“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012
On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.
Abstract: Vastnumbers of responses to the conspiracy theories absolving the Assad regime of responsibility for the 2018 chemical massacre in Douma have been penned, some of which this article will list for reference. However, this article is not a repeat of this detective work; rather, the core of it is an examination of the absurdity of these assertions, precisely from the point of view of the questions of “who gains” and casus belli that these conspiracists evoke.
On April 7, 2018, the Assad regime launched a chemical attack, dropping chlorine canisters, on the besieged town of Douma, the last remaining part of the opposition-held East Ghouta region which had been under a month-long massive attack by the regime, during which it had reconquered the rest of the region.
The day after the attack, Douma itself surrendered. The regime had now virtually completed its reconquest of all parts of the southern and eastern regions of working-class outer-Damascus, which had been in opposition hands for over 5 years; the only exception was the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, which the regime reconquered in May, but the opposition had already lost Yarmouk to ISIS (despite fierce resistance) in 2015 in any case.
Forty-three bodies were reportedly discovered, and filmed, in one of the apartment blocks onto which the chlorine had been allegedly dropped; however, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers did not allow inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enter the area to carry out inspections until 2 weeks later, during which time the bodies were buried.
When they finally were allowed in, the OPCW inspectors found two “yellow industrial cylinders dedicated for pressurised gas” (which likely contained the chlorine) in the top levels of two apartment blocks, as well as the craters in the roof which they had crashed through. One was apparently intact; the building where the other had released its load is where most of the 43 bodies were reportedly found.
The OPCW released its full report in March 2019, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that chlorine had been used, and was the most likely cause of death; that it was likely it came from the spent canister; and though the brief of the OPCW did not include assigning blame, the report did imply that the most likely way the chlorine got into the building was through the crater in the roof above; though it said nothing about aircraft, this is the only possible way it could crash through a roof. As only the regime has aircraft, it therefore implied the regime was responsible.
Yet since that time, the OPCW has been subject to a concerted propaganda campaign, led by the Russian state, which claims the OPCW is guilty of a “cover-up” of alternative explanations, and that either chlorine was not used, or if it was, it was used by the opposition, or even that the rebels merely planted the chlorine canisters in the building, and just killed the civilians themselves, in an elaborate plot to provoke western intervention against Assad.
The claims about “cover-up” are based on the testimony of two former employees of the OPCW. First, Ian Henderson, who was not part of the OPCW investigating team, but a liaison officer between the team and Damascus, sent a memo to the OPCW in March 2019, just before it released its report, claiming that the chlorine canisters could not have been dropped by helicopters, based on an “engineering report” that he had carried out (the OPCW claims he carried out this investigation outside his brief as OPCW employee). Two months later, the fact that the OPCW had not included this in its report was leaked to the world media as a “scandal.”
The OPCW claims it could not do this (apart from it being so late), because attributing blame for the incident was outside its brief. This is because Russia had blocked attributing blame from the OPCW’s investigation; the report makes no mention of helicopters.
Second, “Alex” (subsequently found to be Brendan Whelan), who was a member of OPCW team between April and August 2018, spoke out in October 2019. “Alex” had been a member of the team collecting evidence, but left before the real analysis began. He claimed his alternative view of events (he did not believe the evidence showed chlorine had been used) had been suppressed, and objected to some formulations in the interim report. The final report does modify its language slightly, arguably taking into account some of the objections, but still rejects them overall, with further evidence not yet available before “Alex” had quit.
Other than the constellation of conspiracist media sources led by the Russian state, the “cover-up” story was taken up by, among others, right-wing British journalist Peter Hitchens in the rubbishy tabloid Mail on Sunday; by a group of allegedly “anti-imperialist” leftists in an outfit named ‘Grayzone’ (otherwise known as ‘Red-Brown-Zone’); by far-right Trump-man in Fox News Tucker Carlson; by embedded journalist (for the Syrian military) Robert Fisk in The Independent; by long-term pro-Assad propagandists like Vanessa Beeley, a regular guest at Assad’s throne who writes for the conspiracist site 21st Century Wire.
Just why we should believe two disgruntled former employees of the OPCW over the research of the majority of the professionals in the organisation, and why this majority would decide to collectively engage in a cover-up, is anybody’s guess.
For those who want to understand more of the ins and outs of this ongoing saga, I can only strongly recommend the following sources:
Now, if anyone is actually interested in this issue – and the fate of the victims of Assad’s decade of massacres – chemical and otherwise – then you need to listen, watch and read these sources, especially the first. Then draw your conclusions. If you don’t first do this, then your only interest is conspiracy-mongering.
Some other useful reads:
Life and Death in Douma. Part 1: The Russian narrative
Nafeez Ahmed, State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines, London: International State Crime Initiative, Queen Mary University of London, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8a59rfq
However, while my conclusion from all this material is the OPCW report is a fair summary of what occurred, I prefer to look at the overall context than obsess with the detective work.
After all, casus belli is at the heart of the conspiracist argument; they ask, why would Assad want to “risk western intervention” by launching a chemical attack, when he was already winning in East Ghouta? Wouldn’t it be more in the interests of the rebels to stage a “false-flag” attack, get the regime blamed, and thus bring in western intervention to save them?
But why would this be necessary, if, as the far-right/alt-left coalition believe, the US has forever been dying to launch a war on Syria and carry out “regime-change”? After all, even if it were shown that the OPCW was mistaken and that Assad did not really launch that particular chlorine attack killing 43 people, it would not alter the fact that his regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people using every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD for a decade.
In other words, why would the US or rebels need to concoct stories of chemical attacks? Wouldn’t the US already have enough political ammunition with years of Assad levelling entire cities, dropping barrel bombs, cluster bombs, bombing schools, hundreds of hospitals, markets, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks and so on?
No? Oh, OK, all this is bad, but the US, for some pacifistic, law-abiding reason, only drew the red-line against chemical weapons, not all the rest. So “the lie about chemical weapons is whipped up to give the US the excuse to bomb Syria.”
Oh? What then of the 30,000 US strikes on ISIS, Nusra/HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes other Islamists or even mainstream rebels, killing, according to Airwars, anywhere from 6250 to 9,600 civilians, levelling the city of Raqqa? Is all this not “the US bombing Syria?”
Of course, none of this has ever been of any interest whatsoever to the western “anti”-war movement, let alone the far-right/alt-left coalition; for them, it only becomes dangerous US aggression if the US hits some Assad-regime installation for a few minutes a couple of times in 8 years, killing no-one and doing zero damage to Assad’s war machine.
But OK, let’s have it their way, only bombing Assad is bad, as opposed to bombing Syria, which is of no consequence.
So, in that case, if US agents in the media or inside the OPCW or wherever go to all the trouble to concoct a chemical weapons conspiracy hatched by the rebels, just because the US is so desperate to attack Assad but can somehow never find the excuse, then having concocted the excuse, wouldn’t the US perhaps use the opportunity to actually do some damage to Assad’s war machine, rather than hit three buildings in 45 minutes?
The context of the Douma attack
Let’s look at the context of the allegedly “false flag” Assad chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in April 2018.
In March 2018, the regime launched its final campaign to subjugate the long-time rebel-held, working-class East Ghouta region of outer Damascus, at the cost of some 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. Far from using this horror as an excuse to “make war on Syria” as feverish imaginations believe the US wanted to do forever, throughout this month-long massacre the silence from the US and other western governments was deafening. During this month, top US and Russian generals held high-level discussions twice, where the topic of Ghouta was apparently not even mentioned. The conversation, which focused on Syria, reportedly demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense James Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted sadly that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at the very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not even considered worthy of note.
On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, US president Trump announced that “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had probably never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on Trump’s rapid withdrawal idea, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or the horrors of Ghouta, but rather simply that “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”
By early April, Assad had been completely victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia, Jaysh al-Islam, was holding out in the suburb of Douma. This is where Assad’s “alleged” chlorine massacre took place. The very next day, Douma surrendered – which seems a reasonable answer to those who ask “what did Assad have to gain?” He gained immediate total victory. Apparently, to the conspiracists, the rebels had gone to all the trouble of concocting a false-flag operation to blame Assad and bring about western intervention, but then didn’t even wait a day for this intervention!
Confronted with yet another rude violation of the US “red-line” against only chemical weapons, despite Trump’s gift to the ungrateful Assad of extreme indifference to the month of slaughter and the announcement that the US was leaving Syria to Assad, Trump decided he needed to launch a “credibility” strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. It then abruptly stopped. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.
Really, US imperialism, allegedly determined come what may to “make war on Syria”, to carry out “regime change” against Assad, helped the rebels concoct a false flag chemical attack in order perform this mere hiccup following Assad’s month-long slaughter of 1700 people?
And getting back to “why would Assad risk a US attack” etc – maybe because he rightly figured the worst would be a rap around the knuckles, a reasonable price to pay for rapid victory and the psychological terror created by chemical weapons attacks. After all, he already had the experience of such a pinprick strike a year earlier.
The Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in 2017
Douma, of course, this was not the first such incident; the conspiracist set believe all Assad’s chemical attacks have been “false-flags” to bring about this elusive “western intervention”, from the massive sarin attack on East Ghouta in 2013, which killed 1400 people, resulting in, well, nothing, to the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria in April 2017. The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute found the Assad regime responsible for 98 percent 336 chemical attacks in Syria; perhaps all of these were mere “false-flags”, which resulted in … zero western intervention.
It is well-worth looking at the case of Khan Sheikhoun, which took place in April 2017, exactly a year before the Douma massacre we have been discussing. The OPCW also later determined that the Assad regime had launched the sarin attack there.
Given the fact the US reacted by bombing Assad’s Shariyat airbase – the first US strike on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – does this signify that this was perhaps a “false-flag” operation?
Not even remotely. Again, let’s look at context and casus belli arguments.
When Assad took all this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. He could use every other type of horrific weaponry in the four intervening years, and the US could not care less, as long as he stayed off chemical weapons. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.
Really? So rebels concocted a “false-flag” attack, the US presumably cajoled and pressured the OPCW to later issue a report falsely blaming Assad, and in response the US launched a pinprick strike whose impact, if any, lasted less than a day? Don’t be silly.
If you want to see bloody US intervention, you just had to look in the same region a few weeks earlier. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of a mosque in a rebel-held region of Aleppo in March 2017 which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was. The Trump regime never issued any apology for the mosque massacre (claiming anti-Assad HTS “terrorists” might have been using it), and it was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates. Meanwhile, the number of civilians killed by US bombing of ISIS-held regions in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, yet the conspiracists will tell you the US was supporting ISIS, and/or HTS, and/or the rebels, against Assad!
National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s “operations from the airfield” was “not the objective” of the strike; and that the US goal, far from “regime-change” (ignore the absurd “regime change” title of the article, which McMaster simply states was up to the Russians), was merely defeating ISIS while also desiring “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular” (note: not a change in the nature of the regime, but specifically of the Assad regime!).
How did the chlorine get there?
While I believe this has established the inherent absurdity of the idea that either Douma or Khan Sheikhoun were conspiracies from the point of view of context and the casus belli argument, there are other ways of demonstrating the impossibility of the conspiracist argument.
In particular, going back to Douma, if the chlorine canisters found in the top section of the buildings were not dropped from the sky, how did they get there? The best take-down I have seen of this issue was that penned by Louis Proyect, in this article on the Douma issue. It is so to the point that I will quote a significant chunk of it here, one more aspect for doubters to consider:
Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately?
A note on Jaysh al-Islam
A further point on this militia. Unlike other parts of East Ghouta controlled by more mainstream rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, the group in control of Douma, had a particularly bad reputation among other rebels and oppositionists, for running a highly authoritarian regime. For example, it is widely believed responsible for the disappearance, since late 2013, of the Douma Four revolutionary activists.
However, thousands of locals joined the ranks of this militia simply in order to defend the local people from reconquest by the far more repressive and murderous Assad regime. That had nothing to do with Jaysh al-Islam as such; as one civil activist in Douma, who is hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around.” On the contrary, it was the partial continuation, in extremely adverse conditions, of some semblance of the popular revolutionary traditions and institutions established in 2002-2003, very often in conflict with the JaI regime itself, that people fought to defend.
As revolutionary activist Firas Abdullah (who remained there for the entire duration of the siege) put it after fleeing Assad’s reconquest: “the dictatorship is one, but it has several colours.” JaI’s repressive rule, in other words, was nurtured precisely by years of Assadist siege, bombing and starvation. But the connection goes further: it was Assad who released Zoran Alloush, JaI’s founder, along with 1000 or so other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests was taken up by people like Alloush.
Yet it is precisely these origins of hard-Islamist currents like JaI – in the Iraqi jihad against the US occupation – that makes any connection between the West and JaI, as implied by these pro-Assad conspiracy theories, inherently unlikely. Indeed, US Defence Secretary John Kerry classified JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. While the US did lightly arm various “vetted” rebel groups under Obama – never enough to even hold the line against Assad, but in order to politically co-opt them – no US arms ever went in the direction of JaI. If conspiracists want to claim they did, it is up to them to find the paper trail; they won’t. Whatever limited aid came over the southern Jordanian border in Obama years went to the FSA’s Southern Front, of which JaI was never a member, and in any case was geographically cut off from. In any case, in 2017 Trump ended all military aid to all rebels, and even cut off all aid to democratic councils and civil society in opposition territory. Long before 2018, therefore, the US leadership openly saw all rebels as an enemy, not only JaI.
Moreover, this worked both ways: the idea that JaI would try to bring about western intervention goes against the very grain of this group. Following Assad’s far more mass-murderous chemical attack East Ghouta in 2013, JaI responded to Obama’s alleged threat to strike Assad with this statement:
“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.”
No, the anti-western Jaysh al-Islam did not drag massive chlorine canisters up many flights of stairs and break holes in the roof to bring in a US intervention they were opposed to and then surrender to Assad the next day anyway; the entire scenario is nuts.
Briefly on the White Helmets “controversy”
I put controversy in quotation marks because it is only a “controversy” to a particularly hardened wing of alt-left/hard-right wingnuts. I mean, really, one would expect Assadists and conspiracists to slander military formations of the Syrian opposition and even political and civil leaders, but the obsession they have with volunteer first-responders, who put themselves in acute danger – many have died in action – to rescue civilians from the rubble of bombed-out buildings, to save thousands of lives, is a particularly oddball phenomenon.
The spectacle of comfortable, White academics, “journalists” and propagandists living in the West, many seeing themselves as “left-wing” while slandering and spitting on those brown folk dying in the line of fire, is so obscene that it should be self-defeating. Yet living in this anti-solidaristic era, where “left anti-imperialist” is often little more than a badge of honour in the “market-place” of ideas and image, we see thousands of followers line up to join in the obscenity. Whatever gives you a rise I guess, guys.
This White Helmets “controversy” is not the issue of this essay, so what, if any, connection does it have with the chemical attacks controversy? Nothing, necessarily, except that these are two cheap targets of the conspiracist set. However, one connection they attempt to make is the assertion that the White Helmets have been key informants in the “staging” of these “false-flag” attacks.
One allegation is that it was the White Helmets who had filmed the initial Douma footage of those killed in the chemical attack. Yet the footage was originally released by another opposition media centre; as Nafeez Ahmed, in a valuable piece taking on a great deal of this propaganda, explains, the White Helmets “had not even been present at the scene of the incident in the immediate aftermath” (p. 31). He also responds to Scott Ritter, the former UN investigator of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; Ritter criticised the OPCW’s assessment that sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, for allegedly relying on “none other than the White Helmets” to gain samples (p. 39), since the regime had blocked the OPCW from accessing the site. As Ahmed demonstrates, samples were gained from other sources, including the regime, from which the OPCW established the use of sarin.
Other than recommending several of the vast number of responses to sick the anti-White Helmets propaganda (try this and this and this, especially the first, the full BBC series), my final point will again be from the perspective of, “what does all this aim to achieve anyway?” Whether the claim is that the White Helmets are mere actors not rescuing anyone, or that they do rescue people, but use the footage of their deeds to create propaganda against the regime (because, I suppose, it is not self-evident that bombing the civilian sites from which the White Helmets rescue these people is a war crime?) – really, why would this be necessary?
Anyone with eyes, ears and brains has been able to watch an entire decades-worth of footage or read thousands of accounts by journalists, human rights activists, NGOs, Syrian civil activists, refugees, international organisations and so on to know that the Assad regime has been committing massive crimes against humanity on a daily basis, and has been responsible for well over 90 percent of all killings and war crimes in that country.
“Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them. Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.”
90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista under Trump’s watch
By Michael Karadjis
With US elections approaching, Syrian people wanting to end the 50-year tyranny of the Assad dynasty are looking for any light from either candidate of the US ruling class. The fact that most conclude there is little to be excited about, and search for the tiniest seeming advantage from either side, highlights the plain fact that the US rulers have never had any interest in supporting the Syrian struggle for freedom.
Now that Assad has largely won the so-called ‘civil war’ – mostly a one-sided slaughter he waged against the Syrian people – the only real debate going on is whether a victorious, yet highly unstable, Assad regime can be pushed into some kind of political compromise via a “constitutional commission” process.
Nevertheless, reality being what it is, these questions can hardly be avoided. Assad’s victory is no ordinary case of a dictatorship successfully cracking down on its people, not wanting to underestimate the terror involved even in such “simple” cases. In Syria, we need to consider the whole Syrian people, not only those forced to live under the dictatorship’s heel in the regions it controls.
Assad’s military victory: Counterrevolutionary stability or ongoing catastrophe?
Therefore, around 15 million or more people – two thirds of Syria’s pre-war population – are outside regime control. When we add some 140,000 people estimated to have been incarcerated in Assad’s torture prisons or disappeared, of whom tens of thousands have been killed, and an estimated 670,000 people killed in the war, along with the physical destruction of much of Syria’s infrastructure by years of relentless regime and Russian terror bombing, it becomes clear why Syrians are not ready or able to say “OK, the dictatorship won, we lost, that’s bad, but now there’s no choice but to get on with our lives under counterrevolutionary stability” – any kind of “stability” is impossible under such conditions.
At the very least, those pushing this view – not only Assadists, but other well-meaning people who see the reality of defeat – need to take into account that if it is the interests of “the Syrian people” they are concerned about, then these “Syrian people” are not only the 8 million or so under regime control (even if we assume that these people are content with the situation, a likely erroneous assumption); but also the 6.6 million outside Syria, most of whom will not return with the regime in power, and the 8 million or more living in the northwest and northeast outside regime control.
For those concerned with ameliorating this situation, does a Trump or a Biden in the White House make any difference?
Trump versus Biden?
Various articles indicate that among Syrian exiles in the United States, there is little consensus, and this reflects the fact that the differences are very narrow. This is hardly surprising; there is little difference on many issues.
For example, Trump is clearly worse on Israel/Palestine, having recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital”, put forward a anti-peace process that gives everything to Israel, cut off funding to UNWRA, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the illegally stolen Syrian Golan and so on. Yet Biden and Harris are also extremely pro-Israel. No, they may not have recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and they claim to support UN resolutions and the traditional, meaningless, “peace process”, but Biden has also stated he will nevertheless not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv.
As the Trump and Biden camps are saying very little different in terms of Syria policy going forward, much of the debate inevitably looks at the records of the Obama administration (in which Biden was vice-president) and the Trump administration. And neither offer any inspiration whatsoever. Though my argument here is that Trump is worse, it is understandable that some view Obama more negatively.
Obama’s support for the Syrian opposition was tepid at best; the CIA program to train and equip “vetted” rebels was largely aimed at co-opting and taming them, putting the CIA in a position to pressure them to stop fighting Assad, and enlisting them for the “war on terror” against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra only (the Free Syrian Army – FSA – already fought ISIS, and often Nusra, but resisted dropping the fight against Assad). In other words, bringing real rebel formations around to the same position as the concurrent Pentagon program, which explicitly only armed ex-rebels to fight only ISIS or Nusra and not Assad – but therefore had difficulty finding many real rebel forces to enlist! Further, from 2012, the US placed spooks on the borders to ensure that shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons (manpads) – the defensive weaponry most needed in a war of aerial slaughter – did not reach the FSA. Above all, Syrians disapprove of Obama’s nuclear deal – the JCPOA – with Iran, believing this encouraged Obama to turn a blind eye to massive Iranian support to Assad.
Those viewing Biden as a better choice might note things such as Trump ending all Obama-era assistance to the FSA and to Syrian civil society organisations, Trump’s view that the only US fight in Syria is against ISIS, the fact that 90 percent of Assad’s reconquest of much of Syria took place under Trump’s watch, the gutting of the Geneva process, and Trump’s overly friendly relationship with Russian Tsar Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer. The strongly pro-Assad orientation of Trump’s far-right base of support can also be noted. Trump also signed the ban on travel and migration from seven Muslim countries, including Syria; as Syrian-American Zaher Sahloul points out, “in 2020, fewer than 100 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. compared with 12,500 in 2016.”
However, those who see Trump a better bet, regardless of his motivations, point to things such as Trump’s anti-Iranian orientation (including ripping up the nuclear deal), given Iran’s role as Assad’s second main backer, Trump’s two pinprick strikes on Assadist facilities to enforce the “red line” against Assad’s chemical warfare, which Obama had not enforced in 2013, and the current harsh sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in the post-reconquista phase.
This view, that opponents of Assad should wish for a Trump victory, seems counterintuitive, given Trump’s initial declarations of support for Assad and assurances that his administration was no longer focused on removing Assad “like the previous administration was.” And the idea that any degree of human liberation, in Syria or elsewhere, is more easily achieved by having a far-right, white-supremacist in the White House appears illogical.
But what if Trump’s greater tendency to enforce “red lines” leads him to stumble, by accident, into ousting Assad, or if his anti-Iran policy tipped the scales against Assad even if that were not the intention? Syrians are as entitled as any other oppressed people to exploit the contradictions among imperialist powers and reactionary states. It may place their interests in opposition to those of virtually anyone else in the world, from Palestinians to black and working-class Americans, fighting for their liberation, but that is hardly the fault of Syrians; rather, that would be the fault of those who have waged genocidal war against them, or helped this by ignoring them, slandering them and stabbing them in the back.
Nevertheless, this is a complete illusion. The interests of Syrians fighting Assad are not in the slightest aided by supporting an enemy of human liberation like Trump, neither on the Iran issue, not that of ‘red-lines’, nor on the issue of sanctions.
Trump fulfilled his promise, fully ending the long-dormant CIA program to arm and train some “vetted” rebels. While, as shown above, this program was already tepid and ineffective, its continuation at some level under Obama gave the FSA some room to manoeuvre and occasionally take advantage of the arms, which was too much for Trump: in abolishing it, he declared the program “dangerous and wasteful.”
Trump also ended US “stabilisation” funding for civil society in regions outside Assad regime control. Trump declared “the United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria,” referring to the Obama-era funding for a vast array of opposition local governance and civil society organisations, independent media and education projects which kept society running in the regime’s absence. The State Department explained that US assistance in northwest Syria was being “freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria,” ie, to where the fight is only against ISIS rather than the regime.
Thus Trumpput an end to all US funding to both the civil and military sides of the revolution.
From the start, Trump declared “We’re there for one reason: to get rid of ISIS and to go home. We’re not there for any other reason.” His secretary of state Rex Tillerson virtually declared Assad an ally: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another and adhere to agreed geographical boundaries for military de-confliction.” Assad’s future was declared Russia’s issue, the US agnostic about “whether Assad goes or stays.”
Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, Tillerson claimed that Assad could be voted out in a “free election,” which would presumably occur with him in power, though the process may ‘take time” for which he “urge(d) patience.”
Before Obama left office, Assad’s reconquest of opposition-controlled regions had netted iconic democratic revolutionary centres south and west of Damascus such as Darayya, Madaya and Zabadani, and East Aleppo city in the north, by 2016. However, the fact that some 90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista took place under Trump was not accidental or the result of Trump’s alleged “isolationism”: it was based on US-Russia agreement, the fruits of Trump’s pro-Putin politics. In mid-2017, a “new” US strategy was presented by Defence Secretary James Mattis, State Secretary Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., conceding Assad’s control of Syria west of the Euphrates River and most of centre and south. Discussing “a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians,” Dunford noted “the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are.”
How did that play out in different parts of Syria?
The conflict in the southeast desert
We will first turn to the east, where the US was leading an air war against ISIS, in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. In the northeast, the main US ally was the Kurdish-led Peoples Protection Units (YPG), leading an expanded coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While leading a just fight for the liberation of the Kurdish people, the YPG/SDF has played an essentially neutral role in the conflict between the Assad regime and the rebellion, making it the perfect partner for the US war on ISIS under both Obama and Trump.
The US declared a 55-square kilometre zone around a US base in al-Tanf, a town on the Jordanian border, to be part of the US-Russia-Jordan southern ‘de-confliction zone’ declared to keep the fight focused on ISIS. Several times in May-June 2017, Iranian-led militia entered this zone and were hit by the US. In every case, the US released an identical statement, stressing that although it had hit forces advancing towards the US base inside the zone,
“The Coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them. … The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat ISIS poses globally, which is beyond the capability of the Syrian regime to address. … The Coalition calls on all parties to focus their efforts in the same direction to defeat ISIS, our common enemy and the greatest threat to worldwide peace and security.”
Stunningly, the US even gave permission to the Assad regime to bomb inside the US exclusion zone. On June 6, the regime relayed a request to the US military via Russia to bomb the US-proxy force, Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT), inside the US-declared zone, because it had attacked Iranian-backed forces which had entered the zone. So, even though the US itself demands these forces not enter the zone, it does not give permission for its own proxies to attack them, because they are only allowed to fight ISIS. So the US gave permission to Assad to bomb its (the US’s) own proxies inside its own exclusion zone!
