The crisis in Syria and the limits of US power

September 14, 2013

In just two weeks, the US government went from announcing an imminent and unilateral military attack on Syria as a reprisal for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime, to accepting a "diplomatic solution" proposed by Russia – Assad’s main international ally – that would consist of the Syrian government’s handing over its stocks of chemical weapons to international organizations for their destruction, under supervision of the UN.

According to the official version, Russia changed a "gaffe" by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, into a political initiative. In a press conference, Kerry responded rhetorically that the way to prevent a military attack by the United States – which, in any case, he described as "incredibly small" – was that Assad should hand over his chemical arsenal.

However, bearing in mind that the proposal was like a hope of last resort for the US government, it seems more plausible that this "honorable solution" for the crisis that initiated military intervention in Syria, is a result of negotiation between Obama and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, in the face of the isolation that the United States had been in, for this new military adventure in the Middle East. Right now, this solution serves most of the actors involved, except for the Syrian pro-imperialist leaderships and their local sponsors that are working hard for an intervention by the Western powers, similar to NATO’s operation in Libya.

Obama avoided an almost certain defeat in the US Congress, that, according to all the estimates, was going to reject, by an overwhelming majority, authorizing the use of military force in Syria because, among other things, after more than 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this new military incursion is highly unpopular among the population (according to the most recent Reuters survey, only 16% would back a unilateral attack). Despite the fact that the crisis in Obama’s policy towards Syria is undeniable, the US President claimed this "Russian solution" as his own achievement, a result of pressure from the military threat. Together with Great Britain and France – that also face enormous domestic opposition to the war – he will try to get the UN to approve a resolution that will legitimize the use of force in case Assad fails to comply with the commitment to hand over his weapons. Since the requirement is impossible to verify, this resolution of last resort would serve as an excuse to give cover to a possible intervention.

This weakness of the imperialist front allowed Russia to manage to appear again as a power (despite the fact that its bases of economic and political support are weak, and present-day Russia is far from playing the role of the former USSR, especially through its control of the world working-class movement) with which the United States finds itself forced to negotiate, if it is trying to get some legitimacy from the UN Security Council, since its veto power in that body places it as a key actor.

Together with China, it will obstruct the approval of any resolution that gives legitimacy to US military action.

Assad’s regime would be saved for now from a military attack of the Western powers and their Arab allies, that could alter the relationship of forces in favor of the rebel faction.

With the United States lacking the ability to assert itself in the UN, a prolonged process of negotiations and tugs will begin, with a still uncertain result.

The decline of the United States

The zig zags of Obama’s foreign policy – that went in a matter of days from war-mongering to diplomacy – and the big political difficulties in pursuing the attack on Syria, despite enormous military superiority, are the most complete sign of the leap in the decline of US power, after the defeats suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan and the obstacles that the United States encounters in order to reestablish its control in a strategic region, still shaken by the complex processes of the Arab Spring, with the background of the capitalist crisis. What is at stake in this crisis is not the fate of the Assad regime, but the ability of the United States to exercise its role as an international policeman and impose its interests on allies and enemies. A weakness on this terrain would have long-range consequences and could encourage other states like Iran or North Korea to challenge the demands from North America and its agents. This does not mean that the United States, that continues to be the main imperialist power, will not pursue aggressive policies, especially where its national interest is at stake, or that, necessarily, this weakness will be used in favor of their own interests by the working and popular masses, when they have reactionary leaderships in front, as shown by the crisis in Iraq, where the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites intensified, after the withdrawal of the US troops, or Afghanistan, where the United States is seeking to negotiate its exit with the Taliban.

No to imperialist intervention in Syria, with or without the support of the UN

After having abandoned unilateral action for now, Obama will seek the cover of the UN to advance imperialist interests, by using the excuse of the prohibition of chemical weapons, a big hypocrisy, when the United States is the country that possesses the biggest stock of non-conventional weapons. Russia’s policy is to support Assad’s regime, based on its own geopolitical interests, and, possibly, to be an essential actor in a negotiated solution between Assad and the moderate factions in opposition, an aim that, perhaps, it shares with the United States. For that reason, we Marxists oppose both the unilateral military attack and the United Nations’ resolutions, that are the diplomatic cover for imperialist interference. The big lesson that the processes of the Arab Spring are leaving, is that, in order to defeat imperialism and the dictatorial regimes, like that of Assad, who, with an iron fist, preserves the privileges of a minority of exploiters, it is necessary to develop the action and the independent organization of the workers, the young people and the groups of the poor.