Syria and ISIS: Some anti-imperialist observations and analysis

jaan_laamanThis article was submitted to Workers World by U.S. political prisoner Jaan Laaman.

With the mid-November ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks in Paris, and even more since the California shootings, there has been a constant stream of reports, official government statements and politicians’ remarks about ISIS and the war against Syria. There have also been reports of French, U.S., Russian and Syrian government air bombing raids on ISIS targets in Syria.

In the U.S. corporate news media, many of these reports and most of the analyses have been driven and limited by ideology and are often incorrect.  This weak reporting and outright misinformation is created to fit the U.S. government line on what is going on in Syria and with ISIS, also called the Islamic State. The fact is that ISIS, Al Qaeda and other reactionary forces have mostly maintained, and in some areas even strengthened, their presence in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Why are the U.S. government and its major allies seemingly unable to contain and limit these al-Qaeda-like groups and their increasing attacks on people outside the Middle East?  From where, and how did these groups first spring up?  It is important to trace some of this history, in order to more clearly see what might be more effective in stopping these attacks and terrorism.  And to be clear, by terrorism, I am using the actual definition of the term, that is, the indiscriminate use of violence against civilians in order to pressure the government and ruling powers.

Allow me to go back and begin with Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden pulled Al Qaeda together in the 1980s in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the then-Soviet-Union-supported secular and progressive government of President Najibullah in Afghanistan.  At that time, the U.S. government, completely caught up in Cold War anti-Soviet Union ideology, created the most expensive CIA operation in history.  The U.S. government supplied huge amounts of weapons and money to Al Qaeda, groups with a similar ideology and warlord groups fighting the progressive Afghan government.

Readers might remember, or could easily find, the rather famous photos of Ronald Reagan meeting with some of bin Laden’s top lieutenants at the White House.  At that time President Reagan called these forces “freedom fighters,” not terrorists, even though they were killing people in Afghanistan in the same manner as people were killed recently in Paris and San Bernardino.

Bush dragged U.S. into Iraq invasion

Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda turned its sights on the United States. Eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush pushed and dragged the U.S. into invading and occupying Iraq.

The lies and fabrications Bush and his government used to justify the war against Iraq are now well known. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  There also was no Al Qaeda in Iraq, under the secular and nationalist Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.  There were no bombs going off in Iraq, nobody was getting their head cut off, there was no warfare between various Iraqi communities and cities.

In fact, Iraq had a middle-class level of lifestyle.  Women went to school and work, were doctors, professionals and served in government positions.  Iraq had a lot of oil and sold it on the world market.  President Saddam Hussein’s government was sometimes labeled authoritarian and maybe rightly so.  But there were no active or known terrorist groups in Iraq until the United States invaded that country, overthrew its legitimate government and imposed a 10-plus-year occupation.

During the years-long U.S. military occupation of Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq came into existence, expanded and later part of it morphed into ISIS.  During this same period, other groups sprang up in the Sunni communities, along with some large and well-armed Shiite militias.  When the U.S. finally withdrew its army from Iraq, these armed sectarian groups, territorial and religiously based militias and terrorist organizations, took increasing control of parts of Iraq.

In 2011, the U.S., NATO, Qatar and other oil kingdoms launched an air war against Libya and its long-standing official government led by Muammar Gaddafi.  Under the pretext of protecting Libyan people, these countries bombed and attacked the secular nationalist state of Libya. The country of Libya, like Iraq, was also rich in oil and gas.  Libya readily sold its oil and gas, at market prices, to all buyers.  Gaddafi made sure the Libyan people shared in the country’s wealth.  Libya had the highest Human Development Index ranking in all of Africa.

Libya was also a firm and long-time supporter of national liberation and freedom struggles, from Ireland to Palestine, South Africa and more.  Like Saddam Hussein and Iraq, Gaddafi and Libya were long on the enemies list of U.S. imperialism.

Since the death of Gaddafi and the overthrow of his government, Libya has not had a functioning national government.  There is ongoing war and conflict; reactionary sectarian forces, including Al Qaeda and ISIS, have established themselves in parts of Libya. They have carried out terrorist attacks against Egyptians working in Libya, as well as against many Libyans.  Four years after the U.S.-led war overthrew the Gaddafi government, the Libyan state and government has disintegrated.  There is no central government, competing forces control sections of Libya and ISIS and Al Qaeda are openly active.

After the U.S.-led effort that overthrew the government of Libya, the U.S. turned its sights on Syria.  Like pre-invasion Iraq and Libya, Syria is an independent secular nationalist state.  Syria long had a well-functioning government and civil society.

Syria is composed of many religious and ethnic communities.  The largest group is Sunni Muslims.  There are also large minorities of Alawite (Shiite-related) Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and Armenians.  Syria, for years, has also been the home of a large number of displaced Palestinians who have had to flee Israeli wars and occupations, and for a shorter time was home to over a million Iraqi refugees.  While Syria has been close to various upheavals, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq, several Israeli wars and civil war in Lebanon, throughout this time it has remained a functioning state, with law, commerce and relative stability.

Many decades ago, the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, was faced with a Sunni uprising in the city of Hama led by the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Syrian army and security agencies forcefully put down this rebellion.  For the past 40 years Syria has been a country where people of all religions and ethnic groups co-existed.  Nobody was getting their heads cut off, no churches or mosques were being bombed.  Damascus and other cities were thriving centers of business.  Women were not restricted in education, business or employment.  As already mentioned, Syria hosted large communities of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.  Elections are routinely held and Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite Muslim, is the elected president.

The Syrian government has always been very strict about not allowing sectarian or religious violence. The U.S. has often labeled the Assad government as authoritarian. There also are some Syrian exile groups who are critical of the Assad government.  But up until about four years ago, Syria was a functioning, successful, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country.

