Middle East Chaos
Imperialism, Islamic Reaction & Syria’s Civil War
The state system established in the Middle East after World War I, when Britain and France carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, appears close to collapse. Borders drawn without regard for the political, religious or ethnic identities of the indigenous peoples endured a century, but many may soon be erased. The quarter century of brutal imperialist military intervention that commenced with the 1991 conquest of Iraq (under the flag of the United Nations) has severely stressed the social and political fabric of much of the region.
Four years of civil war in Syria, fueled by Washington’s desire for “regime change,” has killed a quarter of a million people, destroyed at least $100 billion of the country’s social infrastructure, and displaced 11 million people from their homes, contributing to Europe’s “refugee crisis.” The conflict is rooted in the social contradictions of Syrian society – including ethnic and sectarian hostilities – but almost from the outset the insurrection has depended on massive infusions of assistance from the U.S. and various regional players, particularly Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Syria has had a long history of antagonism between the secular modernizing Baathist regime (centered on the Shia-derived Alawite minority and led, from 1970 to 2000, by Hafez al-Assad, and since then by his son Bashar) and the Muslim Brotherhood (rooted in the socially backward, traditionalist sections of the Sunni majority in rural areas as well as in the urban underclass). In 1982 the Assad regime crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising, massacred thousands of civilians in the pro-rebel city of Hama and drove the Islamist opposition underground.
In recent years throughout the Middle East, displaced agricultural workers have gravitated to cities where they struggle to survive in massive urban slums. Syria’s participation in imperialist-inspired “market reform” programs, by increasing pressure on sectors of the population already suffering the most, helped set the stage for the current conflict:
“Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by 1m tonnes in 2011-12, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4m in 2012-13. The drought ravaged Syria’s farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority.
“The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad’s longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect – many members of which are relatives and tribal allies – over the Sunni majority.
“Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad’s focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy.”
—Guardian, 13 May 2013
The “reforms” involved the sale of state assets (often scooped up by well-connected regime supporters) and the privatization of education, healthcare and other social services. Unable to afford privatized facilities, the urban poor became reliant on religious charities that provided rudimentary social assistance along with anti-secular Islamist political agitation. As a consequence, pro-jihadi sentiments are most widespread and deeply rooted in the poorest regions.
Syria’s Baathist regime had long been on the Pentagon’s hit list. In the midst of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” NATO intervened in Libya, another secular dictatorship targeted for “regime change,” on the pretext of preventing a murderous attack on an insurgent population. Within a few months Muammar Qaddafi was toppled. The Baathist regime in Damascus proved more resilient. While the Western capitalist media has generally framed the uprising as a simple story of a popular revolt against an oppressive dictatorship, the 2011 “Syrian Revolution” was rapidly hegemonized by the Islamist jihadi descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood. The pro-imperialist ideologues also ignore evidence that the Assad regime has enjoyed the (sometimes grudging) support of a majority of the population. While Assad’s family and inner circle are Alawites (with the exception of his Sunni wife Asma), many other ethnic and religious minorities, as well as a substantial chunk of the Sunni majority, prefer life under the relatively non-sectarian and secular Baathists than to take a chance on the socially-conservative religious opposition.
The U.S., like its regional allies, is anxious to bring down a regime that is both Russia’s only Middle East ally and a critical link between Iran and Hezbollah, whose fighters bested the Zionist military in 2006. The Damascus-Moscow connection dates back to the 1940s, when Syria’s rulers refused to agree to American oil giant Aramco’s plans for a “Trans-Arabian Pipeline” to bring Saudi oil to the Mediterranean. In 1949, as a result, Syria had the distinction of being the first country to be targeted for a CIA “regime change” coup. The coup failed, as did several subsequent attempts, due to a developing alliance between Syria’s Baathist regime and the security apparatus of the Soviet Union. This relationship has continued to this day, and with it Syria’s role as an obstacle to the ambitions of American oil giants and their regional allies.
Oil Money & Imperial Geopolitics
In a 2014 article in the U.S. Armed Forces Journal, Major Robert Taylor of the U.S. Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth observed that rather than a sectarian or religious conflict, the “real explanation” of the current Syrian conflagration is all “about money”:
“In 2009, Qatar proposed to run a natural gas pipeline through Syria and Turkey to Europe. Instead, Assad forged a pact with Iraq and Iran to run a pipeline eastward, allowing those Shia-dominated countries access to the European natural gas market while denying access to Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The latter states, it appears, are now attempting to remove Assad so they can control Syria and run their own pipeline through Turkey.”
. . .“Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline in 2016. Assad’s pipeline decision, which could seal the natural gas advantage for the three Shia states, also demonstrates Russia’s links to Syrian petroleum and the region through Assad. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as al Qaeda and other groups, are maneuvering to depose Assad and capitalize on their hoped-for Sunni conquest in Damascus. By doing this, they hope to gain a share of control over the ‘new’ Syrian government, and a share in the pipeline wealth.”
—Armed Forces Journal, 21 March 2014
Jockeying over transit routes to Europe by foreign interests seeking to profit from the energy deposits of the region is nothing new; the struggle for control of Middle East oil has been a central concern of imperialist planners for well over a century.
In May 1903, as the British navy was beginning to shift from coal to oil as a fuel source, the foreign secretary, Lord Landsdowne, told the House of Lords:
“The British government would ‘regard the establishment of a naval base or of a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.’ This declaration, said a delighted Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, was ‘our Monroe Doctrine in the Middle East’.”
—quoted in Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, 1991
Oil is far easier and cheaper to store and load, and most importantly it has twice coal’s thermal content, which, according to a 1923 account by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, conferred “inestimable” advantages: “The use of oil made it possible in every type of vessel to have more gun-power and more speed for less size or less cost.” There was, however, one problem – while England had plenty of coal, it had no oil, which presented:
“the more intangible problems of markets and monopolies. The oil supplies of the world were in the hands of vast oil trusts under foreign control. To commit the navy irrevocably to oil was indeed to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles.’ … If we overcame the difficulties and surmounted the risks, we should be able to raise the whole power and efficiency of the navy to a definitely higher level; better ships, better crews, higher economies, more intense forms of war-power – in a word, mastery itself was the prize of the venture.”
—Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, Part One 1911-1914
The difficulties were overcome by appropriating Middle East oil:
“We could only fight our way forward, and finally we found our way to the Anglo-Persian Oil agreement and contract, which for an initial investment of two millions [pounds sterling] of public money … has not only secured to the Navy a very substantial proportion of its oil supply, but has led to the acquisition by the Government of a controlling share in oil properties and interests which are at present valued at scores of millions sterling…”
Imperial domination ensured that, despite amazing natural wealth, the region remained relatively backward, while foreign corporations raked off the bulk of the revenues. The colonial rulers relied on pliable local agents (often elevated to hereditary monarchs) who, in exchange for foreign support and a cut of the spoils, would ensure that the shareholders of the multinational oil corporations derived most of the benefit from petroleum development.
By the end of World War II, the U.S. had displaced Britain and France as the dominant imperialist power in the Middle East. In an October 1950 letter to King Ibn Saud, U.S. President Harry Truman declared:
“I wish to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which have been made to you several times in the past, that the United States is interested in the preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States.”
—quoted in Yergin, op. cit.
The imperialist godfathers have always been particularly concerned by the “threat” that the peoples of the region might somehow gain control of the natural wealth of their own countries. On 5 January 1957, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a “Special Message to the Congress on the Situation in the Middle East” promising military aid for any regime facing “armed aggression.” In July 1958, when the Hashemite monarchy imposed by the British in 1921 was overthrown in a coup organized by Iraqi nationalist “Free Officers,” Eisenhower dispatched American troops to Lebanon, while British soldiers landed in Jordan. Ostensibly tasked with ensuring peace and stability, their real purpose was to safeguard Western control of Iraq’s oil:
“That Iraq was the real target [of these deployments] was indicated by a report from the New York Herald Tribune that initially the U.S. government gave ‘strong consideration’ to ‘military intervention to undo the coup in Iraq.’ According to the New York Times, the U.S. and British leaders jointly decided that: ‘Intervention will not be extended to Iraq as long as the revolutionary government in Iraq respects Western oil interests.’”
—Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader, 1991
Western security and intelligence agencies have, for decades, utilized the forces of Islamic reaction to counter potential threats to imperial holdings from leftist or nationalist movements. An early model for such operations came in Iran, after Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized the assets of Anglo-Iranian Oil (now known as British Petroleum – BP) in 1951. After initially warning Britain not to intervene, the U.S. set about organizing “regime change” when it became clear that Mossadeq had no intention of sharing Iranian oil with American corporations.
After Mossadeq was successfully removed in 1953, the Pahlavi monarchy, originally established by a military coup in 1925, was restored. For the next quarter century Iran was a key pillar of American domination of the Middle East. The underground Devotees of Islam who had fiercely opposed Mossadeq’s modernization plans, and actively supported the CIA’s coup, were equally hostile to the Shah’s “White Revolution” of 1963, which introduced limited social and economic reforms. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had personally participated in the events of 1953 alongside the Devotees of Islam, was sent into exile and, in 1978, emerged as the leader of the reactionary Islamist revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty and severed Iran’s ties to the U.S.
