Syria, Iraq and Iran – which way for US imperialism?

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March 2015 marked four years of war in Syria. Despite their best efforts, NATO powers and their regional allies have failed to replace the government of President Assad with one more pliant to their objectives. They have succeeded only in wreaking massive destruction and suffering, and mobilising and strengthening brutal sectarian forces across the region – particularly the Islamic State (IS). Iran – formerly NATO’s main enemy in the region – has managed to gain influence. This was not NATO’s plan, and some in the ruling classes are now pushing for shifts in strategy. Splits in the US ruling class have come into the open, with a powerful section pushing for the US to develop its influence over Iran. From this perspective, destroying the Syrian government can wait.

Syria – four years of suffering

A report by the UN-supported Syrian Centre for Policy Research exposed the social destruction caused by four years of war:

  • 80% of the population is living in poverty, 30% in abject poverty;
  • life expectancy at birth has been reduced by 27% – to 55.7 years;
  • 58% are officially unemployed;
  • the overall economic loss is estimated at $202.6bn.

Syrians now constitute the second largest refugee population in the world, behind the Palestinians. 40% of those within Syria are internally displaced – this figure rises to 60% for Palestinian refugees in Syria. The economic chaos forced on Syria – partly due to US/EU sanctions – has meant that the government has had to reduce or cancel subsidies on necessities such as bread and energy (Alienation and Violence: Impact of the Syria crisis in 2014, March 2015).

Iraq – slow gains against IS

The ground offensive against IS in Iraq has begun, with a battle raging for the key Sunni city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Slow gains are being made, with Iranian advisers and Iraqi Shia militias central to the campaign. Despite having received $20bn from the US government, the Iraqi military is subordinate in this battle to these powerful Iranian-linked militias.

US imperialists split

The US strategy of a ‘pivot to Asia’ requires a better relationship with Iran, which is emerging as a key regional power. The war against Syria was previously seen as a prelude to ‘regime change’ in Iran, but with Iran remaining strong and helping lead the fight against IS in Iraq, sections of the US ruling class no longer see this as a practical option. Shifting the focus towards China and increasingly working with Iran to control IS is their pragmatic strategy.

Whilst the US continues to push forward its plans to train and arm suitably ‘vetted’ Syrian rebel fighters, careful statements from figures in the Obama administration suggest a softening of the US position on Assad’s removal. Secretary of State John Kerry conceded on 15 March that the government was open to the possibility of negotiating with Assad. This was immediately opposed by Britain and France, and was later qualified by the White House. However, after four years of war which have not gone to plan for the US, Kerry is reflecting the reality if the US is to accommodate Iran.

Softening the US stance towards Syria and Iran is opposed by parts of the US ruling class, as well as by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has offered Israel – nominally an enemy – access to its airspace for strikes on Iran. For these interests, Iran’s power in the region must be militarily challenged, with IS a tacit ally. US commentator Thomas Friedman echoed this in the New York Times: ‘why are we [US], for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?’ Characterising IS as ‘the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq’, he asked if the US should be arming IS instead of bombing them (18 March). General David Petraeus – who led the US military in Iraq, and subsequently the CIA – followed him in the Washington Post: ‘I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shi’ite militias, many backed by –and some guided by – Iran’ (20 March).

With Obama in the White House until 2016 it looks likely that the demands of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and their allies in the US ruling class, will begin to take less priority in favour of an increasing accommodation with Iran. Whether this means that regime change in Syria will no longer be a priority remains to be seen. For the people of Syria and Iraq, in countries awash with weaponry, armed gangs, and competing networks of international proxies, war will continue for a long time to come.

Toby Harbertson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015