Syria is a country of only 71,498 square miles in area, with a population of less than 24 million, and yet two global superpowers (the United States and the Russian Federation) and three of the largest regional powers (Iran, Turkey and Israel) are present on its territory. Israel has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967, and carries out almost nonstop incursions into Syrian air space today. In centuries past, prior to the heyday of European and Russian imperialism, Iran and Turkey were empires. While it is debatable whether they still qualify as imperial powers, they have never let go of their regional imperial ambitions. One way to understand them, regionally, is as “subimperial”: expansionist and interventionist, including militarily, in neighboring countries.
The U.S. and Russia have well-known histories of expansion and domination of peoples and territories. Imperialism was key to the very formation of both nations. But while Russia’s “manifest destiny” had been, for centuries, to expand into neighboring areas in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, it was in Syria that Moscow established its first overseas outpost. I will return to this crucial fact later.
In Syria, multiple imperial and subimperial powers have poured into one small country — some of them to protect a murderous regime, all of them annihilating any independent political aspirations among its people, dividing up sectors of Syrian society among themselves and their satellites, and denying Syrians the promise of a different future.
This unique situation was made possible by a combination of internal as well as international structures and dynamics involving five key powers — the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel.
The key internal factors are the colonial nature of the Assad family’s rule and what I have called the “conquered imperialists” (the title of my 2019 book published in Arabic) — that is, the Salafi-jihadist Islamists who played a central role in the Syrian tragedy and who bear an immense share of the responsibility for derailing the popular struggle and directing it away from its early, emancipatory aspirations.
Taken together, the unprecedented and peculiar convergence of international and regional imperial powers in one country, enhanced by the colonial nature of the Assad family’s rule over the course of more than half a century, as well as the “conquered imperialism” of the Islamists, amount to what I call (in a nod to the late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman) “liquid imperialism.” [Continue reading…]