By JEFF MACKLER
During a Jan. 17 Stanford University speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. military will arm, train, finance, and otherwise support—for an indefinite time—a new, 30,000-strong, Kurdish and U.S.-allied Arab nation border force in northeastern Syria. This force in formation, effectively aimed at the partition of Syria, will be backed by at least 5000 U.S. troops installed in the three new and permanent U.S. military bases in Syria. Thousands more troops are stationed on U.S. aircraft carriers and other war ships off Syria’s Mediterranean coast, while thousands more operate from the major U.S. Air force base in Qatar.
Tillerson’s speech was a first for a top Trump or Obama administration official. But this former Exxon-Mobile chief essentially stated what U.S. policy has been since 2011 when the Syrian government’s attack on largely peaceful protesters demanding democratic rights and aid for drought-stricken farmers inadvertently provided the U.S. with a pretext for the now seven-year U.S.-orchestrated regime-change imperialist war that has cost the lives of some 500,000 Syrians and displaced nearly half the population.
In 2011 the compliant Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a U.S. NATO ally, opened its military bases to the U.S. to facilitate the entry into Syria of some 70,000 ISIS and associated fundamentalist terrorists from some 70 countries seeking the overthrow of the Assad government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The New York Times noted this in mid-January 2018, stating, “In 2011 Mr. Erdogan then financed Syrian rebel groups and later allowed foreign recruits to the Islamic State and other jihadist militant groups to stream through Turkey into Syria.”
Assad, as with Libya’s president, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, months earlier, was widely expected to flee for his life, leaving the oil-rich Middle East region open as never before to U.S. domination and exploitation.
Today, with ISIS largely defeated at the hands of the Syrian government army, which lost 50,000 soldiers in this effort, a quarter of its fighting force, aided by its invited allies—Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—the U.S. pretext has all but evaporated. Contrary to the arrogant imperialist braggart, Tillerson, the impending defeat of ISIS forces was qualitatively more a product of the resistance of the Syrian government and its invited allies than it was to the uninvited U.S. invaders and their selective bombing campaigns. Indeed, as long as ISIS forces proceeded south with the aim of capturing the Syrian capital of Damascus, they were allowed to proceed virtually unhindered by U.S.-allied forces.
Likewise, until November 2015, according to the Nov. 16, 2015, New York Times, “The United States refrained from striking the [ISIS] fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1,000 tanker trucks, because of concerns about causing civilian casualties. As a result, the Islamic State’s distribution system for exporting oil had remained largely intact.” Intact for sure, as ISIS until a few years ago pumped oil from the self-same oil fields that the U.S. today seeks to partition under U.S. control in Syria.
Tillerson pulled no punches in stating that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad would be allowed to take over areas that have been “newly-liberated” by U.S. bombing.
Covering Tillerson’s Stanford speech, The New York Times reported on Jan. 17, “Staying in Syria, Mr. Tillerson said, will help ensure that the Trump administration does not repeat what he described as the mistakes of former President Barack Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq before the extremist threat was doused and failed to stabilize Libya after NATO airstrikes that led to the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.”
In point of fact, the U.S. created “the extremist” threat in Iraq, ISIS, with the objective of overthrowing the government of that country. Similarly, the saturation bombing of Libya that destroyed that nation’s infrastructure also facilitated U.S.-backed mercenaries from Qatar who subsequently invaded and took control of that nation’s capital, Tripoli. Secretary of State John Kerry then proceeded to establish a new Libyan government that soon afterward descended into chaos and corruption, and today is marked by the open institutionalization of Black slavery.
Tillerson’s announcement struck a raw nerve in Turkey, whose air force almost immediately struck at U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northwestern Syria with the aim of preventing the formation of a contiguous region along Syria’s 500-mile east-west border with Turkey. For a few days following Tillerson’s partition announcement, a direct military confrontation between these two NATO allies seemed to be on the agenda, especially in the northeastern city of Manbij, where United States troops have been training and equipping Kurdish forces.
In the same vein, the main brunt of an ongoing Turkish attack has targeted the Syrian northwestern border district of Afrin, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Describing the SDF, The New York Times Bureau Chief Anne Barnard wrote on Jan. 24, “The United States military’s official partner in Syria is a militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Arab and Assyrian fighters but is dominated by the Y.P.G. [People’s Protection Units]. The Americans de-emphasize such details.”
The YPG maintains close ties to the imprisoned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, viewed by Turkey as the devil incarnate because of his longstanding struggle for an independent Kurdish state. The U.S. and Turkey have long designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The Times added, “The United States effectively gave a green light to the current Turkish offensive against Afrin, urging restraint but emphasizing that it does not work with the YPG there.”
Further complicating this equation is the fact that the remnants of the previously and still U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of so-called moderate anti-Assad rebels, most of whom long ago deserted to ISIS or al-Qaida, are now fighting in alliance with the Turkish Army against the U.S.-organized Kurdish-led forces!
Nawaf Khalil, a former official in the Syrian Kurdish local government, characterized Tillerson’s speech as “a clear American vision on the situation in Syria. … It finally seems like the White House and the Pentagon are on the same page in Syria.” Needless to say, any conception of a future Kurdish state will never take form under the auspices of imperialist troops. The right of self-determination for the long oppressed and geographically dispersed Kurdish people can only be contemplated with the complete withdrawal of all U.S. imperialist troops.
Kurdish illusions in the aims of U.S. imperialism notwithstanding, a Jan. 22, 2018, statement by James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq made the U.S. position unmistakable. “We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS. Now we need them to contain Iran. The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria.”
With the support of Syrian government allies—Russia, Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah—U.S.-backed forces, ISIS included, have today lost control of most of the estimated two-thirds of Syria that they previously occupied. The near-imminent and U.S.-projected fall of the Assad government has not come to pass. In a real sense this turn of events represents a significant defeat for U.S. imperialism, its NATO allies and associated “coalition.”
Today, the Trump/Tillerson threats to establish a long-term military presence in Syria are nevertheless aimed at extracting as many concessions regarding Syria’s future as the present relationship of forces allow. The overt conquest of Syria is today on U.S. imperialism’s back burner. In its stead will be the ongoing United Nations-backed “negotiations” in Geneva on the one hand and the Russian-sponsored negotiations in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the other.
Here, the U.S. hopes to achieve, at least in part, what it could not achieve on Syria’s battlefields. This includes perhaps an agreement for a future Syrian election process wherein President Assad will agree to eventually step down and perhaps to an associated agreement for greater Kurdish autonomy in parts of northern Syria, an eventuality that the Assad government has at least nominally embraced. Undoubtedly, control over Syria’s oil fields and future pipeline routes will be high on imperialism’s agenda as well as inclusion of pro-U.S. forces in a future reconstituted Syrian government.
Syria’s historic right to self-determination, mistakenly thought to be extinguished by significant portions of the “left,” has today been restored, at least in part. The overt conquest of Syria by U.S. imperialism and its allies in all their varied manifestations has been thwarted, but a U.S.-backed occupation will undoubtedly be used to extract future concessions.
The central responsibility of the U.S. and worldwide antiwar movement today is to mobilize in the streets to demand U.S Out Now! Under these conditions—that is, without a U.S. imperialist/colonial presence—will the Syria people best be situated to effectively deal with their own capitalist rulers.