Category Archives: Resource wars
Uncritically praising and fondly remembering a famous person when they die, as is being done now in all the mainstream media after the death of former president George H.W. Bush and was done recently when Senator John McCain died, is an insidious form of national propaganda. I’m sure it’s done in the name of “respect for the dead,” but isn’t respecting the nameless folks whose deaths were caused by these powerful men more important? It is to me, though I realize that as an anti-war far-leftist, I probably represent a small minority. Still, I think we all could stand to be more thoughtful about our history.
Bush was undoubtedly a “good person” as an individual, but in public life he was a privileged millionaire Republican, who represented the interests of other members of the corporate elite and continued and initiated destructive US foreign policies, which try to control the world for that elite’s benefit. During his year as CIA director under President Ford (1976-77), for example, he actively supported the murderous and repressive Operation Condor operations of right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America.
Operation Condor, as noted in Wikipedia, was “a US–backed campaign of political repression and state terror involving intelligence operations and the assassination of opponents, officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. The program, nominally intended to eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas, was created to suppress active or potential opposition movements against the participating governments’ neoliberal economic policies, which sought to reverse the economic policies of the previous era. Officially, the targets were armed revolutionary groups, but the governments broadened their attacks against all kinds of political opponents and their families. The Argentine ‘Dirty War,’ part of this phenomenon, resulted in approximately 30,000 being kidnapped, tortured, and killed. All in all, the dictatorships and their intelligence services were responsible for tens of thousands of killed and missing people in the period between 1975 and 1985. Victims included dissidents and leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, students and teachers, and intellectuals.”
Bush, Sr. didn’t initiate US cooperation with and aid to Operation Condor – that was the arch-war-criminal Henry Kissinger – but he continued it with no apparent qualms. Wikipedia says “the United States provided key organizational, financial and technical assistance to the operation into the 1980s, sponsoring and collaborating with intelligence organizations in Condor countries. Evidence shows that it was aware of the relevant coups and planning of human rights violations before they occurred and did not step in to prevent them.”
As president, Bush was responsible for the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991). Both of these military actions, in the American backyard of Central America and the oil-rich Middle East – key areas of US control – were initiated to remove former US puppets becoming too independent/no longer serving their purpose: Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein. Noriega ended up in prison and the US was able to install a new puppet in Panama, but Saddam Hussein wasn’t ousted until Bush’s son, George W., launched a new and much more costly military action, the 2003-2011 Iraq War.
What was the cost of the Panama invasion? Wikipediasays that “the US reported 23 servicemen killed and 324 wounded, with Panamanian casualties estimated around 450. Described as a surgical maneuver, the action led to estimates of civilian death from 200 to 4,000 during the two weeks of armed activities. The United Nations put the Panamanian civilian death toll at 500, the United States gave a figure of 202 civilians killed, and former US attorney general Ramsey Clark estimated 4,000 deaths. The number of US civilians (and their dependents) working for the Panama Canal Commission and the US military, who were killed by Panamanian Defense Forces, has never been fully disclosed.
On December 29th, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution calling the intervention in Panama a ‘flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of’ Panama. A similar resolution in the Security Council was vetoed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
The urban population, many living below the poverty level, was greatly affected by the 1989 intervention. As pointed out in 1995 by a UN Technical Assistance Mission to Panama, the bombardments during the invasion displaced 20,000 people. The economic damage caused by the intervention has been estimated between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars.”
How about the Gulf War (Desert Shield and Desert Storm)? According to Wikipedia, “the increased importance of air attacks from both coalition warplanes and cruise missiles led to controversy over the number of civilian deaths caused during Desert Storm’s initial stages. Within Desert Storm’s first 24 hours, more than 1,000 sorties were flown, many against targets in Baghdad. The city was the target of heavy bombing, as it was the seat of power for Saddam and the Iraqi forces’ command and control. This ultimately led to civilian casualties. In one noted incident, two USAF stealth planes bombed a bunker in Amiriyah, causing the deaths of 408 Iraqi civilians who were in the shelter.
The Iraqi government claimed that 2,300 civilians died during the air campaign. According to a Project on Defense Alternatives study, 3,664 Iraqi civilians were killed in the conflict. A Harvard University study predicted tens of thousands of additional Iraqi civilians deaths by the end of 1991 due to the ‘public health catastrophe’ caused by the destruction of the country’s electrical generating capacity. ‘Without electricity, hospitals cannot function, perishable medicines spoil, water cannot be purified, and raw sewage cannot be processed,” the report said. The US government refused to release its own study of the effects of the Iraqi public health crisis.