Palmyra, east Qalamoun, east Suweida
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, together with Iranian-backed forces and the Russian airforce, were finally making their own advance to the east against ISIS. This was after many years of Assad waiting as US bombing and SDF ground advances softened up ISIS, during which time Assad had been free to crush the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS rebels throughout the country.
Over the next few months, from their strengthened position around Palmyra, Assad’s forces took advantage of the US focus on fighting ISIS only, and the US-Jordanian freeze on the FSA Southern Front, to seize significant parts of the eastern Qalamoun and eastern Suweida regions from the rebels, but MAT was not allowed to link up with and support the FSA in this region directly adjacent to al-Tanf (see map):
“ … pro-regime soldiers attacked the overstretched desert rebels roughly 60km southwest of Palmyra … The regime’s assault led to a swift victory. … rebel sources told Syria Direct that the US-led coalition provides support for opposition forces to combat IS but stops short of funding the rebels to attack the regime. “The coalition is a partner of ours in the war against Daesh, but when it comes to fighting the regime and its foreign militias, [the coalition] is not our partner,” Al-Baraa Fares, a MaT spokesman, explained.”
Having directly aided or facilitated Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra from ISIS, and the East Qalamoun, East Suweida and Badia regions from the rebels, surely the US would draw a line against the regime advancing towards Deir Ezzor? Isn’t that why the US was arming and training its own proxies?
In reality, the US had for years been in an unofficial alliance with Assad in the war around Deir Ezzor, which was now out in the open under Trump as US, Russian, Assadist and even Iraqi warplanes bombed the region together, while on the ground this US bombing not only aided Assad’s forces but even Iran-led forces for months in 2017. The widely discussed secret US-Russia deal allowing the US/SDF to take Raqqa and Assad-Russia to take Deir-Ezzor appeared to be borne out in practice.
The Pentagon was open about the fact that its proxy forces were little more than an aid to Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor. As explained by US-led Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, if the Assad regime or its allies
“are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas we absolutely have no problem with that … if they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business. … if the Syrian regime wants to … put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing that in Abu Kamal or Deir el-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”
As Trump tweeted when threatening US withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.”
On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, Trump announced “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on withdrawal, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or Ghouta, but rather “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”
Assad also subjugated and expelled the people of a number of smaller rebel-held enclaves in part of Homs, Wadi Barada northeast of Damascus, and other parts of South Damascus, which, like East Ghouta, were all within the “west of Euphrates” majority of Syria the US had declared was Assad/Russia’s sphere.
Daraa and the south
Following this, the Assad regime turned its attention south, to Daraa and Quneitra provinces, the revolution’s birthplace, which straddle the Jordanian border and Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Daraa had long been held by the FSA Southern Front (SF), the largest military coalition controlled by avowed democratic and secularist forces. Under Obama, the Southern Front had for a time received US and Saudi support via Jordan. However, the Obama administration imposed a series of red lines on the SF beyond which it could not go; one line prevented it moving towards Damascus to link up with the rebel-held outer suburbs in the south and east. This red-line had contributed to the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya. After a certain point, the US and Jordan tightened the screws, insisting the SF drop its fight with Assad and focus entirely on ISIS.
The fate of the Southern Front had already been heralded in July 2017, with the US-Russia-Jordan agreement to make Daraa and Quneitra a “de-escalation zone.” Russia began occupying this zone with US blessing, to guarantee Israel that the regime’s return to the Golan would not be coupled with Iranian or Hezbollah forces, who had to keep away. This “de-escalation zone” converted the US red-line into international policy, preventing the SF from coming to the aid of East Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion, helping seal their fate.
Trump’s Russian friends, in other words, are now stationed in Syria to protect both the Assad regime and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan!
Idlib and the northwest
Having rolled over most opposition-controlled territory under Trump, all that was left was the northwest, under the control of a range of rebel militia, partially under Turkish influence, and the northeast, under the control of the SDF, backed by the US airforce, military bases and troops.
When Trump came to power, the rebel-held northwest consisted of “greater Idlib,” meaning Idlib province and parts of northern Hama, northern Latakia and west and south Aleppo provinces. This region is connected to the northern Aleppo region along the Turkish border, where rebel militias are more directly under Turkish control, since Turkey entered in 2016 to expel ISIS from the region.
Under Trump’s watch, “greater Idlib” became “lesser Idlib,”, with the loss of around half the region to Assad, including all the Hama, Latakia and west Aleppo regions, and the southern part of Idlib, mostly during the 2019-2020 Russian-led terror-bombing offensive. All the iconic centres of the democratic revolution, which had long resisted HTS as well as the regime – including Maraat a-Nuuman, Atareb, Kafranbel and Saraqeb – were lost to Assad.
While the US did not directly facilitate Assad’s victory here, no discernible opposition to Assad’s gigantic massacre-offensives can be detected, under either US president. If we are to compare, then the short-lived provision of a number of US-made anti-tank TOW missiles to the FSA under Obama appears to have helped an offensive in early 2015 make gains, but this had already petered out by late Obama years; whereas Trump’s cut-off of all aid to both the political and military opposition almost certainly enabled Assad’s reconquest more directly than Obama-era shrugging.
To the extent that some aid has gone to the opposition and the region has not been fully reconquered, this has been largely due to Turkey’s intervention in support of the rebels. Turkey has a direct interest: it has taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and since refugees from other rebel-held zones have flooded into Idlib, there would simply be nowhere else for them to go if Assad fully reconquered Idlib, meaning millions more refugees, which Turkey cannot handle.
Of course, Turkey does its own dealing. Its on and off dealing with Russia aims to facilitate Turkey’s oppressive interventions against the Kurdish populations in Afrin and the northeast, while blocking total Assadist reconquest of Idlib, though at times the same dealing may involve Turkey turning a blind eye to a degree of Assadist reconquest.
An excellent example of how the bogeyman of “chemical weapons” was used by the US government to inform Assad that literally everything other than chemical weapons goes, including “taking over Syria.”
In reality, despite Haley, even the US probably does not want a total Assadist victory in Idlib, given the massive instability this and subsequent enormous refugee outflows would cause. But beyond occasional harsh words, there is zero on the record of either administration obstructing Assad’s butchery. Following horrendous months-long terror-bombing offensives in early 2019 and early 2020, displacing another 1.4 million people, US national security adviser Robert O’Brian shrugged “the idea that America must do something… we’re supposed to parachute in as the global policeman and hold up a stop sign?”
Actually, the US has intervened in greater Idlib for years – bombing anti-Assad forces. Under Obama, the US had been bombing Nusra/HTS, and sometimes other Islamist rebels, since the day it began bombing ISIS in September 2014.
These bombings continued till April; they only stopped because, following the US strike on an Assadist air base in early April (see below), Russia, which controls the airspace in that region, told the US their “de-confliction” mechanism would no longer operate in the northwest. Since then, US leaders stress they “absolutely agree” with Russia that “the terrorists” in Idlib “need to be taken care of”, that Idlib is “a magnet for terrorist groups.”
Despite the Russian ban, the US still occasionally bombs jihadist forces in Idlib. The latest strike took place in October 2020, when the US struck a major jihadist meeting, killing members of a range of factions. At one point even the Russians complained about these US strikes on al-Qaida-linked Hurras al-Din. While the local rebels do not see these forces as allies, it is indicative that the only forces the US continues to strike in Idlib are anti-Assad, never pro-Assad, forces.
The Kurds and the northeast
The northeast is somewhat a separate issue, as here the US intervention found its partner of expedience in a force that is neither allied to the regime – though it is far from averse to doing deals with it when it suits – nor with the movement to overthrow it. The SDF gained control over a vast area of northeast Syria for its own ‘Rojava revolution’, and set up an autonomous ‘North Syria Federation’.
Under Trump, the US took off all gloves to smash ISIS, leading to thousands of civilian casualties, but ISIS was indeed largely destroyed. Once the job was done, Trump was ready to get out, issuing “withdrawal” declarations in December 2018 and October 2019. The second time included a nod to Turkey’s Erdogan regime to launch an invasion in the northeast to expel the SDF from part of its territory, a strip along the Turkish border, ethnically cleansing the Kurdish population and committing brutal war crimes. This betrayal appears to have been a Trump whim, hoping to sell Turkey 100 F-35 fighter jets – a deal that ultimately did not eventuate.
When Turkey invaded to US indifference, the SDF felt forced to make a deal with Assad to allow a small number of Syrian troops back into parts of their zone. Far from complaining about Assad’s latest partial-reconquest, Trump tweeted “Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land … Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
Given this nakedly counterrevolutionary role of the Trump administration in Syria, how do the issues of ‘red-lines’, anti-Iranian policy and sanctions fit into this picture, and do they give Syrians reason to grudgingly support Trump despite the above?
Let’s begin with Trump’s two pinprick strikes on the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons in Idlib in April 2017 and Ghouta in April 2018. Given Obama’s backing out from his threat the enforce the red-line against chemical weapons following Assad’s massive sarin attack on Ghouta in 2013, Trump’s apparently greater tendency to enforce the red-line, regardless of motivations (US imperial “credibility” etc), may appear an improvement.
Did the US bombing of Assad’s Shariyat airbase in April 2017 – the first US hit on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – signify a new US policy?
When Assad took this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.
Thus it was Obama’s deal with Assad that created the necessity of a strike this time: Assad had simply not used sarin again in any large enough display during Obama’s reign. We cannot therefore make assumptions about what may have happened if Obama were still president; he may have been forced to do the same as Trump. In fact, when Obama was threatening to enforce his red-line in August 2013, Trump was opposed to any action, as was Bolton, Mattis, Gingrich, virtually anyone in future associated with Trump.
Let’s set this minimalistic strike in context. The first months of Trump saw a massive intensification of the US war on ISIS, and a huge rise in civilian casualties: the number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, including 472 killed by US airstrikes in Syria between May 23 and June 23 alone, the third month in a row that civilian casualties from US strikes topped even Assad’s toll. The massacre of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa highlighted the nature of Trump’s war. The civilian toll from the decimation of Raqqa is likely to be much higher than official figures suggest, and by August, enormous massacres were occurring daily. In this context, a 55-minute hit on a few old regime warplanes, doing zero damage to its war-making capacity, is not even a hiccup.
As we saw above, Trump also escalated the US war on HTS. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of the rebel-held Aleppo mosque in March which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was.
The follow-up by clarified further that this was a one-off. Tillerson stressed the strike was entirely about sarin and warned “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” Trump stressed that he launched the strike only because Assad used chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” Defence Secretary Mattis stressed that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” but Assad “should think long and hard” before using sarin again. National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that if there were to be any “regime change” in Syria, it would be carried out by Russia, not the US; that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and that the US goal remained defeating ISIS while it also desired “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.”
So, even after Assad uses chemical weapons, the hardest policy within the Trump regime was for regime character change under Assad, facilitated by Russia.
The lead-up to the second hit, in April 2018, following Assad’s attack on Ghouta with chlorine gas, was similar; as described above, the Trump’s US government demonstrated complete indifference as the regime pounded East Ghouta for a month with every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD, as 1700 people were killed. As we saw above, during this terror, Trump announced the US was leaving Syria, as its only concern was ISIS. Ghouta was not even on his radar.
Assad had already been victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia was holding out in the suburb of Douma. The day after the chemical attack, Douma surrendered. Confronted with yet another rude violation of the red-line, despite Trump’s gift to an ungrateful Assad of supreme indifference to the month of slaughter, Trump once again launched a credibility strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.
Probably the biggest argument in favour of Trump among many Syrians has been his intensely anti-Iranian policy. Trump, so it goes, may not care about Assad, and his stance against Iran may only be driven by imperial US arrogance, but it will have the spin-off effect of weakening Assad. Obama signed the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) which released sanctions on Iran and returned it money the US had long held, so Iran was able to use this money to bolster Assad; and Obama’s determination to get the Iran deal was allegedly a major reason for the US going soft on Assad. Trump’s scrapping of the JCPOA means Iran has less money to bolster Assad. Biden would return to the treaty, again freeing Iran to shower Assad with money and troops.
While the argument is understandable, there are too many holes for it to hold up as any reason to grudgingly support Trump.
Let’s start with the last point. Would Iran be flush with cash to prop up Assad if Biden restored the JCPOA? Probably not, because its economy has crashed due to the huge fall in oil prices over the last year, as well as being hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. In any case, the point is now moot following the imposition of harsh US sanctions on the Assad regime (see below). In the past, Syria could be prevented from receiving Iranian goods due to US sanctions on Iran (and anyone facilitating Iranian trade); now, third parties can be sanctioned by the US for supplying Syria. But then why would Iran care about that if it is already sanctioned? Ironically, only by abolishing the harsh sanctions on Iran would its incentives to aid Assad be reduced.
Regarding Obama, yes, the timing of the JCPOA was bad for Syrians, if not wrong in itself. The US did not have the right to keep billions of Iranian dollars for decades. The country with the most nuclear bombs on Earth does not have the right to prevent Iran from developing civil nuclear energy. But if the US had illegally held Iranian cash for decades, it could have held it a little longer if it wanted to stop Iran funding Assad. The discourse that Obama was soft on Assad because of his deal with Iran reverses the causality and demonstrates illusions in US imperialism. As can be easily demonstrated, the US never supported the Syrian uprising. This had nothing to do with the Iran deal. Obama could have used the Iran deal as a lever to get Iranian forces out of Syria, but chose not to.
But here’s the thing: under both Obama and Trump, the US was effectively allied to Iranian forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq, with with parallel objectives. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shiite sectarian death squads helped the US prop up the US-Iranian joint-venture Iraqi regime against the ISIS Sunni sectarian death squads.
Regarding Syria, let’s talk about the “anti-Iranian” Trump presidency. Throughout 2017 and early 2018, while Trump was facilitating Assad’s counterrevolutionary victory throughout the country, the anti-Iran issue took a back seat in practice, whatever Trump’s rhetoric, as long as Assad needed Iran-backed cannon-fodder to do much of his fighting on the ground. As shown above, during Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor in 2017, US bombing of ISIS not only aided Assadist forces on the ground, but even Iranian forces on the ground.
Only after Assad’s throne was safe, following the crushing of Ghouta in April 2018, was the stage set for Trump to begin dealing with his Iranian issue. So in May 2018 the JCPOA scrapped, sanctions imposed and the anti-Iran rhetoric reached fever pitch.
It is true that Assad’s crushing of Daraa had not yet taken place, but when it did, it was carried out without any need for Iranian troops. As described above, the deal to crush Daraa involved Assad, Netanyahu, Trump and Putin; Russia ensured that Iranian troops were kept distant from the region. Iranian cannon fodder was now superfluous.
As for the ongoing slaughter in Idlib, it has been overwhelmingly Russian terror bombing aiding each Assadist offensive; Iran’s role has been relatively peripheral. In a number of Assad-Russia offensives, Iranian forces were absent, possibly due to the increasing anti-Kurdish alignment of Iranian and Turkish regional interests. Regarding a mid-2019 offensive, researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov writes “Iran is currently not engaged in the campaigns in Idlib for several reasons, including that it does not see the recapture of the province to be of strategic importance and it wants to maintain good relations with Turkey.”
The bottom line is this: if Trump’s anti-Iran position was negative for Assad, then how did Assad reconquer most of the country under Trump’s watch?
The problem is giving greater weight to Iran than is warranted. Given the heavy role played by the Iranian regime and its regional proxies in sending thousands of troops to fight for Assad’s regime, many understandably take this a step further and see the Syrian war as primarily a war of Iranian conquest and occupation, with Assad virtually reduced to an Iranian pawn.
However, this Iranian angle is only one aspect of a multi-faceted war, whose dominant aspect remained a war of revolution and counterrevolution where the Syrian people’s main enemy was the Assad regime, with its own massive military machine, which never completely lost its independence to Iran.
One argument is that since Assad’s own Syrian forces became so hollowed out due to mass desertion and reluctance to fight, the armed forces he pitted against the rebels became overwhelmingly these Iran-owned forces. Forcing Iran-backed forces out will therefore leave Assad without an army.
However, this is a case of turning an actual phenomenon – significant desertion among SAA ranks – into an absolute. The SAA does continue to have thousands of Syrian troops, though greatly reduced and with low morale. Moreover, these absolutist views ignore the fact that there is another much greater power that has been central to rescuing Assad – the Russian Empire of Trump’s mate, Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s intervention via aerial mass bombing since 2015 saved Assad – after the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention since 2013 proved incapable of doing so. However, it is often claimed that while Russia supplies the airforce, it does not send ground troops, so Assad and Putin rely on Iran and its proxies to supply cannon fodder.
In March 2017, Assad’s forces launched an attack on the US-backed SDF in Deir Ezzor. While the US never touches the regime’s war-making machine when it fights the rebels, it retaliated against this attack on its SDF allies, only to find that it had killed 200-300 Russian mercenaries, of the Blackwater-like Wagner group, embedded with Assad’s forces! If that many Russians died on one day, it suggests significant numbers of Russian ground forces have fought in Syria.
But the Russian factor is bigger than that of ground troops. Russia is the other major power that Assad’s regime depends on militarily, economically and diplomatically. While Russia and Iran both back Assad, they are also rivals in the stakes of dominating post-war Syria. They also attempt to achieve their rival objectives in different ways – while Iran relies on sending in irregular militia under its own control and ideological persuasion (though also building connections with certain sections of the Assadist military, eg, Bashar’s cousin Maher Assad’s 4th Division), Russia aims to rebuild and dominate the Baathist state apparatus which it has worked with for decades.
While this rivalry gives the Assad regime the ability to manoeuvre between these two benefactors it also gives Iran’s enemies – the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf states – the same ability to manoeuvre, by putting their money on a Russian-dominated version of Baathist “stability” and/or “political solution” as opposed to the Iran-dominated version. Pushing back Iran does not necessarily mean undermining Assad.
However, while Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt line up very neatly with the Russian preference for Baathist regime continuity (with or without Assad), with some cosmetic ‘reform’, the US and the EU strive for some kind of “political transition”. In reality, ‘reformed Baathist ‘stability’ and ‘political solution’ are different ends of the same equation in the context of Assad’s military victory.
Nevertheless, ‘political transition’ at least offers some degree of greater possibilities than mere ‘reformed Baathism’, and the weapon chosen by the the US and the EU to pressure the regime in that direction is sanctions. So we will now move to Trump’s alleged third advantage, the current harsh sanctions regime.
It may seem ironic that the US government, after years of facilitating Assad’s victory, began to articulate a firmer-sounding policy on Assad’s future soon after the regime’s mid-2018 reconquest of the south. In November, the US Treasury issued a “shipping advisory” warning third parties (especially Iran and Russia) that they would be subject to US sanctions if they facilitate the shipping of oil to Syria (notably, the oil sanctions this was based on were issued in August 2011 under Obama). The advisory also noted that the US would prevent any funding for “reconstruction.” The new US special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, outlined that these sanctions will apply until the US sees “irreversible progress in the UN-sponsored political process.”
US rulers had feared the “instability” of revolution more than the instability caused by the regime’s actions, but now with the revolution contained or crushed, this new approach indicates that the US now considers it safe to resume the search for a transition to a less destabilizing version of the regime, achieved “from above.”
The harshness of the new sanctions is balanced by how limited the objectives are. The “political process” Jeffrey refers to concerns Assad’s attempts to block the formation of a “constitutional commission” to re-write the constitution before future elections, the process launched by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, at the Sochi conference in January 2018, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (a resolution endorsed by Russia and China in 2015). Even the regime is officially on board, though it is trying to stall the process. It is somewhat ironic that the US now offers muscle to help push through a Russian-led process.
As the former head of the of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, noted, “the meagre demand of a mere constitutional committee” is a major step down from the key long-term component of the Geneva process, namely “the demand for a transitional ruling body,” which would consist half of regime and half of opposition members, both with right of veto over certain individuals (eg, Assad), tasked with organising elections. This was key to the Geneva process since its inception in 2012, based on a Russo-American understanding of the “political process” under Obama. With the new approach, the regime itself, rather than a transitional body, will be expected to ratify a new constitution and organize “elections”.
In other words, the late Trump administration’s position is “tough” in the context of policy objectives that represent a marked shift towards accommodating the regime. Of course, the US never had any “regime change” policy to begin with. The US had always opposed any collapse of the Baathist regime, and at most had aimed for Assad to “step down,” as Obama requested, leaving his regime intact. As Obama’s State Secretary John Kerry stated in December 2015, the US is “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” and the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”
Regarding the change in “behaviour,” Jeffrey’s stress was on the removal of “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” In June 2020, Jeffrey is still repeating this ‘muscular realpolitik’ approach, asserting that Washington “wants to see a political process, which may not lead to a change of the Syrian regime, but demands the Syrian regime to change its behaviour, not provide “shelter for terrorist organizations” or “a base for Iran.”
This is very different to his attitude to Assad’s other ally Russia; Jeffrey states that “we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria,” calling on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria.” Jeffrey bends over backwards to accommodate Russia:
“Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States, if all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks. The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt.”
In other words, the tough-sounding Jeffrey is putting it to Russia that the US supports a conservative, Russian-led process of “political transition,” ie, one which satisfies US-Russian allies like the UAE, Egypt and Israel that the regime is largely preserved as long as Iran is distanced.
While Russia intervened to save Assad’s regime, Putin has no special love for Assad himself, and understands that for its Syria colony to became stable for Russian investment and strategy, the regime needs to engage in some ‘political process’ involving dialogue with the opposition, perhaps broadening the base of an otherwise unstable sectarian regime. The Russian-led “constitutional commission” process, supported by the US, is conservative enough for this purpose: it bridges the gap between the concepts of Baathist regime continuity with cosmetic reform and “political solution.”
In theory, even a controlled ‘political solution’ process could open up Syrian politics for the masses to intervene even if that is not the intention; in practice it may go beyond a reformed Baathist regime. However, whether it or not it does depends on the relationship of forces on the ground, rather than what is written on paper.
With Assad receiving massive backing from Russia and Iran throughout the war, Assad could fight it out to ensure any final deal gave the best terms to the regime. The end result is seen today: the military crushing of the opposition ensuring that it lacks bargaining power; hundreds of revolutionary councils disbanded; thousands of civil leaders murdered in custody; a quarter of the population residing outside the country; and Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish forces occupying substantial parts of Syria. The “political solution” in this context will likely end up a particularly conservative version.
Returning then to sanctions: what we see is the “blunt instrument” of harsh sanctions, which hurt ordinary civilians far more than the Assadist elite, arriving at the end of a US-facilitated, especially Trump-facilitated, military victory by Assad, in order to now pressure the victorious Assad into a limited “political solution” that preserves as much of the regime as possible.
However, while my focus is the cynical motivations of Trump, the sanctions debate is of central importance to Syrians; regardless of the reasons for the defeat of the military struggle, its reality means Syrians rightly ask: so what can be done now? To oppose any sanctions in this context means allowing the regime to rule unimpeded, having destroyed its country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, while still holding tens of thousands of political prisoners, leaving a quarter of the Syrian population as refugees and millions more internally displaced, while passing laws to steal their property.
It is here that the recently introduced ‘Caesar’ sanctions – named after the alias of the Syrian regime defector who leaked tens of thousands of photos of detainees tortured and murdered in Assad’s gulag – potentially offer a way forward. Credit for these sanctions goes to the years of democratic activism by Syrians and their supporters pressuring Western governments to take the kinds of actions that many activists have previously pushed for against western-backed repressive regimes.
The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act puts specific demands on the regime like releasing political prisoners, ending sieges, facilitating return of refugees, and ending bombing of civilians, schools and medical facilities. This removes the dilemma whereby some may consider the US demand for “political transition” none of the US’s business, on the one hand, or view its actual content to be so watered down that it means reformed Assadism, on the other. Who can argue with release of political prisoners?
The Caesar Act sanctions the regime, entities controlled by it, individuals within it, and other active participants in repression (including foreign death squad leaders); the oil and gas industries, military aircraft, and “reconstruction”; and any ‘third-party’ individual entity or state doing business with any of the above.
Support for the Caesar sanctions is very strong among Syrian activists abroad, but not unanimous, because their harshness potentially impacts the civilian population (despite strong clauses allowing humanitarian access and exemptions), due to issues such as of “over-compliance,” “dual-use,” the fact that sanctioned regime-connected oligarchs own large parts of the economy and so on. Energy sanctions – already in place before Caesar – are particularly problematic: oil and gas are used in military repression, but also civilian transport and heating of homes. This is a delicate political and ethical issue. There is also a range of views among anti-Assad civil society in regions outside regime control.
Sanctions have a bad record of battering civilians, while elites connected to sanctioned regimes are best-placed to sanctions-bust and live well, even profit, from them. Moreover, there is a rich literature showing that economic sanctions rarely change regime behaviour, let alone lead to regime change. Far from suffering leading the masses to revolt, the everyday struggle for survival takes precedence. Further, by being able to point to foreign sanctions, the regime can attempt to get itself off the hook, even though in reality its massive destruction of civilian infrastructure over a decade is the main cause of civilian suffering, while the recent collapse of the Lebanese banking system was also a major hit to the Syrian economy.
But really, this is a different discussion. Because whether one views the sanctions in a more positive or more negative light, support for them in the US is bipartisan; Trump versus Biden is irrelevant. Far from being “Trump sanctions,” these sanctions, driven by Syrian-American activists, simply took years to get through all the complex processes of US policy making. The act was introduced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016 with bipartisan support, and has had bipartisan support at every step through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The fact that it took until December 2019 for Caesar to be finally passed by both houses can in no sense be attributed to Trump.
With the Caesar sanctions now law, there is no point arguing whether Trump or Biden would be more likely to lift them; both are bound by the law. The law gives the president the power to lift some sanctions if the regime, for example, releases some prisoners, perhaps allowing differing interpretations of the law.
