The premise on which the British Parliament agreed to join bombings in Syria was that there would be little risk of a military escalation. Clearly bombings can drive the army and the administration of the ‘Islamic State’ into bunkers or into temporary physical dispersion. But a physical territory can only be captured if taken over by military forces on the ground. Cameron and others supporting the war made out that such a force was in existence.
Rarely has it been possible to get a snapshot of the Syrian military forces supported by US, UK and France. Cameron played with illusions and words in the British parliament but illusions are insufficient for the US. They need to strengthen their bargaining power in the continuation of the earlier Vienna talks on Syria that may resume in New York next week.
For that reason they authorised Saudi Arabia to co-ordinate the Syrian “opposition” at a meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday and Wednesday (8th and 9th Dec) of this week. The very fact that they passed on such an important task to the regime at the centre of world Wahabbism and Sunni Islamist sectarianism revealed a lot about both the likely outcome of the West’s bombing campaign in Syria but it also revealed much about the majority of the Syrian militias.
There is little doubt that the Saudi regime is enjoying these times. The royal family have been very active in strengthening their relationship with many politicians across the western world, particularly the US, UK and France. Several US spin doctors have been employed by Saudis to cultivate these relationships. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the King’s son, has come out with a manifesto for rapid business growth in conjunction with their US and European allies.
But the key issue that currently has western politicians fluttering around the Saudi regime is their claim that they can unify a powerful section of the opposition in Syria – where the West, i.e. US, France and UK, are now embroiled in a war without explicit objectives.
After the huge popular opposition in the US/UK to the earlier Iraq War, the western governments are reluctant to repeat the error they made then by sending in troops to Syria. When the Saudis claim that they can unify a powerful opposition to Daesh and Assad in Syria, that has obvious attractions to western governments. In the continuation of the Vienna negotiations in New York that they hope to call next week they will enter them along with Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in a far stronger position.
The war of that West is currently claimed to be against Daesh. But the Saudi coordinated allies are not so much bothered by Daesh. So a war of the West against Daesh with these allies on the ground will continue to be intertwined with one also against Assad.
If Turkey has its way, the war may even develop into one also against the Syrian/ Rojovan Kurds. Already the Kurds are claiming that the two Al Qaeda backed militias, Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are preparing an offensive against them.
The Saudis are less parochial than Erdogan with his obsession with the pummelling of the Rojovan Kurds. The war Saudi wants, along with the array of Islamist forces they are pulling together in Syria, is hugely different to the avowed war aims of the West. Daesh is not their concern. In fact there will be probably continuing covert approaches to elements of Daesh to join with them in a jihad on the increasingly Shia forces around Assad.
But the strains within the wider alliance will not only be between Saudi Arabia and the West but also between Saudi Arabia and the militias in Syria pulled together this week in Riyadh.
There is a shared objective between those militias with their two main sponsors, President Erdogan of Turkey and the Saudi regime. All of them want an authoritarian and sectarian Sunni state. Saudi Arabia is the dominant one of the two state sponsors of these Syrian militias both in their ideology as well as their financing. So the eventual objective will more likely be a satellite state to the Saudi Wahabbist homeland.
However the statement that came out of the Riyadh conference was clearly couched for western consumption. US Secretary of State Kerry was in regular and frequent phone contact with both the Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir and the powerful Prince Mohammed Bin Salman throughout the Riyadh talks.
The statement that emerged from the conference called for a “democratic mechanism through a pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian people”.
The statement is not truthful. An openly avowed statement for a sectarian Sunni state, never mind a Wahabbist one, would blow away the unprincipled alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey with the West. Opposition to Saudi Wahabbism in all western countries is growing and their governments would be subjected to fierce criticism if the real aim of the alliance that the Saudis are building was known.
So the statement is little more than what the Saudi tyrants excel in: two-faced double dealing. One might speculate that the conference was probably more of an educational in diplomacy by the Saudis to their Islamist co-thinkers on how you pretend to the West to do one thing whilst you really intend to do the exact opposite.
The coalition declared in Riyadh will be closely controlled by the Saudi regime. Its office will be in Saudi Arabia not in Syria. But central control by Saudi along with their money, arms and ‘volunteer’ fighters will be unlikely to keep the alliance together.
Many of the Islamist militias in Syria will say that they accept the objectives declared at the Riyadh conference and Saudi leadership – after all they want Saudi arms and money.
Despite the spectacular growth of Sunni Islamism in Syria there has also been ever increasing divisions. Possibility of Islamist unity is attractive to many of them but in the ideologies of those movements are strong memories of of what they consider to be past Saudi ‘betrayals’. The fact is that the Saudi regime, the Turkish-sponsored Islamists, the Al Qaeda offshoots and other sectarian forces that attended the Riyadh conference consider each other as treacherous.
