By Paul Roberts
On Wednesday President Obama made a nationally televised address to the US population to confirm the resumption of prolonged military activity in Iraq and its extension to Syria, albeit without the deployment of regular ground troops.
Obama has managed to partially reverse the defeat he suffered a year ago when, at the 11th hour, he had to cancel the colossal military offensive against Syria that the Pentagon had already mobilised for.
Imperialism’s earlier advances in the region – overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011, restoring Mubarakism with the 2013 Egyptian coup and weakening Assad through a proxy war – came to a halt. Obama could not win Congressional endorsement and the British parliament had rejected participation.
Now the US President has removed those obstacles and imperialism already has re-started making gains. Since July it has had success in Iraq. Taking advantage of the insurgency of Islamic State (IS – formerly called ISIS) it has been possible to force a change of government on Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki, who had opposed US military presence in Iraq, has been replaced as Prime Minister by Haider al-Abadi and the US military has returned to action in Iraq.
As a result of the IS offensive Iraq is territorially divided, the Baghdad regime is making concessions to US diktats and US forces are back in northern Iraq.
Northern Iraq is now tied more closely to the US than Baghdad, so the noose around Syria can be tightened. This was and remains the key priority for US policy in the region. Aside from Lebanon, all other states bordering Syria (Israel, Turkey and Jordan) help resource the ‘rebels’ fighting against Syria’s government.
Iran’s regional allies, particularly Syria and Iraq, have been weakened. Meanwhile Iran’s opponents, particularly IS, but also US and Israeli influence, have been strengthened.
Unlike a year ago, US public opinion backs this Middle East offensive, which is presented as targeting a terrorist threat to the US. About two-thirds support it, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. IS’s much publicised actions in Iraq and beheading two US journalists in Syria have contributed to the shift in public mood.
The US is not in a position to countenance another large scale war and is reliant on its allies and various relays in the Middle East. Because of its continued economic weakness, the US continues to cut its military spending, which as a share of GDP has fallen 1.2 per cent since 2010.
In Syria and Iraq the Islamist forces associated with Al Qaeda and IS have played their part as relays, helping imperialism divide both countries territorially and weaken the control of their governments. These forces prioritise their opposition to the regimes of Iraq, Syria and Iran, over their rhetorical hostility to the imperialists. But they have attacked US-allied Kurds in northern Iraq and threatened other US interests. They are more dangerous to imperialism than three years ago, having shifted from operating as isolated terrorist units to heavily armed mobile forces that have secured territory and resources and sustain popular support in areas they control. This attack on US allies is a motive for the imperialist bombing of IS-held positions.
Imperialism, which turned to these forces to introduce violent division into Iraq and Syria, has helped build up a potential opponent that threatens some US influence in this strategic region. So last year the US pressed its ally Saudi Arabia to scale back on building these forces. The flow of arms and fighters was reduced and in March this year the key organiser of the fighters – Saudi head of intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan – was replaced.
Obama’s speech this week does not mean the US has abandoned its goal of overthrowing the government in Damascus. Far from it, the Pentagon has made clear it wants to take direct military action in Syria. This would be an open act of war irrespective of who US forces fire at and some in the US want to attack Syrian government targets. Meanwhile the US has confirmed it is increasing support to the armed ‘rebels’ it backs against Assad. It will not obliterate IS forces, but hopes to redirect its activities towards the US’s own targets, Assad, Iranian-backed forces and Iran.
The conflict between different US objectives – overthrowing and weakening Syria and Iraq whilst simultaneously containing Islamist threats to imperialist interests – underpins the debate about strategy, and lack of it, within the imperialist camp. That is because any weakening of IS in Syria objectively takes some pressure off the Assad government. Hence the US commitment to work with Saudi Arabia building up the pro-Western ‘rebel’ forces, so as to maintain the offensive against the Syrian government. These so-called moderate ‘rebels’ are a negligible force. Also the BBC has reported that arms being provided to fight IS are being warehoused for later use against Assad.
In Britain the anti-war movement has consistently pointed out since 2001 that the US’s so called ‘war on terror’ spawned immensely more terrorism – that spread across the Middle East into North Africa and Central Asia. The rhetorical focus on terrorism was used as cover for overthrowing independent governments, including in Iraq where a de facto US governor was installed. IS-style forces were used in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi, with all the mayhem and destruction that followed being a direct consequence of US and NATO policy.
This week Obama has framed this renewed offensive in Iraq and Syria as a war against IS, again masking its imperialist objectives.