Ceasefire is an Opportunity for Syria and for the World


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The cessation of hostilities in Syria that went into effect on February 25 and the hope that this may become a more lasting ceasefire are a triumph for the efforts of Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and others to defeat the imperialist ‘regime change’ agenda that has caused so much destruction for decades in the Middle East. The accord offers a path forward for Syria out of the hell of the past four-plus years of civil war and violent ‘regime change’ intervention by the big imperialist countries and their regional allies.

The reaction in Western capitals is anything but welcoming. There is disappointment as well as outright opposition among the U.S. ruling class and military leaders.

Some accept the cessation as something they must live with for the immediate future. President Obama told journalists on February 25, “We’re all aware of the many potential pitfalls, and there are plenty of reasons for skepticism. But history would judge us harshly if we did not do our part in at least trying to end this terrible conflict with diplomacy.”

But Obama then went on to restate the U.S. ‘regime change’ policy that has contributed so much to the disaster in Syria in the first place, saying many Syrians will never stop fighting until Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is out of power. “It’s the only way to end the civil war and unite the Syrian people against terrorists,” said the president.

Others in U.S. circles give no credence at all to the deal and are openly discussing how to sink it.

Some left-wing organizations and publications internationally are echoing the imperialist naysayers. Confusion and disarray reigns, as indicated variously by non-reporting of the historic accord, misinterpretation of its actual content, or, most seriously, outright denunciation.

Ceasefire a blow against imperialism

In an earlier analysis, this writer labelled the ceasefire agreement as a diplomatic triumph. It resulted from stepped-up military and diplomatic interventions by Russia and Iran on the side of the Syrian government dating from last October, also supported by the Hezbollah political movement in Lebanon. The self-defense efforts of the highly organized Syrian Kurdish people have also played an essential role in making the agreement possible.

The agreement has been welcomed in Syria and among Syrians who have been forced to leave their country. It is also welcomed by many of those in opposition to the Syrian government (though this is difficult to quantify from afar). Associated Press, for example, reported on March 4 on rallies taking place in the eastern sector of the city of Aleppo, in the Waer neighborhood of Homs and in Idlib province calling on the Syrian government to release detainees from prisons and lift several sieges on opposition areas. The rallies “reflected a sense of relief amid the ceasefire that has mostly held since it went into effect across the country last Saturday [February 28]”, says AP.

The simple cessation of military hostilities is reason enough for Syrians and their supporters to welcome the accord. It will allow humanitarian aid to flow and for a measure of normalcy to return to people’s lives.

In the larger picture, the accord is a political blow to the imperialist countries’ long drive to overthrow the Syrian government and install a pliant regime totally beholden to imperial interests. It is all-too rare these days for the big powers to be hamstrung and that’s another big reason to celebrate.[2]

U.S. discord over ceasefire

U.S. media is full of dislike or outright opposition to a path to ceasefire in Syria.

The New York Times‘ David Sanger wrote on Feb 26, “In the estimate of European and Israeli intelligence officials, but not the White House, the pause in fighting may have the unintended consequence of consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power over Syria for at least the next few years.”

The neo-conservative Washington Post editorialized on February 26, “For now, Mr. Putin is reveling in the geopolitical victory handed to him by the Obama administration, which, rather than support Syrian rebels against Russia’s bloody assault on the areas they hold, chose to sue for peace on Moscow’s terms.”

The right-wing National Review lamented on March 1, “Kerry brokered a reduction in hostilities that cedes Assad his principal war aims; President Putin brokered an increase in hostilities that keeps Assad in power and reveals American diplomacy to be a desperate attempt to cover our unwillingness to actually do anything in Syria.”

The most detailed account of discord over the ceasefire in U.S. ruling circles was provided in the Wall St. Journal on February 23. Professor Stephen Cohen also spoke of this in his weekly interview on the John Batchelor radio program on March 2. Cohen says there is open discord within U.S. ruling circles between those prepared to live with a ceasefire and those who want to sink any such prospect.

A March 4 editorial in the New York Times reminded readers of one of the big reasons compelling the U.S. and EU to backing a cessation of hostilities: “The huge flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere has placed enormous strain on Europe, which is suffering from economic weakness and is deeply worried about Britain’s possible departure from the eurozone, the rise of right-wing parties and the mounting political pressures on Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.”

The editorial then went on to favorably cite the outrageous claim by NATO’s top military official, U.S. General Philip Breedlove to the U.S. Congress last week, “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

The Russia-Iran efforts to defend Syrian sovereignty were strengthened when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on February 26 to endorse the ceasefire. But on March 5, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia restated its regime-change intentions for Syria, a view shared with Turkey.

