The Syrian war, as well as being a civil conflict, is also an imperial battlefield. But not in quite the way you might expect.
Syria has not been a playground for American imperial activities. Until recently it has seen far too little intervention from the United States. But two countries – at best regional powers – which have imperial ambitions of their own, have filled that gap.
One is Russia. The other is Iran.
Russia’s aerial war and its violent toll are well known. Less visible perhaps is the presence of Iranian forces, and many Iran-backed paramilitary groups and militias, on the ground in Syria. They form a pro-government coalition which is one of the only reasons why the Assad regime has not disintegrated or met with systemic military defeat.
According to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, while the regime can only muster 20,000 soldiers, Iranian-supported forces total roughly 150,000. The disparity is so great that it may be difficult to believe. But it is undeniable and its effects are obvious.
The sectarian character of the war the regime is fighting has been widely described. Assad-supporting militias, orchestrated by Iran, commit terrible atrocities against Syria’s Sunnis – burning them alive in their homes, sexually assaulting their children, and so on; and, when the regime had power over them, it marginalised the county’s Kurdish population with the similar vigour.
Iranian influence has only increased this ethnic and inter-religious violence. The Iranian revolution is not an event Syria’s Sunnis can trust; the same goes for its modern defenders and acolytes. And it is clear that Iran has wider goals in Syria, not only to spread the revolution, but also to develop its own imperial project.
These ambitions stretch through Iraq and Syria and are palpable even further afield. In Iraq in particular, Iranian influence is profound. Iranian-supported militias have played a notable role in the war in that country.
The US has an interest in keeping Iranian power contained and its territorial ambitions confined. So too do many other Middle Eastern states, all of which fear an unrestrained Iran. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy and a designated terror group, has received something of a boost by being let off the leash in Syria.
Those nations which fear a rampaging Iran were not happy during Barack Obama’s term in the White House. His deal with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons was widely criticised on that front. It was seen as far too soft, far too concerned with preserving the appearance of peace rather than doing the hard work of creating and maintaining regional order.
Evidence has come to light that the relative importance afforded to the Iran deal by the Obama administration threw other vital tasks off course. One of these was the terrible situation which has been developing in Syria for six years.
During that time, Obama and his officials persisted with their attempts to get Iran to sign. And Iran used the Syrian war and its integral role in that conflict to gain leverage over the US.
When the Assad regime used sarin gas against civilians in 2013, killing hundreds even by a conservative estimate, the world was outraged and Obama promised action. He had talked tough on chemical weapons. He had promised to do something to limit and punish their use.
But he failed to do so. Obama failed to do anything meaningful to restrain Assad, directly leaving the way open for more of what he saw last week in Idlib, but also the terrible scenes of death by conventional weapons which we have witnessed for more than half a decade.
One of the reasons Obama backed down was due to Iranian influence and Iranian pressure. If he attacked Assad, he was told, he could say goodbye to any hope of a nuclear deal. And that was a signature policy; it had ‘legacy’ written all over it. All up in smoke.
Obama blinked; he backed down. The result is what we see before us in Syria.
In his swift action to punish Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Donald Trump should be applauded. Historically, presidents seem to act on the basis of correcting what they perceive to be their predecessor’s failures, and insofar as Trump is the anti-Obama, he is doing the people of Syria and the world a favour.
It also seems that the new president is sceptical of the Iran nuclear accord. His rhetoric on the campaign trail was very strong indeed. He denounced it as only he would: as a deal where the United States got ripped off badly, and humiliated.
In office he has not tried to dismantle the deal. But in striking Assad, he could be considered to be striking a blow against Iranian imperial ambitions, and this can only be a very good thing indeed.
This piece was originally published at the International Business Times.