For it is the same double-dealing we see in the statement that first fractured Wahabbist and wider Sunni sectarianism unity in the early 90s: after the Saudi alliance with the US in the 1991 Gulf War after Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
That war spurned Al Qaeda and also caused the Muslim Brotherhood network to break with Saudi Arabia. As they saw it, to differing degrees, to align with the democratic rhetoric required by western governments compromised the Islamist message of both clerical absolutism and authoritarianism as well as the required hostility to Western infidels.
Although the Saudi regime tried hard to woo back Al Qaeda, the largest non-Daesh militia, Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, even refused to attend the Riyadh conference although they were not explicitly excluded. Al Nusra is powerful probably with more than 20,000 fighters. The Saudis clearly want to win ‘hearts and minds’ of Jahbat al Nusra fighters but a long term relationship is proving problematic to create.
The next most powerful force, Ahrar al-Sham, a close ally of Jabhat al Nusra, with something like 15,000 fighters were at Riyadh. They however pulled out of signing the conference statement because it “failed to assert the Muslim identity of our people”. However it is said that they later had “second thoughts”.
Whatever those second thoughts were, it didn’t stop them welcoming the conference in their own statement as furthering their explicit aim of an Islamic State and the outlawing of secularism in that state, saying that “Fighting ISIS is secondary”. That clearly off-message statement from the conference not only is embarrassing for the Saudi pretensions it also shows the tensions that will not disappear.
The thousands of Saudi volunteers who have been and are continuing to be mobilised to fight in Syria may also prove to be as unreliable to the Saudi regime as the volunteers who went to Afghanistan to fight Russia and from whom Bin Laden formed Al Qaeda.
But no-one believes these current negotiations will lead to peace. Essentially the greater powers are aligning themselves for later negotiations and the carving up of Syria. The Riyadh statement and other pronouncements from Saudi regime make clear that they want Assad to be removed from power. The statement also signals an acceptance of pluralism and regional autonomy – there may even be mention of ‘democracy’ in the statement (edited 13th Dec 13:00 -not available at time of writing but now available from this link).
However across the region and the world there are states making preposterous claims to be democracies and where rulers engineer elections that give them ‘majority votes’. But secular political parties of workers and the poor are rarely able to speak and organise freely in those elections – they are almost always brutally oppressed.
So any statement, such as the Riyadh one, that mention pluralism and perhaps even ‘democracy’ without mention of democratic rights is meaningless.
Frankly though it is difficult to see what body currently involved in ‘peace talks’ about Syria will raise human rights, workers rights, the rights of dissent and protest along with the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
On the other hand in a country where civic society and particularly multi-ethnic working class communities have been so obliterated it would be naïve to think that local forces alone could stop the powerful warring Islamist factions, never mind win the battle for democracy.
Even if the western powers were capable of carrying democracy forward at the end of a bayonet, which they aren’t, Riyadh has shown they would rather an Islamist regime be carried forward on jihadist bayonets.
The capitalist regimes of US and Europe have failed the Syrian people. The European workers movement has a duty to act.
There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians who live with us and should be welcomed into our movement. In coming months and years we should campaign to end the block on them obtaining refuge here. With them we need to derive plans for peace, freedom and democratic rights for the Syrian people.
- It would mean demanding of Western governments that they break links and end arm supplies to the Saudi tyrants.
- It would mean kicking Turkey out of NATO and ending any military alliance with them as well as supporting Turkish and Kurdish democrats of the HDP against the Erdogan government.
- It would mean campaigning to end the victimisation of Kurds through the current listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation by the EU and US at Turkish insistence.
- It would mean arming the Rojovan YPG/ YPJ and other allies of theirs in Syria who might honestly be characterised as secularists and democrats.
- It would mean demanding that Syrians have refuge across Europe and can build the social infrastructures that will allow political debate and discussion about how they might rescue their homeland from Islamist reaction.
Such campaigns will not be easy. But the alternatives are either continuing bloody mayhem in Syria or a partition with the formation of two mutually antagonistic brutal Islamic states perpetually at risk of engulfing the region in a sectarian religious war.
Of course, this presumes that the Islamist dictatorships in both Iran and Saudi and the reactionary Islamist government in Turkey will survive. The overthrow of any one of them could only help the cause of democracy in Syria. But the plight of Syria has also brought all these regimes into the focus of the world. The struggle for freedom in all countries of the Middle East has never been more closely intertwined.
Postscript – 13th Dec
Yesterday Al Nusra denounced the Riyadh conference as ‘part of a “conspiracy” to revive and sustain the regime of President Bashar al-Assad’ and also condemned those who attended as committing “treason to the sacrifices made by the Syrian people”.
The second comment is clearly aimed at Ahrar al-Sham who attended although didn’t vote for the conference statement. As Nusra work closely with Ahrar al-Sham, their strong condemnation may jeopardise that relationship but is also likely to cause al-Sham to backpedal from their support for the conference and Saudi’s leadership.