timthumb.phpby Alan Maass

The US has expanded its air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), adding another element to the deadly mix of conflicts that is inflicting a terrible toll across the region.

US officials announced that their warplanes and drones – in a joint operation with five authoritarian Arab regimes – struck targets in eastern and northern Syria. This expands the war on the Sunni fundamentalists of ISIS beyond Iraq, where the US has carried out nearly 200 attacks since launching air strikes six weeks ago.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed the US targeted ISIS “safe havens” in Syria. But the missiles were aimed at cities like Raqqa, with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – where ISIS, like any insurgency, has established itself. Civilian casualties – including people who abhor ISIS and oppose its occupations of Syrian cities – are inevitable. According to a human rights monitoring group, eight civilians died in the first round of air strikes, along with “scores of ISIS fighters”.

Bombing yet another Middle Eastern country

So the US is now dropping bombs on another Middle Eastern country, to go along with a half-dozen others where American drones and aircraft rain death from the skies. Obama’s latest war is against a force that arose as a direct consequence of the disastrous occupation of Iraq – and that was initially encouraged in various ways by some of the same Arab “coalition partners” that are also bombing it now. Just as US air strikes against ISIS in Iraq bolstered the repressive Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the murderous Syrian regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad will use the opportunity of Washington attacking a common enemy to tighten its grip.

US imperialism has created a seething mess of violence and oppression across the Middle East – and the latest escalation in the “war on terror” will only make things worse.

People around the world are rightly horrified by ISIS’s reactionary ideology and its barbaric violence against religious and ethnic minorities, as well as any Sunni who defies its rule. Obama and the other advocates for military intervention are depending on that popular outrage as they attempt to rehabilitate US imperialism and reassert American power to control the flow of Middle East oil.

But there is nothing humanitarian or moral or just about this new stage of the “war on terror” – any more than when the Taliban of Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq was the main demonised enemy of the American war machine. US military intervention will only cause more oppression – and make the world more violent.

Hard to keep up with multiplying, mutating hypocrisies

The hypocrisies of this latest US war are multiplying and mutating so fast that it’s hard to keep track.

For one thing, there’s the ugly collection of dictators and feudal monarchies that enlisted in Washington’s latest military adventure. In a statement announcing the Syria air strikes, Barack Obama proudly declared: “We were joined in this action by our friends and partners – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. America is proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security.”

“Friends and partners”? These regimes are better known, to those with the misfortune of suffering under them, as ruthless tyrannies that – very much like ISIS – tolerate no dissent whatsoever.

The sickening beheadings of reporters committed by ISIS are dwarfed in number by the executions carried out in a public plaza known as “Chop-Chop Square” in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. The “crimes” punished by beheading in Saudi Arabia include blasphemy, adultery, drug smuggling, sedition, sorcery and witchcraft.

As socialist journalist Eamonn McCann wrote in the Belfast Telegraph before the air strikes:

“There’s no chance, however, of the US bombing Riyadh to end this evil. The Saudi dictatorship is top of the list of regional allies the US needs onside for blitzing ISIS. Recently, the Obama administration distributed pictures of Secretary of State John Kerry in comfortable conversation with the leader of the Saudi beheaders, King Abdullah. The caption said that the pair were discussing what role Saudi Arabia might play in supporting US attacks on the ISIS beheaders.”

What’s more, the “friends and partners” of the US government today were yesterday “friends and partners” – or, more accurately, patrons and sponsors – of some of the reactionary jihadist groupings in Iraq and Syria that set the stage for ISIS.

Divide and rule

This takes us back to the sectarian conflicts set in motion during the US occupation of Iraq, when the Bush administration – faced with the threat of a growing resistance that might unite Sunnis and Shias and overwhelm US forces – turned to a divide-and-rule strategy.

US authorities lured Shia political leaders away from supporting armed resistance with the promise of elections that would give them control over the Iraqi government. Shia militias essentially took over the rebuilt Iraqi Army and police, making them sectarian institutions. Parts of the Sunni resistance started to focus their attacks on Shia, rather than US forces – which prompted an armed response from Shia leaders, and the situation deteriorated from there.

The ensuing civil war was one of the bloodiest chapters of the occupation of Iraq, adding massively to the death toll caused by the US military. Sunnis were ethnically cleansed in large numbers from the capital of Baghdad and other cities. Millions of people fled the violence, many of them crossing Iraq’s western border into Syria – all so the US could maintain its grip over the country.

With this outflow of refugees from Iraq, the sectarian conflict began to regionalise – and the US and its chief allies encouraged this development, despite the threat of a bloodbath spilling across multiple borders.

Shia dominance over the new Iraq government gave Iran – the main regional power opposed to Saudi Arabia, ruled by a Shia religious elite – another ally to go with Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Faced with the strengthening so-called “Shia Crescent,” Saudis financed and supplied militant Sunni fundamentalists, often called “jihadists”, as a paramilitary challenge.

This strategy continued to play out when civil war engulfed Syria after the Assad regime turned to savage repression to put down the pro-democracy uprising that began in 2011.Saudi Arabia and Qatar backed armed Islamist groups – not just in defiance of Assad, but now as a counterweight to prevent the democratic opposition from becoming powerful enough to overthrow the dictatorship, and pose a popular alternative in a Middle East ruled for decades by US-backed authoritarian regimes.

All this took place with the quiet approval of the US government. In 2007, journalist Seymour Hersh quoted Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explaining the cynical logic for enabling reactionary Islamists with oftentimes open connections to al-Qaeda, Washington’s supposed enemy in the “war on terror.”