But there is no indication that Biden is likely to be lenient on Caesar. If anything, the re-election of Trump, with his transactional approach, disdain for human rights, ties to regional dictatorships that support Assad, love of Putin and far-right base, would arguably seem more likely to lead to a ‘realpolitik’-type deal leaving the regime intact if Iran is distanced, compared to Biden’s ‘liberal internationalist’ tendencies. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor, Anthony Blinken, stressed that the US would remain in northeast Syria to exert pressure on the regime, and re-engage in the Geneva process, which he accused Trump of leaving to Russia. He also stated that Biden would use re-engagement with Iran “to address broader regional issues, including Syria.”
A western government that actually cared about Syrian people would pursue a strategy focusing more on carrot than stick. Not “carrot” for Assad, but rather, pouring funds into helping people in regions outside regime control build democratic alternative structures, demonstrating to civilians under Assad’s rule that an alternative exists, and providing the means to protect themselves against aerial massacre. Yet it was Trump that ended the $230 million annual support to civil society in liberated areas, when there were a lot more liberated areas than now.
It is here that Biden perhaps offers the vaguest amount of light, where he promises to “recommit to standing with civil society and pro-democracy partners on the ground” in Syria. If this means a reversal of Trump’s policy, this would be a solid step forward, because only a resurgence of popular struggle offers any way forward in the grim situation.
Of course, neither Trump nor Biden offers much hope for Syrians. But the idea that a thug like Trump might offer just a little better on Syria, in contrast to virtually any other issue in the US or anywhere in the world, has no basis in reality.
How Erdogan handed northeast Syria to the Assad regime without it firing a shot
By Michael Karadjis
On October 6, the Turkish regime of Tayyip Erdogan launched its long-heralded invasion of northeast Syria, aiming to expel the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from a 30-kilometre border region, and then to dump some its 3.5 million Syrian refugees into territory from which the local population has been expelled. Erdogan’s deal with Russian president Putin consecrates a victory for both Erdogan and Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad, who will divide SDF-held territories between them.
Turkey and the Kurds
Turkey, along with Iran, Iraq and Syria, have long oppressed their Kurdish populations. In their resistance to Turkish oppression, the Kurdish people in southeast Turkey faced extraordinary state violence under the decades of military regimes, forcing them to take the path of armed struggle in the 1980s, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Over the next two decades, some 40,000 people were killed, overwhelmingly by the Turkish state’s brutal counterinsurgency war.
However, the PKK, like many just struggles in the context of state-terror, also often operated in a ruthless fashion, earning it the same “terrorist” label as the Syrian rebels, the Palestinian resistance, the Irish freedom fighters and others in the oppressor’s discourse. Yet while ultra-hypocritical when this label is used by defenders of Turkish state-terror, the crimes of the PKK (including silencing rival Kurdish organisations) did contribute to its alienation from much of the Turkish working class who are therefore more easily manipulated by state propaganda.
The main force in the SDF in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the PKK, and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Syrian Kurds were brutally oppressed under the Assad dictatorship and hundreds of thousands denied citizenship. Although Turkey’s claim that the YPG-SDF represents a “threat” to Turkey’s security is laughably false – the YPG has never fired a shot across the border previous to the current invasion – it is true in the sense that the Kurdish autonomy achieved by the SDF in northeastern Syria is a “threat” via the example it sets for the Kurds in Turkey.
Just one part of the Syrian massacre …
This brutal aerial and land attack on the Kurdish and Arab civilian population is simply one more theatre of terror within the genocidal massacre that has engulfed Syria for nearly 9 years, some 95 percent of which has been perpetrated by the fascistic dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, backed by his Russian imperialist masters who have joined Assad in raining death from the skies, and the death squads sent by the Iranian theocracy. Most of the remaining killing was carried out by ISIS and by the US bombing that helped the SDF drive ISIS from eastern Syria.
Indeed, the last 6 months of particularly brutal mass homicide and dispossession carried out by Assad and Russia in northwest Syria has been barely noticed by the international media; many seem to have only just noticed that Syrians are being bombed now.
Turkey’s aggression has driven at least 160,000 people from their homes, while Kurdish health authorities claim some 218 people have been killed as of mid-October. Although most media talk of the victims being Kurds, the region under SDF control is multi-ethnic, so the victims are Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others. The main theatre of the Turkish operation is the largely non-Kurdish region along the border between the mostly Arab city of Tal Abyad and the mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Rays al-Ayn/Serekanye. However, Turkish bombing has also targeted the SDF in heavily Kurdish cities like Kobani and Qamishli, killing and maiming dozens of civilians.
Serious war crimes have also been committed on the ground, more explicitly directed against Kurds. In its October 18 report, Amnesty International wrote that “Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians.” The slaughter of Hevrin Khalaf of the Kurdish Future Party, followed by the filming of the desecration of her body, and this field execution of a young Kurdish man, are two cases of absolutely shameful and sadistic crimes. Just who these gangs are will be dealt with below.
Against all selective solidarities
Since Turkey’s invasion, three main responses have been heard from the non-Assadist left and progressive world (not that supporters of Assadist fascism and its racist White Russian ally can be considered left or progressive, but unfortunately such confusion currently exists).
First, we have the voices rightly condemning Turkey’s invasion, but coming from people and organisations who have never, or rarely, condemned the slaughter carried out by Assad/Russia/Iran, or expressed any solidarity with its victims. This is sometimes connected to extreme romanticisation of the SDF (itself sometimes linked to mainstream western selective solidarity with Kurds as opposed to Arabs), combined with an extraordinary level of (often Islamophobic) demonisation of all Syrian rebel currents. When Syrian people called for a No-Fly-Zone to protect them from Assad’s genocidal bombing, they were denounced by many western leftists as tools of western imperialism; yet when the SDF got the full-scale support of the US airforce for 5 years, many of the same people remained quiet or even supported it, and condemn theUS for withdrawing; meanwhile, demonstrations condemning the Turkish invasion are calling for a No-Fly-Zone! This is highlighted by the complete silence of many over the last 6 months of the murderous aerial bombing of rebel-held Idlib by the Assad regime and Russia. Many Syrians who have watched the global left ignore their plight for 9 years find this nakedly selective solidarity unbearable.
Unfortunately, this leads to the mirror-image error among some Syrian oppositionists and their supporters: supporting the invasion. Part of this derives from Turkey’s past role as a strong supporter of the Syrian uprising (largely now abandoned since Erdogan became best mates with Putin around 2016), to Turkey being the recipient of 3.5 million refugees from Assad’s slaughterhouse (who Erdogan, now in alliance with his former opponents, the fascistic MHP, wants to dump back anywhere in Syria) and to the SDF’s own transgressions (which leads to wrongly demonising them as ‘Assadists’). But even if we were to grant all this without the provisos, what of basic solidarity with the civilian population fleeing in their tens of thousands? Has the Turkish regime, a historic oppressor of Kurds, come to “liberate” the Syrian Kurds from “SDF oppression”?
“The Turkish “Peace Spring” war is a continuation of the Assadi, Iranian, Russian, American and Israeli wars in Syria, and by no means a rupture with them. ِActually, it is a new spring of war and an additional tomb to the aspirations to a new viable Syria. The Syrian vassals of Turkey’s new war are in continuation of the Assadis and their protectors’ wars, not to the crushed revolution of Syrians. Not in our names, you scumbags!”
A global left and progressive movement is nothing if its solidarity cannot be consistent.
A little background
Arabs and Kurds in their tens of thousands joined mass rallies against Assad throughout northern Syria in 2011, but this solidarity came apart for a complex array of reasons that this article cannot do justice to. Political limitations of both the main Arab-led rebel and opposition groups, both secular-nationalist and Islamist and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership, and of the main Kurdish groups, especially the PYD-YPG, derailed this unity against the regime.
While the Syrian revolution liberated significant parts of Syria from the regime, the PYD-YPG launched its own ‘Rojava revolution’ in the main Kurdish centres of northern Syria, which Assad withdrew from in order to focus on crushing the bigger revolution. While the Rojava project has been both romanticised and demonised, in brief it combines a number of highly progressive aspects with blemishes and limitations – as did other theatres of the Syrian revolution. It is both an act of Kurdish autonomy and the expression, whatever its problems, of the Kurdish people’s part of the broader revolution. However, the PYD-YPG never saw it that way, and it stood aloof from the conflict between regime and rebels from the outset. These divisions ultimately opened both rebel and Kurdish leaderships up to increasing pressures by the various outside powers intervening in Syria with their own agendas, including Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and the Gulf states.
Turkey became one of the main backers of the FSA and the Syrian rebels, especially since Assad’s savagery drove 3.5 million refugees into Turkey; but this also allowed Turkey to pressure its rebel allies with its anti-Kurdish agenda. Meanwhile, when the US entered the war against ISIS in 2014, it chose the YPG as its ground partner, despite the Syrian rebels also being at war with ISIS; the US wanted them to fight ISIS only and not the Assad regime, whereas the rebels fought both. The SDF was formed by the YPG with a number of small Arab rebel groups who agreed to this US demand. This led to increasing conflict between Turkey and the US, and Turkey turned increasingly towards a diplomatic track with Russia and Iran, despite being on opposite sides within Syria.
Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from northeast Syria and betrayal of the US’s SDF allies in the face of Turkey’s threat to invade may have been partially aimed at patching up this US-Turkish rift, but as explained below, this move was at odds with the views of most of the US ruling class.
The deal: A Putin-sponsored partition of Rojava between Assad and Turkey
It was fairly clear from early in the conflict what was happening: the territory controlled by the SDF (the North Syria Federation, often called ‘Rojava’) was being divided between Turkey and the Assad regime; the master of ceremonies is Vladimir Putin, who is tightly allied to both Assad and Erdogan. But anyone not convinced only had to wait for the historic Russia-Turkey agreement which came out of the Putin-Erdogan meeting of October 22.
The partition looks like this:
Turkey gets to keep its troops in the largely Arab-populated border strip between the mainly Arab city of Tal Abyad, east to the smaller, mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn (Serekanye), to a depth of 30 kilometres.
Assad regime and Russian troops will control the rest of the northeast border, both to the west (Kobane, Manbij) and east (Qamishli, Hasake) of this Turkish-occupied section, clearing the SDF away from the border to a depth of 30 kilometres, already consecrated under the deal the SDF earlier made with the regime; thus the regime will control all the main Kurdish population centres, as well as the non-Kurdish Raqqa region further south.
Once the SDF is expelled, Turkish and Russian troops (representing the regime) will patrol a 10-kilometre deep zone along the northeast border, outside of the Turkish-controlled zone.
Both sides reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement, ie, the 1998 agreement between Turkey and Syria allowing Turkey to temporarily enter Syria when in pursuit of “terrorists.” Turkey thereby essentially recognises the Assad regime.
Just to make things clear, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov told the SDF that if it did not withdraw from the border region, Syrian borders guards and Russian military police would withdraw and leave the Kurds to be dealt with by Turkey. The Assad regime welcomed the agreement and blamed “separatists” for the crisis.
Now for the detail. While Turkish and allied militia war crimes have been directed against Kurds and the operation is anti-Kurdish in intent (and the pillaging and ethnic cleansing of Kurdish Afrin following Turkey’s 2018 invasion makes the current prospects clear enough for the Kurds), the region Turkey has conquered – and that it will be restricted to – is largely non-Kurdish, as these maps demonstrate:
The ease with which Turkey walked into Tal Abyad, with little resistance, may be simply explained by the SDF regrouping its forces, or to the SDF not having the base of support among the city’s Arab population that it claimed to have. Moreover, at least some of the “rebels” entering Tal Abyad with Turkey are from the Arab refugee population that was uprooted by the SDF during its conquest in 2015, who have been across the Turkish border in refugee camps ever since, unable to return.
There was much more resistance in Ras al-Ayn, given its larger Kurdish population; but the SDF has now evacuated it under the US-Turkish ‘ceasefire’ agreement signed five days before the far more significant Russia-Turkish agreement. Hence the only real confrontation – and the only significant SDF loss of ethnically Kurdish territory to Turkey – is this town bordering the two zones. Other than Ras al-Ayn, the SDF early made a full withdrawal from the Turkish-controlled segment.
According to the deal the SDF signed with the regime, “the SAA will be present in the entire region east and north of the Euphrates and in coordination with local military councils, while the area between Ras al Ayn and Tell Abyad stays as an unstable combat zone until it is liberated.” The Russia-Turkey agreement simply consecrated this.
Next door, the US told Erdogan Kobani is off limits, and Assadist forces entered the town (here we see US and Assadist forces passing each other along the road, in and out of Kobani). Assadist forces have also deployed south, in the Raqqa region; and in the heavily Kurdish region to the east of Ras al-Ayn (including Qamishle, Hasake etc), the regime will beef up its forces who have always remained present in two small bases.
The US-Turkish ‘ceasefire’ farce
What then of the earlier US-Turkish “ceasefire” deal signed by US Vice-President Pence and Erdogan on October 17? The text called for a “safe zone” to be “mostly” patrolled by Turkish troops, and the evacuation of the SDF from the border region. It appeared to hand Turkey everything it wants, and was rightly denounced as a sham and a betrayal, including by the leadership of the US Democratic Party and many Republicans. Even the “ceasefire” part was not respected by Turkey which has continued to bomb Ras al-Ayn.
The main betrayal was handing over Ras al-Ayn to Turkey while the SDF was still resisting. Beyond that, however, the statement omitted any definition of the length or depth of this “safe zone”. Though Pence stated his acceptance of Turkey’s definition of the zone as 30 kilometres deep, Turkey’s absurd claim for this to extend all 444 kilometres along the border, from Manbij to the Iraqi border, was rejected by the US. US Special Envoy, James Jeffrey defined the safe zone “as the areas where Turkey was now operating, down 30 km in a central part of Northeast Syria,” that is, the 100 kilometres (of largely non-Kurdish territory) between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. He said that beyond that, “the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast”.
In other words, the US-Turkish agreement simply affirmed the existing unofficial Putin-led, Erdogan-Assad partition of the region, accepted by the SDF, now official in the Russia-Turkey agreement. The part of the agreement about the SDF being removed from the entire border, not just the limited “safe zone” part, will be taken care of by the Assad regime entering the region. The Pence mission and statement therefore was nothing but a meaningless face-saver for the US after Trump’s bungle, allowing it to claw back a little credibility and pretend to look important where Putin controls all levers.
Erdogan: Go Assad!
Is this a defeat for Erdogan? It may look like he has led Turkey into a trap only to get crumbs. After all, the US and Turkey had theoretically already established a “safe zone” along the entire border east of Manbij to the Iraqi border, from which the SDF had begun withdrawing. The SDF had accepted a 5-kilometre zone along most of the border, and 9-14 kilometres between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Turkey invaded because it wasn’t satisfied with this. While the zone between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn will now be 30 kilometres deep, all the rest of the border goes to Assad, and while the zone within this where Turkish patrols are allowed extends from 5 to 10 kilometres, this is shared with Russia (representing Assad) rather than the US.
But really, does Turkey want to get bogged down fighting a guerrilla war in Kurdish population centres? Perhaps the aim was always for Assad to take the rest from the SDF.
Russia negotiated the SDF-Assad deal several days after Turkey’s invasion, allowing the regime to enter SDF territory to “defend its borders” against Turkey; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained that Russia’s goal is that “all Kurdish organizations in Syria are woven into the country’s legal framework and constitution, so that there are no illegal armed units in Syria,” and thus pose no threat to Turkey, whose legitimate interests securing its border Russia recognises. Putin’s greenlight to Erdogan – more explicit than Trump’s – had the understanding from the outset that this would force the SDF under Assad’s wing.
It is futile arguing about whether the SDF made the right decision. It is true that the PYD/YPG has always had an opportunistic policy towards the regime, abstained from the anti-Assad uprising, and were always prepared for deals with Assad, Russia or the US. Sometimes this was about survival (eg, the US aid as ISIS advanced on Kobane in 2014), in other cases lust for territorial conquest (eg its Russian airforce-backed conquest of the rebel-held northern Aleppo region in early 2016). Completely dependent on the US, facing a precipitous US withdrawal, some deal with the devil was mathematically inevitable once Turkey launched its brutal invasion. The SDF and Rojava will be crushed in the Erdogan/Assad vice.
Beyond the entry of Assadist troops, the real outcome remains a matter of interpretation, with SDF spokespeople suggesting they will still have full internal control. Assad can temporarily pose as the “softer” alternative for the Kurds, allowing some limited autonomy to remain temporarily, to facilitate entry into SDF territory without conflict while the situation elsewhere remains unstable for the regime. But when all is done, Assad will finish the job of crushing all autonomy, as the regime has long promised. Even while doing the deal, Assad regime officials lambasted the SDF as traitors to Syria, making clear what their prospects are.
Did Trump also green-light Assad?
It is no surprise that Trump immediately tweeted that the Russia-Turkey agreement was “good news”. It may be conspiratorial to suggest that Trump’s withdrawal was part of the Putin-led plan, given Trump’s tendency to make policy decisions over a phone-call. But remove the idea of subjective intention: Trump’s move is consistent with a not uncommon view that there are no fundamental US interests in Syria; supporting oppressive regimes rolling over the oppressed is consistent with US policy and interests in countless other places (eg Palestine); patching it up with a big NATO state is ultimately in US interests; and this move is consistent with Trump’s repeated view that it is Assad’s counterrevolution to deal with, that the US should support Assad and Putin “fighting ISIS” (sic) and so on.
According to SDF commander Mazloum Kobani, Trump also greenlighted the SDF-Assad deal: “We told (Trump) that we are contacting the Syrian regime and the Russians in order to protect our country and land. He said, ‘We are not against that. We support that.”
There is no mystery here – US imperialism never attempted to unseat Assad despite trenchant myths. The US entered Syria’s war to support the YPG/SDF as their ground force against ISIS. With ISIS largely defeated, US imperialism has no fundamental reason to continue keeping some Syrian territory outside Assad’s control. While Trump’s policy is not the current policy of the US ruling-class mainstream (though there are exceptions, and this article claims a number of “pro-Turkey” advisors have entered the White House), it is conceivably one consistent choice for US imperialism.
“ … while almost every analyst claimed this move was a sell-out of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Erdogan regime in Turkey … it was just as much, if not more, a green light for the Bashar Assad tyranny to take control of the SDF-controlled regions.
“However, some clarification may be in order: how can a US withdrawal favour Assad and Russia if the US presence in Syria was never opposed to them in the first place? Here we need to understand the US relationship with its ground ally, the SDF, which controls northeast Syria since driving out ISIS …
“ … the US and SDF [fought] ISIS in the east in a war completely separate to Assad’s counterrevolutionary war against the rebellion in western Syria. But while the SDF was not anti-Assad, nor was it pro-Assad; it was interested in building its own project, the ‘Rojava revolution’, separate to both Assad and the rebels. Therefore, the US was maintaining a region outside Assad’s direct control; but this was never the ultimate US aim, which was merely to use the SDF to defeat ISIS. Therefore, the current processes of the US abandoning the SDF to Assad, and the SDF itself trying to negotiate a deal with Assad, are essentially in harmony, but in these “negotiations” it is the regime, not the Rojava project, that will come out on top.”
They believe it is in US interests to hang on to the SDF statelet in eastern Syria for longer, whether purely as a buffer against Iran (the Bolton view), or as a medium for pressuring Assad regarding the political process (while the US has always excelled at supporting tyrants, most recognise that Assad’s military victories are incapable of re-establishing any real stability and therefore support the UN-led “constitutional” process to broaden the Assad regime), or because precipitous withdrawal is massively damaging to US imperial credibility and threatens to undo five years of US military-political success in the region. However, none of this is really about love of “the Kurds” or the Rojava project and there should be little doubt that betrayal would have arrived sometime later.
As this article goes to press, this fury with Trump’s decision may be leading to a new tactic in managing the crisis it caused. Trump is alleged to now be in favour of keeping some 200 troops in Syria near the Iraqi border to bomb ISIS, but also to, as Trump tweeted, “secure the oil,” ie, some SDF-controlled oil wealth. This has apparently swung Lindsay Graham, who explains that “I believe we’re on the verge of a joint venture between us and the Syrian Democratic Forces … to modernize the oil fields and make sure they get the revenue.” Others suggest that the oil idea is just a ploy for the Pentagon to sell to Trump their desire to remain to keep bombing ISIS.
Turkey’s plan to drive refugees into Syria
Yet while Turkey has unequivocally declared its acceptance of the Assad regime taking control of SDF territories, the deal will not entirely satisfy Erdogan’s other stated objective: to dump some 2 million refugees into the “safe zone”. Perhaps Turkey can send some of its refugee population into the 100-kilometre section it has been allotted, as well as the region it already controls between Jarablus and Azaz, as well as occupied Kurdish Afrin.
“This operation is coloured with racism and hateful speech, racism against the Kurdish Syrian civilians who are fleeing their cities because of the Turkish bombing now, and racism against the Syrians who are living in Turkey, and who are going to be deported to this territory after the operation is done according to the declarations from the Turkish side, so Turkey will get rid of over 1 or 2 million Syrians. Okay, what if I’m a Syrian from Homs and live in Istanbul? I’ll be deported to Hasakeh (after it’s been cleaned by the operation and destroyed).”
This campaign to dump Syrian refugees anywhere is driven just as much, if not more, by the Turkish opposition as by Erdogan’s AKP. In the 2011-2015 period when the AKP was welcoming these refugees from Assad’s terror (and also engaging in a limited ‘peace process’ with the Turkish Kurds and the PKK), the opposition in Turkey raised the banner of Turkish nationalism against both Syrian Arab refugees and talks with Kurds. Both the Kemalist CHP and the Turko-fascist MHP long demanded the Syrian refugees be deported. But since 2015 the AKP has been in coalition with the MHP; and now the MHP, the CHP, and the MHP’s equally far-right split, the IYI, all support this invasion, hoping to expel the Syrian refugees.
However, the blame cannot be laid solely at Turkey’s feet. The Syrian catastrophe is a global problem where the world has failed the Syrian people; yet Turkey has taken the lion’s share of refugees, and for this should be commended. Europe has been paying to keep the refugees in Turkey and out of Europe; while the US and other western countries have accepted markedly few refugees. Turkey’s method of dealing with this is appalling, but many Turks, Arabs and Kurds can be excused for seeing only hypocrisy in Europe and the US.
Who are the ‘Turkish-backed rebels’?
While on the topic of Erdogan dumping Syrian refugees into the northeast, the question arises of who the Syrian ‘rebel’ groups fighting under the banner of the Turkish-controlled ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) are. From the discourse of the apologists, these are simply rebel groups based among these refugees leading them back to their homeland. Others have them as simply the same rebel groups that fought Assad, now trying to liberate new territory; or alternatively, who are now proxified by Turkey due to weakness. The main depiction in media reports is of a bunch of crazed killers. The reality probably covers the entire spectrum.
Regarding the first idea, while many of these ‘rebels’ have been recruited from among dispossessed Syrians, including ex-rebels, overwhelmingly they are not returnees to the region being conquered. However, in some cases they are; as noted above, some of the “rebels” entering Tal Abyad are likely from the Arab refugee population that was uprooted by the SDF in 2015.
On the second depiction, it is true that, to some extent, the presence of former branches of the FSA or other rebel groups is the result of the defeats of the revolution and increasing dependence on outside “sponsors” with their own interests (the SDF’s reliance on US imperialism and now the Assad regime are similar in this sense). Some may feel they have no choice but to fight for Turkey in the hope that the latter will continue to keep some areas out of regime control in return, especially as the rest of the world has long ago dropped any pretence of support. In reality, the presence of fighters in the northeast rather than in Idlib will just make it easier for Assad to mop up there. Their presence is also partly explained by the divisions between the largely Arab rebels and the Kurdish fighters noted above, in which actions by the YPG have played their own role. For example, in early 2016, the SDF conquered the rebel-held, Arab majority region of Tal Rifaat and northern Aleppo with the aid of Russian terror bombing; some think it is now alright to ‘get back at them’ or ‘pay their debt’ to Turkey.
But whatever the causes of proxification, it is essential to distinguish the so-called ‘Turkish-led Free Syrian Army’ (TFSA, as the SNA is often dubbed) with the actual FSA. The legitimacy of the FSA was not in any particular ideology, still less purity, but rather the fact that it arose as the organic armed expression of the Syrian people’s uprising for freedom and democracy against the Assad dictatorship. Once divorced from that base among the revolutionary people, by defeat and/or dispossession and exile, these are just armed groups; whether or not they continue to advance a revolutionary cause depends entirely on context. The context here is their use by Turkey as shock troops for its anti-Kurdish goals, goals that have nothing to do with the original aims of the FSA.
Even if a group defending an Idlib town from Assad has the same name as a group invading northeast Syria, they have to be understood as different phenomena. Rebel brigades are local-based and defined; allegedly “national” groups do not operate like Leninist parties as some in the West may imagine.
On the third idea, being proxies does not make all the SNA fighters the sadistic killers that the media has highlighted. Nevertheless, the context of conquest does create the conditions for the savage crimes that have occurred and the more general tendency towards plunder, derived from their desperate and unhinged nature, the absence of connection to the region, the atmosphere of impunity and their complete dependence on Turkey.
In any case, even the actual names of the main groups involved in the Turkish-led invasion, especially those noted for the worst crimes, reveal they are far from being representative of the old FSA or rebel movement more generally.
For example, the group blamed for the worst crimes, Ahrar al-Sharqiyya, has its own history of violence against other rebel groups, and is a relatively new group, formed only in 2016 by exiled rebels from the Deir Ezzor region, who took part in Turkey’s 2016 Euphrates Shield operation to evict ISIS from the eastern Aleppo region. Therefore, it has no “FSA history” at all.