An investigation by Beth Osborne Daponte estimated total civilian fatalities at about 3,500 from bombing, and some 100,000 from the war’s other effects. Daponte later raised her estimate of the number of Iraqi deaths caused directly and indirectly by the Gulf War to just over 200,000.
A United Nations report in March 1991 described the effect on Iraq of the US-led bombing campaign as ‘near apocalyptic,’ bringing Iraq back to the ‘pre-industrial age.’
The exact number of Iraqi combat casualties is unknown, but is believed to have been heavy. Some estimate that Iraq sustained between 20,000 and 35,000 fatalities. A report commissioned by the US Air Force estimated 10,000–12,000 Iraqi combat deaths in the air campaign, and as many as 10,000 casualties in the ground war.
The US Department of Defense reports that US forces suffered 148 battle-related deaths (35 from friendly fire). A further 145 Americans died in non-combat accidents. The UK suffered 47 deaths (nine from friendly fire, all by US forces), France nine, and the other countries, not including Kuwait, suffered 37 deaths (18 Saudis, one Egyptian, six UAE, and three Qataris).
Many returning coalition soldiers reported illnesses following their action in the war, a phenomenon known as Gulf War syndrome. Common symptoms were reported chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and gastrointestinal disorder. Infants born to male veterans also had higher rates of heart valve and kidney defects. Many have cited the use of depleted uranium in armaments as a contributing factor to a number of major health issues in veterans and surrounding civilian populations, including birth defects and child cancer. In 2004, Iraq had the highest mortality rate due to leukemia of any country.”
David Korten, author of books like “When Corporations Rule the World” and “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” is one of our wise elders, if anyone is. He has an article in the current “Yes!” magazine that cuts through all the chatter and gets us back to what is perhaps the key question: Why are we knowingly heading toward the extinction of our (and many other) species? The answer is probably that one of the traits of our species is to focus on the short rather than the long term. But, like Korten, I believe we can, if we really want to, make some very important, much saner choices that will enable us to avoid falling off the cliff. As Korten says in his article, “Transformation begins with clarity on the nature of the choice that confronts our species.”
Korten believes we’ll survive only if we answer the following question: “Why does the current system deprive so many of opportunity for a fulfilling life [or life at all] that could and should be everyone’s birthright? Our prevailing cultural choices favor extreme individualistic competition for material goods. Our institutional choices reward the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life and concentrate control by fewer and fewer people over what remains of that capacity. The many are thus pressed into lives of desperate servitude to the few. The obvious alternative begins with the recognition that individually and collectively, we survive and thrive only as interdependent, sharing, and mutually contributing members of Earth’s community of life. We’re better served by working together to create a world that works for all, than by competing for what remains of a shrinking pool of real [natural] wealth. Our defining cultural value must become cooperation. And we must transfer power from institutions that reward predatory competition to ones that facilitate and reward cooperation in service to the common good.”
Of course, the big question is how to make these changes? I think it’s pretty obvious that we earthlings can only do it by creating grassroots, bottom-up democracies all over the world like the kind the United States has always crushed at home and abroad. Of course, other regimes have and are crushing democracy, too, but I focus on our country because that’s where I live and because the US is so powerful. (Check out other articles on this site for examples of its democracy-crushing — US policy in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America comes to mind — as well as ideas about creating real democracy. One definition of the latter would be a system in which if a decision affects you or your community, you have real input in making it.
These are changes that can only take place in the long term. So take your eyes off most of the short term — like the daily “news” stream — and focus on what makes it all happen: what really matters.
A guest editorial in the Eugene, OR Register-Guard newspaper today reveals that keeping the dollar the dominant global currency is even more important than oil in US foreign policy and war planning. According to “Crude Facts” by M. Reza Behnam, a political scientist specializing in the politics and governments of the Middle East and American foreign policy there, US wars in the Persian Gulf have been more about about stabilizing the oil currency policies that have fueled America’s expansive economy since 1945 than about securing actual oil supplies.
Behnam notes that when the victors in World War II “met at Bretton Woods, N.H., in 1944 to create a modern, stable global economic system, they agreed to inaugurate an international gold-backed monetary standard reliant on the U.S. dollar – a logical decision at the time, since the United States had the largest gold reserves at $35 per ounce of gold.” In 1971, however, “with gold stores dwindling, President Richard Nixon ended the gold standard.
