We’ve all heard it time and time again. Whether it is an argument in support of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, or just as often, opposed to it but claiming both sides are equally at fault, we hear that that “the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Here’s just one example among thousands of examples regurgitated, with never a simple fact-check, all over the left and right media: According to pro-Putin writer Max Parry, “For what the late Edward S. Herman called the ‘cruise missile Left,’ the 14,000 ethnic Russians killed in Donbass by the Ukrainian army since 2014 are ‘unworthy victims,’ as Herman and Noam Chomsky defined the notion in Manufacturing Consent.”
The purpose of this claim is to argue that, while Putin may have over-reacted by going all the way to invading, it was the Ukrainian army most at fault before the invasion. Even if it is admitted that Putin’s invasion is criminal and may have imperialist goals and is only using the plight of the Donbas Russians as an excuse, the claim is that this excuse is genuine.
Therefore, even many of those who oppose the Russian invasion equally oppose the Ukrainian resistance, and in particular its receipt of arms, because if Ukraine gets the upper hand, it will just continue to do to the “ethnic Russians” what it was previously doing, the same as what Russia is now doing to “the Ukrainians.”
While not quite as colourful as Putin’s claim that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against the ethnic Russians in Donbas, these claims are nevertheless serious and merit clear examination.
Let’s look at the claim again:
“The Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Is any of this true?
Yes – the 14,000 figure. Yes, 14,000 were killed in the conflict in Donbas between 2014 and 2022. That’s a terrible figure, and of course many times that number were wounded, the entire region is a dead zone covered by landmines, and some 3.3 million people fled the region (ie before the millions who have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion). But what of the rest?
“The Ukrainian army killed.”
Wrong – two sides were involved in the armed conflict – the Ukrainian army, alongside various irregular Ukrainian militia (often composed of people uprooted from their homes) on one side, and the Russia-backed and armed separatist militia of the two self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Donbas on the other, backed by Russian troops and mercenaries. Both sides shoot; both sides kill.
Ethnic Russians are a minority of around 38-39 percent of the population in Donbas, so it is unlikely that all or most killed are “ethnic Russians,” but that is not the point of this part of the assertion. The reason this fiction is inserted is to imply that people were killed “by the Ukrainian army” simply for being ethnic Russians, in a war of targeted ethnic extermination, rather than being victims of the cross-fire between the two sides shooting at each other.
So, let’s be clear: we are talking about 3,404 civilians, killed by both sides, over 2014-2021.
However, what about the last part:
“between 2014 and 2022.”
Well, yes, if we make the small change to 2014-2021, then this is correct in the abstract.
But the implication here is that there was a continual, ongoing bloody conflict (allegedly all caused by the Ukrainian army incessantly “shelling ethnic Russians”) right up to the Russian invasion. The invasion, in a sense, is simply the continuation of the ongoing bloodshed, at a perhaps slightly higher level.
In reality, almost all the 14,000 deaths, including almost all the 3,404 civilians, were killed when the open conflict was raging from 2014 till the ceasefire in mid-2015 – that is, during a time when no-one seriously denies the direct involvement (ie, invasion) by the Russian army. Let’s just look at the OSCE Status Reports from 2016-2022.
Of these 16 fatalities in 2021, 11 were from the first half of 2021: according to the OSCE Status Report as of 14 June 2021, “Over the past two weeks, the SMM corroborated four civilian casualties, all injuries due to explosive objects. This brings the total number of civilian casualties that occurred since the beginning of 2021 to 37 (11 fatalities and 26 injuries). Again, the majority of the casualties (27) were due to mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive objects.”
Meanwhile, the OSCE Status Report as of 6 September 2021 reported “a fatality, bringing the total number of confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of 2021 to 62 (15 fatalities and 47 injuries).” Hence, of the 5 fatalities in the second half of the year, 4 were before September.
From these three 2021 reports, we see a continual decline in fatalities in Donbas: 11 in January-June, 4 in June-September, 1 in September-December.
This trend continued into 2022. The OSCE Status Report as of 7 February 2022 reports “The Mission corroborated reports of a civilian casualty: a 56-year-old man suffering a leg injury as a result of small-arms fire on 29 January 2022 in the western part of non-government-controlled Oleksandrivka, Donetsk region. This is the first civilian casualty corroborated by the Mission in 2022.” In other words, to 7 February 2022, 2 weeks before the Russian invasion, there had been zero fatalities in Donbas in 2022.
Therefore, this is the trend in what Putin calls the “genocide” of the ethnic Russians in Donbas, even taking into account that the Russian-owned armed forces shoot and shell as much as do the Ukrainians, and that perhaps half if not the majority of deaths were due to landmines and unexploded ordinance, laid by both sides:
2016 – 88 deaths
2017 – 87 deaths
2018 – 43 deaths
2019 – 19 deaths
2020 – 23 deaths
2021 – 16 deaths, including:
– 11 deaths (Jan-June)
– 4 deaths (June-Sep)
– 1 death (Sep-Dec)
2022 – 0 deaths (before Russian invasion).
As we can see, the rate of death has continually declined until it reached zero. The Russian invasion, which resulted in thousands of deaths and untold injuries, destruction and dispossession, was “in response” (allegedly) to the zero deaths in Donbas in 2022.
The total number of civilian fatalities from 2016-2022 was therefore 276, about half due to landmines. Of course any number of deaths is far too many, and neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russia-owned side should be excused for violations and war crimes that resulted in civilian deaths.
But as there were 3,404 civilians killed from 2014 to 2022 before the Russian invasion, that means that 3128 of these (92%) occurred in 2014-15, when no serious observer denies the direct intervention of the Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weapons in the conflict.
The aim of this is not to let the Ukrainian government and army off the hook. Both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatist militia have committed war crimes (mostly in 2014-15), all of which should be condemned.
There is also room for criticism of the post-2014 Ukrainian government’s virulent Ukrainian nationalism, as a major factor leading to opposition among parts of the Russian-speaking population in the east; the fact that the Maidan was confronted by an anti-Maidan in the east was in itself an entirely valid expression of democratic protest. What was not valid was the almost immediate militarisation of the anti-Maidan by Russian-backed militia, armed by Russia, involving the direct intervention of Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weaponry, arbitrarily seizing control of town halls and chunks of eastern Ukraine.
Simon Pirani argues that neither the Maidan nor the anti-Maidan should be stereotyped as reactionary as they often are by different people, and in fact the “social aspirations” of the two “were very close,” but “it was right-wing militia from Russia, and the Russian army, that militarised the conflict and suppressed the anti-Maidan’s social content.”
It is important to understand that the Donbas is ethnically mixed; according to the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population of Luhansk and 56.9% of Donetsk; the ethnic Russian minority accounts for 39% and 38.2% of the two regions respectively. How ironic that Putin supporters justify the flagrant Russian annexation of Crimea by pointing to the 58% ethnic Russian majority there, when Ukrainians are the same size majority in Donbas! The ethnic Ukrainian population is then evenly divided between primary Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, but language does not equal ethnicity, and neither language nor ethnicity equal political opinion.
Surveys carried out in 2016 and 2019 by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin found that in the Russian-controlled parts of Donbas, some 45% of the population were in favour of joining Russia, the majority against. Of the majority against, some 30% supported some kind of autonomy, while a quarter wanted no special status. But in the Ukraine government controlled two-thirds of Donbas, while the same percentage (around 30%) favoured some kind of autonomy within Ukraine, the two-thirds majority favoured just being in Ukraine with no special status (almost none supported joining Russia). Even this should not be read to mean that, therefore, the chunks seized by the separatists are the regions most in favour of autonomy or separation – given the dispossession of literally half the Donbas population, it more likely means a degree of subsequent relocation between the two zones.
Hence neither ethnic composition nor opinion shows the two Donbas provinces are “Russian” regions that favour separation or even necessarily autonomy; they are very mixed in all aspects. The bits that have been seized therefore (the fake ‘republics’) are entirely arbitrary – there was no basis for these seizures in terms of any “act of self-determination;” and since the armed conflict took off after these seizures, neither can the seizures and the militarisation be justified as necessary armed defence against some violent wave of government repression of the anti-Maidan.
The foreign-backed militarisation of the anti-Maidan on the one hand polarised views on the edges, while on the other driving away the middle, including a large part of the original anti-Maidan civilian population; and the more the far-right and fascist Russian-backed, or indeed actual Russian, political figures and militia came to dominate these ‘republics’, imposing essentially totalitarian control and massively violating the human rights of the local population, the less this had anything to do with any genuine expression of valid opposition to the Ukrainian government’s policies. Alienation from this reality, combined with the war itself, led to literally half the population fleeing Donbas – 3.3 million of the original population of 6.6 million – either to other parts of Ukraine (the majority), or to Russia or Belarus.
In this context, it was entirely valid and expected that the Ukrainian armed forces would attempt to regain these regions conquered by separatist militia backed by a foreign power. Of course, one may well criticise Ukraine’s reliance on purely military means to regain these regions with complex ethnic/regional issues, almost inevitable given that its virulent Ukrainian nationalist stance precluded a more political approach. But to lay the majority of blame on this military response rather than the foreign-backed military aggression it was responding to is hardly logical.
Whatever the case, and whatever one’s views on the relative responsibility of the two sides over these years, the continual and decisive reduction of fatalities, injuries and ceasefire violations between 2015 and 2022 – from 3128 civilian fatalities in 2014-2015 to 0 in early 2022 – puts the lie to not only Putin’s claim that his bloody invasion, with its countless thousands of deaths, millions uprooted and cataclysmic destruction, was in response to “genocide” of “ethnic Russians,” but also to the more subtle plague on both your houses case that the Ukrainian army was waging a relentless war against “ethnic Russians” in Donbas.
As Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s horrific aggression and attempt to conquer and annex the south and east of the country, the quantity of arms being supplied to Ukraine by the United States and other western countries has steadily increased. As the country and people suffering from this naked imperialist aggression, the Ukrainians have every right to receive weapons from whoever wants to send them, regardless of the aims of those countries doing so, or the extraordinary hypocrisy of these imperialist powers.
However, much leftist commentary has increasingly seen this supply of arms as evidence of the war becoming a “proxy” war in which Ukraine, rather than fighting for its very existence, is essentially just acting as cat’s paw for an alleged US imperialist aim of waging “war against Russia,” perhaps even aiming to “Balkanise” Russia. A quick review of some left media just the last couple of days brings up an article that labels the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “U.S. war against Russia” which “threatens world peace;” while even in Socialist Worker, which strongly condemns the Russian invasion and certainly cannot be accused of softness on Putinism, we can read that “today any element of a war of liberation against Russian imperialism is wholly subsumed by, and subordinated to, Nato’s war on Russia.”
An important part of this discourse is the claim that supplying arms goes against the importance of “negotiations,”, which allegedly the US and western states are vetoing, along with the assertion that the US aim is to “weaken” Russia rather than just help Ukraine. Some of this is based on a number of ‘gotcha’ moments when one or another representative of the US ruling class said something a little out of line. Yet a serious analysis will demonstrate that these assumptions and alleged dichotomies have no basis in reality, and the more serious US imperial analysts highlight interests and fears that not only show the ‘gotcha’ moments have little to do with western policy, but ultimately state very similar fears to many of these leftist analysts regarding the potential for a dangerously destabilised Russia resulting from a loss of Russian ‘credibility’, and therefore advocate rather similar limits to US support and stress on negotiations.
‘Negotiations’ versus war?
Writing in Counterpunch on April 29, Richard Rubenstein asks: “If Putin now offered a ceasefire in order to negotiate the status of the Donbass republics and to assert other Russian needs and interests, would the U.S. and Ukraine be justified in refusing to talk in order to punish or “weaken” him?” And answers: “Of course not!”
There is just so much unreality in all these discussions that begin with such statements. “Would the US and Ukraine be justified”? The US and Ukraine are two different countries. What the US does is one thing, but Ukraine is under invasion and occupation. Ukraine is fighting for its existence. If it decides it wants to fight on in order to get as much of its country back as it can and to thus have a stronger position at the bargaining table, that is up to Ukraine, not the US or western leftists. If Ukraine decides it cannot handle the superior Russian firepower any longer and is forced to sign a ceasefire with humiliating conditions, that is up to Ukraine, not up to the US or western leftists. Ukraine’s decisions, in other words, should not be subject to the approval of either western imperialism or the western imperial left. Either way, we should simply demand Russia get out.
Now the first assumption in these endless articles spouting the wisdom of “ceasefire and negotiations” and of Rubenstein’s question above is that Russia is dying to negotiate, and has “reasonable” concerns, or as Rubenstein puts it, “other Russian needs and interests,” which apparently exist inside another sovereign state. I wonder if Rubenstein would seek to justify the ongoing US occupation of part of Cuba’s sovereign territory as due to “US needs and interests.” The related assumption is either that Ukraine is opposed to negotiating, or that many in Ukraine, perhaps Zelensky, would be ready to negotiate, but the US is opposed to negotiations or to any concessions to Russia, and is “banning” Ukraine from negotiating or compromising, or by pumping in arms, it is “encouraging” Ukraine to fight and not negotiate.
This scenario, however, is entirely fictional. No-one making these endless statements has ever presented any evidence whatsoever. They just make it up, because it fits their schema that this is a “proxy war” being waged by US imperialism, which is apparently using Ukraine and Ukrainian lives for its (the US’s) “war on Russia,” as opposed to the actual war of conquest being waged by Russian imperialism against its former colony that stares anyone in the face who wants to look.
It is a remarkably western-centric view, even for the always western-centric Manichean “anti-imperialist” left, to imagine that the millions of Ukrainians who have risen up at the grass-roots level in an extraordinary mobilisation to defend Ukraine’s right to exist as a state and nation are not doing so in their own interests but are merely being fooled into being “proxies” for US imperialism’s schemes.
Ukraine has been either negotiating, or offering to re-start negotiations, more or less continually. It should not be obliged to; Ukraine would be in its full rights to simply say Russian troops need to leave Ukraine and there is nothing to negotiate except the pace and logistics of that withdrawal. But it negotiates anyway because of the position it is in. So when western leftists demand Ukraine do something it is already doing, what they really mean is that Ukraine should surrender to Russia’s “reasonable” demands.
So they should come clean – what do these wise western sages demand that Ukraine do to satisfy Russia so that it will allegedly agree to a ceasefire and negotiations? For the most part, they demand Ukraine accepts Russia’s full program of Ukrainian surrender.
Even on paper, Russia’s demands for Ukrainian surrender – no right to join a security alliance of its choice, demilitarisation, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and of Donbas – look remarkably like Israel’s “reasonable” demands for Palestinian surrender, including recognition of annexation by force and the whole package. In both cases, justification for calling such maximum demands “reasonable” derives easily from the view that “there is no such thing as Palestine/Ukraine.” Just as western imperialist leaders reject one and support the other, the western imperial left do exactly the same but merely reverse them. In contrast, the Russian and Israeli leaders of small-scale imperialist states engaged in old-style conquest-imperialism have long had a healthy respect for each other’s projects.
Ukraine’s negotiating proposal: No NATO, no military solutions to occupied regions
But are these “reasonable” Russian demands even what Russia is really waging this war for?
Let’s take the NATO demand. It is hard to understand why anyone can still think that Russia launched this war due to its alleged “security concerns” about “NATO enlargement.” NATO enlargement took place in 1999-2004, when 10 countries joined, including the only three “on Russia’s borders,” ie, the three tiny Baltic states. The four that have been allowed into NATO at different moments in the last 18 years were small Balkan states nowhere near Russia, often after long and difficult processes.
Ukraine applied to join in 2008, and the accusation that the US is pushing to “expand” into Ukraine is based on the fact that NATO did not say “no” that year, as its charter prevents it saying no to any European country. Yet 14 years later, Ukraine has still not even been given a Membership Action Plan (MAP), to allow it to begin attempting to meet the conditions of membership. No serious observer thinks Ukraine has any chance of being admitted for many years or decades.
But in any case, Zelensky made the major concession on NATO in negotiations just a few weeks into the war. It’s full elaboration as a written proposal was on March 30. The first few points of the 10-point plan are as follows:
Proposal 1:Ukraine proclaims itself a neutral state, promising to remain nonaligned with any blocs and refrain from developing nuclear weapons — in exchange for international legal guarantees. Possible guarantor states include Russia, Great Britain, China, the United States, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, and Israel, and other states would also be welcome to join the treaty.
Proposal 2: These international security guarantees for Ukraine would not extend to Crimea, Sevastopol, or certain areas of the Donbas [ie, the areas currently controlled by Kremlin stooges]. The parties to the agreement would need to define the boundaries of these regions or agree that each party understands these boundaries differently.
Proposal 3:Ukraine vows not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or troop contingents. Any international military exercises would be possible only with the consent of the guarantor-states. For their part, these guarantors confirm their intention to promote Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
Note the second point also touches on Russia’s other surrender conditions. One of them, the Crimea issue, is further elaborated on in point 8:
Proposal 8: The parties’ desire to resolve issues related to Crimea and Sevastopol shall be committed to bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia for a period of 15 years. Ukraine and Russia also pledge not to resolve these issues by military means and to continue diplomatic resolution efforts.
If anybody can find any evidence of US “rejection” of Ukraine’s plan, any attempt to “ban” Ukraine from making these concessions, please provide sources. Such evidence will not be forthcoming. In late April, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, far-right Republican Senator Rand Paul accused the Biden administration of provoking the war by “beating the drums to admit Ukraine to NATO.” In his response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the White House would be open to an agreement that resulted in Ukraine becoming “an unaligned, neutral nation.” “We, Senator, are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make,” Blinken told Paul. “Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table,” he added. While he saw no sign Putin was ready to negotiate, he said “If he is and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support that.”
That is not because Biden or Blinken are great peaceniks or not imperialists. It is simply that the “no negotiations” position imputed to them by many excitable leftists is simply not a position that interests the main body of US imperialism (the odd talking head or armchair warrior notwithstanding).
As opposed to the imaginary and evidence-free view that Ukraine may want to negotiate but the West will not allow it to, others claim (just as wrongly) that Ukraine refuses to negotiate, but the US and the West must negotiate anyway. This is a rather odd demand – since Russia is not invading the US or western Europe, and they are not invading Russia, what exactly is the US supposed to negotiate about?
The point being, of course, that these “anti-imperialists” here reveal themselves as super-imperialists: they are demanding that the US and the West negotiate “on behalf of” Ukraine! So presumably, if the US or France “negotiates” with Putin for Ukraine to cede Crimea and Donbas to Russia, Ukraine should happily accept being divided up by imperialist powers, and this Kissingerian chessboard ‘realist’ geopolitics is now supposedly the essence of an emancipatory leftist position!
Is there a new US aim to “weaken Russia”?
On a related track, the statement by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25 that the US aims to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do these kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine” created great excitement. This is supposedly a declaration either of real, or new, US aims in this war. Now, even if interpreted this way, this would prove nothing about the war of resistance waged by the Ukrainian people against imperial Russia’s attempt to wipe them off the map. Obviously, US imperialism has its own reasons for aiding this resistance (indeed, providing large numbers of the very weapons that it not only did not provide to the anti-Assad Syrian rebellion, but actively blocked others from providing). But if the US aims to weaken Russia via supporting this Ukrainian resistance, that is not a choice made by Ukraine; Ukraine did not invade Russia to give the US an avenue to weaken Russia. Russia invaded Ukraine; if Ukraine’s resistance allows the US to weaken Russia by aiding it, Russia can thank Putin for that.
But in any case, the statement can mean virtually anything; Ukraine simply maintaining its right to existence, or to exist without suffering large territorial losses – a defeat of the aims of the Russian invasion – will weaken Russia. So anyone not advocating a Russian victory over Ukraine could also be considered to be in agreement with Austin. By providing any aid at all since Day 1, the US was helping “weaken Russia.”
Some proclaim that this was not the original US aim, but Austin’s statement heralded a “new” strategic turn in US policy. But if so, they need to explain what has changed in practice. Previously, they claim, the US was aiding the Ukrainian resistance with the aim of helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion – for its own reasons, of course, but within these confines. Now the US is doing the same thing, aiding the Ukrainian resistance, but with the aim of weakening Russia. Pardon me for being confused about what has changed in practice.
A common claim is that by supplying arms to Ukraine, the US aims to drag out the war, so as to bog down and wear out Russia, the weakening of Russia being paid for by Ukrainian death and suffering. Social media is full of western leftist wits proclaiming “the US will fight Russia to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.” Apparently, the reason millions of Ukrainians are resisting the Russian invasion is not because they don’t want to be overrun by a brutal imperialist power, but because they are unconsciously acting against their own interests, dying for a US aim of weakening Russia. If only they knew what these brave and smart western lefties knew, that their real interests lie in accepting colonial oppression, occupation, massacre and dispossession.
The obvious question arising from this assertion that the US wants to drag out the war to weaken Russia is ‘how can the war end more quickly?’ On the one hand, the assertion could mean that by allowing Ukrainians to better resist Russian conquest, these western arms prevent the rapid end of the war via total Russian victory, with its attendant massacres and war crimes, imposition of a fascistic regime of repression, and annexation of a large part of Ukraine. If these leftists advocate a rapid end of the war via this conclusion, so it is not “dragged out,” they should say so openly and stop beating around the bush.
But if they do not mean this, the only other way for the war to end more quickly and not bog Russia down would be for a dramatic increasein the quantity and quality of arms deliveries to Ukraine, so that it could convincingly and quickly evict Russia from its territory; while Russia would still be somewhat weakened by defeat, at least the war would not drag on, and hence the alleged aim of getting Russia stuck there and drained would not be fulfilled. In that case they should be denouncing the US for not supplying Ukraine arms of sufficient quantity and quality to do this, but only enough to fight on but not win. But it is unlikely they mean this either.
So if the idea is not a rapid end to the war via crushing Russian victory, nor via Ukraine swiftly driving out the invader, then the statement has no meaning, it is merely a piece of cheap rhetoric.
But of course, as tankies become pacifists, it is back to demanding “ceasefire and negotiations.” No rapid Russian victory, no total Ukrainian victory, but also no dragging out the war, because as we know, “negotiations” can end the war. That always works, and no-one ever thought of it before.
All Ukraine has to do is surrender to Russia’s “reasonable demands,” leading to a satisfied Russia calling a ceasefire; or if not, the US must negotiate this surrender “on Ukraine’s behalf.” Leaving aside how much this Imperial Left stance contradicts leftist stances in virtually every other struggle by a nation and people against imperialist aggression, occupation and conquest, how realistic is this ‘strategy’ on its own terms?
Russia engaged in a war of old-style conquest imperialism
To answer this, how has Russia responded to Ukraine’s proposals in March, discussed above, for no NATO, for neutrality with security guarantees, no joining any military blocs, a 15-year negotiation on Crimea with no military solutions? With what we have seen since – the complete destruction of Mariupol, the Bucha massacre, all the rest of the horror since. The last thing Russia wanted was for Ukraine to call its bluff.
The problem is that this “anti-imperialist” left do not understand the nature of imperialism; or by claiming that Russia is not an imperialist power, but rather just a large capitalist power with average expansionist tendencies, they imagine the same imperialist logic does not apply.
Russia is engaged in a war of late 19th century style imperialist conquest. Obviously, it is not unique in the world as western media claims, we’ve had Israel, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and others engage in wars of conquest and annexation in recent decades, greeted by either western indifference, or avid western and especially US support. Pointing out western hypocrisy is politically important as we confront the onslaught of self-serving and laughable propaganda about the world being divided between “democracy and autocracy,” about there allegedly being a “rules-based international order” that no-one ever violated before Putin did, and so on. But fighting hypocrisy does not inform analysis of a concrete situation. These other cases are all of relatively small countries; the largest, Indonesia, was eventually defeated in East Timor (with the aid of a change in imperialist policy, indeed imperialist intervention in defence of east Timor), though not in West Papua. Turkey held back from formal annexation of northern Cyprus which it still occupies; and although it never faced western sanctions, its puppet ‘republic’ is not recognised by any country in the world. Obviously Israel/Palestine is the most globally consequential of these cases.
But this is the first time a major global imperialist power has engaged in 19th century-style ‘direct conquest’ imperialism since 1945. This is not a morality contest here, obviously the US invasion of Iraq was extraordinarily brutal and criminal, but the aim was not conquest as such; and of course both the US and Russia and others have engaged in massive and brutal “interventions” after being “invited in,” but once again this has not been about conquest as such. We need to wrap our heads around this fact.
In late April, Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, stated that Russia planned to forge a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas in eastern Ukraine; this is rather obvious anyway – that is why Mariupol had to be conquered and destroyed, being right in the middle and a key port. These are of course Russian-speaking regions, where the ‘liberator of Russians’ slaughtered them. But he went on, noting that “control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed.”
In other words, the entire south of Ukraine, its entire Black Sea coast, is Russian imperialism’s aim. Not only linking Donbas to Crimea, but also seizing Odessa and linking Crimea to the Russian-controlled fake ‘republic’ of Transdniestria, which Russia seized from Moldova decades ago (how amazing that a region under effective Russian control is also “oppressing” Russians now!). And if we take the more extreme ‘Eurasianist’ views into account, Moldova – a neutral state, like Ukraine, outside NATO – should probably also be worrying about its existence.
Of course, the enormous mobilisation of Ukrainian resistance has probably put the brakes on the more extreme Russian geographic aims – at this stage it looks like Russia will consolidate the Donbas to Crimea link conquest and will not have the capacity to venture beyond to Odessa – but that doesn’t alter the fact that these are Russia’s aims. And even just consolidating this part of the conquest locks Ukraine out from most of the Black Sea.
The evidence that Russia aims to annex its new conquests can be seen wherein “Russian officials have already moved to introduce the ruble currency, install proxy politicians in local governments, impose new school curriculums, reroute internet servers through Russia and cut the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts” in these conquered regions. Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for infrastructure, also stated that Russia intends “to charge Ukraine for electricity generated by the Ukrainian nuclear plant that Russian forces commandeered in the early weeks of the invasion.”
The Black Sea, of course is full of hydrocarbons. Let’s not make things too complicated. Russian imperialism wants them. It certainly doesn’t want its former colony to share any of them, and by cutting it off from most of its sea coast, can effectively blockade it into submission.
Where to now for US policy?
The opinions on where US policy is heading in response to this situation range from ‘the US will continue to escalate until it leads to war with Russia’ to ‘the US will cut a deal with Russia and sell out Ukraine’. The scenario involving the US pressuring Ukraine into making a compromise that is not fully just once it feels Russia has been weakened enough, rather than pushing for full victory, is just as possible, if not more, than the projections of it drifting into war with Russia. Whatever the case, it is clear that the US and other imperialist powers are supporting Ukraine for their own reasons and their interests are not identical.
What then are the US interests involved? Obviously, US imperialism has already ‘won’ due to Putin’s invasion: US ‘security’ hegemony over Europe is now stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War, NATO is now adding new members, the many years of the Russian-German gas pipeline development have suddenly come to nothing. Obviously, US and western imperialism more generally does not want a Russian conquest of the entire Black Sea; and allowing Russia conquer much beyond where it already held in Ukraine before the invasion would not be good for US or NATO “credibility.” But once that drive is defeated, there may be little appetite to keep backing Ukraine.
The simple fact is that US imperialism has not been in any “war drive” against Russia, and has no interest in one. There were no signs of any US build-up against Russia before the war, and while relations have been tense since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have been relatively normal, including a great deal of cooperation in places like Syria. While a certain amount of anti-Russian rhetoric may have characterised some US statements in comparison to the more accommodating Franco-German approach, this can be understood as part of keeping NATO – its tool for hegemony in Europe – “relevant”, in particular among some of the more anti-Russian eastern European ruling elites (and even this had been wearing thin before Putin saved NATO – just a few months ago, a string of east European right-wing populist rulers were increasingly close to Moscow).