“It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs,” Nasr told Hersh. “It’s who they throw them at – Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

Grotesque twist

The situation in Syria, where the US is now aiming its missiles, has yet another grotesque twist.

ISIS controls a large part of eastern Syria not only as a consequence of the sectarian conflict unleashed by the US occupation of Iraq, and thanks to the Arab regimes encouraging Sunni jihadist groupings – but also because of the Assad regime’s careful calculations in engineering a counter-revolution against the Arab Spring uprising in Syria.

Faced with a popular revolt inspired by ones in Egypt and Tunisia that successfully toppled fellow dictators, Assad turned to his own form of divide and rule. He sought to hold onto a base of support among Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam) and other ethnic and religious groups by portraying the uprising as the work of Sunni radicals who would carry out their own ethnic cleansing if the regime fell.

At the same time, he released more than 1,000 jihadist prisoners from Syrian jails. This was a bald attempt to shift the balance of forces inside the opposition – away from radical, secular proponents of democracy and toward the reactionary Islamists.

For much of the last year or so, as ISIS established control over cities like Raqqa and the surrounding regions, there was unspoken truce between ISIS and the regime. Both sides instead trained their weapons – with all the savagery they could muster – against other forces in the anti-Assad resistance.

That began to change after ISIS launched its summer offensive in Iraq, capturing huge areas in the west and north of the country. But most of the Syrian government’s firepower is still trained on other rebel forces. Last week, with the US government building toward air strikes against ISIS in Syria, the New York Times reported:

“Insurgents of all stripes, except for the Islamic State group, say the Syrian government appears to be stepping up its attacks on them ahead of the threatened American air campaign. Pro-government and anti-government analysts say Mr. Assad has an interest in eliminating the more moderate rebels, to make sure his forces are the only ones left to benefit on the ground from any weakening of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS…

“Islamic State activists in Homs said on [September 17] that there had been no recent government air strikes against the group, adding to opposition suspicions that Mr. Assad prefers to focus on attacking his other opponents while letting the Islamic State’s unchecked brutality argue the case to Syria and the world that his rule is the best alternative.”

The Obama administration has been careful to insist that it isn’t allying with the Assad government in making war on ISIS. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power reported that the US had notified the Syrian government about the impending air strikes, but hadn’t coordinated with it.

This led to complaints and criticism from Syria – and from Iran and Russia, the regime’s main international backers – that the US was violating international law with its attacks in Syria. For good measure, while the air strikes were taking place in eastern Syria, Israel shot down a Syrian jet, claiming it had violated Israeli airspace – in reality, the Syrian warplane had been dropping bombs on rebels.

So on paper, the Syrian regime opposes the US air strikes. But there is the stated and the real.

What about ordinary Syrians?

If US attacks do succeed in damaging ISIS militarily or loosening its grip in areas it controls, the Assad government is in the best position of any military force to capitalise. Obama claims that part of his strategy for attacking ISIS in Syria is to train rebel fighters from the so-called “moderate” opposition – but it will take the better part of a year for the first units to be ready. In the meanwhile, the Syrian regime can shore up its position in the east without a fight – while continuing its murderous assaults against rebel fighters elsewhere.

The Assad regime and its backers in Iran and Russia may have hoped to manoeuvre the US into openly cooperating with them. But they will be happy nevertheless to exploit any opportunities that present themselves as a result of the US attacks.

Obama and the US, meanwhile, know full well that the Syrian regime will likely be the main beneficiary of their war on ISIS. It shows how little they care about ordinary Syrians – whether under the boot of Assad or ISIS currently – that they have launched the air campaign anyway.

In a statement opposing the air strikes and calling for support for popular movements in Syria and Iraq, Syrian Revolution Support Bases, an international collective in solidarity with the uprising against the regime, focused on these unstated motives of Assad and the US:

“Assad has been responsible both directly and indirectly to contributing to the growth of ISIS, and until recently has not attacked ISIS positions, focusing instead on attacking the [Free Syrian Army] and civilians. Assad is now begging to be a partner in the US coalition, seizing the chance to gain international legitimacy.

“Any action seen as allying with Bashar al-Assad will lead to a backlash and exacerbate sectarian tensions. This fits well with America’s ‘divide-and-rule’ policy. We see in Iraq that the US is allying with the criminal government which is dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods (recently committing a massacre at a school in Fallujah) and using sectarian militias which are carrying out atrocities.”

There are other factors that will play out in the coming weeks, with potentially inflammatory results. Pressures are growing on US ally and NATO member Turkey as huge numbers of refugees – some fleeing the regime’s onslaught, others attacks by ISIS – flow over its borders with Syria and Iraq. Then there is the Kurdish population, spread through Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – the Kurds suffer national oppression, but in Iraq are close collaborators with US imperialism.

As opponents of US imperialism try to understand these tangled contradictions and conflicts, we must be clear that this latest stage of the “war on terror” is not being pursued for humanitarian purposes. As Syrian Revolution Support Bases states:

“[I]mperialist intervention will only lead to propping up the sectarian occupation regime in Iraq and the genocidal Assad regime in Syria. It will further pave the way for expanding US economic and strategic interests in the region (namely exploiting resources and supporting the Zionist State).”

As Barack Obama’s new Middle East war escalates, we need to expose the rhetoric and lies of the US government – and stand in solidarity with those challenging imperialism, oppression and tyranny, wherever they are in the Middle East.

The article above first appeared on September 24 on the site of the US paper Socialist Worker, here.

Further reading:
The origins, politics and economics of the Islamic State group

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