In 2011, in the aftermath of a Tea Party takeover of Congress, stymying his domestic agenda, and facing reelection campaign with approval ratings in the mid-forties, Barack Obama ordered a raid on the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was reported to be living. His advisers were split on the raid, most counseling against doing it at that time. Obama decided to go ahead, showing he was a bold and decisive “commander-in-chief,” and basking in the glory after bin Laden was (probably) killed along with one of his wives, one of his sons and two other men. He got an 11 point bump in approval ratings, but after three weeks, more than half of it was gone. The remaining few points, however, may have given him what he needed to squeak out a win in 2012.
In October 2019, donald trump ordered a raid on the compound where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (nom de guerre of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri), the head of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS), was living. An undisclosed number of people were killed in the raid and accompanying airstrikes, including at least seven civilians, four women and two children. Al-Baghdadi committed suicide in a tunnel. trump claimed al-Baghdadi was a bigger prize than bin Laden’s, which may have been true but unfortunately for him, al-Baghdadi’s name was not as well known. trump also undermined his claim to vicarious heroism by his characteristic need to deride the masculinity of his foes. The white house statement on the raid read: “ a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions were killed with him. He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming.” The whimpering, crying and screaming narrative could not be confirmed. This raid came after IS had lost virtually all of its territory thanks to bombing by both u.s. and Russian forces, along with the Syrian military, and u.s.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and southern Iraq.
The al-Baghdadi raid came in the wake of one of trump’s biggest foreign policy gambles. In early October, he ordered the withdrawal of u.s. troops from northern Syria. The decision was nearly universally condemned – by military strategists who felt it would embolden IS, by democrats who see the troop commitment as an Obama-era legacy and basically hate anything trump does, and by supporters of the Kurdish-led authority in Northern Syria, known informally as Rojava. (“Rojava” means “west” in Kurdish, and the people attempting to create an autonomous radical democracy in that region want it to belong to all the ethnicities in the region, so they no longer call it Rojava. Its current name is North East Syria, NES, which unfortunately is not catchy and therefore has not caught on in the West (or should I say, in the “Rojava”?).)
The opposition to the troop pullout among NES supporters, including some progressives, was based on the premise that Turkey would see this as a green light to invade the region, pushing the Kurdish-led militias (the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, or SDF) miles deeper into Syria. Turkey had already invaded one section of the area, Afrin, in early 2018, forcing most residents to flee to other parts of NES. Indeed, on October 9, just days after trump withdrew 1,000 troops from the area, Turkey invaded NES. By the end of the month more than 300,000 residents had been forced to flee. The Turkish government, according to an interview with Kurdish activists in the u.s. left magazine Jacobin, has set up Turkish post offices and universities in Afrin and moved Syrian Arab refugees into the historically Kurdish area. (Rojava/NES has welcomed refugees from other parts of Syria, according to witnesses, providing them with food and shelter as well as political education to enable them to participate in the local councils which form the basis of the grassroots democracy.)
trump took credit for a ceasefire which was actually negotiated by Russia, limiting the Turkish incursion to a 19-mile “buffer zone.” The SDF made a deal with the Syrian government to help protect its remaining territory, but no one thinks this is good news for the future of the grassroots bottom-up democracy.
For the u.s. left, this was all something of a quandary. Opposing u.s. intervention in other countries is pretty much a bottom line we can all agree on, while disagreeing about nearly everything else. In this case, though, it’s clear that the presence of u.s. troops and aircraft, meager as they were, was the only thing that allowed the Rojava/NES experiment in socialist democracy to exist.
Trump Takes the Oil
The al-Baghdadi raid was likely meant to reassert trump’s reputation as a properly bellicose president. He then ordered u.s. troops back into northern Syria “to take the oil.” Recall that during the 2016 campaign, trump criticized Obama and g.w. bush for not taking Iraq’s oil to pay for the war against that country. On November 7, the UK Guardian reported, “‘We want to bring our soldiers home. But we did leave soldiers because we’re keeping the oil,’” he said on 1 November. “‘I like oil. We’re keeping the oil.’ The president suggested that taking possession of Syrian natural resources would be fair ‘reimbursement’ for the cost of going to war there.”
The Guardian headline read “Trump’s Syria strategy leaves Pentagon perplexed. The article described officials as variously claiming that no, the goal of u.s. troops in Syria was to deter IS regrouping, that we were only guarding the oil from them, not taking it, that “keeping the oil” was secondary to other military goals, that actually, we are trying to keep the oil out of the hands of the Syrian government and Russia, that it’s all part of our strategy to contain Iran’s influence in the region. A leaked cable from the top u.s. diplomat in Syria, william roebuck, complained that we did not try to deter Turkey’s invasion. Some u.s. officials worried that these actions violate the Authorization on the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after 9/11 in the rush to war in Afghanistan. Like they care about the AUMF.
