US Imperialism and the Crisis in Syria

The following is a transcript of a presentation I gave at Left Forum for the panel titled, “How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace.”  You can view a recording of that panel here.

I’ve been asked to speak about US imperialism and the crisis in Syria. It is perhaps misleading to speak of “a Syrian crisis” as if it is a catastrophe occurring independently of the developments in the wider Middle East region. This is how the corporate media prefers to present complex phenomena – especially if the West’s bloodied hands are at the root.

It will be useful to start with some quick history about the wider Middle East region. Syria is a country quite literally born out of imperialism. From 1517 to 1918, the area compromising modern Syria was an administrative district of the Ottoman Empire. During WWI, the British and French promoted Arab nationalism with the hope that the Arab people would revolt against their Turkish masters. The British promised an independent Arab state that encompassed most of the Middle East if they supported them against the Ottoman Empire.

At the end of World War I, the Arabs learned a lesson that would unfortunately repeat itself throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The British and French reneged on their promise of an independent Arab state and preferred to divide up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. They did this according to a secret treaty that was signed by the British ambassador Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot in 1916 – two years before the conclusion of the war. As Reese Erlich writes in his excellent book Inside Syria, “France got Lebanon, Syria, southern turkey, and parts of northern Iraq. Britain got the rest of Iraq, Jordan, and full control of Palestine, including Jerusalem. …The Sykes-Picot [agreement] remained secret for a time because of its imperialist audacity, even by the standards of the time.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until after the Bolshevik Revolution that the treaty was made public by the Soviet regime, much to the embarrassment of British and French imperialists. However, embarrassment did not prevent the victorious imperial powers from dividing up Ottoman holdings according to the plans of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Going forward in time, it was in the immediate post-World War II era that the Arab world saw some fundamental changes. The British and French exhausted themselves during World War II and had not the power to carry on their imperial ambitions. At the same time, the Soviet Union was powerful enough to act as a counterweight to the growing power of the United States. The time was ripe for secular, Arab nationalism to carry out anti-colonialist rebellions against the imperialist powers in order to create politically and economically independent Arab states.

The topic of Arab nationalism in the post-war era is deserving of an entire semester’s worth of seminars. Unfortunately, I only have 15 minutes. So in the interests of time, I’ll be brief and oversimplify this history a bit. Secular, Arab nationalism swept into office regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. Each of these regimes sought to use their resources and wealth to embark on public works, social welfare programs, and development of the economy in a way that would not force them into subject status in the periphery to the imperialist center (that is to the United States, France, and United Kingdom). Each of these regimes thus had to be destroyed in the interests of maintaining US hegemony.

Two of these regimes are directly related to the Syrian crisis: Iraq and Libya. You might have heard Bernie Sanders say in a debate with Hillary Clinton that there would be no problem of ISIS without the US invasion of Iraq. He’s not wrong on this.

For decades, the United States has waged war against the people of Iraq, systematically destroying Iraqi society. While the war on Iraq began with George H.W. Bush, it was under the Clinton administration that the war reached a new level of cruelty. The Clinton era’s economic sanctions deprived Iraqis of food, medical supplies and much-needed chlorine for water purification. As a result, about 576,000 Iraqis, mostly children, died. For those who are interested, I highly recommend Abdul Haq al-Ani and Tarik al-Ani’s two-volume book, The Genocide in Iraq. The first volume details the effects of the sanctions on Iraqi society and the second the obliteration of Iraq as a state post-2003 invasion.

On the effects of the sanctions, the authors have this to say:

  • Since the approval of the Oil-For-Food Program in 1996, Iraq earned about $57 billion in oil revenues, of which it spent about $23 billion on goods that actually arrived. This makes about $170 per person per year, which is well below the $400 per dog per year which the UN spent on food for dogs used in Iraqi de-mining operations.
  • Nearly everything needed for Iraq’s entire infrastructure – electricity, roads, telephones, water treatment, as well as much of the equipment and supplies related to food and medicine – was subject to Security Council review.
    • (Pencils for school children were denied for their “dual-use” in creating weapons of mass destruction – never mind the absurdity of the claim)
  • Broken mains and pipes allowed further water contamination by sewage and accounted for 30-40% of treated water lost. The situation was made worse by the lack of spare parts, operating materials, chemicals, and especially chlorine [all denied under dual use] and by the decrease in the number of employees, which went from 20,000 in 1990 to 11,000 in 2000.
  • The sanctions were so damaging to the oil industry in Iraq that “Iraq was unable to produce enough oil to pay for its Oil-for-Food Programme after it was adopted in 1995.”
  • By 2002, nearly 20-30% of Iraq’s potentially irrigable land had become unusuable, i.e. had been converted to desert by salinization of irrigation projects.