But it is important to not confuse this symbolic US-Russia “rivalry” – related to credibility, the size of the countries, military power, Cold War hangovers – to actual inter-imperialist competition. Their economies are just too different in both character and size for the US to see Putin’s hydro-carbon-based economic fiefdom as a serious global competitor – that award goes to rising, hyper-dynamic Chinese imperialism. And getting bogged down in Ukraine is not conducive to the US ‘pivot to Asia’ where its Chinese rival is based, though for this very reason it may be very much in China’s interests.
Yes, massive quantities of arms have gone to Ukraine, but there have also been clear limits: the US blocking of Poland from delivering warplanes for instance; and a no-fly zone has been placed off-limits by the US and the West from the outset.
One problem with confusing some rhetorical flourishes with US imperialist policy is that each of these ‘gotcha’ moments has been walked back by other US government figures. After Austin mentioned weakening Russia, Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained this simply meant “our objective to prevent that [Russia taking over Ukraine] from happening … but, yes, we are also looking to prevent them from expanding their efforts and President Putin’s objectives beyond that, too.” When Biden said that Putin shouldn’t remain in power, this was immediately hosed down by others in the US government. And when Rep. Seth Moulton stated “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates responded “President Biden has been clear that U.S. forces are not and will not engage in a conflict with Russia. We are supporting the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.” Finally, in early May, the US government imposed new limits on the intelligence it shares with Ukraine.
Richard Haas, Thomas Friedman, Eliot Cohen: Voices from the US ruling class
Indeed, we can also find ‘gotcha’ moments of a different kind. On May 9, Biden expressed concern that Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”
This concern – to give Putin some “way out” to avoid the kind of destabilisation that could result from an outright defeat for Russia – is likely much closer to real US imperial interests that the imaginary spectre of the US aiming to “Balkanise Russia”, more likely the very thing everyone wants to avoid. Such concerns are consistent with those expressed in several pieces by leading US ruling class strategists in the serious media. While these strategists do not create US policy, the explanations they give for what US policy should be are not only logical, but also coincide with the very limits of Biden’s approach, and express a number of similar concerns.
The first of these is an article in Foreign Affairs by Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has served in various US governments since the late 1970s, including for Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration, as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department from 2001 to 2003 during the lead-up to the Iraq war. So no lightweight. Haas begins:
“In principle, success from the West’s perspective can be defined as ending the war sooner rather than later, and on terms that Ukraine’s democratic government is prepared to accept. But just what are those terms? Will Ukraine seek to recover all the territory it has lost in the past two months? Will it require that Russian forces withdraw completely from the Donbas and Crimea? Will it demand the right to join the EU and NATO? Will it insist that all this be set forth in a formal document signed by Russia?
“The United States, the EU, and NATO need to discuss such questions with one another and with Ukraine now. … To be sure, the Ukrainians have every right to define their war aims. But so do the United States and Europe. Although Western interests overlap with Ukraine’s, they are broader, including nuclear stability with Russia and the ability to influence the trajectory of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
“It is also essential to take into account that Russia gets a vote. Although Putin initiated this war of choice, it will take more than just him to end it. He and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will both have to consider what they require in the way of territory and terms to halt hostilities. They will also have to decide if they are prepared not only to order an end to the fighting but also to enter into and honor a peace agreement. Another complexity is that some aspects of any peace, such as the lifting of sanctions against Russia, would not be determined by Ukraine alone but would require the consent of others.”
Discussing several scenarios, Haas sees the scenario in which Ukrainian success reaches the point that it attempts to take back all territory seized since 2014, rather than only territory seized in 2022, as a destabilising outcome:
“… it is near impossible to imagine Putin accepting such an outcome, since it would surely threaten his political survival, and possibly even his physical survival. In desperation, he might try to widen the war through cyberattacks or attacks on one or more NATO countries. He might even resort to chemical or nuclear weapons. … Arguably, these aims are better left for a postconflict, or even a post-Putin, period in which the West could condition sanctions relief on Russia’s signing of a formal peace agreement. Such a pact might allow Ukraine to enjoy formal ties to the EU and security guarantees, even as it remained officially neutral and outside NATO. Russia, for its part, might agree to withdraw its forces from the entirety of the Donbas in exchange for international protections for the ethnic Russians living there. Crimea might gain some special status, with Moscow and Kyiv agreeing that its final status would be determined down the road.”
Discussing the lessons learned from the Cold War and the balance achieved which guaranteed peace (between the superpowers that is), Haas notes that these are consistent with the very limitations of Biden’s strategy:
“From the outset of the crisis, the United States made it clear that it would not place boots on the ground or establish a no-fly zone, since doing so could bring U.S. and Russian forces into direct contact and raise the risk of escalation. Instead, Washington and its NATO partners opted for an indirect strategy of providing arms, intelligence, and training to Ukraine while pressuring Russia with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”
From here on “ … success for now could consist of a winding down of hostilities, with Russia possessing no more territory than it held before the recent invasion and continuing to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction. Over time, the West could employ a mix of sanctions and diplomacy in an effort to achieve a full Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine. Such success would be far from perfect, just preferable to the alternatives.”
The second piece was by long-term imperial columnist Thomas L Friedman in the May 6 New York Times. Like Haas, Friedman is no stranger to being hawkish when he believes such a stance is in US interests, but takes a similar view to what actual US interests are in this case.
He also warned that certain US actions “could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict — and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be,” which is all the more dangerous given Putin’s unpredictability, and the fact that “Putin is running out of options for some kind of face-saving success on the ground — or even a face-saving off ramp.”
Moreover, for Friedman, the problem is not only Russia, as “President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has been trying to do the same thing from the start — to make Ukraine an immediate member of NATO or get Washington to forge a bilateral security pact with Kyiv” something Friedman clearly sees as against US interests.
Like Haas, he ultimately thinks that Biden has the right balance:
But my sense is that the Biden team is walking much more of a tightrope with Zelensky than it would appear to the eye — wanting to do everything possible to make sure he wins this war but doing so in a way that still keeps some distance between us and Ukraine’s leadership. That’s so Kyiv is not calling the shots and so we’ll not be embarrassed by messy Ukrainian politics in the war’s aftermath. The view of Biden and his team, according to my reporting, is that America needs to help Ukraine restore its sovereignty and beat the Russians back — but not let Ukraine turn itself into an American protectorate on the border of Russia. We need to stay laser-focused on what is our national interest and not stray in ways that lead to exposures and risks we don’t want.”
While much of the western left sees the US making Ukraine its ‘protectorate’, Friedman sees this as an evil Ukrainian plot which the US must be, and is, on guard against. “But we are dealing with some incredibly unstable elements, particularly a politically wounded Putin. Boasting about killing his generals and sinking his ships, or falling in love with Ukraine in ways that will get us enmeshed there forever, is the height of folly.”
Before moving to the third, more hawkish, piece, it is worth noting that the editorial in the May 19 New York Times makes similar points to Haas and Friedman. While stating that the US goal to help Ukraine rebuff Russian aggression “cannot shift,” nevertheless “in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions.” The editorial warns that “a decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.” Therefore, “as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.”
So, apart from the odd gaffe, it seems difficult to find serious US ruling class opinion saying what much of the left is claiming it is saying. Actually, they appear to saying remarkably similar things to each other! Perhaps we can find the evidence in a more serious hawk?
Cohen does not necessarily insist Ukraine must take back all territory lost, but he argues that Ukraine must define what its objectives are and that US policy should recognise “it will be up to Ukraine to decide what it wishes to accomplish.” Having borne “the burdens of blood and sacrifice on a scale not seen since World War II” and with a cause “indisputably just,” Ukraine “has every right to decide what it can and cannot accept and strive for.” This is combined with the fact that Russia “has acted with unspeakable barbarity” and these “moral facts” should therefore “modify or even outweigh coolly geopolitical calculations of the European balance of power.” And when the war ends, western objectives should include helping to put Ukraine “in a condition to defeat further Russian aggression.”
Cohen is an unalloyed partisan of US imperialism, but, from this, obviously hypocritical, perspective, we can at least say there appears to be more respect for Ukraine’s self-determination than the more geopolitically-oriented views of Haas and Friedman, with their insistence on distinguishing the US from the Ukrainian interest.
Therefore, it is here we may expect to see some evidence of the alleged US imperialist desire to wage war on, to humiliate, or even ‘Balkanise’ Russia.
In reality, Cohen warns precisely about the dangers involved in Russia’s defeat. He does not want Russia defeated in Ukraine in order to bring it to its knees and humiliate or ‘Balkanise’ it; on the contrary, he argues that while Ukrainian victory is necessary for other reasons, the negative side-effects of this are nevertheless very much against US and western interests.
“But all of this leaves the problem of Russia. … If it is convulsed from within, it is less likely to be dominated by liberals (many of whom have fled the country) than by disgruntled nationalists. Putin may go, but his replacements are likely to come from similar backgrounds in the secret police or, possibly, the military.” And it will be “more than usually difficult to bring it back into a Eurasian order that it, and no one else, has attempted to destroy” with its “utterly unjustified” attack on Ukraine with “its exceptional brutality, the shamelessness of Russia’s lies and threats, and the grotesqueness of its claims to hegemony in the former Soviet states.”
The result will be “the hardest task of American statecraft going forward: dealing with a Russia reeling from defeat and humiliation, weakened but still dangerous.” Indeed, the old Cold Warrior even sees the old Soviet Union as a more “rationalist” enemy, whereas a defeat for Putinist Russia “will be much more like dealing with a rabid, wounded beast that claws and bites at itself as much as it does at others, in the grip not of a millennial ideology but a bizarre combination of nationalism and nihilism.”
Far from wanting to make “war on Russia”, Cohen thinks that apart from strengthening states on Russia’s borders, all the West will be able to do is “hope against hope that the new “sick man of Europe” will, somehow and against the odds, recover something like moral sanity.”
All US and western imperialist wars since 1945 have been against countries in regions of the former colonial world that they aimed to maintain domination of – from Indochina to Iraq and Afghanistan to Panama and Grenada and Nicaragua, and the current drone wars – and the list goes on. Quite simply, there has been no US “war drive” against Russia, not because the US does not engage in war drives, but because post-Soviet Russia has neither been an ideological enemy – quite the opposite – nor powerful enough to be a genuine imperialist rival.
On the contrary, it is Putin’s sudden resort to primitive conquest-imperialism that has thrown the established imperialist modus vivendi between the US, Europe and Russia to the woods, and the western reaction has been crisis management on the run. While the US has, naturally enough, taken full advantage of what Putin has offered them up on a plate by restoring unchallenged US hegemony in Europe via a strengthened NATO, the point is that this is the US goal in itself; there is no US or western interest in massive destabilisation, a huge black hole, in a gigantic country like Russia which, just a few months ago, was plenty lucrative for western capital, and was an integral part of the world capitalist economy.
“The United States continues to receive more and more immigrants, and, as far as I understand, the white, Christian population is already outnumbered … White Christians have become a minority, less than 50 percent now. … Russia is a vast territory, from its western to eastern borders, it is a Eurasian space. But as regards culture, even language group and history, this all is undoubtedly a European space, as it is inhabited by people of this culture. … we have to preserve all this to remain a significant centre in the world.”
Putin’s appeal to “great replacement” theory, his dog-whistle to the “White Christian” world that must be “preserved” lest it become a minority, demonstrates the clear ideological basis of Putin’s status as demi-God to the global far-right, fascist, Nazi and white supremacist movements.
Here’s what David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, had to say when leaving Russia after his five-year sojourn there:
“In this holy cause we must share one immutable principle: all people of European descent, no matter where they reside in the world, are brothers. … Russia has always been a bulwark to the East, the frontier of our race, and it is now on the frontline of our current struggle. It is my prayer that Mother Russia be strong and healthy, may Mother Russia be free; may she always be White. When a racially aware Russia and reawakened America become united in our cause, the world will change. Our race will survive and together we shall go to the stars!”
Years later, exploding with joy following former US president Trump’s chummy press conference with his good mate Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Duke lavished praise on Trump and Putin, believing his wish had come true: “Bravo Trump! Bravo Russia! Russia has values America once had and America the values that Communist Russia had!”
Similarly, French far-right leader Eric Zemmour claims Putin “restored the state,” “stepped in as the last defender of the Christians of the East”, “defends national sovereignty, the family and the Orthodox religion”, contrasting this to liberal, multicultural French politics.
This may be confusing to some who have recently heard that Putin claims he wants to “de-Nazify” Ukraine by bombing it to bits; propaganda can be quite creative. Perhaps more confusing is that there are fascists and Nazis among the vast array of political forces in Ukraine resisting Russia’s imperialist invasion today and intervention in Donbas earlier.
But these are the inherent contradictions of fascism; always based on extreme nationalism and racism, it is near impossible for fascists to collaborate when their “great nations” are in conflict. Try to imagine a collab between Greek and Turkish fascists, for instance.
Not that we should underestimate the malevolence of the Ukrainian fascist forces; we will come to that below. But as we will also see, they are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate where to be anti-Putin is a non-starter; virtually the entirety of fascist, Nazi, white-supremacist and ultra-rightist forces everywhere in the world have been strongly aligned to the Putin regime; while the political and military forces Russia has installed in the Donbas region of Ukraine are also overwhelmingly fascist. Anyone considering taking seriously Putin’s rhetoric about “de-Nazifying” anywhere should read on for a reality check.
Material basis of Russian imperialism’s alliance with global fascism
The ideological basis of the alliance demonstrates that it is not simply a matter of expediency as sometimes suggested (eg, that Putin’s alliance with European fascism only represents a convergence of interests against the European Union). Nevertheless, this ideological alliance does relate to the concrete material interests of Russian imperialism as it challenges established imperialist powers.
While it is overblown rhetoric to compare Putin’s authoritarian regime, with its parliamentary façade, and its savage litany of crimes against humanity, to Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship and the Holocaust, this does not mean there are no parallels. German imperialism had been the loser of WWI, and the victorious ‘Allied’ imperialists imposed the winner-take-all Treaty of Versailles on Germany. The rise of extreme German nationalism embodied in Naziism reflected the struggle of the weaker, defeated, imperialist Germany, alongside weaker Italian and Japanese imperialism, against the dominant imperialist powers of the day. These weaker powers had to rely on direct conquest – unnecessary for British and French imperialism which still owned all the world they had earlier conquered, or US imperialism whose economic hegemony was growing. Extreme reactionary ideologies glorifying the mythical past as the ruling class crushes the masses while mobilising them for military conquest with nationalist, racist and militarist slogans fitted well with the needs of these powers.
In broadly similar fashion, the Russian ruling class emerging from the wreckage of the USSR, now heading a smaller Russian Federation, saw itself as ‘defeated’, given the effective domination Russia had exercised over the USSR. While the USSR was not conceived of as an empire, for the reactionary oligarchic elite that arose on the ashes of ‘communism’, the independence of the non-Russian republics was seen as “loss of empire,” and the mythical past of the ‘Great Russian Fatherland’ of the Tsarist Russian Empire extolled as something to aspire to. Of course, there was no unequal treaty a la Versailles imposed on Russia; while the massive immiseration of the Russian working class was imposed by the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other western state-connected privatisation ‘experts’, the Russian oligarchy was completely complicit in this gigantic plunder, indeed it was its main beneficiary. However, the economic collapse this partnership-in-plunder led to could domestically be blamed on “the West” alone, as a propaganda device to deceive the masses. While I have argued elsewhere that ‘NATO expansion’ cannot be blamed for Putin’s aggression, in the big picture the retention of a US-led, Cold War relic like NATO, as opposed to a new pan-European security architecture, was a further factor that could be used to harness a new Russian nationalist world-view as the rising capitalist elite around Putin strove to overcome its humiliation and strike out as a new, relatively weak, imperialist power.
The strategic orientation of this new Russian imperialism consisted of a number of planks.
The first, more long-term, was embodied in its far-right ideology of ‘Eurasianism’, the idea of uniting Europe and Asia under Russian leadership, which would entail a defeat of off-shore US imperialism and its current hegemony in Europe. Russia, in other words, as the connection between Europe and China; since the turn of the 20th century, geopolitical strategists from the US, Europe and Russia have seen dominating ‘Eurasia’ as key to world domination. In many ways, one could argue this was slowing occurring; Russia’s domination of natural resources, especially oil and gas, and the pipelines, connected it to energy-hungry European and Chinese imperialism as the grand centre. To some extent this dovetailed with the Franco-German imperial project of a Europe more independent of US imperialism; French and German opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, the Russian gas pipeline to Germany, the active diplomacy they engaged in with Russia and Ukraine to prevent war, contrasted to the more confrontational US approach; for the US, avoiding this EU-Russia imperial consortium had been a strategic aim since the end of the Cold War. Beefing up NATO was a major tool of this US strategy, because providing “security” to European imperialism is the main way the US has continued to exercise hegemony there.
Yet how does this Eurasian conception relate to the second leg of Russian imperial strategy – the tendency of the emerging weaker imperialist power to rely more on traditional imperialist methods of direct conquest, straight land grabs, similar, in some way, to weaker German, Italian and Japanese imperialism in the 1930s? Again, Russian imperialism doesn’t possess the global economic hegemony exercised by US and European imperialism, or that China is gaining. This difference should not be exaggerated; the absurd western rhetoric about Putin overturning an imaginary “rules-based international order” is too laughable to require comment; obviously conquest was a past staple of western imperialism, while Russian imperialism has also quietly expanded economically. But the relative difference has become sharper over Ukraine. Obviously one could point to the criminal US invasion of Iraq to highlight the hypocrisy of current western propaganda, but not only was the sheer hubris of this war widely seen as the onset of decline of US global hegemony, but the argument here is not about levels of morality or invasions and violations of international law as such; the US of course is highly “revisionist” in such matters. Rather, the issue if one of formal territorial conquest/annexation as a characteristic of emerging Russian imperialist expansion, which the US has no need for and which even Iraq did not concern.
Yet by invading Ukraine (rather than just Crimea and Donbas, or small parts of Georgia and Moldova), Putin has destroyed the more gradual advance of the Eurasian project; NATO, and US “security” hegemony over Europe, is now more solid than for a generation, and Russia’s European links have been destroyed, symbolised by Germany’s abandonment of Nordstream. While obviously this is the result of catastrophic miscalculation by Putin, it also signifies a limitation of the Eurasian project in its gradualist form: while domination of oil and gas gives Russia bargaining power, in economic terms it means Russia remains eclipsed as the ‘second world’ natural resource supplier of more powerful European and Chinese imperialism. A revanchist Russian Empire, however, drunk on past glory, and its outsized role as the world’s second largest military power, envisages itself as the leader, the centre, of Eurasia. Therefore, asserting its military superiority was important to its “credibility”; it wasn’t going to allow a third world country like Ukraine to demonstrate any independence from the Fatherland. According to professor Jane Burbank, Ukrainian sovereignty was always a problem to ‘Eurasianist’ ideology, its leading ideologist, Alexander Dugin, calling it a “huge danger to all of Eurasia”. Russian leadership of Eurasia required Russian-led unity of the three ‘core’ ex-Soviet states (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), and, as a minimum, control of the whole north coast of the Black Sea was an “absolute imperative.” A strategic waterway full of hydrocarbons, Russian imperialism did not plan to share the Black Sea with its former colony.
As such the seizure of the Black Sea coastline from the recalcitrant child represented economic, political, military-gendarme, ‘credibility’ and nationalist-ideological objectives at once.
Given these specific needs of the weaker, emerging imperialist power, and its ideological emergence from alleged “national humiliation”, it is logical for the deeply reactionary, revanchist regime to cultivate ties to other extreme right, fascist parties around the world, which can act in Moscow’s interests by challenging the western imperialist leaders from the right without challenging the same capitalist system they are all part of. Not unlike the role of western fascist parties as allies of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy.
A third dimension of Russian imperial strategy has been to strike out beyond the former Soviet sphere, to exert power in regions such as the Middle East and Africa; the intervention of the Russian air force on the side of Assad’s genocidal regime has been the most prominent, alongside a smaller scale intervention in the Libyan civil war, and support for various African dictatorships’ military and ‘security’ needs, via the Wagner paramilitary. These armed interventions accompany growing Russia economic penetration, even if at a far lower level than western or Chinese capital; in Syria, Russia grabs significant parts of the economy while entrenching itself in vital infrastructure such as ports and bases.
While the plunder of Syrian resources as ‘compensation’ for aiding Assad is old gunboat-style imperialism, Russia’s gendarme role in aiding the regional counterrevolution has been appreciated by the US and its regional allies, especially Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Given the sharing of Syrian air space with the US air force (which bombed ISIS as Russia bombed the anti-Assad rebels), the Russian role had more a ‘sub-imperial’ character, rather than that of ‘imperial rivalry’ with US imperialism. But the war also entailed a Bush-Cheney-style “war on terror” Islamophobic ideological construct that was very attractive to the global far-right, who almost universally saw the Assad regime as a defender of “western civilisation” against “Islamic barbarism,” the ideology espoused by the Syrian regime itself. So Assad was another key connection between Putinism and global fascism.
Alexander Dugin: Putin’s fascist alter-ego
The alliance between Putin’s far-right, uber-nationalist ‘United Russia Party’ and global fascism should already seem obvious from an ideological perspective; but in any case, relations between the Russian and global far-right are also mediated by Russia’s own crop of far-right ieologues. The most well-known is unabashed leading Russian fascist, Alexander Dugin, “former adviser to Sergei Naryshkin, a key member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who was appointed Russian foreign intelligence chief in 2016.” While Dugin and Putin are not personally close (indeed Putin appears to be closer to a number of other far-right ideologues), and some of their emphases are different (which however would require a different essay), nevertheless Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics – which advocates his Russian-led ‘Eurasianist’ empire “from Dublin to Vladivostok” – is “assigned to every member of Russia’s General Staff Academy.” While Dugin lost his position at Moscow State University in recent years, Putin seems to have drawn closer to Dugin’s uber-reactionary positions in the same period. If not strictly Putin’s fascist ‘philosopher king’ as he has been dubbed, he has acted as a kind of fascist alter-ego, a Rasputin-type figure in the background to the Russian elite’s descent into fascistic thinking.
According to one source, “Gestated in anti-communist right-wing activism during the waning days of the Soviet Union, indebted to a specifically anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment philosophical embrace of authoritarianism, irrationalism, and hyper-nationalism, Dugin dreams of a reborn Orthodox Tsarist state surpassing the borders and spheres of influence as they existed before 1989, of a Novorossiya built not on socialist principles, but fascist ones.” In fact, he criticises traditional fascisms in his 1997 book, Templars of the Proletariat, for moderation; by contrast, in Russia there will emerge a truly “fascist fascism.”
In Foundations of Geopolitics, Dugin asserts that “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning. It has no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness;” hence Putin’s view that Ukraine has no right to exist and was merely a communist plot by Lenin to destroy the Russian Fatherland, expressed in a long article, and then in the speech he gave before his invasion of Ukraine, is sourced from his fascist philosopher alter-ego. Dugin’s new Tsarist Empire would be a pre-modern one (while happy to use modern technology for weapons that obliterate large numbers of humans); in Novorossiya, according to Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory, “everything is to be cleansed off… science, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, ‘truths,’ understanding of Being, time and space. All is dead with Modernity. So it should end. We are going to end it.” Clearly, the alliance with the western far-right’s war against liberalism, multi-culturalism, homosexuality, feminism, ‘decadence’ and so on is based on common “values.”
Another source of this Duginite and increasingly Putinite worldview is the Russian Orthodox Church, which promotes the ‘Russian World’ concept, according to which the peoples of the historic territory of ancient Rus are one, including those in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. At the third annual Assembly of the Russian World in November of 2009, Moscow Patriarch Kirill stated that “if we consider the Russian Federation with its present boundaries, then we have sinned against the historical truth and artificially cut off millions of people who are aware of their role in the fate of the Russian World.”
The global far-right and Putin
We will now review the global far-right’s connection to Putin’s regime; hopefully the next sections can be used as a handy guide when Putin supporters pedal out the argument that Putin is fighting “fascism” in Ukraine in the form of the 1000-strong Azov regiment.
Following French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen’s, visit to Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of State Duma, discussing “issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement, and gay marriage,” the Front supported the annexation of Crimea, stating that “historically, Crimea is part of Mother Russia.” She visited again in 2017. Her rival on the French far-right, Eric Zammour, reacted to Crimea by proposing a “Russian alliance, the only way to kill both the myth of federal Europe and to finally break away from the American protectorate.”
Similarly, the Nazi-like Jobbik party in Hungary called Putin’s fake Crimea referendum “exemplary.” Leader Gabor Vona visited Moscow in May 2013 at the invite of right-wing nationalists at Moscow State University, where he was hosted by Dugin. The Moscow visit was considered “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” Bulgaria’s far right Ataka party similarly “insisted that Bulgaria should recognize the results from the referendum for Crimea’s joining to the Russian Federation.”
Not surprisingly, Putin’s Crimea ‘referendum’ – carried out after Russian military occupation forces staged a coup and placed in power the far-right ‘Russian Unity’ party that had received 4 percent of the vote at the previous Crimea elections – did not bother with many international observers. However, Russia did invite a few. Alongside observers from the French National Front, Jobbik and Attaka, the rest of the invitees list – Austrian Freedom Party, Belgian Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord, and Poland’s Self-Defense – reads virtually like a roll-call of the European far-right.
Other European far-right leaders have followed the National Front and Jobbik in their Moscow pilgrimages. In February 2017, three politicians of the German neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) “flew to Moscow in a private jet paid for by the Russian government,” at a cost of some 25,000 Euro. This was not the only time Moscow was caught funding far-right parties; the French National Front has also been a recipient of Moscow cash which helped finance its 2014 election campaign.
Another far-right leader invited to Moscow by the State Duma, in March 2018, was Geert Wilders, of the arch-Islamophobic Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). According to Wilders, “Vladimir Putin is a leader, whatever you think of him. … I applaud him as I applaud Mr. Trump for being leaders, who are standing there on behalf of the Russian and the American people … We lack that kind of leadership in Europe.”
The St. Petersburg forum launched a World National-Conservative Movement (WNCM), to which some 60 global fascist organisations were invited (full list here), an expanded version of the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (AFP), an existing pro-Putin alliance of 20 fascist parties, led by Fiore, Griffin and Le Pen. The AFP itself was invited into the WNCM; the dozens of other extreme right parties not only covered Europe and the US (including unabashed Nazis like the Nordic Resistance Movement, and the US Confederate League of the South), but also further afield, such as the South African white racist Front Nasionaal, the Nazi-inspired Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Thailand’s viciously anti-democratic National Alliance for Democracy, the ‘Yellow Shirts’.
The presence of Greece’s Golden Dawn – which explicitly displays Nazi symbols, and who sing the Greek version of the Nazi Party anthem – is hardly surprising, given the close alleged ‘historic’ connection between Russian and Greek fascism and ultra-conservative ideologies connected to Orthodoxy. Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos even received a letter while in prison from Dugin, who “expressed support for Golden Dawn’s geopolitical positions.”
Just as the marchers at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “Russia is our friend,” so likewise at a recent white nationalist event in Florida organised by the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), racist Nick Fuentes prompted the crowd, “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?” The crowd responded by shouting: “Putin! Putin!”
Then there is the more mainstream, parliamentary, far-right, such as former US president Trump itself, whose Putin connections are well-known. As Ukraine exploded, Trump praised Putin as a “genius.” “Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine independent. Oh that’s wonderful. … How smart is that? And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border.” And of course there’s right-wing ideologue and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who recently declared“Putin ain’t woke” in an exchange with Blackwater founder, Eric Prince, who agreed that “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use;” and Trump’s Secretary of State and Christian rightist Mike Pompeo, who declared his “enormous respect” for the “talented statesman;” while Trump’s first National Security Advisor Mike Flynn claimed that after Biden “ignored and laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns … President Putin calculated this strategic, historic, and geographic play and made the decision to move.”
Trump loyalist and white supremacist Fox News host Tucker Carlson went full dog-whistle for Putin: “It may be worth asking yourself… why do I hate Putin.. Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a world-wide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”
This extends around the world, from Modi’s reactionary Hinduvsta regime in India to Brazil’s far-right Trump acolyte Bolsonaro. Both are allied to the US, while India is also geopolitically allied to Russia (above all, balance against China), but the Russia connection is also ideological in the case of its current far-right regime. In Brazil’s case, there is no obvious geopolitical connection to Russia, but Bolsonaro was more pro-Trump than pro-US, leading him into ideological alliance with Putin – Bolsonaro visited Putin on the eve of his invasion and declared he feels “deep solidarity with Russia.”
