The Biden administration’s ending of a 20 year war in Afghanistan is a good sign but its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria last month are a bad sign. These airstrikes highlight the US military’s ongoing, but underreported, deployment to Syria.
In May, the AP claimed President Biden would soon put a stop to a US energy company’s ongoing theft of oil from a region in Syria that’s illegally occupied by US troops. So far, it’s not clear anything has changed. Syrian oil reportedly continues to be extracted by Americans, in what constitutes “pillaging” under international law. The company is owned by an ex-US special forces operative and a George W. Bush administration appointee.
Some may be surprised by this. Didn’t naked, take-the-oil imperialism die with Dick Cheney’s political fortunes? Hasn’t the US stayed out of Syria?
Sadly, the boots-on-the-ground occupation in eastern Syria is just the tip of the iceberg. Worse yet, even after 10 years of war and much of the country in ruins — and despite recent relative stability that’s allowed for the return of some of the millions of displaced — the Biden administration appears poised to prolong Syria’s suffering.
US troops have been in Syria since a 2015 deployment by President Obama, ostensibly to fight ISIS. In 2019, eager to take credit for ISIS’s defeat, President Trump announced a withdrawal, but later clarified he would be “keeping the oil” with hundreds of remaining US troops.
The Biden administration says fighting ISIL is still the priority in Syria. But even Western analysts admit that it’s local forces led by US adversaries like Iran’s Qasem Soleimani who did much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS. Trump assassinated Soleimani in early 2020. Likewise, Biden’s Syria airstrikes have targeted not ISIS but Iraqi militias that formed to save Iraq from an ISIS invasion in 2014.
Covert US intervention in Syria goes back further. The CIA was trafficking weapons to anti-government groups in Syria as early as 2012. The Pentagon paid thousands of mercenary salaries and smuggled heavy weapons to them from destabilized Libya. The US claimed to be “vetting” its support to “moderate rebels” only, but allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar had no qualms about supporting radical sectarian groups like Jaysh al-Islam, who infamously took Shia Muslim women as hostages and paraded them in cages.
Internationally championed formations like the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition proved to be little more than loose umbrellas shielding a disunited patchwork of local warlords with competing agendas. Many took their CIA-provided weapons and joined better-organized extremist groups like Jaysh al-Islam and ISIS – or were overrun by them. Others reconciled with the government, accepted amnesty offers and returned to their lives. The areas associated with the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011 — Daraa, Homs, Hama — have been back under government control for years.
Last month’s presidential election demonstrated the government’s restored control over most of Syria. Western governments called the election “fraudulent”, but large crowds of celebrating Syrians didn’t get the memo. Millions cast ballots from both inside and outside the country – mostly for incumbent Bashar al-Assad, who under Syria’s constitution begins his final consecutive term as president.
Refusing to recognize Assad means the Biden administration still believes overthrow attempts will generate coherent mass support inside Syria. Ten years of stubborn and terrible violence indicate this is hubris. The government’s coalition of support has only grown. It includes former opposition parties like the SSNP, minorities, significant numbers of Palestinian refugees, leftists and beyond. Will Biden really demand more Syrian blood as proof of the Syrian Arab Republic’s legitimacy?
Signs unfortunately point to yes. Biden has resisted calls to scrap Trump-era economic sanctions on Syria, which UN human rights rapporteur Alena Douhan says are “impeding access to supplies needed to repair infrastructure damaged by the conflict” and “[run] roughshod over human rights, including the Syrian people’s rights to housing, health, and an adequate standard of living and development.” It appears the US doesn’t want refugees rebuilding their homes.
Even more worryingly, the US has shown renewed signs of working with al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot which controls areas in northern Syria with Turkish backing. Following a rebrand, in March the notorious group’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani was given a platform on PBS’s Frontline to rehabilitate his image with a stately new wardrobe and flowery pro-Western rhetoric. US diplomat James F. Jeffrey admitted that the US considers al-Jolani “an asset” to its strategy in Syria. The Frontline episode coincided with lobbying by a network of think tanks to remove the group’s “terrorist” designation that prevents direct material support from the US.
We’ve seen this movie before, in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Libya, and too many other places. When the US military-industrial complex joins forces with local reactionaries to overthrow a government it doesn’t like, there are terrible consequences for the entire world.
In Syria, half a million have already died. We shouldn’t need that number to grow to relearn our lesson. It’s time for President Biden to reject the latest lobbying for regime change in Syria, lift the sanctions, bring the troops home, and stop stealing yet another country’s oil.