Political and economic uncertainty characterized the 1970s. Inflation soared as the government freely printed dollars to cover the costs of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The 1973 oil embargo by Arab nations that belonged to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – payback for U.S. military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War – quadrupled oil prices. With the U.S. economy in a nosedive, the Nixon administration, anxious to maintain the global demand for dollars, persuaded the hostile Saudi government to finance America’s debt with its petroleum wealth. Nixon convinced the Saudis that it was in their best interest to price their oil only in U.S. dollars, and to invest their surplus oil profits in U.S. Treasury bills. For its part, the United States agreed to provide weapons and protection to the House of Saud. The agreement ended the oil embargo and bound two disparate countries together for decades. By 1975, all OPEC countries had priced their oil in dollars.
For more than 40 years, global energy transactions and international trade have been conducted mainly in dollars, maintaining the United States’ status as an economic superpower. The petrodollar bargain of 1974 is why Washington staunchly backs the Saudi autocratic government that represses half its population [the Shia minority], funds extremist Sunni groups worldwide, and nurtured 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It also explains Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen and the two countries’ obsession with Iran as a regional threat.
America’s wars in the Middle East have everything to do with eliminating challenges to the petrodollar system. Such a challenge was central to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, a country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s fate was sealed when – encouraged by the French and eager to end crippling sanctions – he decided, in late 2000, to trade Iraqi oil in euros, the world’s second-largest reserve currency, and converted his $10 billion reserve fund at the United Nations to euros. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 finished off this threat to the petrodollar and sent a clear warning to other countries considering an alternative oil transaction currency.
The 2011 intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi can be seen through the same prism. For decades, a number of African countries, led by Qaddafi, had been attempting to establish a pan-African currency based on Libya’s gold-backed dinar. Qaddafi’s goal was to provide the continent with an alternative currency, and to replace the dollar with the Libyan dinar in future oil sales. E-mails from Hillary Clinton’s State Department reveal French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fears about the threat Qaddafi’s pan-African currency posed to the established economic order. Qaddafi’s life, along with his plan for a united African currency, ended when NATO forces, spearheaded by France and Britain and with U.S. cooperation, invaded Libya.
The 2002 failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – reportedly with the assistance of the CIA – also came shortly after the country considered switching to the euro for its oil sales.” Venezuela continues to be an enemy not because it’s a dictatorship under Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, but because “in 2007, Chavez instructed the state oil company to change its dollar investments to euros and other currencies.
Cracks appear to be emerging in America’s hegemony over the global financial system, and the United States’ impolitic conduct in the Middle East reflects its angst over these developments. The intensity of U.S. rancor toward Iran has increased as Tehran, along with Moscow, has led the effort to break free from the petrodollar monopoly. That Tehran has been pricing its oil in currencies other than the dollar and seeking to create a Middle East energy exchange market are viewed by Washington as provocative moves, and have placed Iran squarely on America’s target list. Since 2003, Iran has been shifting its foreign-held assets and the reserve funds in its central bank from dollars to euros, and it stopped accepting U.S. dollars for oil in 2007. Another circumvention of the dollar is the establishment of the Iranian Oil Bourse, also known as the Iran Crude Oil Exchange, opened in 2008. Its objective is to sell oil and gas in non-dollar currencies, primarily the euro, the Iranian rial, the Japanese yen, and/or a basket of other major currencies. Onerous Western sanctions have pushed Tehran and Moscow to abjure dollar-denominated trade, favoring euros, rubles, and rials instead. In 2012 Iran, which supplies 15% of China’s oil and natural gas, began conducting its energy deals with China in yuan (China dropped the dollar peg in 2005). India and Russia trade oil with China in rubles and yuan, and China and Japan have agreed to use their own currencies in their transactions. South Korea has also been slowly moving from dollars in its transactions, buying Iranian oil with the Korean won, and shifting its investments to other currencies. As the world’s leading consumer of oil and natural gas, China has enough leverage over Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil producers to pay for its oil imports in yuan. Increased trade with China has intensified the pressure on Saudi Arabia to forsake the dollar. The United Arab Emirates has already agreed to use the yuan in its petroleum trade with China.
Saudi petrodollars have financed Washington’s military adventures and spending sprees. As a major holder of U.S. Treasury bills and one of the United States’ largest creditors, the kingdom wields a potent political weapon. It attempted to use that weapon in 2016, threatening to sell as much as $750 billion in Treasuries and assets if Congress passed legislation allowing it to be held liable in U.S. courts for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Saudis have traditionally seen the United States as their chief regional partner, but the unusual visit to Moscow in early October by Saudi King Salman reveals fissures in the 1974 iron-clad agreement, and an acknowledgement of the changing balance of power in the region.
