as rebels don't support interests", says top general', Daily Telegraph, 21 August 2013.


  1. You just can't be serious in believing the West do not want to see Syria brought to heel. Qaddafi was ousted because of his history of opposing the masters of the universe, they never ever forget!

    You only have to look at the output of the ultimate establishment media, the BBC, to understand that there is a drive to war, a constant stream of anti Assad and pro rebel propaganda.

    The positive thing is that this barrage is not having much affect on public opinion, well not yet anyway.

  2. Steve,

    But then you have to look at why in the UK PM Cameron messed up using the Whips to get the Tory vote, why Obama changed his mind so easily and why even McCain in the US basically kept his mouth shut. The simplest explanation is that the UK and US made lots of noises, but Syrian intervention was not really in their interests. The media heroes jumped on the wrong bandwagon, being there usual idiot selves, unable to analyse what is going on and thinking it was another 'human rights'/tyrant vs plucky rebels episode for them.

    The reason the leading politicians made the noise was in general to express the fact that they were the real players, but in particular to give superficial support to Saudi Arabia, a country that has donated zillions of dollars to them in arms and other deals over the decades, and which now wanted them to intervene.

    The hypocritical chemical weapons protest will continue from the US and UK, but, against the common consensus, the article argued that there was little likelihood of a war. It looks like turning out that there will not even be Obama's 'surgical strike' because that will cause more trouble than it is worth for the major powers in the region, the US and UK, with France and Turkey trying to get a look in.

    There is actually less pro-rebel propaganda now as the Europeans and the US realise what a counterproductive bunch their new allies would be. That is why the US and UK are talking about doing a deal with Syria.

    I cannot agree that 'public opinion' had that much to do with it. Or, at least, the 'left' & NGO public opinion was basically pro-imperial intervention, as it has shown itself to be ever more frequently in recent years. Mass public opinion in the west usually jumps on the side of imperialism, but this time there was no clear interest for the imperialists.

    One final point. Assad cannot be compared with Gaddafi. The guy keeps his head down and tries to cause as little trouble as possible, partly because of the mixed political groupings in Syria. There is no reason to have Syria 'brought to heel', he is basically there already.

  3. David Isbert's comments are interesting and nuanced. However, as a first-time viewer of this blog (I came here because you were recommended by Michael Roberts) I would have liked a little information about who DI is.

  4. I should also add that it was a delight to read that having too much money turns the brain to mush......something I have suspected for a long time. (Maybe I even once upon a time read it somewhere, but it pays to refresh one's thoughts.)

  5. SteveH's comment typifies the logic of simple - rather than dialectical - negation characteristic of "counter-hegemonic anti-imperialism", ignoring the fact that both regimes sold out to western imperialism some time ago, Ghadaffi definitively by 2002, Assad a long time ago, with both implementing "neo-liberal" counter-revolutions and, in the case of Assad, acting as important rendition drop-offs for the US GWOT.

    The neo-liberal turn of these formerly national bourgeois regimes no doubt sowed the seeds of their later undoing, one that was amply deserved as payback for their betrayal.