The recapture of Aleppo by loyalist forces in December, represents a decisive milestone in the Syrian civil war, as well as for the crisis in the whole region. But, as Hamid Alizadeh discusses, it also has wide ranging consequences for world relations in the coming period.
The recapture of Aleppo by loyalist forces in December, represents a decisive milestone in the Syrian civil war, as well as for the crisis in the whole region. But it also has wide ranging consequences for world relations in the coming period.
The Astana negotiations which led to the Syrian ceasefire agreement at the end of December, was the first important conference in modern Middle East history to be organised with the explicit exclusion of the US. From the anti-Assad camp the only country involved was Turkey, which began to shift its policy last summer when the Syrian opposition was well on its way to sinking.
The other powers present were Iranian an, Russia and Syria, the powers most demonised in the western media. Yet when the deal was presented after the conference, John Kerry had to support it. The UN Security Council, traditionally a tool of the US dominated world order and from where Samantha Powers had raged against Russia only a few weeks earlier, unanimously accepted the deal.
With the recapture of Aleppo, the Assad regime has consolidated its hold on all the key strategic and economic points of interest in Syria. The Mediterranean coast, the Lebanese border, the southern town of Daraa as well as the four key cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. So called ‘useful Syria’ which is the home to all the key economic entities and 70 percent of the population, is now completely out of the reach of the demoralised and exhausted rebels. The idea of overthrowing the Assad regime is nothing more than a pipe-dream.
For the Islamist rebels, the defeat in Aleppo spells disaster. Expelled from their last urban stronghold and having seen no significant gains for the past year, most rebel groups face falling morale. The past year and a half has seen almost 1100 reconciliation and truce agreements. Tens of thousands of rebels and their families have surrendered their positions to Assad loyalist forces, thus further consolidating the regime's grip over key areas.
Faced with an additional 25,000 loyalist troops which could be freed up from Aleppo, it is unlikely that the rebels stand a chance of making serious military gains against the regime in the coming period. Reduced to a fringe movement in rural backward areas, they are of less interest to their backers in the west, Turkey and the Gulf who have been funding and arming the Islamist dominated opposition against Assad.
This has already led to several crises, most prominently in a Ahrar al Sham (AAS), which along with its close ally and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS) form the two largest rebel groups. The group was almost pulled apart in December when Turkey withdrew its previous support for the close coalition with JFS and instead put put pressure on it to join the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield in Northern Syria. In fact, a similar move by Turkey severely weakened the rebels inside Aleppo city before they were besieged and defeated by loyalist forces in the autumn. Sensing an impending defeat on the horizon, Turkey - the key logistic and economic hub of the rebels - is now turning its back on the insurgency. This leaves the rebels and their other backers - the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States - in a desperate situation.
More than anything the recapture of Aleppo signifies a complete humiliation for these countries and their imperialist project in Syria. Six years and tens of billions of dollars later, the insurgency backed by the US, the most powerful military power on the planet and the two richest and most influential powers in the region,has not reached single one of its aims.
Loyalists advancing on Aleppo were doing so while the US military had troops deployed, literally a few miles down the road, and jets flying sorties in the immediate area. Yet faced with Russia’s air power and missile capabilities, this super-power was impotent to do anything.
At the end of the campaign suddenly, all the huffing and puffing over Russia has gone silent and there is now a long queue of Gulf princelings and western career diplomats lining up to have an audience with Vladimir Putin.
Such a public humiliation is a rarity for the US and it represents a turning point in world relations. Putin had offered the Americans a joint operation, a negotiated peace and in effect a power sharing deal in Syria three times since Russia stepped into the Syrian civil war. The first time was right at the beginning of their intervention in Syria; then again in March of 2016 and yet again in September when the siege of Aleppo had been completed. But the US, propelled by imperialist self-assurance and egged on by their Gulf allies, purposefully sabotaged any deal.
Even after Aleppo had fallen, one US official arrogantly told Reuters: "So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that's Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing. I don't think the Turks and the Russians can do this (political negotiations) without us."
But they did and they will continue to do so. The US is now at the mercy of Russia in Syria. Which other options do the US ruling class have? Even before Russia stepped in, the Obama administration could not pass a vote for bombing Syria. Today any kind of escalation would pitch the US against the Russia, which is the second strongest military power in the world. The opposition that the US would meet from Russia along with Syrian and Iranian backed forces would dwarf anything the US had to deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More importantly, the American people are weary of war and costly international adventures. The economic crisis, falling living standards and large scale resentment towards the establishment would turn any major war into a focal point for an explosion of the class struggle. This deepening social schism has already lead to deep divisions within the ruling class and a deep political and institutional crisis.
