By Ava Lipatti
On July 19th, United States officials told the Washington Post and Reuters that President Donald Trump has decided to put an end to the CIA’s plan to arm and train anti-government “moderate rebels” in Syria, which had been the official policy since 2013 (although the CIA has operated in Syria for decades).
Clearly the U.S. is not going anywhere, but the announcement could signify a shift of emphasis from CIA to Pentagon operations, as well as a tactical change from supporting so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) rebel groups to backing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
According to a June 29th Pentagon study, the U.S. empire is ‘collapsing’, ushering in a ‘post-primacy’ geopolitical situation. In other words, the free reign of unbridled global hegemony that the United States has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union may very well be coming to an end, no doubt a movement in the symphony (or rather, cacophony) of the crisis of global imperialism, brought on by the world-historic 2008 financial collapse. While it remains to be seen the extent to which U.S. hegemony is actually in decay, no doubt the study reflects the anxieties of an empire in crisis.
In conjunction with the economic crisis, the U.S. military desperately holds on to regional dominance in the wider Levant, both through direct military occupation but also through the Zionist regime as well as client states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Turkey.
All of these actors have played a decisive role in the so-called Syrian “civil” war, which erupted in 2011 in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. While the United States provides both air and intelligence support to anti-government forces via drone strikes and arming/training, the comprador regimes of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have also provided massive support to these ‘rebel’ forces in the form of arms, funding, and oil trade. Meanwhile, Israeli forces continue to occupy the Golan Heights in Syria, as they have since the Six-Day War, as well as provide support for armed contras.
The name of the game is destabilization and reassertion of U.S./NATO primacy, the defeat of Arab nationalism, and the securing of the region’s vast natural resources for the benefit of global finance capital. This has been the U.S.’s goal in the region since shortly after World War II, but it became much more possible after the collapse of the socialist bloc. Following the brutal ousting of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, the U.S./NATO assault on the Ba’athist regime of Syria has become a key target of U.S. imperial conquest.
Just as the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror” was never meant to fight ‘terrorism’, the “War on ISIS” is more of a war on the Syrian government and the Syrian people. Both the CIA and the Pentagon have funneled resources to various factions of the opposition, especially the “FSA”, which has close ties to and consistently is absorbed into sectarian death squads such as Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham, and Daesh (ISIS).
The major forces on the ground in Syria are the Syrian government (with support from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia), Daesh, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (including the People’s Protection Units, or YPG), and various sectarian anti-government forces. The dominant groups of the latter espouse a reactionary Wahhabist ideology and are significantly composed of foreign mercenaries.
To be clear, the anti-government opposition are not deplorable on the basis of Islam, as Islamophobes would assert. The Wahhabist ideology in particular has been stoked by the imperialist powers to promote sectarianism and destabilization in the region.
The anti-government forces are deplorable in fact because they serve empire, just like their predecessors in the mujahideen (including Osama Bin Laden), who did the work of the CIA in subverting the Soviet-aligned Afghan government in the 1980s. These reactionary forces are not a ‘natural response’ of Arab rage, but rather an imperial-crafted project hell-bent on subverting anything that stands in the way of empire, such as the Ba’athist regime in Syria. The so-called ‘rebels’ in Syria routinely murder and torture civilians, hoard food and medicine, and burn life-saving evacuation buses.
As the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with Russian air support, has continued to make advances on Daesh and other anti-government Wahhabist militants, the U.S. tactic of covert support has shown to be an utter failure in taking down the Syrian government. However, it has been largely successful as a war of attrition: over half the Syrian population has been displaced, massive amounts of the country’s infrastructure have been destroyed, sectarianism has burgeoned, and the U.S. now has bases in the northeast of Syria. Nevertheless, the SAA’s December victory in Aleppo, as well as success in other cities such as Homs, has prompted a shift in strategy for the United States.
While Obama was very much the CIA’s man, Trump has been notably more Pentagon-oriented. During his election campaign, Trump espoused populist ‘isolationism’ against U.S. meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan. He shocked many of his loyal ‘alt-right’ (read: white supremacist) followers on April 6th when he had 59 “Tomahawk” missiles launched at the SAA’s Al Shayrat Airfield, an abrupt ‘retaliation’ to an alleged sarin chemical attack supposedly carried out by the SAA. Less than two weeks later, he dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on allegedly Daesh-occupied tunnels in Afghanistan, which had in fact been built by the CIA for the proto-Daesh mujahideen forces. Trump’s isolationism was never in opposition to U.S. wars on principle, but rather a lamentation that recent interventions were not profitable.