As an anti-imperialist and a life-long revolutionary activist, I totally recognize the right of all oppressed and exploited people to speak out and struggle for justice. This includes the right, and when necessary the need, to demand and fight for change against the government and system.  Ultimately, all people have the right to change and overthrow a system that oppresses and exploits them.

There is a big difference between a people’s right to a freedom struggle against what they see as their oppressive government, and foreign powers and imperialist states interfering in the internal affairs and struggles within a sovereign country.  The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others have no legal or moral right to demand the overthrow and removal of President Assad and the Syrian government.  Nor do they have any moral or legal right to arm, train, pay for and advocate the overthrow of the legally constituted government of Syria.  This is just naked aggression and imperialist domination of a small independent nation by the major imperialist power in the world — U.S. imperialism.

During the past five decades, the secular nationalist government of Syria, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, has been viewed as an obstacle and enemy by the U.S. government for its policies in the Middle East. Syria has been a steadfast opponent of Israeli expansionism and a firm supporter of the Palestinian people.  It has refused to sell out the Palestinian people and their struggle for nationhood, or to accept dictates from the U.S. government.  Syria has long had friendly relations with Russia and previously with the Soviet Union.  All this has permanently placed the Syrian government in Washington’s crosshairs.

Starting December 2010 street protests flared up in the Middle East. By February 2011, two U.S. allied governments — that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the government in Tunisia — were overthrown by huge rallies of people.  Some months later there were demonstrations in Syria, too.  They weren’t huge or nationwide, but many people did protest.  Some of these demonstrations were met with police repression.  Very soon after the police crackdown, well-armed attacks sprang up in some Sunni areas. It has been documented that millions in money, arms and even training was going to these rebel forces in Syria.

Most of this aid, especially from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, went to extremist sectarian forces, especially Al Nusra and ISIS. Turkey kept an open border for foreign fighters to travel into Syria. This is how the Syrian war developed and even today continues to exist, a civil war imposed from outside.

ISIS imposed on Syria

There was no ISIS in Syria until U.S. and West European imperialism, Saudi and other Persian Gulf oil kingdoms, and Turkey began supporting and supplying the forces that have now seized territory in Syria. In the past year the U.S. and some other countries have begun bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.  Damage has certainly been done, but ISIS and Al Nusra remain in place.  Kurdish forces and in some sectors Syrian government forces, with assistance from Hezbollah units from Lebanon, have successfully pushed ISIS out of a few areas and contained them in other locations.

Some months ago Russia joined this fight against ISIS and other similar organizations in Syria.  Russia announced and advanced its plan to support and join with the Syrian government and its armed forces, against the reactionary sectarian and other anti-government rebels.  By all accounts, the major rebel forces are all sectarian reactionaries — ISIS and Al Nusra being the largest organizations.  The Russian strategy understands that aerial bombing alone will not defeat the anti-government forces.  There have to be land forces to fight, take ground and hold areas.

From an anti-imperialist perspective, we can see that Russia’s direct support of the Syrian government is not only international solidarity, but Russia is acting in its own material interests.  The fall of the Syrian government would mean the loss of Russia’s main long-time ally in the region. Further, the spread of ISIS activities would put Russia’s internal security at greater risk. The Russian strategy to support and add to the military strength of the Syrian government and its armed forces is a realistic strategy that can defeat ISIS and the other jihadi groups.

Even now, as ISIS expands terrorist attacks beyond Syria and Iraq, the U.S. government is still calling for the removal of the Syrian president and his government.  Imagine how many more people would be dead if the Syrian government had fallen four years ago, when the U.S. first began demanding and working for the overthrow of President Assad?  Imagine what all of Syria would look like today if there were no Syrian government?  Syria would look like Libya, but even worse, because there would be a lot more dead Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Armenians, Palestinians, Yazidis.

The United States has no legal or moral right to demand the overthrow of the Syrian government or president.  The U.S. has even less right to fund, arm and train Syrian or mercenary forces to try to overthrow the legitimate Syrian government. The U.S. has no right to invade or occupy Syria and we, people in the U.S., have to be extremely clear that we do not want the U.S. government to invade Syria, to send any U.S. troops into Syria.  Actually, even the U.S. aerial bombing of ISIS targets in Syria is illegal by international law.  The U.S. should work with and coordinate with the Syrian government — if it is interested in having U.S. aid — in any bombing raids it conducts within that country.

Syria is a sovereign nation.  Whether the U.S. government likes its president or not, violating the sovereignty of a country, whether sending warplanes on bombing raids or landing an invading army, is a violation of international law, is an act of war.

The government of the United States has consciously and/or unwittingly helped create the conditions for the rise of organizations that today it calls “armed jihadi terrorists.”  Specifically, the U.S. government and its wars and invasions — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now in Syria — have led to Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Superpowers and empires, throughout history, believe they can manipulate and control events and even countries. Sometimes they create or facilitate the rise of forces that they lose control over or that turn against them.  In recent history, in the 21st century, a clear case can be made that the political managers of the U.S. state/empire (elected and appointed government leaders) have made many mistakes and created wars and other situations that they lost control of, or that led to results that have been harmful to U.S. government and corporate interests, let alone to the people of the U.S.  And of course, it is always the U.S. public who pays for the wars, in money and blood, even though the people have very little input and control over what the government does in our name. It is important that we the U.S. people, become more familiar with the real facts and realities in Syria and the Middle East.

Jaan Laaman is a long-held political prisoner and editor of, which is a major voice of political prisoners in the U.S.  He can be directly contacted at: Jaan Laaman (10372-016), USP Tucson, P.O. Box 24550, Tucson, AZ 85734.