In Syria the underlying limitations of the US were clearly revealed. The original intervention in Syria was partially to appease its allies in the region and their fears of rising Iranian influence. But the operation quickly spiralled out of control, leading to the rise of Islamic State. Being incapable of intervening directly, it had to rely on forces such as Hezbollah and Iran to battle ISIS.
The nuclear deal with Iran and the lack of any appetite to finish what it started in Syria and Iraq, in turn alienated the traditional allies of the US who had invested much in the campaign against Assad and who, more importantly, were in fierce competition with Iran. This led to the opening of big fissures in the US-led bloc and even within the US establishment itself. While the Pentagon and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) began a campaign against ISIS, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the CIA continued to support various Jihadist groups.
Partially to avoid alienating Saudi Arabia, which would not have appreciated any US support for Iranian backed forces, the Pentagon instead threw its weight behind the Kurdish YPG group, which had emerged as the most efficient fighting force in Syria. This, however, alienated the Turkish regime, which sees the Kurds as an existential threat and feels threatened by a Kurdish state emerging on its southern borders.
The final outcome was the US working with three opposing blocs in the regional conflict as well as having seriously alienated their two most important allies. Caught in the quicksand of its own contradictions, the US was left paralyzed and unable to act. Russia then stepped into the vacuum which had opened up, decisively changing the balance of forces on the ground
The US has received a blow in Syria, but In relative terms it is Saudi Arabia which has come out of this as the biggest loser. With Turkey pulling its supporters away from Aleppo city and Idlib, the Saudi and Qatari linked groups were left to take the brunt of the loyalist onslaught. They are now the weakest of the powers involved in Syria.
This is a reflection of the general decline of Saudi Arabia in international affairs. Its proxies in Iraq and Syria are on the retreat, its influence with the Egyptian regime is in freefall, Jordan long turned its back on Saudi plans in Syria and in Yemen it is hemorrhaging money into a war it has already lost. Even its closest allies see the kingdom as a liability in the region rather than an asset. It was noticeable that Saudi Arabia was not even mentioned as a party in the retaking of Mosul in Iraq, whereas both Turkey and Iran were heavily involved in negotiations and preparations for the operation.
The Syrian civil war and the fall of Aleppo have proved what the western powers had known for some time, that Saudi Arabia cannot be used as a reliable ally in the region. Far from being a stabilising force, the Saudis have played a key part in the rise of ISIS and the entrenchment of al Qaeda in Syria and Yemen. And to make matters worse, they have achieved none of their aims.
From being the key local power, the kingdom is being pushed to the fringes with waning influence. This is a reflection of the deep crisis of the Saudi regime. The House of Al-Saud is being ripped apart by opposing religious, tribal and class forces all pulling it in different directions. For decades it was able to maintain stability due to high oil prices and a special relationship with the US which gave Saudi oil a key strategic importance. But the crisis of capitalism has meant falling oil prices and the US is now itself the second largest oil producer on the planet.
The crisis is exacerbating the internal contradictions which in turn make the survival of the country itself uncertain in the next period. As the Kingdom crumbles, however, Turkey is trying to step into the vacuum that has been created and, along with Iran, is aiming to become one of the main powers in the region. This will be the defining contradiction for regional relations in the next period.
The Erdogan regime has long had designs to dominate the Middle East with the idea of resurrecting a capitalist version of the Ottoman empire. It represents that Anatolian bourgeoisie that was always opposed to the Kemalist western-oriented and generally isolationist foreign policy, which had only benefitted the western Turkish Kemalist big bourgeois. Historically Ottomanism found its last supporters in Anatolia, in particular in the Islamist movements which persisted here.
Erdogan’s intervention in Syria and Iraq - which was opposed by the Kemalist army - was a step in this neo-Ottoman foreign policy and also an attempt to compete with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of “the Sunni world”. The intervention in Syria was met with strong opposition from within the army which was the most important obstacle to sending Turkish troops into Syria.
However, the Syrian adventure, together with the weakening of the Assad regime, also led to the rise of the Kurdish national movement in Rojava, which in turn helped turn the Kurdish movement into a focal point for the rising class struggle in Turkey. The entrance of the Kurdish-based HDP into the Turkish parliament changed the balance of forces and reduced Erdogan’s majority.
Having pacified political opposition from the Kemalist camp, the Kurdish question now became the key for Erdogan’s survival. The HDP had the potential to become a focal point for the class struggle. Not only this, the rise of an independent Kurdish entity inside Syria opened the path towards Kurdish independence in the future. The Kurdish question in Syria thus became an existential problem for Turkish capitalism itself. The US, swinging its weight behind the Kurdish YPG forces, only made matters worse.