The world’s reliance on the dollar as the global reserve currency is beginning to erode. Demand for the dollar for global oil and gas transactions is lessening as countries have grown weary with America’s dominance of the world economy and use of military force to punish currency dissenters. The momentum toward non-dollar trading could severely undermine the U.S. economy, one of the most debt-ridden in the world. The house of cards built by the United States in the 1970s could easily collapse if the rest of the world abandons the dollar standard. Right now, the resulting massive economic disruption to the world economy isn’t something most developed nations want to try to live with.
The United States, with its economic imbalances and soaring deficits, has the most to gain by working cooperatively with the rest of the world to gradually reform the global monetary system. But that requires it to forego its imperious myths and trade its belligerent superpower role in favor of international mediation to achieve global economic stability and security.”
Richard Heinberg, my go-to guru on the future of energy – and therefore technology and society – just posted an important article, “Exploring the Gap Between Business-as-Usual and Utter Doom,” on postcarbon.org. Reminding us that technological progress will soon be running up against Earth’s natural limits and noting that experts in various disciplines “have pointed out dire consequences if policy makers don’t implement course corrections like population stabilization and decline, rapid carbon emissions reductions, and habitat conservation on a vast scale,” Heinberg says that since “society has failed to correct course, dire and multivalent consequences should now be expected…We should anticipate a future that is profoundly challenging; one characterized by societal disintegration and ecosystem failure. In the very worst case, the extinction of most animal and plant species, including humans, is conceivable. And the downward slide will begin soon, if it hasn’t already done so.
The enormous gap between these outcomes – business-as-usual growth and progress on one hand, and limits-induced collapse on the other – has always constituted a disputed yet vital space. The goal of those who say we can’t maintain business-as-usual has never been to promote collapse, but rather to suggest things we could do to alter current behavior and trends so that a crash will be more moderate and survivable. In effect, they have been exploring the gap, looking for landing points on the way up or down the growth escalator; or seeking to close the gap, lessening the boom so that the bust isn’t as severe.
The warning signs that industrial civilization is rapidly approaching non-negotiable planetary limits are now flashing. Each of the last 16 months has established an all-time global temperature record. The oil industry appears to have entered a terminal crisis due to its requirement for ever-higher levels of investment in order to find, produce, refine, and deliver ever-lower-quality resources. Plant and animal species are disappearing at a thousand times the normal extinction rate. And global debt levels have soared since the 2008 financial crisis, setting the stage for an even greater financial convulsion whenever the next cyclical recession hits.
In our new book, Our Renewable Future, energy expert David Fridley and I examine the potential transition to a mostly wind-and-solar energy economy, concluding that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we’d be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy. Solar and wind technologies produce a significant surplus of energy over and above the amount invested in building and installing panels and turbines. Further, a lot of current energy usage can be electrified and made substantially more efficient. But key aspects of our current industrial system (including cement production, the chemicals industry, shipping, and aviation) will be difficult to maintain without cheap fossil-fuel inputs.
We won’t know exactly what a post-fossil industrial economy will look like until we address such questions as how much investment capital we’re willing and able to muster for this purpose, whether the economy can continue to function in the face of higher costs for industrial processes, and what shape the financial system will take when GDP growth is no longer possible. But if we don’t make the effort to push the transition forward quickly, there won’t be a post-fossil economy: society will shudder and falter until it lies in ruins.
Given that business-as-usual airports, shopping malls, skyscrapers, and container ships have a small likelihood of remaining useful or replicable much longer, we should be exploring structures that are sustainable – identifying simpler pathways for meeting basic human needs. Since maintaining and adapting current levels of transport will likely be an insurmountable challenge, we might start by aiming to shorten supply chains and localize economies.
Social innovation will probably play a more important role in this adaptive and transformative process than the invention of new machines. Yes, we need research and development in hundreds of technical areas, including ways of building and maintaining roads without asphalt or concrete; ways of producing essential pharmaceuticals without fossil fuels; and ways of building solar panels and wind turbines using a minimum of fuels and rare, exotic materials. But we already have lower-tech ways of solving a lot of problems. We know how to build wooden sailing ships; we know how to construct highly energy-efficient houses using local, natural materials; and we know how to grow food without fossil inputs and distribute it locally. Why don’t we use these methods more? Because they’re not as fast or convenient, they can’t operate at the same scale, they’re not as profitable, and they don’t fit with our vision of ‘progress.’
This is where social innovation comes in. In order for the transition to occur as smoothly as possible, we need to change our expectations about speed, convenience, affordability, and entitlement, and we need to share what we have rather than competing for increasingly scarce resources. We need to conserve, reuse, and repair. There’s no room for planned obsolescence or growing disparities between rich and poor. Cooperation will be our salvation. We’ll be making these behavioral and attitudinal shifts in the context of profound disruptions to the economy and the environment, so a big part of our gap-closing work will consist of building community resilience. That includes assessing needs and vulnerabilities, diversifying local food sources, and strengthening social cohesion and trust by encouraging participation in community organizations and cultural events.” For more on all this go to www.postcarbon.org and www.resilience.org.