Fascism in the Donbass
But what of the Donbas? Putin is God to most fascists and Nazis the world over, but in Ukraine the only Nazis are anti-Russia Ukrainians, like Azov, right? In reality, as one source argues:
Let’s look at some of this galaxy of ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi, Orthodox-fascist and neo-Cossack parties and militia involved in the ‘separatist’ political and military leadership; of whom most are actual Russians, from Russia, rather than ethnic Russians from Ukraine.
First let’s look at Russia’s leading mercenary gang, its equal to the US Blackwater – the Wagner Group, named by its founder after Hitler’s favourite musician. An extremelyvicious militia, but are they fascists? Well, take a look at founder Dmitry Utkin. Pointing to the tattoos on his neck, Idrees Ahmad notes “Those are the Waffen SS rank insignia for a Hauptsturmführer (chief assault leader). And on his chest? That’s the Nazi Reichsadler (imperial eagle) badge.” A candidate to “de-Nazify” Ukraine?
One far-right unit within Wagner operating in Donbas, known as Rusich, sports a logo featuring the ‘Slavic Swastika’ known as a Kolovrat; one Rusich account shows fighters holding a Valknut flag, which has been appropriated by white supremacists.
The first Russian militias in the Donbas were associated with the Russian National Unity party, a neo-Nazi organisation; here is its swastika logo. The DPR’s first ‘people’s governor’, and founder of the Donbas People’s Militia, Pavel Gubarev, was a member of the RNU. The RNU’s founder, Alexander Barkashov, previously led post-Soviet Russia’s first fascist organisation, Pamyat.
Gubarev has since joined the Duginite ‘Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine’, led by Natalya Vitrenko, “a long-term associate of American right-wing extremist and anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche.” Vitrenko stepped in to help in Donetsk after Gubarev was arrested.
For all the inevitable hatred between ultra-nationalist fascists in countries in conflict with each other, their similarity occasionally shows through. In July 2015, then DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko praised Pravy Sector:
“The Right Sector rose and said: “Down with Poroshenko!” I began to respect them. I respect them for two moments: when gays were beaten in Kiev and when they tried to remove Poroshenko. I realized that the Right Sector are the same normal men.”
“Various far-right Italian mercenaries and ultras (the country’s extremist football fans) are even fighting alongside Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Many of those combatants have made contact with a neo-Nazi organisation called Rusich, inspired by Pan-Slavism and a longing to recreate a 21st-century nationalistic version of the USSR. The exchange of personnel goes in both directions: in recent years various Italo-Russians have stood in local elections in Rome for Forza Nuova and another neo-fascist party, Fratelli D’Italia.”
Alongside the love of Putin generally, global fascism is also specifically enamoured to one of Putin’s major projects independently of Putin: in their support for Syria’s genocidal Assad regime. Everywhere in the world – in the US, everywhere in Europe, in Australia, various reactionary governments from India to Hungary – the far-right, fascists, Nazis, white-supremacists, far-right populists – almost unanimously support Assad.
This involves more than their connections to Putin, or to Assad’s allies in the Nazi-style Syrian Social Nationalist Party (established in the 1930s in admiration of Naziism, it displays its specific kind of swastika). Rather, the global far-right has lapped up Assad’s propaganda that he is fighting a war for civilisation against “Islamic terrorists” and “jihadists,” protecting Christians and minorities. Assad’s “war on terror”, like that of Israel, the US and Russia, is one global war the far-right fully identifies with.
In early September 2013, an Italian delegation from the European Solidarity Front travelled to Damascus and Tartus “in support of the legitimate government of Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian people.” Alongside Forza Nuova, the delegation included the anti-immigrant CasaPound, “the fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream,” which in September 2015 invited the Syrian regime and the SSNP to its ‘International Congress of identity-solidarity’ in Rome. According to leader Simone Di Stefano, “Under the Assad regime, people can celebrate Christmas openly and women are not forced to wear a headscarf. Of course, we like the ideology of the Syrian state, but we also support what they represent.” In 2016, Forza Nuova chief Robert Fiore wrote that his fascist group “defends Assad and the Syrian people against attacks by ISIS and the USA,” in a post showing FN members holding a pro-Assad banner.
When in 2019, CasaPound visited Aleppo, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism tweeted the visit with the message “Syria is getting its tourism groove back.” CasaPound “expressed their pleasure to experience the fast restoration process and resilience & steadfastness of Syrian people.”
Udo Voigt, former leader of the neo-Nazi German NPD, took part in a 2016 Alliance of Peace and Freedom trip to Syria; on his return he noted that he “did not notice any oppression” and therefore “there is no reason to flee,” being an advocate of forcible return of Syrian refugees to Assad. The far-right AfD organised its own “fact-finding” trips to Syria in March 2018 and November 2019, feted by the regime, aimed at proving how “safe” Assad-land is for refugees to return to. The AfD has special links with Assad, via one Kevork Almassian, a Syrian who, curiously, sought asylum in Germany despite being a crazed Assadist, and was given a job in the AfD’s office.
During the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, demonstrators proudly wore T-shirts advertising “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.” The white supremacist James Fields who murdered Heather Heyer posted a portrait of Assad with the caption “UNDEFEATED.”
It is quite hard to find any on the US far-right that have not defended Assad, whether in the form of chemical war denialism, slanders of the White Helmets or more general praise for the alleged “defeater of jihadis,” from Alex Jones and his right-wing conspiracist ‘Infowars’, to far-right commentators Ann Coulter, Mike Peinovich , Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, Tomi Lahren (who sought to remind Trump “that it’s America first”), and of course racist Tucker Carlson. While some mistakenly see Tulsi Gabbard as part of the “left”, in fact her praise for Assad comes from the same place as her strong Zionism, her love for the BJP and her claim to be a “hawk” on the drone wars – ie, right-wing Islamophobia.
Of course, the more mainstream right-wing in the US and elsewhere, as opposed to ultra-rightists and fascists, is a mixed bag. While some on the right are anti-Assad because they are anti-Iran, or because they love US military power and see Assad as a convenient target, overwhelmingly rhetorical anti-Assadism was more prevalent among “liberal interventionist” voices in the Democratic Party, while the hard right tended towards the ‘Assad ain’t good but he’s better than the jihadists’ trope.
Putin, global fascism, Assad and the Israel connection
In 95 percent of the above cases of global far-right support to Assad, these parties, organisations and spokespeople also strongly support Israel and its war against the Palestinian people, for the same reason: Israel is another frontier state in the “war on terror”, a defender of western “civilisation” against “Islamic terrorism.” Given Israel’s nature as an apartheid state, it will be included here as part of the global far-right (as would apartheid South Africa if it still existed), but even for those who don’t accept this, there can be little doubt about the essentially fascistic character of the parties of the Israeli right: former prime minister Netanyahu’s Likud, and other parties of the secular, religious and settler right, such as those of current prime minister Naftali Bennett, and minister under both, Avigdor Lieberman.
Even some of the most unrepentant anti-Semites of the Naziesque far-right are concurrently pro-Israel, most prominently Richard Spencer, who describes himself as “a white Zionist,” calling Israel “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state,” which he wants for “whites” in the US. He supported Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital,” and was enthusiastic about Netanyahu’s “nation-state” law. He just doesn’t like “globalist” Jews who live in the US, which leads to “white people being dispossessed from this country,” unlike Israeli Jews “who understand [their] identity, who ha[ve] a sense of nationhood and peoplehood.” Not surprisingly, Spencer’s inspiration, Alexander Dugin, holds similar view: “the chief enemy of the Jewish tradition will come from its own house,” from “the mixed multitude, the assimilated people,” just as “in our own community, in a similar way, the chief enemy of the Russian nation are liberal Russians and not the representatives of other groups.” As in classical anti-Semitism, it is the “cosmopolitan” Jew that is the enemy, not the “traditional” Jew attached to the state of Israel.
This more or less total identity of western fascist support for Assad and Israel is not simply an odd parallel, but is ideologically consistent, support for two “frontlines” in their “civilisational” war against “radical Islam.” But in addition, there is a key connection between the two: the Putin regime, which while intervening in Syria to aid Assad’s victory has also cultivated excellent relations with the Israeli right.
From the moment Russia’s Syria intervention began in 2015, Putin and Israeli prime minister and Likud leader, Zionist extremist Benjamin Netanyahu, never stopped having high level meetings – Netanyahu met with Putin more than with any other world leader. In 2018, Netanyahu was one of only two world leaders standing next to Putin in Red Square commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, alongside Serbia’s Alexander Vucic. Netanyahu even produced a massive billboard showing himself with Putin for the 2019 elections. Not surprisingly, both partners were also enthusiastic allies of Trump. Under his rule, Israel authorized the ‘Cellebrite’ company “to sell its mobile phone hacking device to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which serves President Putin as a key tool of internal repression and political persecution in the country.”
Israel refused the US request to co-sponsor a UN Security Council move to put a motion to condemn Russia to the General Assembly. Again this caused rebuke from Washington, so Israel voted in favour at the General Assembly, where it had no teeth. Bennett explained that Russia understood Israel’s forced stand, as Russia affirmed, promising that this would not affect their cooperation in Syria. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far-right Likud opposition criticises the government for saying anything at all, advising an even more “guarded” approach.
While Putin is one key link between Israel and the Assad regime (alongside the UAE-Bahrain-Egypt axis), Israel leaders are not shy about their own views. As Assad’s troops reconquered the south in 2018 as part of a Trump-Putin supervised deal, Netanyahu declared “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” His Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stressed that Israel will allow “only” Assad regime forces to occupy the Golan “border,” while his National Security Adviser, Meir Ben Shabat, declared that Israel has no problem with Assad as long as the Iranians leave. Fascistic defence minister Lieberman noted that from Israel’s perspective, “the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” as it “is also in Assad’s interest” to keep the occupied Golan “border” calm.
In other words, Israel always preferred Assad to prevail over the uprising; the alliance with Putin is not only because Putin’s air defence system in Syria allows Israel to bomb Iranian assets in the country (Russia and Iran both backed Assad’s victory but are now partially rivals over influence and spoils), as widely claimed.
Actually the Israel-Russia alliance precedes direct Russian intervention in Syria. During Israel’s Gaza blitzkrieg in 2014, Putin declared “I support the struggle of Israel,” while Israel refused to join its western allies in condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, abstaining in the UN and rejecting sanctions.
Therefore, this alliance must be seen in its broader context: Israel’s own territorial aggression, violation of international law via annexation of other countries’ territory, and justification of occupation, aggression and commission of crimes of humanity on the basis that the Palestinian nation is a fiction, all strongly parallel Putin’s actions and ideological justifications. While allied to the US empire, Israel is a small-scale imperialist power in its own right with similar “revisionist” tendencies to Russia. There is a clear understanding of this affinity within the ruling elites of both countries.
The Ukrainian far-right versus the Russian far-right
While the summary above demonstrates that the global far-right has been overwhelmingly pro-Putin and highlights the nonsense in Putin’s claim to want to “de-Nazify” anywhere, that is not to deny the presence of an aggressive far-right, fascist and Nazi sector among the political and military formations associated with Ukrainian nationalism.
On the one hand, the far-right – Svoboda, Right Sector and political representatives of Azov – collectively only received some 2.3 percent of the vote in the last Ukraine elections, so there is an extraordinary amount of demonisation in calling Ukraine some kind of “Nazi” cause, equivalent to the racist dubbing of freedom fighters in the Middle East – in Palestine, Syria and elsewhere – as “jihadis.”
On the other, the far-right – in particular the Azov regiment – has played a somewhat greater role on the military front since 2014, a common impact of military action which tends to empower tough guys and nationalists. The far-right Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014 by members of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly, which had “engaged in xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals and physically assaulted migrants, the Roma community and people opposing their views.” It gained a lot of initial support due to the relative disorganisation of official Ukrainian forces when suddenly confronted by the Russian intervention that year.
In November 2014, the government incorporated the Azov Battalion into the National Guard, as a means of controlling, or taming it; the government claims it can no longer act outside the discipline of the armed forces. While perhaps a dubious means, it did separate the armed forces from its political leadership. Ideological cadre including leader Andriy Biletsky had to leave Azov, as they allegedly were no longer able to do far-right work in the Ukrainian military, according to Alexander Ritzmann, a senior adviser at Berlin’s Counter Extremism Project. In 2016 Biletsky founded a far-right political party, National Corps. To get a taste of his views, in 2010 he had asserted that Ukraine’s mission should be to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Separated from his former militia, he set up the ‘Azov Circle’ civil movement and a new militia for internal repression, the National Druzhyna, formed in 2017 from veterans of the Azov Battalion. In January 2018, National Druzhyna “carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community,” under the guise of “restoring order.” These actions by the National Corps militia can easily be confused with the Azov regiment of the National Guard, but should be distinguished.
Azov is therefore part of the problem, because its very existence as part of the Ukrainian armed forces is a bigger political problem than its small military reach as such; having a fascist-influenced regiment on the fronts is the best way to drive any ethnic Russians sitting on the fence into the hands of the far-right Russia-owned separatists. The Ukrainian government should indeed be criticised for not disbanding it or more fully severing its connections to the political movement.
Regardless, Ukrainian fascists fighting Russia are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate. The appeals to global far-right solidarity by Ukraine’s Svoboda and Pravy Sector fell on deaf ears in 2014 following Ukraine’s Euromaiden. There was a history of connection between sections of the Russian and Ukrainian far-right before 2014; Svoboda had had observer status in the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM). However, it had already been expelled in 2013, before the Euromaiden, at the initiative of Hungarian Jobbik, which objected to Svoboda’s anti-Hungarian statements.
On the military front, Azov has had a little more success, with several fascist groups that are anomalous among the far-right within their countries developing links. An article in Newsweek, before the invasion, titled ‘Ukraine’s War Draws U.S. Far-Right to Fight Russia’, claimed “neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology.” Yet the only groups mentioned were, in the US, the Nazi Atomwaffen Division (members of whom were deported from Ukraine) and the racist Rise Above Movement, clearly at odds with the strongly pro-Putin hegemony on the US far-right; Germany’s neo-Nazi Third Path (Der Dritte Weg), differentiating itself from the pro-Putin NPD and AfD; and Italy’s fascist CasaPound.
The idiosyncratic fascists of CasaPound may likewise want to distinguish their position from Forza Nuova, Lega Nord and other pro-Putin Italian fascists by supporting Ukraine, but in reality their position is more ambivalent; “some members of CasaPound have voiced their support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, while others support the Kremlin and have even fought on the side of pro-Russian militants in Eastern Ukraine.” CasaPound has participated in conferences with Azov in Lvov; but has also participated in rallies with other Italian fascists where “the crowd displayed posters hailing Putin as well as waving flags of the DNR” [Donetsk Peoples Republic], and organised a public meeting in Rome with Dugin. Explaining CasaPound’s vision of a new Italian-led Mediterranean, Simone Di Stefano, explained that “Outside the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance, Russia is a fundamental strategic ally for us … I very much appreciate the concept of ‘eternal Russia’ expressed in Dugin’s book.”
Impact of the Russian invasion on far-right support for Putin
The unexpected nature, ferocity and wide-ranging nature of Russia’s outright invasion of sovereign Ukraine has caused considerable anxiety for Putin’s far-right allies, from quite different perspectives. Although most remain cautiously supportive, some have expressed concern while others are torn between Russian and Ukrainian fascism.
On the one hand, the far-right parties that have some tendency towards “respectability,” due to participation in elections, have been humiliated by the sheer blatancy of Russia’s aggression. So, for example, French National Rally leader Le Pen, her rival Zemmour, Italian Lega Nord leader Salvini, Czech president Miloš Zeman and Hungarian prime minister Orban all had to condemn the aggression; though just days earlier they were still claiming the idea of invasion was just a beat-up and that Russia did have legitimate “security concerns”.
Some still entirely blame NATO with no criticism of Putin. For example, Alice Weidel, MP of the German fascist AfD, blamed the failure of the West to assure that Ukraine remained neutral rather than “continuously pushing the frontiers of NATO’s eastward expansion,” which was an “insult” to Russia’s great status. Dutch fascist Thierry Baudet of the misnamed Forum for Democracy claimed “Russia didn’t have much of a choice.”
On the other extreme, much of the more hard-line far-right have been attracted to Putin because he is seen as a firm and tough leader who is not scared to throw his weight around to defend “his nation”, “western civilisation” and the like. Hence their unanimous support for Putin’s backing of Assad’s dictatorship against “Islamists.” They feel none of the “respectable” pressures of the first group, but Putin’s invasion is a huge risk due to the stakes involved: an outright victory of Imperial Russia would greatly embolden the admiration he receives from global fascism, whereas a humiliating defeat could equally lead to a massive loss of support. With the Russian army bogged down, thousands of conscripts returning in body bags, the inability to yet conquer any major city, and the disastrous impacts of harsh western sanctions, humiliating defeat is not out of the question.
A third issue is the difficulty of choosing between equally attractive fascist partners. Azov appears to have had some success with its active promotional activities; “it is a larger-than-life brand among many extremists. It has welcomed Westerners into its ranks via white-supremacist sites. Azov stickers and patches have been seen around the globe.” This blends with right-wing oriented soldier-of-fortune types and various macho gun lovers and fascists who just want combat experience, including many who admit they are not going to fight for Ukraine, but for a pure white state, with Ukraine a useful springboard; from where they are in the West, it is simply easier to enter Ukraine to fight than to enter from the other side.
Combined with this is fascist uneasiness with two “white” nations at war. This can lend itself either to supporting Putin’s propaganda about Russians and Ukrainians being “one nation” divided by communists and globalists, or to opposing Putin launching aggression against fellow “whites.” Reportedly there has been discussion on far-right social media platforms about the role of “Jews” in driving two “white” nations to war.
To date though this has not led to a massive swing against Putin by the global far-right, rather confusion, division and nervous watching. Deutsche Welle reports that “some of Germany’s right-wing extremists have long had links to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov militia. Other German neo-Nazis support Russia’s Vladimir Putin. … far-right activists who spent the past two years denouncing the German government and its restrictions to rein in the COVID pandemic, now place their hopes on Russia to champion their values: “When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity, and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up,” read a chat group message of the ‘Free Thuringians’ extreme-right group. Similarly, the Washington Post reports that “the conflict has exposed a rift among extremists” in Germany, support divided between Russia and Ukraine. “A group called Free Saxony recently told its followers that the conflict was “largely fueled by NATO,” condemning smear campaigns against “friends of Putin.”
Thus, despite various articles with headings like Far right militias in Europe plan to confront Russian forces, concrete evidence is slim. This article reports that “in recent days, militia leaders in France, Finland and Ukraine have posted declarations urging their supporters to join in the fight to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion” and that “numerous far-right white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe and North America had expressed an outpouring of support for Ukraine, including by seeking to join paramilitary units in battling Russia,” while naming very few.
The most concrete example was from Finland: “Neo-Nazi and white supremacist Telegram users from Finland also encouraged fellow Finns to join the fight alongside Ukrainians … One post said, “the age-old duty of the Finns has been to wage war against the Russians.” But that’s unsurprising – Finland was invaded and occupied by the Russian Empire, and then again by Stalin, leading to Finnish alliance with Nazi Germany against Russia, ie, like Ukraine, there is a history of national conflict with Russia which leads extreme nationalists into conflict with that country.
On the whole, therefore, while the edifice of Putin’s global alliance with fascism has been under strain from opposing pressures, there has been no drastic change to date. A complete Russian victory would almost certainly solidify the alliance and lead to an enormous surge in support for Kremlin-backed and financed fascist and far-right movements globally. In contrast, a humiliating Russian defeat would possibly lead to desertion of a weakened Russia by many fascist groups, and conversely, their long association with Putin, their heralding of him as the great white saviour, may discredit many of these groups and lead them to lose support. This is one more, not unimportant, reason to hope for the defeat of Putin’s bloody gamble in this fascistic far-right version of late 19th century imperialism.
In response to the claim by the Assad dictatorship that it received 95 percent of the vote in its May 26 staged “election” circus, and that the turnout was 78 percent, or 14 million people, critics have pointed to a variety of obvious issues:
And countless more valid reasons to reject the legitimacy of these “elections” under a dictatorship where every expression of dissident thought is ruthlessly crushed in a country with one of the world’s largest and most horrific torture gulags.
The regime almost certainly increased its official percentage of votes, compared to what it would have gained in an actual election, due to all this fraud, manipulation and life-and-death pressure, and only in the sense that there was no-one else to vote for in any case.
However, we do not know how much all this increased the potential vote by; it may have increased it from 30 percent to 60 percent, for example, we simply do not know. All we know are the figures invented by the Ministry of Truth of a tyrannical dictatorship.
Why would anyone believe these figures had any reality at all, even given all the above methods? The most likely way the regime “gained” 95 percent of the votes, and a 78 percent turnout of voters, was by not gaining them at all, via any methods, but by simply making these figures up. Only after having decided on the “election results” in advance did it carry out all its pressure, fraud and so on to at least make it look like voting was real, to give something for its craven international supporters and fake “observers” to cite as “evidence.”
I mean, if you were part of the “electoral” process in Syria and you disputed the figures created by the regime, would you open your mouth? Would you want to stay alive? Or even if you didn’t care, would you want your children to be “disappeared”? Anyone who actually knows anything about the regime knows this is no exaggeration.
A history of dictators getting “99-100 percent” of the vote
After all, if the 95 percent is real, but gained only due to fraud, threats, having no opposition etc, then does that mean that in every other “election” held by the Assad regime (father and son in this hereditary monarchy), the announced figures were also the real results of regime pressure and fraud, rather than inventions of the dictatorship? I mean, did Hafez Assad really get 99-100% in “elections” in 1971, 1978, 1985, 1991 and 1999? Is fraud, manipulation, fear etc that effective?
Isn’t more likely that the consistency of figures around 94-100% (except in a couple of cases when dictators chose lower but still overwhelming figures to try to be more convincing) indicates that these figures are pure inventions, where there is no-one to check (at least, who wants to live)?
How many “voted” in Syria? 14 million or 4 million?
What of the alleged voter turnout of 78 percent? This invention can in fact be disproved with empirical facts. The regime claims this 78 percent voting amounted to 14.24 million Syrians. This is absurd because:
This would indicate a Syrian voting population of some 18 million. However, the current total population inside Syria is estimated to be around 18 million people, and some 40-45 percent are under 18, ie, non-voters.
Of the pre-war population of some 24 million people, there are now 6.6 million refugees living abroad; that’s why only some three-quarters of this figure now live in Syria.
Therefore, the absolute maximum number of people – adults and children – living in regime-controlled parts of Syria is 8.5 million, and is likely considerably less.
In response, some regime apologists claim that refugees voted from abroad. If so, then their claim of a voting population of 18 million (out of a total Syrian population, in Syria and abroad, of over 24 million), might make some sense. Even if still inaccurate, given the considerably higher proportion of under-18’s in the population; and even though the regime clearly does not mean this, because it considers most Syrians in refuge ineligible to vote; let’s go with this for argument’s sake.
Some refugees did vote, to be sure. However, if we are to leave out the populations in Syria outside regime control where no voting took place, and add the population under regime control (8.5 million maximum) and in refuge abroad (6.6 million), the total figure, adults and children, comes to some 15 million people, just slightly higher than the alleged voter turnout! Therefore, for this to be true, it would mean not only that virtually every child, from 0-18 years of age, voted in the election inside regime-controlled Syria, but that virtually every one of the 6.6 million Syrians abroad, who fled Assad’s tyranny, also voted (again, from the age of 0 and up)!
While the first criterion is obvious nonsense, how likely is the second, that almost every refugee voted in the “election” circus, and for Assad?
First, there certainly were various pressures applied to refugees to vote (including legitimate concern that the regime would never return their property if they did not vote), and therefore it is likely that more “voted” than really wanted to. However, what is the evidence of the success of this campaign?
This does not leave many “voters” among Syrian refugees in the three largest – by far – host countries.
As for Europe, the country with by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, Germany, also banned the “elections.” Again, while this may have violated the rights of some, the likelihood that this would have made much difference is small – refugees in Europe are overwhelmingly anti-Assad and largely refuse to go home precisely due to his presence in power. Nevertheless, some Syrian refugees in Germany staged this terrific mock election to protest the farce.
And in any case, despite claiming all these votes from abroad and applying pressure to vote, the dictatorship itself makes it almost impossible for most refugees to vote even if they wanted to – registering to vote requires a valid Syrian passport with an exit stamp issued by an official border crossing that show you left the country “legally”!
From all this, it is difficult to work out how many refugees voted – none in Turkey, where the majority of refugees live, a figure ranging between 50,000 and a few hundred thousand perhaps in Lebanon and Jordan combined, none in Germany, and any that voted elsewhere would be among relatively tiny populations of Syrians.
For argument’s sake, let’s be very generous and say 500,000 Syrians abroad voted. Now, of the maximum figure of 8.5 million Syrians living in regime-controlled Syria, let’s first leave out some 40-45 percent who are under 18, and we get a maximum voting population of 5 million. Now let’s take the regime’s word for it that 78% voted (I don’t know why we should, but I guess it is possible with all the methods described above) – that comes to nearly 4 million voters. Add a very generous half million from abroad, and we find that Bashar Assad was “elected” in an “election” involving a mere 4.5 million voters, where the only alternatives were Assad Clone 1 and Assad Clone 2.
Therefore, if the figure the regime cited for the number of voters can empirically be shown to be pure fiction, then obviously the same can be just as true for the numbers who “voted” for Assad.
However, one objection may be that if the regime only has to invent figures, then why go to all the trouble to organise fraud, manipulation, pressure etc? As stated above, impressions count. Trying to make it look like the invented figures could have some truth can be good propaganda – just look at the clownish “journalists” from Gray (Red-Brown) Zone gushing over the Syrian “elections”.
It is also important for internal consumption. Tsurkov sums it up well: “In an authoritarian regime like Syria’s, when the falsification of the results takes place out in the open, elections project the regime’s ability to compel compliance. Elections serve the interests of the regime, signaling to opponents that resistance is futile, encouraging its loyalists and creating a sense that the regime enjoys greater support than it actually does.” Or, as Kristin Helberg writing in Qantara puts it, “the election serves a dual purpose: it forces people to demonstrate loyalty at home and provides legitimacy abroad.”
“Elections” under a dictatorship? Why is this article even necessary?
None of the above discussion should really be necessary. For decades, dictatorships (often, though not always, backed and armed by the US government and military) carried out “election” circuses and declared unbelievable figures for their “victories”, but left and progressive activists in the West denounced such “elections” as fraudulent. It was – and is – elementary common sense that “elections” under a violent dictatorship will not be “free and fair.” To anyone who understands elementary logic, no further explanation is necessary.
It is a sign of strange times therefore that I even need to be writing this. Because a great range of political activists in the West today from the mechanical and superficial “anti-imperialist” school of thought are praising these “elections” being carried out by the world’s most violent dictatorship, one that has bombed every city in its country to rubble and which holds tens of thousands in horrific torture chambers. For example, this statement by “leftist” western observers that gloriously proclaims the legitimacy and democratic nature of Assad’s election victory. It is true, of course, that every section of the global far-right also praises Assad and his “elections” of course, but it is strange days when a section of the left finds itself in the same boat.
“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012
On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.
Abstract: Vastnumbers of responses to the conspiracy theories absolving the Assad regime of responsibility for the 2018 chemical massacre in Douma have been penned, some of which this article will list for reference. However, this article is not a repeat of this detective work; rather, the core of it is an examination of the absurdity of these assertions, precisely from the point of view of the questions of “who gains” and casus belli that these conspiracists evoke.
