By Stephen Gowans

 

October 22, 2020

 

Washington’s long war on Syria has not been kind to the country’s citizens. The war has been fought in many ways over many decades, occasionally as a hot war, mainly as a cold war, at times visible, at other times concealed, at times fought directly, at other times fought through proxies, at times pursued through military means, and often through economic measures.

The war has by no means diminished in its intensity, despite the Syrian government largely prevailing, with the assistance of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, in its struggle against foreign-sponsored jihadists.

Here are the consequences of the war for the people of Syria.

  • The economy has contracted by two-thirds since 2011 [1], the year the United States and its Western allies, along with the Turks, Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris, assisted by the Israelis, fanned the embers of an Islamist insurgency that has burned since the 1960s into a conflagration.
  • Over 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line. [2]
  • Once classified as a lower middle income country, the World Bank in 2018 reclassified Syria as a low-income country. [3]
  • According to the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, Syrians are trapped “between hunger and poverty and deprivation [created by the long war] on one side and death [from the coronavirus] on the other.” [4]
  • Food prices have increased more than 23 times over the past decade. [5]
  • The World Food Program warns of an impending famine. [6]
  • Syria’s healthcare system, once one of the finest in the region, is in disarray. The country suffers a dearth of doctors, drugs and medical equipment. [7]
  • Dams and oil fields barely function. [8]
  • Industrial areas have been completely devastated. [9]
  • Schools and hospitals lie in ruins. [10]
  • Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble. [11]

Conditions are so desperate, that the lash of poverty has spurred a number of Syrians to enrol in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing army of Syrian mercenaries. They fight in Libya and Azerbaijan, and in their own country, in the service of a neo-Ottoman sultan, trying to recover the old Ottoman domains. [12]

Syria badly needs to be rebuilt. But the United States and it allies have acted to ensure that reconstruction does not happen.  Having arranged the incineration of Syria, the United States intends that the country—or rather those parts of it under the control of the legitimate government—remain a heap of ashes.

Here’s the intended future of Syria if Washington has its way. The knee of US sanctions, designed to economically suffocate, will remain on the collective neck of the Syrian people, as it remains on the collective necks of Venezuelans, North Koreans, Cubans, and Iranians, until they do what the United States demands of them, namely, clear the way for governments acceptable to Washington to come to power.

According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said “the administration will not end the pressure campaign on Mr. al-Assad and his backers unless they agree to a …. transition of power,” [13] which is to say, unless they agree that Assad will be replaced by a successor vetted and approved, but more likely hand-picked, by Washington.

To give you an idea of what kind of leader Washington might choose for Syria, a declassified 1986 CIA report prepared by the agency’s Foreign Subversion and Instability Center, expressed the view that “US interests would be best served by a Sunni regime controlled by business-oriented moderates [who] would see a strong need for Western…investment to build Syria’s private economy.” [14]

Why is Washington so keen on replacing the Syrian government?

We can answer the question if we acknowledge that the United States is a society dominated by business interests, and that those interests must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and establish connections everywhere, if they are to thrive. In contrast, the Syrian government exists not to help US investors and corporations find markets and investment opportunities, but to be responsive to the needs of Syrians. In the US view, the contradiction must be resolved: Either the Assad government serves US corporate and investor needs and the underlying US strategic interests that support them, or it exits the stage.

In the preface to the Russian edition of his book on imperialism, Lenin wrote that it was impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics, without understanding the fundamental economic question, which he defined as the question of the economic essence of imperialism. [15]

Following Lenin, I’ve tried to explicate, in my book Washington’s Long War on Syria, the economic imperatives that underly the US predation. Free trade, or an open door policy, or even more descriptively, a we-need-you give policy,  is central to the story of why the United States has waged a long war on Syria. The Syrian government’s failure to open its economy to US investment and exports on US terms, and insistence on independent economic development, is the causa sine qua non of US hostility.

In December Assad said, “We didn’t have a [neo-]liberal policy, we’re still socialist, we still have a public sector, a very big public sector.”  [16]

If you examine the United States’ list of countries whose governments must be replaced, you’ll discover that those countries all have substantial public sectors, that is, monopolies closed to the profitable investment of US capital, or which compete with US enterprises, or which restrict or narrow US profit-making opportunities.