“When it comes to forecasting the future,” Heinberg says, “count me among the pessimists. I’m convinced that the consequences of decades of obsession with maintaining business-as-usual will be catastrophic. And those consequences could be upon us sooner than even some of my fellow pessimists assume. Still, I’m not about to let this pessimism (or realism?) get in the way of doing what can still be done in households and communities to avert utter doom. And, while decades of failure in imagination and investment have foreclosed a host of options, I think there are still some feasible alternatives to business-as-usual that could provide significant improvements in most people’s daily experience of life. The gap is where the action is. All else – whether fantasy or nightmare – is a distraction.”
Note: as always, I’ve significantly shortened and slightly edited this article. For the full version, go to www.postcarbon.org.
The situation in Syria has seemed so complicated and depressing that I’ve all but ignored it for the past couple of months. Now, however, I’m trying anew to understand what’s going on. I hope you’ll join me by reading this condensed version of an article just published on the Socialist Worker website, socialist worker.org:
How was Syria turned into hell on earth? by Ashley Smith, Socialist Worker, 3-1-16
The U.S. and Russia celebrated the success of last weekend’s “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, purportedly organized so the United Nations (UN) could deliver humanitarian relief to besieged cities like Aleppo. The agreement didn’t include the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which continued to exchange attacks with government troops and Russian forces. In the end, the brief respite in Russian air strikes actually allowed dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army, along with Iranian militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to consolidate control over sections of Syria they’d re-conquered.
Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have justified their savage war by claiming that they’re striking back against ISIS forces that control large parts of the east of the country. In reality, Assad and Putin have been waging a counterrevolutionary war against a resistance to the regime that first arose as part of the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy rebellions. In the process, Syria has been plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe. In a country of 22 million, some 470,000 people have been killed in the war so far, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, with the government and its foreign backers responsible for 95% of civilian deaths. More than 11 million people – half the population – have been driven from their homes. Seven million have fled to other parts of the country, another 4 million have crossed the borders to surrounding countries, and more than a million Syrians have journeyed across the Mediterranean hoping to find refuge in Europe.
Russia’s military intervention last fall has destabilized European politics because of the effects of the refugee crisis and enflamed conflicts between regional rivals in the Middle East, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Amid the spiraling crisis, the U.S. has been forced to shift its policy in Syria. It had been committed to an orderly transition that would get rid of Assad and incorporate handpicked figures from the rebel side into the existing state, which could then be bolstered in the war on ISIS. Now, however, the U.S. seems ready to capitulate to Russia’s demand that Assad remain in power as the joint war on ISIS continues. It’s failed to challenge the Russian intervention, plainly directed toward helping the Syrian regime regain the initiative against rebel forces, not ISIS. Unless something changes, this will be a geopolitical victory for Russian imperialism and Assad’s counterrevolution against what remains of the Syrian Spring.
There are two central causes to this immense international crisis.
The first is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which set in motion the imperialist and regional conflicts that have come to a head in Syria. The Bush administration’s war on Iraq was designed to secure America’s status as the world’s only superpower. The Bush team wanted to conduct rolling regime changes across the Middle East; install puppet rulers in Iraq, Syria and Iran; and – with the region securely under America’s thumb – manipulate energy supplies to control potential imperial rivals like China. The plan failed because both Sunni and Shia Arabs rose up against U.S. forces.
To salvage the failing occupation, the U.S. turned to the classic trick of all empires: divide and rule. It pitted Kurds against Arabs, and Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims. That triggered a devastating sectarian civil war, in which the U.S. backed the Shia-dominated Iraqi state – despite Shia ties to Washington’s enemies in in the Iranian government – against the Sunni resistance. In this context, ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged as a force among embattled Sunnis, launching unrelenting attacks on the Shia population and its religious sites.
Iraq, once one of the most economically advanced countries of the region, was already devastated by a decade of bombing and economic sanctions, and the civil war further unraveled the social fabric. The invasion and the sectarian war caused the deaths of well over a million people.
Iran, the real victor of the Iraq War, could now count the new Shia state in Iraq in its list of allies that included the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – the so-called “Shia Crescent” sweeping from Tehran in the East, through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. To contain Iran, the U.S. turned to its historic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both see Iran as their principal rival in the region. Saudi Arabia used sectarianism to unite Sunni states in the region against the “Shia Crescent,” prompting Iran and its axis to turn increasingly to Russia and China as superpower backers.
