U.S. Imperialism’s Syria Strategy and the Right of Oppressed Nations to Self-Determination


U.S. Major General Michael Nagata was unceremoniously removed some two months ago after his $500 million Syrian assignment to train by the end of the year a projected 5400 Syrian infantrymen to supposedly fight ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) “languished in complications,” according to U.S. News and World Report. This project “ultimately yielded a force of fewer than 60, most of whom were immediately captured or voluntarily surrendered their U.S.-provided military equipment to extremist groups.”

Nagata’s program, aimed at training 15,000 such fighters over the next three years, was similarly abandoned.

The Oct. 9 New York Times article entitled, “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” states, “Obama’s reversal of policy underscored a harsh reality: tens of billions of dollars spent in recent years to train security forces across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have rarely succeeded in transforming local fighters into effective, long-term armies.”

Today, after four and half years of U.S. “training of security forces,” supposedly to defeat ISIS, some two-thirds of Syria, mostly thinly-populated areas, is under the control of one or another jihadist group—either the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, the Islamic State (ISIS) itself, or other Islamist groups. Virtually all are directly, indirectly or covertly armed and financed by U.S. imperialism, its NATO allies, the Saudi government (and “private” Saudi billionaires), Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or other Gulf State monarchies.

In place of this failed program the Obama administration recently announced a “new program” where, “for the first time the Pentagon is providing lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels, though the C.I.A. has for some time been covertly training and arming groups fighting Mr. Assad” (emphasis added).

Disappearance of “moderate rebels”

U.S. officials have also been compelled to admit, according to the British-based Independent journalist Robert Fisk, that Syria’s so-called “moderate” anti-Assad forces do not exist. “American officials,” Fisk writes, “… claim that the Syrian Army does not fight ISIS. If true, who on earth killed the 56,000 Syrian [Army] soldiers—the statistic an official secret, but nonetheless true—who have so far died in the Syrian war? The preposterous Free Syrian Army (FSA)?”

Fisk continues: “This rubbish has reached its crescendo in the on-again off-again saga of the Syrian ‘moderates’ who were originally military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as a possible pro-Western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the ‘moderates’ defected all over again, this time to the Islamist Nusra Front or to ISIS, selling their American-supplied weapons to the highest bidder or merely retiring quietly.”

Fisk, cites a recent public meeting where “[General] David Petraeus, former No 2 in Baghdad—announced recently that the [Syrian]‘moderates’ had collapsed long ago.”

“But within hours of Russia’s air assaults,” says Fisk, “… the Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, the poor old BBC and just about every newspaper in the Western world resurrected these ghosts and told us that the Russkies were bombing the brave ‘moderates’ fighting Assad’s army in Syria—the very ‘moderates’ who, according to the same storyline from the very same sources a few weeks earlier, no longer existed.”

Background to the Syrian war

Four and half years ago, in 2011, during the various uprisings that constituted the Arab Spring, which began with mass popular rebellions that toppled the U.S.-backed Tunisian dictatorship of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and then the U.S.-backed 30-year Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. government embarked on its own “regime change” efforts in Libya and Syria.

We have carefully documented in the pages of this newspaper the horrors attendant to these U.S. imperialist interventions in the Middle East and beyond, beginning with the still ongoing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter now the longest war in U.S. history. Without exception, all have been the product of a U.S. imperialist system in its deepest crisis in the modern era with no resolution in sight other than at the expense of the world’s oppressed peoples and nations and the working class masses in the U.S. itself.

It is in the above context of virtually endless U.S. wars and interventions that have taken the lives of literally millions in the Middle East that any serious assessment of the present situation in Syria can best be understood.

With U.S. imperialism’s assisted rollback of the Arab Spring revolutionary tide in Egypt and with the Gadhafi “regime change” in Libya via a U.S./NATO “humanitarian war” that slaughtered thousands under its belt, the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad was placed dead center in the U.S. imperial gun sights.

When Assad ordered his army to fire on a series of peaceful mass mobilizations in 2011 aimed at challenging his government’s imposition of severe neo-liberal austerity measures that especially offended Syria’s poor peasantry and layers of the middle class as well as leading bourgeois opposition figures, a dynamic was set in motion for yet another U.S. intervention—the sixth such war initiated, supported, or continued under the auspices of the Obama administration.