Origins of Jihadi Terror: CIA Militarization of Afghan Reaction
The loss of its Iranian client regime, which had served both as a bulwark of reaction and imperialist enforcer in the Persian Gulf, was a major setback for the U.S. In January 1980 President Jimmy Carter enunciated the “Carter doctrine” in response to the “grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil” posed by Soviet military intervention in landlocked Afghanistan. Carter observed that the Middle East is of “great strategic importance. It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil,” which the U.S. was naturally entitled to control:
“Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
—quoted in Yergin, op. cit.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s had nothing to do with access to the Persian Gulf, as Carter was well aware. It was intended to defend a friendly government against an armed revolt by Islamic reactionaries recruited and equipped by the CIA. The Afghan “freedom fighters,” as the Western press described them, were enraged by the pro-Soviet regime’s plans to educate girls, reduce the bride price and introduce a modest land reform. The U.S. objective was to contain and degrade the degenerated Soviet workers’ state:
“In their quest to defeat the pro-Soviet Afghan government and the Soviet military stationed in Afghanistan, the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany and other NATO member countries banked, not only on the Afghan Mujahidin, but also Arab jihadists, including Osama bin Laden. The then little known Osama bin Laden, and the other jihadists were promoted with Saudi Arabia’s financial and logistical support. The head of Saudi foreign intelligence at the time and Bin Laden’s contact person, Prince Turki al Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Saud played a major role. Today, he provides his political expertise to the ‘Advisory Council’ of the Munich Security Conference.”
—German Foreign Policy, 28 May 2015
The success of the CIA, working with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence, in forging the Afghan mujahedin into an effective military formation provided valuable lessons for future “regime change” interventions, including the attempt to topple Assad. Every such intervention comes with its own “humanitarian” public-relations cover story, but in the Middle East the fundamental objective – control of the resources of the region – remains a constant.
The Afghan jihadis who overthrew the secular left-nationalist regime in Kabul paved the way for the eventual rule of the Taliban, while Osama bin Laden and other mujahedin cadres formed al Qaeda to drive the Western invaders from the Muslim world. The corporate media treated bin Laden’s popularity in the Middle East in the aftermath of the criminal destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 as inexplicable, but as we observed at the time:
“The explanation for this is pretty simple: bin Laden’s program is in tune with what most people in the area want. He has pledged to call off Al Qaeda’s jihad against the U.S. if three conditions are met. First, U.S. forces must leave Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two most holy sites. The second condition is that the sanctions against Iraq, that have killed over a million people, be ended. Thirdly, bin Laden demands an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state in these territories.
“Most Americans wouldn’t find these demands objectionable, which is why they have been virtually blacked out [in the media]. Bin Laden’s ultimate program is of course to impose fundamentalist Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East, but as a first step his chief concern is to expel the ‘infidels’ from the region.”
—“Imperialism’s Bloody Trail,” 1917 No. 24
UN/U.S./UK War Criminals Devastate Iraq
The destruction of Iraqi society that has unfolded over the past quarter century began with the United Nations’ 1991 “Gulf War” against the country’s secular Baathist regime headed by Saddam Hussein. To avoid the overhead of a protracted occupation, the U.S.-led invaders pulled out after defeating the Iraqi army and sought to bring down the government by imposing economic sanctions.
The regime managed to survive, but the cost for Iraqi civilians was horrific. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimated that these sanctions were responsible for at least 500,000 “excess” fatalities of children under five. When asked about this monstrous crime, Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, replied simply: “We think the price is worth it.”
This massive and indiscriminate atrocity was, of course, swept under the rug by the Western media. By comparison, the horrific in-your-face ISIS videos of suicide bombings, executions and beheadings seem small-scale and personalized. The grotesque hypocrisy of imperialist “human-rights” advocates willing to quietly engineer the death of tens of thousands of innocents in a defenseless neocolony almost defies belief. John Pilger aptly described the detached psychotic attitude of the contemporary leaders of the “free world”:
“there is a vapid, almost sociopathic verboseness from Cameron, Hollande, Obama and their ‘coalition of the willing’ as they prescribe more violence delivered from 30,000 feet on places [in Iraq] where the blood of previous adventures never dried.”
—“From Pol Pot to ISIS: The blood never dried”
The U.S. objective in Iraq was to establish a powerful military presence in the heart of the Middle East to exert direct control over the region’s vast petroleum resources. Some strategists proposed that this could best be accomplished by redrawing the map of the Arab Middle East. In September 2002, six months before the second U.S. invasion of Iraq, the CIA-connected Stratfor think-tank reported that Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were discussing the possibility of using ethnic conflicts to break up Iraq and “justify [America’s] long-term and heavy military presence” in the Middle East:
“The new government’s attempts to establish control over all of Iraq may well lead to a civil war between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ethnic groups, with US troops caught in the middle. The fiercest fighting could be expected for control over the oil facilities. But uniting Jordan and Iraq under a Hashemite government may give Washington several strategic advantages.“First, the creation of a new pro-US kingdom under the half-British Abdullah [king of Jordan] would shift the balance of forces in the region heavily in the US favor. After eliminating Iraq as a sovereign state, there would be no fear that one day an anti-American government would come to power in Baghdad, as the capital would be in Amman [Jordan]. Current and potential US geopolitical foes Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria would be isolated from each other, with big chunks of land between them under control of the pro-US forces.
“Equally important, Washington would be able to justify its long-term and heavy military presence in the region as necessary for the defense of a young new state asking for US protection – and to secure the stability of oil markets and supplies. That in turn would help the United States gain direct control of Iraqi oil and replace Saudi oil in case of conflict with Riyadh.”
The conquest and occupation of Iraq in 2003 by the U.S., with its British sidekick at the head of a “coalition of the willing,” shattered the existing state and devastated much of what remained of the country’s social and physical infrastructure. An estimated half-million Iraqis were killed in the invasion and the resulting chaos and sectarian bloodletting.
After toppling Saddam Hussein, U.S. authorities soon began talking about the possibility of regime change for neighboring Syria and Iran, both of which had previously been cooperating with the U.S. in its “Global War on Terror.” This led Damascus and Tehran to do what they could to support any Iraqi grouping, whether Sunni or Shia, that was prepared to actively resist the occupation.
The extent and effectiveness of the Iraqi resistance caught U.S. planners by surprise and turned the whole venture into a gigantic and costly failure. In an attempt to win the support of the majority Shia population, occupation authorities dissolved the entire civilian administrative apparatus of the Baathist regime, as well as the military and police force. This proved a serious miscalculation. The Shia masses refused to embrace the occupiers as liberators, and by the first anniversary of the invasion, Shia militias joined Sunni fighters in active resistance:
“‘We’ve been treating this until now as a series of incidents – Saddam (Hussein) loyalists and this or that,’ says Bruce Jentleson…a former State Department official.…‘What we’re facing now is a broad insurrection that’s rooted in groups with their own differences sharing an increasingly strong anti-Americanism.’
“In recent days, there have been reports of collaboration between rival Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq, united by their opposition to the U.S. occupation.”
—USA Today, 13 April 2004
Muqtada Al Sadr’s powerful Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, which fought a pitched battle with U.S. forces in the Iraqi city of Najaf in August 2004, actively organized support for Sunni insurgents in Fallujah when British and American forces attacked the city in November 2004.
Iraq’s Descent into Communalism
Everything changed in February 2006, when the destruction of the al-Askari mosque, an important Shia shrine in Samarra, set off an orgy of communal bloodletting. It is unclear who the perpetrators were – occupation authorities blamed al Qaeda, which denied responsibility, while Iran and Hezbollah pointed the finger at U.S. and Israeli intelligence agents. What is clear is that the architects of this crime succeeded in driving a deep wedge between Shia and Sunni communities.
The Madhi Army took the lead in Shia revenge attacks:
“Thousands of tortured bodies were picked up in the streets of Baghdad over the next two years. For Sunni, Muqtada became a living symbol of the perpetrators of these atrocities against them, though he says the Mehdi Army was by then out of his control and he stood the militiamen down in 2007.”
—Independent, 6 March 2013
The murderous communalism that engulfed Iraq provided an opening for the rapid growth of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the progenitor of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). AQI was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who began his career with the Afghan mujahedin in the late 1980s. Zarqawi foreshadowed ISIS with his flamboyant and seemingly nihilistic tactics – at one point AQI released video footage of him sawing off an American captive’s head. The leadership of al Qaeda was not pleased:
“In 2005, for example, al-Qaeda leaders sent messages advising Zarqawi to stop publicizing his horrors. They used modern strategy jargon – ‘more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media’ – and told him that the ‘lesson’ of Afghanistan was that the Taliban had lost because they had relied – like Zarqawi – on too narrow a sectarian base.”
—New York Review of Books, 13 August 2015
In an attempt to defuse popular resentment, the U.S. occupation authorities installed a puppet government headed by Nouri Al Maliki, a leading Shia politician. But Maliki’s corrupt regime soon alienated Kurds, Sunnis and even many Shia:
“Theft of public money and incompetence on a gargantuan scale means the government fails to provide adequate electricity, clean water or sanitation. One-third of the labour force is unemployed and, when you include those under-employed, the figure is over half. Even those who do have a job have often obtained it by bribery. ‘I feared seven or eight years ago that Iraq would become like Nigeria,’ says one former minister, ‘but in fact it is far worse.’ He cited as evidence a $1.3bn contract for an electricity project signed by a minister with a Canadian company that had only a nominal existence – and a German company that was bankrupt.”
