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The spontaneous uprising of the Syrian masses, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, has degenerated into a sectarian bloodbath. Deprived of a revolutionary leadership, the hopeful beginnings have been transformed into a tragedy. On the other hand, US imperialism's hypocritical and bellicose zig-zags are a complete and utter farce, and graphically illustrate the limits of US power.

Long accustomed to getting its way with no questions asked, Obama’s handling of the Syria situation has exposed the new balance of forces on a world scale. While still the preeminent imperialist power, the dream of a “Pax Americana” under US auspices has been reduced to rubble, with far-reaching implications.

Twelve years of bloodshed and the ruinous draining of the national treasury has greatly reduced Americans’ appetite for war. After the humiliating adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, US imperialism is seeking to extricate itself from the Middle East. In the last decade, it has largely neglected Asia, and must now make up for lost time as it seeks to counter China’s rise, not to mention Japan’s re-emergence as a regional military presence. But things will not be so simple for the strategists at the Pentagon, CIA, and Department of State.

An epoch of crisis, war, revolution, and counter-revolution

The entire Middle East has spun out of the imperialists’ control. Several regimes have fallen already, and revolution simmers just beneath the surface in one country after another. Britain and France, whose fleets, merchants, and armies once straddled the world, are pathetic shadows of their former selves—though their leaders seem not to have noticed. The eurozone is embroiled in intractable internal problems. Russia, bruised and humiliated after the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union, seeks to reassert its regional influence, and is “punching above its weight.” Turkey's “strong man” Erdogan has been shaken by a dramatic revolutionary upsurge. In Iran, years of revolutionary mobilizations and electoral surprises have changed the equation. Even Israel must walk a tightrope, as mass protests at home and raging instability on all sides force it to be more circumspect than its leaders are accustomed to. Add to this the ruthless calculations and billions of dollars the Chinese, Saudis, and Qataris have been pouring in, and you have a veritable powder keg waiting to explode.

In this volatile context, the US cannot afford to stand meekly aside. And yet, it has few options, none of which are particularly palatable. Forced to slink away from Iraq with its tail between its legs, and similarly defeated in Afghanistan, it must show the world that its overwhelming military might is not a paper tiger. Hence the bold words about “red lines” and chemical weapons, reminiscent of George H. Bush's “line in the sand” message to Saddam Hussein. Despite his tough talk, Obama likely imagined that Assad would not cross the “red line,” thus allowing the US to posture and talk tough, while not being compelled to actually act. After all, Assad was doing quite a fine job slaughtering tens of thousands of his citizens and pulverizing entire cities with conventional weapons alone. Why would he risk drawing the imperialists into direct intervention? Assad is a ruthless bastard; but he is not an entirely stupid bastard.

That chemical weapons were used in Syria does not appear to be in doubt. But who ordered their use is another question. Was it a rogue Syrian army commander disregarding orders? Was it some faction of the rebels hoping to spark foreign intervention? Was it Assad himself? The truth may never be known; so far, no conclusive evidence has been presented. But world “public opinion” – i.e. the western bourgeois media – was quickly convinced that Assad had gassed his own people. The “red line” had been crossed. What to do about it?

“High Noon”

The positions of the traditional US allies ranged wildly from appealing for a UN mandate to strike, to advocating unilateral action, to a brief campaign of surgical bombing to degrade chemical weapons facilities, to decisively siding with the rebels through a prolonged air war, to protracted intervention with boots on the ground to overthrow Assad and his Alawite regime (as advocated by Turkey and Saudi Arabia). Britain and France, living on the fumes of the past, were first in line for military action. But Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in Parliament on this question, and France quickly invoked the United Nations. Germany initially expressed its openness to military action, and even little Denmark added its voice to those clamouring for war. But they soon backed off and said they would defer to the United Nations.

This left the “most powerful man in the world” with few friends and allies. Obama had “talked the talk” and now he had to “walk the walk”–alone. It's not so easy being the world’s policeman in an epoch of capitalist crisis and decline! But the US could not give the impression of weakness. A show of strength was necessary. A message had to be sent to Iran, Russia, China, and the myriad smaller powers who can smell weakness and an opportunity to gain at US expense.

Under the withering fire of Secretary of State John Kerry’s morally enraged rhetoric, Obama had initially declared his intention to strike Syria as soon as possible, unilaterally and without UN approval if necessary. As opinion polls swung heavily against this course of action, the “red line” was apparently not so clear after all. Obama then shifted gears, this time calling on Congress to vote on the matter.

