Imperialist bombs won’t end Syria’s misery

December 9, 2015

Eric Ruder examines the tangled web of competing imperial and regional interests that are adding fuel to the fire in Syria--with ordinary people suffering the consequences.

THE NOVEMBER 13 terrorist attacks in Paris "changed everything," according to political leaders around the world who are pledging to accelerate their war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

French President François Hollande vowed to wage a "merciless war" on ISIS, and speaking for the ruling establishment in the U.S., Hillary Clinton called for "American leadership" to "win the generational struggle against radical jihadism."

France has already stepped up its air strikes, and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced December 1 that American Special Forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria will have the authority for an expanded range of capabilities and missions. "This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria," said Carter. "That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, more momentum."

The war at home is heating up, too. In France, police and security forces--freed from the need for judicial approval by Hollande's declaration of a three-month state of emergency--have carried out hundreds of raids on homes and mosques, creating an effective state of siege in whole neighborhoods. U.S. leaders are preparing the same in the wake of the mass killing in San Bernardino, California, by two apparent ISIS sympathizers.

A family flees devastation in Syria
A family flees devastation in Syria (FreedomHouse)

But however sweeping the measures that world leaders justify on the grounds that Paris "changed everything," some realities remain stubbornly the same--on the one hand, the competing interests of the key regional and imperialist powers now intervening in Syria, and on the other, the brutality of the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

As a result, the intensification of air strikes and other military operations carried out by the U.S., Russia, Britain, Turkey and France will increase the likelihood of more frictions and confrontations--intentional and inadvertent--between rival powers pursuing their own interests.

Even worse for the people of Syria is the emerging consensus among the world's most powerful governments that the Assad regime--which is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths since the conflict in Syria began--must be strengthened in order for the war against ISIS to be won.

None of the various powers intervening in Syria care about the Syrian people--who rebelled against the Assad regime despite savage repression and violence to demand democracy and justice--any more than the reactionaries of ISIS do. The hope for a reversal of the worsening nightmare lies with a renewal of the revolutionary struggles that erupted with the Arab Spring in 2011, not with any of the imperial or regional powers.


RUSSIA, THE Assad regime's most important imperial ally, heralded the start of its air strikes in Syria in late September as an assault on ISIS, but a late October analysis by Reuters showed that 80 percent of its strikes targeted territory held by non-ISIS opposition groups, which are the chief opponents of the Assad regime.

Even though official U.S. policy calls for the removal of Assad, Russia's intervention bolstered the regime's position, creating a new set of calculations about Syria's future that was almost immediately embraced by a significant current of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

"Russia's unilateral military action in Syria is the latest symptom of the disintegration of the American role in stabilizing the Middle East order that emerged from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973," war criminal Henry Kissinger wrote in the Wall Street Journal in October. "The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled."

Speaking for the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry recently declared that anti-Assad rebel forces and the Syrian regime might be able to collaborate against ISIS even before Assad's departure.

In practical terms, the U.S. military has already made its peace with Assad. Its opposition to Russian air strikes on ground forces backed by the U.S. has been rhetorical at most--an implicit repudiation of the neoconservative fantasy of regime change in Syria and beyond, as this exchange between U.S. generals and Sen. Lindsey Graham illustrates.

Joining with Assad to defeat ISIS, however, will only add to the suffering in Syria.

First of all, the escalation of air strikes will inevitably kill and injure civilians and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. In late November, for example, a Russian air strike "in central Idlib province destroyed an aid dispensary containing a bakery that produced over 300,000 pounds of bread per month and a well providing safe-drinking water to an estimated 50,000 people," according to local Syrian activists.

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has already carried out more than 8,000 air strikes, but to little effect, showing the limited effectiveness of an air campaign against such a force. The spectacular failure of U.S. efforts to train and equip Syrians to serve as ground troops explains the increased size and mission creep of U.S. ground forces proposed by Defense Secretary Carter, despite repeated assertions that the Obama administration opposes American troops on the ground.

Second, the "new" strategy against ISIS--which is really the old one, adapted to Russia's successful gambit to shift the balance of forces in favor of Assad--will restore the regime's grip on power, both territorially and politically--and extend its ability to prosecute its war against all opposition forces.

Assad's regime itself is the source of the vast majority of the horrific violence that has killed more than 250,000 Syrians and driven half of the country's 22 million people from their homes. About 4.3 million have fled the country, and 6.6 million are internally displaced. Syria's humanitarian crisis is today the world's largest.