Another group is Jaysh al-Islam, which was a major non-FSA, Islamist rebel group in East Ghouta, expelled when Assad reconquered the region in 2018. Even when in East Ghouta, JaI regularly clashed with other rebels, was extremely oppressive, pathologically sectarian, and is widely suspected of the abduction and disappearance of the famous ‘Douma Four’ revolutionary activists. But if in East Ghouta it was still partially connected to the revolutionary masses resisting Assad (at least with respect to its foot soldiers, just local men joining whichever militia dominated their locality), once in exile in Turkish-controlled northern Syria, all that is left is the vile militia that revolutionary activists have already experienced.
A third major group is the Sultan Murad Brigade, which was originally simply a Turkmen branch of the FSA, but which has become heavily proxified by Turkey. Even if it hadn’t, the fact of Turkey sending an ethnic Turkmen brigade, based in the east Aleppo region, to invade Kurdish regions in northeast Syria, is symbolic of the nature of this operation.
A final point: pro-Assad chameleon Rania Khalek has claimed that “The US armed and funded extremists in Syria to overthrow the Syrian government and … those same extremists then attacked the Kurds on Turkey’s behalf.” This is nonsense at every level, but this is not the place to go into the extremely limited US support for heavily vetted rebels with stringent conditions (mostly to drop the fight against Assad and turn their guns only on ISIS), which dried up years ago, before being officially ended by Trump. I’ve written about it here and here. However, groups such as Ahrar al-Shaqiyya and Jaysh al-Islam never got a cent or a gun from the US, let alone any “extremists” which the US spent years bombing; in fact, the only US connection to Ahrar al-Shaqiyya was when it bombed them in 2016.
Meanwhile, who cares about Idlib …
Meanwhile, while global attention has been focused on Turkey’s brutality in the northeast, Assad and Putin continue to bomb, kill and dispossess the mostly Arab population of greater Idlib in the northwest, a campaign replete with systematic destruction of hospitals and schools, despite yet another Putin-Erdogan deal in September for a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib separating Assadist and rebel forces. Dozens were killed in Idlib during the ten days of Turkey’s operation, but their multi-year plight gathers no global interest.
More importantly, there is almost certainly a quid pro quo here – Putin greenlights Erdogan’s attack on the SDF in the northeast, Erdogan sends armed refugees and fighters not from that region in to plunder it, rather than arming fighters and sending military support to the ongoing local resistance to Assad in the northwest. If Erdogan really cared about the rebellion, he could have poured in the resources – including fighters – to prevent Assad’s recent seizure of Khan Sheikhoun, for example. As Assad is now announcing a new “battle for Idlib” while Turkey distracts itself and thousands of ex-rebels elsewhere, this region will likely get eaten up, unless Erdogan can negotiate with Putin for a small strip along the border as another “safe zone” to prevent more Syrian refugees fleeing into Turkey.
Resistance in Deir-Ezzor?
Where the Assad-SDF deal could come unstuck is among the million-strong Arab population living in the ‘North Syria Federation’, the official name of the SDF-controlled region. While the SDF’s official multi-ethnicity appears to have been successful in some areas, this has greatly varied across the region. The PYD and YPG still hold effective political and military control behind the scenes of the elected multi-ethnic local bodies, often leading to serious tensions, even if most of the Arab population saw SDF rule as infinitely better than that of ISIS or the Assad regime.
This uprising going on throughout Deir Ezzor and elsewhere, combined with ongoing demonstrations against the Assad regime, and sometimes against HTS, in the rebel-held northwest, and ongoing feats of resistance even in Daraa where Assad has re-asserted control, also indicate it is still premature to declare the Syrian revolution dead. While Yassin al-Haj Saleh claims that “the Syrian revolution has come to an end” he continues “but the Syrian Question has just begun” because “there is no other choice than to continue, to persist, but with different methods, other rhythms, basing ourselves on the lessons that the martyred and battered revolution has given us.”
This rising and ebbing of any such movement in Syria cannot be divorced from what happens in the region: the Syrian revolution was part of the Arab Spring revolution, and where this has been crushed, diverted or exhausted elsewhere in the region, it is no surprise that counterrevolution also has the upper hand in Syria. But even now, along with the mini-uprising in Deir Ezzor and ongoing resistance in Idlib, we have seen in recent weeks mass uprisings in Egypt and Iraq, and now in Lebanon, along with the uprisings in Algeria and Sudan earlier in the year. It’s not over.
Geopolitics and the politics of confusion
Finally, some points about the regional geopolitics of this event. While Marxist thinking aims for a materialist explanation of events based on real social forces, a kind of simpleton “leftism” has come to the fore in recent decades which sees itself as “anti-imperialist” and believes one can determine their view of events based on “who supports who.” So here’s a little outline for anyone who needs their fix.
Likewise, the enemies of the Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood regional bloc, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt all vigorously condemned Turkey’s invasion. Saudi Arabia declared it “a threat to regional peace and security,” the UAE called it “a flagrant and unacceptable aggression against the sovereignty of a brotherly Arab state”, Egypt called it “blatant aggression” and called for the UN Security Council to halt “any attempts to occupy Syrian territories or change the demographics in northern Syria.”
Hope this checklist helps those who prefer ‘geopolitics’ to analysis.
While tons of ink has rightly been spread denouncing Trump for betrayal, there is no reason to be surprised; imperialist and regional powers look after their interests. Even though the majority of the US ruling class is opposed to the timing and manner of Trump’s actions, this is hardly a first, either for US betrayal of the Kurds – which occurred also in 1975 and 1991 – or of other oppressed peoples, including the Syrian people as a whole whom it falsely pretended to support.
Far too much ink has been spilt claiming the US is hereby betraying its own “values”. In reality, it is a very rare case for the US (or any imperialist power) to be in the situation to be able to “betray” a rightful cause in the first place, because its normal position is on the other side. US imperialist “values” range from the decade-long genocide in Vietnam through the installation, arming and financing of the most vicious dictatorships across Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa for decades to being the most consistent supporter and armer of Israel’s ongoing oppression, occupation, impunity and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
This should not be read as a criticism of the Kurdish people when they did rely on US aid to protect themselves from ISIS genocide in Kobane, just as Turkey’s vile actions today should not condemn the Syrian people, being bombed and tortured into oblivion by the world’s worst tyranny, gaining vital support over the years from Turkey. That is the real world; you get a lifeline from where you can. But the fact of different parts of the Syrian popular masses ending up in opposing camps and killing each other while being manipulated by different sponsoring powers intervening in Syria with their own interests, or by the fascist regime, is the bigger question that will need to be dealt with as part of the post-mortem of the Syrian revolution.
A close examination of eight years of US policy in Syria shows Washington’s objective has never been regime change, but rather “a modified form of regime preservation,” writes Dr. Michael Karadjis in a comprehensive review of the record.
As the military conflict in Syria has been largely decided in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime, there have been a number of attempts to review the role of US intervention, or lack thereof, in the Syrian outcome. Late last year, Washington’s special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, clarified that while the US wants to see a regime in Damascus that is “fundamentally different,” it is nevertheless “not regime change” the US is seeking. “We’re not trying to get rid of Assad.” Much commentary jumped on this as some kind of major shift in US policy, or a signal the US had “given up” on regime change.
Yet, as will be shown below, the US never had a “regime change” policy. On the contrary, Washington has always sought a modified form of regime preservation. Jeffrey’s statement was followed by President Trump’s announcement of an immediate US withdrawal from Syria. While the “immediate” was later dropped for reasons of expediency, a more gradual US withdrawal is still on the cards; a process coinciding with a creeping rapprochement with Assad by Trump’s Gulf allies, spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain restoring diplomatic relations with Syria in late December 2018.
A meeting in Damascus?
According to an August 2018 report, American security and intelligence officials met Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk in Damascus in June the same year, as part of an “ongoing dialogue with members of the Assad regime” about completing the defeat of ISIS and the regime’s chemical weapons inventory.
Per the account given by the pro-Assad Al-Akhbar newspaper, the US officials demanded the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southern Syria, an issue already being negotiated between Israel and Russia as part of an agreement to facilitate the return of Assad’s forces to the UN armistice line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan, and their defeat of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Southern Front rebels. The Americans also reportedly asked for a role in the oil business in eastern Syria.
As Scott Lucas writes, following the regime’s reoccupation of formerly rebel-held Ghouta, the US “warned against an attack by the regime and its foreign allies on opposition areas of southern Syria. However, just before the June meeting, American officials told rebels that they could not count on any support, and the pro-Assad offensive—again enabled by Russia—seized the territory within weeks.”
While the report’s specifics cannot be verified—and no Al-Akhbar claim ought to be taken without due skepticism— they are consistent nonetheless with the American response to Assad’s reconquest of the south, and the fact that the entire US intervention in Syria has been against ISIS (and other jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS); that the only US concerns about the Assad regime have pertained to chemical weapons; and that the region US troops currently occupy—the northeast, in alliance with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) —is a region with abundant oil supplies.
Such a meeting would also be consistent with the orientation of the Trump administration. In the lead-up to his 2016 election, Trump asserted that the US should be on the same side as Russia and Assad in “fighting ISIS,” and said the US would cut off any meager “support” still going to the anti-Assad opposition.
Fulfilling this promise, in July 2017, Trump formally ended even the limited support the US had been providing to some FSA groups, which Trump described as “dangerous and wasteful.” As will be seen, this “support” had long ceased to have much meaning in any case. Trump’s government also ended a $200 million program funding civil initiatives in the opposition-controlled regions.
Obama and the “regime change” discourse
But that, of course, is Trump. In contrast, the Barack Obama administration is generally seen as a supporter of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, including the Syrian uprising against Assad. While it is generally recognized that the US later tempered its support due to its pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal, and its focus on fighting the Islamic State, the discourse that the US was supporting a “regime change” operation in Syria remains widely believed.
Even Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared in March 2017 that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”
Some of the allegations are quite wild. With reference to an unverified claim in the Washington Post that a “secret” CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad rebels was costing $1 billion a year, Patrick Higgins wrote in Jacobin in 2015 that, “in other words, the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed.”
The fact that later estimates of this “secret” CIA funding reduced this figure to $1 billion for the whole war indicates that such estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but in any case, we will discuss below what this funding actually meant.
In updated 2018 estimates, according to the testimony of former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, “the cost of US military operations in Syria between FY 2014 and the end of FY 2017 was between $3 and $4 billion;” figures which cover both the CIA program and the separate Pentagon program to fight ISIS.
Referring to these estimates, the pro-Assad writer Ben Norton described them as a “glimpse of the exorbitant sums of money the U.S. spent trying to topple the government in Damascus.” Indeed, Norton added the $7.7 billion in humanitarian aid that the US had provided Syria to these figures to claim the US had spent $12 billion on “regime change”!
Of course, as is widely known, 2014 was the year that a full US intervention began in Syria, albeit one that had nothing at all to do with “toppling Assad.” In September 2014, the US began its air war against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, while supporting as its ground force the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG was not and still is not in armed conflict with the Assad regime, meaning the US has been involved for the last four and a half years in a conflict in eastern Syria that has been almost entirely separate from the main conflict, which mostly takes place in western Syria, between the regime and the rebellion.
As this real US intervention—run and funded by the Pentagon—has involved 15,000 air strikes, equipping the YPG, some 2,000 US special forces, and a number of US military bases, all in the east, it is rather obvious that the overwhelming bulk of this $3-4 billion-worth of US military operations was spent on this side conflict, not on “toppling Assad.”
This can be seen further with the famous story of the “Balkan arms pipeline.” A title like “The Pentagon’s $2.2 Billion Soviet Arms Pipeline Flooding Syria” may give the impression the Pentagon was spending this money to arm “rebels” to overthrow Assad. Yet reading beyond the title, we see that “the defeat of Islamic State in Syria is reliant on a questionable supply-line, funneling unprecedented quantities of weapons and ammunition from Eastern Europe to some 30,000 anti-ISIS rebel fighters.” [Emphasis added.] The use of the term “rebel” is the confusing part; what is distinctive about the Pentagon’s programs, whether going to the YPG, or to former anti-Assad rebels, is that recipients of these arms must agree to fight ISIS only, and to drop their fight against Assad.
A more nuanced, if still internally contradictory, view was presented last year in the Boston Review by Aslı U. Bâli and Aziz Rana. Even while admitting that the Obama administration’s approach to military intervention “ultimately consisted of half-measures,” which was never any match for the regime’s vast quantities of advanced weaponry, they nevertheless claim in a separate article that “continuous U.S. intervention, rather than its absence, has played a key part in fueling the blood-letting,” indeed it “dramatically escalated the violence and exacerbated the harm to its civilian population.” They contrast these military “half-measures” with the idea of a negotiated settlement, the unlikely implication being that if the rebels had received no arms at all; if there had been zero military pressure on Assad; he would have been more amenable to a diplomatic solution.
Deep US ambivalence towards the Syrian uprising
The reality of US intervention in Syria, however, was always markedly different to what is portrayed in such discourse. From the outset, the Obama administration was deeply ambivalent, at best, about the Syrian rebellion.
Despite rhetoric about “democracy,” US governments have long been tightly aligned with absolute monarchies and dictatorships throughout the Middle East, and had no wish to see them overthrown. While it might be argued the US may have a different view of a dictatorship that was less tightly aligned with US interests, the success of a democratic uprising in any state would tend to encourage the same elsewhere, especially in the context of the Arab Spring.
In any case, the Assad regime was never the “anti-imperialist” firebrand that it was sometimes portrayed as; over the previous decade, it had been one of “the most common destinations” for US torture-“renditions” of Islamist suspects. Further back, the regime of Hafez al-Assad had sent Syrian troops to fight alongside the US against Iraq during the first Gulf War of 1991, and had intervened in Lebanon, with US and Saudi backing, in 1976 to crush the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist coalition in the civil war, leading to a Syrian-led massacre of Palestinians in the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp.
As for Assad’s so-called “resistance” to Israel’s illegal occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated, “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime; for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” Indeed, in the period preceding the uprising, the regime was engaged in US-brokered talks with Israel over the Golan. This process had gone so far that Assad was reportedly ready for direct talks with Israel, and Dennis Ross—an ultra-Zionist in the Obama administration if ever there was one—was convinced that “Syria is ready to move away from Iran and reduce relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, and work with the US in the fight against terrorism.”
Meanwhile, in the initial months of the uprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar all gave strong support to Assad. From the viewpoint of all the closest US allies in the region, there was no reason for the US government to wish for the overthrow of the regime.
Undeniably, however, the US was more tightly allied with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—one of the largest recipients of US military aid in the world—than with Assad in 2011. And yet, within a week of the onset of the Egyptian uprising on January 25, Obama was already calling on Mubarak to begin the transition to a new government “now,” and claiming to be “inspired” by the uprising, while Republican senator John McCain demanded that Mubarak immediately “step down.” Even Mubarak’s announcement on February 10 that he would hand power to his vice-president was scolded by Obama as insufficient to meet the demands of the people.
In contrast, it took until August 18 for Obama to make a similar call on Assad to “step aside;” that is, some five months after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising on March 15, by which time the regime had killed thousands of peaceful protestors in what a UN human rights mission declared “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Considering that the usual “evidence” presented for Obama’s alleged “regime change” policy is this call on Assad to step aside, the US must then have been particularly gung-ho about regime change against its ally Mubarak!
Two weeks after the outbreak of the uprising, when dozens had already been killed, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton asserted that Assad was a “reformer,” starkly contrasting the situation in Syria with that in Libya, where the US was already intervening against Muammar Gaddafi. In similar vein, Senator John Kerry—who dined with Assad in Damascus in 2009—said he had been “a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship” [with the Assad regime] “as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”
WikiLeaks files from the time (h/t Clay Clairborn) provide further evidence of this orientation. A March 31 Stratfor file assessed that “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United States did not even hesitate throwing their support behind Assad at the very beginning,” while an intelligence assessment written for Syrian official Fares Kallas claimed it was clear that “the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” noting the lack of calls for regime change or military intervention and the “relatively muted” criticism.
Another WikiLeaks email by Stratfor spook Bayless Parsley provides some analysis of this US response to Egypt and Syria:
“In Egypt, the U.S. could afford to abandon Mubarak and let the military keep running the show … the country was not going to descend into chaos if Mubarak were to be forced out by the deep state. In Syria … the sectarian nature of the country added to the fact that it’s not really isolated from its neighbors by large tracts of desert the way Egypt is makes the prospect of the Syrian regime collapsing much more dangerous than Mubarak being pushed out … not to mention Israel actually quite likes Bashar being in power.” [Emphasis added.]
A similar assessment was recently revealed in a US Marine Corps (USMC) draft strategy document from 2011, which appears to show that the main western interest in (later) supporting parts of the Syrian opposition was to counter Iranian influence, but they did not see “regime change” as a means to this end—they believed any attempt at “regime change” would have catastrophic consequences—arguing instead that the best outcome was for the “Alawite regime” to remain without Assad.
Why then did Obama begin calling on Assad to “step aside” in August? Despite thousands of killings, the uprising was only growing in strength and intensity, refugees were pouring across borders, and agitation throughout the region in solidarity with the largely Sunni-based uprising was encouraging more radical voices, especially from the Gulf, as the slaughter got more horrific. The US quest for stability by avoiding regime collapse had hit a dilemma: the actions of the regime itself were increasing instability inside Syria and throughout the region.
US governments generally have no special love for particular representatives of regimes they aim to keep in power, once they have become counter-productive. The classic case was the US-orchestrated coup against and assassination of South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963—a much more violent act than a mere call on Assad to step aside. Yet far from wanting to overthrow the South Vietnamese regime as a whole, the US spent the next twelve years waging one of history’s most terrible wars in its defense.
Thus a so-called “Yemeni solution” in Syria—named after the arrangement in Yemen whereby longtime dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh ceded power in 2011 to his deputy Abdrabbuh Hadi to preserve a cosmetically reformed regime—was spelled out in July 2012, when US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed that when Assad leaves, “the best way to preserve stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.” That’s quite a hope to have about the security forces of the Assad regime.
Far from “regime change,” then, the US government has all along pushed for a “political solution” to facilitate this regime preservation strategy, in partnership with Russia.
The Geneva I and II conferences in 2012 and 2014 outlined the parameters of the process: the formation of a “transitional governing body,” composed of “members of the present government and the opposition … formed on the basis of mutual consent,” tasked with organizing elections. Despite Rana and Bâli’s assertion that “US policy-makers opposed an inclusive diplomatic solution in favor of an ‘Assad must go’ approach,” the US was fully signed onto this Geneva process, which made no mention of Assad at all.
Likewise, the G8 communiqué of June 2013, while re-stating the Geneva parameters and again not mentioning Assad, added a call on both the regime and the rebels “to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to al-Qaeda and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism.”
Western governments believed that Assad himself, and his immediate entourage, would not be part of the transitional regime, because otherwise the opposition would not take part, there would be no “mutual consent;” likewise, the regime could decide which members of the opposition were unacceptable. However, the US did not use this to sabotage the process. On the contrary, the US put great pressure on the opposition to attend the January 2014 Geneva II conference, but around half of the Syrian insurgency’s representatives rejected this pressure and refused to attend merely due to Assad’s presence there to negotiate, never mind his presence in a hypothetical transitional government.
In any case, in the late Obama period, the US, closely cooperating with Russia in the diplomatic field, decided that even Assad himself could remain during the “transitional” period.
US: Assad step aside, but who are the rebels?
The US never intended to apply any serious military pressure to bring about even the limited objectives outlined above. Only a strengthened opposition could exert such pressure, but the rebels were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship and were no proxies; if strengthened enough they would push beyond the US-imposed limits.
It was one thing to decide the regime’s slaughter had become too destabilizing, but quite another to support the rebels. Despite the constant discourse about “US-backed rebels,” US leaders continually made clear what they thought of them.
In early 2012, Hillary Clinton stated that to arm the rebels would effectively be to support al-Qaeda, and even Hamas, which “is now supporting the opposition.” If “you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don’t see.” The Republican arch-neocon John Bolton warned of “an imminent risk of humanitarian disaster if Assad falls,” adding that “we must not permit terrorists like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah in next-door Lebanon, rogue states or a radical Syrian successor regime to acquire” Assad’s advanced weaponry.
On August 13, 2013, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said that the potential overthrow of Assad was the largest threat to US national security, and that Assad’s chemical weapons “are going to be up for grabs and up for sale” in the event of his ouster. Several days later, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that the Obama administration was opposed to “even limited” US military intervention in Syria as no side represented US interests.
Morell further elaborated, in a September interview, that any political transition must “keep the institutions of the state intact” because “it’s going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al-Qaeda,” but due to Assad’s intransigence and the ongoing war, “every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded.” Therefore, “enough support has to be provided to the opposition—to put enough pressure on Assad—to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don’t need to go to the negotiating table.”
In early 2014, looking at a variety of possible outcomes, the Rand Corporation think-tank concluded that “the collapse of the Syrian regime would be the worst of all possible outcomes from the point of view of US interests.” In early 2015, CIA Director John Brennan declared that the US does not want to see a chaotic collapse of the Syrian regime, as it has reason to worry about who might replace Assad, indeed the US needs Assad in power “for now” to help fight ISIS. Believing Russia saw things similarly, Brennan stated that “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.” Soon after, the New York Times ran an editorial which proclaimed that “Mr. Assad has become a necessary, if still unpalatable, potential ally in combating the Islamic State.”
Why then did the US eventually begin to provide arms to the opposition? Most observers recognize that US military aid was never of the quantity or quality necessary to enable the rebels to win, but, moreover, it was not even at a level sufficient to enhance tactical rebel victories on the ground, nor to create a permanent “balance” with the regime so that “no-one wins,” as is often claimed; even such limited objectives would have required a more consistent amount of better weaponry, given what the regime possessed militarily.
The reality is that the bare survival of the FSA was the purpose of US aid under Obama.
Western policy-makers understood that Assad could not completely crush the uprising, given the real divisions among the population and the regime’s sectarian exploitation of them. Therefore, if the FSA were destroyed, many among the dispossessed Sunni majority might gravitate to Sunni Islamist and jihadist forces.
Therefore, it was preferable that the ideologically heterogeneous FSA should survive, but be sufficiently weakened to facilitate the co-optation of moderate political leaderships as partners for the political solution. Backing the FSA was thus similar to backing the ideologically heterogeneous Fatah in Palestine; if weakened enough, a Syrian Mahmoud Abbas may emerge.
So, what kind of military aid did the US provide to the anti-Assad rebels?
Despite Bâli and Rana’s assertion that “beginning in late 2011, the Obama administration pursued a strategy of arming local proxies” to defeat Assad, the US in fact provided no arms to the rebels in the first two years of the war; most weaponry in the hands of the FSA was gained by capture or made in back-yards. As one (more honestly titled) article put it: “Syria’s ‘Western-Backed’ Rebels? Not in Weapons.”
Until late 2013, the US provided only non-lethal aid (which was regularly cut off), such as binoculars, radios, “ready-meals,” and tents.
By mid-2012, however, a flow of weapons from former Libyan rebels began to reach the Syrian opposition via Turkey, involving Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood networks. Later that year the US began its first significant intervention in Syria, positioning CIA agents on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to restrictthe quality, quantity, and destination of these arms.
While warplanes and helicopters had replaced tanks as the main tools of regime slaughter by mid-2012, both anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry were denied the rebels by this US embargo. For the most part, only relatively light weaponry was allowed through, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran. At times, the US blocked any and all weapons getting to the FSA from its regional allies.
The US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons remains in place to this day; given that Assad has been waging an air war since 2012, this is a fundamental aspect of US intervention. Even when FSA groups tried to buy portable anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) on the black market, “somehow, the Americans found out and our purchase was blocked.”
The CIA and Pentagon arms programs
Beginning in late 2013, however, the US did begin supplying some “vetted” anti-Assad rebel groups with light arms under the CIA’s “Timber Sycamore” program. As these were arms of the quality they already had via manufacture or capture, the US could attempt to contain and co-opt the uprising without any “danger” of strengthening it.
Importantly, this needs to be distinguished from the Pentagon’s program to arm and train some rebel groups to fight ISIS, beginning with a $500 million program in late 2014. The Pentagon’s number one condition for participation was that fighters give up the fight against Assad, and agree to fight ISIS only; that is, “rebels who don’t rebel.” This is the reason the US was only able to attract a few miniscule groups, such as the ill-fated “Division 30,” whose sum total of 54 troops were captured by Nusra as soon as they arrived in 2015. Therefore, the only significant force the Pentagon ended up working with was the Kurdish-led YPG, which already met the precondition of not fighting the Assad regime.
As we have seen above, claims that the CIA program cost billions of dollars are too inconsistent to be of much value; the program after all was secret. As we will see below, the ultimate aim of the program was not all that different to that of the Pentagon. For now, though, it is worth examining what this program actually meant on the ground.
In the first place, there was often a difference between what weaponry reached storehouses on the borders, and what was actually dispatched to the rebels. The fact that the aim was little more than ensuring bare survival is exemplified by reports of rebels being supplied 16 bullets a month. In the town of Ibdita in Idlib, rebel leader Abu Mar’iye complained “we are licking our plates. We beg for salt. It’s not enough. Even the weapons that arrive, it’s like a drop, just enough so the fighting continues, so we can kill each other but not win.”
A CIA training program accompanied the supply of light arms. While much has been made of the alleged training of several thousand rebels, what this was actually about has been little studied.