But stalwart right-wingers saw this as an opportunity to cripple the president less than a year into his second term, and were cynically and temporarily afflicted with pacifist inclinations. Under the pressure of overwhelming public opinion against US intervention (as high as 80% according to some polls), droves of Democrats opportunistically abandoned him. He was left in the lonely company of such pugnacious luminaries as his former presidential rival, the eternal hawk John McCain, of “Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb Iran” infamy (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' “Barbara Ann”).

Sharp, sudden changes

At the G-20 summit over the weekend, the main contenders in the cynical game being played over the bones and ashes of the Syrian people—the US and Russia—“agreed to disagree” on the US plan to strike Syria. The stalemate continued as Obama worked to build support for an attack. But in this epoch of turbulence and instability, dramatic twists and turns are on the order of the day. Events in the last few days have moved quickly and remain fluid. Many outcomes remain possible.

The latest twist in the “dramedy” was Monday’s declaration by the Russian and Syrian foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Walid Muallem, that the Syrian government would be willing to accept a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles under international control. As part of the proposal, the weapons would be destroyed and Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention. This proposal, seemingly hatched by Russia and Syria at the eleventh hour, has taken out what little steam remained in Obama’s belligerent drive to war. It would also appear to offer a “way out with honour” to all involved.

In response to the Russian proposal, which was eagerly accepted by the Syrian regime, Obama has yet again changed tack, and has now asked Congress to hold off on voting on military action while diplomacy runs its course (a vote he was not sure to win). While keeping up the tough guy façade, Obama has seized on a way out of a lose-lose situation.

Kerry's “rhetorical argument”

The incident that opened way for the latest dramatic change in the situation came from a press conference by US Secretary of State Kerry, who was touring Europe to prop up the morale and resolve of the lukewarm US allies. As reported by the BBC on September 9:

“US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Europe to garner support for the military action, inadvertently started the talk of Syria giving up its chemical weapons early on Monday.

“When asked at a news conference whether there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid military action, Mr Kerry replied that he could hand over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week.”

Was Kerry’s passing comment intended as an opening to a diplomatic resolution, or as yet another apparently unrealizable ultimatum? The New York Times reports that the genesis for this way out of the crisis can actually be traced to a conversation between Obama and Putin at the G-20 summit. Wherever the idea first came from, the Obama administration quickly backed off from Kerry's comments. The BBC correspondent reported that “US officials subsequently clarified that Mr Kerry was making a ‘rhetorical argument’ rather than a serious offer.”

But Kerry's “rhetorical argument” was skilfully grabbed with two hands by the Russian government. Syrian officials immediately endorsed the Russian plan, thus undermining the already shaky basis of the US drive for military action.

Making the best out of a bad situation

Within a matter of hours, Obama had to concede that such a deal may in fact be “possible,” though he urged vigilance against any funny stuff on behalf of the Syrians. Nonetheless, he proclaimed that if properly executed, a plan of this sort would achieve the declared aims of the US’s planned attack on Syria: to stop the further use of chemical weapons. However, the reality is that any plan to monitor and destroy the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons in a situation of bloody civil war will be extremely difficult to implement. According to the New York Times:

“The effort to police such a proposal, even if Syria agreed, would be a laborious and prolonged effort, especially since Mr. Assad’s government has shrouded its arsenal in secrecy for decades. As United Nations inspectors discovered in Iraq after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, even an invasive inspection program can take years to account for chemical stockpiles and never be certain of complete compliance, something that President George W. Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

But the same article also betrays the relief felt by those circles of the ruling class close to the US government by the sudden opening of an exit strategy:

“Mr. Obama’s statements about the haphazardly constructed plan [i.e. the Russian plan] appeared to offer him an exit strategy for a military strike he had been reluctant to order, and it came as support on Capitol Hill for a resolution authorizing force was slipping. Even some lawmakers who had announced support for it reversed course.”

In an interview by CNN, Obama called the Russian proposal “a potentially positive development,” but insisted that the threat of military pressure must continue. He claimed credit for the result by asserting that the Russian plan and the Syrian regime’s willingness to comply with it would have been impossible without the concrete threat of a US military intervention. In an attempt to spin this as a victory for US diplomacy—when it was in fact a feather in the cap of Putin and Assad—CNN’s headline blazed “Syria Takes the Deal.” But those in the know are well aware of the reality.

