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?
First, of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, there are 6.6 million refugees outside the country (of whom 3.6 million are in neighbouring Turkey), over a quarter of the population, plus an equal number internally displaced (IDPs) within Syria. Then there are over 5 million people living in the northwest (Idlib and northern Aleppo regions) still outside of Assad’s control, under what remains of various rebel groups, mostly under Turkish influence, according to a population survey in 2018, which at the time included over 1.7 million internally displaced from elsewhere in Syria; however, further waves of regime and Russian bombing in 2019 and 2020 pushed the number of internally displaced in the northwest to some 2.7 million. Yet even these figures may be low, given the difficulties of establishing clear figures in such catastrophic situations; according to a February 2021 UNICEF report, “Since December 2019, more than 940,000 people have been displaced, in addition to the 2.7 million who were already displaced” – which could mean some 3.7 million are displaced in the region. Then there are another 3 million people, including 700,000 internally displaced, in the northeast, under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US military, who entered Syria to help the SDF defeat ISIS.
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.
First let’s look at Trump’s record
In the lead-up to the 2016 US elections, Trump asserted that in Syria, the US should be on the same side as Russia and Assad in “fighting ISIS”, and said the US would cut off any meagre “support” still going to the anti-Assad opposition under Obama.
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.”
With this cut-off of aid to the FSA, any US aid to Syrian “rebels” now was only to those who do not rebel: US Central Command spokesman Major Josh Jacques explained: “vetted Syrian opposition groups all swear an oath to fight only ISIS.”
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 Trump put 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.
Meanwhile, in the southeast desert, the US was arming and training two “vetted” ex-rebel brigades for the war against ISIS. These brigades had to swear to give up their fight with the regime, but one of them, Shohada al-Qaryatayn, could not stomach this and cut off its relationship with the US-led Coalition due to its pressure on them “to stop the fighting against the Syrian Arab Army”. Coalition spokesman, US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, demanded they return the equipment the US had provided them, warning that otherwise it would bomb them.
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.
In its first step, US bombing directly supported Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra in March 2017, in coordination with Russia and Iran, Palmyra being the regime’s gateway to Deir-Ezzor.
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.”
The Pentagon concurred: “We give them [FSA] training and equipment, and they fight against Daesh. That is all. We don’t help them to control an area or fight against the regime … We are not a part of their struggle against the regime.”
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.”
East Ghouta, south Damascus, Homs
In March 2018, the regime subjugated the rebel-held East Ghouta region of outer Damascus at the cost of 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. 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 Ghouta was apparently not mentioned. The conversation, focusing on Syria, demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense Minister Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at that very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not considered worthy of note.
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 ending of all military assistance to the FSA helped in turn seal the SF’s fate. As Assad advanced south, the US told the FSA that “you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.” Russia worked with the UAE to encourage SF groups to surrender and join the Russian-controlled 5th Corp of Assad’s army; Israel welcomed the offensive, dispensing with a tiny ex-rebel group it had been using as “border”-guards on the stolen Golan. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, far-right defence minister Lieberman and various other Israeli political and military leaders openly declared their preference to have the Assad regime in power and controlling the Golan. The Trump-Putin-Assad-Netanyahu agreement to destroy the southern front of the revolution was consolidated with Russian military police joining the UN forces in the demilitarised zone, to “monitor implementation of the separation-of-forces agreement.”
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.
Ultimately, though, there is a line: Turkey showed what it is capable of early in 2020, when Assad refused to stop, and Turkey openly attacked regime forces and destroyed thousands of tons of Assadist killing equipment, even bringing down some warplanes – a joyous occasion, but one showing the real potential had anyone ever wanted to rein in Assad.
Either way, it had nothing to do with Trump. For a typical US reaction, the speech to the UN by Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, during one murderous Assad-Putin offensive in August 2018 sums it up: “This is a tragic situation, and if they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that. But they cannot do it with chemical weapons.”
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.
In early 2017, Trump was intensifying Obama’s war on HTS. In late January, Trump bombed an HTS training camp killing over 100 HTS cadre, as well as allied cadre from the Zinki rebel group, and in early February, the US killed a commander of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist rebel group in conflict with HTS, and the US even reportedly struck iconic revolutionary centre Kafranbel. In March 2017, the US bombed a mosque in west Aleppo (allegedly targeting HTS), where 57 worshippers were killed. The Trump regime never issued any apology, and the strike on the mosque was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates.
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.
Having betrayed its SDF allies, the US then reversed on “withdrawal” and kept 1000 troops in the northeast to protect the oil for the SDF, and signed an agreement with the SDF for a US oil company to invest in oil infrastructure.
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!”
For that matter, Erdogan said much the same: he had no problem as long as it was Assad, not the SDF, controlling the region. It is difficult to see how any of this can be spun in a positive way by anyone from any perspective.
But, Trump bombed to enforce the ‘red line’ …
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?
Not even remotely. In the weeks before Assad’s chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s pro-Assad position clear. Trump’s UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; Tillerson used Assad’s words, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
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.
To soften the blow, Trump warned Putin, who warned Assad, so that planes could be moved from the base in time. According to the Russians, some half a dozen out-of-service warplanes were hit. By the following day, the base was again in use bombing Syrians, and Khan Sheikhoun was again being bombed – just not with sarin.
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.
Since then, the Assad regime has continued to use chemical weapons, with barely a whisper from Trump.
Trump’s hard line against Iran
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.”
Where Iran retains most strength is in eastern Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border. But even here, it is increasingly in conflict with Russia, and even with the Assad regime, whose interests in that region line up more with those of Russia over Iran.
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.
However, this again turns a core of truth into an absolute. In August 2018, for example, Russia claimed that 63,000 Russian troops had “seen combat” in Syria.
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.
In doing this, Russia has put significant resources into the Assadist officer corp, building and financing entire sections of the military, notably the 5th Corp and the Tiger Forces. This coincides with Russia’s increasing take-over of significant parts of the Syrian economy, a tightened hold on its military bases and attempts to restrict Iran’s strategic footprint in Syria. In mid-June, for example, Russia took full control of Palmyra Military Airbase from the regime, expelling all Iranian and even regime forces.
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.
For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship are all strongly pro-Assad, and have excellent relations with Russia. While Israel bombs Iranian assets in Syria – taking care to distinguish them from the Assad regime’s assets – it has excellent relations with Russia, which, being in charge of Syria’s anti-aircraft system, is clearly giving Israel the green light; meanwhile top Israeli leaders have for years continually emphasised their support for Assad. In May his year, as Israel launched major strikes on Iranian forces, Israeli defence minister Naftali Bennet told Assad that Iran “used to be an asset for the Syrians, but now it’s a burden.” Even Saudi Arabia, previously a supporter of the Syrian uprising, has moved from ignoring Syria to making noises suggesting quiet support for the Egypt-UAE strategy.
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.”
This has been emphasised more clearly under the Trump administration. In November 2018, Jeffrey stressed that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government, [but] this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”
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.