The first training began before the arms program. The Guardian reported in mid-2013 that “western training of Syrian rebels is under way in Jordan in an effort to strengthen secular elements in the opposition as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and to begin building security forces to maintain order in the event of Bashar al-Assad’s fall.” However, there had been no “green light” for the trainees to be sent into Syria, because their purpose was not to fight the regime. Rather, “they would be deployed if there were signs of a complete collapse of public services in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, which could trigger a million more Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan… The aim of sending western-trained rebels over the border would be to create a safe area for refugees on the Syrian side of the border, to prevent chaos and to provide a counterweight to al-Qaeda-linked extremists who have become a powerful force in the north.”
From late 2013, it was nonetheless alleged that trainees were being sent back to Syria; by 2015, there were claims that some 3-5,000 had undergone training. However, many rebels felt the main American interest in this was surveillance—of them. Abu Matar, a fighter with the FSA’s Harakat Hazm coalition, received such training in Qatar. Claiming he had already spent more than two years fighting, and so “didn’t learn anything new,” he asserted “they just wanted to see us.” “See what our thinking is,” added his comrade Abu Iskandaroon.
In a Frontline documentary about an unnamed rebel group that received three weeks of training in Qatar, the commander explained that “their American contacts had asked him to bring 80 to 90 members of his unit to Ankara” before being flown to Qatar. “Once in Ankara … they were interrogated for days about their political leanings and their unit’s fighting history.” After learning how to conduct ambushes and the like, the fighters explained that “they cannot win without anti-aircraft missiles against Assad[‘s] superior air war,” one adding that, “when I saw there was no training in anti-aircraft missiles, my morale was destroyed.”
The rise and fall of the TOW
The program took a more significant turn during 2014, when the US lifted its embargo on anti-tank weapons and some rebel groups began receiving US-made TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), mainly from pre-existing stocks held by Saudi Arabia. Officially, all foreign recipients of US arms require Washington’s approval before transferring them to third parties; this approval had been withheld until 2014.
Of course, to begin this two years after tanks had been superseded by aircraft as the main killer was doubly too late; nevertheless, ground warfare continued to play a crucial role, so this may be seen as a significant improvement in the quality of US-supplied weaponry.
Why was the embargo lifted? In fact, the same pattern applied as with small arms. By the time the first TOWs were sent, the rebels had already acquired a large range of ATGMs, which had already taken out 1,800 tanks by late 2013. Nearly all were Russian or East European made, which is to say that, for the most part, the rebels had captured them from the Syrian army.
So again: as the rebels were already acquiring them, opening an official supply allowed for influence for future co-optation and some US control of who gets what, while not qualitatively upping the supply of rebel weaponry. In fact, the TOW is reportedly less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels had captured from the regime.
The first reports of TOWs supplied to the FSA’s Harakat Hazm emerged in April 2014. Groups received only three or four at a time, which Hazm cadre reported were “no better than the Russian weapons” they captured from the regime; they had to apply for them for specific operations, and return the shells to make a claim for more, which may or may not be approved. The number of “vetted” groups receiving TOWs soon spread to nine, who received “a few dozen” between them, “resulting in a minimal effect on the battlefield.”
To understand this, we need to take a step back. In late 2012, rebel commanders met US intelligence officers to discuss receiving arms, but the US officers only wanted to discuss drone strikes on Nusra, and enlisting the rebels to join the attack. The FSA members said that unity against Assad’s more powerful forces was paramount at present, but the US officers replied, “We’d prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army” [later].
The FSA in fact fought many defensive battles against Nusra, but did not want to open a full front against it, as in the context this would lead to mutual destruction, and only the regime would gain. FSA Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaidi remarked that the US wanted to turn the FSA “into the Sahwa,”1 but “if they help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help.”
Referring to the Iraqi militants who fought off al-Qaeda in western Iraq with US support in the late 2000s.
In the event, the FSA needed no encouragement to fight ISIS, against whom it “declared war” in July 2013. In January 2014, Syrian rebels launched a nation-wide coordinated attack on ISIS, driving it permanently from the whole of western Syria, and temporarily from parts of the east.
At this point, however, the CIA program began imposing the same condition on arms recipients as the Pentagon: that the rebels fight ISIS only, and “suspend” their fight with the regime. It thus appears that the main difference is that the Pentagon programs began with this condition, thereby greatly limiting potential recruits, whereas the CIA program recruited larger, genuine anti-Assad groups, later using this support to push them in the same direction.
In a video depicting cadre from the al-Ghab Wolves Brigade (part of the large Idlib-based FSA coalition known as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, or SRF) training in the use of TOWs, a fighter reveals that Washington “only give[s] weapons to those who specifically fight ISIS. They are not giving us weapons to fight Assad, they give us weapons to fight ISIS.”
A former Hazm member explained: “By September 2014, the United States started to pressure us to leave the battlefield against Assad and to send all our forces to fight ISIS. We had no problem to go fight ISIS, but wouldn’t agree to stop fighting Assad. From then on, our relations with the Americans went from bad to worse and eventually they stopped backing us. When Jabhat al-Nusra attacked us, we had already lost all foreign support … because we dared to disobey the Americans.”
It is therefore little wonder that by refusing to be co-opted as proxies by US arms, these northern FSA groups were thrown to the wolves. When Nusra attacked the SRF and Hazm in late 2014, they were crippled by the burden of their former association with the US, which was now bombing Nusra, but with reduced means to resist: “we have a huge US flag on our backs, but not a gun in our hand,” reported one rebel leader as both FSA coalitions were forcibly disbanded.
Meanwhile, after the TOW program largely dried up in the north, the US and Saudis began increasing their support to the FSA’s Southern Front (SF) operating in Daraa and Qunaitra provinces in the south, through the Military Operations Center (MOC) in Jordan, including the supply of significant numbers of TOWs. For example, McClatchy claimed that while only “12 to 14 commanders” in the north were receiving military and non-lethal aid in 2014, “some 60 smaller groups are recipients in southern Syria.” A 2015 Washington Post article quoted US officials saying the CIA program intended “to bolster a coalition of militias known as the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army.”
This shift was seen as arising from US and Western preferences for the democratic, and highly secular, Southern Front, which was overwhelmingly dominant in the south compared to Islamist brigades. This increased support aided the SF in its string of victories in the south in early 2015.
Moscow’s military intervention, starting September 2015, did lead to a momentary reversal of this trend, when in response Saudi Arabia sent some 500 TOWs to Syria, which led to the famous “tank massacre.” The furious Saudis had promised a swift response to the Russian invasion, so it is likely they would have sent these TOWs regardless of US permission. Even if the US did give permission for a large supply in this instance, to remind Russia it was there, it was a one-off; the US and Russia rapidly negotiated “deconfliction zones” and intelligence sharing, and supplies of TOWs trickled off in late 2015 “and totally vanished in the first two weeks of 2016.”
The US-CIA attempt to co-opt the SF had similar aims to the program in the north. In early 2016, MOC officials told the SF to stop fighting the regime and to focus their efforts on the jihadists, both Nusra and ISIS, and were promised new weaponry if they did so. In May, the MOC warned it would cut cash flows until they started scoring victories over ISIS in the Yarmouk valley.
In March 2016, the SF took part in the US-Russia-facilitated nation-wide ceasefire. In reality, however, while the regime continued bombing at lower intensity, “maintaining the ceasefire” became the new rationale for holding back the SF from that point on.
As the distance between the FSA-controlled south and the “Damascus suburbs” is not great, the Southern Front could have pushed towards Damascus and linked up with the rebels in East Ghouta and South Damascus.
Instead, the US “red-line” against moving in that direction facilitated the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya, an iconic revolutionary town in the best democratic traditions of the original uprising. The 2017 “de-escalation zone” converted this US red-line into international policy, helping seal the fate of Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion in 2018. Finally, despite this enforced passivity, the SF itself was betrayed later that year in a global deal involving Assad, Russia, Israel, and the US.
And that was all before Trump. While ending the now-paltry assistance to anti-Assad rebels, Trump upped the Pentagon program. On the one hand, the bombing of ISIS reached terrible heights; yes, the US largely defeated ISIS in Syria (and Assad has the US to thank for that), but at the cost of the complete destruction of Raqqa, and the killing of some 2,000 civilians. The number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than in all of Obama’s eight years combined, including 472 killed by US airstrikes in Syria between May 23 and June 23 alone.
Yet, curiously, it is Trump’s two minor strikes on the Assad regime, rather than the enormously destructive war on ISIS, that are widely seen as “escalation,” even though both were explicitly in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons (the regime has been free to use every conceivable “conventional” weapon), neither caused any significant damage to Assad’s war machine, and neither resulted in any casualties.
When Assad took this to mean that even Sarin could be legitimized, the US struck Assad’s Shayrat airbase for the sake of its own “credibility.” As Trump had tipped off Putin, who likely tipped off Assad, the base would have been cleared of better aircraft, and suffered minimal damage.
In the follow-up, US leaders scrambled to emphasize the one-off nature of the hit; National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster clarified that the US had no concern that the base was being used again the very next day, as harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and that far from “regime change,” the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.”
Indeed, despite the harsh anti-Iran rhetoric of the Trump administration, it is notable that the decision to scrap the nuclear accord and impose harsh sanctions on Iran did not occur until mid-2018, that is, after Assad, with the aid of Iranian forces, had reconquered Deir Ezzor from ISIS, and East Ghouta and the entire south from the rebels. Notably, despite US bombing mainly supporting the SDF against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, US bombing also directed aided not only Assad’s forces but even Iran-led forces over many months in 2017.
Where to from here?
Bâli and Rana assess that the US must now “engage in both immediate and more long-term efforts to find an inclusive political settlement.” They don’t explain why the regime—the prime obstacle to any such an “inclusive” settlement—would agree to one without significant pressure; indeed their thesis claims there has already been too much pressure on Damascus. In any case, it is precisely such an “inclusive political settlement” that renewed US pressure is aimed at achieving.
It may seem ironic that, after all these years of essentially facilitating Assad’s victory, right up to the reconquest of the south in mid-2018, the US government soon after appeared to articulate an unusually firm-sounding policy on Assad’s future. In September, the aforementioned US special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, threatened harsh sanctions against the regime (and potentially even its backers in Iran and Russia) if it holds up the process of political transition, and re-stated the Western consensus that “there will be no reconstruction assistance … for the Syrian government absent irreversible progress in the UN-sponsored political process.”
The argument of this essay is not that US leaders loved Assad, whose actions have bred massive instability, but rather that they feared the “instability” of revolution more. With the revolution now largely crushed (or at least no longer posing any danger to the regime), Jeffrey’s tough-sounding approach may indicate that the US now considers it safe to resume the search for a transition to a less destabilizing version of the regime, carried out “from above.” However, with the military crushing of the opposition ensuring that it lacks bargaining power; with hundreds of revolutionary councils disbanded; thousands of civil leaders murdered in custody; a quarter of the population residing outside the country; and with Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish forces occupying substantial parts of the country, this will likely be a particularly conservative version of “inclusivity.”
Moreover, while the apparent toughness of the approach sounds novel, in reality this is well within the parameters discussed. Jeffrey’s threat concerns any attempt by Assad to block the formation of a “constitutional commission” to re-write the constitution before future elections; i.e., the process launched by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, at the Sochi conference in January 2018, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (a resolution endorsed by Russia and China in 2015). The regime is also officially on board and has already sent the UN its list of nominees, though of course it is also trying to stall the process. It is somewhat ironic that the US now offers muscle to help push through a Russian-led process; the key difference appears to be that the US is critical of delays in forming the committee, while Russia wants to give Damascus more time.
Compare this tactical difference to the view of the Syrian opposition, which has been only lukewarm, at best, on both the constitutional commission process and Resolution 2254. The former head of the of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, has noted that the acceptance of “the meager demand of a mere constitutional committee” is a major step down from the key long-term component of the Geneva process, namely “the demand for a transitional ruling body.” He described the obsession with the constitution as a priority of Western governments rather than the Syrian people. Essentially, the regime itself will be expected to ratify the new constitution after the lengthy process of its creation, and then organize “elections” under the new rules.
The Trump administration’s position is therefore only “tough” in the context of a policy that already represents a marked shift towards accommodating the regime, compared to the Obama era, when the idea of a transitional ruling body still held nominal sway. Indeed, later in 2018, Jeffrey’s own tone began to be modified markedly. In his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, he stressed that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behavior of the Syrian government … [but] this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.” When it comes to the change in “behavior,” Jeffrey’s overwhelming stress was on the removal of all “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which he assessed threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” This is very different to his attitude to Assad’s other main ally, Russia; Jeffrey states that “we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria” and called on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria to remove all Iranian-commanded forces from the country.”
This points to the obsessive anti-Iranian stance of the Trump administration: threatening talk from the likes of National Security Advisor John Bolton and State Secretary Mike Pompeo focuses heavily on the Iranian presence rather than the regime itself (indeed, as noted above, Bolton has always opposed removing Assad), highlighting geo-strategic rather than human rights motivations. This raises the possibility of another deal, such as that in the south. Commenting on Bolton’s assertion that the US will not pull its 2,000 troops out of Syria until Iran withdraws, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem and Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict recently told a congressional panel that while the US presence was limited to defeating ISIS, the troops in northeast Syria provide the “secondary benefit” of expanding US “leverage” in the Syrian outcome. As Spencer Ackerman writes, “their testimony in the context of Bolton’s comments suggested that at some point, the U.S. will seek to barter that territory to Assad in exchange for some form of Iranian withdrawal.” Such a deal may serve as part of an anti-Iranian war drive that has little to do with Syria and serves alternative interests.
Still, it would be one-sided to focus solely on these cynical motivations of the most rabid war-loving leaders in the Trump regime. Around the same time as the above was going on, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared the way for the “Caesar” sanctions to hold Assad accountable for his war crimes and impede his ability to use funds from elsewhere to continue his oppression, though the bill still needs to get through the Senate and the president.
Credit for this bill—named after the alias of the Syrian regime defector who leaked tens of thousands of photos of detainees tortured and mass-murdered in Assad’s gulag—must ultimately go to the years of democratic activism by Syrians and their supporters pressuring Western governments to take the same kinds of actions that activists have previously pushed for against Western-backed tyrannical regimes, from the likes of Pinochet and Suharto to Israel’s bloody occupation. As such, the bill is entirely supportable.
A regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed countless cities and towns across the country through years of attacks with barrel bombs, cluster munitions, napalm, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons, uprooting over half its population, including 6.5 million refugees residing outside the country, should not be legitimized with funds to allegedly “reconstruct” what it has destroyed. Apart from the fact that a regime so completely corrupt and dysfunctional to its core would fleece a great proportion of any such funding for its cronies, the record of “reconstruction” to date has included erecting monuments to itself and building new luxury cities on the ruins of former working-class shanties the residents of which have been dispossessed.
Instead, humanitarian aid should be the focus. Full humanitarian access to all of Syria must be demanded, and funding to democratic councils and civil society in the northwest should be restored and bolstered, while the two main regions outside regime control—the rebel-controlled northwest and Kurdish-controlled northeast—should be protected. At present they remain free due to the somewhat conflicting interests of Turkey in the northwest and the US in the northeast, but this leaves them at the mercy of these powers’ interests should deals be done. The principle of the right of self-defense of civilian populations—especially against air power—should be enshrined, and all necessary means to enable this delivered to popular democratic forces in these regions.
Dr. Michael Karadjis teaches Social Sciences and International Development at Western Sydney University. His involvement in political activity began when he marched against the Vietnam War as a young high school student. In recent times he has been involved in a number of solidarity campaigns, including the Palestine Human Rights Campaign; Syria Solidarity Australia; and Agent Orange Justice. He blogs on Syria at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis.
Sudanese tyrant Bashir becomes first Arab leader to visit Assad …
… as his own regime is confronted by its own Arab Spring uprising
By Michael Karadjis
In the days since Donald Trump’s announcement that the US was to rapidly withdraw its 2000 troops from Syria, an enormous amount of speculation about what this means has taken place. In my initial piece, I expressed a number of views that are not widely shared.
First, I gave more credit to Trump having a valid position, from the point of view of US imperialism, than what was generally conceded. Overwhelmingly Trump’s move has been viewed as a pure personal whim, which is allegedly in conflict with what all other US ruling class circles prefer to happen.
Secondly, while almost every analyst claimed this move was a sell-out of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Erdogan regime in Turkey, I stressed that it was just as much, if not more, a green light for the Bashar Assad tyranny to take control of the SDF-controlled regions.
With masses of contradictory information, it has been difficult to make coherent sense of the developments; none of us are seers. In this follow-up piece, I hope to shed more light on what I think is occurring.
Did Trump’s move contradict US ruling class interests?
On the first question, it is of course true that Trump acts on whim, and has a tendency to speak jibberish, which might well suggest that his orders came from a place of complete ignorance and be at variance with US ruling class interests. However, the idea that momentous decisions are made entirely by one guy with quasi-dictatorial powers is problematic. I will argue here that, Trump’s idiosyncrasies aside, the decision to withdraw, and the consequences thereof, are entirely within the bounds of US ruling class interests, so whether or not it was entirely accidental is not so material.
As Steven Simon, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations, puts it succinctly, Trump’s “impulsive and uncoordinated move” nevertheless “coincided with strategic imperative, even if the president himself was unaware of it.”
Of course, one could argue that a 24-hour withdrawal would indeed be destabilising, but it was naïve to believe that an order to withdraw would automatically mean that all US forces, weaponry, bases, aircraft and intelligence are gone the next day, whatever a tweet may say. Between Trump’s impulsive statements and the realities and complexities of actually withdrawing, there was plenty of wiggle room for Trump’s “immediate” withdrawal to turn into a four-month timetable, involving negotiation between Trump and other ruling class figures, such as Senator Lindsay Graham.
Graham got Trump to agree that complete withdrawal should only take place once ISIS is totally defeated in Syria, which has always been Trump’s own condition (though Trump is basically correct that the US and SDF have driven it from 99 percent of the country), and that “our Kurdish allies are protected.” Similar statements were then made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Meanwhile, the US military is reportedly establishing new military bases just across the Syrian border in Iraq, from where it can continue to bomb the last tiny piece of ISIS remaining. Despite alarmist forecasts that Trump was even selling out to ISIS, “between December 16 and December 29, US-led coalition military forces conducted 469 air and artillery strikes targeting ISIS in Syria.” The last major towns occupied by ISIS, Hajin and Kashmah, were captured by the SDF on December 25 and January 2 respectively.
Of course, none of the statements extending the withdrawal said anything whatsoever about pressure on the Assad regime. That has simply never had anything to do with the US presence, one way or another.
‘Withdrawal’ a green light to Assad, not Erdogan
On the second question, I am now even more convinced of the correctness of my initial view, that the ‘green light’ is mainly aimed at the Assad regime, and its Russian backers, rather than Erdogan, as I will explain in detail below.
However, some clarification may be in order: how can a US withdrawal favour Assad and Russia if the US presence in Syria was never opposed to them in the first place? Here we need to understand the US relationship with its ground ally, the SDF, which controls northeast Syria since driving out ISIS. The key basis of the US choice of the SDF, rather than Syrian rebels, as its ally against ISIS was that the SDF does not fight the Assad regime; and dropping the fight against Assad was the key demand the US had put on FSA units if they were to be armed against ISIS, a condition the FSA, while actively fighting ISIS itself, refused to accept.
This meant the US and SDF could fight ISIS in the east in a war completely separate to Assad’s counterrevolutionary war against the rebellion in western Syria. But while the SDF was not anti-Assad, nor was it pro-Assad; rather, it was interested in building its own project, the ‘Rojava revolution’, in its own space, separate to both Assad and the rebels. Therefore, the US was maintaining a region outside Assad’s direct control; but it is important to understand that this was never the ultimate US aim; the US aim was merely to use the SDF to defeat ISIS. Therefore, the current processes of the US abandoning the SDF to Assad, and the SDF itself trying to negotiate a deal with Assad, are essentially in perfect harmony, but in these “negotiations” it is the regime, not the Rojava project, that will eventually come out on top.
Israel, Gulf states, welcome back the Assad regime
According to a recent article entitled ‘We had an opportunity to assassinate Assad, top Israeli official reveals’:
“…prolonged conflict in Syria saw Israel often hold negotiations with the regime in Damascus in order to reach an agreement in Syria. … the (Israeli) Diplomatic-Security Cabinet held extensive discussions on the situation in Syria and decided that Israel would not allow an Iranian military presence there. Since then, Israel has invested considerable efforts in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from establishing themselves in Syria, while making sure it [Israel] inflicts minimal damage to the Damascus regime.”
Returning to the ‘assassination’ article, the senior Israeli official “refused to comment on the decision by some Arab states, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, to reopen their embassies in Damascus, saying only that the rapprochement between Arab states and Syria was “less dangerous for Israel because these Arab states also want to see Iran out of Syria.”
Therefore, while Trump’s “withdrawal” may have been a mere personal whim, it happens that it is fully aligned with this trend, with the strategy of these states which have been strongly allied with Trump since the onset of his presidency. Not coincidentally, all these states – UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain – also have close ties with Putin’s Russia, and first three welcomed the Russian invasion of Syria in 2015, as did Israel of course.
In retrospect, the well-publicised semi-secret meetings that took place before and since Trump’s election, between Trump and Putin personnel and involving the UAE, the UAE-backed Palestinian thug Dahlan, Israeli officials and even Blackwater folk had a clear logic: push back the oversized Iranian influence by moving to bolster the Assad regime’s counterrevolutionary “stability” so that it is no longer in need of so much Iranian rabble to do its fighting for it. According to David Hearst writing in Middle East Eye, a more recent meeting between intelligence officials of Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia “hatched a plan to welcome Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League to marginalise the regional influence of Turkey and Iran.”
Or, perhaps, this is not so clear after all; because maybe it is the reverse: use the rhetoric of pushing back the Iranian “threat” (really, as if the Iranian contra gangs were ever a threat to anyone but the Syrian people) to justify their main aim anyway, ie, bolstering Assad’s victorious counterrevolution, putting the final nails – or what they hope to be final – in the coffin of the Arab Spring, which Assad, Sisi, the UAE, the Saudis, Netanyahu, Trump, Putin and the Ayatollahs are all united in hating with a passion.
This is even more significant now with Assad’s need for “reconstruction” funding, which neither Russia nor Iran will be able to provide enough of, while western countries are (currently) sticking to the line that the Geneva process of political settlement needs to get off the ground first. The move by the Gulf is a signal to Damascus, push Iran aside somewhat, we’re here to provide the funds you need. A recent high-level visit by one of the UAE’s largest real estate companies to meet Syrian partners in Damascus underlines this dynamic.
The wild card is the big state behind UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait: Saudi Arabia. Gang-land leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is strongly aligned with his UAE counterpart and the Sisi dictatorship, and cares nothing about either the Syrian or the Palestinian people; these more forward moving states almost certainly have Saudi backing, and there have been hints coming out of Riyadh that it is also willing to accept Assad without Iran, with MBS stating that “Bashar is staying … I believe that Bashar’s interests are not to let the Iranians do whatever they want they want to do.”
However, Riyadh is more tempered about this due to its special position as religious head of the Sunni world, and the fact that it has more at stake in its regional rivalry with Iran than its underlings do. The UAE for example has a raging economic relationship with Iran, and only uses the ‘push Iran aside’ rationale to butter up its Saudi allies; and there are no Shia in Egypt for Sisi to care anything about Iranian influence. But there is little doubt that MBS is behind the scenes part of the picture.
“Analysis” that may have been useful about half a century ago
Much binary, mechanical “geopolitics” in recent years imagined the moves by some of the Gulf states to mend ties with Israel as representing a “US-backed axis” as opposed to a “Russian-backed” Iran and Assad etc. Imagine, this even passes for “analysis” in some quarters. Take a breath, dear Manicheans: exactly the same Gulf states and their regional allies that are carrying out rapprochement with Israel are carrying out rapprochement with Assad. The closest to both Israel and Assad is al-Sisi’s Egypt; the race to the finish-line states in both cases include the UAE and Bahrain; the more cautious behind-the-scenes power is Saudi Arabia, again in both cases.
This even includes the less expected: Sudan’s reactionary ‘Islamist’ regime that just visited Assad, and that fights for the Saudis in Yemen, has also been moving towards normalisation with Israel; three delegations from the pro-Assad Iraqi regime recently visited Israel; while the strongly pro-Iran and pro-Assad Sultan Qaboos of Oman recently hosted a state visit from Netanyahu.
It is something of a pity that countless left analysts, alongside much of the mainstream media, continue to write things that suggest they are living about 50 years in the past, even now, 30 years into the post-Cold War world. It is mind-boggling how such “analysis” imagines it can deal with such elephants in the room as the raging Israeli-Russian relationship (especially Putin-Netanyahu), not only over Syria but also Crimea etc; the raging Egypt-Russia relationship (discussion about Russia building a nuclear plant for Egypt); the UAE concluding a declaration of “strategic partnership” with Russia; the growing Saudi ties with Russia, especially over oil politics; and the US-Iranian joint-venture regime in Iraq, a key Assad ally. Really, why should Trump’s alliance with Putin seem odd?
Forget absurd Cold War fantasies; what we’re dealing with here are not even clashes of “rival empires.” As always, imperial rivalries do explain some of what is going on, of course. But even this is essentially a sideshow compared to the principle dynamic, the alliance of counterrevolutionary powers, for counterrevolution, the burial of the Syrian revolution symbolising the burial of the Arab Spring.
Where does Iran fit in?
One problem with this analysis, however, is that both Turkey and Iran are also counterrevolutionary powers, yet both are seen as enemies by these Saudi-aligned states, and by Israel. Let’s take them one at a time.
If Iran is to be pushed aside – regardless of whether one believes this is due to it being a genuine “danger” to these states, or merely as an excuse to bolster Assad – then certainly, it is the fall guy.