Divisions within the US ruling class

Obama’s problems at home have grown from bad to worse over the last few weeks, in parallel with the increasingly complicated international situation. From Obamacare to the fiscal cliff, immigration reform to cuts in Social Security, all of Obama’s pet policies have been put on hold or yanked out of the spotlight as a result of the crisis over Syria. This is all an indication of the significant divisions developing within the US ruling class over how to approach the stormy future.

The crisis is further straining the already tense relationship between the White House and the Pentagon. Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and a former commander of the US Army War College, has bluntly expressed the mood of the upper echelons of the US military in the pages of the Washington Post:

“They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.”

And further on:

“They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about ‘red lines’. These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president.”

The fact that some sections of the US military feel the need to publicly voice their opinions in these terms should send alarm bells throughout the US ruling class.

What are the interests at stake?

In order to understand the underlying contradictions we need to try and look beyond appearances. The real issue is not and has never been Syria’s stock of chemical weapons, or their use. It is all about the ability of the Syrian regime to defeat the rebels, which Assad and the Syrian army are perfectly capable of doing without using chemical weapons. By committing themselves to destroying their arsenal of chemical weapons the Syrian regime doesn’t substantially weaken its position on the ground. In fact, it may be even stronger, as it can claim it is complying with international demands, while having a free hand to grind down the rebels with conventional arms.

As we have explained already, the US government has been using the question of chemical weapons as an excuse to justify direct military intervention. But that is just an excuse. Obama, Cameron, Hollande, and even Putin are not at all interested in the suffering of the Syrian masses, which are just small change in their geopolitical machinations. The real aim of US intervention is to degrade the Syrian regime’s forces just enough to ensure a stalemate, in order that neither the rebels nor the government can gain the upper hand. They would then eventually steer the exhausted antagonists towards a negotiated settlement in which the strategic interests of the different imperialist powers could be better preserved.

For this strategy to work means prolonging the civil war further, with the hope that both sides will be sufficiently weakened. So far, at least 100,000 people have been killed in this conflict. Further prolonging it will mean many more deaths, of thousands and possibly tens of thousands of Syrians. But that would be acceptable, because they wouldn’t have been killed by chemical weapons! The hypocrisy of Obama’s (and Hollande’s, and Cameron’s...) sabre-rattling here is sickening for all to see.

Their preferred outcome is the controlled fall or quiet exit of Assad, while keeping the bulk of his regime intact. They do not want to repeat the mistake they made in Iraq, where they not only toppled Saddam, but dismantled the entire military and bureaucratic apparatus, which led to a bloody conflagration that is still far from over. While backing the rebels against Assad, they have no confidence in their rebel “allies.” Many of them are al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who would unleash a sectarian bloodbath that would make Iraq and Lebanon look like a garden party if they were to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Assad’s regime. But the opportunity to give an edge to the rebels may have been missed by Obama, whose hands are tied for the moment by mass opposition at home and the new diplomatic course proposed by the Russians.

In the end, a solution allowing everyone to “save face” may be reached. But everyone knows the truth: Obama and Kerry were outmanoeuvred by Putin and Assad. The fact that the colossus of capitalism has been stymied in its latest attempt to flex its imperialist might will not go unnoticed. What we are witnessing is not an incidental detail; it is the inevitable consequence of US imperialism’s decaying power on the world scene, a bitter fruit which Obama must now swallow.

As for the plight of the Syrian workers, peasants, and youth, it remains as desperate as ever. There is no solution on the basis of capitalism, just as there is no solution within the limits of Syria itself. The people of Syria, on both sides of the present divide, desperately want to see an end to the present carnage. Unfortunately, the only layer of society that could offer a way out, the Syrian working class, the peasants and the radicalized youth, have been left leaderless and confused. That is the real tragedy of the Syrian situation. Had there been a mass organization that could have united all the working people behind a programme of radical social change, of socialist transformation, the situation would be very different today. But no such organization exists, and therefore other, reactionary, forces have come to the fore diverting the movement against Assad down the road of sectarian religious/ethnic conflict.

The only way forward is to painstakingly build the subjective factor—a mass workers’ party based on the programme of genuine Marxism—necessary to channel the revolutionary aspirations of the Syrian masses to overthrow the hated Assad regime and replace it with a regime of workers’ democracy, as part of the socialist revolution throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is an arduous task, but it is the only way out of the impasse.

This article originally appeared at In Defence of Marxism (marxist.com).