Imperialist wars in the Middle East
By John Moore
The war in Syria is about imperialist regime change, as in Libya and Iraq, and reminiscent of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. 360,000 foreign fighters are currently in Syria, resulting in over 250,000 deaths. Outside the warzones, foreign sanctions are inflicting severe hardship on the 23 million Syrian population as a whole.
Syrian President Assad put it simply: ‘The intervention in Syria is against international law, while the Russians came to Syria after having an invitation from the Syrian government.’
Assad is a target, not just as the last secular nationalist Arab leader, but because Syria has consistently defied western control. The long-term US aim of encircling Russia and depriving it of its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus puts Syria in the firing line. However, the immediate reason for ratcheting up the anti-Assad pressure is control over energy supplies, important for the US as a means of dominating its rivals, if no longer to ensure its own energy needs. The origins of the war can be traced back to 2009 when Qatar proposed a new pipeline to Turkey to run through Syrian territory. Assad refused, blocking western control over energy pipelines from the Persian Gulf to Turkey and on to
Robert F. Kennedy Jr, in an article in Politico (Feb 23, 2016) said: ‘The moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link. In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria.’
The Qatari pipeline from its North Pars gasfield was strategically important. According to Kennedy, it ‘would have given the Sunni Kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world.’ It would allow Qatar to supplant Russia as the major supplier of energy to the EU, which is the biggest natural gas import market in the world.
Assad opted for an alternative pipeline – bringing energy from Iran’s South Pars gasfield through Syria to ports in Lebanon, with Iran, Iraq and Syria co-operating in the $10billion costs of its construction. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would help not only Russia but Iran, giving the latter control over European energy supplies, as a key producer.
The plan to topple Assad was orchestrated by the US, and enthusiastically endorsed by regional powers, each with its own ambitions – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey – with the aim of establishing one or more oil statelets under sectarian Sunni rule. The use of such proxies by America has become increasingly central to its strategy as it accepts that it is no longer capable of acting alone.
The balkanizing strategy first came to light in a leaked plan from the US Department of Defense and the State in 2012, which sought to set up ‘a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria…’
According to Wikipedia Salafism is an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century against the background of European colonialism.
Leading neocon John Bolton reiterated the strategy last year (New York Times, 24 Nov, 2015), calling for ‘a new, independent Sunni state…This “Sunni-stan” has economic potential as an oil producer…and could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad.’
To this end, the US has allowed al-Nusra and IS to function, according to Assad, ‘because they [the US] believe that this is a card they can use for their own agenda’ – ie regime change. According to the Wall Street Journal (August 10, 2014) the US air war focuses on IS targets in Iraq because ‘in Syria, U.S. strikes against the Islamic State would inadvertently help the regime of President Bashar al-Assad militarily.’ For the same reason, France has ‘refrained from bombing the group in Syria for fear of bolstering’ the Syrian government, and Britain likewise has largely confined its airstrikes to Iraq.
This is why US ceasefire agreements with Russia – there have been 5 so far – have not been made in good faith. The US doesn’t want the terrorists defeated. Co-operation with Russia would impose restraints on the US’s ability to wage war on Assad.
While official US policy is ostensibly for working with Russia, and while the US understands that ceasefires allow the terrorists time to re-arm and regroup, hawks in the US administration and military have rejected a ceasefire deal between Kerry and Lavrov, which would involve intelligence-sharing. Both the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, and the head of US joint command in Syria, General Harrigian, have openly threatened non-compliance with instructions to work with Russia. The calculation is that Russia will become bogged down in an Afghanistan-style quagmire in Syria. John Kirby, North-American State Department spokesman (State Department Watch, Sept 29) spelled out this strategy: ‘Extremist groups will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there in Syria to expand their operations, which could include attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities. Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags…’
The US hawks are also pushing for covert strikes on Syria without a UN Security Council resolution. As Lavrov reported during the ceasefire talks: ‘My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine… apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.
Why, then, does Russia continue to engage with the US? Because it believes, rightly, that ceasefire talks both expose the US’s warlike intentions and hamper its regime change strategy.
The dangerously provocative US bombing of the Syrian army at Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria on 17 September saw off any chance of the latest ceasefire, taking place two days before co-operation was due to begin. In response to the US attack, Russia escalated the battle for Aleppo, which must be retaken if Syria is to stay unitary.
The victory of Donald Trump could, potentially, offer an opportunity for a better outcome in Syria. A Clinton presidency would have led to a continuation, and almost certain intensification, of the conflict – freed from Obama’s moderating caution. Trump has made more pragmatic noises about future dealings with Russia. Overall, his isolationist rhetoric signals a change of emphasis in US foreign policy, but pressure from the US military-industrial complex could push him in directions we don’t yet know.
Meanwhile, US action in Mosul in Iraq is intertwined with its Syrian strategy of establishing a terrorist statelet. The plan, according to Syrian historian Nizar Nayouf, is for the US and Saudi Arabia to allow IS fighters out of Mosul through the single open route – to the West. Pushing IS out of Mosul will funnel it into those areas of eastern Syria outside Assad’s control, from where it can attack the Syrian army.