An increase of state-backed terrorism in the form of air strikes and ground operations will hardly be an effective counter to the reactionary project of ISIS. On the contrary, it will create more fertile ground for ISIS's recruitment efforts.


AT A time when politicians and pundits across the political spectrum are declaring war on Muslims--essentially confirming ISIS's worldview of a global clash between Islam and the West--it's particularly urgent to understand the actual origins of the Islamic State.

Arguments that use ISIS's barbaric violence and repression to portray Islam as an inherently evil and aggressive religion must be roundly rejected. No one would accept the idea that the prevalence of Christian terrorists makes a convincing case that Christianity is inherently violent.

Even worse, such facile explanations undermine any serious attempt to come to grips with how ISIS, officially founded in 2013, grew large enough in a few short years to control a significant swath of territory across two countries, with a population of some 10 million people and substantial oil resources.

It's impossible to imagine how ISIS could have grown to this extent if not for the crisis in Iraq following the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation in 2003. After nearly two decades of war against Iraq by previous administrations, the 2003 war overthrew Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, and the subsequent policy of de-Baathification drove a large part of Iraq's Sunni population from public life.

This, combined with U.S. support for a Shia-dominated Iraqi federal government and security forces that collaborated with Shia militias, unleashed sectarian bloodshed on a scale previously unknown in Iraq. This divide-and-conquer strategy drove a wedge between Sunni and Shia currents resisting U.S. occupation, drove millions of Iraq's Sunnis into Syria and other countries to escape the spreading violence, and helped Iran increase its regional influence.

A growing network of religious fighters were drawn to the region to join the fight against U.S. troops in Iraq, creating the base for ISIS's predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in the country before the 2003 invasion. In the battered Sunni areas of Iraq and among the refugees in Syria, these fighters came into contact with former Baathist military officers and other professionals and civil servants barred from public life in Iraq.

But there was one more chapter still to come in the story of the founding and spread of ISIS: the Assad regime's murderous response to the Syrian uprising after the 2011 uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring.


THE UPRISING against Assad was initially nonviolent and composed of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds. But the pro-democracy forces were met with ruthless repression by the government's security forces. In the first few months of the early 2011 uprising alone, the death toll as a result of soldiers and tanks dispatched to crush protests reached at least 1,000.

Like the American occupiers in Iraq, Assad also conjured the forces of sectarianism in order to demonize and neutralize the Syrian uprising. For one, the government released known jihadist fighters from its prisons, while incarcerating the protesters demanding the downfall of the Assad regime on a secular basis.

Assad knew that these fighters would set up militias and armed groups that might oppose the regime, but would also target anti-regime opposition groups--after all, the opposition groups were much softer targets than the regime itself. With Sunni fundamentalist forces gaining a greater and greater profile, Assad attempted to maintain support among some sections of the population by posing as the last, best protector against the fundamentalists.

As ISIS forces took shape in the eastern region of Syria, they and the Assad regime carefully avoided one another on the battlefield. ISIS's focus was on becoming the ruler of parts of the country not controlled by the regime--while the Assad regime benefitted from ISIS attacks on its opponents.

The counterrevolution against the Arab Spring generally, and its Syrian component in particular, is the immediate backdrop to the establishment of ISIS, as Adam Hanieh's excellent account written for Jacobin makes clear.

In this project, Islam has served as an ideological glue to cohere the disparate currents that make up the Islamic State--jihadist fighters, Iraq's former Baathist military officers, and the many conscripts and mercenaries who think of themselves as Muslims, but given the lack of economic opportunities in a region wracked by unemployment and poverty are more in search of a job and a paycheck than driven by a belief in fundamentalism.

In this respect, ISIS's hardline fundamentalist version of Islam is no different from fundamentalist Judaism in Israel or fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S. in connecting different parts--including mainstream politicians, right-wing religious leaders, elements of the military establishment, as well as rank-and-file "true believers"--into a whole of a religious movement to target enemies within and without.

In this sense, fundamentalist ideology ties scriptural infallibility and religious feeling together with contemporary political and social goals--rather than expressing a religious essence that is obviously impossible considering that Islam, Christianity and Judaism have all been interpreted and reinterpreted in completely contradictory ways over many centuries of widely varying historical circumstances.

If ISIS has assumed a particularly violent and terrifying form, it is because of the backdrop of imperialist war and sectarian violence, stoked by the great powers as well as regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Turkey. The fabric of Iraqi and Syrian society has been shredded, and the whole region's various communities have been plunged into a state of fear that contributes to sectarian polarization.