Along with this brazen assault on the sovereign Syrian government, Trump has also sent thousands of troops to Kuwait and hundreds to Syria, supposedly to mitigate tension between Ankara and the Kurdish YPG, as well as to prepare for campaigns on Daesh strongholds in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. In the process, the Trump regime has officially adopted the policy of supporting the SDF drive on Raqqa. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has carved out no less than two military bases in northeast Syria, where Kurdish forces have proclaimed autonomy.
The campaigns on Raqqa and Mosul are hardly about humanitarian concerns, as evidenced by brutal U.S. bombings and white phosphorus chemical attacks on civilians in Raqqa and Mosul. Rather than trying to defeat Daesh, the U.S. government is attempting to take Raqqa before the Syrian Army can get there, through its Trojan Horse, the SDF, with the aid of hundreds of U.S. Marines. They do not plan to give Raqqa back to the Syrian government once it is liberated from Daesh, and very well could continue to drive West past the Euphrates. While the Kurdish people are an oppressed nation living in a territory encompassing parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the role of the SDF itself has increasingly become outright collaboration with U.S. imperialism in order to partition and colonize Syria.
This strategy does not come without its own dangers, as it may increase tension between Washington and Ankara, the latter of which is brutally oppressive against Kurds, criminalizing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has ties to the YPG. Given that Turkey has taken some steps to warm up to Russia, including through participating in a ceasefire zone agreement with Russia and Iran, the geopolitical situation for NATO-member Turkey may be evolving. Considering also Saudi Arabia’s and U.A.E.’s recent decision to cut ties with Qatar, the U.S./NATO/GCC bloc’s homogeneity seems to be eroding at every turn.
As Washington grows increasingly desperate, the White House has announced the policy shift of ending CIA support to anti-government forces. However, they have reported that the Pentagon will continue a “separate effort” of arming and training opposition groups, as well as carrying out airstrikes. While the impact of this development remains to be seen, if the CIA does indeed wrap up its operations, this could indicate the possible trajectory of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
First, we may expect less covert CIA operation and more direct Pentagon intervention. This process is already well underway, as evidenced by the April 6th attack as well as the deployment of hundreds of troops to Syria and Iraq and the subsequent assault on Raqqa. This should hardly come as a surprise, given that the Trump administration’s big-power chauvinism and unprecedented military budget proposal are wholly consistent with a ramping up of not just Pentagon activity generally, but specifically operations with increased autonomy from legislative bodies.
Additionally, we may expect a shift in U.S. alignment with forces in the conflict. With elevated tension between Turkey and other NATO members, as well as the intra-Gulf conflict, we can expect increased cooperation between the U.S. and the Kurdish forces, as occurred in the war on Iraq. The United States has a long history of repressing and backstabbing Kurdish movements and promoting the most collaborationist, separatist forces in order to play divide-and-conquer against Arab nationalist forces. The Wahhabist “rebel” groups have proved to be mostly ineffective against the Syrian government the last two years, prompting a change in Washington’s strategy. These possibilities are more than just speculation, as they have already developed to a great extent, and will likely continue to do so.
The conflict in Syria has dragged on for six long years, leading to massive displacement, death, starvation, and destruction of infrastructure. Thankfully, the Syrian government has made massive strides against both Daesh and other rebel forces, and half a million Syrians have returned to their homes.
The war on Syria is not an isolated event, but rather a key component of the general question of liberation for Arabs and all oppressed and colonized people. The same regimes terrorizing Syria are also starving and destroying Yemen in a humanitarian crisis of unfathomable proportions. The same client states and paramilitary forces waging war on the Ba’athist government and the Syrian people are colluding with the Israeli apartheid state in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and expansion of U.S. regional influence. While the bourgeois nationalist Syrian government remains the only viable force to end the violent conflict, true and lasting Arab liberation will ultimately come from proletarian Arab forces in conjunction with the global working class. Any genuinely liberatory political program for the Levant must draw the link between anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism and, ultimately, strive for socialism and decolonization.
In the imperialist metropole, our key task remains the same whether Trump or Hillary, the Pentagon or the CIA, are carrying out anti-Arab terror: we must resolutely oppose United States imperialism everywhere it is found and strive to build international solidarity with workers that are under attack by our own government.