Radio silence also speaks volumes

In the imperialist countries allied with the U.S., there is brooding about the Syria deal News reporting is low-key, highlighting alleged violations by Russia’s armed forces and speculating that the chances of the ceasefire holding are slim.

On March 3, The Guardian reported British dissatisfaction. “Britain believes there is an agreement that territory in which so-called Syrian moderates are intermingled with the al-Nusra Front cannot be subject to air attacks or artillery fire by the Syrian army or the Russian air force.” Russia has taken numerous steps to accommodate the concerns of the U.S./UK-led regime change alliance, so it’s likely that much of the reported dissatisfaction is pure and simple disinformation.

In February, as a ceasefire deal was taking shape, the Guardian editorialized in language typical of the Western imperialists, shifting blame and attention away from their role in the Syria disaster. It wrote, “Now is the time to apply the screws to Putin’s Kremlin in every possible way to ensure he and his puppet Assad give peace a chance.”

Canada’s Globe and Mail complained in the February 23 editorial:

Even if Syria somehow turns this week’s agreement into a longer term ceasefire, it will be a disfigured country, its cities in ruins and half its population refugees, having been torn apart by ethnic, religious and political warfare. The pieces will not be easy to put back together again. There is talk of partitioning the country[sic].

And removing the Assad regime, once a Western priority, is further than ever out of reach. Russian intervention has been a game changer. If a ceasefire can hold, Syrians will be thankful. But so far, the big winners are Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad.

The Globe‘s feature writer on all things Russia and Ukraine, Mark MacKinnon, penned a March 6 article which says, “The appearance of a foreign war being halted, however briefly, by Washington and Moscow – the two superpowers of old, alone at the bargaining table – delivered a massive boost to Russia’s prestige on the world stage.” The article then went on to dismiss all that by saying the Russian economy is falling apart; domestic political opposition is “trembling”; Vladimir Putin’s 85 per cent domestic approval rating is just a passing fad; and the supposed ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is holding (a claim contradicted by every serious agency following the events in Ukraine, including the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).[1]

The aforementioned Guardian report said the leaders of Britain, France and Germany are to discuss with Vladimir Putin on March 4 and “they will urge the Russian president to do more to prevent breaches of the Syrian ceasefire”. As though it is Russia who is responsible for so much of the carnage in Syria and not the violent extremists who the European leaders label as “moderates” and who European allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been aiding and abetting.

The three European leaders are voicing support for a Syria ceasefire. But the people of eastern Ukraine (Donbass) have learned bitterly during the past two years that such ‘concern’ for peace by European leaders amounts to nothing when Europe’s security and austerity-driven interests are at stake. Notwithstanding the widely acknowledged fact that the government of Ukraine has failed to live up to its obligations under the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement of February 12, 2015, the European Union blames “both sides” of the conflict in Donbass, meaning both Kyiv and the Russian government.

But Russia is no more and no less a “side” to the conflict in Ukraine than are the EU and NATO, who back the Kyiv regime to the hilt and direct harsh economic sanctions against Russia, Donbass and Crimea. The ‘both sides’ argument is, in fact, a ruse to cover up the ongoing war crimes of Kyiv and its flagrant repudiation of the Minsk-2 ceasefire endorsed by no less than the UN Security Council more than one year ago.

Left-wing condemnation of the ceasefire; a loss of political bearings

One would assume the ceasefire triumph in Syria would be universally welcomed by left-wing forces in the world. It is not. There is a great deal of silence in the left-wing press. In some left media outlets, there is disdain and even outright opposition to a ceasefire.

Writing in the Australian Green Left Weekly on March 5, writer Tony Iltis opens an article with:

A “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, sponsored by the United States and Russia, came into force on February 27. Only some of the internal and foreign participants in Syria’s multi-sided conflicts signed on.

The air wars that the U.S. and Russia are waging in Syria are both officially directed against ISIS. But in reality, Russia is keen to protect its ally, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, while the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have given money, weapons and logistical and diplomatic support to his opponents since the civil war began in 2011…

There is much that is confused and inaccurate in this short citation. But let us focus on why the use of quotation marks surrounding the term ‘cessation of hostilities’? Is this intended to signal that the ceasefire is not meaningful and unworthy of support? It certainly reads that way.

The remainder of the lengthy article analyzing the situation of Syrian Kurds says nothing of the new political conditions created by ceasefire prospects.

