As Syria civil war grinds on toilers, consequences spill over into region
BY EMMA JOHNSON
The civil war in Syria is locked in a bloody stalemate between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the disparate bourgeois opposition. The 19 months of fighting is bearing down hard on working people with an increasing number being killed, dislocated and forced to flee the country.
The goal of Washington and its allies is to promote—with minimal engagement and risk—the creation of a government without al-Assad that can maintain stable capitalist relations and support imperialist interests in the region. This is proving to be complex and difficult.
Consequences of the war are spilling over to neighboring countries. In addition to a growing refugee crisis, military clashes recently took place on the border between Syria and Turkey.
The rebel-controlled Damascus suburb of Douma is a good illustration of the grinding character of the war. “The regime forces enter, we defend and they get out,” Abu Fawz, a member of the Free Syrian Army, told the Financial Times Oct. 1. “Then it starts all over again.” The repeated shelling by the government has destroyed much of this working-class neighborhood.
The battle over Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, has raged for two months without any major developments.
The death toll nationwide has passed 33,000, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The number of displaced people within Syria is 1.5 million. The United Nations says 340,000 are refugees, mainly in neighboring countries.
There are shortages of medicine, food and fuel. Electricity outages are widespread.
The al-Assad regime bases its power on a narrow layer of capitalist families, mostly Arabs of the Alawite faith, a branch of Shiite Islam, that comprises 11 percent of the population. The country is 90 percent Arab and 9 percent Kurdish, an oppressed nationality. Three-quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims and 12 percent are Christians.
Its main ally in the region is the regime in Tehran and it has supported Iranian-backed groups Hamas and Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. It also has close ties with Moscow.
Opposition deeply divided
The bourgeois opposition is deeply divided—along political, ethnic and sectarian lines, and between the politicians in exile and fighters on the ground in Syria.
The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are their main backers. They provide money and small arms, but not heavy weaponry, largely because of opposition from the U.S.
Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney say they oppose U.S. military intervention. The Obama administration has called for al-Assad to step down, but doesn’t provide heavy weaponry to the opposition, for fear of arms falling into the “wrong hands.” Washington’s intervention now is mainly in the form of covert operations by special forces.
According to an Oct. 15 article in the New York Times, U.S. officials and Middle Eastern diplomats say that most of the arms shipped by the Saudi and Qatar governments end up with Islamist groups and not “the more secular opposition groups the West wants to bolster.”
The regime in Iran resumed shipments of military equipment to Damascus in July. These have been carried out over Iraqi airspace, much to Washington’s irritation.
The effects of the civil war spreading in the region were highlighted recently by tensions along the Syrian-Turkish border. After Syrian shelling killed five people in the Turkish border town of Akcakale Oct. 3, cross-border fire took place for five consecutive days. On Oct. 4, Turkey’s parliament voted to authorize deployment of troops in Syria.
The border areas are inhabited mainly by Kurds, an oppressed nationality of some 30 million in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
As Syrian regime troops redeployed to the capital Damascus, in response to heavy fighting with rebel groups, Kurdish forces moved in and now claim they control several towns. Kurds in Syria have a history of organized opposition to al-Assad, but have not joined the main opposition forces, which are backed by the Turkish government, one of their oppressors. The strongest group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization in Turkey designated as a “terrorist” organization by the U.S. and European Union.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a national address July 31 that Ankara would “never tolerate initiatives that would threaten Turkey’s security” and would “intervene” in Syria should the PKK set up camp there. Following this, the Turkish military began diverting troops, tanks and antiaircraft missiles to that section of the border.