However, on the one hand, Iran has overreached anyway; what has caused the heightened rhetoric of Iranian “threat” in Israeli and Saudi discourse is quite simply that a large regional rival, which uses a particular rhetorical flourish, however toothless, that targets these regimes, has become too big for its boots; pushing it back will therefore be their “victory.” But it will be impossible for Iran to dominate Syria anyway, let alone afford the costs of reconstruction; it will have to be satisfied with some presence, and some reconstruction contracts, whatever its Russian rival doesn’t edge it out of. Iran is much more heavily invested in neighbouring Iraq, yet even there Iran is unable to exercise economic domination.
On the other hand, we have continually heard warnings that Iran will not leave “completely,” and so the Gulf states and Israel are kidding themselves by relying on Assad. This however reveals some fundamental misunderstandings. As stated above, Iran is just another counterrevolutionary state; it is a threat to no-one except the Syrian people who it has helped brutalise on behalf of the Assad’s genocide regime. Iran’s rivals do not need all Iranian forces, companies and influence to leave Syria “completely,” as if Iran were some kind of unique virus; “victory” in such “wars” of position is gained via the clipping of wings; victory is symbolic, about prestige, about appearance.
According to David Hearst, the Israeli, Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi intelligence chiefs at the alleged ‘welcome back Assad’ meeting discussed above, “did not expect Bashar to break relations with Iran, but they wanted Bashar to use the Iranians rather than be used by them.”
Israel has reacted to Trump’s withdrawal threat by announcing it will step up its bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, tolerated as always by the Russian air defences in Syria. The idea of an “Iranian threat” takes on its most laughable version when it comes to Israel; the nuclear-armed First World state has hit hundreds of Iranian-backed targets in Syria (while being careful always to not weaken Assad in the process), while the far weaker Iranian regime has almost never even returned fire, let alone initiated it, yet Iran “threatens” Israel? Extraordinary imagination. Iran doesn’t even threaten the illegal Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan (which is often now referred to as “Israel” in much commentary), let alone Israel.
Israel hits Iranian targets because the biggest bully on the block doesn’t like the affront to its power of a bunch of unruly militias running around its “backyard” shouting empty “death to Israel” slogans, not because these, relatively speaking, street thugs are actually a threat to the regional crime boss.
A gift to Erdogan?
Meanwhile, states such as the UAE, Egypt and Jordan are far more invested in confronting Turkish influence than in confronting Iran (and the Saudis are equally interested in confronting both). These states view the Sunni-populist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – connected to Qatar, Turkey and Hamas – as their key enemy, rather than Iran. Notably, the intelligence officials at the alleged ‘welcome back Assad’ meeting “considered Turkey, rather than Iran, to be their major military rival in the region … the Israelis told the meeting that Iran could be contained militarily, but that Turkey had a far greater capability.” There is some logic in this. Iran’s rhetoric is loud in proportion to its hollowness; as an outsider to the Arab world, its only real influence has been gained on sectarian grounds, among the Shia populations of Iraq and Lebanon. The only place Iranian influence was ever a danger was among the Shia majority that rose up against the minority Bahraini monarchy at the onset of the Arab Spring, swiftly crushed by the Saudis. By contrast, by playing the populist card via the Muslim Brotherhood, especially throughout the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar were engaged in what these other conservative states consider a dangerous game among the Sunni masses of Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and the Gulf.
For his part, Trump has been strongly associated with the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis, while the US alliance with the YPG-SDF in Syria placed it in conflict with their Turkish opponent. The Saudi pledge to provide $100 million to the SDF-ruled, US-occupied zone of northeast Syria several months ago was considered an affront by Turkey.
Yet Trump’s sudden announcement of withdrawal has been widely seen as a pro-Turkey move, enabling Erdogan to attack the Kurds. This interpretation is understandable; it was preceded by Turkey’s decision to buy US patriot missiles, widely believed to have sealed the deal.
Of course, this does not have to be a contradiction; after all, Putin’s Russia has been coddling both Erdogan and MBS-Sisi, and Iran and Israel, at the same time. Larger imperialist powers are quite capable of playing with both or all sides among regional rivals.
Turkey, an outlier from the counterrevolutionary dynamic?
Moreover, despite the rivalry between the Saudi-led and Turkey-led blocs, Putin’s coddling of Erdogan highlights the fact that Turkey’s own direction regarding Syria is not that different.
It is true that Turkey is still supporting the Syrian opposition’s control of much of northwest Syria, and therefore may be seen as an outlier in the regional counterrevolutionary dynamic. And certainly Turkey’s pro-rebel position appears positive in comparison to the UAE’s role in cynically encouraging the rapid surrender of the FSA Southern Front to Assad. While Turkey’s aim there is hardly to encourage revolution, nevertheless it wants to avert a brutal Assadist conquest that would send hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees into Turkey, which already accommodates 3.7 million refugees.
But Turkey’s current main use for many of its weakened and dependent rebel allies is to use them as cannon fodder for its threat to drive the YPG-SDF out of northeastern Syria, as many were earlier used in the plunder and “cleansing” of Afrin. From Putin’s point of view, as long as the rebels are held back from any active front against Assad, Turkey is effectively doing much the same as the Gulf; and by setting the rebels and the YPG-SDF against each other – a dynamic which the YPG has also been guilty of feeding – both can be weakened against Assad in the long run.
Indeed, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent oxymoronic statement that Turkey can “work with Assad” if he wins a “democratic election” represents Turkey’s own overture to the regime; and in any case, its close ally Qatar is following the same path of accommodation with Assad as its Gulf rivals, while the MB-ruling party in Tunisia is now in discussions with the Sisi regime – ie, the regime that slaughtered thousands of MB supporters in streets and outside mosques – about inviting the Assad regime to the Arab League summit in Tunis in March.
Or a green light to Assad?
But while these moves parallel those from the Saudi-led coalition, this does not reduce their rivalry, and thus would hardly placate Turkey’s regional rivals if Trump’s move really were primarily a gift to Erdogan. And here we return to where we started; the idea that Trump’s withdrawal is mostly a gift to Erdogan, rather than to Assad, is seriously misplaced. Being a green light to Assad, rather than primarily to Erdogan, puts Trump’s move more clearly in line with the new moves from the Gulf and Trump’s traditional allies.
As Trump’s announcement was followed by Turkey’s threats to enter northern Syria and expel the YPG from the Arab-majority city of Manbij (the only SDF possession to the west of the Euphrates river), the SDF, feeling vulnerable to abandonment by the US, called in the Assad regime to try to thwart Turkish intervention. The regime then sent troops to nearby Arima to block a possible Turkish offensive against SDF-held Manbij.
To this, Erdogan’s reaction was most interesting. Basically, Erdogan indicated that he has no real problem with Assad taking over Manbij, as long as it means the YPG are gone! And the regime claimed that the YPG had left Manbij upon their entry into the region, though the YPG itself claims to have left the city in 2016, leaving behind only Arab members of the SDF.
This suggests is that both the Turkish-backed rebels and the SDF were being played; Trump’s withdrawal threat merely strengthened Assad’s hand in the region vis a vis the SDF, and the great rebel-backer Erdogan is OK with that!
The SDF holds a vast area of northeast and central-east Syria; it is not as if Turkey was ever likely to invade as far south into Syria as Raqqa, let alone Deir Ezzor! Turkey would face massive difficulties trying to occupy such a large region, confronting widespread resistance; it is not like isolated Afrin. The focus on this move being a green light to Erdogan only, rather than above all to Assad, is therefore misplaced. And this development in Manbij suggests that even in the northern border region where one might expect a withdrawal to favour Erdogan, it looks more like a stunt to browbeat the SDF – never particularly anti-Assad in the first place – into caving in further to Assad.
Possibly some small-scale Turkish operation may still take place in some part of the northeast close to the border, so that Erdogan’s rhetoric does not appear too hollow, but even this could only occur if coordinated with Moscow, which also happens to be coordinating with both Assad and the SDF. This is because, as with both other Turkish operations in northern Syria, it will be essential to acquire Russian permission to use Syrian air space (assuming, that is, that US forces do actually leave). This will give Russia to ultimate control over the extent of such an operation.
Another clue to this general orientation is the discussion over many months, since Trump first raised the issue of withdrawal almost a year ago, of Arab troops from the Gulf replacing US troops in eastern Syria. At that time, the Assad regime reacted with hostility. In the context of the current Gulf recognition of Assad, however, this idea takes on a new meaning, especially as the discussion allegedly involves pro-Assad Egyptian and Emirati troops alongside Saudi troops. This is even more significant considering these states’ hostility to Erdogan’s Turkey, giving the notion of US “withdrawal” a whole new dynamic. There is also discussion of an upgraded role for the Saudi/Egyptian-backed Elite Forces in the largely Arab-populated Deir Ezzor province, led by SDF ally Sheikh Ahmed al-Jarba.
Of course, US calls to protect its Kurdish-led allies, and the continued delivery of arms to the SDF, potentially pose a problem for Assad as well as Erdogan. Currently, however, Assad’s strategy is not to openly attack the SDF – a massive operation which the regime does not likely have the capacity for at present – but rather use the atmosphere of the Turkish threat and US withdrawal to “negotiate” with the SDF from a position of strength. With Assad-SDF negotiations likely to be overseen by Russia, which wants Assad to recover control of all of Syria, the flavour of such negotiations is obvious.
And this is also the SDF strategy; and in case anyone might think this was due to having few options at the present juncture, some SDF leaders have sought to clarify that they aim for deal with Assad regardless of US moves. Essentially, the US, its Gulf allies and the SDF leadership are on the same wavelength when it comes to the Assad regime, preferring a ‘soft reintegration’ of the northeast into the Assadist state. SDF spokesperson Jia Kurd explained that the main enemies that a joint Assad-SDF state needed to defeat were Turkey and the remaining rebel-held northwest: “This [agreement with Assad] will give a big push towards ending the occupation and terrorism in Syria” (the PYD leaders of the SDF generally refer to anti-Assad rebels collectively as “terrorists,” and rarely list the regime as an enemy).
Of course, at this stage the SDF hopes to maintain some degree of autonomy for its Rojava statelet, and that this policy will save them the fate that they offer to the rebel-held northwest. However, Assad’s bargain will be for significantly reduced autonomy now, and then once his state is more secure and ‘normalised’ and the opposition in the northwest crushed, he will turn and crush Rojava and any hint of autonomy as well, as he has always promised to.
But surely, this is conspiratorial – why would the US want to hand back Syrian territory to the Assad regime? To ask such a question reveals fundamental misunderstandings about US policy in Syria. Why wouldn’t Trump want Assad to reconquer Syrian territory, is a better question; at times, the US has directly helped Assad do so. The mistake was to assume that the US presence in northeast Syria, aiding the SDF, had any purpose other than that endlessly stated by all US leaders – to defeat ISIS. “That’s it,” as Trump has continually said. While of course the US presence never had anything to do with putting pressure on Assad, and still less helping the rebels, nor was it ever aimed at helping the SDF build its own alternative.
Returning to former Obama advisor Steven Simon, he explains what he believes the US needs to do to enhance its interests at present:
“ … persuade the Kurds to get rid of non-Syrian operatives, while shrinking their military capacity, and accept that they are not going to get the same deal that their Iraqi cousins have won from Baghdad. The imminence of an American withdrawal, combined with Mr. Erdogan’s suggestions that he could soon invade the Kurdish regions of Syria, will probably convince the Kurds that they have little choice. But the Syrian regime could provide meaningful incentives, such as integrating the Kurdish forces into Damascus’ chain of command …. then, either directly or through the United Nations, the United States will have to talk to the Assad regime on the premise that a restoration of Syrian state authority in northeast Syria, including the re-entry of Syrian government forces, is required to stabilize that part of the country over the long term. To this end, the United States will have to deal with the Russians as well, so there is a coordinated approach to both the Turks and the Syrian regime.”
Right now, US leaders fear the loss of US credibility that would result from the US precipitously dumping its SDF allies in the face of any brutal attempt at reconquest, either by Assad or Erdogan, while Assad also wants to avoid direct confrontation until other enemies are defeated; but eventually the SDF’s usefulness to both US imperialism and Assad’s tyranny will run its course.
The inability of both major rebel and Kurdish leaderships to patch up their differences and present a united front against all the enemies of the popular masses has been a decisive card in the hands of Assad and the regional counterrevolution.
Trump’s sudden decision to get US forces out of Syria is a green-light to both Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad and Turkish ruler Erdogan to move into the northeastern part of Syria currently controlled by the (until now) US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and of course also a nod towards the big ally of both Assad and Erdogan, Trump’s friends in Russia, who of course praised Trump’s decision. Of course, a US betrayal of its Kurdish allies was always a matter of time.
It should be noted that, while the Kurdish and other people living in the northeast will be the main group negatively impacted, US withdrawal will also leave tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border directly exposed to Assadist conquest, especially as Jordan refuses to take them. The US base at al-Tanf, where the US had armed some ex-rebel groups to fight ISIS, offered some protection to the camp residents, although the US and Jordan were no better at providing food than was the Assad regime, which engaged in its time-honoured tactic of the starvation siege.
It is no surprise that virtually none of the commentary on any side has had anything to say about the Assad regime; take this Washington Post editorial as an example, not a mention. Of course, the entire question of Assad is and always has been irrelevant to the question of the US either staying in or leaving Syria.
I suppose it is no coincidence that Trump’s order to withdraw comes a few days after his special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, declared that while the US wants to see a regime in Damascus that is “fundamentally different,” nevertheless, “it’s not regime change” the US is seeking, “we’re not trying to get rid of Assad.”
However, I say “I suppose” because it is not as if this is the first time the US declared it was not trying to get rid of Assad or carry out regime change. Those statements have been going on for years (especially under Trump, but also before). Of course, even before US leaders began declaring this openly, “removing Assad” was never the US policy at any time, that was only ever the figment of feverish alt-left and far-right imaginations, but let’s just focus on the open declarations, because the curious thing is that, on every such occasion, the media pumped out the same discourse of “surprise” and “policy reversal” and the US being “no longer” (!) focused on “regime change” (I wonder how many times you can “no longer” be doing something you’re already “no longer” doing?).
Here’s a few snippets:
In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”
In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”
The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime].
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now 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, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad: “The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”
Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, Jeffrey had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government … this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”
Should I stay or should I go? Dispute within the US ruling class
Note that the arrival mid-year of Jeffrey was widely heralded as a “toughening up” of the Trump regime’s stance on Assad. In reality, it was only ever really about Iran; and was in full accord with the Israeli and now Gulf-state view of separating Assad from Iran by relying more on Assad’s other key ally, Russia.
And it is not only the idiosyncratic Trump, but the rational-sounding Jeffrey, that pushes this Russia line. When it comes to the change in “behaviour”, Jeffrey’s overwhelming stress was on the removal of all “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which he assessed threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” In contrast, Jeffrey states that “although our objectives and Russia’s are not aligned, we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria” and called on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria to remove all Iranian-commanded forces from the country.”
Indeed, the most vociferous anti-Iranian voice, National Security Advisor John Bolton, has always opposed removing Assad, believing this would lead to “al-Qaida” taking power. Hence the stance of those in the Pentagon and security apparatus opposed to withdrawal are not opposed because they want to stay to “topple Assad”, a completely laughable idea that none of them have ever suggested; rather, they want to stay as a block to Iranian influence.
Much of the commentary is declaring Trump some kind of traitor to “US interests” by selling out to both Iran and Russia in withdrawing. In my opinion, this is mistaken on both counts. There is also the accusation that he is selling out the US’ Kurdish allies, the YPG/SDF, whereas the “remainers” want to honour commitments to allies. However, the “remainers” (both Bolton and State Secretary Pompeo are understood to be in this camp) care no more about Kurds or anyone else than does Trump; but they want to make their deal with Russia/Assad first: ensuring Iranian-led forces are expelled from Syria, in exchange for the US allowing Assad to reconquer northeast Syria. A “Kurds for Iran” deal, similar to the US-Israel “rebels for Iran” deal with Assad in the south. As Jeffrey states, this deal includes Russia; the US has simply never at any stage of the conflict aimed at removing Russia from its leading position in Syria.
Trump, by contrast, is jumping ahead; yes Russia, Assad and Erdogan can gobble up the northeast, relying on an understanding he has with Russia (as do Israel and Saudi Arabia) that Russia’s own rivalry with Iran in Syria will lead to a Russian wall against Iranian influence; and that a more solidified Assad regime is in less and less need of the destabilising Iranian-backed rabble. And to the extent that Russia isn’t strong enough to do this alone, Israel has threatened to up its strikes on pro-Iranian forces in Syria; the current visit of Russian senators to Israel to discuss the “joint struggle against terrorism” seems part of this same process.
Of course, there is also the issue of whether or not ISIS has been defeated, as Trump claims. Much commentary says this is not so, that Trump is allowing ISIS to return. In reality, the US-SDF alliance has driven ISIS almost entirely out of Syria, other than a tiny remaining pocket. Trump always said the only reason to be in Syria was to defeat ISIS, and his claim that ISIS has been largely defeated is correct (from a purely military point of view); moreover, there is no other legal mandate for the US to be in Syria. In announcing withdrawal, Trump tweeted that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.” While some may interpret this in conspiracist terms, that he wants to bog them down in the fight against ISIS, Russia’s welcome of the announcement belies this interpretation; what Trump means is that Assad now has the go-ahead to seize the rest of Deir Ezzor region from the SDF in order for his regime to use the excuse of completing the “fight against ISIS” there so as to consolidate his victorious counterrevolution over Syria.
Proxification and Betrayal
There is little doubt that the SDF is being betrayed by Trump, and would eventually have been by the “remainers” as well. One possibility however is of the SDF following the same path; after all, the basis of the US-SDF alliance against ISIS was that both the US and the SDF had a neutral policy towards the main war in Syria, between the Assad regime and the rebels. If the US can accommodate Assad, so can the SDF. However. There is a major difference in power here. While the SDF leadership has made moves in this direction, they are likely to get little; Assad is powerful now, having largely defeated the opposition; therefore, his regime has no reason to concede anything. Assad may temporarily agree to a deal with the SDF to stave off Turkey (Assad is less enamoured of Erdogan than his Russian and Iranian allies are), but the conditions for such an alliance will involve such a complete reduction in autonomy to figleaf status that the SDF could not agree without liquidating its cause.
Both the SDF and the Kurdish populations must be defended against any pending Erdogan/Assad assault. Supporters of the SDF project, however, need to reckon with the historic betrayals of the YPG/SDF leadership, which cut the Kurdish populations off from the rest of the revolutionary process, and at times directly attacked the revolution in collaboration with Assad and Russia, especially during the SDF’s Russian-airforce-backed attack on the rebels in the Arab-majority northern Aleppo/Tal Rifaat region in early 2016, and its subsequent aid to Assad’s final assault on rebel-held Aleppo.
These short-sighted (to put it mildly!) policies have led to the isolation of the SDF, and the Kurdish people, in their hour of need. For example, many of the rebel troops that took part in Turkey’s bloody invasion of Kurdish Afrin (Operation ‘Olive Branch’) early this year were former residents of the Tal Rifaat region who had been uprooted in the SDF’s own Russian-backed version of ‘Olive Branch’ two years earlier.
This has now led to rebel promises of participation in the threatened Turkish invasion of the northeast. While there may be some regions of Arab majority that welcome an FSA entry – something that cannot be determined merely by ethnic composition, but only if we see attempted uprisings against Rojava authorities – overwhelmingly this invasion is likely to be resisted, turning whichever rebel groups take part into an army of occupation, like in Afrin. This is especially the case if Turkey and any rebel allies invade the actual Kurdish-majority regions.
The fact that the SDF has done the same makes no difference; years of bloody counterrevolution by an overwhelmingly military dominant regime, backed by massive foreign intervention and otherwise international indifference, has partially proxified both the main Arab and Kurdish leaderships. It may often have seemed like they had “no choice,” and it is very difficult to criticise from afar. Really, who can blame the rebels for their alliance with Turkey when Turkey almost alone in the world was willing to provide some support to the people facing genocide, along with accommodating 3.7 million Syrian refugees, by far the biggest refugee population in the world? Who can blame the SDF for allying with the US against such a monstrous enemy as ISIS, especially when faced with extinction in Kobane?
However, the hard reality is that the resulting division between the Arab and Kurdish populations outside Assadist control is the death-knell of both, leading them into further dependence on, and the threat of abandonment by, foreign interests, to the benefit only of the regime.
Moreover, it is unlikely that Putin and Assad will give Erdogan the go-ahead to attack the SDF in northeastern Syria without some quid pro quo in the northwest, ie rebel-controlled Greater Idlib. Probably not all of it just yet – neither Turkey nor the West can agree to a total Assadist reconquest that would send hundreds of thousands more refugees across borders – but possibly allowing Assad to gobble up enough of southern Idlib to ensure control of the main thoroughfares between Aleppo and Latakia, which would mean wiping out some key revolutionary centres. It would be the ultimate irony to watch rebel (or ex-rebel) troops attacking the SDF in the northeast as part of a Turkish operation while Assad and Russia further slice into the last part of free Syria in the northwest.
The bankruptcy of “anti-imperialism”
It is somewhat surreal to watch countless “anti-imperialists” denounce Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurds to Turkey (they tend to not be so loud about the betrayal to Assad), while other “anti-imperialists” applaud Trump’s move as a step towards something they call a “peace process”. How to explain such dissonance?
Throughout the last 8 years, the Manichean version of “anti-imperialism” spouted by an alt-left and far-right convergence has given support to a reactionary genocidal tyrant, backed by a murderous aerial invasion by the world’s second imperialist superpower, destroying his entire country to squash a popular uprising on the false altar of opposing “US-backed regime change” and the like.
The fact that there was never any US “regime-change” operation was irrelevant, as were most facts; while the Kurdish-led SDF has received over 4 years of US air power at their service, which has killed thousands of civilians, the Syrian rebels never received any such support (indeed, they have often enough been bombed by US warplanes); while the SDF was blessed with the support of thousands of US troops (who are now being withdrawn), there was never a single US troop in support of the rebels; while there are a dozen or so US bases in SDF-controlled Rojava there are none in any rebel-controlled zone; while the US ensured key Kurdish centres such as Kobane did not fall, no rebel-held centre, whether overrun by Assad or even by ISIS, ever received such defence. Yet for most “anti-imperialists”, the rebels were still the “US proxies” while the SDF were brave “anti-imperialist” fighters. It is difficult to explain how it was possible to reverse reality in such a total way; part of it was perhaps the YPG’s connection to the PKK in Turkey, given its ancient anti-imperialist history from another era, among other psychological motivations.
What to say then when the US withdraws? Praise the end of “imperialist intervention”? Or protest the betrayal of the Kurds, meaning, perhaps, the dreaded “US intervention” should continue? How ironic that it is often (of course, not always) the same people attempting to say both things. But while there are many confused anti-Assad people stuck in this quandary, in too many cases, this “anti-imperialism” involved those who wanted to be “anti-imperialist” as long as it meant scabbing on the Syrian people’s uprising and supporting the most tyrannical oligarchic dictatorship of the 21st century; every tiny hint of limited US support to the rebels was denounced as evidence of “regime change”. Yet once it became clear that the US saw its key ally in Syria as the SDF, many went silent; four years of massive US bombing of ISIS (and also of Nusra and sometimes even the rebels), killing anywhere between 4800 and 13,500 civilians, has largely been met with embarrassed silence by the “anti-war” movement around the world, while the abstract trope of “opposing US intervention” is still kept in the cupboard in case it needs to be occasionally dusted off, to protest the odd one-off US strike on some empty Assad airbase, that kills nobody at all, when Assad indulges in chemical warfare.
In recent weeks and months, US air-borne terror has been increasing. In mid-December, US airstrikes hit a mosque in Syria, killing 17 people. The response? Deafening silence. Between US terror from the skies and a monstrous regime like that of ISIS, it is better to admit there is an ethical dilemma, rather than be so certain you are “against intervention”, especially when for the most part you are actually not against it at all. And you ought to also be consistent in relation to the imaginary, never-existing “threat” of US intervention against Assad, whose regime has killed about 100 times more people than ISIS could ever manage, and admit that the main role of this particular version of “anti-imperialism” – the anti-solidarity version – over the last 8 years has been that of scabbery on the Syrian people.
The debate in US imperialist circles between staying in Syria or quitting Syria is not one with a more progressive side; in this case, Trump’s withdrawal is for entirely reactionary reasons.
As the forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian air force, reconquered Daraa city, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, an aid worker reported to Kareem Shaheen in The Guardian that “people have accepted the reality that the entire world is fighting against the revolution, and therefore it cannot continue.”
Shaheen is correct; the realisation however is late. The “the entire world” – all the major imperialist and regional reactionary powers – has been against the revolution since its outbreak in March 2011. Their differences have been entirely tactical.
The crushing of heroic Daraa involved an unwritten agreement between the Assad regime, Russia, the US and Israel. Four ‘heroes’ of today’s global ‘alt-right’ – Assad, Netanyahu, Trump and Putin – have emerged triumphant over the corpse of the Syrian revolution.
Much commentary proclaims that all global and regional powers are responsible for the catastrophe, backing “different sides” to pursue their “rival interests.” All these powers are indeed responsible, but the direct and massive Russian and Iranian intervention on the side of the regime contrasts sharply with the indirect role of the United States, the pretence of friendship to the anti-Assad opposition by neighbouring Arab regimes, and the cynical connivance of Israel, in bringing about the same goal. “Rivalry” and “different sides” had remarkably little to do with it.
The end game shows that inter-imperialist cooperation, rather than the much heralded “inter-imperialist rivalry,” was the major dimension of the foreign intervention in Syria. While it is understandable for beleaguered and outgunned revolutionary forces to take advantage of whatever tactical differences existed among the global and regional powers, there was never any real doubt that they were all ultimately on the same side, that of counterrevolution.