Since the Second World War, the United States has incorporated most of West Asia into its empire, largely relying on a system of veiled colonialism, in which Washington exercises influence indirectly through local rulers, who act as de facto viceroys behind a cover of constitutional independence.  These viceroys ensure that their governments establish attractive climates for foreign investment and for the pursuit of the US strategic interests that support investor opportunities.

But one country in West Asia, over the post-war period, has not allowed itself to be integrated into the US empire; has refused to become a party to the practice of veiled colonialism: Syria. Syria is the last remaining independent Arab nationalist state dedicated to independent economic development guided by local interests rather than Wall Street demands. Today, in West Asia, only two governments, and one movement, exist independent of the US empire: Iran, since 1979; Hezbollah, founded in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution; and Syria.

No surprise that these are the forces which Washington deems its West Asian enemies—enemies around which it has created black legends, depictions of irredeemable evil, contrasted with the golden legend of fundamental US benevolence.

Washington also deems as a West Asian enemy those Islamist groups which are inspired by the Osama bin Laden strategy of carrying the war to the distant enemy, defined as the United States. Washington, in contrast, cultivates the Islamist groups which follow the alternative strategy of war on the local Arab nationalist, communist, and religious minority enemy. The so-called Al Qaeda Khorasan group plans operations against the United States, and remains a target of US overt and covert warfare. By comparison, the various name-changing, shape-shifting, locally oriented Al Qaeda organizations which focus exclusively on doing battle with what they define as the local Takfiris, or the unbelievers, remain the United States’ allies of convenience in the fight against secular Arab nationalists and communists. These fanatical and intolerant sectarian Islamists have proved to be a useful instrument of US imperialism in dividing the Arab world by attacking Shia, Alawi and other religious minorities and waging war on Arab nationalists and communists.

From the birth of the US empire as 13 English colonies in a stolen land to the present day, the foundation of the empire’s foreign policy has been to crush any force of local independence and national assertiveness that stood in the way of enlarging the empire’s dominant economic interests, whether it was those of land speculators, slave holders lusting after land, manufacturers seeking foreign markets, or financiers pursuing profitable investment opportunities abroad.  In the grips of an expansionary profit-making imperative, Washington is driven to replace all foreign governments which resist integration into the US economy, including the Syrian, Cuban, North Korean, Venezuelan, and Iranian governments.

Sadly, the largely successful struggle of the Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, against the foreign sponsored Islamist insurgency, has not brought the profit-driven juggernaut of US imperialism to a halt.

As Lenin argued, “An imperialist war does not cease [until] the class which is conducting the imperialist war, and is bound to it by millions of economic threads (and even ropes), is really overthrown and is replaced at the helm of state by the really revolutionary class, the proletariat.” [17]  We’re far from that.

Some believe, with an unduly sanguine cast of mind, that because the jihadist war in Syria is largely over, that the forces of local independence and national assertiveness have won, and that the United States has been defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Lenin called the imperialist predatory war may appear to have been succeeded by what he also called the imperialist predatory peace, but the imperialist predation continues, as does the war, even if the war is now largely concealed.

Having reduced Syria to rubble and its citizens to penury,  the United States silently wages war by blocking the reconstruction of Syria. It does this in two ways:

First, through the so-called Caesar Act, a sanctions regime introduced last summer to punish individuals and corporations anywhere in the world dealing with those sectors of the Syrian economy crucial to restoring Syria to some semblance of economic health. These sectors are:  construction, electricity, and oil. Any company that deals with the Syrian government in any reconstruction effort will be sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and prohibited from accessing the US banking system—a virtual economic death sentence. The Act is deliberately designed, as two US scholars put it, “to make reconstruction impossible.” [18]

The second way the United States prevents Syrians from rebuilding their country is by denying Damascus access to the revenue it needs to fund whatever reconstruction projects might be undertaken by firms willing to defy US sanctions. It does this through a large-scale military occupation that goes virtually unnoticed.