—Independent, 3 March 2013
While Washington officially disapproved of the sectarianism and venality of Maliki’s regime, what really distressed U.S. planners was watching their supposed puppet drift into an increasingly close alignment with Tehran’s theocratic rulers, whose weight in the region increased substantially with the elimination of the Iraqi Baathists, Iran’s most formidable Arab rival in the Persian Gulf.
To offset Tehran’s rising influence, the U.S. executed a maneuver designed to simultaneously put a lid on resistance and provide a lever to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. In 2006 Washington began putting former Sunni insurgents in Anbar province on the U.S. payroll in what was advertised as the “Awakening” movement. The opportunity for this shift arose because Iraqi tribal leaders who had earlier treated AQI fighters as allies in resisting occupation fell out with the foreign-led jihadis.
The turn in Syria was paralleled by a regional program, in cooperation with the Saudis, in which the U.S. began to covertly support Sunni jihadis combating Tehran and its allies. In 2007 Seymour Hersh quoted a former U.S. intelligence officer’s observation that: “we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. It’s a very high-risk venture.” Hersh reported:
“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East.… The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
“One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound – and unintended – strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran.”
—New Yorker, 5 March 2007
By 2010, al Qaeda in Iraq was on the ropes. But the sectarianism of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, which stopped funding Anbar’s militias and began persecuting Sunni politicians and tribal leaders, helped AQI come back. Under a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, AQI recruited many officers from the disbanded Baathist army, as well as experienced tribal fighters who had earlier participated in the Awakening movement.
The Sunni Islamist uprising that began in 2011 in Syria provided an important opening for AQI that Baghdadi quickly seized by sending in cadres, who organized a Syrian branch (Jabhat al-Nusra). By August 2012, a U.S. Department of Defense Information Report observed that jihadis (including al Qaeda) “are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
Syrian Jihad: CIA as Quartermaster
The resilient Syrian insurgency is generally presented in the Western media as the outgrowth of spontaneous popular opposition to the regime. But successfully challenging Syria’s formidable state apparatus required massive foreign support, orchestrated by the U.S. working with its regional allies. As Hersh reported:
“The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.”
—London Review of Books, Vol.36, No.8, 17 April 2014
Britain’s contribution to equipping the Syrian jihadis came to light in June 2015, when prosecutors in London were forced to drop a “terrorism” case against a Swedish citizen, Bherlin Gildo, after it was revealed that British intelligence had itself been working with the groups he was charged with helping (Guardian, 1 June 2015).
An unusually candid article in the New York Times (24 March 2013) revealed that more than 160 military cargo planes had delivered at least “3,500 tons of military equipment” to Syria’s “revolutionaries.” As in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the CIA was heavily involved: “David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November , had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it.” Turkey played the same pivotal role in supporting the Syrian insurgents that Pakistan had for the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s:
“The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the program, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.”
Imperialists Engineer ‘Salafist Principality’
The August 2012 Department of Defense Information Report cited above contained the following projection:
“If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
It identified the jihadis’ “supporting powers” as “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey,” and presciently anticipated that AQI “could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
In 2013 Baghdadi announced that AQI and its Syrian affiliate had fused to launch ISIS. The refusal of a large section of the membership of Jabhat al-Nusra to go along with this led to bitter and continuing infighting. Yet this internecine warfare did not prevent ISIS from successfully seizing Ramadi and Fallujah in January 2014, which gave it control of Anbar Province. That same month, ISIS forces captured Raqqa in northeast Syria. In June 2014 a thousand ISIS fighters, outnumbered at least 15 to 1, stunned the world when they routed two Iraqi Army divisions and seized the important Iraqi city of Mosul, along with a substantial amount of abandoned military equipment. A few weeks later, on 30 June 2014, ISIS proclaimed a “caliphate” stretching from the gates of Baghdad, across Syria to the Turkish border.
This was not welcome news in Washington, where ISIS is viewed as a potential threat to the Saudis and other Persian Gulf imperial protectorates. In response, the U.S. moved closer to Baghdadi’s “moderate” jihadi rivals, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra (aka Nusra Front), al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Suddenly the corporate media began referring to Syria’s al Qaeda members as “moderate” opponents of the secular Assad regime. A recent New York Times article broached the fact that “the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front” is “among the groups benefiting from the enhanced firepower” from the CIA, and admitted that the “American-backed units calling themselves the Free Syrian Army” are effectively subordinated to al Qaeda’s Syrian branch:
“It is a tactical alliance that Free Syrian Army commanders describe as an uncomfortable marriage of necessity, because they cannot operate without the consent of the larger and stronger Nusra Front. But Mr. Assad and his allies cite the arrangement as proof that there is little difference between insurgent groups, calling them all terrorists that are legitimate targets.”
—New York Times, 12 October 2015
The premier journal of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment was somewhat more direct in explaining that Osama bin Laden’s organization has evolved into “the enemy of the United States’ enemy”:
“Since 9/11, Washington has considered al Qaeda the greatest threat to the United States, one that must be eliminated regardless of cost or time. After Washington killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, it made Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, its next number one target. But the instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri. Destabilizing al Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.”
—Foreign Affairs, 9 March 2015
The strategic objective of U.S. Middle East policy – domination of the region and its resources – remains a constant, but the tactics employed to achieve this end can change abruptly, as Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, both former “allies” in the “War on Terror,” discovered. The attitudes of the other major players in this conflict are generally less flexible. The Saudis and Iranians are locked into a rivalry for preeminence in the Persian Gulf, while Turkey, which jockeys with Iran for influence in northern Iraq, and other territories once part of the Ottoman Empire, bitterly opposed the Saudis’ support for the 2013 coup that overthrew Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected as the Muslim Brotherhood candidate a year earlier.
Russian Intervention – Changing the Calculus
In 2011 the Kremlin acquiesced to the NATO “regime change” in Libya that turned one of Africa’s most socially developed societies into a dystopic “failed state” ravaged by warlords and jihadi gangs. On 30 September 2015, Russian planes intervened in the Syrian conflict aiming to prevent a repetition of that catastrophe. If the Assad regime fell, Russia would lose its naval base on the Mediterranean, Iran would be weakened and triumphant Islamic radicals would stand astride the Muslim world. Several hundred of the foreign jihadis currently in Syria hold Russian passports. As Henry Kissinger recognized, a jihadi takeover of Syria/Iraq could destabilize Russia’s Muslim regions (Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2015).
The French response to the November 2015 terrorist attack that killed 130 in Paris, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, illuminated a potential fissure in the NATO alliance. While ramping up participation in the U.S. coalition’s attacks on ISIS positions, French President François Hollande simultaneously began praising Russia’s vigorous aerial campaign. During a visit to Moscow, Hollande floated the idea of uniting efforts in a single coalition, a proposal complicated by the fact that Russia and the U.S. are pursuing very different objectives in Syria.
France, like other European NATO members that have more exposure to the risk of domestic jihadi terror attacks, naturally tends to see the logic of the Russian/Iranian policy of destroying all components of the Islamist opposition in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., like its Saudi, Turkish and Qatari allies who helped arm and equip jihadis in order to weaken their regional Shia rivals, has been pursuing a delicate policy of containing, rather than destroying, the “Islamic State,” which it still sees as leverage in the struggle to topple Assad.
In the past the French bourgeoisie has been willing to steer a course independently of Washington – Charles De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO in 1966, and it only formally rejoined in 2009. There is, as yet, no indication that any similar development is imminent, but it is no secret that the blowback from the U.S.-led pursuit of “regime change” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria has chiefly impacted America’s European allies.
Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in support of Assad changed the dynamic of the conflict by putting direct pressure on the insurgents and their supply chain. It also boosted the morale of the Syrian Arab Army, which, strengthened by Iranian and Hezbollah reinforcements, began to slowly retake territory lost in the preceding period.The Russian intervention apparently caught the U.S. intelligence community by surprise and created consternation within the American bourgeoisie. The Senate Armed Services Committee hastily convened a hearing to discuss “Russian Strategy and Military Operations” in Syria. Senator John McCain, a perpetual advocate of American “boots on the ground,” characterized Russia’s Syrian intervention as “the latest disastrous turn in the Middle East as well as another humiliating setback for the United States.” His remarks reflected the exasperation of much of the ruling class:
“a few weeks ago the administration warned Russia not to send its forces to Syria. Russia did it anyway. The administration then tried to block Russia’s access to air space en route to Syria. It failed. The consequence? U.S. officials rushed into talks with Russia’s military to ‘deconflict’ in Syria. Our Secretary of State called Russia’s actions an ‘opportunity’ to cooperate because we share ‘fundamental principles’ and President Obama acquiesced to his first formal meeting in two years with Vladimir Putin, undermining international efforts post-Crimea to isolate Russia, exactly as Putin desired. And how did Putin respond? By bombing U.S.-backed opposition groups in Syria.”