The complex mix of forces attacking Mosul is a recipe for future sectarian conflict. The forces consist of the Iraqi army, backed by Shia militias organized in Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). Iran is backing both the militias and several units of the Iraqi army. Iraq’s aim is to defeat IS and gain control of Mosul.
Alongside, but in potential conflict with these forces, are the Peshmerga troops of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, backed by Turkey. The Kurds want to use the liberation of Mosul as a lever to gain full independence from Iraq, according to the Kurdish prime minister Barzani (Bild, Oct 28).
Turkey, which claims Mosul as part of its old Ottoman empire, is supporting the Peshmergas and, in addition, training Sunni Turkmen militias at its base in Bashiqa north of Mosul to counter Shia influence. Its intervention in Iraq as been condemned by the weak Iraqi government, which has threatened war. This could escalate into a full-scale Turkey-Iran war over Iraq. Short of that, further sectarian conflict is inevitable. Stoking the flames are US marines and special forces are also involved, as well as British special forces. Beyond regional conflict, the proximity of US and Russian forces in the field increases the likelihood of accidents, any of which could spark a major conflagration.
Focusing on Turkey for a moment, Turkish claims on Mosul extend to Aleppo as well as the strip of northern Syrian territory which it wants to deny the Kurdish PKK-affiliated YPG – the ‘wrong’ sort of Kurds. Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria was given the nod by Russia, as part of a potential pipeline deal from Russia under the Black Sea to Turkey and the EU. The CIA-backed coup attempt against Erdogan was a response to Turkey’s turn to Russia, which had been underlined by Erdogan’s sacking of his pro-Nato prime minister Davutoglu in May. US Vice-President Joe Biden travelled to Turkey to ensure Turkish loyalty, as the Turkish paper Hurriyet warned that the West could try to sabotage a Turkish-Russian deal through ‘support of terrorist organizations and warmongering.’ Turkey seems currently to be playing both sides.
Meanwhile, Israel, which may have brokered the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, according to oil analyst William Engdahl, has been negotiating with Russia on its own behalf over its newly discovered Leviathan gas field, worth $95 billion. Gazprom has proposed buying 30% of Leviathan, according to Natural Gas World website. Israel would benefit from Gazprom’s financial backing to begin exploiting the gas field, as well as Russian protection of Leviathan from sabotage by Israel’s enemies. Obviously the US will obstruct any such deal. Oil has also prompted improved relations between Israel and Turkey, after Israel paid compensation over the Mavi Marmara killings so as to facilitate a proposed pipeline from Israel through Turkey.
The two battles, for Mosul and for Aleppo, couldn’t present a greater contrast in terms of media reporting. In Mosul, reports focus positively on the ‘relentless campaign of strikes [that] has removed hundreds of fighters, weapons, and key [IS] leaders from the battlefield’ (BBC Oct 29), with no reporting of the thousands of civilian victims, such as the bombing of a girls’ school by the US airforce on October 24th. The huge destruction of other cities by western bombing, with 30,000 dead, according to official figures, and in one example, Ramadi, most of the city’s 400,000 made homeless, has also gone unreported.
The four-year battle for Aleppo, by contrast, has become frontpage news – but only after the terrorists started losing. As Robert Fisk observed, the same Islamist fighters now besieged in east Aleppo were ‘Only three years ago… besieging the surrounded Syrian army western enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived under regime control… [The] first siege didn’t elicit many tears from the satellite channel lads and lassies’ while the ‘second siege comes with oceans of tears.’
Atrocity reports abound, but are continually being exposed as bogus, often having been committed by terrorists rather than the regime. The ‘observers’ originating such reports are not neutral but embedded with the Islamists. The Aleppo Media Centre, for example, providing media material to western news agencies, is funded by France – effectively a branch of Canal France International, attached to the French Foreign Ministry. One of the most famous ‘humanitarian’ photos circulated by the Aleppo Media Center – of a dust-covered boy in an ambulance – was taken by Mahmoud Raslan, a photographer who himself appears elsewhere posing with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki, a terrorist group that beheaded a 12-year-old boy.
The same goes for the White Helmets, acclaimed as ‘international heroes’ (Guardian, 3 Oct) and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Independent, 5 Oct). US State Department spokesman Mark Toner (April 27, 2016) revealed that the White Helmets had been given $23 million by the US, as well as €4 million from the Netherlands and €7 million from Germany.
According to the 21stcentury Wire news website: ‘White Helmets founder Le Mesurier… is said to be an ‘ex’ British military intelligence officer involved in a number of other NATO ‘humanitarian intervention’ theatres of war, including Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, as well as postings in Lebanon and Palestine.’ Le Mesurier’s connection to the CIA-funded assassination company Blackwater has been well-documented.
According to Daniel McAdams, executive director at the US Ron Paul Institute, the White Helmets group ‘provides an almost continuous commentary of anti-Assad message.’