Meanwhile the Russian intervention in Syria was a big setback for the Islamist opposition and hence for Erdogan. Trying to assert itself, Turkey shot down a Russian jet last October. But this only made matters worse, as Putin in response wiped out key Turkish groups and imposed harsh sanctions on the country.
Unhappy with the lack of western support, Erdogan then did a u-turn and made a deal with Russia. The split with the US was exacerbated by the attempted coup in Turkey in July. It is widely accepted that Russia and Iran tipped off Erdogan about the coup, while western powers met it with a deafening silence until it was clear that it had been defeated. The purge of the army that ensued, added to the tensions as the officer caste was very close to the US and NATO.
In this situation, Putin was more than happy to accommodate Turkey in Syria. For Russia to sway Turkey, one of the most important NATO members, was a victory in itself. Putin, Assad and the Iranians also had no problem in making a deal which cut out the Kurds.
From being almost completely routed,Turkey was allowed by Russia - which effectively controls Syrian airspace - to re-enter Syria and take a large area in the Northern Aleppo countryside in the Euphrates Shield Operation. Turkish proxies were also allowed to leave Aleppo city to join the operation before it was besieged in September. This realignment was the political basis for the defeat of the Islamist groups in Aleppo last December. This allows Turkey to pursue its new main objective in Syria, which is now the defeat of Rojava, as well as to keep its neo-Ottoman dreams alive.
Of course this does not mean that Turkey is now an ally of Russia, but by leaning on Russia it is attempting to gain more concessions from the US and from the EU. Most importantly, Erdogan wants the US to abandon the Kurds.
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, before the movement was hijacked by Islamists, the Assad regime was forced to withdraw from large areas in the north east. In this vacuum of power the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - a sister organisation of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) - along with its military wing The People's Protection Units (YPG), rose to become the dominant force in the area. With the degeneration of the revolution into a sectarian civil war, the YPG developed into a formidable militia force with at least 50,000 fighters.
The Kurdish movement developed its own popular democratic organs of rule which were distinctly non-sectarian. Rojava, as the area is known, became a de facto independent entity and its forces, fighting for their homeland and on a democratic platform, became very effective. The US army, unable to commit its own ground troops, saw in the movement an alternative anti-Assad and anti-ISIS, as well as non-Iranian force.
Seeing that Turkey refused to close its border to ISIS, the US supported the Kurdish forces to advance along Turkey’s border. The entrance of the Turkish army into Syria was an attempt to reverse these gains and to prepare the ground for annihilating the Kurdish enclave. With all its proxies down, however, the US has no other alternative but to keep leaning on the Kurds.
This, however, does not mean that it will continue to support the Kurdish movement. In fact, for the US it is far more important to keep Turkey as an ally, even if it is a weak one, than to support the Kurdish struggle. In fact, the PKK is still designated as a terrorist organisation by the US. The CIA played a key role in delivering Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the movement, to Turkey in 1998. Rojava in US eyes is a barren land with no significant economic benefits except for the immediate fight with ISIS. Turkey on the other hand is a NATO member with many key military bases as well as a host of US nuclear missiles.
The Kurdish movement cannot trust US imperialism in securing its interests. As the negotiations carry on, the US is merely positioning itself to sell out the movement. Similarly it cannot trust the Iranian or the Iraqi regime who are trying to co-opt it into the People's Mobilisation Units in Iraq. At the moment, the Iranian’s are leaning on the PKK against Turkey and its Kurdish stooge Masoud Barzani, but once a deal is reached they will have no qualms in abandoning the Kurds who they see as a threat to Iran itself.
As the Marxists have always said, the Kurds are only seen as small change relationship of the major powers. They have not interest in Kurdish independence or autonomy which poses a threat to their own borders. Once the warring parties reach a deal to divide the Middle East, every power in the region, could turn against them to crush the movement.
The Kurds can have no trust in the reactionary rulers of the US, Iran or any other nation. They can only trust in their own forces and those of the working masses of the region. The only way forward for the Kurdish movement is to widen its struggle by waging a revolutionary class-based war, with the aim first of all of uniting the Kurdish areas in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. This would have to be accompanied by an appeal to the working masses of these countries to rise against their own ruling classes which are wreaking havoc in the region.
The rise of Russia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, US imperialism had attempted to squeeze Russia, building NATO bases further and further into Eastern Europe and undermining Russian influence in its historical spheres of influence. But in Georgia and in Ukraine, Russia drew a line in the sand, making it clear it would not allow any further encroachments on the part of NATO into what it considered its backyard. It is in Syria, however, that has Russia dealt its strongest blow against the US.
