The Unconditional Right of Poor and Oppressed Nations to Self-Determination: Looking at the US War Against Syria

by Jeff Mackler, published on Socialist Action, August 28, 2023

Jeff gives a great overview of the drives and costs of war in Syria.  Meanwhile, the U.S. occupies 1/3 of Syria’s territory including the largest oil wells and the wheat growing region to this day.   Factories in the business district of Aleppo have been robbed of their machinery and destroyed by Turkish backed militants.  A powerful earthquake left a million people homeless earlier this year.  Caesar Sanctions (about to be extended for another decade) bar Syria from any purchases outside the country while the U.S. and it’s Kurdish proxies occupy the lands that are their foundation of economic self-sufficiency.  The war goes on.  It is as wrong today as it was a decade ago with the United States as the primary driver of the onslaught.  [jb]

The unconditional right to self-determination of oppressed nations, historically trampled on by imperialist conquerors and colonizers over the past several centuries, applies with full force today, and indeed, everywhere on earth where imperialist powers intervene with military force, sanctions, blockades, embargoes, drone attacks and CIA-sponsored disruptions in all their manifestations. It applies to all poor and oppressed nations and peoples regardless of the qualities or class nature of their leadership or the class nature of the state they reside in. It applies to the Middle East to Central and Latin America, to Africa and Asia. In all these arenas of struggle where the oppressed of the world strive to improve their lives, US imperialism is the central antagonist. US imperialism today maintains some 1,100 military bases in 110 nations. Over the past century it has orchestrated some 700 interventions around the world. By contrast, Russia and China, relative newcomers to the capitalist-imperialist world, have but a handful of military bases, mostly in close proximity to their borders and/or in nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. China has a single military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Russia, France and Britain combined have 30 foreign bases. The US, via its Africa Command (AFRICOM) maintains 29 bases across the continent and thousands of troops assigned to advance US corporate interests. The US drone base in Niger is the largest on the continent.

Lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution

From the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and long before, the defeat of the imperialist, colonial oppressor has always been central to revolutionary internationalist working-class politics, even if the oppressed and invaded nation was led by feudal monarchs as in Ethiopia under Haile Selassie when that country was invaded by Italy in the years prior to WWII. Previously known as the “the prison house of nationalities,” Czarist Russia forcibly incorporated conquered nations and peoples into its empire. The 1917 Revolution immediately granted these nations the right to self-determination, including the right to secede if they so decided. That the same revolution granted the peasants of the oppressed nations – indeed the peasants throughout Russia – the land, in the largest land reform in world history, was a central reason for their decision to remain in the newly-established USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

A brief review of past US atrocities: The Middle East

In the recent past the Middle East, including Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Iran and Afghanistan, were in the US crosshairs, with its multiple wars and/or support or orchestration of intervention bringing untold death and destruction. Today, US policy in these usually oil-rich region, remains in an advanced state of disarray. Having conquered Iraq in 2003 with military force virtually unequalled in the modern era, the establishment of a stable regime that can permanently guarantee US control of that nation’s vast fossil fuel resources remains in question, albeit the 2003 conquest and the US-headed government resulted in Iraq’s fossil fuel exploration and development contracts being transferred to the US oil behemoths. Following the 2020 Trump administration’s drone murder outside the Baghdad Airport of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iran-backed Quds Forces stationed in Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government, the unprecedented mass protests against Soleimnai’s assassination forced the Iraqi government to demand that US occupying forces withdraw. Needless to say, the US refused. There was no such Iraqi demand that Soleimani’s Quds forces, archenemies of the US occupiers, withdraw. In the wake of virtually all US Middle East wars over the past decade and longer, “failed states” have been the inevitable outcome. In Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and now in Yemen, death and destruction and endless internecine wars waged by US/NATO and Gulf State monarchy-backed competing tribal-based reactionary groups are accompanied by almost unbelievable human suffering – poverty, starvation, and disease – US imperialism’s trademark and legacy for whomever it conquers. Again, unconditional support to the right of self-determination of all oppressed nations, free from all US intervention in all its manifestations, is a central and strategic component of revolutionary socialist politics.

