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 the US 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 third reaction is that of those who have stood in solidarity with the Syrian people against Assad for years and who now condemn Turkey’s attack from the point of view of consistent solidarity, “in solidarity with the civilians there and against the barbarian Turkish attacks against them,” in the words of Syrian revolutionary Firas Abdullah. As leading Syrian revolutionary and political prisoner under Assad, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, declared:
“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.
Assadist and Russian forces had already moved into Manbij, as the US gently handed over its facilities there to Russia, even assisting Russian forces navigating the area (despite its largely Arab population and the previous US-Turkish agreement for joint patrols in the city). Russian forces were placed between the Turkish and Assadist militaries near Manbij.
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.
In reality, however, this was largely a media stunt to save face for Trump and the US. The Syrian regime declared it “vague”, adding, ominously for the SDF, that it will never accept “another Iraqi Kurdistan in Syria”, and even the SDF accepted the ceasefire.
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.
Erdogan has repeatedly made clear that he has no problem as long as the Assad regime, rather than the SDF, controls the border; “the regime entering Manbij is not very negative for me. It’s their lands after all … what is important is that the terrorist organisation does not remain there,” Erdogan said. Erdogan said his operation would end once Russia or the Assad regime clears the border of the “terrorists.” Indeed, he made exactly the same statement last year when Assadist forces first moved nearby the Manbij region. Meanwhile, the Syrian and Turkish regimes have been in covert contact via Moscow throughout this campaign.
The SDF-Assad deal
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.
Trump was explicit, tweeting “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!” Which is similar to what he tweeted last year when he announced “withdrawal”: “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.”
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.
When Trump first announced “withdrawal” in late 2018, I wrote that this was in effect going to be more of a greenlight to Assad than to Erdogan:
“ … 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.”
Mainstream of US ruling-class furious
Most representatives of the US ruling-class – from the Pentagon through the Democratic Party and most of the Republican Party, from liberal doves to hard-nosed realists to unreconstructed neoconservatives, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal – furiously opposed Trump’s move. Defence Secretary Mark Esper openly declared Turkey to not be an ally; former Trump government hard-interventionist Nikki Haley created the twitter handle #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend. A joint Republican-Democratic team led by Trump ally Lindsay Graham has crafted a harsh sanctions bill against Turkey.
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.
As Firas Abdullah notes regarding this plan:
“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.
In Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, the Arab populations are extremely fearful of a return of the regime. On the one hand, Raqqa was so completely destroyed by US bombing in the eviction of ISIS that any echoes of its pre-ISIS revolutionary phase have probably been extinguished and the population so exhausted that any solution bringing stability may be grudgingly welcomed, although even here there are signs of protest. But the Arab population of Deir Ezzor, among the earliest to rise against Assad, will resist any attempt by Assad to retake the region. Before these current events, we saw both big protests against SDF rule, and, in the part of Deir Ezzor under Assad-Iran control, big protests demanding the SDF take control (ie, away from Assad), making clear who their main enemy is. There are already protests being launched throughout SDF-controlled Deir Ezzor and elsewhere in the northeast against the prospect of Assadist return. Meanwhile, even in Manbij there is resistance to the prospect of Assadist return, and a general strike is being called.
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.
First, the United States and Russia jointly vetoed a UN Security Council resolution put by Britain, France and Germany condemning the Turkish invasion.
Second, the US House of Representatives voted 354-60 to condemn Trump’s withdrawal and Turkey’s invasion.
Next, despite the Assad regime’s deal with the SDF, its real view of the SDF was summed up by Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Maqdad, who stated that “We won’t accept any dialogue or talk with those who had become hostages to foreign forces” calling them “armed groups had betrayed their country and committed crimes against it.”
Not surprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies. Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”
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.