Conventional “geopolitics” emphasises rivalry between imperialist and sub-imperialist powers as the driving force of world politics. This leads to the conclusion that the US was “weak” or “hesitant” for allegedly “giving in” to Russia or “letting Assad off lightly” over his genocide. Repeated ad-nauseum for seven years, this entirely misses the point.
Inter-imperialist rivalry is a major factor in world politics, but confronted with revolution – like the region-wide Arab Spring – states that otherwise hate each other quite easily join forces against their common enemy – the revolutionary populace.
The Linux Beach blog of writer Clay Claiborne ends each piece with the slogan: “Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!”. This analogy is relevant here; the rival ruling classes of France and Germany, after their Franco-Prussian war, united to smash the insurgent working class of Paris. “Love of Nation” is good when the ruling class wants workers to kill each other, but its hollowness is revealed when their fundamental interests are challenged.
The geopolitics of counterrevolution trumps other issues that divide rival powers. Regardless of whether or not US imperialism is “in retreat” globally, this has been irrelevant to the Syria issue; there was never any US “weakness” or “hesitance” over Syria; rather, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the alliance with Russia over Syria has been an alliance for counterrevolution; the US has acted consistently in its own interests. The differences have been over the tactical approach to counterrevolution.
As for Israel, it has made clear all along that it is fine with Assad retaking the south as long as Iran and Hezbollah are not involved. Some anti-Assad Syrians and their supporters had developed illusions that the early US language, and Israel’s interest in keeping Iranian forces away from occupied Golan, might for the one and only time in the war restrain Assad’s hand. It is understandable to want to have hope; moreover, illusions were rarely expressed about any US or Israeli “humanitarian” motivation, but rather a belief that their pragmatic interests may intersect with the needs of Syrian people in the south.
As we will see, however, it was precisely strategic agreements between Israel and Russia, with US approval, that paved the way for this Assad offensive. A major part of this essay, therefore, is concerned with the evolution of Israeli policy on Syria. This is not because Israel can be assigned blame for the Syrian disaster; Assad, Russia and Iran are fully responsible for their actions, just as the US and Israel, not Russia or Iran, are primarily responsible for the Palestinian catastrophe. But the agreement between Israel and Russia – powers popularly thought to be in “different blocs” – will be the main case study through which the broader counterrevolutionary agreement will be demonstrated.
Israel has always preferred dictators to democracy in the Arab world; only a democratic Arab world can really challenge Israel’s anti-democratic rule over Palestine. And in the first few years, Israeli policy was resolutely pro-Assad and hostile to the Arab Spring generally.
Yet some Israeli interests did have the potential to bring about conflict with Assad: the desire to keep Iranian forces away from the Golan, to prevent any mass influx of refugees from Syria, or to build support on the Syrian side of the Golan among civilians terrified of Assad, in order to use them as a “border force” to protect the stolen Golan. Yet none of this ultimately led to any Israeli aid in preventing the fall of Daraa; on the contrary, an even more open embrace of Assad than previously manifested itself, highlighting again the tendency of revolution to push oppressive powers to line upon the same side.
First, however, the essay will look at the centrality of Daraa to the Syrian revolution, and the loyalty which the revolutionary forces there maintained to the original goals of the revolution – as well as the starkness of their betrayal by alleged “supporters,” beginning several years before the final act.
The horrific toll in the south
Having completed its subjugation of rebel-held East Ghouta, at the cost of some 1700 lives in four-weeks, then having also expelled the people of smaller rebel-held enclaves in Homs, East Qalamoun and South Damascus, the Assad regime turned its attention south, to Daraa and Quneitra provinces, which straddle the border of Jordan and Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The new horrific attack on Daraa’s 750,000 people began on June 19.
Daraa is the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, which opened with high school students, influenced by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, spray-painting walls with the slogan “you’re turn is next Doc”, referring to Bashar al-Assad, a medical doctor when not in the role of murderous tyrant. While 23 children detained were being tortured over the next month, demonstrations in Daraa and elsewhere broke out demanding their release.
On March 15, 2011, demonstrations hit Damascus and Aleppo, and three days later the ‘Day of Rage’ in Daara was met by bullets. On March 23, 15 were shot dead in Daraa – at protests around the Omari mosque, at funerals for the first victims, and people from surrounding towns marching towards Daraa to offer support. Here is more footage from Daraa showing peaceful protest and massacre, and here is some great footage of the massive ‘Friday of Steadfastness’ demonstration on April 8, shouting “Get out! Get out!” at Assad.
As deaths from bullets and tanks around Syria rose from dozens to hundreds to thousands, events such as the return to his family of the horrifically mutilated body of 13-year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb – arrested at a peaceful protest on April 29 – made the savage blood line between the tyranny and the people of Daraa irreversible.
The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army
Like elsewhere in Syria, after months of peaceful protests were continually met by massacre, people began to take up arms to defend themselves, and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) troops began defecting to protect the people rather than killing them; the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was born. The Southern Front (SF) of the FSA, based in Daraa and Quneitra, has remained the most trenchantly democratic-secular and anti-sectarian part of the rebellion.
Much anti-Syrian revolution propaganda focuses on reactionary Islamist groups such as Jaysh al-Islam in East Ghouta or HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) in Idlib. This ignores the continued existence of the FSA throughout the country (it was always far more significant than western media and its leftist echo made them out to be), the ongoing unarmed dimension of the uprising and the elected revolutionary councils, but also the fact that these reactionary forces have been unable to fully impose their will on the revolution, as I have shown here regarding Ghouta, or has been widely shown regarding Idlib. Nevertheless, they do exist, the FSA does have to share their space with them, and they are a major problem for the revolution. In the case of Daraa, however, the Southern Front was more or less completely dominant, reportedly containing some 35,000 troops; describing Syrians fighting for freedom in the south with orientalist epithets such as ‘jihadists’ was an outright lie.
When over 50 FSA brigades in the south formed the Southern Front military alliance in February 2014, its founding statement declared:
“We are the farmers, the teachers, and the workers that you see every day. Many of us were among the soldiers who defected from a corrupt regime that had turned its weapons around to fight its own countrymen. … There is no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society, and they will find no room in Syria’s future. The Syrian people deserve the freedom to express their opinions and to work toward a better future. We are striving to create in Syria a government that represents the people and works for their interest. We are the Southern Front.”
The Southern Front believed that the collapse of the Assad regime “will not be the end of the Syrian people’s revolution” but “the start of a new and, hopefully, final phase of the people’s struggle for freedom.” During this ‘Transitional Phase’, the Front (which would transition into a civilian protection force) declared its first task would be “the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.”
Between 2013 and 2015, the US and Saudi Arabia sent a certain amount of aid to the SF via the Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Jordan, aiming to control the SF’s movements and co-opt it in future. This “support” was rather modest, compared to the need in confronting the massive arsenal of advanced killing equipment used by the regime, continually re-supplied by Russia and Iran, not to mention the actual Russian airforce and thousands of Iranian-allied foreign troops. At times, the US refused to supply even “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa” and “actively prevented deliveries” of Saudi arms and ammunition.
However, even when it did get through, the political purpose of such “support” became apparent whenever the SF started winning. In May 2013, for example, MOC deliberately held back arms to rebels facing a strategic battle in the southern town Khirbet Ghazaleh, leading to its capture by Assad.
In late 2014 and early 2015, Saudi Arabia delivered significant numbers of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles to the Southern Front from its stocks, allegedly as part of the CIA’s ‘Timber Sycamore’ program. This may have aided the SF in its string of victories in the south in early 2015, taking the last Jordanian border crossing at Nasib, the Sheik Miskeen and Nawa regions, the historic town of Bushra al-Sham and the decisive regime base 52. This was widely viewed as a US shift to supporting the more democratic-secular SF, after its attempt to co-opt northern factions with TOWs in 2014 failed; this phase ended when the main FSA factions receiving TOWs, such as Harakat Hazm, refused to bend to US demands “to leave the battle field against Assad and to send all our forces to fight ISIS,” because, according to a Hazm commander, although “we had no problem to go fight ISIS, [we] wouldn’t agree to stop fighting Assad.”
However, the reality of this “support” to the SF was of the same nature. Following this string of victories, the US and MOC imposed a series of “red lines”: the SF was ordered not to advance into the central al-Mahata area of Daraa city, into the neighbouring province Suweida, anywhere north towards the key city of Sasa, and not to advance on Damascus or attempt to link up with its rebel-held outer suburbs (according to some reports, violating this last “red line” would result in US air strikes). The US-CIA attempt to co-opt the SF, in other words, was aimed at bringing its fight against Assad to an end, to push it to turn all its guns against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra only.
In March 2016, the SF took part in the US-Russia facilitated nation-wide ceasefire. In reality, however, while the regime continued bombing at lower intensity, “maintaining the ceasefire” became the new rationale for holding back the SF ever since.
Trump: “Assad fights ISIS”, the rebels “dangerous and wasteful”
But the US never wanted to put any serious military pressure to bring about even these limited objectives, because a strengthened opposition would push beyond those limits. The first US intervention was to place CIA agents on the Turkish and Jordanian borders in mid-2012, tasked with preventing anti-aircraft missiles (and for the next two years, anti-tank weapons) from reaching the rebels; this has been the most effective US intervention. By the last year of the Obama-Kerry administration, the US and Russia were signing agreements to jointly bomb Nusra, and even the previous US policy that Assad should stand down at the beginning of a negotiated regime-opposition “transition” government was shelved.
Before his election, Donald Trump proclaimed that the US should be aligned with Assad and Putin because, in his opinion, they “fight ISIS”; Trump has essentially lived up to this promise.
Moreover, as he had promised before his election, last July Trump formally ended even the limited support the US had been providing to “vetted” FSA groups (including the SF), which Trump described as “dangerous and wasteful.” As seen above, this “support” had long ceased to have any meaning; as I analysed here, the difference between this CIA support to anti-Assad forces, and the Pentagon’s backing of strictly ‘fight-ISIS-only’ groups, was superficial, as the former aimed at co-opting the anti-Assad groups in the same direction. However, the continuation of some support had allowed survival in the face of Assad’s international backing from Russia and Iran. Trump’s government also ended a $200 million program funding civil programs in the opposition-controlled regions.
Former Secretary of States Rex Tillerson’s speech in January focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now 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 adopted the regime’s program that Assad could be voted out in a “free election,” which would presumably occur with him in power:
“The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”
Trump and Iran
While the Trump administration has pursued a seemingly opposite course in relation to Assad’s ally Iran, throughout 2017 this rhetoric had little connection to policy. In Iraq, the US defeat of ISIS in Mosul was carried out in alliance with the pro-Iranian forces; in Syria, the US is allied to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its war on ISIS around Raqqa, but the unofficial alliance with Assad in this war around Deir Ezzor also involved Iranian forces. At times the US and Assad-Iranian forces were directly involved in the same battles against ISIS, for example in Assad’s second reconquest of Palmyra, on the road to Deir Ezzor.
In 2017 and early 2018, securing Assad’s counterrevolutionary victory throughout the country was the first priority of the US and regional reactionary powers. As long as Assad needed Iran-backed cannon-fodder to do much of his fighting on the ground (while Russia carried out the terror from the sky), the anti-Iran issue took back seat.
Only after Assad’s throne was fully safe, following the crushing of Ghouta, was the stage set to deal with the Iranian issue; so May 2018 witnessed Trump’s scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal and his new State Secretary Pompeo’s extraordinarily aggressive anti-Iran tirade listing US demands to end the new sanctions on Iran.
Trump’s promotion of right-wing extremists Pompeo and Bolton was widely seen as a step towards war with Iran. Whether this eventuates remains to be seen, but both distinguish between Assad and Iran. In July, Pompeo noted that “the Assad regime has been enormously successful … but from America’s perspective it seems to me that Iran is the greatest threat and we ought to focus on that.” As for Bolton, this long-time apostle of regime-change war against Iran was always opposed to “regime change” in Syria, which he thinks would bring “al-Qaida” to power.
Southern ‘de-escalation zone’
These issues came to the fore with Assad’s reconquest of the south, due to the specific issues raised by neighbouring Jordan and Israel, both traditional US allies. The outline of the final “solution” in the south had already been heralded in July 2017, with the US-Russia-Jordan agreement to make Daraa and Quneitra a “de-escalation zone.”
This prevented both regime and the FSA from opening the front; but as the regime was busy elsewhere in Syria, the main impact was on the FSA. This cannot be underestimated: the distance between the FSA-controlled south and the eastern and southern ‘Damascus suburbs’ is not great, but separated by Assad-controlled territory, both are isolated. If the Southern Front had had support from across the Jordanian border, it could have pushed towards Damascus and linked up with the rebels in East Ghouta and South Damascus.
The US “red-line” against moving in that direction thus contributed to the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya, an iconic revolutionary town in the best democratic traditions of the original uprising; the 2017 “de-escalation zone” converted this US red-line into international policy, helping seal the fate of Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion. As the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood put it, the de-escalation zone was “the gate that brought the regime back to the south under international supervision and acceptance.”
The other side of the de-escalation agreement was to keep Iranian forces at least 10 kilometres away from the Israel’s Golan occupation line, a minimal Israeli demand; the outline of the “solution” in the south was thus already a deal that aided Assad and Israel to the disadvantage of both the rebels and Iran.
Israeli policy on Syria 2011-2013: Resolute support for Assad
This excellent study by the Doha Institute weighs up the differing views within the Israeli security establishment, concluding that, on balance, Israel preferred Assad in power. More generally, Israel was hostile to the Arab Spring as a whole: it had always preferred Arab dictators that “it could do business with” over democratic revolution, as a revolutionary people may find themselves in natural solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians, as compared with a regime like Assad’s which offered rhetorical “anti-Zionism” alongside decades of slaughter of the Palestinian people.
“… senior Israeli Intelligence and Military commanders state … that they have long viewed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, while hostile, as a known quantity and a buffer between Israel and the more militant Muslim countries, a situation that is threatened by the growing success of the rebel forces of the Free Syria Army (FSA). … these Israeli leaders are now drawing up contingency plans to deal with a regional structure where the new revolutionary regimes that take over the various countries will be controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly more problematic groups such as al Qa’ida, which doesn’t bode well for the Israelis.”
Israeli policy on Syria 2013-2015: Bomb Iran and Hezbollah, both sides bad
But events in late 2013 changed this dynamic. First, the MB government in Egypt was overthrown in a military coup, bringing to power the brutal dictator General Sisi. Sisi adopted a viciously anti-Hamas policy, stiffened the blockade of Gaza, and repaired relations with Israel. This removed the southern tier of the great Arab Spring/Sunni “threat” to Israel, though it did not in itself cause Israel to shift to an anti-Assad policy; after all, Israel’s friend Sisi declared solidarity with fellow tyrant Assad against “Islamic extremism.”
When in August 2013, Assad launched his sarin attack on East Ghouta, Israeli leader Netanyahu got together with Russian leader Putin to help Assad escape from Obama’s threat to strike the regime for violating the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. They put forward the solution of Assad getting rid of his chemical weapons under international supervision. Obama’s backdown heralded a new more accommodating US policy towards the regime, partly due to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in later 2013; western leaders and ideologues, one after another, came out with the view that a collapse of the Assad regime would embolden ISIS, the main issue now was to defeat the latter.
The problem for Israel however was that this new western accommodation with the Assad regime had a second track: a new US opening to Iran, sparked by the election of “moderate” president Rouhani. This is the opening that later led to the famous nuclear deal. This also corresponded to a sharp increase in Iranian, pro-Iranian and Hezbollah support to the Assad regime; thousands of Shiite sectarian troops poured into Syria, helping defeat the rebels in a number of important battles.
While this never led Israel to a “regime-change” or pro-rebel position, leaders now emphasised that Israeli interests were served by both sides killing and weakening each other; Israel, according to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, does not “want to interfere in Syria, not for Assad or against Assad.”
At the same time, Israeli rhetoric more and more highlighted that Iran in Syria was the “main threat”, and the IDF noticeably stepped up the number of pinprick strikes on Iranian-backed targets, usually Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the buildings storing them. In early 2015 there was even a strike that killed half a dozen important Hezbollah cadres, leading to Hezbollah’s one and only response strike in the entire war. Such strikes had no impact on Assad’s ability to wage war on his people; Israel never struck pro-Iranian forces in battle with the rebels. However, given Assad’s increasing reliance on pro-Iranian forces to make up for the depleted ranks of the SAA, the potential for clashes with Assad’s forces emerged.
This was by no means straightforward, however. In contrast with the Netanyahu government’s shrill anti-Iran rhetoric, useful for public consumption, members of the military-security apparatus continued to push in the opposite direction. In January 2015, Dan Halutz, former Chief of Staff of the IDF, claimed that Assad was the least harmful choice in Syria, so western powers and Israel “should strengthen the Syrian regime’s steadfastness in the face of its opponents.” Allowing Assad to fall would be “the most egregious mistake.” Meanwhile, Israeli military analyst Roni Daniel claimed that Israel had demanded the US-led coalition against ISIS “expand the list of targets to include all Sunni jihadist organizations” in Syria.” Soon after, Brigadier General Itai Baron, head of the Military Intelligence and Research Division of the IDF, claimed “it is just a matter of time” before Syrian Islamist organisations “begin to target us from the Golan Plateau according to their radical ideology.”
Israeli policy on Syria 2015-2017: The Putin-Netanyahu love-fest & being a ‘Good Neighbour’
The onset of Russian intervention in support of Assad in September 2015 was an opportunity to resolve these contradictions in Israel’s Syria policy. The devastating Russian air war was more decisive in saving Assad’s regime than the Iran-backed ground troops, whose early successes stalled while the rebels scored major victories in early 2015; Assad’s victories in the last two years would have been impossible without this massive intervention by a global imperialist power.
In May 2017, the ‘Begin-Sadat Centre’ think tank published an article that said that with Israel “surrounded by enemies,” it “needs those enemies to be led by strong, stable rulers who will control their armies and prevent both the firing on, and infiltrations into, Israeli territory,” noting that both Assads had always performed this role. The fact that “Syria is no longer able to function as a sovereign state … is bad for Israel” and therefore“a strong Syrian president with firm control over the state is a vital interest for Israel. Given the Islamist alternatives to his rule, Syria’s neighbors, including Israel, may well come to miss him as Syria is rapidly Lebanonized.”
Its call for Assad’s rule to be “strong” is significant, because most commentary that does recognise Israel’s preference for Assad maintaining power usually adds the adjective “weakened” to the kind of Assad Israel prefers – based on faulty logic.
Yet this continuing fundamental undercurrent of Israeli policy appeared to contradict the increasing number of attacks on pro-Iranian assets. Despite the close coordination with Russia, the quantity of Israeli strikes on Iran-backed forces shot up markedly. Yet this merely underlined the fact that Israel saw Russia as a means of replacing Iran as the main booster of Assad, rather than it reflecting anti-Assad policy.
The myth of Israel arming “Syrian rebels” in the Golan
Israel’s preference for the Assad regime retaking the Golan armistice line also appeared to contradict a new quiet track of Israeli policy, and one that led to some illusions that Israel may end up a saviour for the people in the south.
A closer look shows that the aim of this aid to several armed groups was not to help them fight Assad, but rather to use them as “border guards” on the Golan. Still less did this have any relation to “regime change”; on the contrary, it is the existence of the Assad regime’s terrifying repression that has allowed Israel to gain influence among fearful villagers near the Golan fence. But carrying out this pragmatic policy in itself resulted in a new, if temporary, pressure on Israeli policy.
It is first important to understand the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights adjoining the Israeli occupation. Most of the line adjoins the tiny Quneitra province, but the southeast corner of the region, the Yarmouk valley, is in Daraa province. While most of Daraa was controlled by the FSA Southern Front, this small section along the Golan fence was held by an ISIS franchise, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid (JKW), one of the few tiny spots of Syria still held by ISIS. North and west of this, most of the Golan line is held by a range of armed groups – the Israeli-backed groups, the mainstream FSA/SF, and Islamists like HTS. Then in the far northwest is the small pro-regime Druze enclave of Hader.
We will first look at Israel’s military aid to several groups in the main mid-Golan region. The first thing to note is that the Golan Knights brigade is not part of the FSA Southern Front, and it had also withdrawn from the local rebel Military Council in Quneitra in mid-2015, before beginning to receive Israeli support. Moreover, the Golan Knights are based in Jubatha al-Khashab, a Quneitra town inside the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) zone; as such, it is a local force that has little chance of coming into conflict with the regime. Its arrangement with Israel was similar to the kinds of ‘reconciliation’ arrangements other ex-rebel brigades have made with the regime ie, based on survival, where the rebel brigade is converted into a local police force. According to a Southern Front spokesperson, the Knights are only in possession of light weaponry, “so they act predominantly as border guards and patrol the area they’re in.”
According to the Southern Front, “there’s nothing we can do about them, they are from the local population … we’ve been having our own problems in the area, and so we cannot clash with them.” This hardly appears a ringing endorsement. Some rebels were even less favourable; this video shows a rebel protest in the south against ties between Israel and ex-rebel factions; while this gathering of Golan refugees in besieged rebel-held south Damascus, protesting statements by some non-representative, exile-based “oppositionists” who called for trading the Golan Heights for Israeli support, points to the political and ethical dilemmas involved: the Golan is occupied and dispossessed Syrian people, not mere real estate.
The confusion around the regime siege of the rebel-held town of Beit Jinn, near the Golan fence, in late 2017, highlights apparent contradictions in Israeli policy. In November, the Syrian opposition announced that Israeli forces had directly intervened on the side of pro-Assad militias besieging the town, targeting the reinforcements the FSA had sent to relieve the siege. This action was connected to Beit Jinn’s proximity to the Druze town of Hader, where Israel helped the regime fight off an FSA siege (see below). It is significant that the only case of actual Israeli military intervention on the ground in the entire Syrian conflict was one to aid the regime against the rebels.
However, according to Tsurkov, Israel also “provided cash to Iyad Moro, a former rebel commander and Israel’s contact person in Beit Jann,” and permitted “several dozen” rebels to cross through to aid besieged Beit Jinn in December. While this may appear to contradict what it had done the previous month, the outcome was the town’s surrender; some rebels were evacuated to elsewhere in southern Syria or to Idlib, while the main group “reconciled” with the Assad regime. According to Tsurkov, Israel was involved in this “reconciliation”, and its man, Moro, now commands a regime-approved militia “tasked with keeping both rebels and Iranian proxies away from the border fence.”
Tsurkov explains that “this agreement could possibly serve as a blueprint for future deals in southern Syria, which would aim to secure regime and Israeli interests, at the expense of both Iran and the rebels.” Indeed, it is precisely this “blueprint” now being implemented throughout the south, putting a significantly different slant on the discourse of “Israel arming Syrian rebels” as the headlines exclaimed.
What then of the northwest and southeast corners of the Golan?
Israel intervenes against rebels in Hader
In Hader, a town in the northwest part of the Golan fence, Israel’s policy has been to support the Druze enclave against the rebels, although the town is aligned not only with the regime but also with Hezbollah. This is partly connected to Israel’s policy of favouring Israeli Druze (many of whom serve in the military) over Palestinians and thus treating them as non-Arabs.
Thus in this region, Israel was cooperating with the actual FSA Southern Front (as opposed to the ex-FSA “reconciliation” brigades it has promoted), which has continually been at war with JKW. But of course this is US policy: no support for the FSA to fight Assad, only to fight ISIS. With the SF battle lines with Assad frozen for two years, Israel supported it against ISIS only, while not giving it the decisive support needed to evict ISIS; Israel wanted to leave that to the regime.
Israel’s ‘Good Neighbour’ policy in the Syrian Golan
Israel’s non-military support to some Golan villages goes back some years. In 2014, Haaretz reported that Israel had been assisting villages near the Golan fence in exchange for them keeping “extremist Islamist groups” away. This evolved into the ‘Good Neighbour’ policy which significantly expanded over the last two years.
While Assad’s slaughter and dispossession greatly amplifies Israel’s own actions towards the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, it is Assad who is the immediate danger in the Syrian Golan. Therefore, it is logical both for local people to seek safety for their families from anyone who can protect them, and for Israel to gain influence by posing in the unusual role of protector; not so different to past Iranian backing for Palestinians in Gaza under Israeli slaughter. Alongside influence, Israel also gained a potential buffer for its Golan occupation, among local villagers and militias, against either Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces, or Sunni jihadists.
While this began as a policy contingent on the ongoing crisis, it had the effect of giving Israel a new interest in the outcome of the war that seemed to contradict its more long-term interest in seeing the return of the Assad regime. While Israel’s own actions elsewhere highlight the absence of humanitarian motives, nevertheless, once a power has established influence via even opportunist humanitarian gestures, it has an interest in maintaining it; and in not being seen as abandoning those it has supported.
Writing in Haaretz, Amos Harel explained the “dilemma”:
“Some of Israel’s politicians and defense establishment figures regard the new developments with a cold analytical view. The return of the Assad regime to border areas could ensure greater stability and block the flood of Sunni jihadists into the area. According to one analysis, the convergence of interests between Syria and its Iranian allies may be weakened the more the Assad regime is strengthened.”
However, given the “respect” that Israel has gained in the region, if the regime “adopts its usual methods for retaking these villages,” Israeli credibility will be at stake “for not lifting a finger to stop the massacre taking place only a few miles from its border.”
As we will see, Israel decided strongly in favour of the first option, but with some concessions.