US-abetted mass murder and genocide: a few examples

In 1965 the US backed coup and subsequent dictatorship in Indonesia was accompanied by the slaughter of one million people. The US ten-year war in Vietnam, 1965-75, took the lives of four million Vietnamese. Its support and orchestration of the 1973 neo-fascist Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile cost the lives of 60,000. Its support to the Batista and Somoza dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua and death squad government in El Salvador facilitated the slaughter of 50,000 in each country. Its arming and financing of the death squad dictatorship in Guatemala in the 1950s and afterward, led to the murder of 400,000 indigenous people.

Genocide in Congo under King Leopold II: US profits

In the previous century, when European imperialism divided up the African continent, we cite just a single telling example of US involvement in the “Belgian Congo,” subsequently, and euphemistically called the Congo Free State. King Leopold II initially owned the Congo as his personal nation, extracting its ivory and plantation rubber for his own fortune. Leopold’s army literally murdering 12 million Congolese in the process, the world’s largest genocide, according to the authoritative account in Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost.” But what Hochschild likely inadvertently omits from his account is that the rights to the Congo’s vast minerals, perhaps the richest in the world at that time, went to the US robber barons of that era, the Rockefeller and the JP Morgan trusts, today combined in the JP Morgan Chase trillion dollar banking institution! Large portions of the Congo’s wealth remain with these imperial overlords today, protected by the military might of the US, including the 1961 US-orchestrated murder of the Congo’s first elected post-colonial government headed by Patrice Lumumba. The list of U.S. imperialist crimes against humanity is endless, whether we go back to post WWII Korea, where the US intervention following Japan’s surrender and departure included the murder of two million Koreans, to Syria, more recently, where 500,000 Syrians perished as a result of US/NATO/Gulf State Monarchy-abetted ten-year and still ongoing war and intervention. US troops still sit on Syria’s oil and agricultural rich northeast region.

Origins of the war

The US/NATO/Gulf State Monarchies war against Syria began almost immediately following the brief 2011 Arab Spring popular anti-Assad protests for democratic rights and relief from the terrible consequences of a devastating drought. In fact, it has now become clear that these initial protests were not free from US imperial instigation. The US war machine and its NATO allies set out to orchestrate the removal of the Assad government. They were allied with fundamentalist and reactionary governments and troops originating outside Syria, especially from the Saudi Arabian monarchy. That war, however limited today due to imperialism’s defeat, continues to take a grave toll on the Syrian people, with large portions of Syria’s infrastructure left in ruin and US-imposed sanctions aimed at limiting international aid. Every British-based independent Gallop poll taken during the war registered that the great majority of Syrians opposed the US/NATO/Gulf State Monarchies intervention; a significant majority, according the same pollsters, supported the Assad government and its allies. The Syrian people, not unfamiliar with history of colonial rule in the region, had no taste for a new set of conquerors. All of the “opposition” to the Assad government was orchestrated, armed, financed and directed by US/NATO, Turkey and the Gulf State monarchies. The Turkey-based “Free Syrian Army” was always a creature of the Turkish government, funded by the US and headed by a handful of former and deserting Assad military officers. We have documented these assertions in great detail. (See: the Socialist Action pamphlet, “Syria: Anatomy of Another US Imperialist War” by this author).

Tragic divisions in the antiwar movement

Unlike several currents in the US “left” Socialist Action never stood aside with regard to this US imperialist war against Syria, a war that took the lives of some 500,000 people and drove half of the Syrian population into internal or external exile. We categorically rejected the view that the war in Syria was a civil war, if not a proxy war between the US and Russia. We rejected the spurious view of some on the “left” that condemnation of the US and Russia should be the programmatic and mobilization basis of the US antiwar movement. Again, we demanded without equivocation: US Out Now! Self-determination for Syria! No to the US/NATO/Gulf State Monarchies War on Syria!

But we also sought to educate antiwar activists regarding our socialist view that support to self-determination for poor and oppressed nations was not at all synonymous with political support to the governments or regimes of imperialist beleaguered nations, in the case of Syria, the Bashar al-Assad government. Socialists had no illusions that the Assad regime represented any form of revolutionary nationalist or otherwise progressive break with capitalism. Neither did we hold that the Assad government aimed to achieve an egalitarian society that advanced the interests of the working class and peasant majority as against Syria’s capitalist elite. Nevertheless, the task of removing Assad’s oppressive capitalist Syrian regime, in our view, resided only with the Syrian people, and never with US imperialism and its reactionary NATO-allied and Gulf State monarchy forces.