On February 23, I co-authored a critique of an article in Green Left Weekly by Tony Iltis in which he presented the war in Syria as resulting from an ongoing “global rivalry” between the United States and Russia. The writer has framed the conflict in Ukraine similarly, consistently disregarding the fact that the right-wing coup in Ukraine has triggered an escalation of the decades-long military threats by the NATO military alliance against the Russian government and people.

A leading writer for the International Socialist Organization in the United States, Ashley Smith, has voiced explicit opposition to the Syria ceasefire in an article published on March 1 in Socialist Worker.org. He writes:

Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have justified their savage war by claiming that they are striking back against ISIS forces that control large parts of the east of the country. In reality, Assad and Putin have been waging a counterrevolutionary war against a resistance to the regime that first arose as part of the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy rebellions. In the process, Syria has been plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe.

… Unless something changes, this [ceasefire] will be a geopolitical victory for Russian imperialism and Assad’s counterrevolution against what remains of the Syrian Spring.

The article condemns “Russian imperialism”[3] in Syria.

Also on March 1, Socialist Worker.org published a commentary by a self described antiwar activist in the U.S., Stanley Heller. He not only wants the Syria ceasefire to be quashed, he wants the U.S. regime change alliance to ignore Syrian sovereignty and intervene in the country to deliver “humanitarian relief”.

As part of six proposals by Heller for ‘what to do’ about Syria, he wants protests in front of Russian and Iranian embassies in order to “expose and shame” the two countries for what he says is their culpability in the destruction of Syria. And he wants international boycotts of all products from them.

Point six of Heller’s points is “oppose any U.S.-Russian dictated settlement for Syria”. Very well, but this ceasefire is not a “dictated settlement”, it is a pre-condition for a potential political settlement by the Syrian people themselves. For an ‘antiwar’ commentator in the U.S. to effectively argue in favour of continued war in Syria is beyond belief.

Ashley Smith’s essay is littered with downplaying of the U.S. regime change intervention which dates back any years in Syria, including the direct and indirect collaboration with the right-wing forces of Daesh (ISIS), including through the medium of the right-wing regimes in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He writes:

[The U.S.] had been committed to an orderly transition [sic] that would get rid of Assad and incorporate handpicked figures from the rebel side into the existing state, which could then be bolstered in the war on ISIS.

Now, however, the U.S. seems ready to capitulate to Russia’s demand that Assad remain in power as the joint war on ISIS continues.

And further:

The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar funded the [Free Syria Army]. But they never supported the revolution [of 2011].

The U.S. never provided the heavy weaponry, like anti-aircraft MANPADs, that the FSA fighters needed to defend their cities against Assad’s air force.

Framing the laments is an argument that far from aiming to overthrow the Syrian government, the U.S. government has supported it. He writes:

A U.S. training program designed to field a fighting force against ISIS failed, largely because Syrians who might have taken part didn’t want to be proxies against ISIS, but instead fight to overthrow the regime.

Instead, the U.S. has struck a de facto cooperation pact with Assad.

In an odd, apparent nod to al-Quaeda and its murderous reign in places like the city of Aleppo, Smith writes, “When the U.S. finally did expand its air strikes into Syria, its warplanes struck not only ISIS, but also the al-Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis tolerate because it defends them from the regime.” For news of what became of life in the areas of Aleppo outside government control, see this May 2015 news report in The Independent and this Feb 3, 2016 report in Al-Monitor. Syrians were anything but tolerant of al-Nusra.

The essay concludes with a call for imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’ into Syria: “We should call for the UN (and if that fails, the U.S.), to defy the sieges and start airdrops of humanitarian relief,” citing a published letter to the New York Times making that argument and signed by Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Stanley Heller.

The instances when imperialist countries have intervened militarily to provide genuine humanitarian relief are extremely rare. Only two such occasions come to mind—the international force which intervened in Lebanon in 1982 to rescue trapped Palestinian fighters facing an Israeli blitzkrieg, and Australian intervention in 1999 against a looming genocide by Indonesian paramilitaries.

There is no little or no parallel to these situations in Syria today, where unilateral ‘humanitarian’ intervention could amount to setting a powder keg alight. Unilateral ‘air drops’ in Syria sound a lot like a cover for the kind of desperate military intervention into northern Syria aimed at portioning the country which the U.S. discussed with Saudi Arabia only a few weeks ago.

Another ceasefire condemner is Gilbert Achcar, an ideologue of the France/Switzerland-based Trotskyist ‘Fourth International’. In a brief book review published recently, Achcar writes: “Of all stances on Syria, the idea that supporting the Assad regime is the best way to fight ISIS—an organisation that thrives on Sunni resentment against the two, Iran-backed governments of Damascus and Baghdad as well as against the United States—is the most preposterous indeed.”