Obama adopted a new strategy of balancing between the Middle East’s main powers in the hopes of defusing conflicts and stabilizing the region. The goal was to maintain America’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, while developing a live-and-let-live arrangement with Iran. When the U.S. made a deal with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia and Israel recoiled in anger. The U.S. responded by inking enormous weapons deals with both countries, antagonizing Iran, which doubled down on its relationships with Russia and China.
All of these geopolitical antagonisms have erupted in Syria. Russia, China, and Iran have lined up with Assad, while the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have tried to use the resistance as a tool to get rid of the dictator, while preserving his state.
But these geopolitical conflicts wouldn’t have emerged in Syria in the same form without the second cause of the crisis in the Middle East: the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring.
In 2011, students, workers and peasants rose up across North Africa and the Middle East against dictatorship and repression, as well as neoliberalism and class inequality. The rebellions, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then spreading around the region, were fought for freedom, democracy and equality. The wave of struggle swept away entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but the rulers of other countries in the region, though shaken, managed to cling to power, and the Arab Spring lacked the political development to go further.
Three agents of counterrevolution intervened to preserve the existing order against the tide of revolt.
First, the imperialist powers turned against the uprisings. The U.S. opposed the Arab Spring revolts from the start, turning a blind eye when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened to brutally put down Bahrain’s revolt. Only under duress did Washington abandon its opposition and call for “orderly transitions” in Tunisia and Egypt. It tried to use a grassroots rebellion to get rid of “frenemy” Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but that turned into a disaster, with the country devolving into civil war. This led the U.S. to renounce regime change in favor of stabilizing the existing order.
The U.S. wasn’t the only imperialist power to back counterrevolution. Russia and China also have imperialist stakes in the region. Russia has a naval base in Syria, alliances with Iran and the Assad regime, and investments in both countries. China does, too – it’s eager to invest in the region’s oil economy and curry alliances with oil-producing states to ensure independent access to energy supplies. China and Russia have therefore backed Assad with money and armaments to suppress the Syrian revolution.
The second force of counterrevolution has been the region’s ruling classes and their state machines, which have used brute force to crush revolts and stoked sectarian conflict to divide them. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed various Islamist militias fighting against Assad in Syria, and Iran has supported the Houthi revolt against the Saudi-backed state in Yemen (Saudi Arabia’s responded with a bombing campaign that’s laying waste to the country).
The final counterrevolutionary force is ISIS, which brought together personnel from Saddam Hussein’s former regime with remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq to oppose the Shia-dominated state’s suppression of mainly nonviolent demonstrations in Sunni areas in 2012. In 2014, ISIS carried out a stunning offensive across Sunni areas in western and northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and other cities to proclaim its new caliphate. While not supporting ISIS’s reactionary politics and heavy-handed repression, most Iraqi Sunnis view it as a lesser evil compared to the brutal sectarian rule of the Shia state.
In Syria, ISIS was an embattled, unpopular and mainly foreign force. But once it seized Mosul in Iraq – and, with it, enormous amounts of money and arms – it was strong enough to carve out territory in Syria as well. It hasn’t sought to engage in direct war with the Assad government. It has a de facto non-aggression pact with the regime, going so far as to trade oil with it. ISIS’s military moves in Syria have mainly targeted anti-Assad rebels in areas liberated from the regime’s control, with the aim of expanding the caliphate.
Assad’s regime, like the others in the region, is an utterly corrupt capitalist dictatorship. In recent years, Bashar al-Assad has specialized in imposing neoliberal measures, privatizing sections of state capitalist industry for the benefit of cronies linked to his family. He commercialized agriculture, impoverishing peasants in the countryside, and dismantled the social safety net, pauperizing urban workers. As a result, as Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami report in their brilliant book Burning Country, “inequality grew, until 50% of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 5% of the population.”
While nominally secular, Assad’s regime is controlled by the country’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Like other tyrants in the region, he’s been adept at manipulating Syria’s sectarian divisions, repeatedly posturing as the defender of the Alawite and Christian minorities against Sunni Islamists, who he portrays as a terrorist threat. The regime has also manipulated the country’s principal national division between Arabs and Kurds. It allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), rebelling against the government in rival Turkey, to base itself in Syria until 1998. At the same time, it denied citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds living in Syria, banning their language and crushing an uprising in 2004. The government did allow the formation of the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, at times cutting deals with it and at others repressing it.