“We should also not be surprised if Putin expands his anti-American coalition’s operations into Iraq, where they have already established an intelligence partnership with Baghdad. However this conflict ends, it must not involve Vladimir Putin shoring up his partners, crushing ours, destroying our remaining credibility in the Middle East and restoring Russia as a major power in this vital region as Putin wants. We cannot shy away from confronting Russia in Syria.…”
McCain, an early and enthusiastic cheerleader for the ultra-rightist leadership of Ukraine’s 2014 “Maidan revolution,” proposed ways to make the Kremlin pay:
“But we should not confine our response to Syria. We must look to impose costs on Russia more broadly, including the provision of arms to Ukraine, the increase of targeted sanctions, and steps to deepen Russia’s international isolation.”
When Turkish jets downed a Russia SU-24 bomber attacking Islamist forces near the Syrian border in November 2015, informed commentators pointed to the likelihood of U.S. involvement (Harper’s Magazine, 4 December 2015). Instead of contacting Moscow to apologize or offer an explanation, Ankara immediately appealed to NATO and the U.S., both of which promptly solidarized with Turkey’s action. Rather than back down, the Kremlin redoubled attacks on the insurgents targeted by the original mission and imposed economic sanctions on Turkey. Russian air-defense capacity was also upgraded, and Putin publicly instructed the Russian military that henceforth “Any targets threatening our [military] group or land infrastructure [in Syria] must be immediately destroyed” (RT, 11 December 2015).
This episode highlights the risk that the Syrian conflict could lead to a direct military confrontation between the world’s two leading nuclear powers. During a Republican Party presidential candidates’ debate on 15 December 2015, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie breezily declared that if he were president he would impose a “no-fly” zone over Syria and shoot down any Russian planes that dared to violate it. Fellow Republican contender Rand Paul replied: “I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate” (The Hill).
The change in the relation of forces on the ground made the strategy of standing back and awaiting the Assad regime’s inevitable collapse appear less viable. Given the massive unpopularity of further military adventures in the Middle East, America’s rulers seem to have concluded that, at least for the moment, a “peace process” is the best option. The ostensible basis for negotiations is a shared desire to preempt the consolidation of a “terrorist caliphate.”
Russia’s intervention may have forced the Obama administration to recalibrate its tactics, but as both Washington and Moscow are well aware, their objectives in Syria are fundamentally incompatible. This is illustrated by the differing attitudes to al-Nusra. Assad and his backers regard the Nusra Front and their fellow jihadis, who make up the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition, as terrorists to be eradicated, while the White House continues to coyly refer to them as “moderates.” The U.S. has complained vociferously that Russian air attacks have focused on CIA-supported “moderate” militias rather than ISIS. The Russians counter that the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State has shown few tangible results. In particular, the Kremlin pointed to the free flow of oil from Syrian and Iraqi wells held by ISIS to the Turkish black market.
In 2014 numerous reports began to appear in the Western media about oil smuggling financing the Islamic State. CNN estimated that this activity was producing revenues of “at least $2 million a day. This could fetch them more than $730 million a year, enough to sustain the operation beyond Iraq” (CNN, 22 August 2014). Despite the attention, until the Russian planes arrived the convoys used to transport the oil were largely untouched, even though, according to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House): “Some queues of tanker trucks have been reported to extend 2 kilometres.” When Putin pointed this out at the November 2015 G-20 confab in Turkey, American representatives lamely explained that they had hesitated to hit the smugglers to avoid risking civilian casualties. But, embarrassed by the publicity, the policy changed and within a week the Pentagon announced that U.S. planes had destroyed a convoy of 116 trucks in eastern Syria.
To blunt the impact of Russia’s military activity and slow down the progress of the Syrian army, the Pentagon, working through its Gulf State allies, began upgrading the opposition’s weaponry:
“Insurgent commanders say that since Russia began air attacks in support of the Syrian government, they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles.”
—New York Times, 12 October 2015
Walter Pincus of the Washington Post addressed concerns that backing away from demanding Assad’s departure as a precondition for negotiations might mean “that President Obama has no strategy for Syria”:
“There is and always has been a strategy. From 2011 it has been to end the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, primarily through diplomatic rather than military means. Since 2012, the Obama strategy has been to use force to degrade and defeat the Islamic State.”
—Washington Post, 2 November 2015
In fact, the U.S. has always been more concerned to enable and channel than to “degrade and destroy” the jihadi revolt. The “diplomatic” track was only embraced when Russian intervention began to roll back the insurrection. As Pincus observed, “What changed last week was not Obama’s Syrian strategy, but some U.S. tactics – because they were not working.” The objective remains “regime change”:
“Defeating the Islamic State in Syria, under Obama’s strategy, rests on enabling local Syrian forces not only to beat back Islamic State fighters but to hold freed territory until a new central government, established in Damascus, can take over.”
Imperialists Propose Partitioning Syria
At the October 2015 Senate hearing, retired U.S. General John Keane suggested a means of giving a Syrian carve-up a “humanitarian” spin:
“If we establish free zones – you know, for moderate opposition forces – but also sanctuaries for refugees, that gets world opinion support rather dramatically. If Putin is going to attack that, then world opinion is definitely against him.”
—New Eastern Outlook, 12 October 2015
At the Senate hearing John McCain noted the broad consensus within the American ruling class in favor of balkanizing Syria:
“As everyone from [former CIA head] David Petraeus to Hillary Clinton has advocated, we must rally an international coalition to establish enclaves in Syria to protect civilians and our moderate partners and do what is necessary to defend them.”
Richard Haass, editor of Foreign Affairs and president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, observed that “Neither the US nor anyone else has a vital national interest in restoring a Syrian government that controls all of the country’s territory.” Haass concluded: “A Syria of enclaves or cantons may be the best possible outcome for now and the foreseeable future” (Project Syndicate, 15 October 2015).
In June 2015 Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution published a document entitled “Deconstructing Syria: A new strategy for America’s most hopeless war,” in which he proposed that “the only realistic path forward may be a plan that in effect deconstructs Syria.” The first step would be to have “American, as well as Saudi and Turkish and British” special forces assist “moderate oppositionists” in establishing “reliable safe zones within Syria” that would “never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or ISIL.”
In the abstract the idea of balkanizing Syria into a welter of mini-states run by local warlords or Islamist militias might seem like a tidy solution to a messy problem. But one of the difficulties of getting allies and vassals to do the heavy lifting is that they have a tendency to want to pursue their own, frequently mutually exclusive, agendas. Turkey and Saudi Arabia took different sides in the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi and Qatari-funded jihadi militias battled each other in Syria. And then there is the prospect of a Zionist oil protectorate on the Golan Heights, which is likely to be extremely poorly received by America’s various Muslim coalition partners.
Turks, Kurds & Imperialists in Syrian Matrix
O’Hanlon proposes that the partition of Syria should be “undertaken in the safest zones first – perhaps in Kurdish areas.” This is because Kurdish fighters, with extensive U.S. air support, successfully drove ISIS out of their territory in northeastern Syria.
The Kurdish people have historically been brutally oppressed by the rulers of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, whose borders run across the Kurdish homeland. Ankara is fiercely opposed to the creation of anything remotely resembling a Kurdish statelet in Syria – particularly as the dominant force there are the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG, the military arm of the Democratic Union Party [PYD]). The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a petty-bourgeois left-nationalist guerrilla formation based in southeast Turkey.
The Turkish military has made repeated attempts to eradicate the PKK over the past 30 years, during which more than 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed. This campaign has cost Ankara hundreds of millions of dollars, yet the PKK remains a potent factor in the region. The YPG/PYD initially sought to stay out of the civil war between the hated Assad regime and the Sunni insurgents. After Assad pulled his troops out of Kurdish areas in late 2012, the YPG took the lead in organizing minorities threatened by jihadis:
“KDP-S [Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria, affiliated with Massoud Barzani’s corrupt Kurdistan Democratic Party] member Mohammed Ismail, based in Qamishli, told Al-Monitor he is worried: ‘We have discussed this with other components of this region, Assyrians, Arabs most of them, who support the regime accept this project, but those who are with the Syrian revolution don’t support this.’”
. . .“The YPG is the only militia that is capable of holding ground and fights off al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, which led to more support for the PYD among not only Syria’s Kurds, but also local Arabs and Christians.”
—Al-Monitor, 12 November 2013
When ISIS fighters swept through large parts of Syria and Iraq, the PKK saw an opportunity to break out of diplomatic isolation by providing protection for foreign energy corporations involved in the operation of oil fields near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. PKK fighters also rescued members of the Kurdish-speaking Yezidi minority who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar by ISIS and whose plight was heavily advertised in the Western media as a means of building support for intervention.
When ISIS besieged the Kurdish town of Kobanê on Syria’s northern border in autumn 2014, the Turks refused to allow munitions and reinforcements for the YPG defenders to cross the border, despite outpourings of “humanitarian” concern by U.S. officials. After a desperate struggle, Kurdish fighters, with U.S. air support, eventually succeeded in breaking the siege of Kobanê, while Turkish air strikes ignored ISIS in favor of targeting PKK bases in Iraq.
For years Washington has been supplying Ankara with intelligence on the PKK, which remains on the official U.S. list of “terrorist” organizations. But the Turks’ focus on attacking America’s Kurdish allies instead of ISIS created tensions that led to a deal in July 2015, with Washington turning a blind eye to Turkish attacks on the PKK/YPG in exchange for access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base near the Syrian frontier. Strategically, Ankara is a far more important ally, but the YPG/PKK fighters remain critical to containing ISIS. For the time being, Washington has sought to work around the problem by pretending that the YPG and PKK are separate entities:
“Obama administration officials acknowledged the PKK and YPG have links and coordinate with each other in the fight against Islamic State, but they said the U.S. continues to formally shun the PKK while dealing directly with YPG. The groups operate under separate command structures and have different objectives, the officials said.”
—Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2015
This corresponds to the PKK’s official characterization of its branches in Iraq, Syria and Iran as autonomous formations, but in reality they operate as a single, closely integrated, entity:
“‘It’s all PKK but different branches,’ Ms. Ruken [a 24-year-old ‘battle-hardened guerrilla’] said, clad in fatigues in her encampment atop Sinjar Mountain this spring as a battle with Islamic State fighters raged less than a mile away at the mountain’s base. ‘Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [PKK’s Iranian branch], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”
PKK’s Utopian Municipalism & Kurdish Right to Self-Determination
The PKK and its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan, claim to have rejected the Maoist-Stalinist monolithic organizational model in favor of anarcho-localism, to the delight of many foreign leftists who celebrate the “democratic experiment” underway in the PYD/YPG’s Rojava Cantons. Well-known anarchist academic David Graeber wrote:
“The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance … and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the ‘YJA Star’ militia (the ‘Union of Free Women’, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.”
—Guardian, 8 October 2014
Rojava’s local councils administer the provision of the goods and services necessary for survival under conditions of civil war. Residents have, by all accounts, a significant amount of democratic control of local organization, and there is an attempt to vigorously enforce equal rights for women, as well as for ethnic and religious minorities. But such measures do not pose a serious threat to the survival of existing class and clan structures. Article 41 of the Constitution of the Rojava Cantons clearly upholds property rights:
“Everyone has the right to the use and enjoyment of his private property. No one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of just compensation, for reasons of public utility or social interest, and in the cases and according to the forms established by law.”
In its 1978 founding statement, the PKK declared that it intended:
“to establish a Democratic People’s Dictatorship in an Independent and Unified Kurdistan and eventually to create a classless society. The Kurdistan National Liberation Struggle, which is conducted by the PKK, is an inseparable segment of the world socialist revolution strengthened by the socialist countries, national liberation movements and working class movements.”
—quoted in Gullistan Yarkin, “The ideological transformation of the PKK regarding the political economy of the Kurdish region in Turkey”, Kurdish Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, May 2015
Graeber treats the PKK’s substitution of utopian municipalism for the goal of Kurdish self-determination as a major advance:
“The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of ‘libertarian municipalism’, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless.”
Öcalan’s apparent jailhouse conversion to anarchist pipe dreams of capitalist state power melting away semi-spontaneously has been incorporated as a key element of the PKK’s new “democratic modernity” doctrine based on modifying, rather than abolishing, capitalist property relations and the exploitation that flows from them. Öcalan puts it like this:
“We cannot acknowledge capitalism as an economic system. Maybe we cannot totally abolish it; but we can change and erode it; we can construct our own economic system.”
—quoted in Yarkin, op. cit.
The PKK is only one of many organizations that, after the triumph of counterrevolution in the degenerated Soviet workers’ state, arrived at overtly reformist conclusions in the attempt to find a “third road” between capitalism and socialism.
Marxists uphold the right of the Kurdish nation to self-determination, as well as their right, in Kobanê and elsewhere, to defend themselves against those who would oppress or annihilate them – including ISIS, al-Nusra or the Turkish military. Most ostensibly Marxist political tendencies are in agreement on this point. An exception is the increasingly idiosyncratic Spartacist League/U.S. and its satellite sections in the International Communist League (ICL) who have decided that PYD collaboration with the U.S. military (receiving munitions and supplying coordinates for air strikes to soften up ISIS positions) has turned it into an imperialist proxy. Öcalan’s ideological flexibility would undoubtedly incline him to jump at the opportunity to sign on as a junior partner in an imperialist coalition to reconfigure the Middle East (particularly if it meant getting out of jail). But the PKK has not been invited to the table. At this point the PKK/YPG remains an independent political factor – the degree of tactical cooperation it has engaged in thus far falls short of strategic integration with or subordination to the U.S. imperialist coalition.
This is not likely to change as long as Turkey is deemed a more valuable ally than Öcalan’s fighters, which is why Washington has not attempted to obstruct Ankara’s campaign to eradicate the PKK. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed credit for the YPG/PKK’s success against ISIS in a 28 October 2015 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
“In northern Syria, the coalition and its partners [i.e., YPG/PKK] have pushed Daesh [ISIS] out of more than 17,000 square kilometers of territory, and we have secured the Turkish-Syrian border east of the Euphrates River. That’s about 85 percent of the Turkish border, and the President is authorizing further activities to secure the rest.…”
“We’re also enhancing our air campaign in order to help drive Daesh, which once dominated the Syria-Turkey border, out of the last 70-mile stretch that it controls.”
—U.S. Department of State
Ankara has a complicated relationship with its imperial patron. The Turkish ruling class, which aspires to annex as much territory in bordering regions of Iraq and Syria as possible, regards the prospect of an independent Kurdistan, or even the consolidation of a PKK-dominated statelet in northern Syria, as an existential threat. It therefore vehemently opposes any further progress by the PKK/YPG “coalition partners” along “the last 70-mile stretch” of the Syrian border that ISIS controls.
Despite its antipathy for any form of Kurdish self-rule, Ankara has developed close commercial and political relations with the “Kurdistan Regional Government” (KRG) in northern Iraq, a corrupt U.S. protectorate established in 1991 and run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The leaders of the KRG, who share Ankara’s bitter hostility for the PKK/YPG, would like to formalize their independence from Baghdad.
The U.S. would like its Turkish ally to engage ISIS on the ground in Syria, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is only prepared to venture into this potential quagmire if the U.S. first imposes an ongoing “no-fly zone” over northern Syria, including the “70-mile stretch” separating the two YPG/PKK enclaves. Despite Washington’s desire to see Turkish troops intervene in the Syrian conflict, it is not inclined to guarantee air support. With Russian planes active against ISIS positions close to the Turkish border, any attempt to impose a “no-fly” zone could risk a great deal for very little.
YPG control of the entire border would have a significant impact on the outcome of the struggle by severing the “humanitarian corridor” through which volunteers, arms and supplies reach the rebels. It would further complicate Islamic State oil exports to the Turkish black market. Ankara is alarmed that both Moscow and Washington appear ready to support any attempt by the YPG/PYD to wrest control of the remaining section of the border from ISIS:
“Turkey has warned the United States and Russia it will not tolerate Kurdish territorial gains by Kurdish militia close to its frontiers in north-western Syria, two senior officials said.
“‘This is clear cut for us and there is no joking about it,’ one official said of the possibility of Syrian Kurdish militia crossing the Euphrates to extend control along Turkish borders from Iraq’s Kurdistan region towards the Mediterranean coast.”
. . .“‘The PYD has been getting closer with both the United States and Russia of late. We view the PYD as a terrorist group and we want all countries to consider the consequences of their cooperation,’ one of the Turkish officials said.
“Turkey suspects Russia, which launched air strikes in Syria two weeks ago, has also been lending support to the YPG and PYD.”
“‘With support from Russia, the PYD is trying to capture land between Jarablus and Azaz, going west of the Euphrates. We will never accept this,’ the official said.”
—Reuters, 13 October 2015
The very fact that the YPG is maneuvering between Russia and the U.S., two powers that are manifestly not acting in concert in Syria, would seem to refute the notion that the YPG/PKK is nothing more than an American proxy.
While ISIS has a well-deserved reputation for murderous attacks on “infidels” (Kurds, Shia and other ethnic or religious minorities), Amnesty International has reported instances of collective punishment in the Rojava region. YPG units are accused of “the razing of entire villages in areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration [in Kurdish Syria], often in retaliation for residents’ perceived sympathies with, or ties to, members of IS or other armed groups.” Most of the victims are Turkmen and Arabs. Their plight has not received a lot of attention, as the seriousness with which ethnic cleansing is taken by the imperialist “international community” inevitably depends on whether the perpetrators are seen as friends or foes. It is a minor irony that, according to Amnesty, “Some civilians said they were threatened with US-led coalition airstrikes if they failed to leave” (“Syria: US Ally’s Razing of Villages Amounts to War Crimes”). The YPG has denied the allegations, but there is a logic to communal conflict that tends to generate a vicious cycle of ethnic cleansing.
The Marxist attitude to the complicated and overlapping military conflicts in Syria begins with unconditional opposition to any and all imperialist intervention. While upholding the basic democratic right of the Kurdish nation to self-determination, and defending the Kurds against their Turkish oppressors and against the pogromist atrocities of ISIS, class-conscious militants are equally committed to the defense of the rights of Turkmen and Arab civilians threatened by YPG units. In Syria’s civil war, revolutionaries do not support either the brutal Baathist dictatorship or its reactionary Islamist opponents. At the same time, it is necessary to side militarily with any indigenous forces (including Islamists) when they are attacked by the U.S. and other imperialists.