US forces, assisted by opportunistic Kurds—who believe that the United States is about to help them establish a second Israel in West Asia on territory stolen from Syria, (just as Israel was founded on land pilfered from what was once called Greater Syria)—have established an open-ended occupation of territory comprising one-third of Syria, and containing most of Syria’s oil wealth and its best farm land. The ostensible purpose of the US occupation is to continue the fight against ISIS, but the genuine purpose, is otherwise.

The larger purpose, as acknowledged by US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, is to turn Syria into a Japanese-style veiled US-colony, in which the United States installs an open-ended military occupation and writes the country’s constitution. Jeffrey revealed that the goal is to establish “a degree of control over Syria similar to what it had in Japan at the end of the Second World War.” [19]

The more immediate purpose, as acknowledged by the bloviating US president, is to prevent Syria from recovering its oil fields. This Washington does to deny Damascus a source of revenue for reconstruction.

To quote Trump:

“We are out of Syria other than we kept the oil. I kept the oil. We have troops guarding the oil. Other than that, we are out of Syria.” [20]

No reference to ISIS.

So, the United States says to Syria: We will not rebuild your country, and we will not allow our allies to do the same, and we will prevent your allies from rebuilding your country by occupying your oil wells and your best farmland to deny you revenue to underwrite reconstruction.

There’s another US goal, also acknowledged by Jeffrey, and that is to turn Syria into “a quagmire” for Russia, like the one the United States faced in Vietnam, in order to evict the Russians from the region. [21] The thinking is that if Russia gets bogged down in Syria, it will eventually surrender its military bases in the country and retreat from the Mediterranean, leaving West Asia and the Mediterranean free for total US domination.

How many troops has Washington in Syria?

Officially 750. But that was before another 100 were added in August. So, let’s say 850. Insignificant.

But the official number is what the Pentagon calls an “artificial construct”[22]—in other words, it’s meaningless. The number doesn’t include aircrew, which enforce a no-fly zone over US occupied territory, and are a very important part—perhaps the most important part—of the occupation, for US air supremacy makes the occupation zone virtually impregnable.

Neither does the artificial construct number include Special Operations personnel, or US personnel assigned to classified missions.  [23]

And it doesn’t include the assistance US occupation forces receive from the Israeli air force, which regularly carries out airstrikes on targets in Syria. [24]

Moreover, it doesn’t include what The Wall Street Journal called “an unspecified number of contractors,” [25] or what, in plain language, means, a whole lot of mercenaries.

In December 2019, Assad said:

“The funny thing in American politics is that they announce the number between thousands and hundreds. When they say thousands: it is to make the the-pro-war lobby – particularly the arms companies, happy that they are in a state of war. When they say hundreds: they are addressing the people who oppose the war by saying that they are only ‘a few hundred.’ In actual fact, both figures are incorrect for a simple reason … they are based on the number of American soldiers and not the number of individuals fighting with the American army. The American regime relies significantly in its wars on private firms like Blackwater… So even if they had a few hundred American soldiers in Syria, they still have thousands – maybe tens of thousands [of mercenaries fighting alongside acknowledged US troops.]” [26]

The occupation is flagrantly illegal. US forces weren’t invited into Syria. On the contrary, the Syrian government has stated repeatedly that US forces need to withdraw.

Syrian oil is being plundered. Indeed, a US energy company, Delta Crescent Energy, manages the oil wells and sells the oil to the Turks, just as earlier ISIS did the same. [27] It’s piracy, pure and simple.

“The Americans,” said Assad in March, “ are occupiers; they occupy our lands. The Americans are thieves stealing our oil.” [28]

And US forces are not the only occupier. There is also a Turkish occupation zone in the north, an Al Qaeda occupation zone in Idlib, and an Israeli occupation zone (which has lasted 53 years) in the Syrian Golan.

While the United States has arranged for Syria to be burned to the ground; while it has organized and connived in the partition of Syria into multiple occupation zones; while it acts to prevent Syria from rebuilding, it has, despite these predations, failed to achieve its ultimate goal of replacing the Syrian government—a government acceptable to the Syrian people and responsive to its needs.

What’s more, the United States has failed to crush Syria’s will to overcome US imperialism.

Quoting Assad.