Many grievances, including the government’s inadequate response to agricultural drought caused by global warming, drove Syrians to revolt against Assad in 2011. Tens of thousands marched peacefully in cities throughout the country, especially in the Sunni provinces, chanting slogans against sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism, like “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” and for nonviolence: “Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
Assad attempted to crush the revolt, deploying his police and paramilitary thugs, the shabiha, to attack, beat, jail, and torture thousands of activists. To justify this brute display of repression, and with the hopes of maintaining some base of support, the government claimed that the demonstrators were agents of foreign powers and Islamist sectarians who would attack the Alawite and Christian minorities. To make this threat more credible, Assad released 1,500 Sunni Salafists from his jails. They organized as many as 12 sectarian groups that targeted religious minorities and their places of worship.
Attempting to keep the Kurds from joining the revolt, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 of them and withdrew his forces from the Kurdish north, effectively ceding control of the area to the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Because of the history of Arab prejudice against Kurds and its own peculiar form of nationalist politics, the PYD kept its distance from the predominantly Sunni Arab revolutionaries and attempted to carve out a Kurdish autonomous zone, Rojava, in Syria’s north.
Threatened by the state’s savage counterrevolution, Syrian revolutionaries had no choice but to take up arms in self-defense. They formed an estimated 1,000 militias, won over the Sunni rank and file within the Syrian military, and forged the Free Syrian Army, numbering over 150,000 fighters, which progressively liberated cities and territory from the crumbling regime.
Assad retreated to predominantly Alawite strongholds among Syria’s coastal cities. In the liberated areas, revolutionaries built a network of local councils called Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that organized the struggle and attempted to replace services previously provided by the government.
With his regime collapsing, Assad turned to rule-or-ruin tactics. His air force bombed cities and dropped chemical weapons on civilians, laying waste to whole sections of the country.
Amid this catastrophic situation, various Islamist forces emerged within the revolution. Some were accepted as part of it; some competed with the LCCs and the FSA from outside, but still fought the regime; and others, like the al Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front, sometimes came into conflict with the FSA while also clashing with the regime.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar funded the FSA. But they never supported the revolution. The U.S., for example, never provided the heavy weaponry FSA fighters needed to defend their cities against Assad’s air force. When Assad dropped chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus in 2013, pressure built on the U.S. to intervene against Assad. But Obama balked, instead agreeing to a Russian deal to save the regime, on the condition that it destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
The U.S. and its allies hoped to co-opt the revolution’s representatives organized, first, in the Syrian National Council, and later, in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The U.S. wanted to use these bodies to put pressure on Assad to step down, then broker a deal that incorporated sections of the rebel leadership it could rely on into the existing state.
Regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided limited support to some Islamist forces, prompting many militias to rebrand themselves Islamist in order to procure desperately needed funds and arms. At the same time, the desperation conditions in Syria drove many to find succor in religion to alleviate their suffering. Thus, sections of the revolution increasingly gravitated to Islamist forces. ISIS, the most extreme and counterrevolutionary expression of this dynamic, continued to concentrate its fire on anti-Assad opposition groups rather than government forces.
After ISIS established itself as a power in Syria following its victories in Iraq, Assad claimed to be waging a “war on terror” against it. But other rebel forces were the overwhelming targets of the slaughter carried out by government forces – later even more effectively with support from Russian warplanes.
Since the rise of ISIS – especially after the terrorist attacks it orchestrated last year in Paris and elsewhere – all the imperial and regional powers have intensified their intervention in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has built an international coalition forged around NATO, but encompassing 66 countries in total, with the stated aim of degrading and eventually destroying ISIS. But Obama’s new war has only deepened the crisis in Syria and the region. It’s blown up more of the country, exacerbated the refugee crisis, and increased recruitment to ISIS, and will undoubtedly trigger more blowback, as ISIS resorts to terrorist tactics in the region and internationally.
The U.S. wants to avoid a protracted ground war against ISIS. Instead, Washington aims to provide air support for proxy forces on the ground overseen by military advisers and Special Forces. In Iraq, the Pentagon hopes to bolster the existing Iraqi government by getting it to incorporate the Sunni elite, integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi Army, and turn its united forces against ISIS. In Syria, the U.S. has escalated its air strikes against ISIS targets, but has found it difficult to secure proxy forces on the ground. A U.S. training program designed to field a fighting force against ISIS failed, largely because Syrians who might have taken part wanted to fight to overthrow the regime rather than being U.S. proxies against ISIS. The program, which recruited and graduated a total of 60 people, was wrapped up last year.