On April 7, 2018, the Assad regime launched a chemical attack, dropping chlorine canisters, on the besieged town of Douma, the last remaining part of the opposition-held East Ghouta region which had been under a month-long massive attack by the regime, during which it had reconquered the rest of the region.
The day after the attack, Douma itself surrendered. The regime had now virtually completed its reconquest of all parts of the southern and eastern regions of working-class outer-Damascus, which had been in opposition hands for over 5 years; the only exception was the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, which the regime reconquered in May, but the opposition had already lost Yarmouk to ISIS (despite fierce resistance) in 2015 in any case.
Forty-three bodies were reportedly discovered, and filmed, in one of the apartment blocks onto which the chlorine had been allegedly dropped; however, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers did not allow inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enter the area to carry out inspections until 2 weeks later, during which time the bodies were buried.
When they finally were allowed in, the OPCW inspectors found two “yellow industrial cylinders dedicated for pressurised gas” (which likely contained the chlorine) in the top levels of two apartment blocks, as well as the craters in the roof which they had crashed through. One was apparently intact; the building where the other had released its load is where most of the 43 bodies were reportedly found.
The OPCW released its full report in March 2019, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that chlorine had been used, and was the most likely cause of death; that it was likely it came from the spent canister; and though the brief of the OPCW did not include assigning blame, the report did imply that the most likely way the chlorine got into the building was through the crater in the roof above; though it said nothing about aircraft, this is the only possible way it could crash through a roof. As only the regime has aircraft, it therefore implied the regime was responsible.
Yet since that time, the OPCW has been subject to a concerted propaganda campaign, led by the Russian state, which claims the OPCW is guilty of a “cover-up” of alternative explanations, and that either chlorine was not used, or if it was, it was used by the opposition, or even that the rebels merely planted the chlorine canisters in the building, and just killed the civilians themselves, in an elaborate plot to provoke western intervention against Assad.
The claims about “cover-up” are based on the testimony of two former employees of the OPCW. First, Ian Henderson, who was not part of the OPCW investigating team, but a liaison officer between the team and Damascus, sent a memo to the OPCW in March 2019, just before it released its report, claiming that the chlorine canisters could not have been dropped by helicopters, based on an “engineering report” that he had carried out (the OPCW claims he carried out this investigation outside his brief as OPCW employee). Two months later, the fact that the OPCW had not included this in its report was leaked to the world media as a “scandal.”
The OPCW claims it could not do this (apart from it being so late), because attributing blame for the incident was outside its brief. This is because Russia had blocked attributing blame from the OPCW’s investigation; the report makes no mention of helicopters.
Second, “Alex” (subsequently found to be Brendan Whelan), who was a member of OPCW team between April and August 2018, spoke out in October 2019. “Alex” had been a member of the team collecting evidence, but left before the real analysis began. He claimed his alternative view of events (he did not believe the evidence showed chlorine had been used) had been suppressed, and objected to some formulations in the interim report. The final report does modify its language slightly, arguably taking into account some of the objections, but still rejects them overall, with further evidence not yet available before “Alex” had quit.
Other than the constellation of conspiracist media sources led by the Russian state, the “cover-up” story was taken up by, among others, right-wing British journalist Peter Hitchens in the rubbishy tabloid Mail on Sunday; by a group of allegedly “anti-imperialist” leftists in an outfit named ‘Grayzone’ (otherwise known as ‘Red-Brown-Zone’); by far-right Trump-man in Fox News Tucker Carlson; by embedded journalist (for the Syrian military) Robert Fisk in The Independent; by long-term pro-Assad propagandists like Vanessa Beeley, a regular guest at Assad’s throne who writes for the conspiracist site 21st Century Wire.
Just why we should believe two disgruntled former employees of the OPCW over the research of the majority of the professionals in the organisation, and why this majority would decide to collectively engage in a cover-up, is anybody’s guess.
For those who want to understand more of the ins and outs of this ongoing saga, I can only strongly recommend the following sources:
Now, if anyone is actually interested in this issue – and the fate of the victims of Assad’s decade of massacres – chemical and otherwise – then you need to listen, watch and read these sources, especially the first. Then draw your conclusions. If you don’t first do this, then your only interest is conspiracy-mongering.
Some other useful reads:
Life and Death in Douma. Part 1: The Russian narrative
Nafeez Ahmed, State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines, London: International State Crime Initiative, Queen Mary University of London, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8a59rfq
However, while my conclusion from all this material is the OPCW report is a fair summary of what occurred, I prefer to look at the overall context than obsess with the detective work.
After all, casus belli is at the heart of the conspiracist argument; they ask, why would Assad want to “risk western intervention” by launching a chemical attack, when he was already winning in East Ghouta? Wouldn’t it be more in the interests of the rebels to stage a “false-flag” attack, get the regime blamed, and thus bring in western intervention to save them?
But why would this be necessary, if, as the far-right/alt-left coalition believe, the US has forever been dying to launch a war on Syria and carry out “regime-change”? After all, even if it were shown that the OPCW was mistaken and that Assad did not really launch that particular chlorine attack killing 43 people, it would not alter the fact that his regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people using every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD for a decade.
In other words, why would the US or rebels need to concoct stories of chemical attacks? Wouldn’t the US already have enough political ammunition with years of Assad levelling entire cities, dropping barrel bombs, cluster bombs, bombing schools, hundreds of hospitals, markets, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks and so on?
No? Oh, OK, all this is bad, but the US, for some pacifistic, law-abiding reason, only drew the red-line against chemical weapons, not all the rest. So “the lie about chemical weapons is whipped up to give the US the excuse to bomb Syria.”
Oh? What then of the 30,000 US strikes on ISIS, Nusra/HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes other Islamists or even mainstream rebels, killing, according to Airwars, anywhere from 6250 to 9,600 civilians, levelling the city of Raqqa? Is all this not “the US bombing Syria?”
Of course, none of this has ever been of any interest whatsoever to the western “anti”-war movement, let alone the far-right/alt-left coalition; for them, it only becomes dangerous US aggression if the US hits some Assad-regime installation for a few minutes a couple of times in 8 years, killing no-one and doing zero damage to Assad’s war machine.
But OK, let’s have it their way, only bombing Assad is bad, as opposed to bombing Syria, which is of no consequence.
So, in that case, if US agents in the media or inside the OPCW or wherever go to all the trouble to concoct a chemical weapons conspiracy hatched by the rebels, just because the US is so desperate to attack Assad but can somehow never find the excuse, then having concocted the excuse, wouldn’t the US perhaps use the opportunity to actually do some damage to Assad’s war machine, rather than hit three buildings in 45 minutes?
The context of the Douma attack
Let’s look at the context of the allegedly “false flag” Assad chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in April 2018.
In March 2018, the regime launched its final campaign to subjugate the long-time rebel-held, working-class East Ghouta region of outer Damascus, at the cost of some 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. Far from using this horror as an excuse to “make war on Syria” as feverish imaginations believe the US wanted to do forever, throughout this month-long massacre the silence from the US and other western governments was deafening. During this month, top US and Russian generals held high-level discussions twice, where the topic of Ghouta was apparently not even mentioned. The conversation, which focused on Syria, reportedly demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense James Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted sadly that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at the very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not even considered worthy of note.
On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, US president Trump announced that “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had probably never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on Trump’s rapid withdrawal idea, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or the horrors of Ghouta, but rather simply that “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”
By early April, Assad had been completely victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia, Jaysh al-Islam, was holding out in the suburb of Douma. This is where Assad’s “alleged” chlorine massacre took place. The very next day, Douma surrendered – which seems a reasonable answer to those who ask “what did Assad have to gain?” He gained immediate total victory. Apparently, to the conspiracists, the rebels had gone to all the trouble of concocting a false-flag operation to blame Assad and bring about western intervention, but then didn’t even wait a day for this intervention!
Confronted with yet another rude violation of the US “red-line” against only chemical weapons, despite Trump’s gift to the ungrateful Assad of extreme indifference to the month of slaughter and the announcement that the US was leaving Syria to Assad, Trump decided he needed to launch a “credibility” strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. It then abruptly stopped. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.
Really, US imperialism, allegedly determined come what may to “make war on Syria”, to carry out “regime change” against Assad, helped the rebels concoct a false flag chemical attack in order perform this mere hiccup following Assad’s month-long slaughter of 1700 people?
And getting back to “why would Assad risk a US attack” etc – maybe because he rightly figured the worst would be a rap around the knuckles, a reasonable price to pay for rapid victory and the psychological terror created by chemical weapons attacks. After all, he already had the experience of such a pinprick strike a year earlier.
The Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in 2017
Douma, of course, this was not the first such incident; the conspiracist set believe all Assad’s chemical attacks have been “false-flags” to bring about this elusive “western intervention”, from the massive sarin attack on East Ghouta in 2013, which killed 1400 people, resulting in, well, nothing, to the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria in April 2017. The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute found the Assad regime responsible for 98 percent 336 chemical attacks in Syria; perhaps all of these were mere “false-flags”, which resulted in … zero western intervention.
It is well-worth looking at the case of Khan Sheikhoun, which took place in April 2017, exactly a year before the Douma massacre we have been discussing. The OPCW also later determined that the Assad regime had launched the sarin attack there.
Given the fact the US reacted by bombing Assad’s Shariyat airbase – the first US strike on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – does this signify that this was perhaps a “false-flag” operation?
Not even remotely. Again, let’s look at context and casus belli arguments.
When Assad took all this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. He could use every other type of horrific weaponry in the four intervening years, and the US could not care less, as long as he stayed off chemical weapons. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.
Really? So rebels concocted a “false-flag” attack, the US presumably cajoled and pressured the OPCW to later issue a report falsely blaming Assad, and in response the US launched a pinprick strike whose impact, if any, lasted less than a day? Don’t be silly.
If you want to see bloody US intervention, you just had to look in the same region a few weeks earlier. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of a mosque in a rebel-held region of Aleppo in March 2017 which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was. The Trump regime never issued any apology for the mosque massacre (claiming anti-Assad HTS “terrorists” might have been using it), and it was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates. Meanwhile, the number of civilians killed by US bombing of ISIS-held regions in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, yet the conspiracists will tell you the US was supporting ISIS, and/or HTS, and/or the rebels, against Assad!
National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s “operations from the airfield” was “not the objective” of the strike; and that the US goal, far from “regime-change” (ignore the absurd “regime change” title of the article, which McMaster simply states was up to the Russians), was merely defeating ISIS while also desiring “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular” (note: not a change in the nature of the regime, but specifically of the Assad regime!).
How did the chlorine get there?
While I believe this has established the inherent absurdity of the idea that either Douma or Khan Sheikhoun were conspiracies from the point of view of context and the casus belli argument, there are other ways of demonstrating the impossibility of the conspiracist argument.
In particular, going back to Douma, if the chlorine canisters found in the top section of the buildings were not dropped from the sky, how did they get there? The best take-down I have seen of this issue was that penned by Louis Proyect, in this article on the Douma issue. It is so to the point that I will quote a significant chunk of it here, one more aspect for doubters to consider:
Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately?
A note on Jaysh al-Islam
A further point on this militia. Unlike other parts of East Ghouta controlled by more mainstream rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, the group in control of Douma, had a particularly bad reputation among other rebels and oppositionists, for running a highly authoritarian regime. For example, it is widely believed responsible for the disappearance, since late 2013, of the Douma Four revolutionary activists.
However, thousands of locals joined the ranks of this militia simply in order to defend the local people from reconquest by the far more repressive and murderous Assad regime. That had nothing to do with Jaysh al-Islam as such; as one civil activist in Douma, who is hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around.” On the contrary, it was the partial continuation, in extremely adverse conditions, of some semblance of the popular revolutionary traditions and institutions established in 2002-2003, very often in conflict with the JaI regime itself, that people fought to defend.
As revolutionary activist Firas Abdullah (who remained there for the entire duration of the siege) put it after fleeing Assad’s reconquest: “the dictatorship is one, but it has several colours.” JaI’s repressive rule, in other words, was nurtured precisely by years of Assadist siege, bombing and starvation. But the connection goes further: it was Assad who released Zoran Alloush, JaI’s founder, along with 1000 or so other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests was taken up by people like Alloush.
Yet it is precisely these origins of hard-Islamist currents like JaI – in the Iraqi jihad against the US occupation – that makes any connection between the West and JaI, as implied by these pro-Assad conspiracy theories, inherently unlikely. Indeed, US Defence Secretary John Kerry classified JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. While the US did lightly arm various “vetted” rebel groups under Obama – never enough to even hold the line against Assad, but in order to politically co-opt them – no US arms ever went in the direction of JaI. If conspiracists want to claim they did, it is up to them to find the paper trail; they won’t. Whatever limited aid came over the southern Jordanian border in Obama years went to the FSA’s Southern Front, of which JaI was never a member, and in any case was geographically cut off from. In any case, in 2017 Trump ended all military aid to all rebels, and even cut off all aid to democratic councils and civil society in opposition territory. Long before 2018, therefore, the US leadership openly saw all rebels as an enemy, not only JaI.
Moreover, this worked both ways: the idea that JaI would try to bring about western intervention goes against the very grain of this group. Following Assad’s far more mass-murderous chemical attack East Ghouta in 2013, JaI responded to Obama’s alleged threat to strike Assad with this statement:
“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.”
No, the anti-western Jaysh al-Islam did not drag massive chlorine canisters up many flights of stairs and break holes in the roof to bring in a US intervention they were opposed to and then surrender to Assad the next day anyway; the entire scenario is nuts.
Briefly on the White Helmets “controversy”
I put controversy in quotation marks because it is only a “controversy” to a particularly hardened wing of alt-left/hard-right wingnuts. I mean, really, one would expect Assadists and conspiracists to slander military formations of the Syrian opposition and even political and civil leaders, but the obsession they have with volunteer first-responders, who put themselves in acute danger – many have died in action – to rescue civilians from the rubble of bombed-out buildings, to save thousands of lives, is a particularly oddball phenomenon.
The spectacle of comfortable, White academics, “journalists” and propagandists living in the West, many seeing themselves as “left-wing” while slandering and spitting on those brown folk dying in the line of fire, is so obscene that it should be self-defeating. Yet living in this anti-solidaristic era, where “left anti-imperialist” is often little more than a badge of honour in the “market-place” of ideas and image, we see thousands of followers line up to join in the obscenity. Whatever gives you a rise I guess, guys.
This White Helmets “controversy” is not the issue of this essay, so what, if any, connection does it have with the chemical attacks controversy? Nothing, necessarily, except that these are two cheap targets of the conspiracist set. However, one connection they attempt to make is the assertion that the White Helmets have been key informants in the “staging” of these “false-flag” attacks.
One allegation is that it was the White Helmets who had filmed the initial Douma footage of those killed in the chemical attack. Yet the footage was originally released by another opposition media centre; as Nafeez Ahmed, in a valuable piece taking on a great deal of this propaganda, explains, the White Helmets “had not even been present at the scene of the incident in the immediate aftermath” (p. 31). He also responds to Scott Ritter, the former UN investigator of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; Ritter criticised the OPCW’s assessment that sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, for allegedly relying on “none other than the White Helmets” to gain samples (p. 39), since the regime had blocked the OPCW from accessing the site. As Ahmed demonstrates, samples were gained from other sources, including the regime, from which the OPCW established the use of sarin.
Other than recommending several of the vast number of responses to sick the anti-White Helmets propaganda (try this and this and this, especially the first, the full BBC series), my final point will again be from the perspective of, “what does all this aim to achieve anyway?” Whether the claim is that the White Helmets are mere actors not rescuing anyone, or that they do rescue people, but use the footage of their deeds to create propaganda against the regime (because, I suppose, it is not self-evident that bombing the civilian sites from which the White Helmets rescue these people is a war crime?) – really, why would this be necessary?
Anyone with eyes, ears and brains has been able to watch an entire decades-worth of footage or read thousands of accounts by journalists, human rights activists, NGOs, Syrian civil activists, refugees, international organisations and so on to know that the Assad regime has been committing massive crimes against humanity on a daily basis, and has been responsible for well over 90 percent of all killings and war crimes in that country.
“Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them. Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.”
90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista under Trump’s watch
By Michael Karadjis
With US elections approaching, Syrian people wanting to end the 50-year tyranny of the Assad dynasty are looking for any light from either candidate of the US ruling class. The fact that most conclude there is little to be excited about, and search for the tiniest seeming advantage from either side, highlights the plain fact that the US rulers have never had any interest in supporting the Syrian struggle for freedom.
Now that Assad has largely won the so-called ‘civil war’ – mostly a one-sided slaughter he waged against the Syrian people – the only real debate going on is whether a victorious, yet highly unstable, Assad regime can be pushed into some kind of political compromise via a “constitutional commission” process.
Nevertheless, reality being what it is, these questions can hardly be avoided. Assad’s victory is no ordinary case of a dictatorship successfully cracking down on its people, not wanting to underestimate the terror involved even in such “simple” cases. In Syria, we need to consider the whole Syrian people, not only those forced to live under the dictatorship’s heel in the regions it controls.
Assad’s military victory: Counterrevolutionary stability or ongoing catastrophe?
Therefore, around 15 million or more people – two thirds of Syria’s pre-war population – are outside regime control. When we add some 140,000 people estimated to have been incarcerated in Assad’s torture prisons or disappeared, of whom tens of thousands have been killed, and an estimated 670,000 people killed in the war, along with the physical destruction of much of Syria’s infrastructure by years of relentless regime and Russian terror bombing, it becomes clear why Syrians are not ready or able to say “OK, the dictatorship won, we lost, that’s bad, but now there’s no choice but to get on with our lives under counterrevolutionary stability” – any kind of “stability” is impossible under such conditions.
At the very least, those pushing this view – not only Assadists, but other well-meaning people who see the reality of defeat – need to take into account that if it is the interests of “the Syrian people” they are concerned about, then these “Syrian people” are not only the 8 million or so under regime control (even if we assume that these people are content with the situation, a likely erroneous assumption); but also the 6.6 million outside Syria, most of whom will not return with the regime in power, and the 8 million or more living in the northwest and northeast outside regime control.
For those concerned with ameliorating this situation, does a Trump or a Biden in the White House make any difference?
Trump versus Biden?
Various articles indicate that among Syrian exiles in the United States, there is little consensus, and this reflects the fact that the differences are very narrow. This is hardly surprising; there is little difference on many issues.
For example, Trump is clearly worse on Israel/Palestine, having recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital”, put forward a anti-peace process that gives everything to Israel, cut off funding to UNWRA, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the illegally stolen Syrian Golan and so on. Yet Biden and Harris are also extremely pro-Israel. No, they may not have recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and they claim to support UN resolutions and the traditional, meaningless, “peace process”, but Biden has also stated he will nevertheless not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv.
As the Trump and Biden camps are saying very little different in terms of Syria policy going forward, much of the debate inevitably looks at the records of the Obama administration (in which Biden was vice-president) and the Trump administration. And neither offer any inspiration whatsoever. Though my argument here is that Trump is worse, it is understandable that some view Obama more negatively.
Obama’s support for the Syrian opposition was tepid at best; the CIA program to train and equip “vetted” rebels was largely aimed at co-opting and taming them, putting the CIA in a position to pressure them to stop fighting Assad, and enlisting them for the “war on terror” against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra only (the Free Syrian Army – FSA – already fought ISIS, and often Nusra, but resisted dropping the fight against Assad). In other words, bringing real rebel formations around to the same position as the concurrent Pentagon program, which explicitly only armed ex-rebels to fight only ISIS or Nusra and not Assad – but therefore had difficulty finding many real rebel forces to enlist! Further, from 2012, the US placed spooks on the borders to ensure that shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons (manpads) – the defensive weaponry most needed in a war of aerial slaughter – did not reach the FSA. Above all, Syrians disapprove of Obama’s nuclear deal – the JCPOA – with Iran, believing this encouraged Obama to turn a blind eye to massive Iranian support to Assad.
Those viewing Biden as a better choice might note things such as Trump ending all Obama-era assistance to the FSA and to Syrian civil society organisations, Trump’s view that the only US fight in Syria is against ISIS, the fact that 90 percent of Assad’s reconquest of much of Syria took place under Trump’s watch, the gutting of the Geneva process, and Trump’s overly friendly relationship with Russian Tsar Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer. The strongly pro-Assad orientation of Trump’s far-right base of support can also be noted. Trump also signed the ban on travel and migration from seven Muslim countries, including Syria; as Syrian-American Zaher Sahloul points out, “in 2020, fewer than 100 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. compared with 12,500 in 2016.”
However, those who see Trump a better bet, regardless of his motivations, point to things such as Trump’s anti-Iranian orientation (including ripping up the nuclear deal), given Iran’s role as Assad’s second main backer, Trump’s two pinprick strikes on Assadist facilities to enforce the “red line” against Assad’s chemical warfare, which Obama had not enforced in 2013, and the current harsh sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in the post-reconquista phase.
This view, that opponents of Assad should wish for a Trump victory, seems counterintuitive, given Trump’s initial declarations of support for Assad and assurances that his administration was no longer focused on removing Assad “like the previous administration was.” And the idea that any degree of human liberation, in Syria or elsewhere, is more easily achieved by having a far-right, white-supremacist in the White House appears illogical.
But what if Trump’s greater tendency to enforce “red lines” leads him to stumble, by accident, into ousting Assad, or if his anti-Iran policy tipped the scales against Assad even if that were not the intention? Syrians are as entitled as any other oppressed people to exploit the contradictions among imperialist powers and reactionary states. It may place their interests in opposition to those of virtually anyone else in the world, from Palestinians to black and working-class Americans, fighting for their liberation, but that is hardly the fault of Syrians; rather, that would be the fault of those who have waged genocidal war against them, or helped this by ignoring them, slandering them and stabbing them in the back.
Nevertheless, this is a complete illusion. The interests of Syrians fighting Assad are not in the slightest aided by supporting an enemy of human liberation like Trump, neither on the Iran issue, not that of ‘red-lines’, nor on the issue of sanctions.
Trump fulfilled his promise, fully ending the long-dormant CIA program to arm and train some “vetted” rebels. While, as shown above, this program was already tepid and ineffective, its continuation at some level under Obama gave the FSA some room to manoeuvre and occasionally take advantage of the arms, which was too much for Trump: in abolishing it, he declared the program “dangerous and wasteful.”
Trump also ended US “stabilisation” funding for civil society in regions outside Assad regime control. Trump declared “the United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria,” referring to the Obama-era funding for a vast array of opposition local governance and civil society organisations, independent media and education projects which kept society running in the regime’s absence. The State Department explained that US assistance in northwest Syria was being “freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria,” ie, to where the fight is only against ISIS rather than the regime.
Thus Trumpput an end to all US funding to both the civil and military sides of the revolution.
From the start, Trump declared “We’re there for one reason: to get rid of ISIS and to go home. We’re not there for any other reason.” His secretary of state Rex Tillerson virtually declared Assad an ally: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another and adhere to agreed geographical boundaries for military de-confliction.” Assad’s future was declared Russia’s issue, the US agnostic about “whether Assad goes or stays.”
Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, Tillerson claimed that Assad could be voted out in a “free election,” which would presumably occur with him in power, though the process may ‘take time” for which he “urge(d) patience.”
Before Obama left office, Assad’s reconquest of opposition-controlled regions had netted iconic democratic revolutionary centres south and west of Damascus such as Darayya, Madaya and Zabadani, and East Aleppo city in the north, by 2016. However, the fact that some 90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista took place under Trump was not accidental or the result of Trump’s alleged “isolationism”: it was based on US-Russia agreement, the fruits of Trump’s pro-Putin politics. In mid-2017, a “new” US strategy was presented by Defence Secretary James Mattis, State Secretary Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., conceding Assad’s control of Syria west of the Euphrates River and most of centre and south. Discussing “a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians,” Dunford noted “the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are.”
How did that play out in different parts of Syria?
The conflict in the southeast desert
We will first turn to the east, where the US was leading an air war against ISIS, in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. In the northeast, the main US ally was the Kurdish-led Peoples Protection Units (YPG), leading an expanded coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While leading a just fight for the liberation of the Kurdish people, the YPG/SDF has played an essentially neutral role in the conflict between the Assad regime and the rebellion, making it the perfect partner for the US war on ISIS under both Obama and Trump.
The US declared a 55-square kilometre zone around a US base in al-Tanf, a town on the Jordanian border, to be part of the US-Russia-Jordan southern ‘de-confliction zone’ declared to keep the fight focused on ISIS. Several times in May-June 2017, Iranian-led militia entered this zone and were hit by the US. In every case, the US released an identical statement, stressing that although it had hit forces advancing towards the US base inside the zone,
“The Coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them. … The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat ISIS poses globally, which is beyond the capability of the Syrian regime to address. … The Coalition calls on all parties to focus their efforts in the same direction to defeat ISIS, our common enemy and the greatest threat to worldwide peace and security.”
Stunningly, the US even gave permission to the Assad regime to bomb inside the US exclusion zone. On June 6, the regime relayed a request to the US military via Russia to bomb the US-proxy force, Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT), inside the US-declared zone, because it had attacked Iranian-backed forces which had entered the zone. So, even though the US itself demands these forces not enter the zone, it does not give permission for its own proxies to attack them, because they are only allowed to fight ISIS. So the US gave permission to Assad to bomb its (the US’s) own proxies inside its own exclusion zone!
Palmyra, east Qalamoun, east Suweida
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, together with Iranian-backed forces and the Russian airforce, were finally making their own advance to the east against ISIS. This was after many years of Assad waiting as US bombing and SDF ground advances softened up ISIS, during which time Assad had been free to crush the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS rebels throughout the country.
Over the next few months, from their strengthened position around Palmyra, Assad’s forces took advantage of the US focus on fighting ISIS only, and the US-Jordanian freeze on the FSA Southern Front, to seize significant parts of the eastern Qalamoun and eastern Suweida regions from the rebels, but MAT was not allowed to link up with and support the FSA in this region directly adjacent to al-Tanf (see map):
“ … pro-regime soldiers attacked the overstretched desert rebels roughly 60km southwest of Palmyra … The regime’s assault led to a swift victory. … rebel sources told Syria Direct that the US-led coalition provides support for opposition forces to combat IS but stops short of funding the rebels to attack the regime. “The coalition is a partner of ours in the war against Daesh, but when it comes to fighting the regime and its foreign militias, [the coalition] is not our partner,” Al-Baraa Fares, a MaT spokesman, explained.”
Having directly aided or facilitated Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra from ISIS, and the East Qalamoun, East Suweida and Badia regions from the rebels, surely the US would draw a line against the regime advancing towards Deir Ezzor? Isn’t that why the US was arming and training its own proxies?
In reality, the US had for years been in an unofficial alliance with Assad in the war around Deir Ezzor, which was now out in the open under Trump as US, Russian, Assadist and even Iraqi warplanes bombed the region together, while on the ground this US bombing not only aided Assad’s forces but even Iran-led forces for months in 2017. The widely discussed secret US-Russia deal allowing the US/SDF to take Raqqa and Assad-Russia to take Deir-Ezzor appeared to be borne out in practice.
The Pentagon was open about the fact that its proxy forces were little more than an aid to Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor. As explained by US-led Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, if the Assad regime or its allies
“are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas we absolutely have no problem with that … if they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business. … if the Syrian regime wants to … put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing that in Abu Kamal or Deir el-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”
As Trump tweeted when threatening US withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.”
On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, Trump announced “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on withdrawal, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or Ghouta, but rather “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”
Assad also subjugated and expelled the people of a number of smaller rebel-held enclaves in part of Homs, Wadi Barada northeast of Damascus, and other parts of South Damascus, which, like East Ghouta, were all within the “west of Euphrates” majority of Syria the US had declared was Assad/Russia’s sphere.
Daraa and the south
Following this, the Assad regime turned its attention south, to Daraa and Quneitra provinces, the revolution’s birthplace, which straddle the Jordanian border and Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Daraa had long been held by the FSA Southern Front (SF), the largest military coalition controlled by avowed democratic and secularist forces. Under Obama, the Southern Front had for a time received US and Saudi support via Jordan. However, the Obama administration imposed a series of red lines on the SF beyond which it could not go; one line prevented it moving towards Damascus to link up with the rebel-held outer suburbs in the south and east. This red-line had contributed to the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya. After a certain point, the US and Jordan tightened the screws, insisting the SF drop its fight with Assad and focus entirely on ISIS.