Fake Leftists Solidarize with Islamist ‘Revolution’
Many of the ostensible revolutionary socialists who characterized the 2011 uprising against Assad as a “Syrian revolution” are finding it difficult to square this initial assessment with the ugly jihadi reality that can no longer be denied. France’s Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA, founded by followers of the United Secretariat) argues that the supposed “revolutionary processes of the Middle East and North Africa” have failed to achieve “democracy, social justice, and equality [‘their initial objectives’],” as the political scene is dominated by “representatives of the old authoritarian regimes on the one hand, [and] Islamic fundamentalist and reactionary forces in their various components on the other” (Revue L’Anticapitaliste, No. 62, February 2015). The NPA nonetheless imagines that “democratic and popular” forces in the Free Syrian Army, along with the PYD, are keeping “the revolution” alive:
“there is still a refusal by various so-called ‘friends’ of the Syrian revolution to politically aid and militarily support the democratic and popular components of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Kurdish groups of the PYD (Syrian PKK), who fought and continue to fight the Assad regime and the reactionary Islamic forces.”
The erratic impressionists of the League for the Fifth International (L5I, until recently represented in Britain by Workers Power) similarly continue to characterize the Islamist revolt as a “struggle for freedom and democracy,” going through exquisite contortions in attempting to explain why their “Syrian revolution” has such a reactionary coloration:
“Such a degree of dislocation and dispersal makes it clear why the Syrian revolution has not progressed according to the textbooks of some so-called revolutionaries, and also why the forces of civil society and their organisations have been compressed and cramped into bodies waging a war.
“Factories and workshops closed and laid off their workers. And the official trade unions, tied hand and foot to the Baathist regime, were unable or unwilling to defend them or chart any independent course of action. It explains too why the Syrian working class has not been able to play any independent role beyond local and episodic instances. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, the struggle for freedom and democracy goes on, albeit under the harshest conditions and against a range of different counterrevolutionary forces.”
—Workers Power, 11 August 2015
The Free Syrian Army, once credited as the leader of the “Syrian revolution,” has melted away as the vast majority of its adherents decamped to join one or another jihadi militia. Of the various insurrectionary groupings, the L5I singles out the Islamic Front as having “a genuinely popular base of support.” The fact that the Islamic Front seeks to impose sharia law does not, apparently, disqualify it as a component of what the L5I considers the “Syrian revolution”:
“Unlike the increasingly isolated and now barely tolerated Jabhat al-Nusra, and unlike IS, whose presence in Syria almost has the character of an Iraqi occupation, the Islamic Front does have a genuinely popular base of support. However, it cannot be long before people come to realise that any thoroughgoing ‘revolution within the revolution’ will sooner or later have to extend also to a confrontation with the Islamic Front, especially once the common threat of Assad and IS starts to recede.”
The L5I characterizes the CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad as a “counter-revolution within the revolution,” while also complaining that the imperialists should be providing more support for their “Syrian revolution”:
“They [Obama, Cameron and Hollande] have rendered the anti-Assad rebellion very little material support. Indeed, their fear of inadvertently arming ‘Al Qaeda’, that is, any radical Islamist fighters, has prevented them arming anybody. What support there has been has come from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who, in this respect, are far from being mere puppets of the White House as testified to by the fact that their aid has gone to the various strands of Islamists that stand closest to them and which the US fear more than they fear the Assad regime.”
—League for the Fifth International IEC theses, 19 August 2014
The Syrian “revolution” that the L5I clings to is at least as hostile to the working class and oppressed as the Baathist dictatorship which it seeks to replace.
ISIS Barbarism: Byproduct of Imperialist Intervention
ISIS is depicted in the bourgeois media as a depraved and unfathomable expression of pure evil, an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” in the words of a 20 November 2015 UN Security Council resolution. A year earlier (2 October 2014), the editorial board of the New York Times proclaimed “the Islamic State – led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – stands alone in its deliberate, systematic and public savagery” and decried its “beheadings, crucifixions, tortures, rapes and slaughter of captives, children, women, Christians, Shiites” as signifying “a cult of sadism, not only as a weapon in its stated goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate but as the very reason for its existence.”
While much of the appeal of ISIS lies in its deserved reputation of ferocious bloodthirstiness, the ISIS “cult of sadism” is an irrational byproduct of the imperialist world order. Its bitter and deranged denunciations of infidels, apostates and female “immodesty” provide a focus, however misguided, for the anger of many thousands of Sunni Arabs whose lives have been shattered by occupation, war and desperate poverty.
ISIS has proved adept at directly accessing alienated youth in the imperialist heartlands via skillful use of social media. An estimated 3,000 West European youth (chiefly French, British and German) have journeyed to the Middle East to join ISIS. Many are Muslims from Europe’s inner city ghettos with no job prospects and no future. The growth in state repression and overt mainstream Islamophobia makes it likely that the Islamic State will continue to enjoy a steady stream of recruits from this source.
In its smoothly-run internet marketing campaign, the Islamic State projects an image of its warriors as pious adherents of Islam distinguished by their fidelity to the injunctions of the Koran. Yet Lydia Wilson, editor of the Cambridge Literary Review, who has interviewed many captured ISIS fighters, reports that most “are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate” (The Nation, 21 October 2015). She also observed:
“If we were looking at foreign fighter recruits to Afghanistan 10 or 20 years ago, there was intensive religious and theological training attached to recruitment. Nowadays, we see that recruitment strategy has branched out to a much broader audience with many different pull factors.”
Wilson also commented:
“There is no question that these [Iraqi] prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As [Erin Saltman of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue] said, ‘Recruitment plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.’ That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.”
Most ISIS recruits are eager to seize any means of striking back at the imperial conquistadors who have made their lives a nightmare:
“These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun.. They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.”
In the mainstream bourgeois media ISIS is disingenuously presented as having materialized out of thin air, but in fact it is an entirely logical consequence of the damage that decades of imperialist intervention have done to the Arab world. France’s celebrated left-liberal intellectual, Thomas Piketty, in reflecting on the November 2015 terror attack in Paris, observed that the Middle East is “the most unequal [region] on the planet” due to imperialist control, in particular the tendency to appoint their local agents as hereditary monarchs:
“Within those monarchies, he continues, a small slice of people controls most of the wealth, while a large [number] – including women and refugees – are kept in a state of ‘semi-slavery.’ Those economic conditions, he says, have become justifications for jihadists, along with the casualties of a series of wars in the region perpetuated by Western powers.”
—Independent, 1 December 2015
The mass popularity of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 was rooted in the hope of toppling the corrupt, Western-backed dictatorships tasked with maintaining the status quo across the region. These protests briefly raised the hopes of millions of victims of the autocratic regimes and their “neoliberal” austerity programs imposed in accordance with the dictates of imperialist finance capital. The naive hopes of the Egyptian protesters that the removal of Hosni Mubarak would significantly improve the lives of the masses were soon dashed. In the absence of any genuinely anti-imperialist formation, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement founded in 1928 under the slogan “The Koran is our constitution,” filled the vacuum of leadership, and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president in June 2012. A year later Morsi was removed by a military coup which brutally crushed all resistance.
The failure of the Brotherhood’s electoralist project seemed to validate their jihadi opponents who had long argued that Islamic rule could only be achieved through armed struggle. A book entitled The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Umma Will Pass written by a pseudonymous author (“Abu Bakr Naji”), appeared on the internet in 2004, and has long been popular with Sunni jihadists. Translated into English in 2006, it provides useful insights into the “polarization” strategy employed by Zarqawi’s AQI a decade ago and ISIS today, although it was never officially endorsed by either organization.
The book seeks to outline a strategy for how Islamist fighters can defeat the United States, its allies and vassals and create an Islamic State across the Middle East. While the text has a pronounced theological bias and is full of doctrinal commentary and scriptural references, it also addresses some of the key material questions posed. In particular, it proposes that the jihad’s “media dimension” should take up the damage done to the Arab world by foreign domination:
“A summary – in a few lines – of the study which the economic cadre prepared along with a focus on the extent of the injustice which the Umma [the global Muslim community] has experienced on account of the devalued price of oil. It should also explain how wealth that was obtained throughout the decades – along with its loss – was not used for building the Umma as much as it was used as funds for a handful of the collaborators and agents of the West among the Arab and Islamic regimes, such that the crumbs of crumbs remain for the Umma and its people.…”
There are numerous references to lessons to be drawn from previous jihadi campaigns, with particular attention to the successful Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. This, the author observes, led to:
“reviving of dogma and jihad in the hearts of the Muslim masses – who had submitted to the (social) entity of this superpower – when they saw the example and model of these poor, Afghani people – their neighbors – in jihad. They were able to remain steadfast in the face of the strongest military arsenal and the most vicious army (in the world) with respect to the nature of its members at that time. Thus, we saw that the jihad brought forth many Muslims from unknown lands, like Chechnya and Tajikistan.”
In what is very likely a reference to the relative ease with which the U.S. and its allies were dislodged from their toehold in Lebanon in 1983, the author contrasted the Soviet military with the Americans:
“O people! The viciousness of the Russian soldier is double that of the American (soldier). If the number of Americans killed is one tenth of the number of Russians killed in Afghanistan and Chechnya, they will flee, heedless of all else.”
