On April 13, 2021, two US transport helicopters escorted by an Apache attack helicopter transferred a group of at least 50 extremists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Al-Omar oil field controlled by the American military in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ez-Zur. These fighters were then trained at the Shaddadi base south of Hasakeh. The mission of these jihadists is focused on destabilizing the areas under President Bashar al-Assad’s government by attacking outposts of the Syrian army and civilian communities, in addition to protecting the oil facilities occupied by US troops.
US support for jihadist groups reflects the stalemate in Syria. The war in Syria has gradually settled around various zones of domination and influence: the government-controlled Damascus-Latakia corridor and Hama and Homs in the Western part of the country; the areas under the control of opposition forces, including Idlib in the North and small environs of Dara’a in the South.
The mainly Kurdish areas in the North that the Democratic Union Party (YPG) intends to unite under the name of Rojava; the North-Eastern parts of the country weakly held by the residues of ISIS; and, an Israeli occupation zone (which has lasted more than 50 years) in Al Qunaytirah (Syria’s smallest province, two-thirds of which Israel conquered and ethnically cleansed in 1967. The conqueror changed the name to the Golan Heights).
The only significant pocket of territory still held by the anti-Assad opposition is in and around Idlib - and even that has shrunk to a third of the size it was in 2017 after repeated offensives by Russia-backed Syrian government forces. Assad - with the help of Russia - re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas in 2020, placing himself in control of 70% of the country.
Now, he wants to take control of Idlib and bring the 3 million people there back under its control. But Turkey too, which controls areas surrounding Idlib, has an interest in defending at least parts of Idlib from the regime, and has troops on the ground inside the province. Yet the costs of retaking the province may simply be too high. A three-way fight among Damascus, backed by Russian fighter jets, Turkey, and militant groups like Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) would be devastating - displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkish areas and further into Europe.
In a scenario like this, the aim of the US is no longer to overthrow Assad - something that became impossible after the Russian military intervention began in 2015 - but to prevent him and his Russian and Iranian backers winning a decisive victory. In the final analysis, the US and its European allies refuse to accept the prospect of Assad remaining in power, although they lost the proxy war. How did this situation come about?
In 2011, the Arab Spring protests began in Syria. From 2005 to 2010, Syria had witnessed a 10% increase in poverty, geographically concentrated in the northeast and south of the country. Growing poverty was exacerbated by the flight of more than 1.2 million people from the land (according to the most conservative estimates) as a result of drought and economic crisis. These material conditions acted as the ingredients for the demonstrations.
The 2011 uprising was the biggest domestic challenge to the Assad family since the early 1980s, when President Hafez al-Assad crushed a Sunni revolt centered on Hama where at least 10,000 people were killed in 1982. The protests were secular in tone, but Deraa and Hama were Sunni strongholds resentful of the influence of the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect to which 12% of Syrians belong, including Assad and many members of the ruling elite. Thus, there was a sectarian dimension to the protests which external powers would later exploit to further their own interests.
Increased government violence against the uprising did stimulate increased military defections: not of whole units, hence not threatening the regime’s core, but enough individual defections that, combined with the external provision of safe havens (in Turkey) and external arming, enabled the construction of the “Free Syrian Army.” At the same time, the incremental depletion of the government’s military manpower debilitated its capacity to secure territory.
As the government lost its monopoly of violence, territorial contestation increased, forcing it to withdraw from the far east of the country, leaving much of the country’s grain-growing areas and oil resources to opposition factions. In parallel, Western powers and Gulf Arab monarchies began the jihadisation of the anti-government Sunni rural underclass, which, together with the trans-state movement of non-Syrian militants into Syria, empowered jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham) and Ahrar al-Sham.
With the engagement of multiple actors, Syria soon turned into a battle arena for rival interests. Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against neoliberal authoritarianism; a sectarian battle between Sunni and Alawites; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni; a conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China versus the West. These entanglements have resulted in the current stalemate in Syria.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad’s imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. Hezbollah and Iran believed they had no alternative but to fight and that it is better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus.
Turkey regarded the Assad government and Syrian Kurds as enemies whom it would like to see defeated. Erdogan was one of the first regional leaders to publicly call for the removal of Assad. Turkey opened its 510-miles long border to the rebels, allowing them to move supplies and fighters into Syria. It allowed a Syrian political opposition group to take up residence in Istanbul and it gave this platform - mainly composed of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood - full political support and encouragement.