As in Libya, the U.S. moved to establish a Syrian government-in-exile while arming and financing the short-lived and largely exile-based “Free Syrian Army headed by a handful of defecting Syrian Army officers. In conjunction with the deep popular outrage at Assad’s repression and austerity measures, top U.S. planners expected a quick rout of Assad’s armed forces and the establishment of a new regime to the liking of both U.S. imperialism and its anticipated bourgeois allies inside Syria. The ever-present threat of yet another U.S. intervention to back such a “regime change” scenario was also an important factor in imperialist expectations that Assad would be forced to exit post-haste.

The absence of any significant organized socialist forces on the ground to pose a coherent working class-based strategy for the Syrian masses to defend and advance their own interests as opposed to Assad’s or those of a would-be U.S.-sponsored and imposed capitalist order weighed heavily against any positive outcome for the Syria’s working masses. Given the historic failure of past bourgeois nationalist and Stalinist parties to effectively challenge imperialist prerogatives in Syria and far beyond, history has exacted a terrible toll on Syria’s initially hopeful and promising Arab Spring.

But in the absence of anything resembling a revolutionary leadership, the democratic and popular thrust of the anti-Assad mobilizations rapidly dissipated. This tragic void was inevitably filled by an assortment of reactionary, mostly religious-fundamentalist, forces backed by U.S. imperialism and/or its reactionary regional allies, especially in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

ISIS’s main pillars of support in Syria

The U.S.-allied Saudis and the Turks today account for the lion’s share of ISIS’s finances and weapons—undoubtedly with the full knowledge of the U.S. government. The reactionary Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a U.S. NATO ally, still controls important portions of its southern border with Syria and utilizes these as central corridors for the entrance of thousands of international ISIS fighters to Syria to depose the Assad government. In the same manner over 1000 trucks from ISIS-controlled oil fields in northern Syria serve as the main conduit for ISIS-smuggled oil into Turkey. In those   Turkish-Syrian border areas under the control of the oppressed Kurdish people the flow of ISIS fighters has been significantly thwarted.

An Oct. 10 New York Times editorial provides a glimpse of how ISIS operates. In the article, entitled, “Why Is Money Still Flowing to ISIS?,” The Times estimates ISIS revenues from the sale of oil at $40 million monthly. “The Islamic State is also looting banks; demanding ransom from kidnap victims; engaging in human trafficking; selling off plundered antiquities; and leaning on private donors, mainly in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia” (emphasis added). That these “private donors” include Saudi billionaires and members of the ruling Saudi government is not a fact that Times reporters bother to mention, although The Times does estimate ISIS annual revenues at $1 billion.

While the United Nations formally maintains lists of scores of people and organizations designated as financial supporters of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, U.S. officials have noted that “enforcement has been inconsistent in some cases.” More to the point, the Dec. 4 New York Times notes, “There is already extensive evidence of transfers from wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf in particular, but few concrete penalties.”

In the same article, David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington advocacy group, states, “There is still so much reticence to actually engage in that naming and shaming [of groups that fund terrorists] that this [new UN resolution] has limited impact.”

Similarly, a UN resolution that bans any nation from assisting in the smuggling of ISIS-controlled oil is ignored with impunity. Thus, the evidence that key U.S. allies are active accomplices in funding or otherwise supporting ISIS and/or organizing troops to directly overthrow the Assad government is acknowledged by virtually all sources from the UN to the New York Times and beyond.

With regard to bombing ISIS’s oil refineries, The Times delicately notes and with perhaps an ounce of disbelief, “Concerns about leaving local citizens without crucial refining facilities and with the daunting job of rebuilding them later may be tempering the American [bombing] approach, some experts say” (emphasis added). The word “tempering” is in fact a euphemism for leaving these oil facilities largely intact in order to support, in a “tempered” manner to be sure, ISIS’s anti-Assad objectives.

More recently, top U.S. military officials have announced policy changes with regard to bombing ISIS-controlled oil refineries. Until mid-November the “official” U.S. policy was to limit bombing or degrading of these facilities to inflicting minor damage only—damage that could be easily repaired within a matter of weeks or months. “Until Monday,” according to The New York Times of Nov. 16, “the United States refrained from striking the fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1000 tanker trucks, because of concerns about causing civilian casualties. As a result, the Islamic State’s distribution system for exporting oil had remained largely intact.” Largely intact!

Today, U.S. policy has purportedly shifted to inflicting a modicum of greater damage on ISIS oil fields—at least this is what U.S. officials state for the record!

Meanwhile, Turkey has been more than content to stand by, if not assist in, the ISIS slaughter of Kurdish fighters in Kobani and elsewhere. The Turkish government prefers the massacre of its oppressed Kurdish population by ISIS to the Kurds’ advancing their historic struggle for national liberation and self-determination. But the Kurdish leadership, which mistakenly accepts support from the U.S., nevertheless repeatedly states that their objective is self-determination for a future Kurdistan and not the removal of the Assad government.