So then trump decided since his military escapades in the Middle East were going so well, he would ratchet up conflict with Iran. Pentagon leadership presented him with a list of options, one of which was to kill Major General Qassim Soleimani, the top general of the Quds force. This same list, apparently, had been presented to both g.w. bush and Obama, and both of them had rejected killing Soleimani as likely to be counterproductive. According to the New York Times, “In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.” The article reports that they were “stunned” when trump decided to go for the most extreme option. That does not inspire a lot of confidence about those officials’ powers of observation.
On January 3, Soleimani was killed by u.s. drones on as he stood next to an Iraqi military commander – a u.s. ally – who was also killed. It seemed like we could be heading for all-out war with Iran, which for thirty years we have been cautioned would be unwinnable and catastrophic for both sides. Genuine fears of a u.s. nuclear attack propelled thousands into the streets both here and around the world in the days that followed. The Iranians retaliated by attacking u.s. bases, reportedly without killing anyone, and trump appeared to be satisfied that that proved his superiority and backed down from scary threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites.
The precipitating events for this round of hostilities were attacks against u.s. bases in Iraq. For anyone who doesn’t remember, Iraq is a majority Shi’a country that for many years was ruled by the Sunni-led Ba’ath Party, Originally formed in 1951 as a secular nationalist, pan-Arab and socialist party, the Iraqi party had a series of splits and coups in 1963 and 1964, during which it violently purged leftists and communists. Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, and during the 1980s, moved increasingly away from socialism, privatizing publicly owned oil and other industries.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran with u.s. support, following the Iranian Islamic Revolution and capture of the u.s. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Prior to 1980, Iraq had relied heavily on the Soviet Union for military and financial support. Since the u.s. invasion in 2003, following the bombing campaign in 1990 and twelve years of devastating sanctions, the Sunni influence in Iraq has been curtailed and the Shi’a-led government has moved steadily closer to Iran. Iran sent advisers and arms to help the Iraqi government fight IS, a Sunni movement, as it did in Syria. With IS at least temporarily in retreat, the u.s. increasingly fears that Iran has gained a dominant hold on the region. israel, which sees Iran as an existential threat (despite the fact that Iran has never carried out any significant actions against israel, while israel has engaged in cyberwarfare against Iran), is eager for a u.s. war with Iran.
All this leads the u.s. government and most media to hold Iran directly responsible for anything that happens in Iraq. Hence Soleimani, in the aftermath of his killing, was described by everyone from journalists Rachel Maddow and Bret Stevens to presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as having been responsible for killing “hundreds of Americans.” When I clicked on the links in any of the articles, I found no evidence of that. All the attacks in the litanies were either against u.s. forces in Iraq or against israelis.
What’s an Internationalist to Do?
Some Iranian scholars and activists have rebuked u.s. leftists for jumping to embrace Soleimani as an anti-imperialist hero. “When Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and other Arabs posted celebratory comments on the assassinations of two commanders they perceive as war criminals, Iran’s defenders immediately criticised these people, resorting to insisting they didn’t know anything about their own countries, claiming they are pro-imperialism. In so doing, these self-identified leftists and ‘anti-war’ activists once again downplayed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the region,” writes Malak Chaboun in al-Jazeera. Others have pointed out that the attack on Soleimani, who was seen as a hero of the Iran-Iraq war and credited with driving back IS, and also viewed as relatively incorruptible among a cohort of corrupt officials, has dampened significant protest movements in both Iran and Iraq.
So which is true? Was Soleimani the murderous architect of Iranian imperialism and repression at home? Or was he the symbol of resistance to foreign aggression and domestic corruption? Or is it possible that both things are true?
For some u.s. leftists, it’s not important. We don’t need to know or care whether protesters in Iran, Iraq and Hong Kong are dupes of u.s. imperialism or legitimate critics of their governments. We don’t need to care whether Evo Morales in Bolivia or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua are national saviors or leaders who abused the power they gained through social movements. All we need to know is that u.s. and israeli imperialism are always and incontrovertibly the worst thing there is.
For me, that’s not good enough. Yes, I oppose u.s. intervention. As we used to say during the bombing of Yugoslavia, if you’ve got a dictatorship and the u.s. starts bombing, then you’ve got two problems. But to say, “We don’t care about anything except what our own government is doing,” is kind of the flip side of “We only care what’s good for us.” It’s not an internationalist position.
As internationalists, we need to support liberation movements all over the world, because our goal is not to live in a pure country but to live in a just world. People who are being repressed violently by their own governments need to know that they aren’t alone – in Iran just as in Palestine. Situations can be complex, as they clearly are in Hong Kong. Movements can have progressive elements and reactionary ones, as is clearly true of the Yellow Vests in France. We’re capable of understanding complexity, but we have to be willing to take the time to learn about them, and to acknowledge that a binary position, which says there is u.s. imperialism and then there is everything else, was probably never a very useful worldview but is definitely not one for this time.
Catalyst Project has created an excellent study guide on Iran, with tons of readings on historical and current political and cultural context. Check it out at https://tinyurl.com/iranstudyguide.