Nobody seems to know who exactly Russia has just bombed in Syria or precisely why. But such brazen acts of imperialism are nothing new. Syria is the prefect storm of imperialist intervention, ethnic and religious separatism, and hopeless socio-economic crisis. Its complexities are constantly reduced to an emotive binary: "moderate" goodies against "extremist" baddies. Is Russia bombing our "moderate" allies, the people we want to win, or the "extremist" ISIS and other groups? The answer imposes itself as much on our own strategy in Syria as on Russia's. The main groups leading the war against Assad have never been nice "moderates" but are largely composed of jihadis.
Indeed US intelligence has been saying as much to politicians for years. Here's Patrick Cockburn at the Independent: "As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said in a report first disclosed earlier this year that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” " Cockburn proposes talking to all sides - including Assad. But this option has been consistently foreclosed by western politicians intent on imposing a narrative of good and evil over a complex and messy situation. We won't be able to understand Russia's aims in the conflict until we understand the conflict itself.
The chaotic and often impenetrable situation in Syria has its roots in the failure of the Baathist state. Baathism is a form of populist pan-Arabism that was secular and mostly socialist-nationalist in its goals. It could also be extremely and criminally brutal. n Syria Ba'athism eventually united around Hafiz al-Assad's Syrian "nationalism" at the expense of greater working class participation in the state. Although Baathism increased literacy and introduced land reforms, it also wiped out the space (sometimes with US support) for more radical movement to its left.
First under Hafiz and then his son Bashar, Syria underwent economic liberalisation and finance became an increasingly important part of Syria's national-economic model. Meanwhile, important realignments were taking place in Syria and in the Arab world as a whole. A revanchist Syrian bourgeoisie was militating against the government from its adopted home of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, rural, largely Sunni poverty had shot up, a result of drought and, more generally, the shift of the state's attentions to nurturing an urban business class. This would combine with economic sanctions (first introduced by the US in 2003).
Internationally a clear alignment of interests was taking place among potential enemies of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, ally of the USA, had for years been spreading the most violent of politico-religious ideologies into Syria. Israel in particular objected to the Syrian state's support for Hezbollah. The US has been somewhat more inconsistent but is united with Israel in its goal of isolating Iran.
The upshot of much US imperialist policy in the Arab world and beyond has not been the hoped for strengthening of secular liberal democratic opposition, but rather the empowerment of those hyper-reactionary Salafist ideologies filtered into the region by the Saudi state. Al-Qaeda hardly existed in Iraq before the US and its allies forcibly collapsed Saddam's tottering Baathist state. Meanwhile, ISIS developed out of a group which once called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq. These extremist, violent sects are the mutant byproduct of imperialism, not its enemy.
The civil war in Syria bears the imprint of these wider developments, with secular forces breaking down into socio-communal ones. Instead of a pan-Syrian opposition, western governments who wanted to hasten Assad's downfall were met with a proliferation of contending forces. The US has embraced the ex-pat Syrian National Council and its supposed allies on the ground the Free Syrian Army, supplying them both with ample arms and funds. Indeed Syria has - like Afghanistan in the 1980s - been flooded with arms. Naturally, those like the Syrian Communist Party and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, who argued against militarisation, were sidelined.
Violence broke out in 2011 after harsh crackdowns on protesters by Assad. The account I offer here is largely adapted from Patrick Higgins's excellent account at Jacobin Mag. There he explains how the narrative of a "democratic opposition" fighting a violent "dictatorship" is a "cartoon":
"This narrative is, in other words, a cartoon. More than that, it is a cartoon that overshadows the central contradiction currently at play in the Syrian situation: one between imperialists and various resistance movements, as well as the states supporting them."
The reality is messy and western governments seeking a single organised opposition to Assad have been inadvertently dragged into that messy reality. To the dismay of all, support for any one grouping risks fuelling recriminations against another. Patrick Cockburn, describing the war-within-a-war now being waged between Syrian Kurds (under the PYD) and ISIS in the north-east of the country, says:
"Despite the PYD’s denials, and probably their best intentions, the conflict in north-east Syria has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters. Those Arabs who flee are seen as demonstrably in league with the enemy: those who stay are suspected of belonging to ‘sleeper cells’, waiting their moment to strike. The Kurds say that they and their ancestors have lived in the area around Tal Abyad for twenty thousand years; the Arabs, they maintain, are recently arrived settlers, beneficiaries of a Baath Party campaign in the 1970s to establish a nine-mile-wide Arab Belt along the border. Arabs who are now being evicted from their homes say the Kurds are telling them to ‘go back to the desert’."
The longer the civil war goes on, the deeper and more pervasive the sectarian and ethnic divisions become, until even secular revolutionary Kurds are declaring Sunnis the enemy.
ISIS is called Da'esh by Arabs. It declares, as everybody now knows, a caliphate based on the harshest form of religious fanaticism and reaction. The greatest crimes of this war belong mostly to it. It operates via standard insurgent and revolutionary-guerrilla tactics, both military and propagandistic. Yet the emotional desire to crush ISIS by any means simply furthers the proxy war that the west has been fighting in Syria for years. Support for bombs here in the west is fuel to the fire of further imperialist manoeuvres, which are themselves the great recruiters of terrorism.
ISIS cannot be beaten by bombs because bomb sites are its breeding ground, the very source of its strength. Syria itself - with its imperialist-fuelled descent into sectarian civil war - provides the perfect source of ISIS recruitment: angry or threatened Sunni men who exist in a state vacuum with no possibility of a peaceful future.
Imperial obsessions in the region are as much to blame for the distance from peace as anything. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the US's attempts to get guns and training to "moderate" Syrian fighters:
"Because U.S. officials concluded that the moderate opposition Free Syrian Army wasn’t able to safeguard U.S. supplies in Syria, the CIA decided to deliver weapons directly to the trusted commanders. Some military officials warned that the CIA risked creating warlords and undermining cohesion in the ranks of local fighters, but the CIA saw no credible alternative."
So it goes on. As more weapons arrive and bombs fall the possibility of a "credible alternative" grows ever more distant. Indeed what would such a "credible alternative" look like? Would it resemble the government of Iraq or Afghanistan? Can such a "credible alternative" ever really exist?
Russia has bombed Syria. This in a way is unprecedented. But the lesson of it lies not in analysing Russian motives, but understanding that Russia is merely conforming to great power type. It is chasing the ghosts of enemies in the dark, and blindly awakening the emergence of newer and more deadly ghosts as it goes. Welcome to the club then.