The Actuality of Barbarism – Syria and the Imperial Powers

For all their paraded differences, the major imperialist powers are moving towards a consensus over how to coordinate their military operations in Syria.

It’s been happening for several months. The Paris attacks provide a further spur.

The purpose of conflicting bombing campaigns and support for favoured forces on the ground thus far has merely been to secure a stronger hand for the US and its allies, versus Russia and its, in a thieves’ kitchen convening in Vienna to decide the carve up of influence in the place on the map marked by the name Syria.

Lesser, local powers will be there too – representing the rival sides they back in the manifold Syrian war, and marshalled beside one or other of the greater powers.

All are eager to secure representation in a revamped apparatus of repression barracked in Damascus, which will still not enjoy popular legitimacy in the eyes of what’s left of a brutalised Syrian society and its shattered population.

That’s not what this is about. What it is about is trying to conjure up a new compact which can bolt together proxy forces with the extant bureaucratic core of the Damascus security state.

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 redrew the map of Europe at the dawn of global great power expansion. The new Viennese carve-up is about managing chaotic decline, over the bodies of the peoples in a region which has been a plaything for competing imperialist powers for over a century.

Remember how the French state, followed swiftly by David Cameron and Barack Obama, all flushed with the “success” of Libya, imperiously proclaimed that “Assad must go” four years ago? The old powers so like to seize on one particular tyrant or robber family as a cipher for the reality of a whole nation whose destiny they think it is theirs to decide.

Some people took them at their word and hoped that, perhaps as an unintended consequence, the Western powers might just, despite themselves, nudge history in a progressive direction that would see popular power replace dictatorship. When the Syrian army brutally overwhelmed a peaceful uprising and militarised the conflict, others saw a chance to fight.

This was the period when EU states and Turkey turned a blind eye to hundreds who headed off to fight the great tyrant. Over 600 ended up going from France.

Belgium – with 500 – provided the highest per capita number of recruits from the minority section of its population which is more discriminated against and more socially segregated (but most integrated into the prison system and the attentions of the security apparatus) than just about any in Europe.

Only two years later, with ISIS morphing out of the bloody sectarian chess board on which the US played its occupation of Iraq, did Western leaders start to take seriously the warnings of their spy agencies of what was likely to happen when these Europeans returned from the dehumanised killing fields of north west Iraq and eastern Syria. The spies knew what would happen – it had already taken place in Afghanistan: twice.

Britain’s MI5 and France’s DGSI had also warned of the consequences to London and Paris of Tony Blair’s decision to join the invasion of Iraq and of Nicolas Sarkozy’s intensification of what has been called “the first war on terror” – the one begun by the French state on its own citizens in the banlieues from the mid-1990s onwards51J9uY+MY8L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.

The picture they painted of Syria was far from the comforting caricature of “good versus evil”. It was of a multifaceted and devastating war across Syria fuelled by the interventions of the big powers – now joined by Russia – local powers or would-be powers, and their proxies: be those within mutating militia, marauding bandits or parts of the diminished Syrian military-state.

So the Western powers (though with Cameron sidelined, thanks to the defeat of his war policy in September 2013) and Russia intensified their chaotic interventions this year. They began dropping more bombs.

Now they are to coordinate their bombings and are trying to negotiate a common policy under which they will blast more of Syria.

All that is left of their supposedly principled clash of grandiose aims – which we were asked to pick a side over (and some foolishly did) – are the crazed fantasies in which they were wrapped.

ISIS is a puppet of the US! No it is not. But the US occupation of Iraq and the counter-revolutionary role of its allies created the necessary conditions for the emergence of ISIS.

ISIS and Assad are in league! No they are not. But the counter-revolutionary role of the Damascus regime was a necessary condition for the emergence of ISIS.

Bomb ISIS and it will pave the way for a progressive overthrow of Assad, whose rule depends on using ISIS against the people! No – bomb Assad and ISIS will lose its symbiotic alter ego! No – you’re both wrong: bomb Assad and bomb ISIS! Russian bombs are worse than American bombs! No – it’s the other way around!…

In any case – just bomb.

Those who were taken in by Western claims that they would speed the day when dictatorship falls to popular democracy in Damascus are seeing now the US and France (and Britain, if Cameron can refuel the British militarist machine) calmly discuss at G20 and Vienna summits which figureheads of the regime should stay and for how long.

Those who believed that Vladimir Putin would lead an “axis of resistance” to Western imperialism are seeing him now, having bombed his way to a place at the table he was excluded from over Libya, calmly discuss with the Western imperialists a mutually agreeable division of the spoils, if you can call them that.

The rivalry between them has not gone away. But that is not the only reason standing in the way of them imposing some kind of settlement.

The truth is far, far grimmer than that the great powers are bringing “regime change” or “regime survival” in Syria.

They are incapable of bringing anything but a further chaotic descent into barbarism.

Even if they can produce a temporary stay in the rate of that descent – bombing ISIS into dispersal, rearranging the security state in Damascus – they are strengthening the underlying conditions for further terror and war.

And not only in Syria. General Sisi was in London visiting David Cameron this month. What does the West’s ally preside over in Egypt? Counter-revolution, a massive and brutal security state, the murder and repression of reformist Islamist currents in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a militarised response to a mass movement for change. Familiar?

If nihilist terrorism strikes again in Egypt at “soft targets”, like tourists – or if it strikes out elsewhere organised from Egyptian territory – we will be told that no one could have foreseen that happening, and that we must extend ever wider “the war on terror”. More bombs and drone strikes, states of emergency and razor wire borders – more refugees, and more of them drowned.

Stopping the war and opposing the racist backlash are not enough, that’s true. But they are absolutely necessary and practical steps, for two reasons.

First, they – unlike the actions of our rulers – can actually mitigate the descent into barbarism. Second, it is in the mass struggle that such campaigning entails that there is the seed of much greater, collective power which ultimately does offer a solution. The kind of power seen also in Tahrir Square four years ago.

Our governments – as demonstrations are banned under emergency measures and opponents smeared as “in the camp of the terrorists” – will deride all that as, if not treachery, then unrealistic, utopian and incapable of preventing terror.

But theirs is the unrealistic policy. It has proved incapable of stopping terrorism. Even they do not pretend to an immediate solution – the difference being that their longer term policy, unlike ours, is a continuation of what has already failed.

The left, and the anti-war and fellow social movements, can provide arguments which can convince and mobilise masses of people – and we must. But the immediate solutions are only partial and often in the negative – largely to stop the cycle of war and deepening barbarism.

There is a fundamental reason for that, however. The actual solution requires the most fundamental, radical change. But isn’t that the basic and historic argument of the socialist left?

Kevin Ovenden is a British, left-wing, political activist and author of Syria: Inside the Labyrinth.