The U.S. has also struck a de facto cooperation pact with Assad in order to fight ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration established backchannel contacts with Assad to ensure that it could use Syrian airspace for its bombing runs. It also forged an alliance with the PYD and YPG. When the U.S. finally did expand its air strikes into Syria, its warplanes struck not only ISIS, but also the al-Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis tolerate because it defends them from the regime. Syrian Sunnis perceive this de facto alliance between the U.S. and the regime as a betrayal of the revolution, and, out of despair, some are joining ISIS for the same reason that Iraqi Sunnis see it as a “lesser evil” – however brutal and reactionary, it’s an alternative to violence and death at the hands of the state.
Late last year, Russia took advantage of America’s weakened position to intervene directly in Syria in support of the regime. The Russian air force backs up ground operations by government troops, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah, to retake the country’s liberated areas. Proclaiming that it was targeting ISIS, Russia’s directed 80% of its strikes against rebel forces.
Russia hopes to force the U.S. to accept Assad’s regime as an ally in the grand coalition against ISIS. Just like the U.S., Russia’s air force has supported the PYD, YPG and its broader umbrella fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nominally to fight ISIS. But the Kurdish forces have also attacked rebel fighters and imposed their rule on Arab areas in an effort to enlarge the Kurdish autonomous zone. Tragically, this has broken the potential unity between the Kurdish struggle and the Syrian revolution. The PYD’s calculation is that it can win liberation for Syrian Kurds with this strategy. More likely, the imperial powers will merely use and betray the PYD, as they’ve done in other countries, like Iraq.
Russia’s atrocities could eventually rival those that the U.S. committed in Iraq. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 679 civilians killed in January alone – 94 of them children and 73 women – as a result of Russian air strikes.
The UN Commission of Inquiry has accused the regime of the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure” and using starvation as a weapon of war. Doctors Without Borders reports that Russia and the regime have attacked its 67 hospitals with 94 air strikes, completely destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 of its staff.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has enflamed America’s allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, which launched a campaign of state terror against Kurds and the PKK within its borders, has objected to Russia’s intervention, as well as American support for the PYD. It classifies the PYD in Syria as a terrorist group and views the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone along its border with Syria as a national security threat. Earlier this year, Turkey shot down a Russian jet in contested territory along its border with Syria. It’s also carrying out cross-border artillery and air strikes on PYD and YPG positions. Turkey’s President Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. choose between supporting Turkey and supporting the PYD.
Saudi Arabia is also protesting Russia’s intervention and Washington’s retreat from its insistence that Assad must go, which it views as another American concession to Iran. That’s what is behind threats to send Saudi weaponry to Turkey and launch a ground invasion of Syria with Saudi forces. Justified as a war against ISIS, it’s really a threat to stop the advance of Assad and his allies.
Russia’s air war has driven untold numbers out of besieged cities like Aleppo, with many desperate to escape to Europe.
Outfoxed by Russian imperialism, worried about the growing consequences of the flood of refugees to Europe, and scrambling to maintain some leverage in the region, the U.S. government seems to be shifting its Syrian strategy in the run-up to the so-called peace negotiations set for Geneva, Switzerland, on March 7th. It’s accepted Assad’s participation in the process in order to continue with its priority of fighting ISIS, and is apparently willing to postpone a transition to a post-Assad regime until an uncertain date in the future. Secretary of State John Kerry, who long ago abandoned Assad’s removal as a precondition for any political settlement, now states that the U.S. and Russian views on Syria “are fundamentally very similar,” and that the replacement of Assad would come at the end of a long “transition government.” Such a deal will never be accepted by the majority of Syrian Sunnis, who rightly look upon Assad as a mass murderer. To frighten the various sides into accepting what’s on the table, however, Kerry’s floated a plan to partition the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Alawite states. This would not only trigger mass ethnic cleansing in Syria, but would destabilize the entire region. Turkey, for instance, would certainly oppose any plan that set up a new Kurdish state led by the PYD, since that would encourage Turkish Kurds to secede and join it.
The imperialist and regional powers offer no solution to the mess that their interventions and counterrevolution have caused. They’re all committed to preserving the rotten system that the people of the Middle East and North Africa revolted against in 2011.
The only lasting solution is to get all of the foreign powers out of Syria and Iraq, especially the U.S., but also Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The borders of all the countries of the region, of Europe and beyond should be opened to the fleeing victims of the slaughter. Finally, the struggle from below for democracy and freedom, the national self-determination of oppressed people like the Palestinian and Kurds, and the self-emancipation of the region’s laboring masses should be allowed to recover. That will require a radical left alternative, rooted in working-class organization, which stands for unity against national, sectarian, and ethnic prejudices and divisions.