The rise of ISIS is thus not the expression of a popular groundswell, but an acceptance that the "caliphate" is the least bad option for Syria and Iraq's Sunni Muslims--in the face of U.S. air strikes, Russian air strikes, the barrel bombs of the Assad regime, the formalized sectarian violence of the Iraqi state, and the impact of Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the ground.

Even so, there are some signs that ISIS has begun to alienate former supporters with the brutality of its public executions, strict religious codes and bans on freedom of movement imposed in the areas that it controls.


BUT THE potential for revolts to develop against ISIS's rule in Syria will be diminished if a strengthened Assad is the main beneficiary--because the violence of the Syrian regime is one of the key reasons why ISIS was able to build a base in Syria in the first place.

This dynamic makes even more tragic the support for Russian intervention and the Assad regime from a section of the antiwar left in Europe and the U.S.--exemplified by the writings of Independent war correspondent Patrick Cockburn for one, but present among other leading voices.

Russia's intervention is clearly intended to bolster the position of the dictatorship in Syria, first and foremost. Thus, supporting that intervention is both a pro-war and a counter-revolutionary position. Not only is Russia exacerbating the violence, but the governments of the U.S., Britain and France have essentially taken the same position of acknowledging Assad as a lesser evil against ISIS.

Left-wing adherents of this view ridicule the idea that there is any opposition to Assad worthy of the left's support--hence their support for the regime. To be sure, Syria's revolutionary forces are today scattered and beleaguered, marginalized by the militarization of the uprising and the growth of Islamist currents within the opposition since 2011.

But the closing of ranks behind Assad and the failure to defend the democratic roots of the Syrian uprising as a rebellion against dictatorship--whose setback was not inevitable and whose resurgence may yet take place--does a disservice to the tens of thousands of Syrians who have given their lives fighting for their liberation and the liberation of the region from the grip of imperialism and dictatorship.

Such a position isn't surprising from Stalinist organizations that supported Assad before, during and after the 2011 revolt. But it can only be sustained by demonizing all opposition to Assad as the outgrowth of an U.S.-directed plot to overthrow the regime. Not only does this supposed dominance of the U.S. contradict its diminished power in the Middle East since its historic setbacks following the 2003 war in Iraq, but it also flies in the face of the facts on the ground.

After all, when the U.S. did try to build a fighting force in Syria with a plan to spend $500 million to train Syrian fighters, it managed to put no more than "four or five" individuals in the field. U.S. commanders have since abandoned that strategy.

In embracing what is effectively a pro-war position based on which imperial power is carrying out the air strikes, the left puts itself in a weaker position in arguing against the overall escalation of war. Such a position accepts and legitimates imperialist military intervention as a response to ISIS's reaction.

The responsibility of the left is to oppose the barbarism of ISIS while simultaneously exposing and opposing the barbarism of imperialist intervention. These are twin evils, even if the barbarism of the U.S. and Russia dwarf the barbarism of ISIS in terms of their lethality and capacity to terrorize.

The fear of sectarian violence in the region won't be resolved by a contradictory stance of supporting the Assad regime and Russian intervention, especially at a time when all the imperialist powers are closing ranks around this same strategy.


AT PRESENT, those who stand for justice and against war may understandably feel despair about the prospects for an end to the suffering of the Syrian people caught in the crossfire of a multilayered conflict consuming their country. The people of Syria must be the ones to decide the fate of their nation.

In the short run, however, we must demand measures that can create space to make this possible--such as calling for the immediate acceptance of all Syrians seeking refuge in the U.S. from the violence for which the U.S. bears significant responsibility.

We have to expose the various solutions of the fear-mongers--whether in elected office or in the mainstream media or elsewhere--as false. We must explain the real origins of ISIS in the barbarism of imperialist intervention.

We must oppose the wave of Islamophobia being stoked in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Not only do these explanations misrepresent the actual dynamic of the situation in order to further an agenda of war, but they also lead to increased surveillance, infiltration and entrapment directed against Muslim communities, as well as hate crimes, harassment and oppression.

Finally, we must make the case for a world that shares the earth's resources for the benefit of all humanity instead of escalating a military confrontation to determine which nations will dominate others in the competition for resources, markets and corporate profits.

We must prepare for a battle against war and terrorism over the long haul by building organizations that can put forward a vision of a different world based on justice, internationalism and freedom. That is the hope for humanity and the planet.

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