The fate of the Southern Front had already been heralded in July 2017, with the US-Russia-Jordan agreement to make Daraa and Quneitra a “de-escalation zone.” Russia began occupying this zone with US blessing, to guarantee Israel that the regime’s return to the Golan would not be coupled with Iranian or Hezbollah forces, who had to keep away. This “de-escalation zone” converted the US red-line into international policy, preventing the SF from coming to the aid of East Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion, helping seal their fate.
Trump’s Russian friends, in other words, are now stationed in Syria to protect both the Assad regime and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan!
Idlib and the northwest
Having rolled over most opposition-controlled territory under Trump, all that was left was the northwest, under the control of a range of rebel militia, partially under Turkish influence, and the northeast, under the control of the SDF, backed by the US airforce, military bases and troops.
When Trump came to power, the rebel-held northwest consisted of “greater Idlib,” meaning Idlib province and parts of northern Hama, northern Latakia and west and south Aleppo provinces. This region is connected to the northern Aleppo region along the Turkish border, where rebel militias are more directly under Turkish control, since Turkey entered in 2016 to expel ISIS from the region.
Under Trump’s watch, “greater Idlib” became “lesser Idlib,”, with the loss of around half the region to Assad, including all the Hama, Latakia and west Aleppo regions, and the southern part of Idlib, mostly during the 2019-2020 Russian-led terror-bombing offensive. All the iconic centres of the democratic revolution, which had long resisted HTS as well as the regime – including Maraat a-Nuuman, Atareb, Kafranbel and Saraqeb – were lost to Assad.
While the US did not directly facilitate Assad’s victory here, no discernible opposition to Assad’s gigantic massacre-offensives can be detected, under either US president. If we are to compare, then the short-lived provision of a number of US-made anti-tank TOW missiles to the FSA under Obama appears to have helped an offensive in early 2015 make gains, but this had already petered out by late Obama years; whereas Trump’s cut-off of all aid to both the political and military opposition almost certainly enabled Assad’s reconquest more directly than Obama-era shrugging.
To the extent that some aid has gone to the opposition and the region has not been fully reconquered, this has been largely due to Turkey’s intervention in support of the rebels. Turkey has a direct interest: it has taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and since refugees from other rebel-held zones have flooded into Idlib, there would simply be nowhere else for them to go if Assad fully reconquered Idlib, meaning millions more refugees, which Turkey cannot handle.
Of course, Turkey does its own dealing. Its on and off dealing with Russia aims to facilitate Turkey’s oppressive interventions against the Kurdish populations in Afrin and the northeast, while blocking total Assadist reconquest of Idlib, though at times the same dealing may involve Turkey turning a blind eye to a degree of Assadist reconquest.
An excellent example of how the bogeyman of “chemical weapons” was used by the US government to inform Assad that literally everything other than chemical weapons goes, including “taking over Syria.”
In reality, despite Haley, even the US probably does not want a total Assadist victory in Idlib, given the massive instability this and subsequent enormous refugee outflows would cause. But beyond occasional harsh words, there is zero on the record of either administration obstructing Assad’s butchery. Following horrendous months-long terror-bombing offensives in early 2019 and early 2020, displacing another 1.4 million people, US national security adviser Robert O’Brian shrugged “the idea that America must do something… we’re supposed to parachute in as the global policeman and hold up a stop sign?”
Actually, the US has intervened in greater Idlib for years – bombing anti-Assad forces. Under Obama, the US had been bombing Nusra/HTS, and sometimes other Islamist rebels, since the day it began bombing ISIS in September 2014.
These bombings continued till April; they only stopped because, following the US strike on an Assadist air base in early April (see below), Russia, which controls the airspace in that region, told the US their “de-confliction” mechanism would no longer operate in the northwest. Since then, US leaders stress they “absolutely agree” with Russia that “the terrorists” in Idlib “need to be taken care of”, that Idlib is “a magnet for terrorist groups.”
Despite the Russian ban, the US still occasionally bombs jihadist forces in Idlib. The latest strike took place in October 2020, when the US struck a major jihadist meeting, killing members of a range of factions. At one point even the Russians complained about these US strikes on al-Qaida-linked Hurras al-Din. While the local rebels do not see these forces as allies, it is indicative that the only forces the US continues to strike in Idlib are anti-Assad, never pro-Assad, forces.
The Kurds and the northeast
The northeast is somewhat a separate issue, as here the US intervention found its partner of expedience in a force that is neither allied to the regime – though it is far from averse to doing deals with it when it suits – nor with the movement to overthrow it. The SDF gained control over a vast area of northeast Syria for its own ‘Rojava revolution’, and set up an autonomous ‘North Syria Federation’.
Under Trump, the US took off all gloves to smash ISIS, leading to thousands of civilian casualties, but ISIS was indeed largely destroyed. Once the job was done, Trump was ready to get out, issuing “withdrawal” declarations in December 2018 and October 2019. The second time included a nod to Turkey’s Erdogan regime to launch an invasion in the northeast to expel the SDF from part of its territory, a strip along the Turkish border, ethnically cleansing the Kurdish population and committing brutal war crimes. This betrayal appears to have been a Trump whim, hoping to sell Turkey 100 F-35 fighter jets – a deal that ultimately did not eventuate.
When Turkey invaded to US indifference, the SDF felt forced to make a deal with Assad to allow a small number of Syrian troops back into parts of their zone. Far from complaining about Assad’s latest partial-reconquest, Trump tweeted “Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land … Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
Given this nakedly counterrevolutionary role of the Trump administration in Syria, how do the issues of ‘red-lines’, anti-Iranian policy and sanctions fit into this picture, and do they give Syrians reason to grudgingly support Trump despite the above?
Let’s begin with Trump’s two pinprick strikes on the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons in Idlib in April 2017 and Ghouta in April 2018. Given Obama’s backing out from his threat the enforce the red-line against chemical weapons following Assad’s massive sarin attack on Ghouta in 2013, Trump’s apparently greater tendency to enforce the red-line, regardless of motivations (US imperial “credibility” etc), may appear an improvement.
Did the US bombing of Assad’s Shariyat airbase in April 2017 – the first US hit on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – signify a new US policy?
When Assad took this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.
Thus it was Obama’s deal with Assad that created the necessity of a strike this time: Assad had simply not used sarin again in any large enough display during Obama’s reign. We cannot therefore make assumptions about what may have happened if Obama were still president; he may have been forced to do the same as Trump. In fact, when Obama was threatening to enforce his red-line in August 2013, Trump was opposed to any action, as was Bolton, Mattis, Gingrich, virtually anyone in future associated with Trump.
Let’s set this minimalistic strike in context. The first months of Trump saw a massive intensification of the US war on ISIS, and a huge rise in civilian casualties: the number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, including 472 killed by US airstrikes in Syria between May 23 and June 23 alone, the third month in a row that civilian casualties from US strikes topped even Assad’s toll. The massacre of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa highlighted the nature of Trump’s war. The civilian toll from the decimation of Raqqa is likely to be much higher than official figures suggest, and by August, enormous massacres were occurring daily. In this context, a 55-minute hit on a few old regime warplanes, doing zero damage to its war-making capacity, is not even a hiccup.
As we saw above, Trump also escalated the US war on HTS. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of the rebel-held Aleppo mosque in March which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was.
The follow-up by clarified further that this was a one-off. Tillerson stressed the strike was entirely about sarin and warned “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” Trump stressed that he launched the strike only because Assad used chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” Defence Secretary Mattis stressed that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” but Assad “should think long and hard” before using sarin again. National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that if there were to be any “regime change” in Syria, it would be carried out by Russia, not the US; that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and that the US goal remained defeating ISIS while it also desired “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.”
So, even after Assad uses chemical weapons, the hardest policy within the Trump regime was for regime character change under Assad, facilitated by Russia.
The lead-up to the second hit, in April 2018, following Assad’s attack on Ghouta with chlorine gas, was similar; as described above, the Trump’s US government demonstrated complete indifference as the regime pounded East Ghouta for a month with every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD, as 1700 people were killed. As we saw above, during this terror, Trump announced the US was leaving Syria, as its only concern was ISIS. Ghouta was not even on his radar.
Assad had already been victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia was holding out in the suburb of Douma. The day after the chemical attack, Douma surrendered. Confronted with yet another rude violation of the red-line, despite Trump’s gift to an ungrateful Assad of supreme indifference to the month of slaughter, Trump once again launched a credibility strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.
Probably the biggest argument in favour of Trump among many Syrians has been his intensely anti-Iranian policy. Trump, so it goes, may not care about Assad, and his stance against Iran may only be driven by imperial US arrogance, but it will have the spin-off effect of weakening Assad. Obama signed the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) which released sanctions on Iran and returned it money the US had long held, so Iran was able to use this money to bolster Assad; and Obama’s determination to get the Iran deal was allegedly a major reason for the US going soft on Assad. Trump’s scrapping of the JCPOA means Iran has less money to bolster Assad. Biden would return to the treaty, again freeing Iran to shower Assad with money and troops.
While the argument is understandable, there are too many holes for it to hold up as any reason to grudgingly support Trump.
Let’s start with the last point. Would Iran be flush with cash to prop up Assad if Biden restored the JCPOA? Probably not, because its economy has crashed due to the huge fall in oil prices over the last year, as well as being hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. In any case, the point is now moot following the imposition of harsh US sanctions on the Assad regime (see below). In the past, Syria could be prevented from receiving Iranian goods due to US sanctions on Iran (and anyone facilitating Iranian trade); now, third parties can be sanctioned by the US for supplying Syria. But then why would Iran care about that if it is already sanctioned? Ironically, only by abolishing the harsh sanctions on Iran would its incentives to aid Assad be reduced.
Regarding Obama, yes, the timing of the JCPOA was bad for Syrians, if not wrong in itself. The US did not have the right to keep billions of Iranian dollars for decades. The country with the most nuclear bombs on Earth does not have the right to prevent Iran from developing civil nuclear energy. But if the US had illegally held Iranian cash for decades, it could have held it a little longer if it wanted to stop Iran funding Assad. The discourse that Obama was soft on Assad because of his deal with Iran reverses the causality and demonstrates illusions in US imperialism. As can be easily demonstrated, the US never supported the Syrian uprising. This had nothing to do with the Iran deal. Obama could have used the Iran deal as a lever to get Iranian forces out of Syria, but chose not to.
But here’s the thing: under both Obama and Trump, the US was effectively allied to Iranian forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq, with with parallel objectives. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shiite sectarian death squads helped the US prop up the US-Iranian joint-venture Iraqi regime against the ISIS Sunni sectarian death squads.
Regarding Syria, let’s talk about the “anti-Iranian” Trump presidency. Throughout 2017 and early 2018, while Trump was facilitating Assad’s counterrevolutionary victory throughout the country, the anti-Iran issue took a back seat in practice, whatever Trump’s rhetoric, as long as Assad needed Iran-backed cannon-fodder to do much of his fighting on the ground. As shown above, during Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor in 2017, US bombing of ISIS not only aided Assadist forces on the ground, but even Iranian forces on the ground.
Only after Assad’s throne was safe, following the crushing of Ghouta in April 2018, was the stage set for Trump to begin dealing with his Iranian issue. So in May 2018 the JCPOA scrapped, sanctions imposed and the anti-Iran rhetoric reached fever pitch.
It is true that Assad’s crushing of Daraa had not yet taken place, but when it did, it was carried out without any need for Iranian troops. As described above, the deal to crush Daraa involved Assad, Netanyahu, Trump and Putin; Russia ensured that Iranian troops were kept distant from the region. Iranian cannon fodder was now superfluous.
As for the ongoing slaughter in Idlib, it has been overwhelmingly Russian terror bombing aiding each Assadist offensive; Iran’s role has been relatively peripheral. In a number of Assad-Russia offensives, Iranian forces were absent, possibly due to the increasing anti-Kurdish alignment of Iranian and Turkish regional interests. Regarding a mid-2019 offensive, researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov writes “Iran is currently not engaged in the campaigns in Idlib for several reasons, including that it does not see the recapture of the province to be of strategic importance and it wants to maintain good relations with Turkey.”
The bottom line is this: if Trump’s anti-Iran position was negative for Assad, then how did Assad reconquer most of the country under Trump’s watch?
The problem is giving greater weight to Iran than is warranted. Given the heavy role played by the Iranian regime and its regional proxies in sending thousands of troops to fight for Assad’s regime, many understandably take this a step further and see the Syrian war as primarily a war of Iranian conquest and occupation, with Assad virtually reduced to an Iranian pawn.
However, this Iranian angle is only one aspect of a multi-faceted war, whose dominant aspect remained a war of revolution and counterrevolution where the Syrian people’s main enemy was the Assad regime, with its own massive military machine, which never completely lost its independence to Iran.
One argument is that since Assad’s own Syrian forces became so hollowed out due to mass desertion and reluctance to fight, the armed forces he pitted against the rebels became overwhelmingly these Iran-owned forces. Forcing Iran-backed forces out will therefore leave Assad without an army.
However, this is a case of turning an actual phenomenon – significant desertion among SAA ranks – into an absolute. The SAA does continue to have thousands of Syrian troops, though greatly reduced and with low morale. Moreover, these absolutist views ignore the fact that there is another much greater power that has been central to rescuing Assad – the Russian Empire of Trump’s mate, Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s intervention via aerial mass bombing since 2015 saved Assad – after the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention since 2013 proved incapable of doing so. However, it is often claimed that while Russia supplies the airforce, it does not send ground troops, so Assad and Putin rely on Iran and its proxies to supply cannon fodder.
In March 2017, Assad’s forces launched an attack on the US-backed SDF in Deir Ezzor. While the US never touches the regime’s war-making machine when it fights the rebels, it retaliated against this attack on its SDF allies, only to find that it had killed 200-300 Russian mercenaries, of the Blackwater-like Wagner group, embedded with Assad’s forces! If that many Russians died on one day, it suggests significant numbers of Russian ground forces have fought in Syria.
But the Russian factor is bigger than that of ground troops. Russia is the other major power that Assad’s regime depends on militarily, economically and diplomatically. While Russia and Iran both back Assad, they are also rivals in the stakes of dominating post-war Syria. They also attempt to achieve their rival objectives in different ways – while Iran relies on sending in irregular militia under its own control and ideological persuasion (though also building connections with certain sections of the Assadist military, eg, Bashar’s cousin Maher Assad’s 4th Division), Russia aims to rebuild and dominate the Baathist state apparatus which it has worked with for decades.
While this rivalry gives the Assad regime the ability to manoeuvre between these two benefactors it also gives Iran’s enemies – the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf states – the same ability to manoeuvre, by putting their money on a Russian-dominated version of Baathist “stability” and/or “political solution” as opposed to the Iran-dominated version. Pushing back Iran does not necessarily mean undermining Assad.
However, while Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt line up very neatly with the Russian preference for Baathist regime continuity (with or without Assad), with some cosmetic ‘reform’, the US and the EU strive for some kind of “political transition”. In reality, ‘reformed Baathist ‘stability’ and ‘political solution’ are different ends of the same equation in the context of Assad’s military victory.
Nevertheless, ‘political transition’ at least offers some degree of greater possibilities than mere ‘reformed Baathism’, and the weapon chosen by the the US and the EU to pressure the regime in that direction is sanctions. So we will now move to Trump’s alleged third advantage, the current harsh sanctions regime.
It may seem ironic that the US government, after years of facilitating Assad’s victory, began to articulate a firmer-sounding policy on Assad’s future soon after the regime’s mid-2018 reconquest of the south. In November, the US Treasury issued a “shipping advisory” warning third parties (especially Iran and Russia) that they would be subject to US sanctions if they facilitate the shipping of oil to Syria (notably, the oil sanctions this was based on were issued in August 2011 under Obama). The advisory also noted that the US would prevent any funding for “reconstruction.” The new US special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, outlined that these sanctions will apply until the US sees “irreversible progress in the UN-sponsored political process.”
US rulers had feared the “instability” of revolution more than the instability caused by the regime’s actions, but now with the revolution contained or crushed, this new approach indicates that the US now considers it safe to resume the search for a transition to a less destabilizing version of the regime, achieved “from above.”
The harshness of the new sanctions is balanced by how limited the objectives are. The “political process” Jeffrey refers to concerns Assad’s attempts to block the formation of a “constitutional commission” to re-write the constitution before future elections, the process launched by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, at the Sochi conference in January 2018, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (a resolution endorsed by Russia and China in 2015). Even the regime is officially on board, though it is trying to stall the process. It is somewhat ironic that the US now offers muscle to help push through a Russian-led process.
As the former head of the of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, noted, “the meagre demand of a mere constitutional committee” is a major step down from the key long-term component of the Geneva process, namely “the demand for a transitional ruling body,” which would consist half of regime and half of opposition members, both with right of veto over certain individuals (eg, Assad), tasked with organising elections. This was key to the Geneva process since its inception in 2012, based on a Russo-American understanding of the “political process” under Obama. With the new approach, the regime itself, rather than a transitional body, will be expected to ratify a new constitution and organize “elections”.
In other words, the late Trump administration’s position is “tough” in the context of policy objectives that represent a marked shift towards accommodating the regime. Of course, the US never had any “regime change” policy to begin with. The US had always opposed any collapse of the Baathist regime, and at most had aimed for Assad to “step down,” as Obama requested, leaving his regime intact. As Obama’s State Secretary John Kerry stated in December 2015, the US is “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” and the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”
Regarding the change in “behaviour,” Jeffrey’s stress was on the removal of “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” In June 2020, Jeffrey is still repeating this ‘muscular realpolitik’ approach, asserting that Washington “wants to see a political process, which may not lead to a change of the Syrian regime, but demands the Syrian regime to change its behaviour, not provide “shelter for terrorist organizations” or “a base for Iran.”
This is very different to his attitude to Assad’s other ally Russia; Jeffrey states that “we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria,” calling on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria.” Jeffrey bends over backwards to accommodate Russia:
“Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States, if all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks. The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt.”
In other words, the tough-sounding Jeffrey is putting it to Russia that the US supports a conservative, Russian-led process of “political transition,” ie, one which satisfies US-Russian allies like the UAE, Egypt and Israel that the regime is largely preserved as long as Iran is distanced.
While Russia intervened to save Assad’s regime, Putin has no special love for Assad himself, and understands that for its Syria colony to became stable for Russian investment and strategy, the regime needs to engage in some ‘political process’ involving dialogue with the opposition, perhaps broadening the base of an otherwise unstable sectarian regime. The Russian-led “constitutional commission” process, supported by the US, is conservative enough for this purpose: it bridges the gap between the concepts of Baathist regime continuity with cosmetic reform and “political solution.”
In theory, even a controlled ‘political solution’ process could open up Syrian politics for the masses to intervene even if that is not the intention; in practice it may go beyond a reformed Baathist regime. However, whether it or not it does depends on the relationship of forces on the ground, rather than what is written on paper.
With Assad receiving massive backing from Russia and Iran throughout the war, Assad could fight it out to ensure any final deal gave the best terms to the regime. The end result is seen today: the military crushing of the opposition ensuring that it lacks bargaining power; hundreds of revolutionary councils disbanded; thousands of civil leaders murdered in custody; a quarter of the population residing outside the country; and Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish forces occupying substantial parts of Syria. The “political solution” in this context will likely end up a particularly conservative version.
Returning then to sanctions: what we see is the “blunt instrument” of harsh sanctions, which hurt ordinary civilians far more than the Assadist elite, arriving at the end of a US-facilitated, especially Trump-facilitated, military victory by Assad, in order to now pressure the victorious Assad into a limited “political solution” that preserves as much of the regime as possible.
However, while my focus is the cynical motivations of Trump, the sanctions debate is of central importance to Syrians; regardless of the reasons for the defeat of the military struggle, its reality means Syrians rightly ask: so what can be done now? To oppose any sanctions in this context means allowing the regime to rule unimpeded, having destroyed its country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, while still holding tens of thousands of political prisoners, leaving a quarter of the Syrian population as refugees and millions more internally displaced, while passing laws to steal their property.
It is here that the recently introduced ‘Caesar’ sanctions – named after the alias of the Syrian regime defector who leaked tens of thousands of photos of detainees tortured and murdered in Assad’s gulag – potentially offer a way forward. Credit for these sanctions goes to the years of democratic activism by Syrians and their supporters pressuring Western governments to take the kinds of actions that many activists have previously pushed for against western-backed repressive regimes.
The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act puts specific demands on the regime like releasing political prisoners, ending sieges, facilitating return of refugees, and ending bombing of civilians, schools and medical facilities. This removes the dilemma whereby some may consider the US demand for “political transition” none of the US’s business, on the one hand, or view its actual content to be so watered down that it means reformed Assadism, on the other. Who can argue with release of political prisoners?
The Caesar Act sanctions the regime, entities controlled by it, individuals within it, and other active participants in repression (including foreign death squad leaders); the oil and gas industries, military aircraft, and “reconstruction”; and any ‘third-party’ individual entity or state doing business with any of the above.
Support for the Caesar sanctions is very strong among Syrian activists abroad, but not unanimous, because their harshness potentially impacts the civilian population (despite strong clauses allowing humanitarian access and exemptions), due to issues such as of “over-compliance,” “dual-use,” the fact that sanctioned regime-connected oligarchs own large parts of the economy and so on. Energy sanctions – already in place before Caesar – are particularly problematic: oil and gas are used in military repression, but also civilian transport and heating of homes. This is a delicate political and ethical issue. There is also a range of views among anti-Assad civil society in regions outside regime control.
Sanctions have a bad record of battering civilians, while elites connected to sanctioned regimes are best-placed to sanctions-bust and live well, even profit, from them. Moreover, there is a rich literature showing that economic sanctions rarely change regime behaviour, let alone lead to regime change. Far from suffering leading the masses to revolt, the everyday struggle for survival takes precedence. Further, by being able to point to foreign sanctions, the regime can attempt to get itself off the hook, even though in reality its massive destruction of civilian infrastructure over a decade is the main cause of civilian suffering, while the recent collapse of the Lebanese banking system was also a major hit to the Syrian economy.
But really, this is a different discussion. Because whether one views the sanctions in a more positive or more negative light, support for them in the US is bipartisan; Trump versus Biden is irrelevant. Far from being “Trump sanctions,” these sanctions, driven by Syrian-American activists, simply took years to get through all the complex processes of US policy making. The act was introduced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016 with bipartisan support, and has had bipartisan support at every step through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The fact that it took until December 2019 for Caesar to be finally passed by both houses can in no sense be attributed to Trump.
With the Caesar sanctions now law, there is no point arguing whether Trump or Biden would be more likely to lift them; both are bound by the law. The law gives the president the power to lift some sanctions if the regime, for example, releases some prisoners, perhaps allowing differing interpretations of the law.
But there is no indication that Biden is likely to be lenient on Caesar. If anything, the re-election of Trump, with his transactional approach, disdain for human rights, ties to regional dictatorships that support Assad, love of Putin and far-right base, would arguably seem more likely to lead to a ‘realpolitik’-type deal leaving the regime intact if Iran is distanced, compared to Biden’s ‘liberal internationalist’ tendencies. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor, Anthony Blinken, stressed that the US would remain in northeast Syria to exert pressure on the regime, and re-engage in the Geneva process, which he accused Trump of leaving to Russia. He also stated that Biden would use re-engagement with Iran “to address broader regional issues, including Syria.”
A western government that actually cared about Syrian people would pursue a strategy focusing more on carrot than stick. Not “carrot” for Assad, but rather, pouring funds into helping people in regions outside regime control build democratic alternative structures, demonstrating to civilians under Assad’s rule that an alternative exists, and providing the means to protect themselves against aerial massacre. Yet it was Trump that ended the $230 million annual support to civil society in liberated areas, when there were a lot more liberated areas than now.
It is here that Biden perhaps offers the vaguest amount of light, where he promises to “recommit to standing with civil society and pro-democracy partners on the ground” in Syria. If this means a reversal of Trump’s policy, this would be a solid step forward, because only a resurgence of popular struggle offers any way forward in the grim situation.
Of course, neither Trump nor Biden offers much hope for Syrians. But the idea that a thug like Trump might offer just a little better on Syria, in contrast to virtually any other issue in the US or anywhere in the world, has no basis in reality.
How Erdogan handed northeast Syria to the Assad regime without it firing a shot
By Michael Karadjis
On October 6, the Turkish regime of Tayyip Erdogan launched its long-heralded invasion of northeast Syria, aiming to expel the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from a 30-kilometre border region, and then to dump some its 3.5 million Syrian refugees into territory from which the local population has been expelled. Erdogan’s deal with Russian president Putin consecrates a victory for both Erdogan and Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad, who will divide SDF-held territories between them.
Turkey and the Kurds
Turkey, along with Iran, Iraq and Syria, have long oppressed their Kurdish populations. In their resistance to Turkish oppression, the Kurdish people in southeast Turkey faced extraordinary state violence under the decades of military regimes, forcing them to take the path of armed struggle in the 1980s, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Over the next two decades, some 40,000 people were killed, overwhelmingly by the Turkish state’s brutal counterinsurgency war.
However, the PKK, like many just struggles in the context of state-terror, also often operated in a ruthless fashion, earning it the same “terrorist” label as the Syrian rebels, the Palestinian resistance, the Irish freedom fighters and others in the oppressor’s discourse. Yet while ultra-hypocritical when this label is used by defenders of Turkish state-terror, the crimes of the PKK (including silencing rival Kurdish organisations) did contribute to its alienation from much of the Turkish working class who are therefore more easily manipulated by state propaganda.
The main force in the SDF in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the PKK, and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Syrian Kurds were brutally oppressed under the Assad dictatorship and hundreds of thousands denied citizenship. Although Turkey’s claim that the YPG-SDF represents a “threat” to Turkey’s security is laughably false – the YPG has never fired a shot across the border previous to the current invasion – it is true in the sense that the Kurdish autonomy achieved by the SDF in northeastern Syria is a “threat” via the example it sets for the Kurds in Turkey.
Just one part of the Syrian massacre …
This brutal aerial and land attack on the Kurdish and Arab civilian population is simply one more theatre of terror within the genocidal massacre that has engulfed Syria for nearly 9 years, some 95 percent of which has been perpetrated by the fascistic dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, backed by his Russian imperialist masters who have joined Assad in raining death from the skies, and the death squads sent by the Iranian theocracy. Most of the remaining killing was carried out by ISIS and by the US bombing that helped the SDF drive ISIS from eastern Syria.
Indeed, the last 6 months of particularly brutal mass homicide and dispossession carried out by Assad and Russia in northwest Syria has been barely noticed by the international media; many seem to have only just noticed that Syrians are being bombed now.
Turkey’s aggression has driven at least 160,000 people from their homes, while Kurdish health authorities claim some 218 people have been killed as of mid-October. Although most media talk of the victims being Kurds, the region under SDF control is multi-ethnic, so the victims are Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others. The main theatre of the Turkish operation is the largely non-Kurdish region along the border between the mostly Arab city of Tal Abyad and the mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Rays al-Ayn/Serekanye. However, Turkish bombing has also targeted the SDF in heavily Kurdish cities like Kobani and Qamishli, killing and maiming dozens of civilians.
Serious war crimes have also been committed on the ground, more explicitly directed against Kurds. In its October 18 report, Amnesty International wrote that “Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians.” The slaughter of Hevrin Khalaf of the Kurdish Future Party, followed by the filming of the desecration of her body, and this field execution of a young Kurdish man, are two cases of absolutely shameful and sadistic crimes. Just who these gangs are will be dealt with below.
Against all selective solidarities
Since Turkey’s invasion, three main responses have been heard from the non-Assadist left and progressive world (not that supporters of Assadist fascism and its racist White Russian ally can be considered left or progressive, but unfortunately such confusion currently exists).