Russian intervention in Syria was was possible because of the relative weakening of US imperialism. It is also clear, however, that Russia, which is now also facing its own economic crisis, is not strong enough to take on a major long term operation in Syria. Until now the cost of the Syrian operation has been little more than the regular cost of normal military training, but a larger mission would leave a big dent in the stretched state budget.
Furthermore, Russia’s main objectives in Syria - to secure the survival of the regime and defend its own naval base - have already been achieved. But Syria, as a country has little strategic importance for Putin, who is far more concerned with Eastern Europe, Central Asia and even the Far East. For Putin Syria represents a place to gain leverage in other matters. That is why he is more interested in creating a frozen conflict, containing all the powers and where Russia can strengthen its position by playing them out against each other.
Herein lies the true imperialist face of Russia. Opposite to the wishes of Assad and Iran, and probably many Syrians, Putin does not want to push out the opposing forces. Bringing Turkey back into Syria was a way of balancing it off against Iran which, unopposed, could have become much more powerful than Russia in the region.
If Iran and the Assad regime want to continue their offensives today, they cannot do so without the support of Russia. If all of Syria is taken, however, Russia would be dependent on Iran to maintain the situation. Something that Russia, which is also competing with Iran (and Turkey) for influence in Caucasus, cannot allow. Putin would much rather create a situation where the local powers balance each other out in Syria with himself sitting at the top, than a situation where Iran becomes the dominant power. In a Russian backed deal, even the Islamists in Idlib - of course with shortened beards and a new name - could find a limited role in a future settlement. This would lead to more friction between Russia and Iran in the future.
Even more importantly, however, Putin is eager to include the West in a power sharing deal in Syria. A joint US-Russian operation has been his publicly announced goal throughout the Russian campaign. That may have changed somewhat now, but Putin is still reaching out to the US. When Donald Trump takes office next week, he will be faced with a fait accompli which will make the choice very easy for him. In return he is likely to ask Putin to act against Iran - a wish Putin could quite easily grant.
A turning point
The Syrian civil war is, however, far from finished. The conflict will go on for a long time, although it will be on a different level of intensity. The Assad regime will continue to clear rebel pockets around key cities, as well as moving against ISIS and possibly also on AAS and JFS in Idlib. Meanwhile, Turkey will turn its eyes on Raqqa and Rojava. At least that will be the initial direction.
After the battle of Aleppo, if the final winner is not fully clear, the losers certainly are. The Middle East has always been seen by the US ruling class as its domain. In the past it waded into Iraq twice without blinking and it has never hesitated to meddle in the affairs of other nations in the region, by conspiring and manoeuvering. And yet in Aleppo the US was unable to do anything.
Of course US imperialism is still by far the strongest power on the planet, and that is not about to change anytime soon. But, due to its long term relative decline, it is no longer the strongest power in every region of the planet. In the Middle East its limitations have been on public display.
Like any empire, the US has peaked and has entered a period of decline. The post-war capitalist world order was built by the US, so it is no surprise that the crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of US imperialism and its world order. At the end of the Second World War the US economy accounted for more than 50 percent of world GDP. Today that figure has fallen to around 25 percent. The US was the greatest creditor in the world, today it is the biggest debtor. The economic crisis in turn is leading to rising class struggle and a political and institutional crisis. And the US military suffers the consequences of this decline.
The decline of US imperialism has been taking place over a long period of decades, but now we see an acceleration in the process which leaves the superpower no longer able to guarantee the world order which it had built up in the past. History does not flow in a straight line. The defeat of the US in Aleppo was the consequence of all these accumulated contradictions. In this regard the election of Donald Trump is no accident either. Trump’s isolationist foreign policy is a reflection of the real position of the US in world relations.
The Middle East does not have the same strategic importance for the US as it used to. Furthermore, it does not have the resources to stabilise the region. Hence, a deal with Russia is quite possible, especially if it allows the US to focus on China which poses the biggest threat to the US on an international scale. The Syrian failure, however, will also lead to increased pressure on the US as more regional opponents and allies - such as China and Japan - juggle to affirm their positions as the US weakens further.
World war is ruled out in the coming period, but that does not mean that world relations are not going to be affected. We have entered a period of growing instability. As world capitalism as a system sinks deeper into crisis, we will see endless local wars and conflicts, where the different powers struggle to protect their spheres of influence and encroach on those of others. Millions of people around the world will see that the ruling classes are prepared to drag all of humanity down into the depths barbarism in order to defend their own power, privileges and profits. This situation also prepares the ground for rising class struggle and revolutionary movements everywhere. One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks ended the First World War by overthrowing capitalism in Russia. Today, the task remains the same. Capitalism produces war and, the only real way of fighting for peace is to wage a revolutionary struggle for Socialism.