Conflicting interests among U.S. allies

There is little doubt that the special regional interests of all U.S.-allied nations, from Turkey to the Gulf State oil monarchies, NATO, as well as Israel, play a role in the present Syrian and related Middle East wars. But these interests are invariably subordinate to those of the dominant and only world superpower—U.S. imperialism.

Both the Saudis and Israelis bitterly complained when the Obama administration signed the recent nuclear accords with Iran. The Saudis were not pleased when the U.S. stood mute when it bombed Yemen to smithereens, although the U.S. secretly supplied the Saudi military with the intelligence to do so. In all these instances, and several others, there are undoubtedly conflicting interests, with the U.S. preferring to resume, for example, its long-interrupted exploitation of Iranian oil while the Saudis see Shiite Iran as a rival for financial and political influence in the region.

Today, as the U.S. purports to increase bombing of ISIS oil facilities, the Saudis do the opposite and cease its essentially minimal or token bombing of ISIS, instead turning Saudi air power to its ongoing slaughter in Yemen. In the same vein, Turkey idly stands by, if not assists, as ISIS slaughters the Kurds, while U.S. military policymakers, for their own imperial reasons to be sure, aim their airpower at ISIS in “support” of Kurds. But again, these realities on the ground are fundamentally subordinate to the greater aims and objectives of the U.S. imperial behemoth. No one would deny, for example, that the U.S. has not at any time in history ever supported the historic struggle of the Kurdish people to reunite their long imperialist-divided Kurdish nation.

An insightful Dec. 3 New York Times article entitled “Germany Rebukes Its Own Intelligence Agency for Criticizing Saudi Policy” makes this clear. The article begins: “The German government issued an unusual public rebuke to its own foreign intelligence service on Thursday over a blunt memo stating that Saudi Arabia was playing an increasingly destabilizing role in the Middle East.”

The secret memo, leaked by sources inside the German agency, the BND, noted: “Saudi rivalry with Iran for supremacy in the Middle East, as well as Saudi dependency on the United States, were the main drivers of Saudi foreign policy.” And further, this embarrassing memo, repudiated by the Angela Merkel government, stated: “In Syria, Saudi Arabia’s aim was always to oust President Bashar al-Assad, and that has not changed” (emphasis added).

We should add here that the French move to bomb ISIS is not without its limitations. The New York Times aptly notes: “While France has been conducting scores of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, it has been bombing inside Syria only sparingly, wary of inadvertently strengthening the hand of President Bashar al-Assad by killing his enemies.”

Imperialism’s major policy shift

The recent Russian intervention in Syria at the request of the Assad government has convinced virtually all that Assad’s immediate removal is no longer on the order of the day. Hence, we see all the anti-Assad forces, governments, their patrons and the like scurrying to conferences around the world to patch together diverse and sometimes warring coalitions to eventually meet in negotiations with the Assad government to partake in the determination of Syria’s future.

This unfolding worldwide U.S.-orchestrated “negotiations” scene constitutes a grotesque imperialist spectacle that tragically replicates almost all previous U.S. maneuvers to determine the future composition of governments that it has or seeks to remove. Literally hundreds of parties, all favored to one degree or another by U.S. imperialism and its allies, meet in conferences today that are virtually presided over by Secretary of State John Kerry, and/or other top U.S. officials, to determine who will get what in a future Syria.

The latest U.S.-orchestrated gambit unfolded during a two-day conference in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. Entitled, “Syrian Rebels Form Bloc for New Round of Peace Talks,” the Dec. 10 New York Times describes it well: ”An array of Syrian opposition groups agreed here on Thursday to form a new and more inclusive body to guide the diverse and divided opponents of President Bashad al-Assad in a new round of planned talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.

“The formation of such a body has been seen by the United States and the opposition’s other international supporters as a prerequisite for new talks, and the new body appeared to fit the bill by pulling together political dissidents who have long distrusted one another as well as rebel groups fighting the Syrian Army. ‘This is the widest participation for the opposition, inside and outside of Syria, and we have the participation of the armed groups,’ said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the exiled Syrian National Coalition who attended the two-day conference that produced the new body.”

(We should note here that the Kurds rejected participation at the Riyadh conference and instead organized their own meeting in Kurdish-occupied regions. None of the participants advocated the Assad government’s removal. In some of these Kurdish areas the Assad government continues to pay the salaries of Kurdish officials—a détente of sorts.)

