Syria is a global powder keg. Putin’s intervention in Syria in September led to ISIS blowing up a Russian airliner over the Sinai in November, killing hundreds of passengers. Two weeks later came the Paris massacre, where French intervention in Syria was cited as reason for killing at least 129 people and wounding hundreds more. Millions of Syrian refugees have flooded into neighbouring countries and now tens of thousands more into Europe and North America. Most of the Middle East states, including Israel, are involved in the conflict as well as the United States, Britain, France and Russia. The danger of an escalation of the conflict into another world war is real. The situation increasingly resembles the imperialist rivalries that preceded the Second World War, which saw a struggle for the re-division of the world on the part of the great powers.
How had this situation come about? It began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and dismemberment of socialist Yugoslavia during the 1990s. These events cleared the way for the intervention of the United States into Central Asia and the Middle East in a quest to consolidate its global hegemony by regaining control over the world’s supply of oil. This started with the first Iraq War in 1991, in which the United States was able to organize a global coalition which expelled Iraq from Kuwait, established its hegemony over the Middle East and manifested its unilateral world power. The Arab and Muslim states, led by Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Iran, had liberated themselves from imperialism in the period from 1952 until 1979. The First Gulf War marked the beginning of a Western effort to seize back control over the region by invoking first resistance to aggression, then humanitarian intervention and finally the war against terror. In reaction came the intensification of Arab fundamentalism focused around the emergence of Al-Qaeda led by a wealthy and austere Saudi Osama bin Laden. Members of his group attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. This attack became the excuse for a full-scale American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As could have been predicted, resistance by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Sunnis in Iraq forced the Americans into protracted wars which have continued into the present. American dominance over the region was assured by a massive military build-up in the region and its alliance with Israel, but also with repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Then came the 2011 Arab Spring revolts that swept the Arab world and resulted in the overthrow of repressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. But rather than seeing the triumph of democracy and the prospect of social justice, the years that followed saw the onset of counter-revolution in Egypt and the spread of chaos elsewhere, especially in Syria. It was Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states backed by the United States, Britain and France that were the major force behind this counter-revolution. Its major outcome has been the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and a wave of terror which has wounded Russian and France. Bizarre as it is, this fanatical and reactionary movement is bent on chasing the imperialist West as well as Russia out of Arab lands. From the midst of the millions of Arabs brought to Europe as workers, ISIS has been able to recruit a few to bring the war home to the West.
Henry Heller is a member of the Canadian Dimension collective, a professor and an historian. He is the author of The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011) and The Cold War and the New Imperialism, A Global History, 1945-2005 (New York: Monthly Review Press, July 2006), among other publications.