First, we have the voices rightly condemning Turkey’s invasion, but coming from people and organisations who have never, or rarely, condemned the slaughter carried out by Assad/Russia/Iran, or expressed any solidarity with its victims. This is sometimes connected to extreme romanticisation of the SDF (itself sometimes linked to mainstream western selective solidarity with Kurds as opposed to Arabs), combined with an extraordinary level of (often Islamophobic) demonisation of all Syrian rebel currents. When Syrian people called for a No-Fly-Zone to protect them from Assad’s genocidal bombing, they were denounced by many western leftists as tools of western imperialism; yet when the SDF got the full-scale support of the US airforce for 5 years, many of the same people remained quiet or even supported it, and condemn theUS for withdrawing; meanwhile, demonstrations condemning the Turkish invasion are calling for a No-Fly-Zone! This is highlighted by the complete silence of many over the last 6 months of the murderous aerial bombing of rebel-held Idlib by the Assad regime and Russia. Many Syrians who have watched the global left ignore their plight for 9 years find this nakedly selective solidarity unbearable.
Unfortunately, this leads to the mirror-image error among some Syrian oppositionists and their supporters: supporting the invasion. Part of this derives from Turkey’s past role as a strong supporter of the Syrian uprising (largely now abandoned since Erdogan became best mates with Putin around 2016), to Turkey being the recipient of 3.5 million refugees from Assad’s slaughterhouse (who Erdogan, now in alliance with his former opponents, the fascistic MHP, wants to dump back anywhere in Syria) and to the SDF’s own transgressions (which leads to wrongly demonising them as ‘Assadists’). But even if we were to grant all this without the provisos, what of basic solidarity with the civilian population fleeing in their tens of thousands? Has the Turkish regime, a historic oppressor of Kurds, come to “liberate” the Syrian Kurds from “SDF oppression”?
“The Turkish “Peace Spring” war is a continuation of the Assadi, Iranian, Russian, American and Israeli wars in Syria, and by no means a rupture with them. ِActually, it is a new spring of war and an additional tomb to the aspirations to a new viable Syria. The Syrian vassals of Turkey’s new war are in continuation of the Assadis and their protectors’ wars, not to the crushed revolution of Syrians. Not in our names, you scumbags!”
A global left and progressive movement is nothing if its solidarity cannot be consistent.
A little background
Arabs and Kurds in their tens of thousands joined mass rallies against Assad throughout northern Syria in 2011, but this solidarity came apart for a complex array of reasons that this article cannot do justice to. Political limitations of both the main Arab-led rebel and opposition groups, both secular-nationalist and Islamist and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership, and of the main Kurdish groups, especially the PYD-YPG, derailed this unity against the regime.
While the Syrian revolution liberated significant parts of Syria from the regime, the PYD-YPG launched its own ‘Rojava revolution’ in the main Kurdish centres of northern Syria, which Assad withdrew from in order to focus on crushing the bigger revolution. While the Rojava project has been both romanticised and demonised, in brief it combines a number of highly progressive aspects with blemishes and limitations – as did other theatres of the Syrian revolution. It is both an act of Kurdish autonomy and the expression, whatever its problems, of the Kurdish people’s part of the broader revolution. However, the PYD-YPG never saw it that way, and it stood aloof from the conflict between regime and rebels from the outset. These divisions ultimately opened both rebel and Kurdish leaderships up to increasing pressures by the various outside powers intervening in Syria with their own agendas, including Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and the Gulf states.
Turkey became one of the main backers of the FSA and the Syrian rebels, especially since Assad’s savagery drove 3.5 million refugees into Turkey; but this also allowed Turkey to pressure its rebel allies with its anti-Kurdish agenda. Meanwhile, when the US entered the war against ISIS in 2014, it chose the YPG as its ground partner, despite the Syrian rebels also being at war with ISIS; the US wanted them to fight ISIS only and not the Assad regime, whereas the rebels fought both. The SDF was formed by the YPG with a number of small Arab rebel groups who agreed to this US demand. This led to increasing conflict between Turkey and the US, and Turkey turned increasingly towards a diplomatic track with Russia and Iran, despite being on opposite sides within Syria.
Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from northeast Syria and betrayal of the US’s SDF allies in the face of Turkey’s threat to invade may have been partially aimed at patching up this US-Turkish rift, but as explained below, this move was at odds with the views of most of the US ruling class.
The deal: A Putin-sponsored partition of Rojava between Assad and Turkey
It was fairly clear from early in the conflict what was happening: the territory controlled by the SDF (the North Syria Federation, often called ‘Rojava’) was being divided between Turkey and the Assad regime; the master of ceremonies is Vladimir Putin, who is tightly allied to both Assad and Erdogan. But anyone not convinced only had to wait for the historic Russia-Turkey agreement which came out of the Putin-Erdogan meeting of October 22.
The partition looks like this:
Turkey gets to keep its troops in the largely Arab-populated border strip between the mainly Arab city of Tal Abyad, east to the smaller, mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn (Serekanye), to a depth of 30 kilometres.
Assad regime and Russian troops will control the rest of the northeast border, both to the west (Kobane, Manbij) and east (Qamishli, Hasake) of this Turkish-occupied section, clearing the SDF away from the border to a depth of 30 kilometres, already consecrated under the deal the SDF earlier made with the regime; thus the regime will control all the main Kurdish population centres, as well as the non-Kurdish Raqqa region further south.
Once the SDF is expelled, Turkish and Russian troops (representing the regime) will patrol a 10-kilometre deep zone along the northeast border, outside of the Turkish-controlled zone.
Both sides reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement, ie, the 1998 agreement between Turkey and Syria allowing Turkey to temporarily enter Syria when in pursuit of “terrorists.” Turkey thereby essentially recognises the Assad regime.
Just to make things clear, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov told the SDF that if it did not withdraw from the border region, Syrian borders guards and Russian military police would withdraw and leave the Kurds to be dealt with by Turkey. The Assad regime welcomed the agreement and blamed “separatists” for the crisis.
Now for the detail. While Turkish and allied militia war crimes have been directed against Kurds and the operation is anti-Kurdish in intent (and the pillaging and ethnic cleansing of Kurdish Afrin following Turkey’s 2018 invasion makes the current prospects clear enough for the Kurds), the region Turkey has conquered – and that it will be restricted to – is largely non-Kurdish, as these maps demonstrate:
The ease with which Turkey walked into Tal Abyad, with little resistance, may be simply explained by the SDF regrouping its forces, or to the SDF not having the base of support among the city’s Arab population that it claimed to have. Moreover, at least some of the “rebels” entering Tal Abyad with Turkey are from the Arab refugee population that was uprooted by the SDF during its conquest in 2015, who have been across the Turkish border in refugee camps ever since, unable to return.
There was much more resistance in Ras al-Ayn, given its larger Kurdish population; but the SDF has now evacuated it under the US-Turkish ‘ceasefire’ agreement signed five days before the far more significant Russia-Turkish agreement. Hence the only real confrontation – and the only significant SDF loss of ethnically Kurdish territory to Turkey – is this town bordering the two zones. Other than Ras al-Ayn, the SDF early made a full withdrawal from the Turkish-controlled segment.
According to the deal the SDF signed with the regime, “the SAA will be present in the entire region east and north of the Euphrates and in coordination with local military councils, while the area between Ras al Ayn and Tell Abyad stays as an unstable combat zone until it is liberated.” The Russia-Turkey agreement simply consecrated this.
Next door, the US told Erdogan Kobani is off limits, and Assadist forces entered the town (here we see US and Assadist forces passing each other along the road, in and out of Kobani). Assadist forces have also deployed south, in the Raqqa region; and in the heavily Kurdish region to the east of Ras al-Ayn (including Qamishle, Hasake etc), the regime will beef up its forces who have always remained present in two small bases.
The US-Turkish ‘ceasefire’ farce
What then of the earlier US-Turkish “ceasefire” deal signed by US Vice-President Pence and Erdogan on October 17? The text called for a “safe zone” to be “mostly” patrolled by Turkish troops, and the evacuation of the SDF from the border region. It appeared to hand Turkey everything it wants, and was rightly denounced as a sham and a betrayal, including by the leadership of the US Democratic Party and many Republicans. Even the “ceasefire” part was not respected by Turkey which has continued to bomb Ras al-Ayn.
The main betrayal was handing over Ras al-Ayn to Turkey while the SDF was still resisting. Beyond that, however, the statement omitted any definition of the length or depth of this “safe zone”. Though Pence stated his acceptance of Turkey’s definition of the zone as 30 kilometres deep, Turkey’s absurd claim for this to extend all 444 kilometres along the border, from Manbij to the Iraqi border, was rejected by the US. US Special Envoy, James Jeffrey defined the safe zone “as the areas where Turkey was now operating, down 30 km in a central part of Northeast Syria,” that is, the 100 kilometres (of largely non-Kurdish territory) between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. He said that beyond that, “the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast”.
In other words, the US-Turkish agreement simply affirmed the existing unofficial Putin-led, Erdogan-Assad partition of the region, accepted by the SDF, now official in the Russia-Turkey agreement. The part of the agreement about the SDF being removed from the entire border, not just the limited “safe zone” part, will be taken care of by the Assad regime entering the region. The Pence mission and statement therefore was nothing but a meaningless face-saver for the US after Trump’s bungle, allowing it to claw back a little credibility and pretend to look important where Putin controls all levers.
Erdogan: Go Assad!
Is this a defeat for Erdogan? It may look like he has led Turkey into a trap only to get crumbs. After all, the US and Turkey had theoretically already established a “safe zone” along the entire border east of Manbij to the Iraqi border, from which the SDF had begun withdrawing. The SDF had accepted a 5-kilometre zone along most of the border, and 9-14 kilometres between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Turkey invaded because it wasn’t satisfied with this. While the zone between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn will now be 30 kilometres deep, all the rest of the border goes to Assad, and while the zone within this where Turkish patrols are allowed extends from 5 to 10 kilometres, this is shared with Russia (representing Assad) rather than the US.
But really, does Turkey want to get bogged down fighting a guerrilla war in Kurdish population centres? Perhaps the aim was always for Assad to take the rest from the SDF.
Russia negotiated the SDF-Assad deal several days after Turkey’s invasion, allowing the regime to enter SDF territory to “defend its borders” against Turkey; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained that Russia’s goal is that “all Kurdish organizations in Syria are woven into the country’s legal framework and constitution, so that there are no illegal armed units in Syria,” and thus pose no threat to Turkey, whose legitimate interests securing its border Russia recognises. Putin’s greenlight to Erdogan – more explicit than Trump’s – had the understanding from the outset that this would force the SDF under Assad’s wing.
It is futile arguing about whether the SDF made the right decision. It is true that the PYD/YPG has always had an opportunistic policy towards the regime, abstained from the anti-Assad uprising, and were always prepared for deals with Assad, Russia or the US. Sometimes this was about survival (eg, the US aid as ISIS advanced on Kobane in 2014), in other cases lust for territorial conquest (eg its Russian airforce-backed conquest of the rebel-held northern Aleppo region in early 2016). Completely dependent on the US, facing a precipitous US withdrawal, some deal with the devil was mathematically inevitable once Turkey launched its brutal invasion. The SDF and Rojava will be crushed in the Erdogan/Assad vice.
Beyond the entry of Assadist troops, the real outcome remains a matter of interpretation, with SDF spokespeople suggesting they will still have full internal control. Assad can temporarily pose as the “softer” alternative for the Kurds, allowing some limited autonomy to remain temporarily, to facilitate entry into SDF territory without conflict while the situation elsewhere remains unstable for the regime. But when all is done, Assad will finish the job of crushing all autonomy, as the regime has long promised. Even while doing the deal, Assad regime officials lambasted the SDF as traitors to Syria, making clear what their prospects are.
Did Trump also green-light Assad?
It is no surprise that Trump immediately tweeted that the Russia-Turkey agreement was “good news”. It may be conspiratorial to suggest that Trump’s withdrawal was part of the Putin-led plan, given Trump’s tendency to make policy decisions over a phone-call. But remove the idea of subjective intention: Trump’s move is consistent with a not uncommon view that there are no fundamental US interests in Syria; supporting oppressive regimes rolling over the oppressed is consistent with US policy and interests in countless other places (eg Palestine); patching it up with a big NATO state is ultimately in US interests; and this move is consistent with Trump’s repeated view that it is Assad’s counterrevolution to deal with, that the US should support Assad and Putin “fighting ISIS” (sic) and so on.
According to SDF commander Mazloum Kobani, Trump also greenlighted the SDF-Assad deal: “We told (Trump) that we are contacting the Syrian regime and the Russians in order to protect our country and land. He said, ‘We are not against that. We support that.”
There is no mystery here – US imperialism never attempted to unseat Assad despite trenchant myths. The US entered Syria’s war to support the YPG/SDF as their ground force against ISIS. With ISIS largely defeated, US imperialism has no fundamental reason to continue keeping some Syrian territory outside Assad’s control. While Trump’s policy is not the current policy of the US ruling-class mainstream (though there are exceptions, and this article claims a number of “pro-Turkey” advisors have entered the White House), it is conceivably one consistent choice for US imperialism.
“ … while almost every analyst claimed this move was a sell-out of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Erdogan regime in Turkey … it was just as much, if not more, a green light for the Bashar Assad tyranny to take control of the SDF-controlled regions.
“However, some clarification may be in order: how can a US withdrawal favour Assad and Russia if the US presence in Syria was never opposed to them in the first place? Here we need to understand the US relationship with its ground ally, the SDF, which controls northeast Syria since driving out ISIS …
“ … the US and SDF [fought] ISIS in the east in a war completely separate to Assad’s counterrevolutionary war against the rebellion in western Syria. But while the SDF was not anti-Assad, nor was it pro-Assad; it was interested in building its own project, the ‘Rojava revolution’, separate to both Assad and the rebels. Therefore, the US was maintaining a region outside Assad’s direct control; but this was never the ultimate US aim, which was merely to use the SDF to defeat ISIS. Therefore, the current processes of the US abandoning the SDF to Assad, and the SDF itself trying to negotiate a deal with Assad, are essentially in harmony, but in these “negotiations” it is the regime, not the Rojava project, that will come out on top.”
They believe it is in US interests to hang on to the SDF statelet in eastern Syria for longer, whether purely as a buffer against Iran (the Bolton view), or as a medium for pressuring Assad regarding the political process (while the US has always excelled at supporting tyrants, most recognise that Assad’s military victories are incapable of re-establishing any real stability and therefore support the UN-led “constitutional” process to broaden the Assad regime), or because precipitous withdrawal is massively damaging to US imperial credibility and threatens to undo five years of US military-political success in the region. However, none of this is really about love of “the Kurds” or the Rojava project and there should be little doubt that betrayal would have arrived sometime later.
As this article goes to press, this fury with Trump’s decision may be leading to a new tactic in managing the crisis it caused. Trump is alleged to now be in favour of keeping some 200 troops in Syria near the Iraqi border to bomb ISIS, but also to, as Trump tweeted, “secure the oil,” ie, some SDF-controlled oil wealth. This has apparently swung Lindsay Graham, who explains that “I believe we’re on the verge of a joint venture between us and the Syrian Democratic Forces … to modernize the oil fields and make sure they get the revenue.” Others suggest that the oil idea is just a ploy for the Pentagon to sell to Trump their desire to remain to keep bombing ISIS.
Turkey’s plan to drive refugees into Syria
Yet while Turkey has unequivocally declared its acceptance of the Assad regime taking control of SDF territories, the deal will not entirely satisfy Erdogan’s other stated objective: to dump some 2 million refugees into the “safe zone”. Perhaps Turkey can send some of its refugee population into the 100-kilometre section it has been allotted, as well as the region it already controls between Jarablus and Azaz, as well as occupied Kurdish Afrin.
“This operation is coloured with racism and hateful speech, racism against the Kurdish Syrian civilians who are fleeing their cities because of the Turkish bombing now, and racism against the Syrians who are living in Turkey, and who are going to be deported to this territory after the operation is done according to the declarations from the Turkish side, so Turkey will get rid of over 1 or 2 million Syrians. Okay, what if I’m a Syrian from Homs and live in Istanbul? I’ll be deported to Hasakeh (after it’s been cleaned by the operation and destroyed).”
This campaign to dump Syrian refugees anywhere is driven just as much, if not more, by the Turkish opposition as by Erdogan’s AKP. In the 2011-2015 period when the AKP was welcoming these refugees from Assad’s terror (and also engaging in a limited ‘peace process’ with the Turkish Kurds and the PKK), the opposition in Turkey raised the banner of Turkish nationalism against both Syrian Arab refugees and talks with Kurds. Both the Kemalist CHP and the Turko-fascist MHP long demanded the Syrian refugees be deported. But since 2015 the AKP has been in coalition with the MHP; and now the MHP, the CHP, and the MHP’s equally far-right split, the IYI, all support this invasion, hoping to expel the Syrian refugees.
However, the blame cannot be laid solely at Turkey’s feet. The Syrian catastrophe is a global problem where the world has failed the Syrian people; yet Turkey has taken the lion’s share of refugees, and for this should be commended. Europe has been paying to keep the refugees in Turkey and out of Europe; while the US and other western countries have accepted markedly few refugees. Turkey’s method of dealing with this is appalling, but many Turks, Arabs and Kurds can be excused for seeing only hypocrisy in Europe and the US.
Who are the ‘Turkish-backed rebels’?
While on the topic of Erdogan dumping Syrian refugees into the northeast, the question arises of who the Syrian ‘rebel’ groups fighting under the banner of the Turkish-controlled ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) are. From the discourse of the apologists, these are simply rebel groups based among these refugees leading them back to their homeland. Others have them as simply the same rebel groups that fought Assad, now trying to liberate new territory; or alternatively, who are now proxified by Turkey due to weakness. The main depiction in media reports is of a bunch of crazed killers. The reality probably covers the entire spectrum.
Regarding the first idea, while many of these ‘rebels’ have been recruited from among dispossessed Syrians, including ex-rebels, overwhelmingly they are not returnees to the region being conquered. However, in some cases they are; as noted above, some of the “rebels” entering Tal Abyad are likely from the Arab refugee population that was uprooted by the SDF in 2015.
On the second depiction, it is true that, to some extent, the presence of former branches of the FSA or other rebel groups is the result of the defeats of the revolution and increasing dependence on outside “sponsors” with their own interests (the SDF’s reliance on US imperialism and now the Assad regime are similar in this sense). Some may feel they have no choice but to fight for Turkey in the hope that the latter will continue to keep some areas out of regime control in return, especially as the rest of the world has long ago dropped any pretence of support. In reality, the presence of fighters in the northeast rather than in Idlib will just make it easier for Assad to mop up there. Their presence is also partly explained by the divisions between the largely Arab rebels and the Kurdish fighters noted above, in which actions by the YPG have played their own role. For example, in early 2016, the SDF conquered the rebel-held, Arab majority region of Tal Rifaat and northern Aleppo with the aid of Russian terror bombing; some think it is now alright to ‘get back at them’ or ‘pay their debt’ to Turkey.
But whatever the causes of proxification, it is essential to distinguish the so-called ‘Turkish-led Free Syrian Army’ (TFSA, as the SNA is often dubbed) with the actual FSA. The legitimacy of the FSA was not in any particular ideology, still less purity, but rather the fact that it arose as the organic armed expression of the Syrian people’s uprising for freedom and democracy against the Assad dictatorship. Once divorced from that base among the revolutionary people, by defeat and/or dispossession and exile, these are just armed groups; whether or not they continue to advance a revolutionary cause depends entirely on context. The context here is their use by Turkey as shock troops for its anti-Kurdish goals, goals that have nothing to do with the original aims of the FSA.
Even if a group defending an Idlib town from Assad has the same name as a group invading northeast Syria, they have to be understood as different phenomena. Rebel brigades are local-based and defined; allegedly “national” groups do not operate like Leninist parties as some in the West may imagine.
On the third idea, being proxies does not make all the SNA fighters the sadistic killers that the media has highlighted. Nevertheless, the context of conquest does create the conditions for the savage crimes that have occurred and the more general tendency towards plunder, derived from their desperate and unhinged nature, the absence of connection to the region, the atmosphere of impunity and their complete dependence on Turkey.
In any case, even the actual names of the main groups involved in the Turkish-led invasion, especially those noted for the worst crimes, reveal they are far from being representative of the old FSA or rebel movement more generally.
For example, the group blamed for the worst crimes, Ahrar al-Sharqiyya, has its own history of violence against other rebel groups, and is a relatively new group, formed only in 2016 by exiled rebels from the Deir Ezzor region, who took part in Turkey’s 2016 Euphrates Shield operation to evict ISIS from the eastern Aleppo region. Therefore, it has no “FSA history” at all.
Another group is Jaysh al-Islam, which was a major non-FSA, Islamist rebel group in East Ghouta, expelled when Assad reconquered the region in 2018. Even when in East Ghouta, JaI regularly clashed with other rebels, was extremely oppressive, pathologically sectarian, and is widely suspected of the abduction and disappearance of the famous ‘Douma Four’ revolutionary activists. But if in East Ghouta it was still partially connected to the revolutionary masses resisting Assad (at least with respect to its foot soldiers, just local men joining whichever militia dominated their locality), once in exile in Turkish-controlled northern Syria, all that is left is the vile militia that revolutionary activists have already experienced.
A third major group is the Sultan Murad Brigade, which was originally simply a Turkmen branch of the FSA, but which has become heavily proxified by Turkey. Even if it hadn’t, the fact of Turkey sending an ethnic Turkmen brigade, based in the east Aleppo region, to invade Kurdish regions in northeast Syria, is symbolic of the nature of this operation.
A final point: pro-Assad chameleon Rania Khalek has claimed that “The US armed and funded extremists in Syria to overthrow the Syrian government and … those same extremists then attacked the Kurds on Turkey’s behalf.” This is nonsense at every level, but this is not the place to go into the extremely limited US support for heavily vetted rebels with stringent conditions (mostly to drop the fight against Assad and turn their guns only on ISIS), which dried up years ago, before being officially ended by Trump. I’ve written about it here and here. However, groups such as Ahrar al-Shaqiyya and Jaysh al-Islam never got a cent or a gun from the US, let alone any “extremists” which the US spent years bombing; in fact, the only US connection to Ahrar al-Shaqiyya was when it bombed them in 2016.
Meanwhile, who cares about Idlib …
Meanwhile, while global attention has been focused on Turkey’s brutality in the northeast, Assad and Putin continue to bomb, kill and dispossess the mostly Arab population of greater Idlib in the northwest, a campaign replete with systematic destruction of hospitals and schools, despite yet another Putin-Erdogan deal in September for a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib separating Assadist and rebel forces. Dozens were killed in Idlib during the ten days of Turkey’s operation, but their multi-year plight gathers no global interest.
More importantly, there is almost certainly a quid pro quo here – Putin greenlights Erdogan’s attack on the SDF in the northeast, Erdogan sends armed refugees and fighters not from that region in to plunder it, rather than arming fighters and sending military support to the ongoing local resistance to Assad in the northwest. If Erdogan really cared about the rebellion, he could have poured in the resources – including fighters – to prevent Assad’s recent seizure of Khan Sheikhoun, for example. As Assad is now announcing a new “battle for Idlib” while Turkey distracts itself and thousands of ex-rebels elsewhere, this region will likely get eaten up, unless Erdogan can negotiate with Putin for a small strip along the border as another “safe zone” to prevent more Syrian refugees fleeing into Turkey.
Resistance in Deir-Ezzor?
Where the Assad-SDF deal could come unstuck is among the million-strong Arab population living in the ‘North Syria Federation’, the official name of the SDF-controlled region. While the SDF’s official multi-ethnicity appears to have been successful in some areas, this has greatly varied across the region. The PYD and YPG still hold effective political and military control behind the scenes of the elected multi-ethnic local bodies, often leading to serious tensions, even if most of the Arab population saw SDF rule as infinitely better than that of ISIS or the Assad regime.
This uprising going on throughout Deir Ezzor and elsewhere, combined with ongoing demonstrations against the Assad regime, and sometimes against HTS, in the rebel-held northwest, and ongoing feats of resistance even in Daraa where Assad has re-asserted control, also indicate it is still premature to declare the Syrian revolution dead. While Yassin al-Haj Saleh claims that “the Syrian revolution has come to an end” he continues “but the Syrian Question has just begun” because “there is no other choice than to continue, to persist, but with different methods, other rhythms, basing ourselves on the lessons that the martyred and battered revolution has given us.”
This rising and ebbing of any such movement in Syria cannot be divorced from what happens in the region: the Syrian revolution was part of the Arab Spring revolution, and where this has been crushed, diverted or exhausted elsewhere in the region, it is no surprise that counterrevolution also has the upper hand in Syria. But even now, along with the mini-uprising in Deir Ezzor and ongoing resistance in Idlib, we have seen in recent weeks mass uprisings in Egypt and Iraq, and now in Lebanon, along with the uprisings in Algeria and Sudan earlier in the year. It’s not over.
Geopolitics and the politics of confusion
Finally, some points about the regional geopolitics of this event. While Marxist thinking aims for a materialist explanation of events based on real social forces, a kind of simpleton “leftism” has come to the fore in recent decades which sees itself as “anti-imperialist” and believes one can determine their view of events based on “who supports who.” So here’s a little outline for anyone who needs their fix.
Likewise, the enemies of the Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood regional bloc, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt all vigorously condemned Turkey’s invasion. Saudi Arabia declared it “a threat to regional peace and security,” the UAE called it “a flagrant and unacceptable aggression against the sovereignty of a brotherly Arab state”, Egypt called it “blatant aggression” and called for the UN Security Council to halt “any attempts to occupy Syrian territories or change the demographics in northern Syria.”
Hope this checklist helps those who prefer ‘geopolitics’ to analysis.
While tons of ink has rightly been spread denouncing Trump for betrayal, there is no reason to be surprised; imperialist and regional powers look after their interests. Even though the majority of the US ruling class is opposed to the timing and manner of Trump’s actions, this is hardly a first, either for US betrayal of the Kurds – which occurred also in 1975 and 1991 – or of other oppressed peoples, including the Syrian people as a whole whom it falsely pretended to support.
Far too much ink has been spilt claiming the US is hereby betraying its own “values”. In reality, it is a very rare case for the US (or any imperialist power) to be in the situation to be able to “betray” a rightful cause in the first place, because its normal position is on the other side. US imperialist “values” range from the decade-long genocide in Vietnam through the installation, arming and financing of the most vicious dictatorships across Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa for decades to being the most consistent supporter and armer of Israel’s ongoing oppression, occupation, impunity and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
This should not be read as a criticism of the Kurdish people when they did rely on US aid to protect themselves from ISIS genocide in Kobane, just as Turkey’s vile actions today should not condemn the Syrian people, being bombed and tortured into oblivion by the world’s worst tyranny, gaining vital support over the years from Turkey. That is the real world; you get a lifeline from where you can. But the fact of different parts of the Syrian popular masses ending up in opposing camps and killing each other while being manipulated by different sponsoring powers intervening in Syria with their own interests, or by the fascist regime, is the bigger question that will need to be dealt with as part of the post-mortem of the Syrian revolution.
A close examination of eight years of US policy in Syria shows Washington’s objective has never been regime change, but rather “a modified form of regime preservation,” writes Dr. Michael Karadjis in a comprehensive review of the record.
As the military conflict in Syria has been largely decided in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime, there have been a number of attempts to review the role of US intervention, or lack thereof, in the Syrian outcome. Late last year, Washington’s special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, clarified that while the US wants to see a regime in Damascus that is “fundamentally different,” it is nevertheless “not regime change” the US is seeking. “We’re not trying to get rid of Assad.” Much commentary jumped on this as some kind of major shift in US policy, or a signal the US had “given up” on regime change.
Yet, as will be shown below, the US never had a “regime change” policy. On the contrary, Washington has always sought a modified form of regime preservation. Jeffrey’s statement was followed by President Trump’s announcement of an immediate US withdrawal from Syria. While the “immediate” was later dropped for reasons of expediency, a more gradual US withdrawal is still on the cards; a process coinciding with a creeping rapprochement with Assad by Trump’s Gulf allies, spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain restoring diplomatic relations with Syria in late December 2018.