Abu Bakr Naji poses three stages in the struggle to create a stable and viable Islamic state. The first is a stage of “vexation and exhaustion.” During this phase there are four “goals”: 1) “Exhausting the forces of the enemy” by widespread, if small-scale, attacks on tourist areas and oil installations to raise overheads, drain resources and spread security forces over a broad area; 2) “Attracting new youth to the jihadi work by undertaking qualitative operations” on a scale “that will grab peoples’ attention”; 3) “Dislodging the chosen regions …. from the control of the regimes of apostasy” and 4) training the administrative cadres necessary to administer the “chosen regions” once they come under jihadi control.
The stage of “vexation and exhaustion” is designed to produce a “region of savagery” characterized by the chaotic breakdown of all social order and desperate insecurity:
“the region of savagery will be in a situation resembling the situation of Afghanistan before the control of the Taliban, a region submitting to the law of the jungle in its primitive form, whose good people and even the wise among the evildoers yearn for someone to manage this savagery. They even accept any organization, regardless of whether it is made up of good or evil people.”
A “region of savagery” prepares the way for the next step, “the management of savage chaos”:
“If we picture its initial form, we find that it consists of the management of peoples’ needs with regard to the provision of food and medical treatment, preservation of security and justice among the people who live in the regions of savagery, securing the borders by means of groups that deter anyone who tries to assault the regions of savagery, as well as setting up defensive fortifications.”
“Mastering the administration of the regions which are under our control” is not an end in itself, but rather provides a base area for “the first step of polarization” via larger-scale operations:
“By polarization here, I mean dragging the masses into the battle such that polarization is created between all of the people. Thus, one group of them will go to the side of the people of truth, another group will go to the side of the people of falsehood, and a third group will remain neutral, awaiting the outcome of the battle in order to join the victor. We must attract the sympathy of this group and make it hope for the victory of the people of faith, especially since this group has a decisive role in the later stages of the present battle.
“Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports.”
The management of savagery is projected as “the most critical stage” because, if successful, it “will be a bridge to the Islamic state which has been awaited since the fall of the caliphate.” Alternatively, “If we fail – we seek refuge with God from that – it does not mean [the] end of the matter; rather, this failure will lead to an increase in savagery!!”
While the “caliphate” declared by al-Baghdadi in June 2014 is far from secure, it does at least appear to have real support in the territories it controls, if only on the grounds of being a lesser evil. A leading American authority on Syria, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, reports that many people are so desperate for social order that they are indifferent to whether it is administered by Baathists or ISIS:
“the situation in Syria has gotten so bad over the last four and a half years that many Syrians are embracing dictatorship again. They want authority over chaos and stability over insecurity, even at the cost of living under dictatorship and giving up political freedoms. We see this in the ISIS territory, where many people claim that they are happier under a cruel authority than no authority at all. They tasted militia chaos, which prevailed before ISIS swept through the region. They learned how dangerous it can be. They may not like ISIS, but they like the security, the institutions, and semblance of order that ISIS has brought. Assad benefits from the same calculations on his side.”
—9 November 2015 interview with RT
Landis posted a report on his blog by Omar al-Wardi, the pseudonym of a Syrian émigré who recently revisited his birthplace. Despite the “crimes and inhumane acts,” al-Wardi noted that the areas controlled by the Islamic State “are among the regions of Syria from which young people are least likely to flee to Europe, a point that many seem to have missed” (“A Trip to the ‘Caliphate’: Oppressive Justice under ISIS”).
One factor that enabled ISIS to gain the upper hand over its jihadi rivals was that it paid its fighters better. A comparable disparity in the treatment of the civilian populations in the rebel areas was described by al-Wardi:
“One of the main reasons ISIS has been accepted by a vast majority is that corruption was rampant in the area during the first years of the uprising against Assad. First, the militias that called themselves the Free Syrian Army ruled. They disported [sic] themselves no differently than thieves and bandits. Civilians lived in a state of anxiety that their possessions would be lifted from them one after the other and fear that they would be harassed and possibly killed. Then came al-Nusra, which was concerned only with power and gave little care to justice or good government. Between the Free Army and Nusra, society was lost. No one dared approach the authorities to resolve disputes. Once the Caliphate established control over the region, however, people have breathed easier and feel less oppressed.”
It is a remarkable indictment of U.S. propaganda that civilians “feel less oppressed” under the deranged rule of ISIS than under those forces Washington describes as “moderates.”
Toward a Socialist Federation of the Middle East
A week after the criminal 11 September 2001 attacks in New York City, we predicted that a military assault on Muslim countries would bolster Islamic extremism:
“the attack on the World Trade Center is only one link in a long chain of events. A massive imperialist military attack on Afghanistan and/or Iraq would be a catastrophe that would produce many thousands of additional innocent victims and ultimately strengthen the forces of Islamic reaction in the region.”
—U.S. Imperialist Rule: An Endless Horror”, 18 September 2001 (reprinted in 1917 No. 24)
The military assaults on Afghanistan, Iraq, and later Libya, killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions more from their homes. The once powerful workers’ movement in the Middle East, sapped by Stalinist class-collaborationism and political adaptation to anti-working-class ideologies (most egregiously Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 “Islamic Revolution”), has lacked the political capacity to take the lead in resisting the imperialist occupation forces. This opened the door for al Qaeda, ISIS et al to pose as the leaders of resistance to the Western imperialist crusaders. As a result, the forces of Islamic reaction are stronger than ever before. Yet the imposition of Islamic theocracy will not alter the operation of the world market which condemns the impoverished masses of the Middle East to lives of suffering and privation.
The international workers’ movement has no interest in the victory of either Syria’s Baathist dictatorship or their reactionary Islamist opponents – which are, in the final analysis, qualitatively equivalent agencies of exploitation. Revolutionaries do, however, side militarily with any indigenous forces – including the reactionary Taliban, ISIS, al Nusra and al Qaeda – in confrontations with the “democratic” imperialists. In 1983, when Islamic Jihad bombed the barracks of the U.S. Marines and French Legionnaires in Beirut, we characterized these as justified blows against imperialist oppression.
The brutality of the jihadis is no reason for Iraqi workers to embrace the cynical “democratic” imperialists and their “war on terror.” In October 2014, the leftist Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) reported that ISIS had murdered eight workers in Tikrit for objecting to the idea of working for no pay. A few months earlier Falah Alwan of the FWCUI had pointed out that imperialist intervention is the root of the problem:
“All the while the US government – the prime cause of these problems to begin with — prepares to intervene however it chooses. President Obama has so far expressed his concern over Iraqi oil twice when talking about recent events. He has not shown any regard or concern for the fate of two million people now under the control of ISIS, or for the women who have started committing suicide in Mosul as a result of ISIS gangs.… We reject US intervention and protest President Obama’s inappropriate speech in which he expressed concern over oil and not over people.”
—Jadaliyya, 13 June 2014
The protests that have rocked the region in recent years – in Iran in 2009, in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 and then in Istanbul in 2013 – are evidence of the acute social tensions that lie just beneath the surface of these societies. In the face of enormous obstacles, workers’ struggles continue across the Middle East. In May 2015, 15,000 Turkish autoworkers ignored threats from the state and the instructions of their union leaders to launch a wildcat strike to win better wages. In January 2016, 18,000 Egyptian employees of Petrotrade walked out in direct defiance of a ban on strikes. The rulers of the brittle neocolonial regimes of the Middle East have good reason to be anxious about their future.
In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels observed that workers around the world have fundamentally common interests, and, in that sense, “have no country.” The chief victims of the wars for global domination waged by the U.S. and its predatory partners are of course the masses of the Muslim world. But in the citadel of imperialism, the flag-waving militarist xenophobia of the “war on terror” has been accompanied by declining living standards, wholesale attacks on democratic rights and the growth of a sinister surveillance state.
The international workers’ movement, particularly within the imperialist countries, has the potential to take the leading role in finding a historically progressive solution to the misery and poverty imposed on the vast majority of humanity by imperialist war and social disorganization. A glimpse of the possibilities was provided on 1 May 2008, when militants in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down every port on the U.S. West Coast with an exemplary one-day strike against the war in Iraq. This powerful example of solidarity between workers in the imperialist heartland and those in Iraq was the result of the actions of militants with a long history of class-conscious political activism in the ILWU (see “Anti-War Strike”).
The chaos, poverty and bloodshed engulfing Syria and Iraq derive from the inherent logic of capital accumulation in a global system governed by the principle of profit maximization. Only through expropriating the means of production, transport and communication, and reconstructing the world economy on the basis of rational socialist planning governed by the principle of production for human need can humanity transcend the tyranny of capitalist irrationality. This requires the organization of the most politically conscious militants into a disciplined, revolutionary workers’ party.
Amid the imperialist militarism, obscurantism and poisonous communalism wracking the Middle East, it is important to uphold the perspective of working-class unity across national, religious and ethnic lines in joint class struggle against all the oppressors – in the first place the imperialists, but also the Zionist, Turkish, Persian and Arab rulers. Only proletarian revolution can ensure that the region’s resources, including its vast energy wealth, are used for the benefit of the hundreds of millions of oppressed and exploited, rather than Western oil corporations and their corrupt local henchmen. The road to a future where the myriad ethnic and religious groups of the region can live together in security and material comfort is the creation of a revolutionary association of peoples in a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. The necessary instrument for carrying out this struggle is a Leninist-Trotskyist party, deeply rooted in the proletariat, and armed with the only program capable of addressing the political, social and economic problems of the oppressed and exploited through the expropriation of both foreign and domestic capital – the program of permanent revolution.