Since 2011, Russia and China have blocked any attempt by the West to gain a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution for a war on Syria. Both these countries have formed strong relationships with Syria. In 2008, Assad agreed to allow Russia to convert a naval port located at the Syrian town of Tartous into a permanent military base for Russian warships. It would be Russia’s only such base in the region. Without Tartous, every Russian naval vessel in the sea would have to return through the Bosphorous to Odessa for single thing it needs.
The agreement signified that Syria had become Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, a fact reflected in Russian arms exports to Syria, which accounted for about 10% of Russia’s total weapons sales during the 2000s. China is likewise tightly linked to Syria as the largest exporter to the country and its biggest source of FDI. The latter investments have been concentrated in Syria’s Al Furat Petroleum Company - Syria’s main oil producer, which was partially privatized over the 2000s - as well as in construction and utility projects.
In his 1965 book “The Struggle for Syria”, Irish journalist Patrick Seale wrote that the country is a “mirror of rival interests on an international scale”. This statement is pertinent even today where the conflicting aims of different countries have produced a ruinous stalemate for ordinary Syrians.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
Midwestern Marx's Editorial Board does not necessarily endorse the views of all articles shared on the Midwestern Marx website. Our goal is to provide a healthy space for multilateral discourse on advancing the class struggle. - Editorial Board
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Photo Credits: Alex Brandon AP
United States Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. recently said that there was a need in the Air Force for a low cost, lightweight fighter jet to replace aging F-16 fighter jets (Axe 2021). Astute readers will know that such a jet has already been attempted, the F-35. Since 2001, the US government and Lockheed Martin have worked to create the next generation of fighter jets at a total cost of $400 billion as of 2020 (Grazier 2020). At $21 billion a year, the F-35 project alone is capable of paying almost half of the estimated cost of $48 billion a year for free college education in the United States as proposed by Senator Sanders (Golshan 2019). However, as President, Biden has within the first month in office already approved $200 million in weapons sales through Raytheon to Jordan, Chile, and a NATO agency (Mehta 2021). As such, we can likely expect the Air Force to get their wish as we once more return to Obama-era global interventionism. Whereas in the previous five years we have seen blunter edged, loud, bragging styles of military engagements through Trump, we are now more likely to see a return to what was aspired to by Donald Rumsfeld and perfected by Barack Obama: “A new kind of war,” one with “sustained engagement that carries no deadlines” is the perfect distillation and crystallization of the American Empire’s need for consumption of resources (Rumsfeld 2001). And now with President Biden we might see a proliferation of such acts.
American culture has long been critiqued for its consumerism. Post-industrial America and much of the West has been absorbed fully in consumer culture. As Americans, the concept of “freedom” can be seen most clearly in what we can purchase and consume. The right to bear arms is not a right to be exercised against tyranny, but rather a marketing tool to sell personal defense handguns. The right to free speech is the right for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones to sell you snake oil. It is also the right for corporations to buy influence. Through Citizens United, money is equivocated by law to freedom. Even as other countries across the world entered mandatory lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19 there was intense backlash in America. This is partly because such a lockdown would deprive us of the one freedom that we exercise most often and care the most about: our freedom to make consumer choices. Due to this, we did not have a lockdown like many other countries did. Nowhere in America were things fully closed to the degree that you saw in nations like Vietnam, China, or Australia. We do not see the health and wealth of us all in common as an expression of freedom, rather we view ourselves in our personal kingdoms. We lack the culture and social structures that would allow us to define freedom or express it in any other way.
So, what happens when this rabid consumer culture is married with imperialism? What is unleashed when a society built on infinite economic growth and consumption must grow more and consume more? A Lovecraftian horror is thrust upon the world, its maw wide open and ready to engulf the planet. While conquest defined empires of the past, consumption is what defines the American empire.