Syria’s right to seek allies against imperialist intervention

Syria’s right to self-determination necessarily included the right of the Syrian government to seek and accept the support of the militia fighters that defended Syria against imperialist intervention. These included fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which defeated the last Israeli invasion of their country, and the Shiite militias from Iran, who, in the past, joined with Shiite fighters in Iraq to challenge the US invasion and war against that nation, a war where the US killed some 1.5 million Iraqis. In a similar vein, the agreements signed by Syria with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to share intelligence information in fighting ISIS, al-Qaeda/Nusra Front and all other US-backed groups aimed at removing the Assad government, including the 13-nation US imperialist-led “coalition,” were squarely within Syria’s right to self-determination. This included Syria’s agreement to accept Russian air, naval, and related military support to defeat the US-backed invasion. The New York Times reported at that time that Russia’s “targeting and badly weakening the C.I.A.-backed rebels, who were the most capable of the opposition fighters [against Assad]” was decisive to the Assad government’s winning back Syrian territory. Prior to the Syrian government’s requesting support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah these “CIA-backed rebels,” combined to occupy some 3/4 of Syria, mostly in rural areas. In conjunction with US/NATO abetted bombing and artillery attacks, they were set to take Syria’s capital city, Damascus.

Russia’s objectives in Syria

Undoubtedly, the Russian capitalist/imperialist government of Vladimir Putin had its own reasons for accepting Syria’s invitation to intervene. These included NATO’s increasing encroachment on its borders and the US and European Union-imposed economic sanctions that followed Russia’s opposition to the US-backed fascist-led 2014 coup that overthrew the Ukrainian government. Undoubtedly, it also included Russia’s continued access to pipeline routes for its oil exports to Europe.   Russia’s actions in helping to drive ISIS (often secretly integrated into US-funded military formations) and associated US/NATO backed interveners farther from the government-held Damascus capital and surrounding regions undoubtedly altered the calculus of imperialism’s previous intentions, that is, the military conquest of Syria and the imposition of a new regime directly beholden to US imperialist interests. Similarly, with the Russian air force’s entry into Syria, the various “no-fly zone” proposals contemplated by the Obama administration at that time – that the U.S. implemented with its dismemberment and conquest of Libya – were not a viable option.

US-backed “rebels” remain in Syria today

In Syria today, the remaining “rebel” forces are concentrated in the Idlib province in northwestern Syria adjacent to the Turkish border. That they are still backed by the Turkish government and the US/NATO-backed occupiers is denied by no one. When the Assad government moved to drive them out of Idlib, where they terrorized the local population and sought to brutally impose their version of sharia law, Syria was informed in no uncertain terms that any effort to remove them would be met with the full forces of imperial power. Declarations to this effect were formally issued by the United Nations representatives from France and the US. Socialist Action supported the Syrian government’s right to drive the imperialist-backed jihadist invaders out of Syria.

Winning the Syrian masses to socialist politics and revolution

In Syria, yesterday and today, we are for the rule of the working class, not the capitalist class. Defeat of the US-backed interveners, increased the opportunities for independent working class forces to imprint their own agenda on Syria’s future. A victory for the imperialist invaders would inevitably have had the opposite effect. In Syria, we insisted, no revolutionary socialist party can be constructed that stands aside – neutral – with regard to an imperialist invasion, not to mention, standing in the camp of the invader using the pretext that the imperialist-backed “rebels” are revolutionaries! The only way for Syrian revolutionaries to winning the hearts and minds of the Syrian masses was to have been on the front lines of the battle against imperialist intervention and invasion. This simple fact is true with regard to every oppressed nation on earth. Socialist Action supported the Syrian government’s military defense of Syria against the U.S. invaders, without lending one iota of political support to Syrian capitalism. We are for the working class overthrow of the Assad government not the imperialist overthrow of the same government. Again, the pre-condition for the former’s success is the construction of a mass revolutionary party that defends Syria against its would-be U.S. imperialist colonizers.

Featured Photo: Src: Freedom Road Socialist Organization

This article is the third in a series of articles on Socialist Action’s views on critical world issues.  Contact Socialist Action at:

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