US rulers, allies weigh step-up in Syria conflict, missile strikes

By Seth Galinsky
April 23, 2018

President Donald Trump announced April 11 that missiles “will be coming” to strike targets in Syria, retaliation for a Syrian government poison gas attack a few days earlier on civilians in Douma, a Damascus suburb then controlled by opposition forces.

”If there is a strike by the Americans,” Alexander Zasypkin, Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, replied, “the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired.”

Washington is discussing with its imperialist allies in France and Britain joining in the attack.

With the defeat of Islamic State, and the Russian and Iranian rulers’ success in helping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad rout armed opponents of his regime, the civil war in Syria is winding down. But sharp conflicts among the rival capitalist powers in the region — including Washington and Moscow, Tehran and Tel Aviv, and Ankara, Riyadh and others, all seeking to defend their interests — are heating up.

U.S. imperialism and its allies care little about the victims of the Syrian regime. Their central goal is to prevent Tehran from strengthening its new position in Syria and the region.

The chemical attack took place after negotiations between Russian officials and a Saudi-backed armed opposition group based in Douma, the last anti-Assad-controlled area near Damascus, had reportedly broken down. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus deny any chemical attack took place.

Amid calls in Washington, London and other imperialist capitals for a military response, Moscow vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the attack and calling for an independent investigation. Instead, Moscow said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in the Hague agreed to come to Douma to investigate the deaths.

However, after the chemical attack the opponents of Assad in eastern Ghouta surrendered and are now being bused to Turkish-patrolled areas in northern Syria. Douma is now in the hands of Russian troops, who have been filmed patrolling in areas where photographs had earlier shown rows of gassed victims. It means finding definitive evidence about the attack may now be unlikely.

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 after the Assad regime sent tanks and soldiers to crush unarmed demonstrations demanding political rights and the fall of the dictatorship. In the face of a vacuum of working-class leadership, the reactionary Islamic State seized a wide swath of territory, deepening the misery of working people who fell under their sway.

The only effective force against Islamic State was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Backed by U.S. air power and special forces, these fighters drove IS out of Kobani, Raqqa and elsewhere. They now control some 25 percent of the country — Kurdish and other areas north of the Euphrates, including the largest oil fields in the country. There are some 2,000 U.S. troops based in these areas and at two bases in southern Syria.

Assad was only able to survive with the help of tens of thousands of troops from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias, supported since September 2015 by Moscow’s air power. Caught in the middle, millions more workers and farmers fled Syria or became refugees in their own country. More than 400,000 have been killed.

By saving Assad, and intervening against Islamic State alongside the government in Iraq, Tehran gained a land route to ship arms to Hezbollah. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasts that they gained “great military experience” — at the price of some 1,500 combatants.

Israeli rulers face off with Tehran

Israeli planes fired missiles from Lebanese airspace April 8 at an airbase used by Iranian military forces, near Homs in Syria, killing 14 people including at least seven Iranians. The attack took place shortly after the chemical bombs were dropped on besieged Douma.

In 2006 more than 10,000 Israeli troops invaded Lebanon while Hezbollah at times launched 100 to 200 missiles into Israel a day. Nearly 2,000 residents of Lebanon and more than 160 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed during that war, which ended without a clear victor.

Today, Hezbollah is better armed, holding a stockpile of some 150,000 rockets and missiles. The Israeli government is determined to stop further Iranian arms shipments, especially of weaponry with precision strike capability, and to stop Iranian-backed militias from setting up permanent areas of control near the Israeli border. Israeli forces have bombed weapons convoys and other Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria more than 100 times since 2012.

After Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon told Army Radio that a conflict with Hezbollah is possible in the coming year, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, threatened that Hezbollah “will turn Haifa and Tel Aviv into ghost-towns.” Khatami didn’t mention that 10 percent of the population of Haifa are Palestinian citizens of Israel.

At least 1,000 Iranians have died in Syria defending the Assad regime, including senior members of the Revolutionary Guard. Opposition to the war was a key factor in the wave of protests that swept Iran earlier this year.

The Israeli rulers’ opposition to Tehran has won support and growing relations with the Saudi monarchs and their allies in the Gulf.

On April 4 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Ankara to try to maintain their recent uneasy alliance in Syria. Erdogan wants acceptance of Turkish intervention in northern Syria. He wants to force some 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to repopulate territory wrested in the Turkish rulers’ war against the Kurds in Afrin last month.

All they were able to agree on was maintaining “de-escalation” zones, supposedly to help end the civil war, that in fact tend to mark their separate spheres of influence.

During the summit, Iranian President Rouhani called on the Turkish government to turn Afrin over to Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made the same demand a few days later.

Erdogan refused. He says the Turkish rulers have more unfinished business attacking the Kurds and in solving their refugee “problem.”