I cite these figures not to just bombard you with numbers. Consider this: can a country that was so devastated by sanctions for nearly a decade, a country which experienced more than half a million deaths and the virtual collapse of its economy, truly have been considered a threat on the eve of the 2003 invasion? No. This is the equivalent of a well-fed, well-trained MMA fighter feeling threatened by a starved cripple.

The real reason for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not because the US thought that there were weapons of mass destruction or that the US cared about “spreading democracy and liberating the Iraqi people.” The reasons were threefold: (1) destruction of the last remnants of secular, Arab nationalism thus ensuring that Iraq would be easily ruled by the US. (2) destruction and partitioning of Iraq as a state where each region is ruled by sectarian leaders who can be pitted against one another as needed. And (3) domination – both political and economic – of the region by ensuring the control of oil and surrounding neighboring enemy regimes like Syria and Iran.

By the time of the 2003 invasion, Iraqis were understandably fed up with the United States. The “insurgency,” as the corporate media called it, was really a resistance movement to the illegal and brutal American occupation. In an effort to control the growing resistance to the US occupation, the United States fomented sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Iraqis – the so-called “El Salvador option,” referring to the US-backed death squads that terrorized El Salvador. Contrary to popular belief, this sectarian divide was not a thousand-year-old conflict. Musa al-Gharbi correctly notes that prior to the invasion,


Sunnis and Shias led a fairly well-integrated existence in Iraq, especially in the larger cities. For example, nearly a third of marriages were between members of different sects. Iraq also had thriving populations of Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities.


The Bush administration searched for the right man for the job. They turned to John Negroponte to be ambassador to Iraq. As ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, he transformed the country into a military base from which the United States armed, trained and supported the Contra death squads in their murderous rampage against the popular Sandinistas in Nicaragua. History repeated itself and Shiite death squads soon roamed Iraq. As an article in The Guardian commented, “The consequences for Iraqi society would be catastrophic. At the height of the civil war two years later 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Iraq – many of them innocent civilians of sectarian war.”

The de-Baathification policy further continued the erosion of Iraqi society. Paul Bremer, then the US “pro-consul” of Iraq, effectively blacklisted from employment all those affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party. Over 400,000 members of the Iraqi army “were barred from government employment, denied pensions – and also allowed to keep their guns.”

Conservative estimates place the death toll of the US invasion and occupation at around 500,000, although it is likely far higher. This means that at least 1 million Iraqis died between 1991 and 2011, some 4 percent of the population.  By comparison, the US population in 2014 was about 319 million. If the same percent of casualties were inflicted on the United States as the United States did to Iraq, about 13 million people would be dead – basically the entire state of Pennsylvania and some left over to kill off all of Boston.

At around the same time the United States was forming death squads and torture chambers in Iraq, the Bush administration plotted the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Leaked documents made available by WikiLeaks show that the United States planned, once again, to deploy the El Salvador option in Syria. A secret 2006 State Department cable titled “Influencing the Syrian Government in the End of 2006” gives some recommendations about how best to influence the course of events in Syria. I quote:

We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. …

Vulnerability: THE ALLIANCE WITH TEHRAN: Bashar is walking a fine line in his increasingly strong relations with Iran, seeking necessary support while not completely alienating Syria,s moderate Sunni Arab neighbors by being perceived as aiding Persian and fundamentalist Shia interests.

Possible action: PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business.

Vulnerability: Extremist elements increasingly use Syria as a base, while the SARG has taken some actions against groups stating links to Al-Qaeda.

Possible Actions: Publicize presence of transiting (or externally focused) extremist groups in Syria, not limited to mention of Hamas and PIJ. Publicize Syrian efforts against extremist groups in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback.

This last one is most telling about how the US perceives its own role in the so-called War on Terrorism. As you can see, by the US’s own admission, the Syrian regime fights against extremist Islamic terrorists. Yet, the US was more than comfortable in using the Syrian government’s own fight against Islamic fundamentalism against itself.

US ties to Islamic extremism in Syria (and indeed elsewhere) goes far beyond simply embarrassing the inability of secular nationalist regimes to eliminate the threat of terrorism. From the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shiite death squads in Iraq, to supporting terrorist groups that differ only in name from al-Qaida in Syria, the United States is a big friend to Islamic terrorism – when it serves its interests.

The plan did not end with the election of Barack Obama. In a remarkable display of continuity of foreign policy, the United States continued with its goal of regime change in Syria. There are key differences however. Obama does not look to the Bush doctrine of combining El Salvador style death squads with a full-blown ‘shock and awe’ invasion like in Iraq.  Rather, he prefers to combine subversive, covert support for death squads with the example of regime change in Libya.