President Joe Biden has already authorized bombings in Syria, citing Iranian backed militia groups, that have left 22 people dead (De Luce, Gains, Gubash 2021). This news comes the same day that Democrats capitulate to the Senate parliamentarian on a minimum wage increase (Linton, Segers 2021). Biden and the rest of the Democratic party have thrown their hands in the air in mock shock and disappointment over an issue for which they cared very little. However, the bipartisan support for war can be seen in the 93-2 confirmation for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a man who was previously on the board of Raytheon and will receive close to $1.7 million in payments from Raytheon (Shabad 2021; Capaccio, Allison 2021). Beyond Secretary Austin we can see the White House’s appetite for war only grows with other nominations such as Neera Tanden to head the OMB. Tanden has previously stated that Libya should repay the United States in the form of oil after the removal of Gaddafi (Greenwald 2015). This is the model of empire as consumption. We liberated you, now give us your resources. This harrowing model of global politics is repeated endlessly by administration after administration.
This immediate move into warfare is not novel in any way. Trump’s first military order came in early February of 2017, and Obama’s first military order was a mere three days into his presidency (Merica, Brown, Zeleny 2017; Zenko 2017). Now as we move into the Biden presidency, we see the persistence of American imperialism taking precedence above all other policy matters. While elected officials and talking heads berate the left for wanting minimum wage increases, green energy, an end to foreign wars, or any other policy goal and speak about the difficulties involved they have no issue ordering and defending the death of people across the world.
We have seen once again the broken promises and empty words of the Democratic party. In our discussions with our fellow workers, we must draw attention to this betrayal. We must continue to further class consciousness with those around us. We must continue to develop our own infrastructure and organizations to more effectively combat these warmongers and imperialists. Ultimately it is capitalism that is the driving force for these horrendous acts of war. Through its overthrow we will see the day where all peoples of the world are liberated. Until that day comes, we must continue our work in solidarity and in strength. Day by day, more and more of the working class of this country sees how little the imperialist machine cares for them and how much they might gain from its overthrow.
Axe, D. (2021, February 25). The U.S. Air Force Just Admitted The F-35 Stealth Fighter Has Failed. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2021/02/23/the-us-air-force-just-admitted-the-f-35-stealth-fighter-has-failed/?sh=13cb405d1b16
Capaccio, A., & Allison, B. (2021, January 10). Biden Defense Pick to Get Up to $1.7 Million From Raytheon role. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-10/biden-defense-pick-to-get-up-to-1-7-million-from-raytheon-role
Golshan, T. (2019, June 24). Bernie Sanders's free college proposal just got a whole lot bigger. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/23/18714615/bernie-sanders-free-college-for-all-2020-student-loan-debt
Grazier, D. (2020, October 21). Selective Arithmetic to Hide F-35's True Costs. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/10/selective-arithmetic-to-hide-the-f-35s-true-costs/#:~:text=The Navy spent a total, or $7.5 billion per ship.
Greenwald, G. (2015, November 05). Leaked Emails from Pro-Clinton Think Tank Reveal Censorship and Pandering to Israel. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://theintercept.com/2015/11/05/leaked-emails-from-pro-clinton-group-reveal-censorship-of-staff-on-israel-aipac-pandering-warped-militarism/
Linton, C., & Segers, G. (2021, February 26). Senate parliamentarian rules Democrats cannot include minimum wage hike in COVID-19 economic relief bill. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/minimum-wage-covid-relief-bill-senate-parliamentarian/
Luce, D. D., Gains, M., & Gubash, C. (2021, February 26). Biden orders airstrikes in Syria, retaliating against Iran-backed militias. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/biden-airstrikes-syria-retaliating-against-iran-backed-militias-n1258912
Mehta, A. (2021, February 11). State clears first three foreign military sales of Biden administration. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.defensenews.com/global/the-americas/2021/02/11/state-clears-first-three-foreign-military-sales-of-biden-administration/
Merica, D., Browne, R., & Zeleny, J. (2017, February 03). How Donald Trump's first military action went from the Obama White House to deadly raid - CNN Politics. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/politics/yemen-raid-trump-obama/index.html
Rumsfeld, D. (2001, September 27). A New Kind of War. The New York Times, p. 21. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/27/opinion/a-new-kind-of-war.html
Shabad, R. (2021, January 22). Senate confirms Lloyd Austin as first Black defense secretary. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/senate-confirms-austin-first-black-defense-secretary-n1255322
Zenko, M. (2017, January 20). Obama's Final Drone Strike Data. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.cfr.org/blog/obamas-final-drone-strike-data
David Flora is a bartender living in the South with a bachelors in political science and is currently seeking a masters in public policy. Much of his organizational work and praxis involves fellow restaurant industry workers. He believes the restaurant industry in particular is an important part of a revolutionary workers movement.