The Riyadh conference signaled a major shift in the orientation of U.S. imperialism and its allies over the past five years. Previously, all such conferences were premised on the understanding that the Assad government must fall via the military actions of all its opponents, included those armed and financed by the U.S.

Today, this equation has dramatically changed in that the Assad government is expected by all to have a prime seat at the scheduled late January negotiating sessions. That is, assuming the present U.S./UN-brokered agreements hold, the U.S.-led effort to remove Assad by the application of military force, will be set aside in favor of a negotiated settlement with the Assad government representatives at one side of the “bargaining table” and the combined forces, yet to be specifically determined, of all U.S.-allied forces in all their reactionary manifestations, on the other.

Right of oppressed nations to self-determination

The right to self-determination of oppressed nations, historically trampled on by imperialist conquerors and colonizers over the past several centuries, applies with full force to Syria today. It applies to all oppressed nations regardless of the qualities or class nature of their leadership.

From the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and long before, the defeat of the imperialist, colonial oppressor has always been central to revolutionary internationalist working-class politics even if the oppressed nation was led by feudal monarchs.

U.S. imperialist war and intervention today represents nothing less than the crystallization and ruthless application of the ruling-class power of an American capitalism in crisis—a crisis so deep that the imperialist beast is compelled to send its armies, privatized death squads, drones, and surrogates everywhere on earth to advance its interests.

Today, U.S. imperialism is focused on the Middle East, where its multiple wars against the oppressed people and nations have wrought untold death and destruction. Yet, U.S. policy in that oil-rich region remains in an advanced state of disarray. Having conquered Iraq with military force virtually unequalled in the modern era, the establishment of a stable regime that can guarantee U.S. control of that nation’s vast fossil fuel resources remains in question. The latest tyrant that the U.S. installed, Haider al-Abadi, fears that Iraq’s military and political association with the U.S. can only outrage vast portions of its population, which have experienced first hand the horrors unleashed by the U.S. military machine. Indeed, it is widely accepted that past U.S. policies in Iraq laid the foundations for the emergence of ISIS.

In the wake of virtually all U.S. Middle East wars over the past decade and longer, “failed states” have been the inevitable outcome. In Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, death and destruction and endless internecine wars waged by competing tribal-based reactionary groups are accompanied by almost unbelievable human suffering—poverty, disease and starvation—U.S. imperialism’s trademark and legacy for whomever it conquers.

Again, unconditional support to the right of self-determination of all oppressed nations, free from all imperialist intervention in all its manifestations, is a central and strategic component of revolutionary socialist politics.

Having affirmed this fundamental working-class principle, support to self-determination is not at all synonymous with political support to the governments or regimes of these oppressed nations—in the case of Syria, the Bashar al-Assad government. Socialists have no illusions that the Assad regime represents any form of revolutionary nationalist or otherwise progressive break with capitalism.

Neither do we hold that the Assad government strives to achieve an egalitarian society that advances the interests of the working class and peasant majority as against Syria’s capitalist elite.

Nevertheless, the removal of Assad’s oppressive capitalist Syrian regime is the sole responsibility of the Syrian people, not U.S. imperialism and its reactionary allied forces. Today’s war in Syria is a war between U.S. imperialism’s direct and indirect capitalist-fundamentalist and reactionary forces on the one hand and the capitalist Assad government on the other. The Syria masses have no independently organized political, military or economic presence. Under these circumstances, socialists stand full square against U.S. imperialism and those allied with it in Syria and elsewhere. In accord with our support to the right of self-determination of all oppressed nations, even those under capitalist rule, we are for the defeat of the U.S.-backed imperialist intervention in all its forms.

We oppose its direct aid to the FSA or its indirect support or acquiescence to ISIS, through U.S. surrogates in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or anywhere else. In the U.S. this translates into our full support of the key demand and the actions called by the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) to “End All U.S. Intervention In Syria!”

I include in this strategic orientation the absolute necessity of Syrian workers and peasants, however difficult and distant under the present circumstances, to struggle to form their own independent fighting revolutionary socialist parties aimed not only at opposing all imperialist wars, including in Syria, but at establishing socialist societies where capitalist exploitation and oppression are forever ended.

Syria’s right to seek allies against imperialist intervention

Syria’s right to self-determination necessarily includes the right of the Syrian government to seek and accept the support of the militia fighters that are today defending Syria against imperialist intervention in several of its manifestations. These include fighters from Lebanon and Iran, that is, the forces of Hezbollah, who defeated the last Israeli invasion of their country, and the Shiite militias from Iran, who, in the past, joined with Shiite fighters in Iraq to challenge the U.S. invasion and war against that nation.

