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Russia, Syria and the camp of resistance in the Middle East

Outcome of the five-year war in Syria is critically important to resistance project
By staff |
February 8, 2016
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Russian air strikes are hitting oil shipments of the so called Islamic State.
Russian air strikes are hitting oil shipments of the so called Islamic State and helping to push back the foreign-supported reactionary forces in Syria.

On Sept. 30, 2015, Russian planes began conducting airstrikes against rebel targets in Syria at the request of President Bashar al-Assad. This military intervention signaled a new chapter in the five-year war in Syria, which has pitted the country's national democratic government against foreign-backed rebel groups. Launched for the stated purpose of defeating the growing Islamic State (IS) insurgency, Russia's operations have also targeted U.S.-backed reactionary rebel groups.

For those forces resisting imperialism in the Middle East, the outcome of the war in Syria is of critical importance. Russian air support has significantly bolstered the position of the Syrian government. And while national self-interest, not solidarity, drives Russian intervention in Syria, it has the effect of strengthening the camp of resistance to imperialism in the region.

War in Syria and the camp of resistance

In 2011, neoliberal economic policies pushed by global financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF contributed to a wave of mass protests in countries across the Middle East and north Africa. After protests in Tunisia and Egypt brought down two U.S.-backed regimes, the Western imperialist powers leveraged this political unrest to destabilize Libya and Syria's national democratic governments.

Both Libya and Syria proved too strong for the imperialist-backed opposition to topple alone. In Libya, it took a NATO military intervention to turn the tide against Qaddafi's government in 2011. Similarly, the rebels in Syria lacked broad mass support and proved unable to topple Assad. This prompted a massive influx of arms and supplies from the U.S. and its regional allies – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in particular – to opposition forces. The U.S. and other imperialist powers also threatened direct military intervention along the lines of NATO's campaign in Libya.

By overthrowing the Assad government, the U.S. hopes to strike a major blow against the camp of resistance to imperialism, Zionism and reaction. Anchored by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the camp of resistance includes Syria, Hezbollah and other patriotic forces of Lebanon, the Palestinian liberation organizations and other allied national democratic movements in the Middle East. Taken together, it is the main obstacle to Western domination of the region.

The significance of the war in Syria

As one of several national democratic states in the Middle East brought to power by popular anti-colonial uprisings in the 1950s and 60s, the Syrian Arab Republic generally charts an independent course from imperialism. State-ownership of some major industries, a robust trade union structure and regulations on foreign investment prevented Western finance capital from dominating the Syrian economy.

Beyond its economic model, however, Syria drew the wrath of Washington for its anti-imperialist foreign policy. Syria backs Hezbollah and according to some reports, serves as a conduit for Iranian support because of its border with Lebanon. Palestinian liberation organizations also enjoyed significant Syrian backing.

A major motivation for the imperialists' proxy war on Syria, however, is the Assad government's close relationship with Iran. Since Iran's national democratic revolution that brought down the Shah in 1979, Syria serves as Iran's closest and most consistent allied government in the Middle East. It provided training, arms and troops to Iran to repel the U.S.-backed Iraqi invasion in the 1980s. The two nations materially supported the progressive and patriotic Lebanese forces resisting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Amid sanctions and threats of U.S. and Israeli aggression, Syria continues to support Iran, and for this, it faces the threat of regime change.

Russian motivations for intervention in Syria

Syria and Russia have enjoyed close relations for decades. During the Cold War, Syria became one of the Soviet Union's two closest regional partners – the other being People's Democratic Republic of Yemen – and it allowed the USSR to build a naval base in the city of Tartus.

The Russian Federation maintained its alliance with Syria, albeit with entirely different motives. After the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's new capitalist ruling class scrambled to maintain its military presence around the world. In Syria, Russia forgave three-fourths of Syrian debt in exchange for expanding the formerly Soviet naval base, and they quickly became Syria's largest arms supplier. Russian corporations began investing in Syria, like a $1.1 billion project in 2010 to build a rival pipeline to Western-controlled energy infrastructure. When the war broke out in 2011, Russian corporations stepped up their investment, which provided the Syrian government with much-needed liquidity to fight the imperialist-backed rebels and maintain the economy.

While Russian support remains instrumental to preventing the fall of Syria's national democratic government, international solidarity is not its driving motive. Rather, the monopoly capitalists who rule Russia hope to strengthen their presence in the oil-rich Middle East by curbing the power of the U.S. and its partners. The Russian Federation is emerging as an imperialist power, although it remains weak and unstable compared to the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. For instance, Russia has 11 military bases in 11 different countries compared to the U.S.'s 900-plus military bases in 130 different countries. Excluded from sharing in the spoils of imperialism by these larger, stronger powers, Russia largely pursues its own agenda in conflict with the larger, stronger imperialist powers.

Russia became a capitalist country in 1991 when a counterrevolution led by Boris Yeltsin overthrew socialism. Oligarchs began buying up Soviet industries as quickly as the newly minted capitalist state could sell them off, which led to a disastrous economic crisis felt most by the working class. This crisis pushed a large section of the oligarchs to favor greater state regulation, with Vladmir Putin as their political representative. Monopolies became the decisive force within Russian capitalism and finance capital largely merged with industry.

National sovereignty and foreign intervention

Regardless of its self-interested motives, however, Russian intervention in Syria is positive for the camp of resistance in the Middle East. The Syrian government has survived the five-year onslaught by imperialist-backed rebel forces for three main reasons: first, the continued support for Assad by a majority of the Syrian people; second, crucial military and economic assistance from Hezbollah and Iran and, third, Russia's military and diplomatic backing.

Unlike the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Russian intervention came at the formal request of the sovereign national government of Syria. This request was in response to protracted foreign aggression by the Western imperialist powers and their partners, not a domestic crisis. The rebellion in Syria was backed and controlled by outside aggressors from its inception – a far cry from the image of a 'popular revolution against a dictator' promoted by the U.S. and Western Europe. In this sense, it differs sharply from requests by U.S.-backed dictatorships for intervention to put down revolutionary unrest, like South Vietnam in the early 1960s.

Furthermore, Syria is not a neo-colony of Russia, nor is Assad a puppet of Russia. The Syrian state came to power from a national democratic uprising, not Russian maneuvering. In 2010, one year before the outbreak of war, Syria's top four trading partners were the European Union (22.5%), Iraq (13.3%), Saudi Arabia (9%) and China (6.9%), while Russia was a distant ninth at 3%. Although Russian investments have become more consequential in recent years, this is the product of crippling international sanctions imposed on Syria by Western imperialism.

The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, and we should avoid the mistake of thinking that its motives and aspirations are genuinely anti-imperialist. Nevertheless, Russia's intervention in Syria strengthens the camp of resistance to imperialism, Zionism and reaction. By enhancing the position of the Syrian government, which is a key player in the camp of resistance, Russia actually weakens U.S. imperialism and its partners.