A meeting in Damascus?
According to an August 2018 report, American security and intelligence officials met Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk in Damascus in June the same year, as part of an “ongoing dialogue with members of the Assad regime” about completing the defeat of ISIS and the regime’s chemical weapons inventory.
Per the account given by the pro-Assad Al-Akhbar newspaper, the US officials demanded the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southern Syria, an issue already being negotiated between Israel and Russia as part of an agreement to facilitate the return of Assad’s forces to the UN armistice line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan, and their defeat of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Southern Front rebels. The Americans also reportedly asked for a role in the oil business in eastern Syria.
As Scott Lucas writes, following the regime’s reoccupation of formerly rebel-held Ghouta, the US “warned against an attack by the regime and its foreign allies on opposition areas of southern Syria. However, just before the June meeting, American officials told rebels that they could not count on any support, and the pro-Assad offensive—again enabled by Russia—seized the territory within weeks.”
While the report’s specifics cannot be verified—and no Al-Akhbar claim ought to be taken without due skepticism— they are consistent nonetheless with the American response to Assad’s reconquest of the south, and the fact that the entire US intervention in Syria has been against ISIS (and other jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS); that the only US concerns about the Assad regime have pertained to chemical weapons; and that the region US troops currently occupy—the northeast, in alliance with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) —is a region with abundant oil supplies.
Such a meeting would also be consistent with the orientation of the Trump administration. In the lead-up to his 2016 election, Trump asserted that the US should be on the same side as Russia and Assad in “fighting ISIS,” and said the US would cut off any meager “support” still going to the anti-Assad opposition.
Fulfilling this promise, in July 2017, Trump formally ended even the limited support the US had been providing to some FSA groups, which Trump described as “dangerous and wasteful.” As will be seen, this “support” had long ceased to have much meaning in any case. Trump’s government also ended a $200 million program funding civil initiatives in the opposition-controlled regions.
Obama and the “regime change” discourse
But that, of course, is Trump. In contrast, the Barack Obama administration is generally seen as a supporter of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, including the Syrian uprising against Assad. While it is generally recognized that the US later tempered its support due to its pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal, and its focus on fighting the Islamic State, the discourse that the US was supporting a “regime change” operation in Syria remains widely believed.
Even Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared in March 2017 that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”
Some of the allegations are quite wild. With reference to an unverified claim in the Washington Post that a “secret” CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad rebels was costing $1 billion a year, Patrick Higgins wrote in Jacobin in 2015 that, “in other words, the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed.”
The fact that later estimates of this “secret” CIA funding reduced this figure to $1 billion for the whole war indicates that such estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but in any case, we will discuss below what this funding actually meant.
In updated 2018 estimates, according to the testimony of former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, “the cost of US military operations in Syria between FY 2014 and the end of FY 2017 was between $3 and $4 billion;” figures which cover both the CIA program and the separate Pentagon program to fight ISIS.
Referring to these estimates, the pro-Assad writer Ben Norton described them as a “glimpse of the exorbitant sums of money the U.S. spent trying to topple the government in Damascus.” Indeed, Norton added the $7.7 billion in humanitarian aid that the US had provided Syria to these figures to claim the US had spent $12 billion on “regime change”!
Of course, as is widely known, 2014 was the year that a full US intervention began in Syria, albeit one that had nothing at all to do with “toppling Assad.” In September 2014, the US began its air war against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, while supporting as its ground force the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG was not and still is not in armed conflict with the Assad regime, meaning the US has been involved for the last four and a half years in a conflict in eastern Syria that has been almost entirely separate from the main conflict, which mostly takes place in western Syria, between the regime and the rebellion.
As this real US intervention—run and funded by the Pentagon—has involved 15,000 air strikes, equipping the YPG, some 2,000 US special forces, and a number of US military bases, all in the east, it is rather obvious that the overwhelming bulk of this $3-4 billion-worth of US military operations was spent on this side conflict, not on “toppling Assad.”
This can be seen further with the famous story of the “Balkan arms pipeline.” A title like “The Pentagon’s $2.2 Billion Soviet Arms Pipeline Flooding Syria” may give the impression the Pentagon was spending this money to arm “rebels” to overthrow Assad. Yet reading beyond the title, we see that “the defeat of Islamic State in Syria is reliant on a questionable supply-line, funneling unprecedented quantities of weapons and ammunition from Eastern Europe to some 30,000 anti-ISIS rebel fighters.” [Emphasis added.] The use of the term “rebel” is the confusing part; what is distinctive about the Pentagon’s programs, whether going to the YPG, or to former anti-Assad rebels, is that recipients of these arms must agree to fight ISIS only, and to drop their fight against Assad.
A more nuanced, if still internally contradictory, view was presented last year in the Boston Review by Aslı U. Bâli and Aziz Rana. Even while admitting that the Obama administration’s approach to military intervention “ultimately consisted of half-measures,” which was never any match for the regime’s vast quantities of advanced weaponry, they nevertheless claim in a separate article that “continuous U.S. intervention, rather than its absence, has played a key part in fueling the blood-letting,” indeed it “dramatically escalated the violence and exacerbated the harm to its civilian population.” They contrast these military “half-measures” with the idea of a negotiated settlement, the unlikely implication being that if the rebels had received no arms at all; if there had been zero military pressure on Assad; he would have been more amenable to a diplomatic solution.
Deep US ambivalence towards the Syrian uprising
The reality of US intervention in Syria, however, was always markedly different to what is portrayed in such discourse. From the outset, the Obama administration was deeply ambivalent, at best, about the Syrian rebellion.
Despite rhetoric about “democracy,” US governments have long been tightly aligned with absolute monarchies and dictatorships throughout the Middle East, and had no wish to see them overthrown. While it might be argued the US may have a different view of a dictatorship that was less tightly aligned with US interests, the success of a democratic uprising in any state would tend to encourage the same elsewhere, especially in the context of the Arab Spring.
In any case, the Assad regime was never the “anti-imperialist” firebrand that it was sometimes portrayed as; over the previous decade, it had been one of “the most common destinations” for US torture-“renditions” of Islamist suspects. Further back, the regime of Hafez al-Assad had sent Syrian troops to fight alongside the US against Iraq during the first Gulf War of 1991, and had intervened in Lebanon, with US and Saudi backing, in 1976 to crush the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist coalition in the civil war, leading to a Syrian-led massacre of Palestinians in the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp.
As for Assad’s so-called “resistance” to Israel’s illegal occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated, “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime; for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” Indeed, in the period preceding the uprising, the regime was engaged in US-brokered talks with Israel over the Golan. This process had gone so far that Assad was reportedly ready for direct talks with Israel, and Dennis Ross—an ultra-Zionist in the Obama administration if ever there was one—was convinced that “Syria is ready to move away from Iran and reduce relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, and work with the US in the fight against terrorism.”
Meanwhile, in the initial months of the uprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar all gave strong support to Assad. From the viewpoint of all the closest US allies in the region, there was no reason for the US government to wish for the overthrow of the regime.
Undeniably, however, the US was more tightly allied with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—one of the largest recipients of US military aid in the world—than with Assad in 2011. And yet, within a week of the onset of the Egyptian uprising on January 25, Obama was already calling on Mubarak to begin the transition to a new government “now,” and claiming to be “inspired” by the uprising, while Republican senator John McCain demanded that Mubarak immediately “step down.” Even Mubarak’s announcement on February 10 that he would hand power to his vice-president was scolded by Obama as insufficient to meet the demands of the people.
In contrast, it took until August 18 for Obama to make a similar call on Assad to “step aside;” that is, some five months after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising on March 15, by which time the regime had killed thousands of peaceful protestors in what a UN human rights mission declared “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Considering that the usual “evidence” presented for Obama’s alleged “regime change” policy is this call on Assad to step aside, the US must then have been particularly gung-ho about regime change against its ally Mubarak!
Two weeks after the outbreak of the uprising, when dozens had already been killed, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton asserted that Assad was a “reformer,” starkly contrasting the situation in Syria with that in Libya, where the US was already intervening against Muammar Gaddafi. In similar vein, Senator John Kerry—who dined with Assad in Damascus in 2009—said he had been “a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship” [with the Assad regime] “as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”
WikiLeaks files from the time (h/t Clay Clairborn) provide further evidence of this orientation. A March 31 Stratfor file assessed that “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United States did not even hesitate throwing their support behind Assad at the very beginning,” while an intelligence assessment written for Syrian official Fares Kallas claimed it was clear that “the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” noting the lack of calls for regime change or military intervention and the “relatively muted” criticism.
Another WikiLeaks email by Stratfor spook Bayless Parsley provides some analysis of this US response to Egypt and Syria:
“In Egypt, the U.S. could afford to abandon Mubarak and let the military keep running the show … the country was not going to descend into chaos if Mubarak were to be forced out by the deep state. In Syria … the sectarian nature of the country added to the fact that it’s not really isolated from its neighbors by large tracts of desert the way Egypt is makes the prospect of the Syrian regime collapsing much more dangerous than Mubarak being pushed out … not to mention Israel actually quite likes Bashar being in power.” [Emphasis added.]
A similar assessment was recently revealed in a US Marine Corps (USMC) draft strategy document from 2011, which appears to show that the main western interest in (later) supporting parts of the Syrian opposition was to counter Iranian influence, but they did not see “regime change” as a means to this end—they believed any attempt at “regime change” would have catastrophic consequences—arguing instead that the best outcome was for the “Alawite regime” to remain without Assad.
Why then did Obama begin calling on Assad to “step aside” in August? Despite thousands of killings, the uprising was only growing in strength and intensity, refugees were pouring across borders, and agitation throughout the region in solidarity with the largely Sunni-based uprising was encouraging more radical voices, especially from the Gulf, as the slaughter got more horrific. The US quest for stability by avoiding regime collapse had hit a dilemma: the actions of the regime itself were increasing instability inside Syria and throughout the region.
US governments generally have no special love for particular representatives of regimes they aim to keep in power, once they have become counter-productive. The classic case was the US-orchestrated coup against and assassination of South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963—a much more violent act than a mere call on Assad to step aside. Yet far from wanting to overthrow the South Vietnamese regime as a whole, the US spent the next twelve years waging one of history’s most terrible wars in its defense.
Thus a so-called “Yemeni solution” in Syria—named after the arrangement in Yemen whereby longtime dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh ceded power in 2011 to his deputy Abdrabbuh Hadi to preserve a cosmetically reformed regime—was spelled out in July 2012, when US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed that when Assad leaves, “the best way to preserve stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.” That’s quite a hope to have about the security forces of the Assad regime.
Far from “regime change,” then, the US government has all along pushed for a “political solution” to facilitate this regime preservation strategy, in partnership with Russia.
The Geneva I and II conferences in 2012 and 2014 outlined the parameters of the process: the formation of a “transitional governing body,” composed of “members of the present government and the opposition … formed on the basis of mutual consent,” tasked with organizing elections. Despite Rana and Bâli’s assertion that “US policy-makers opposed an inclusive diplomatic solution in favor of an ‘Assad must go’ approach,” the US was fully signed onto this Geneva process, which made no mention of Assad at all.
Likewise, the G8 communiqué of June 2013, while re-stating the Geneva parameters and again not mentioning Assad, added a call on both the regime and the rebels “to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to al-Qaeda and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism.”
Western governments believed that Assad himself, and his immediate entourage, would not be part of the transitional regime, because otherwise the opposition would not take part, there would be no “mutual consent;” likewise, the regime could decide which members of the opposition were unacceptable. However, the US did not use this to sabotage the process. On the contrary, the US put great pressure on the opposition to attend the January 2014 Geneva II conference, but around half of the Syrian insurgency’s representatives rejected this pressure and refused to attend merely due to Assad’s presence there to negotiate, never mind his presence in a hypothetical transitional government.
In any case, in the late Obama period, the US, closely cooperating with Russia in the diplomatic field, decided that even Assad himself could remain during the “transitional” period.
US: Assad step aside, but who are the rebels?
The US never intended to apply any serious military pressure to bring about even the limited objectives outlined above. Only a strengthened opposition could exert such pressure, but the rebels were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship and were no proxies; if strengthened enough they would push beyond the US-imposed limits.
It was one thing to decide the regime’s slaughter had become too destabilizing, but quite another to support the rebels. Despite the constant discourse about “US-backed rebels,” US leaders continually made clear what they thought of them.
In early 2012, Hillary Clinton stated that to arm the rebels would effectively be to support al-Qaeda, and even Hamas, which “is now supporting the opposition.” If “you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don’t see.” The Republican arch-neocon John Bolton warned of “an imminent risk of humanitarian disaster if Assad falls,” adding that “we must not permit terrorists like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah in next-door Lebanon, rogue states or a radical Syrian successor regime to acquire” Assad’s advanced weaponry.
On August 13, 2013, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said that the potential overthrow of Assad was the largest threat to US national security, and that Assad’s chemical weapons “are going to be up for grabs and up for sale” in the event of his ouster. Several days later, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that the Obama administration was opposed to “even limited” US military intervention in Syria as no side represented US interests.
Morell further elaborated, in a September interview, that any political transition must “keep the institutions of the state intact” because “it’s going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al-Qaeda,” but due to Assad’s intransigence and the ongoing war, “every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded.” Therefore, “enough support has to be provided to the opposition—to put enough pressure on Assad—to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don’t need to go to the negotiating table.”
In early 2014, looking at a variety of possible outcomes, the Rand Corporation think-tank concluded that “the collapse of the Syrian regime would be the worst of all possible outcomes from the point of view of US interests.” In early 2015, CIA Director John Brennan declared that the US does not want to see a chaotic collapse of the Syrian regime, as it has reason to worry about who might replace Assad, indeed the US needs Assad in power “for now” to help fight ISIS. Believing Russia saw things similarly, Brennan stated that “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.” Soon after, the New York Times ran an editorial which proclaimed that “Mr. Assad has become a necessary, if still unpalatable, potential ally in combating the Islamic State.”
Why then did the US eventually begin to provide arms to the opposition? Most observers recognize that US military aid was never of the quantity or quality necessary to enable the rebels to win, but, moreover, it was not even at a level sufficient to enhance tactical rebel victories on the ground, nor to create a permanent “balance” with the regime so that “no-one wins,” as is often claimed; even such limited objectives would have required a more consistent amount of better weaponry, given what the regime possessed militarily.
The reality is that the bare survival of the FSA was the purpose of US aid under Obama.
Western policy-makers understood that Assad could not completely crush the uprising, given the real divisions among the population and the regime’s sectarian exploitation of them. Therefore, if the FSA were destroyed, many among the dispossessed Sunni majority might gravitate to Sunni Islamist and jihadist forces.
Therefore, it was preferable that the ideologically heterogeneous FSA should survive, but be sufficiently weakened to facilitate the co-optation of moderate political leaderships as partners for the political solution. Backing the FSA was thus similar to backing the ideologically heterogeneous Fatah in Palestine; if weakened enough, a Syrian Mahmoud Abbas may emerge.
So, what kind of military aid did the US provide to the anti-Assad rebels?
Despite Bâli and Rana’s assertion that “beginning in late 2011, the Obama administration pursued a strategy of arming local proxies” to defeat Assad, the US in fact provided no arms to the rebels in the first two years of the war; most weaponry in the hands of the FSA was gained by capture or made in back-yards. As one (more honestly titled) article put it: “Syria’s ‘Western-Backed’ Rebels? Not in Weapons.”
Until late 2013, the US provided only non-lethal aid (which was regularly cut off), such as binoculars, radios, “ready-meals,” and tents.
By mid-2012, however, a flow of weapons from former Libyan rebels began to reach the Syrian opposition via Turkey, involving Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood networks. Later that year the US began its first significant intervention in Syria, positioning CIA agents on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to restrictthe quality, quantity, and destination of these arms.
While warplanes and helicopters had replaced tanks as the main tools of regime slaughter by mid-2012, both anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry were denied the rebels by this US embargo. For the most part, only relatively light weaponry was allowed through, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran. At times, the US blocked any and all weapons getting to the FSA from its regional allies.
The US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons remains in place to this day; given that Assad has been waging an air war since 2012, this is a fundamental aspect of US intervention. Even when FSA groups tried to buy portable anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) on the black market, “somehow, the Americans found out and our purchase was blocked.”
The CIA and Pentagon arms programs
Beginning in late 2013, however, the US did begin supplying some “vetted” anti-Assad rebel groups with light arms under the CIA’s “Timber Sycamore” program. As these were arms of the quality they already had via manufacture or capture, the US could attempt to contain and co-opt the uprising without any “danger” of strengthening it.
Importantly, this needs to be distinguished from the Pentagon’s program to arm and train some rebel groups to fight ISIS, beginning with a $500 million program in late 2014. The Pentagon’s number one condition for participation was that fighters give up the fight against Assad, and agree to fight ISIS only; that is, “rebels who don’t rebel.” This is the reason the US was only able to attract a few miniscule groups, such as the ill-fated “Division 30,” whose sum total of 54 troops were captured by Nusra as soon as they arrived in 2015. Therefore, the only significant force the Pentagon ended up working with was the Kurdish-led YPG, which already met the precondition of not fighting the Assad regime.
As we have seen above, claims that the CIA program cost billions of dollars are too inconsistent to be of much value; the program after all was secret. As we will see below, the ultimate aim of the program was not all that different to that of the Pentagon. For now, though, it is worth examining what this program actually meant on the ground.
In the first place, there was often a difference between what weaponry reached storehouses on the borders, and what was actually dispatched to the rebels. The fact that the aim was little more than ensuring bare survival is exemplified by reports of rebels being supplied 16 bullets a month. In the town of Ibdita in Idlib, rebel leader Abu Mar’iye complained “we are licking our plates. We beg for salt. It’s not enough. Even the weapons that arrive, it’s like a drop, just enough so the fighting continues, so we can kill each other but not win.”
A CIA training program accompanied the supply of light arms. While much has been made of the alleged training of several thousand rebels, what this was actually about has been little studied.
The first training began before the arms program. The Guardian reported in mid-2013 that “western training of Syrian rebels is under way in Jordan in an effort to strengthen secular elements in the opposition as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and to begin building security forces to maintain order in the event of Bashar al-Assad’s fall.” However, there had been no “green light” for the trainees to be sent into Syria, because their purpose was not to fight the regime. Rather, “they would be deployed if there were signs of a complete collapse of public services in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, which could trigger a million more Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan… The aim of sending western-trained rebels over the border would be to create a safe area for refugees on the Syrian side of the border, to prevent chaos and to provide a counterweight to al-Qaeda-linked extremists who have become a powerful force in the north.”
From late 2013, it was nonetheless alleged that trainees were being sent back to Syria; by 2015, there were claims that some 3-5,000 had undergone training. However, many rebels felt the main American interest in this was surveillance—of them. Abu Matar, a fighter with the FSA’s Harakat Hazm coalition, received such training in Qatar. Claiming he had already spent more than two years fighting, and so “didn’t learn anything new,” he asserted “they just wanted to see us.” “See what our thinking is,” added his comrade Abu Iskandaroon.
In a Frontline documentary about an unnamed rebel group that received three weeks of training in Qatar, the commander explained that “their American contacts had asked him to bring 80 to 90 members of his unit to Ankara” before being flown to Qatar. “Once in Ankara … they were interrogated for days about their political leanings and their unit’s fighting history.” After learning how to conduct ambushes and the like, the fighters explained that “they cannot win without anti-aircraft missiles against Assad[‘s] superior air war,” one adding that, “when I saw there was no training in anti-aircraft missiles, my morale was destroyed.”
The rise and fall of the TOW
The program took a more significant turn during 2014, when the US lifted its embargo on anti-tank weapons and some rebel groups began receiving US-made TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), mainly from pre-existing stocks held by Saudi Arabia. Officially, all foreign recipients of US arms require Washington’s approval before transferring them to third parties; this approval had been withheld until 2014.
Of course, to begin this two years after tanks had been superseded by aircraft as the main killer was doubly too late; nevertheless, ground warfare continued to play a crucial role, so this may be seen as a significant improvement in the quality of US-supplied weaponry.
Why was the embargo lifted? In fact, the same pattern applied as with small arms. By the time the first TOWs were sent, the rebels had already acquired a large range of ATGMs, which had already taken out 1,800 tanks by late 2013. Nearly all were Russian or East European made, which is to say that, for the most part, the rebels had captured them from the Syrian army.
So again: as the rebels were already acquiring them, opening an official supply allowed for influence for future co-optation and some US control of who gets what, while not qualitatively upping the supply of rebel weaponry. In fact, the TOW is reportedly less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels had captured from the regime.
The first reports of TOWs supplied to the FSA’s Harakat Hazm emerged in April 2014. Groups received only three or four at a time, which Hazm cadre reported were “no better than the Russian weapons” they captured from the regime; they had to apply for them for specific operations, and return the shells to make a claim for more, which may or may not be approved. The number of “vetted” groups receiving TOWs soon spread to nine, who received “a few dozen” between them, “resulting in a minimal effect on the battlefield.”
To understand this, we need to take a step back. In late 2012, rebel commanders met US intelligence officers to discuss receiving arms, but the US officers only wanted to discuss drone strikes on Nusra, and enlisting the rebels to join the attack. The FSA members said that unity against Assad’s more powerful forces was paramount at present, but the US officers replied, “We’d prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army” [later].
The FSA in fact fought many defensive battles against Nusra, but did not want to open a full front against it, as in the context this would lead to mutual destruction, and only the regime would gain. FSA Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaidi remarked that the US wanted to turn the FSA “into the Sahwa,”1 but “if they help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help.”
Referring to the Iraqi militants who fought off al-Qaeda in western Iraq with US support in the late 2000s.
In the event, the FSA needed no encouragement to fight ISIS, against whom it “declared war” in July 2013. In January 2014, Syrian rebels launched a nation-wide coordinated attack on ISIS, driving it permanently from the whole of western Syria, and temporarily from parts of the east.
At this point, however, the CIA program began imposing the same condition on arms recipients as the Pentagon: that the rebels fight ISIS only, and “suspend” their fight with the regime. It thus appears that the main difference is that the Pentagon programs began with this condition, thereby greatly limiting potential recruits, whereas the CIA program recruited larger, genuine anti-Assad groups, later using this support to push them in the same direction.
In a video depicting cadre from the al-Ghab Wolves Brigade (part of the large Idlib-based FSA coalition known as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, or SRF) training in the use of TOWs, a fighter reveals that Washington “only give[s] weapons to those who specifically fight ISIS. They are not giving us weapons to fight Assad, they give us weapons to fight ISIS.”
A former Hazm member explained: “By September 2014, the United States started to pressure us to leave the battlefield against Assad and to send all our forces to fight ISIS. We had no problem to go fight ISIS, but wouldn’t agree to stop fighting Assad. From then on, our relations with the Americans went from bad to worse and eventually they stopped backing us. When Jabhat al-Nusra attacked us, we had already lost all foreign support … because we dared to disobey the Americans.”
It is therefore little wonder that by refusing to be co-opted as proxies by US arms, these northern FSA groups were thrown to the wolves. When Nusra attacked the SRF and Hazm in late 2014, they were crippled by the burden of their former association with the US, which was now bombing Nusra, but with reduced means to resist: “we have a huge US flag on our backs, but not a gun in our hand,” reported one rebel leader as both FSA coalitions were forcibly disbanded.
Meanwhile, after the TOW program largely dried up in the north, the US and Saudis began increasing their support to the FSA’s Southern Front (SF) operating in Daraa and Qunaitra provinces in the south, through the Military Operations Center (MOC) in Jordan, including the supply of significant numbers of TOWs. For example, McClatchy claimed that while only “12 to 14 commanders” in the north were receiving military and non-lethal aid in 2014, “some 60 smaller groups are recipients in southern Syria.” A 2015 Washington Post article quoted US officials saying the CIA program intended “to bolster a coalition of militias known as the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army.”
This shift was seen as arising from US and Western preferences for the democratic, and highly secular, Southern Front, which was overwhelmingly dominant in the south compared to Islamist brigades. This increased support aided the SF in its string of victories in the south in early 2015.
Moscow’s military intervention, starting September 2015, did lead to a momentary reversal of this trend, when in response Saudi Arabia sent some 500 TOWs to Syria, which led to the famous “tank massacre.” The furious Saudis had promised a swift response to the Russian invasion, so it is likely they would have sent these TOWs regardless of US permission. Even if the US did give permission for a large supply in this instance, to remind Russia it was there, it was a one-off; the US and Russia rapidly negotiated “deconfliction zones” and intelligence sharing, and supplies of TOWs trickled off in late 2015 “and totally vanished in the first two weeks of 2016.”
The US-CIA attempt to co-opt the SF had similar aims to the program in the north. In early 2016, MOC officials told the SF to stop fighting the regime and to focus their efforts on the jihadists, both Nusra and ISIS, and were promised new weaponry if they did so. In May, the MOC warned it would cut cash flows until they started scoring victories over ISIS in the Yarmouk valley.
In March 2016, the SF took part in the US-Russia-facilitated nation-wide ceasefire. In reality, however, while the regime continued bombing at lower intensity, “maintaining the ceasefire” became the new rationale for holding back the SF from that point on.
As the distance between the FSA-controlled south and the “Damascus suburbs” is not great, the Southern Front could have pushed towards Damascus and linked up with the rebels in East Ghouta and South Damascus.
Instead, the US “red-line” against moving in that direction facilitated the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya, an iconic revolutionary town in the best democratic traditions of the original uprising. The 2017 “de-escalation zone” converted this US red-line into international policy, helping seal the fate of Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion in 2018. Finally, despite this enforced passivity, the SF itself was betrayed later that year in a global deal involving Assad, Russia, Israel, and the US.
And that was all before Trump. While ending the now-paltry assistance to anti-Assad rebels, Trump upped the Pentagon program. On the one hand, the bombing of ISIS reached terrible heights; yes, the US largely defeated ISIS in Syria (and Assad has the US to thank for that), but at the cost of the complete destruction of Raqqa, and the killing of some 2,000 civilians. The number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than in all of Obama’s eight years combined, including 472 killed by US airstrikes in Syria between May 23 and June 23 alone.
Yet, curiously, it is Trump’s two minor strikes on the Assad regime, rather than the enormously destructive war on ISIS, that are widely seen as “escalation,” even though both were explicitly in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons (the regime has been free to use every conceivable “conventional” weapon), neither caused any significant damage to Assad’s war machine, and neither resulted in any casualties.
When Assad took this to mean that even Sarin could be legitimized, the US struck Assad’s Shayrat airbase for the sake of its own “credibility.” As Trump had tipped off Putin, who likely tipped off Assad, the base would have been cleared of better aircraft, and suffered minimal damage.
In the follow-up, US leaders scrambled to emphasize the one-off nature of the hit; National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster clarified that the US had no concern that the base was being used again the very next day, as harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and that far from “regime change,” the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.”
Indeed, despite the harsh anti-Iran rhetoric of the Trump administration, it is notable that the decision to scrap the nuclear accord and impose harsh sanctions on Iran did not occur until mid-2018, that is, after Assad, with the aid of Iranian forces, had reconquered Deir Ezzor from ISIS, and East Ghouta and the entire south from the rebels. Notably, despite US bombing mainly supporting the SDF against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, US bombing also directed aided not only Assad’s forces but even Iran-led forces over many months in 2017.
Where to from here?
Bâli and Rana assess that the US must now “engage in both immediate and more long-term efforts to find an inclusive political settlement.” They don’t explain why the regime—the prime obstacle to any such an “inclusive” settlement—would agree to one without significant pressure; indeed their thesis claims there has already been too much pressure on Damascus. In any case, it is precisely such an “inclusive political settlement” that renewed US pressure is aimed at achieving.
It may seem ironic that, after all these years of essentially facilitating Assad’s victory, right up to the reconquest of the south in mid-2018, the US government soon after appeared to articulate an unusually firm-sounding policy on Assad’s future. In September, the aforementioned US special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, threatened harsh sanctions against the regime (and potentially even its backers in Iran and Russia) if it holds up the process of political transition, and re-stated the Western consensus that “there will be no reconstruction assistance … for the Syrian government absent irreversible progress in the UN-sponsored political process.”