1 In a 2007 speech former NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark recalled a 1991 conversation with Paul Wolfowitz (then U.S. undersecretary of defense) on the lessons of the “Desert Storm” assault on Iraq under Saddam Hussein:
“‘We learned that we can use our military in the region, in the Middle East, and the Soviets won’t stop us.’ He said, “And we’ve got about five or ten years to clean up those old Soviet client regimes – Syria, Iran, Iraq – before the next great superpower comes along to challenge us.’”
2 According to a 9 October 2015 U.S. Congressional Research Service report: “most rank and file military personnel [in the Syrian army] have been drawn from the majority Sunni Arab population and other minority groups.” It also notes:
“Support for the Asad [sic] government from foreign Shiite fighters has galvanized some Sunnis’ views of the regime as irretrievably sectarian. Nevertheless, much of the daily violence occurs between Sunni armed oppositionists and a Syrian military force composed largely of Sunni conscripts.”
— “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response”
The fact that Sunni soldiers have generally remained loyal to the regime strongly suggests that the primary axis of the conflict does not run along sectarian lines.
3 Declassified U.S. records show that “beginning on November 30, 1948, [CIA operative Stephen] Meade met secretly with [Syrian Army Chief of Staff] Colonel [Husni] Zaim at least six times to discuss the ‘possibility (of an) army supported dictatorship’” (see “Cold War and Covert Action,” Middle East Journal, Winter 1990).
4 The “humanitarian wars” on Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 were modeled on NATO’s 1999 large-scale aerial assault on Serbia, which was largely driven by a desire to control strategic access to the newly discovered oil and gas fields of the Caspian Basin, as we noted at the time (see “NATO’s ‘Humanitarian’ Terrorism,” 1917 No. 22.
The pretext for attacking Serbia was to prevent a “genocide” of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Like the supposed killings of Kuwaiti babies in 1991, Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003 and the imminence of a massacre of Libyan civilians in 2011, the reports of atrocities against Albanian Kosovars proved to be a cynical invention to justify brutal military aggression, as journalist John Pilger describes:
“David Scheffer, US ambassador-at-large for war crimes [sic], claimed that as many as ‘225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59’ might have been murdered.…
“With the Nato bombing over, and much of Serbia’s infrastructure in ruins, along with schools, hospitals, monasteries and the national TV station, international forensic teams descended upon Kosovo to exhume evidence of the ‘holocaust.’ The FBI failed to find a single mass grave and went home. The Spanish forensic team did the same, its leader angrily denouncing ‘a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines.’ A year later, a United Nations tribunal on Yugoslavia announced the final count of the dead in Kosovo: 2,788. This included combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the KLA. There was no genocide. The ‘holocaust’ was a lie.”
—Counterpunch, 27 February 2015
5 The situation has only worsened under Haider Al Abadi, who replaced Maliki as prime minister in August 2014. Under Abadi, the Badr Organization, one of several Shia militias, controls much of the state apparatus:
“The [Badr] group’s sway extends deep into Iraq’s Internal Security Forces, where it is said to directly manage many police and special operations-type groups. Badr also has great influence in the political sphere: It has secured key positions within the Iraqi government, and is part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s State of Law alliance – Abadi even wants to appoint its leader, Hadi al-Amiri, as the country’s interior minister.”
— Foreign Policy, 18 September 2014
6 According to David Kilcullen, a U.S. counter-insurgency expert, the falling-out started “when AQI began to apply the standard AQ method of cementing alliances through marriage”:
“In Iraqi tribal society, custom (aadat) is at least as important as religion (deen) and its dictates, often pre-Islamic in origin, frequently differ from those of Islam. Indeed, as one tribal Iraqi put it to me, ‘if you ask a Shammari what religion he is, he will say “I am a Shammari”’ – the Shammari being a confederation which, like many Iraqi tribes, has both Sunni and Shi’a branches.
“Islam, of course, is a key identity marker when dealing with non-Muslim outsiders, but when all involved are Muslim, kinship trumps religion. And in fact, most tribal Iraqis I have spoken with consider AQ’s brand of ‘Islam’ utterly foreign to their traditional and syncretic version of the faith. One key difference is marriage custom, the tribes only giving their women within the tribe or (on rare occasions to cement a bond or resolve a grievance, as part of a process known as sulha) to other tribes or clans in their confederation (qabila). Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of ‘Islam’ stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful.
“This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha‘r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.”
—Small Wars Journal, 29 August 2007
7 AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi kept the former Baathists at a distance, because he distrusted their secular outlook, according to Hashim [Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University researching ISIS].
“It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers.
“Tasked with rebuilding the greatly weakened insurgent organization after 2010, Baghdadi embarked on an aggressive campaign to woo the former officers, drawing on the vast pool of men who had either remained unemployed or had joined other, less extremist insurgent groups.
“Some of them had fought against al-Qaeda after changing sides and aligning with the American-backed Awakening movement during the surge of troops in 2007.”
—Washington Post, 4 April 2015
8 On 9 March 2015 the Ron Paul Institute pointed to the connection between Senator John McCain, a leading advocate of the 2011 imperialist intervention in Libya, and one of that country’s leading Islamist reactionaries, Abdelhakim Belhadj:
“When McCain was cheerleading for the US attack on Libya, Belhadj was among those he promoted as offering the promise of a democratic Libyan future. But Belhadj was at the time a founder of the ‘Libya Dawn,’ which was a group of Islamic militia forces tied to al-Qaeda in Libya. Did Senator McCain overlook his Libyan friend’s ties with al-Qaeda in his zeal to see Gaddafi overthrown or did he simply not know about it?
“But that’s not even half of it! We now learn that Senator McCain’s friend has been promoted from an al-Qaeda operative to his current position as the head of ISIS in Libya!”
—Ron Paul Institute
9 “Nearly 30,000 foreign recruits have now poured into Syria, many to join the Islamic State, a doubling of volunteers in just the past 12 months” according to the New York Times (26 September 2015). This includes some 250 Americans who “have entered or tried to enter the conflict in Iraq or Syria,” compared to 750 from Britain. The article states that “1,800 French citizens and residents are believed to be enlisted in jihadist networks worldwide.”
10 In a 24 November 2015 piece in Asia Times, Peter Lee suggests that the Paris attacks were blowback from the Libyan intervention, in which France played a leading role:
“To sum up: the alleged and now reportedly deceased architect of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, did not fight ‘for IS.’ He fought ‘with’ Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a Libyan outfit whose presence in Syria predates that of ISIS. Even after Katibat al-Battar al-Libi decided to pledge allegiance to ISIS, it retained its independent identity.”
Lee characterized Katibat al-Battar al-Libi as:
“a rather bloody piece of outreach by Libyan Islamists to share Libya[’s] experience in insurrection and revolution with Syria. After IS arose and became a dominant military and financial force, the ‘KBL’ threw in their lot with ISIS, and members of the brigade subsequently returned to Libya to establish an IS beachhead.”
12 O’Hanlon suggested that a blind eye should be turned to the al Qaeda connections of the CIA-supported “moderate” oppositionists: “past collaboration with extremist elements of the insurgency would not itself be viewed as a scarlet letter – since some of that collaboration could have been a necessary means of surviving on Syria’s complex and challenging battlefield.”
13 For obvious reasons the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has not sought to highlight Israel’s interest in annexing the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war. In February 2013, Israel licensed Afek Oil and Gas Company to explore the Golan. A major oil deposit was reportedly discovered. Afek is the Israeli division of Genie Energy Ltd., whose “strategic advisory board” includes a gaggle of high-profile imperialist predators, including former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, media monopolist Rupert Murdoch, former CIA head James Woolsey, British banking magnate Baron Jacob Rothschild, former U.S. energy secretary Bill Richardson and former U.S. Treasury head Larry Summers.
15 The Spartacist League has taken pains to strike a firmly anti-imperialist posture over the recent Syrian events, correctly asserting “any force, however unsavory, that attacks, repels or otherwise impedes U.S. forces strikes a blow in the interests of the exploited and the oppressed” (Workers Vanguard, 5 September 2014). This stands in stark contrast to their shameful social-patriotism in 1983 when “Islamic Jihad” blew up the U.S. Marine barracks as well as those of the French Foreign Legion in Beirut, forcing both imperialist militaries to pull out of Lebanon. See “Marxism vs. Social Patriotism”. In 2010, the ICL alibied U.S. military intervention in Haiti, although in that case, unlike in 1983, they belatedly repudiated their social-patriotic position (see “Sclerotic Spartacists Unravel”).
16 The Workers Power article attributes the survival of the Baathist regime to “Russian imperialism’s veto in the Security Council and its supply of weapons and other logistical support to Assad.… To date, this remains the primary imperialist intervention in Syria, not the verbal posturing of Obama, Cameron or Hollande.” Russian support has been critical for Assad, but, as we explained in “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia”, Marxists cannot characterize Russia as imperialist:
“There are no mechanisms, beyond the sale of oil and gas at world market prices, by which Russia extracts wealth from less developed countries on any significant scale. Indeed in recent years Russia, despite a near-monopoly position as an energy supplier in neighboring former Soviet republics, has provided subsidies rather than pursuing superprofits.”