“[O]ur policy is to … liberate remaining territories to restore our territorial integrity and protect our people. Timing will depend on the readiness of our armed forces to march into battle. When the battle starts, we will not distinguish between … Zionists, Turks, and Americans. On our territory, they are all enemies. [29]

“We have said that we’re going to liberate every inch of Syria…This is our land [and] this is our duty. “[30]

There is another duty—one that falls on the shoulders of internationalists—the duty to ruthlessly expose the machinations of our “own” countries; to support—in deed, not merely in word—Syria’s efforts to resist its recolonization and recover its territory; to demand the end of foreign occupations; and to inculcate in the hearts of our compatriots an attitude of true brotherhood with Syrians acting to liberate and defend their country from the imperial predations of the United States and its satellites. [31]

 

Endnotes

1. Raja Abdulrahim and Nazih Osseiran, “Reviving Syria’s economy is an uphill battle for Assad after years of war,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2020
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Ben Hubbard, “Syria’s Economy Collapses Even as Civil War Winds to a Close,” The New York Times, June 15, 2020
5. Patrick Cockburn, “A choice between bread and masks’: Syrians face calamity as Trump’s new sanctions combine with surging coronavirus,” The Independent, August 21, 2020
6. Patrick Cockburn, “The next Gaza Strip? Daily battle of survival for those left in Idlib,” The Independent, October 7, 2020
7. Aleksandr Aksenenok, “War, economy and politics in Syria: broken links,” Russian International Affairs Council, April 17, 2020
8. Abdulrahim and Osseiran
9. Ibid
10. Ibid
11. Ibid
12. Kareem Fahim, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Zakaria Zakaria, “Deaths of Syrian mercenaries show how Turkey, Russia could get sucked into Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” The Washington Post, Oct. 14, 2020
13. Pranshu Verma and Vivian Yee, “Trump’s Syria Sanctions ‘Cannot Solve the Problem,’ Critics Say,” The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2020
14. “Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change, 30 July 1986, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP86T01017R000100770001-5.pdf
15. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline, International Publishers, 1939, p. 8.
16. “The interview that Italian Rai News 24 refrained from broadcasting…President al-Assad: Europe was the main player creating chaos in Syria,” SANA, December 9, 2019
17. V.I Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918, Lenin’s Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 28, 1974, pages 227-325
18. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions, Foreign Affairs, August 17, 2020
19.Cockburn, August 21, 2020
20. “US convoy transports stolen Syrian oil to Iraq: SANA,” Press TV, 20 September 2020
21. Cockburn, August 21, 2020
22. John Ismay, “US says 2,000 troops are in Syria, a fourfold increase,” The New York Times, December 6, 2017
23. Ibid
24. Han Goldenberg, Nicholas A. Heras, Kaleigh Thomas, and Jennie Matuschak, “Countering Iran in the Gray Zone: What the United States should learn from Israel’s operations in Syria,” Center for a New American Security, 2020
25. Nancy A. Yousef, “US to remain in Syria indefinitely, Pentagon officials say,” The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2017
26. “President al-Assad: ‘The Belt and Road Initiative’ constituted worldwide transformation in international relations…There will be no prospect for US presence in Syria,” SANA, December 16, 2019
27. Lara Seligman and Ben Lefebvre, “Little-known U.S. firm secures deal for Syrian oil,” Politico, August 3, 2020; “US convoy transports stolen Syrian oil to Iraq: SANA, Press TV”, 20 September 2020; “Another US convoy smuggles Syrian oil to Iraq: SANA”, Press TV, 11 October 2020
28. “President al-Assad: Erdogan fights beside terrorists out of his brotherhood ideology…Our military is Idleb as its liberation means that we move towards liberating the eastern regions,” SANA, March 5, 2020
29. Quoted in Statement by H.E. Walid Al-Moualem, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Republic at the General Debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 26, 2020
30. “President al-Assad to Mail on Sunday: UK publicly supported White Helmets that are a “President al-Assad to Mail on Sunday: UK publicly supported White Helmets that are a branch of Al Qaeda, US and French existence in Syria is invasion,” SANA, June 10, 2018
31. See condition 8 of V.I. Lenin, The Terms of Admission to Communist International, 1920, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x01.htm