The argument of this essay is not that US leaders loved Assad, whose actions have bred massive instability, but rather that they feared the “instability” of revolution more. With the revolution now largely crushed (or at least no longer posing any danger to the regime), Jeffrey’s tough-sounding approach may indicate that the US now considers it safe to resume the search for a transition to a less destabilizing version of the regime, carried out “from above.” However, with the military crushing of the opposition ensuring that it lacks bargaining power; with hundreds of revolutionary councils disbanded; thousands of civil leaders murdered in custody; a quarter of the population residing outside the country; and with Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish forces occupying substantial parts of the country, this will likely be a particularly conservative version of “inclusivity.”
Moreover, while the apparent toughness of the approach sounds novel, in reality this is well within the parameters discussed. Jeffrey’s threat concerns any attempt by Assad to block the formation of a “constitutional commission” to re-write the constitution before future elections; i.e., the process launched by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, at the Sochi conference in January 2018, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (a resolution endorsed by Russia and China in 2015). The regime is also officially on board and has already sent the UN its list of nominees, though of course it is also trying to stall the process. It is somewhat ironic that the US now offers muscle to help push through a Russian-led process; the key difference appears to be that the US is critical of delays in forming the committee, while Russia wants to give Damascus more time.
Compare this tactical difference to the view of the Syrian opposition, which has been only lukewarm, at best, on both the constitutional commission process and Resolution 2254. The former head of the of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, has noted that the acceptance of “the meager demand of a mere constitutional committee” is a major step down from the key long-term component of the Geneva process, namely “the demand for a transitional ruling body.” He described the obsession with the constitution as a priority of Western governments rather than the Syrian people. Essentially, the regime itself will be expected to ratify the new constitution after the lengthy process of its creation, and then organize “elections” under the new rules.
The Trump administration’s position is therefore only “tough” in the context of a policy that already represents a marked shift towards accommodating the regime, compared to the Obama era, when the idea of a transitional ruling body still held nominal sway. Indeed, later in 2018, Jeffrey’s own tone began to be modified markedly. In his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, he stressed that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behavior of the Syrian government … [but] this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.” When it comes to the change in “behavior,” Jeffrey’s overwhelming stress was on the removal of all “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which he assessed threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” This is very different to his attitude to Assad’s other main ally, Russia; Jeffrey states that “we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria” and called on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria to remove all Iranian-commanded forces from the country.”
This points to the obsessive anti-Iranian stance of the Trump administration: threatening talk from the likes of National Security Advisor John Bolton and State Secretary Mike Pompeo focuses heavily on the Iranian presence rather than the regime itself (indeed, as noted above, Bolton has always opposed removing Assad), highlighting geo-strategic rather than human rights motivations. This raises the possibility of another deal, such as that in the south. Commenting on Bolton’s assertion that the US will not pull its 2,000 troops out of Syria until Iran withdraws, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem and Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict recently told a congressional panel that while the US presence was limited to defeating ISIS, the troops in northeast Syria provide the “secondary benefit” of expanding US “leverage” in the Syrian outcome. As Spencer Ackerman writes, “their testimony in the context of Bolton’s comments suggested that at some point, the U.S. will seek to barter that territory to Assad in exchange for some form of Iranian withdrawal.” Such a deal may serve as part of an anti-Iranian war drive that has little to do with Syria and serves alternative interests.
Still, it would be one-sided to focus solely on these cynical motivations of the most rabid war-loving leaders in the Trump regime. Around the same time as the above was going on, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared the way for the “Caesar” sanctions to hold Assad accountable for his war crimes and impede his ability to use funds from elsewhere to continue his oppression, though the bill still needs to get through the Senate and the president.
Credit for this bill—named after the alias of the Syrian regime defector who leaked tens of thousands of photos of detainees tortured and mass-murdered in Assad’s gulag—must ultimately go to the years of democratic activism by Syrians and their supporters pressuring Western governments to take the same kinds of actions that activists have previously pushed for against Western-backed tyrannical regimes, from the likes of Pinochet and Suharto to Israel’s bloody occupation. As such, the bill is entirely supportable.
A regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed countless cities and towns across the country through years of attacks with barrel bombs, cluster munitions, napalm, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons, uprooting over half its population, including 6.5 million refugees residing outside the country, should not be legitimized with funds to allegedly “reconstruct” what it has destroyed. Apart from the fact that a regime so completely corrupt and dysfunctional to its core would fleece a great proportion of any such funding for its cronies, the record of “reconstruction” to date has included erecting monuments to itself and building new luxury cities on the ruins of former working-class shanties the residents of which have been dispossessed.
Instead, humanitarian aid should be the focus. Full humanitarian access to all of Syria must be demanded, and funding to democratic councils and civil society in the northwest should be restored and bolstered, while the two main regions outside regime control—the rebel-controlled northwest and Kurdish-controlled northeast—should be protected. At present they remain free due to the somewhat conflicting interests of Turkey in the northwest and the US in the northeast, but this leaves them at the mercy of these powers’ interests should deals be done. The principle of the right of self-defense of civilian populations—especially against air power—should be enshrined, and all necessary means to enable this delivered to popular democratic forces in these regions.
Dr. Michael Karadjis teaches Social Sciences and International Development at Western Sydney University. His involvement in political activity began when he marched against the Vietnam War as a young high school student. In recent times he has been involved in a number of solidarity campaigns, including the Palestine Human Rights Campaign; Syria Solidarity Australia; and Agent Orange Justice. He blogs on Syria at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis.
Sudanese tyrant Bashir becomes first Arab leader to visit Assad …
… as his own regime is confronted by its own Arab Spring uprising
By Michael Karadjis
In the days since Donald Trump’s announcement that the US was to rapidly withdraw its 2000 troops from Syria, an enormous amount of speculation about what this means has taken place. In my initial piece, I expressed a number of views that are not widely shared.
First, I gave more credit to Trump having a valid position, from the point of view of US imperialism, than what was generally conceded. Overwhelmingly Trump’s move has been viewed as a pure personal whim, which is allegedly in conflict with what all other US ruling class circles prefer to happen.
Secondly, while almost every analyst claimed this move was a sell-out of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Erdogan regime in Turkey, I stressed that it was just as much, if not more, a green light for the Bashar Assad tyranny to take control of the SDF-controlled regions.
With masses of contradictory information, it has been difficult to make coherent sense of the developments; none of us are seers. In this follow-up piece, I hope to shed more light on what I think is occurring.
Did Trump’s move contradict US ruling class interests?
On the first question, it is of course true that Trump acts on whim, and has a tendency to speak jibberish, which might well suggest that his orders came from a place of complete ignorance and be at variance with US ruling class interests. However, the idea that momentous decisions are made entirely by one guy with quasi-dictatorial powers is problematic. I will argue here that, Trump’s idiosyncrasies aside, the decision to withdraw, and the consequences thereof, are entirely within the bounds of US ruling class interests, so whether or not it was entirely accidental is not so material.
As Steven Simon, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations, puts it succinctly, Trump’s “impulsive and uncoordinated move” nevertheless “coincided with strategic imperative, even if the president himself was unaware of it.”
Of course, one could argue that a 24-hour withdrawal would indeed be destabilising, but it was naïve to believe that an order to withdraw would automatically mean that all US forces, weaponry, bases, aircraft and intelligence are gone the next day, whatever a tweet may say. Between Trump’s impulsive statements and the realities and complexities of actually withdrawing, there was plenty of wiggle room for Trump’s “immediate” withdrawal to turn into a four-month timetable, involving negotiation between Trump and other ruling class figures, such as Senator Lindsay Graham.
Graham got Trump to agree that complete withdrawal should only take place once ISIS is totally defeated in Syria, which has always been Trump’s own condition (though Trump is basically correct that the US and SDF have driven it from 99 percent of the country), and that “our Kurdish allies are protected.” Similar statements were then made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Meanwhile, the US military is reportedly establishing new military bases just across the Syrian border in Iraq, from where it can continue to bomb the last tiny piece of ISIS remaining. Despite alarmist forecasts that Trump was even selling out to ISIS, “between December 16 and December 29, US-led coalition military forces conducted 469 air and artillery strikes targeting ISIS in Syria.” The last major towns occupied by ISIS, Hajin and Kashmah, were captured by the SDF on December 25 and January 2 respectively.
Of course, none of the statements extending the withdrawal said anything whatsoever about pressure on the Assad regime. That has simply never had anything to do with the US presence, one way or another.
‘Withdrawal’ a green light to Assad, not Erdogan
On the second question, I am now even more convinced of the correctness of my initial view, that the ‘green light’ is mainly aimed at the Assad regime, and its Russian backers, rather than Erdogan, as I will explain in detail below.
However, some clarification may be in order: how can a US withdrawal favour Assad and Russia if the US presence in Syria was never opposed to them in the first place? Here we need to understand the US relationship with its ground ally, the SDF, which controls northeast Syria since driving out ISIS. The key basis of the US choice of the SDF, rather than Syrian rebels, as its ally against ISIS was that the SDF does not fight the Assad regime; and dropping the fight against Assad was the key demand the US had put on FSA units if they were to be armed against ISIS, a condition the FSA, while actively fighting ISIS itself, refused to accept.
This meant the US and SDF could fight ISIS in the east in a war completely separate to Assad’s counterrevolutionary war against the rebellion in western Syria. But while the SDF was not anti-Assad, nor was it pro-Assad; rather, it was interested in building its own project, the ‘Rojava revolution’, in its own space, separate to both Assad and the rebels. Therefore, the US was maintaining a region outside Assad’s direct control; but it is important to understand that this was never the ultimate US aim; the US aim was merely to use the SDF to defeat ISIS. Therefore, the current processes of the US abandoning the SDF to Assad, and the SDF itself trying to negotiate a deal with Assad, are essentially in perfect harmony, but in these “negotiations” it is the regime, not the Rojava project, that will eventually come out on top.
Israel, Gulf states, welcome back the Assad regime
According to a recent article entitled ‘We had an opportunity to assassinate Assad, top Israeli official reveals’:
“…prolonged conflict in Syria saw Israel often hold negotiations with the regime in Damascus in order to reach an agreement in Syria. … the (Israeli) Diplomatic-Security Cabinet held extensive discussions on the situation in Syria and decided that Israel would not allow an Iranian military presence there. Since then, Israel has invested considerable efforts in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from establishing themselves in Syria, while making sure it [Israel] inflicts minimal damage to the Damascus regime.”
Returning to the ‘assassination’ article, the senior Israeli official “refused to comment on the decision by some Arab states, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, to reopen their embassies in Damascus, saying only that the rapprochement between Arab states and Syria was “less dangerous for Israel because these Arab states also want to see Iran out of Syria.”
Therefore, while Trump’s “withdrawal” may have been a mere personal whim, it happens that it is fully aligned with this trend, with the strategy of these states which have been strongly allied with Trump since the onset of his presidency. Not coincidentally, all these states – UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain – also have close ties with Putin’s Russia, and first three welcomed the Russian invasion of Syria in 2015, as did Israel of course.
In retrospect, the well-publicised semi-secret meetings that took place before and since Trump’s election, between Trump and Putin personnel and involving the UAE, the UAE-backed Palestinian thug Dahlan, Israeli officials and even Blackwater folk had a clear logic: push back the oversized Iranian influence by moving to bolster the Assad regime’s counterrevolutionary “stability” so that it is no longer in need of so much Iranian rabble to do its fighting for it. According to David Hearst writing in Middle East Eye, a more recent meeting between intelligence officials of Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia “hatched a plan to welcome Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League to marginalise the regional influence of Turkey and Iran.”
Or, perhaps, this is not so clear after all; because maybe it is the reverse: use the rhetoric of pushing back the Iranian “threat” (really, as if the Iranian contra gangs were ever a threat to anyone but the Syrian people) to justify their main aim anyway, ie, bolstering Assad’s victorious counterrevolution, putting the final nails – or what they hope to be final – in the coffin of the Arab Spring, which Assad, Sisi, the UAE, the Saudis, Netanyahu, Trump, Putin and the Ayatollahs are all united in hating with a passion.
This is even more significant now with Assad’s need for “reconstruction” funding, which neither Russia nor Iran will be able to provide enough of, while western countries are (currently) sticking to the line that the Geneva process of political settlement needs to get off the ground first. The move by the Gulf is a signal to Damascus, push Iran aside somewhat, we’re here to provide the funds you need. A recent high-level visit by one of the UAE’s largest real estate companies to meet Syrian partners in Damascus underlines this dynamic.
The wild card is the big state behind UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait: Saudi Arabia. Gang-land leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is strongly aligned with his UAE counterpart and the Sisi dictatorship, and cares nothing about either the Syrian or the Palestinian people; these more forward moving states almost certainly have Saudi backing, and there have been hints coming out of Riyadh that it is also willing to accept Assad without Iran, with MBS stating that “Bashar is staying … I believe that Bashar’s interests are not to let the Iranians do whatever they want they want to do.”
However, Riyadh is more tempered about this due to its special position as religious head of the Sunni world, and the fact that it has more at stake in its regional rivalry with Iran than its underlings do. The UAE for example has a raging economic relationship with Iran, and only uses the ‘push Iran aside’ rationale to butter up its Saudi allies; and there are no Shia in Egypt for Sisi to care anything about Iranian influence. But there is little doubt that MBS is behind the scenes part of the picture.
“Analysis” that may have been useful about half a century ago
Much binary, mechanical “geopolitics” in recent years imagined the moves by some of the Gulf states to mend ties with Israel as representing a “US-backed axis” as opposed to a “Russian-backed” Iran and Assad etc. Imagine, this even passes for “analysis” in some quarters. Take a breath, dear Manicheans: exactly the same Gulf states and their regional allies that are carrying out rapprochement with Israel are carrying out rapprochement with Assad. The closest to both Israel and Assad is al-Sisi’s Egypt; the race to the finish-line states in both cases include the UAE and Bahrain; the more cautious behind-the-scenes power is Saudi Arabia, again in both cases.
This even includes the less expected: Sudan’s reactionary ‘Islamist’ regime that just visited Assad, and that fights for the Saudis in Yemen, has also been moving towards normalisation with Israel; three delegations from the pro-Assad Iraqi regime recently visited Israel; while the strongly pro-Iran and pro-Assad Sultan Qaboos of Oman recently hosted a state visit from Netanyahu.
It is something of a pity that countless left analysts, alongside much of the mainstream media, continue to write things that suggest they are living about 50 years in the past, even now, 30 years into the post-Cold War world. It is mind-boggling how such “analysis” imagines it can deal with such elephants in the room as the raging Israeli-Russian relationship (especially Putin-Netanyahu), not only over Syria but also Crimea etc; the raging Egypt-Russia relationship (discussion about Russia building a nuclear plant for Egypt); the UAE concluding a declaration of “strategic partnership” with Russia; the growing Saudi ties with Russia, especially over oil politics; and the US-Iranian joint-venture regime in Iraq, a key Assad ally. Really, why should Trump’s alliance with Putin seem odd?
Forget absurd Cold War fantasies; what we’re dealing with here are not even clashes of “rival empires.” As always, imperial rivalries do explain some of what is going on, of course. But even this is essentially a sideshow compared to the principle dynamic, the alliance of counterrevolutionary powers, for counterrevolution, the burial of the Syrian revolution symbolising the burial of the Arab Spring.
Where does Iran fit in?
One problem with this analysis, however, is that both Turkey and Iran are also counterrevolutionary powers, yet both are seen as enemies by these Saudi-aligned states, and by Israel. Let’s take them one at a time.
If Iran is to be pushed aside – regardless of whether one believes this is due to it being a genuine “danger” to these states, or merely as an excuse to bolster Assad – then certainly, it is the fall guy.
However, on the one hand, Iran has overreached anyway; what has caused the heightened rhetoric of Iranian “threat” in Israeli and Saudi discourse is quite simply that a large regional rival, which uses a particular rhetorical flourish, however toothless, that targets these regimes, has become too big for its boots; pushing it back will therefore be their “victory.” But it will be impossible for Iran to dominate Syria anyway, let alone afford the costs of reconstruction; it will have to be satisfied with some presence, and some reconstruction contracts, whatever its Russian rival doesn’t edge it out of. Iran is much more heavily invested in neighbouring Iraq, yet even there Iran is unable to exercise economic domination.
On the other hand, we have continually heard warnings that Iran will not leave “completely,” and so the Gulf states and Israel are kidding themselves by relying on Assad. This however reveals some fundamental misunderstandings. As stated above, Iran is just another counterrevolutionary state; it is a threat to no-one except the Syrian people who it has helped brutalise on behalf of the Assad’s genocide regime. Iran’s rivals do not need all Iranian forces, companies and influence to leave Syria “completely,” as if Iran were some kind of unique virus; “victory” in such “wars” of position is gained via the clipping of wings; victory is symbolic, about prestige, about appearance.
According to David Hearst, the Israeli, Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi intelligence chiefs at the alleged ‘welcome back Assad’ meeting discussed above, “did not expect Bashar to break relations with Iran, but they wanted Bashar to use the Iranians rather than be used by them.”
Israel has reacted to Trump’s withdrawal threat by announcing it will step up its bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, tolerated as always by the Russian air defences in Syria. The idea of an “Iranian threat” takes on its most laughable version when it comes to Israel; the nuclear-armed First World state has hit hundreds of Iranian-backed targets in Syria (while being careful always to not weaken Assad in the process), while the far weaker Iranian regime has almost never even returned fire, let alone initiated it, yet Iran “threatens” Israel? Extraordinary imagination. Iran doesn’t even threaten the illegal Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan (which is often now referred to as “Israel” in much commentary), let alone Israel.
Israel hits Iranian targets because the biggest bully on the block doesn’t like the affront to its power of a bunch of unruly militias running around its “backyard” shouting empty “death to Israel” slogans, not because these, relatively speaking, street thugs are actually a threat to the regional crime boss.
A gift to Erdogan?
Meanwhile, states such as the UAE, Egypt and Jordan are far more invested in confronting Turkish influence than in confronting Iran (and the Saudis are equally interested in confronting both). These states view the Sunni-populist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – connected to Qatar, Turkey and Hamas – as their key enemy, rather than Iran. Notably, the intelligence officials at the alleged ‘welcome back Assad’ meeting “considered Turkey, rather than Iran, to be their major military rival in the region … the Israelis told the meeting that Iran could be contained militarily, but that Turkey had a far greater capability.” There is some logic in this. Iran’s rhetoric is loud in proportion to its hollowness; as an outsider to the Arab world, its only real influence has been gained on sectarian grounds, among the Shia populations of Iraq and Lebanon. The only place Iranian influence was ever a danger was among the Shia majority that rose up against the minority Bahraini monarchy at the onset of the Arab Spring, swiftly crushed by the Saudis. By contrast, by playing the populist card via the Muslim Brotherhood, especially throughout the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar were engaged in what these other conservative states consider a dangerous game among the Sunni masses of Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and the Gulf.
For his part, Trump has been strongly associated with the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis, while the US alliance with the YPG-SDF in Syria placed it in conflict with their Turkish opponent. The Saudi pledge to provide $100 million to the SDF-ruled, US-occupied zone of northeast Syria several months ago was considered an affront by Turkey.
Yet Trump’s sudden announcement of withdrawal has been widely seen as a pro-Turkey move, enabling Erdogan to attack the Kurds. This interpretation is understandable; it was preceded by Turkey’s decision to buy US patriot missiles, widely believed to have sealed the deal.
Of course, this does not have to be a contradiction; after all, Putin’s Russia has been coddling both Erdogan and MBS-Sisi, and Iran and Israel, at the same time. Larger imperialist powers are quite capable of playing with both or all sides among regional rivals.
Turkey, an outlier from the counterrevolutionary dynamic?
Moreover, despite the rivalry between the Saudi-led and Turkey-led blocs, Putin’s coddling of Erdogan highlights the fact that Turkey’s own direction regarding Syria is not that different.
It is true that Turkey is still supporting the Syrian opposition’s control of much of northwest Syria, and therefore may be seen as an outlier in the regional counterrevolutionary dynamic. And certainly Turkey’s pro-rebel position appears positive in comparison to the UAE’s role in cynically encouraging the rapid surrender of the FSA Southern Front to Assad. While Turkey’s aim there is hardly to encourage revolution, nevertheless it wants to avert a brutal Assadist conquest that would send hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees into Turkey, which already accommodates 3.7 million refugees.
But Turkey’s current main use for many of its weakened and dependent rebel allies is to use them as cannon fodder for its threat to drive the YPG-SDF out of northeastern Syria, as many were earlier used in the plunder and “cleansing” of Afrin. From Putin’s point of view, as long as the rebels are held back from any active front against Assad, Turkey is effectively doing much the same as the Gulf; and by setting the rebels and the YPG-SDF against each other – a dynamic which the YPG has also been guilty of feeding – both can be weakened against Assad in the long run.
Indeed, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent oxymoronic statement that Turkey can “work with Assad” if he wins a “democratic election” represents Turkey’s own overture to the regime; and in any case, its close ally Qatar is following the same path of accommodation with Assad as its Gulf rivals, while the MB-ruling party in Tunisia is now in discussions with the Sisi regime – ie, the regime that slaughtered thousands of MB supporters in streets and outside mosques – about inviting the Assad regime to the Arab League summit in Tunis in March.
Or a green light to Assad?
But while these moves parallel those from the Saudi-led coalition, this does not reduce their rivalry, and thus would hardly placate Turkey’s regional rivals if Trump’s move really were primarily a gift to Erdogan. And here we return to where we started; the idea that Trump’s withdrawal is mostly a gift to Erdogan, rather than to Assad, is seriously misplaced. Being a green light to Assad, rather than primarily to Erdogan, puts Trump’s move more clearly in line with the new moves from the Gulf and Trump’s traditional allies.
As Trump’s announcement was followed by Turkey’s threats to enter northern Syria and expel the YPG from the Arab-majority city of Manbij (the only SDF possession to the west of the Euphrates river), the SDF, feeling vulnerable to abandonment by the US, called in the Assad regime to try to thwart Turkish intervention. The regime then sent troops to nearby Arima to block a possible Turkish offensive against SDF-held Manbij.
To this, Erdogan’s reaction was most interesting. Basically, Erdogan indicated that he has no real problem with Assad taking over Manbij, as long as it means the YPG are gone! And the regime claimed that the YPG had left Manbij upon their entry into the region, though the YPG itself claims to have left the city in 2016, leaving behind only Arab members of the SDF.
This suggests is that both the Turkish-backed rebels and the SDF were being played; Trump’s withdrawal threat merely strengthened Assad’s hand in the region vis a vis the SDF, and the great rebel-backer Erdogan is OK with that!
The SDF holds a vast area of northeast and central-east Syria; it is not as if Turkey was ever likely to invade as far south into Syria as Raqqa, let alone Deir Ezzor! Turkey would face massive difficulties trying to occupy such a large region, confronting widespread resistance; it is not like isolated Afrin. The focus on this move being a green light to Erdogan only, rather than above all to Assad, is therefore misplaced. And this development in Manbij suggests that even in the northern border region where one might expect a withdrawal to favour Erdogan, it looks more like a stunt to browbeat the SDF – never particularly anti-Assad in the first place – into caving in further to Assad.
Possibly some small-scale Turkish operation may still take place in some part of the northeast close to the border, so that Erdogan’s rhetoric does not appear too hollow, but even this could only occur if coordinated with Moscow, which also happens to be coordinating with both Assad and the SDF. This is because, as with both other Turkish operations in northern Syria, it will be essential to acquire Russian permission to use Syrian air space (assuming, that is, that US forces do actually leave). This will give Russia to ultimate control over the extent of such an operation.
Another clue to this general orientation is the discussion over many months, since Trump first raised the issue of withdrawal almost a year ago, of Arab troops from the Gulf replacing US troops in eastern Syria. At that time, the Assad regime reacted with hostility. In the context of the current Gulf recognition of Assad, however, this idea takes on a new meaning, especially as the discussion allegedly involves pro-Assad Egyptian and Emirati troops alongside Saudi troops. This is even more significant considering these states’ hostility to Erdogan’s Turkey, giving the notion of US “withdrawal” a whole new dynamic. There is also discussion of an upgraded role for the Saudi/Egyptian-backed Elite Forces in the largely Arab-populated Deir Ezzor province, led by SDF ally Sheikh Ahmed al-Jarba.
Of course, US calls to protect its Kurdish-led allies, and the continued delivery of arms to the SDF, potentially pose a problem for Assad as well as Erdogan. Currently, however, Assad’s strategy is not to openly attack the SDF – a massive operation which the regime does not likely have the capacity for at present – but rather use the atmosphere of the Turkish threat and US withdrawal to “negotiate” with the SDF from a position of strength. With Assad-SDF negotiations likely to be overseen by Russia, which wants Assad to recover control of all of Syria, the flavour of such negotiations is obvious.
And this is also the SDF strategy; and in case anyone might think this was due to having few options at the present juncture, some SDF leaders have sought to clarify that they aim for deal with Assad regardless of US moves. Essentially, the US, its Gulf allies and the SDF leadership are on the same wavelength when it comes to the Assad regime, preferring a ‘soft reintegration’ of the northeast into the Assadist state. SDF spokesperson Jia Kurd explained that the main enemies that a joint Assad-SDF state needed to defeat were Turkey and the remaining rebel-held northwest: “This [agreement with Assad] will give a big push towards ending the occupation and terrorism in Syria” (the PYD leaders of the SDF generally refer to anti-Assad rebels collectively as “terrorists,” and rarely list the regime as an enemy).
Of course, at this stage the SDF hopes to maintain some degree of autonomy for its Rojava statelet, and that this policy will save them the fate that they offer to the rebel-held northwest. However, Assad’s bargain will be for significantly reduced autonomy now, and then once his state is more secure and ‘normalised’ and the opposition in the northwest crushed, he will turn and crush Rojava and any hint of autonomy as well, as he has always promised to.
But surely, this is conspiratorial – why would the US want to hand back Syrian territory to the Assad regime? To ask such a question reveals fundamental misunderstandings about US policy in Syria. Why wouldn’t Trump want Assad to reconquer Syrian territory, is a better question; at times, the US has directly helped Assad do so. The mistake was to assume that the US presence in northeast Syria, aiding the SDF, had any purpose other than that endlessly stated by all US leaders – to defeat ISIS. “That’s it,” as Trump has continually said. While of course the US presence never had anything to do with putting pressure on Assad, and still less helping the rebels, nor was it ever aimed at helping the SDF build its own alternative.
Returning to former Obama advisor Steven Simon, he explains what he believes the US needs to do to enhance its interests at present:
“ … persuade the Kurds to get rid of non-Syrian operatives, while shrinking their military capacity, and accept that they are not going to get the same deal that their Iraqi cousins have won from Baghdad. The imminence of an American withdrawal, combined with Mr. Erdogan’s suggestions that he could soon invade the Kurdish regions of Syria, will probably convince the Kurds that they have little choice. But the Syrian regime could provide meaningful incentives, such as integrating the Kurdish forces into Damascus’ chain of command …. then, either directly or through the United Nations, the United States will have to talk to the Assad regime on the premise that a restoration of Syrian state authority in northeast Syria, including the re-entry of Syrian government forces, is required to stabilize that part of the country over the long term. To this end, the United States will have to deal with the Russians as well, so there is a coordinated approach to both the Turks and the Syrian regime.”
Right now, US leaders fear the loss of US credibility that would result from the US precipitously dumping its SDF allies in the face of any brutal attempt at reconquest, either by Assad or Erdogan, while Assad also wants to avoid direct confrontation until other enemies are defeated; but eventually the SDF’s usefulness to both US imperialism and Assad’s tyranny will run its course.
The inability of both major rebel and Kurdish leaderships to patch up their differences and present a united front against all the enemies of the popular masses has been a decisive card in the hands of Assad and the regional counterrevolution.