So, let me understand... Shutting off the Iranian banking system from the outside world and depriving huge swathes of that population with access to the global economy is fine and dandy because of that country's nuclear research, but the new boogeyman-du-jour can't be sanctioned because of concern for the civilians?
US Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen made a remarkable statement this week. You see, the Treasury is currently engaged in talks with the Iraqi government about what to do about bank branches in ISIS-controlled territory.
This should be a no-brainer, right? Surely if the US can sanction Iran by getting it de-listed from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunication) system that forms the backbone of the international banking system they can do the same for ISIS-controlled banks, right? Well, maybe they could if they wanted to. But apparently they don't want to:
“This is a difficult problem, because our interest is not in shutting down all economic activity in the areas where [ISIS] currently operates. They are subjugating huge swathes of population, millions of people, who are still trying to live their lives and banks as everybody knows are an important lubricants for the economy.”
So, let me understand the logic here. Shutting off the Iranian banking system from the outside world and depriving huge swathes of that population with access to the global economy is fine and dandy because of that country's nuclear research (despite the IAEA's own admissions that there is no evidence that Iran has broken the Non-Proliferation Treaty or is attempting to build a bomb), but the new boogeyman-du-jour can't be sanctioned because of concern for the civilians? And this is coming from the same nation whose former Secretary of State said that starving half a million Iraqi children to death in the 1990s was “worth it” because it helped to undermine Saddam Hussein's government?
If you're starting to think that the whole ISIS dog and pony show is just that—a distraction designed to continue the terror hype and justify the ongoing police state—then welcome to reality. This is just the latest of a seemingly endless series of reports showing US complicity in the funding/supplying/equipping/training of these terrorist jihadis. Just last week The Daily Beast ran a story about how humanitarian aid from USAID and other organizations was going directly to ISIS. Even more outrageously, these organizations are paying “taxes” to ISIS for the privilege of entering their self-proclaimed territory. Even more more outrageously, their are ISIS people actually on the payroll of most of these organizations as “coordinators” negotiating access for aid convoys.
Before that there was the confirmation that the US had helped train ISIS fighters at a secret military base in Jordan in 2012. And before that there was the testimony of high-ranking Al Qaeda fighters that ISIS works for the CIA. And before that there were the CIA weapons deliveries to the Syrian rebels that (gosh darn, wouldn't you know it) somehow ended up in the hands of ISIS. And before that (if you want to get really old school), there was the admission in 2006 that the US Pentagon had been running a PSYOP on the American public since 2004 in order to make ISIS' forerunner organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, seem more important than they really were.
And that's just the US support for these jihadi extremists. The Gulf states' funding of the Salafis in Syria has been known and confirmed by multiple mainstream reports since the beginning of the conflict. The Times of Israel and other outlets have reported on an alleged relationship between Israel and the jihadis in Syria, with the so-called “rebels” receiving antitank weapons in exchange for protecting the Israeli border. Multiple sources have fingered Turkey as a key funder of ISIS and it has long been know that Turkey is a smuggling route for both arms and fighters to enter into Syria.
In short, there are at least half a dozen countries that have had more influence over what is currently going on in Syria than the Syrians themselves. But why is this? What do these various players get out of this? Of course, there are different motivations for each of these countries to be backing the jihadis.
Turkey, for instance, was threatened by a memorandum of understanding that was signed in July 2011 threatening to link Iran's South Pars gas fields with Syria via Iraq in a so-called “Islamic Pipeline.” The pipeline would have cut out Turkey and other NATO members completely as middle-men for supplying Gulf gas to Europe, but there's no worry of that now; the project has been shelved in the wake of the Syrian “uprising.”
Many of the Sunnis in the Gulf states who have provided private backing for these groups are motivated by traditional Sunni/Shia rivalries as well as more nuanced geopolitical motives. Former Saudi intelligence chief “Bandar” Bush is alleged to have told ex-MI6 head “Sir” Richard Dearlove that “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them." It is interesting to note that the area claimed by the Islamic State overlaps completely with a significant portion of the so-called “Shia crescent.”
The fall of Assad's government would also help to undermine Iran as a regional power player. The Saudis and even the Qataris see a potential to step into the power vacuum created by a destabilization of Iran/Iraq/Syria, and thus are happy to help with the current air strike campaign.
Israel, meanwhile, is dedicated to a strategy first formally proposed as the "Oded Yinon plan" in 1982 that called for, amongst other things, splitting Iraq and Syria up along sectarian lines: "Lebanon's total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precendent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track." This strategy is furthered by exacerbating the conflict and further inflaming tensions, an inevitable result of the current round of air strikes.
And the US and NATO allies are using this crisis (amongst other motivations) to strike out at Russia, of all places. Not only is the potential overthrow of Assad damaging to Russia's interest in the region (as they have close military relations with Syria), but as it turns out the falling price of oil may be part of a deliberate strategy to help bleed the Kremlin's coffers dry. Weeks ago, it was noted that the Saudis had somehow gotten the US to go ahead with air strikes on Syrian targets, something they had been cajoling Washington to do for years. How did they do this? By promising to pump oil like there's no tomorrow, thus sending the oil price plummeting. It is estimated that Russia's breakeven oil price (the price of oil that they need in order to meet their budget for the coming year) is $100. With Brent crude hovering in the $86 range, Moscow is feeling the pain. So the US supports air strikes on Syria, oil prices fall, and everyone (well, NATO and its allies, anyway) ends up happy.
Given the confluence of all of these forces seeking the destabilization of Syria (and Iraq), it is rather remarkable that the Assad government has lasted as long as it has. This has to be seen at least in part as a testament to his enduring popularity with vast swathes of the Syrian public (despite what we are being told in the Western media) and the continuing strength of the Syrian military (despite the "waves of defections" that we were being told was going to topple Syria from within). All things being equal, there is no doubt that Assad could (and indeed almost did) defeat the "opposition" forces entirely. All things are obviously not equal, however, and given the very fluid nature of the current situation it is entirely plausible that the current air bombardment campaign will morph into attacks on Syrian government forces.
This is still a dangerous political situation, however. Even though the US and its allies certainly could take on the Syrian military (although not without significant losses due to the countries' significant anti-air defense capabilities), such a direct conflict still brings with it the specter of Russian military involvement in defense of its ally. It would also further incite and inflame tensions with Iran. In short, there is almost no question that a forceful toppling of Assad by outside military intervention would threaten to ignite a much wider regional or even global conflict.
The alternative--the idea that ISIS or other "opposition" groups could finally succeed in overthrowing the Syrian government--brings with it its own problems. The destabilization of another secular government in the region and replacement by some form of Islamic theocratic government would further divide the region and further inflame religious sectarian strife. It would have knock-on effects in Iraq, struggling with its own deeply divided Sunni and Shia population, and threaten Iran, with whom Syria is a key regional partner.
So where will things go from here? While that question is obviously up in the air, there is one sad, inescapable truth: that question will not be answered by the Syrian people themselves.
Perhaps even more heartbreaking for a country that has been torn apart by this outside intervention and which has lost nearly 200,000 people over the course of this conflict, keeping the country in a state of chaos may in itself be the end goal of some of the players at the table (notably the US, Israel, and the NATO allies) who benefit from the destabilization that the conflict creates in the region. The idea of a deeply divided region, with neighbors pitted against neighbors and no clear regional power able to rise above the sectarian fray, plays directly into long-held plans to exert greater power over the region through divide-and-conquer tactics. For the NATO/Israeli nexus, simply keeping the chaos in the region going may be the end game, and sadly that is a remarkably easy thing to do, especially when they are funding, arming, supplying and training both sides of the conflict.