Largely considered a “success” by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya violated international law under the phony doctrine of “responsibility to protect” and the constitution with Obama ignoring his lack of Congressional authorization for bombing Libya. In their bloodlust to punish Qaddafi for the crime of having nationalized oil resources, the US-backed opposition targeted Black Libyans, lynching them and putting Blacks into zoo-like cages force-feeding them the Libyan flag, yelling “Eat the flag, you dog.”  It’s unclear how many people died in the NATO bombings and at the hands of their genocidal “freedom fighters.” Estimates of the total casualties range between 30,000 and 50,000. In other words, a “success” for freedom and democracy of the Western-humanitarian kind.

The Obama administration seeks to combine the Libyan model of regime change with classical El Salvador-style death squads. However, it has run into two problems. First, Russia is involved directly in the bombing of ISIS and does not want to see Assad out of power. Second, the major opposition to Assad is ISIS who the US openly opposes. This has led to foreign policy decisions incoherent from the standpoint of the United States’ expressed goal of stability and defeat of ISIS.

For example, consider the United States’ allies in the region. It is widely known that Saudi Arabia provides crucial economic and ideological support for ISIS. Saudi Arabia officially promotes Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Patrick Cockburn correctly writes,

The ideology of al-Qa’ida and ISIS draws a great deal from Wahhabism. …A striking development in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam.  In one country after another Saudi Arabia is putting up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques (The Jihadis Return, 10-11).

Turkey also provides crucial support for ISIS. Until the expansion of the revolutionary Kurds in Rojava and the intensification of Russian bombing, ISIS was able to cross the Turkey-Syria border essentially uninhibited. ISIS used this border to smuggle oil. The revenues from the smuggling operation were used to pay its soldiers and buy supplies.

While the United States makes a big deal about collateral damage from Russia’s bombing of terrorists, an informed citizen can safely dismiss this as nothing more than imperial hypocrisy.  The Clinton-Bush-Obama administrations cared little about the lives of Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, Somalis and Libyans that died as a direct result of sanctions, aerial bombardment campaigns and support for murderous opposition groups.  For a while, the US refused to even bomb trucks carrying smuggled oil for ISIS.  The purported reason was out of a concern for environmental damage.  This too can be safely dismissed, as the US has not made a serious effort to tackle the threat of climate change or environmental damage in its own borders.

There is one group who the Obama administration has showed unusual amount of humanitarian concern.  The United States didn’t start bombing ISIS trucks carrying smuggled oil until well after the Russian bombing campaign started.  But once it did, the US dropped leaflets warning the drivers to abandon their trucks.  Obama has given no such kindness to any other “enemy” in the war on terror, including the dozen of people killed at a wedding in Yemen from a drone strike.

It is worth repeating that the United States’ actions are incoherent from standpoint of the official and repeatedly expressed goal of defeating ISIS.  However, the incoherence evaporates once we realize that the US’s true goal has nothing to do with defeating ISIS.  It’s about regime change in Syria.  It’s securing profits for major Western oil corporations.  It’s about containing and isolating Russia by removing its allies in the world.  It’s about strangling the Russian economy by lowering European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil.  US intervention in Syria has nothing to do with any of our expressed benevolent goals of ending terrorism and spreading democracy.

Every war has its economic component and this account of the Syrian war would be incomplete if I did not mention what’s at stake in Syria. According to a study of global oil reserves by GeoArabia, a petroleum industry journal, sponsored by some of the largest oil industries including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Total, and BP, Syria’s offshore resources have “significant hydrocarbon potential.” Journalist Nafeez Ahmed writes,

The sudden crisis in Syria threw a spanner in the works for longstanding efforts to explore and open up lucrative energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A report published in December 2014 by the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) provides compelling evidence that American, British and Gulf defence strategists see the Mediterranean as an opportunity to wean Europe off dependence on Russian gas, and boost Israel’s energy independence.

As part of this process, the report revealed, military action is viewed as potentially necessary to secure Syria’s untapped offshore gas resources, which overlap with the territorial waters of other Mediterranean powers, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.

In addition, the Syrian government planned on constructing a 5,000 kilometer pipeline transporting gas from Iran’s South Pars field and would extend through Syria into Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian Civil War has put a stop to the construction of this pipeline, but depending on the outcome of the chaos, it does provide a possibility for the United States’s proposed alternative pipeline from Qatar to Europe to compete with the supply of Russian oil and gas in Europe.

The proposed reason for intervention in Syria is for reasons of humanitarianism, spreading democracy, and liberating the people. But if you look not at words but actions, follow not politician’s gestures but dollars, you’ll see that the true reason for US interest in Syria is the same as any old imperial power: expansion of its sphere of control and monopolization of resources.


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