A particularly revealing phrase written by Achcar is this one: “Thus, unlike the knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialist’ circles who reject any form of intervention by Western powers in any situation as a matter of religious taboo…”

Marxist and socialist political thought has a long tradition of fighting against imperialist wars of aggression (‘knee jerk opposition’ to wars of aggression, if you will). That tradition explicitly rejects imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’ such as the NATO ‘no fly’ zone imposed over Libya in 2011 which Gilbert Achcar supported.

Wars of aggression are inhumane and morally repugnant. They disempower the majority of the Earth’s peoples and weaken our historic mission to carry out radical social change against the capitalist system. Capitalism must be given the boot if war is to be expunged from the human race.

Today’s global warming emergency is a grim reminder of this historic political challenge facing the human race. Military expenditures by the imperialist countries are obscene, and unbelievably, they are undergoing significant expansion. The United States military budget alone is greater than the next nine military budgets in the world combined.

The ruling classes and political leaders taking the world down the path of militarism are one and the same with the fossil-fuel-chemical-industrial complex and its plundering, climate wrecking ways. The pairing of opposition to climate vandalism and opposition to war and militarism is something which even the environmental movement itself has yet to fully comprehend and act upon.[4]

The progressive forces of the world have a huge stake in the success of a Syria ceasefire. A ceasefire will help keep the dogs of partitioning Syria at bay. It will allow delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance. (Already it has allowed restoration of potable water and electricity to cities such as Aleppo.) It will facilitate a process of national reconciliation, which in turn can stem the tragic tide of Syrians being forced in their millions to flee their homeland. Reconciliation would provide for the safe return of the millions who have already fled.

The Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad has promised to grant amnesty to opposition fighters and open dialogue on the future of the country. It should be held to these promises, including the release from prison of those unjustly detained. The government’s authoritarian rule shares part of the blame for the disaster in the country.

A Syria ceasefire also has big implications internationally. A success can help turn back the U.S./EU/NATO drive to isolate and weaken Russia; it can aid the people of Ukraine in fighting against the extremist, pro-EU government that came to power in a coup two years ago; and it can help deflect the renewed looming of regime-change aggression by the U.S. in Latin America.

All-party talks to consolidate the ceasefire in Syria are due to take place in Geneva, Switzerland on March 9.

Roger Annis is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond.

[1] Writing from Moscow, MacKinnon says in his Globe and Mail article, “Much of what passes for the news on the television here is outright propaganda.” Which is ironic because that sums up how growing numbers of Canadians and Americans react to reports such as that of MacKinnon concerning Russia and all other matters. The comments by Globe and Mail readers accompanying MacKinnon’s article (243 and growing) run strongly against his interpretation of events. Is it any wonder that Canada’s mainstream media is going through a crisis of declining readership?

[2] The frustration of the regime-change drive in Syria follows setbacks to U.S. and European Union policy in Crimea and Ukraine. Following the right-wing coup in Kyiv in February 2014, the people of Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, the people of Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk) have successfully stopped the Kyiv regime’s military offensive against their homeland, although at a very high human cost.

[3] The term ‘Russian imperialism’ is routinely used by the ISO and other constituents of the now-fragmented International Socialist current. But it’s just a pejorative phrase. The IS groups have never published any serious research and analysis of modern-day Russia. For that, see my two, recent coauthored articles:
* The Myth of ‘Russian imperialism’: In defense of Lenin’s analyses, by Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis, published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Feb 29, 2016
* and the shorter article by the same authors, Perpetrator or victim? Russia and contemporary imperialism, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Feb 7, 2016
These articles also appear on The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond.
* See also: Imperialism and super exploitation, book review of ‘Imperialism in the 21st Century’ by John Smith (Monthly Review Press (January 2016). Review by Michael Roberts, published on his blog, March 6, 2016

The ‘Russia as imperialist’ thesis has an antecedent in the equally false description by ideologues of the IS current of the former Soviet Union as being ‘state capitalist’. The ‘theory’ of state capitalism was nothing more than a dismissive construct born of disappointment with the evolution of the Russian Revolution of 1917 at the Soviet Union underwent decline into a bureaucratic and authoritarian, post-capitalist order. See ‘The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism‘, a 1969 pamphlet by the Belgian Marxist economist and activist Ernest Mandel.

[4] For analysis of the connection between militarism and climate destruction, see Demilitarization for Deep Decarbonization, by Tamara Lorincz, of the International Peace Bureau, September 2014, 77 pages.

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.