Assad, in an interview with the Swiss media, was asked directly about civilian casualties: ‘I wouldn’t say that there are no such attacks on any building, but as a government, we don’t have a policy to destroy hospitals… for a simple reason: first of all, morally, the second reason is that if we do so, we are offering the militants the incubator, the social incubator that they’ve been looking for... It’s like shooting ourselves in the foot.’ He continued: ‘If we are… committing all these atrocities… how can I be President after nearly six years of the beginning of the war? I’m not Superman, if I don’t have support, I wouldn’t be here.’ Meanwhile, Assad’s invitation to allow Western reporters in to conflict zones has gone unaccepted.
The media fiction of a moderate opposition is a key element in the propaganda war. In Aleppo, Al-Nusra, which composes roughly 80% of the 22 brigades of hardened terrorist fighters in Aleppo – supplied with tanks and other heavy weapons from outside powers – is another name for al-Qaeda and has used several name changes to mask its extremist nature. As David Morrison put it on the openDemocracy website (17 Oct): ‘Al-Nusra is on the US State Department’s list of designated terrorist groups… To be precise, it was deemed to be an extension into Syria of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq...’ Yet the BBC (10 O’Clock News, Nov 5) still sanitises them by calling them ‘anti-government fighters’.
The Saudi war on Yemen has pushed one of the poorest countries in the world to the brink of starvation. 850,000 children face ‘acute malnutrition’, according to a UN expert. ‘Twenty million Yemenis, nearly 80% of the population, are in urgent need of food, water and medical aid,’ according to British journalist Julian Borger. The US navy is blockading Yemeni ports, one of the prime causes of the famine. This blockade, also backed by Britain, constitutes a war crime.
Corbyn has called for a ban on arms sales to the Saudis (Oct 29), while Amnesty has reported British cluster bombs – the very weapons the media accuses Syria of using in Aleppo – in Yemen. Theresa May has, meanwhile, defended Britain’s important relationship with Saudi Arabia, and is backed by Labour rightwingers such as Kevan Jones (ex Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence) and others.
The UK government says it has no military personnel based in Yemen, a claim disputed by a report by Vice News in April. This report, according Mark Curtis in the Huffington Post (Oct 18), ‘revealed that British special forces in Yemen… were playing “a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program.”’
British personnel are working in the Saudi military command centre, which determines bombing targets. These have recently included a prison in Hudayah, killing 60 people, and a funeral in Sa’ana killing and wounding 700, as well as numerous hospitals. Medecins Sans Frontieres has fled the country after four of its facilities were bombed, even though it had given the Saudis the GPS coordinates of its hospitals. Airstrikes have caused two-thirds of the 10,000 deaths in Yemen, with civilian areas systematically targeted.
Yemen occupies a strategic position on the Bab el-Mandab waterway, commanding shipping through the Suez canal. The former British base of Aden was important in protecting the British Empire’s traffic with India. In 1967, the British were forced out by Yemeni forces, which established a socialist republic, since defeated. But control over the vulnerable Bab el-Mandab chokepoint remains an important issue today. A Saudi victory in Yemen would give the US the ability to disrupt China’s world trade, including its vital energy imports, and ensure that Chinese – and Iranian – influence in the region is kept at bay.
A recent Foreign Affairs Select Committee report (September 14) blamed the former UK Prime Minister Cameron directly for the disastrous 2011 military intervention in Libya, with 3 main criticisms: poor intelligence; mission creep; and lack of support after the regime’s destruction. Only 13 MPs voted against war on Libya, including Corbyn and McDonnell. According to The Wall Street Journal, the committee found that ‘the [Gaddafi] threat to civilians was overstated.’
In Libya, there have been protests against imperialist intervention and a revival of support for Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s son, Saif, who has been in captivity in Zintan for over five years but who was probably released in April, could become a leading figure.
To ensure any move towards independence is crushed, France and the US are maintaining divisions. British special forces in Benghazi are supporting anti-Tripoli Libyan General Haftar, despite officially backing the Tripoli ‘government’. Meanwhile, the US has bombed Gadaffi’s hometown of Sirte, formerly an IS stronghold, to maintain internecine conflict. As one Libyan source put it: ‘Isn't it strange that every time we appear to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, Western countries come and bomb us back into it?’
The first action by France and Britain in 2011 was to secure the oil refineries. That is still the aim of imperialism now. In September, the four main oil export terminals were recaptured from the militias by the pro-western Libyan National Army. Oil production had slumped to a sixth of the amount it had been in Gaddafi’s time, but is now starting to rise. The potential of Libyan oil is enormous, with possibly the largest oil reserves in Africa, according to the New Arab website. A recent London meeting between Libyan officials and representatives of the USA, Britain, Italy, France, the IMF and World Bank showed clearly the predatory interests of the imperialist powers – powers which co-operate when it comes to sowing sectarian division and conflict, but compete for a share of the spoils.
"...the immediate reason for ratcheting up the anti-Assad pressure is control over energy supplies...The origins of the war can be traced back to 2009 when Qatar proposed a new pipeline to Turkey to run through Syrian territory. Assad refused, blocking western control over energy pipelines from the Persian Gulf to Turkey and on to Europe."