In a similar vein, the agreements recently signed by Syria with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to share intelligence information in fighting ISIS, al-Qaeda and all other groups aimed at removing the Assad government, including the 13-nation U.S. imperialist-led “coalition,” fall squarely within Syria’s right to self-determination. This includes Syria’s agreement to accept Russian air, naval, and related military support to accomplish the same end.

President Obama has repeatedly asserted that U.S. war aims in Syria are “strategically” opposed to those of the Russians. U.S. imperialism has been organized for almost five years to overthrow the Assad regime. Whatever its motives, the Russians are in Syria at the behest of the Syrian government, not to overthrow it.

Undoubtedly, the Russian capitalist government of Vladimir Putin has its own reasons for accepting Syria’s invitation to intervene, including NATO’s increasing encroachment on its borders and the U.S. and European Union economic sanctions. Revolutionary socialists suffer no illusions that capitalist Russia can serve as Syria’s strategic ally in the present war. Indeed, the Putin government has consistently and cynically offered itself as a mediator in the Syrian war, repeatedly proposing a “negotiated solution” wherein all parties, including U.S. imperialism and its NATO allies, as well as the Saudis and others, will collectively decide Syria’s fate.

Following Putin’s private talks with John Kerry, Putin remarked, “We have an understanding how we should proceed if we talk about a political settlement. We need to work on a new [Syrian] constitution, new elections and the control over their outcome” (emphasis added). Thus, Putin’s cynical mindset, as with his U.S. negotiating counterparts, includes his thesis that Syria’s fate is to be determined not by the Syrian people but by the deals brokered by others, indeed, by deals whose “outcome” is “controlled” in advance.

At least for the moment, however, Russia on the one hand and U.S. imperialism on the other are on opposite sides of a U.S. imperialist-led war against the poor and oppressed Syrian nation.

Russia is no newcomer to “deals” in the Middle East. It gave its assent to the U.S./NATO “humanitarian war” against Libya that essentially destroyed that country. Revolutionary socialists should indeed expect Russia to include at the “negotiating” table the advancement of its own interests even if these are at odds with those of the Syrian people.

Yet Russia’s actions in driving ISIS and related pro-U.S. forces farther from the government-held Damascus capital and surrounding regions has undoubtedly altered the calculus of imperialism’s previous equation, that is, the military conquest of Syria and the imposition of a new regime directly beholden to U.S. imperialist interests. Perhaps now, given the reality on the ground that the Assad government has not been obliterated, as originally planned, the outcome will be perhaps somewhat less onerous with regard to Syria. Socialists cannot be neutral in such matters.

Similarly, with the Russian air force entry into Syria, the various “no-fly zones” previously contemplated by the Obama administration and formally proposed by leading Democrats (Hillary Clinton) and Republicans are today excluded. Clinton herself stated bluntly that with the Russian entry this overt U.S.-imposed “no-fly zone” option was no longer a viable option.

The tragedy of Syria today

We are nevertheless compelled to recognize that any “negotiated settlement” to the imperialist-led war against Syrian cannot be expected to represent a lasting gain for the Syrian people. Absent a powerful revolutionary force on the field of action to effectively challenge both the imperialist intervention and pose a working-class alternative to the Assad regime, the likely outcome will be some variant of an imperialist-imposed “regime change”—as opposed to an outright imperialist-led conquest and occupation of Syria, the latter being the original and now apparently thwarted, for the time being at least, intention of the U.S. warmakers.

The Russian intervention may well have prevented the overt marching of reactionary jihadist/religious fundamentalist groups or other imperialist-allied forces into Damascus with a resulting Libyan-type chaos, anarchy, and bloodbath to follow. Historic tragedy has a habit of unfolding in a myriad of forms—some less devastating than others. Here we have a distinction, perhaps with a significant difference, in that the opportunities for future Syrian anti-capitalist struggles may become somewhat improved.

Antiwar and social justice fighters can best help to tilt the scale in favor of Syria’s people and future class-struggle fighters by building the most powerful U.S. movement possible demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. military aid and forces in all their manifestations from Syria. Removing the imperialist boot from Syria and the Middle East more generally best opens the door for the oppressed masses to resume their struggle.

U.S. out now! Self-determination for Syria!

Jeff Mackler is a staffwriter for Socialist Action. He can be reached at jmackler@lmi.net  socialist action.org