Israeli strikes on Iranian targets follow pattern
Meanwhile, Israeli Air Force chief Major General Amir Eshel revealed in August 2017 that Israel had launched around 100 strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria over several years. However, by 2018, these strikes revealed a clear pattern. On February 10, Israel struck an Iranian control center at the Tiyas (T4) airbase in Homs, in response to an Iranian drone allegedly straying across the Golan line. On February 18, Assad and Russia began their month-long ‘final solution’ in Ghouta. Officially, Iran was kept out of this campaign, while Russia took the lead role. In reality, Iranian-backed forces played an active, if low-profile, role, but despite this there was no peep from Israel (or the US) during that month.
Yet on April 9 – the very day of the final capitulation of Douma, following Assad’s chemical attack – Israel again attacked the same base in Homs. Several days later, in response to the chemical attack, the US, Britain and France carried out a theatrical strike on some warehouses and facilities connected to Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities; since Trump had reportedly warned Putin in advance, the facilities were likely emptied. Fortunately, there were zero casualties, either military or civilian. But the Israeli strike, while also following the chemical attack, was seemingly unrelated to it. A former Israeli security operative told Middle East Eye that “This air strike has nothing to do with the chemical attack, but if it is interpreted as such, then fine. Israel will benefit and be seen as the good guy.”
Israeli strikes, therefore, completely bracketed, at both ends, Assad’s genocidal attack on Ghouta, were completely absent during that month, hit in Homs rather than Damascus/Ghouta, and hit Iranians, not Assad.
The next day Netanyahu flew to Moscow for yet another high-level meeting with Putin (they have met three times this year and spoken by phone 10 times), as guest of honour at the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis. Standing next to Putin, Netanyahu watched a display of the latest Russian military equipment. That evening, Iranian forces, for the first time ever, retaliated for the Israeli strike by firing rockets at Israeli forces in Golan; the next day, Israel launched its most massive attack ever on Iranian military assets in Syria, hitting 50 “weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centers used by Iranian forces in Syria.”
News now began to appear about a deal between Russia and Israel, whereby Russia would ensure that Iranian-backed forces distance themselves from the south, and Israel would give the go-ahead for Assad’s army to crush the Southern Front and return to its role as security-guard of the Israeli occupation; and Russia would not oppose Israel continuing to bomb pro-Iranian forces anywhere in Syria, as long as Israel didn’t touch Assad’s forces in the process. The deal was reported by Israel’s Channel 2 News.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that only regime troops should be on the southern borders, and all “non-Syrian” forces must leave the region, clearly aimed at Iranian-backed forces. Russia reportedly asked Israel not to respond to any shells which might enter the Golan, as the regime “does not want a war with you and if a shell falls on your side of the border, this is by accident.”
The deal was consecrated at a meeting between Israeli ultra-right Defense Minister Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu on May 31. According to Yedioth Aharonot, at the meeting the two agreed to coordinate the Assad regime’s offensive on southern Syria.
As usual, the fascistic Lieberman went furthest. After noting that “the Syrian front will be calmer with the return of the Assad rule,” Lieberman stressed that “Israel prefers to see Syria returning to the situation before the civil war, where the central rule under Assad leadership.” Further, he noted that “we are not ruling anything out” regarding the possibility of Israel and the Assad regime establishing “some kind of relationship.”
At a July 1 Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu even dropped the former pre-condition about no “non-Syrian” forces in Assad’s offensive. This was one of the more confusing developments, given the general understanding that Israel was backing Assad precisely to separate him from Iran, as if Israel was only backing Assad as some kind of bargain. As will be explained below, this is a mistaken view.
Despite the reports of Iranian forces moving out of Daraa, as the offensive got underway, evidence of involvement of Iran-backed forces grew. The Iranian-backed Iraqi Zulfiqar Brigade officially announced it was taking part in the offensive. The civil society-linked Etana site published this map showing locations of Iranian-backed militias across south-west Syria. Yet Lieberman explicitly rejected the claim that Iranian and Hezbollah troops who left the region had now returned in Syrian army uniforms, claiming there were only several dozen Iranian “advisors” operating in the region.
Israeli’s propaganda war against Iran still needed to produce fireworks, however, so while ignoring the Iranian-backed forces in the vicinity, Israeli leaders started shouting that Iran must leave “all of Syria;” while Assad pulverised Daraa, Israel took shots at Iranian forces at the opposite ends of Syria – on the Iraqi border and in Aleppo!
What though of the influence Israel had gained in the Quneitra villages, and of the militias it had armed? Was it going to simply throw away the gains it had made in the region?
On the one hand, the region where Israel had gained this influence was tiny; Israel was not throwing away a great deal to get back the pre-2011 certainty of Assad as border-guard. So, as 160,000 refugees gathered at the Golan fence, holding demonstrations to beg for refuge, Lieberman declared that Israel “will not accept any Syrian refugee into our territory”. On July 17, the Israeli army warned displaced Syrians moving towards the Golan fence to “go back before something bad happens.” Israel thus denied the right of Syrians fleeing Assad’s terror to enter occupied Syria. Jordan took the same stance, but at least it is already housing 700,000 Syrian refugees, compared to Israel’s zero.
On the other hand, the sheer viciousness of Assad’s attack still allowed Israel to come off as relatively “humanitarian”. Israel sent humanitarian aid to these refugees, including 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby formula, three pallets of medical equipment and medicines, and 30 tons of clothing and shoes.
Moreover, Israel’s influence in Quneitra helped in bringing about a relatively “soft landing” for these villages; a Russian and Israeli negotiated “reconciliation” agreement with Assad rather than a massacre. This “reconciliation” of the Israeli-backed groups was uncomplicated; as explained above, a regime-Israel deal to exclude rebels and Iranians had already been negotiated over Beit Jinn. In the final agreement, the Golan Knights are still able to operate in the UN zone, as long as they do not clash with Assad’s forces.
Russia, in other words, is now stationed in Syria both to protect the Assad regime and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan!
As Zvi Bar’el summarised the situation in Haaretz on July 22:
“Military coordination between Israel, Russia and Jordan, Israel’s involvement directly or indirectly in discussions on Russia’s plans for alleviating the Syrian crisis, and Israel’s ability to influence tactical moves in the Golan make it an indirect but significant partner of the Assad regime, which can now rest assured it’s in no danger from Israel.”
Why Israel never supported the FSA
We have discussed why Israel dropped its tiny proxy groups and came down hard in support of Assad re-taking the Golan. But it is interesting turning the question on its head – if Israel’s region of influence was tiny, yet seemingly successful within those limits, why didn’t Israel try to extend this influence, by arming the Southern Front against Assad, and becoming a “Good Neighbour” throughout Daraa?
As noted above, Israel prefers Arab dictators in power; they may use anti-Israel rhetoric, but their conservative interests are served by maintaining the oppressive status quo, which includes Israel. Moreover, when Israel’s own anti-democratic policies are highlighted, its leaders claim to be better to their Arab subjects than various Arab tyrants are to their own.
A democratic Syria would undermine Israel’s justifications for its oppression of the Palestinian people. While Israel and the US are more publicly hostile to the Islamist currents in Syria, in fact the most democratic and non-sectarian solution in Syria would have been the most antithetical to Israeli interests. Imagine a victory of the vision in the image above from the Southern Front – “Syria is for all: Druze, Kurds, Alawi, Assyrians, Sunni, Christians.” What message would that have had for a sectarian state like Israel?
However, as the length of the war eroded the possibilities of democratic change, forced liberated communities to fight for survival, and led to corruption and authoritarianism among many rebel groups, could not Israel have developed relations with armed groups motivated by survival and power, who had little potential to bring about democratic change anyway?
Perhaps; but if Israel was going to take the risk of supporting a real rebel group (as opposed to its pacified proxies) – not for “regime change”, but merely for a larger friendly ‘buffer’ to protect its existing Golan ‘buffer’ – then it would require the group to capitulate to Israeli terms. Since Assad had been the perfect “border-guard” for the Israeli occupation for 40 years, a rebel group would need to go beyond that, to officially accept the Golan as Israeli.
Yet, for all the slanders that have been heaped on the FSA and other rebels, there has never been any movement whatsoever by the Syrian rebels to accept the Israeli theft of the Golan. They are fighting a liberation war; it goes against everything they are fighting for to sell out to the state occupying their territory and oppressing their Palestinian brethren.
Following Netanyahu’s assertion last year that the Golan will remain forever Israeli, Riad Hijab, head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition, responded that “we won’t give up on our territorial completeness or on the unification of our social fabric. We won’t concede a single grain of soil. The Golan is Syrian land and it will be returned to Syria.”
And here are the Palestinian and the Syrian revolution flags painted on a wall in Kuftkharim in Idlib during May, to show solidarity with Gaza during recent Israeli attacks; the phrase “From Syria to Gaza, we share the same wound” is written on it.
Clearly, these are not the kinds of people Israel was ever going to form an alliance with.
Russian-Iranian rivalry and Iran’s growing dispensability
A number of issues emerge that are connected to these agreements to facilitate Assad’s victory. For one, while Russia’s close connections to Israel have been discussed, why was it so enthusiastic about moving against Iran, supposedly its ally in support of Assad?
Essentially, now that Assad has been saved, his two key allies now emerge as rivals to be the more dominant power over Assad’s blighted little satrapy in the post-war era.
According to the Syrian Observer, the regime and Russia signed a “roadmap” for 2018 and beyond, including “the stages of implementing strategic projects related to reconstruction and renewing Syrian energy facilities.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s statement that “Russia’s presence in reconstruction does not mean Iran has no presence” hinted at the rivalry.
A related issue is that, the more Assad is victorious on the ground, the less the presence of global pro-Iranian Shiite cannon-fodder remains essential.
The current consensus – Russian-backed Assad and Israel win with US support, rebels and Iran both lose – seems too obvious. Why has it taken until now to bring it into operation? Essentially, Assad needed this Iranian-backed cannon fodder to help defeat the rebels, given the weakness of his own forces. Therefore, while Russia has actively courted Israel, it needed to give more time for the Iran-backed forces to do Assad’s dirty work. Even Israel essentially recognised this; it acted more impatiently, but none of its pinprick strikes on Iranian-backed assets were designed to put a dent on the ability of the regime to win its war.
The biggest Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, Trump’s scrapping of the Iran deal, Pompeo’s vicious barking, and Putin’s more open collusion against Iran all came in the period after Assad had subjugated East Ghouta, which established his regime as safe.
At some point, the “secular” Baathist tyrant will be just as bothered by these unruly troops loyal to a foreign theocracy. In early July, Iranian parliamentarian Behoruz Bonyadi accused Assad of tilting in Russia’s direction: “Today we see Assad increasing his harmony with Putin with all brazenness. He not only demeans the importance of the role of the martyrs of the Maraked (Shia Imam Tombs) in Syria, but also denied this role sometimes.”
The US: Bombastic irrelevance or new war-maker?
As a partner in this regional counterrevolutionary deal – even if taking a relative backseat while the Russian-Israeli gendarme regimes do the dirty work – the Trump administration as also drawn a firm distinction between the Assad regime and Iran. It is no coincidence that it began upping the ante with Iran – scrapping the nuclear agreement, Pompeo’s extraordinarily aggressive speech – in the period following Assad’s crushing of Ghouta, as Iran was becoming more dispensable to Assad. Whether the end-game is a catastrophic attack on Iran, or the symbolic victory of a slightly “better” nuclear accord achieved through “strength”, remains to be seen.
But one reality not commonly noted is that this new rhetoric – for example Pompeo’s demand that Iranian forces leave Syria, Iraq and Yemen (Iranian forces are not in Yemen) – is that these matters already had a life of their own: the Russia/Israel deal partially evicted Iran from southern Syria; Iraqis voted for a movement that opposes the Iranian presence in Iraq (and the US presence!), while the Iraqi masses protest in the streets against Iran; the Houthis in Yemen weakened themselves by going to war with their key ally, former dictator Saleh; the Arab minority in Iranian Ahvaaz has been in uprising; and Iranian people have also been in various forms of uprising throughout this year. Pompeo’s bombast may have aimed at making it sound like the US had something to do with all this.
Is this more evidence of alleged US “weakness”? While the US was less directly involved, the Israel-Russia agreement was fully in accord with US interests; there is no evidence of US leaders seeing it otherwise.
On the other hand, despite rhetoric, the US is likely to be rather wary of the revolutionary ferment across Iran, Iraq and Ahvaaz, which have a life of their own and cannot be attributed to US pressure on the Iranian regime. The real US ‘contribution’ has only now begun with the re-imposition of harsh sanctions on Iran in early August. While much analysis sees this as part of a build-up towards a war, this is only possibility. More likely, this is a device for the US to attempt to exert some control over the situation in the increasingly unstable eastern end of the region.
Trump’s call for the US to leave Syria, versus the Pentagon’s demand that it stay, is an issue that is unrelated to that of Assad versus the rebellion, except that now that Assad has mostly won the counterrevolutionary war against the rebels, Trump sees no problem left in Syria. In February, he declared “We’re there for one reason: to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and to go home. We’re not there for any other reason.” In April he repeated that “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon.” However, this is contradicted by the Pentagon, which is unwilling to give up the gains the US has made in northeastern Syria, where it has some 11 military bases and is in a position to influence the outcome in Syria.
However, it goes against the history of the last seven years to imagine that ‘influence on the outcome’ means ousting Assad; the basis of the US alliance with the Kurdish-led SDF in the northeast is precisely that the latter does not fight the regime. A US withdrawal would sell out its Kurdish allies to Assad and Erdogan, but is irrelevant to the anti-Assad rebellion one way or the other; and one line of discussion towards a possible outcome is allegedly a “Kurds for Iranians” swap: the US leaves Rojava for Assad, on condition Assad kicks out Iranian forces.
Apart from wanting to complete the defeat of ISIS, by remaining the Pentagon aims to be in a position to put a dent in the Iranian project of an unbroken Tehran to Beirut road. This is of largely symbolic value, however, since, despite the over-hyping of this “land-bridge,” Iran sends arms to Hezbollah via air or sea, it does not need a rickety 2000 kilometre “road” for that; and with allied governments in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut regardless, the “taming” of Iran on behalf of rival regional interests should not be confused with outright defeat: unless defeated by the popular uprisings, Iran will still exert its hegemony over the northern tier of the Levant as its reward for its role in the Syrian counterrevolution.
… and the “reactionary Arab states”?
The popular discourse that “reactionary” Arab states supported the Syrian rebellion only ever really meant Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fierce rivals for the Sunni “vote”. With the US-backed Iraqi regime in Assad’s camp, alongside al-Sisi’s brutal Egyptian tyranny, Sisi’s close allies Jordan and the UAE, while less blatant, were never onside with the revolution: their hostility to democratic revolution matched only by their hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. The three states welcomed the Russian intervention in Syria as a chance to fight “terrorism”; Jordan and the UAE both drew up lists of “terrorist” organisations in the Syrian rebellion. Now the UAE has come out more clearly: on June 8, UAE Foreign Minister Dr. Anwar Gargash declared “The choice between an Al-Qaeda based opposition or Assad is a false choice … I think it was a mistake to kick Syria out of the Arab league.”
Saudi Arabia, while closely allied to these three states, was the exception, as its geopolitical-sectarian rivalry with Iran overshadowed the hatred of democracy and the MB it shared with them; and given Assad’s genocide against the Sunni Muslim population, it was more difficult for a regime seeing itself as leader of the Muslim world to separate Assad from Iran than it was for the US or Israel to do so. But that point eventually arrived, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman stating that “Bashar is staying. But I believe that Bashar’s interests are not to let the Iranians do whatever they want they want to do.”
Israel and Iran: War of rhetoric
Given the centrality, however, of making Iran the “fall guy” to the Trump-Netanyahu agreement with Putin to save Assad, the nature of this great Iran-Israel “conflict” is worth exploring. What is behind Israel’s campaign against pro-Iranian forces in Syria, and its wild anti-Iranian rhetoric in general?
Does nuclear-armed Israel really view Iran as a “threat”? This laughable proposition should have been put to rest when Israel claimed to have wiped out half the Iranian military capacity in Syria in one afternoon in May. So, instead, are Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria rather a “nuisance” to the Israeli occupation of the Golan, by firing rockets across the fence?
The problem with this assumption is that the Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria never fire anything into the Golan. Whatever rhetoric, their entire role in Syria has been to kill Syrians for Assad, not to be even a nuisance in the Golan, let alone to “liberate Jerusalem.” Of the one hundred times Israel claims to have struck pro-Iranian targets, Iran and Hezbollah have only even responded once each. So the pro-Iranian forces have not been one iota more “steadfast” against the Golan occupation than the Assad regime which kept the “border” quiet for forty years.
Unless one believes that Iran’s theocratic tyranny has any interest in “liberating Palestinians” (assuming “liberation” were possible via the Iranian military conquest), or liberating anyone; or unless one thinks that conquering and subjugating Israel (if that were in the realms of possibility) were an imperial aim of Iran, then we need a better explanation for Iranian noise.
And given this reality, we also need an explanation for why Israel keeps hitting these Iran-backed forces which have no interest in hitting them.
The common answer would be that Iran and Israel are regional rivals, just as medium-sized powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are rivals for regional hegemonic influence. However, there are also problems with this explanation.
Saudi Arabia, for example, wants to restrict Iran’s regional influence because the two countries are actual rivals for influence in the Arab and Muslim world; their geopolitical rivalry is often fought with sectarian overtones. In contrast, Israel is capable of gaining next to zero influence anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world (unless it came to some kind of just arrangement with Palestine). As we saw, even the influence it had begun to gain in the Syrian Golan was tiny and expendable.
Rather, Israel and Iran are engaged in a war of rhetoric. The racist, colonialist project of Zionism is ideologically invested in the existence of an alleged “Fourth Reich” in the region which supposedly aims to “drive Jews into the sea.” And Iran projects baseless “radical” bombast for the same reason: its own reactionary theocratic project, in a non-Arab and non-Sunni state, can be enhanced if it similarly has an evil “enemy” that it “leads resistance” to, even if this amounts to nothing. The “liberate Jerusalem” noise is a mobilisational device to hoodwink the masses as Iranian sub-imperialism attempts to project its power over the northern tier of the Levant.
This ideological war for preservation of the twin sectarian-theocratic projects can continue for decades without “accidents” due to the geographic distance between the two states. The Gaddafi regime in Libya similarly used to be the most furious “fighter against Zionism” from the middle of north Africa.
However, with Iranian-backed forces now all over Syria, the game cannot be played as before; rhetoric requires some kind of action, lest its hollowness be exposed. A bunch of unruly militia in its “backyard” shouting rhetoric about “destroying Israel”, however baseless, is something that Israel needs to show it can blast away. However, by doing nothing, Iran undermines its own ideological bluster; until now, it could claim this was because it first needed to defeat the “CIA-Mossad-Wahabbi-ISIS” conspiracy to overthrow Assad’s “resistance” regime, but this excuse is rapidly wearing thin.
As the only First World state in the region, Israel asserts its hegemony in a different way to the regional powers. One role for a small imperialist state is that of regional gendarme, which is also important for maintaining its position as most favoured nation by its US benefactor, and the billions in arms that come with it. Seeing that it is actually Saudi regional influence that is threatened by Iranian competition, Israel currently aims to demonstrate that it can defeat the “Iranian threat” and in exchange win Saudi-Gulf agreement for a more official betrayal of Palestine. This however is more easily imagined than done.
What now for the Syrian revolution?
The military defeat of the Southern Front and Assad’s reconquest of the south, following the subjugation of the Damascus region, cannot be underestimated in terms of the blow it delivers against the revolution. While outright military victory by the opposition was never on the cards, holding territory where they had a base among the population was necessary to be able to build semi-democratic institutions as an alternative to the regime, and to have something to bargain with.
The only area still under rebel control is ‘Greater Idlib’ (Idlib province, southern and western Aleppo and northern Hama and Latakia). Here ongoing contestation exists between the majority of rebels and town councils on the one hand, and the jihadist HTS on the other; while often depicted as HTS-run, the revolutionary situation is highlighted by this resistance to HTS, and the latter’s inability to fully impose its program in areas it does control.
However, pressure also comes from Turkey, which supports the anti-HTS rebels, but in doing so tries to keep the front quiet with the regime and use them as proxies as part of the Astana process, which Turkey is involved in alongside Russia and Iran. This may be more easily said than done; these rebels are unlikely to take orders to give up Idlib, if they were handed down. Russia has given conflicting messages, sometimes indicating an attack on Idlib is imminent, other times, denying it, but the Assad regime is already involved in significant bombing. More likely, Russia and Turkey will team up to “solve the HTS problem” by using the just opposition to HTS to push the rebels into a fratricidal war against HTS, for the wrong reasons at the wrong time, from which only the regime would gain.
In northern Aleppo, Turkey has already enlisted many rebel groups as proxies for its anti-Kurdish designs, when they jointly invaded Afrin and expelled the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, led by the Peoples Protection Units, YPG) – and 170,000 Kurdish civilians. The Turkish occupation and their proxy militia are carrying out extensive theft, looting and war crimes, further driving in the wedge between the Arab and Kurdish populations. The Afrin YPG played its own part in this, when two years earlier it attacked the rebels in the Arab-majority Tal Rifaat region of northern Aleppo, supported by Russian air strikes, and expelled the populations. The divisive handiwork of the imperial powers is evident from the current map: while Turkey and its proxies occupy Kurdish Afrin, the Arabic Tal Rifaat region is still under YPG control.
In the northern Aleppo borderlands, Turkey occupies the region between Azaz and Jarablus, via al-Bab, in an uneasy alliance with the local rebel forces, who jointly evicted ISIS in 2016. Given the largely Arab-Turkmen population, this is a different situation to that of Afrin. Nevertheless, there again exists an ongoing contestation between Turkish hegemony and local rebels asserting their own authority. Given the alternative of the regime’s return, however, the population sees the current situation as vastly preferable.
The SDF rules over the northeast with the support of the US, with its own style revolutionary structures, while there is contestation between the SDF and local Arab populations in some places, especially in Raqqa. However, both the US and the SDF, each for their own reasons, are likely to try to do some kind of deal with the Assad regime. Nevertheless, this again may turn out to not be so simple, if the Kurdish and Arab people there resist such an eventuality.
But aside from the military situation, the other question is whether the regime’s military victories can be translated into a new counterrevolutionary stability, or the liberation of Syrians from fear results in ongoing protests, underground resistance, instances of guerrilla warfare and so on.
At this stage, there is not a great deal positive to be said. While it would be premature to declare it all “over,” analysis needs to reckon with the reality of mass exhaustion and desire for some kind of stability, even one where people have to return to keeping their mouths shut. The option of being endlessly bombed and having everything around them destroyed is not an attractive one, especially now that the regime has turned the tide.
But even such stultifying “stability” may not be good enough for the regime, which is determined to violently crush any sign of opposition, even if that means millions of people; and it may also be much less stable for those in former rebel strongholds who were forcibly “reconciled” with the regime. It is good not to be bombed; but the uprising did not start with regime bombing, but out of revulsion against the regime’s practices of detaining, torturing, killing and “disappearing” people. The regime’s recent issuing of thousands of death certificates for those it has held in captivity for years (and the likelihood that we are looking at tens of thousands), highlights that being bombed is not the only life and death concern of Syrians: having your son or daughter “disappear” is not the “stability” that people long for.
This dilemma was played out in the south. While some criticised the Southern Front for surrendering too quickly, after fighting for “only” a few weeks, others suggested they should not have fought at all, since the certainty of defeat would mean more civilians being slaughtered by the regime for no reason. However logical this second view may seem from a distance, it is up to those on the ground to make such life and death decisions. In fact, when the SF did sign the surrender agreements, many civilians condemned them for giving up, and even organised new civilian militia to keep regime forces out. Given that the regime has repaid the ‘reconciliation agreement’ in Daraa, as with Ghouta and elsewhere, with betrayal,arrests,killings,detentions and so on, this desire to resist was understandable; especially among those who already knew they were wanted: “Everyone in the village is wanted. I don’t expect anyone to return,” reported a former resident of the Daraa village of Kheil, who had escaped with 22 relatives. Yet with their backs to the Israeli-Jordanian wall, the SF ultimately had little choice but to sign on.
It is a particularly dark day for the world when the survival of such a regime is seen as a mark of the new order in the region, a signifier of “peace.” There was never going to be a successful “democratic revolution in one country” once the rest of the Arab Spring was put down. But with continual outbreaks of popular resistance in Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and elsewhere, a re-opening of resistance in Syria cannot be ruled out. Given this, holding on to whatever pieces of Syria remain outside Assad’s control – even in situations where other foreign powers and their proxies, or local reactionary forces such as HTS, or forces that have stood apart from the main theatre of revolution, such as the SDF, are playing important roles in contested environments – may be of great importance as future bases if the ferment returns to Syria.
Below is a reply I wrote to an old friend who asked some questions about Syria. He is far from being an Assadist, indeed he notes that Assad is a horrible dictator, and states that the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance should not be given any support at all. However, like a great many who don’t have time to read deeply on the issue, his view is partially informed by the simplistic geopolitics as presented in the mainstream media, and unfortunately, by much of the “alternative” media that should know better. I have decided to put my Facebook reply up here as an article because, in order to reply, I wrote a substantial summary of the Syria issue, both challenging the idea that geopolitics can be our main guide to analysing Syria, but also showing how much more complex the actual geopolitics of Syria is. In fact, these two aspects are related: it is precisely because of the fact that in Syria we are dealing with real social forces, with real revolution and counterrevolution, that the geopolitics is messy, because all the different imperialist and local reactionary states seek to crush, control, co-opt or divert the revolution in different ways, which end up having little to do with traditional “alliances”.
As initially a Facebook reply, I have not filled this article with referencing as I usually do; those who read my work know that everything I write is normally fully referenced, and most of what I write here has already been covered in countless articles on this site.
First, the question I am replying to:
“Give us some more backgound on this Mike. I see the US supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Russians supporting Assad and Iran. Neither are right or supportable in any way. While Assad is a horrible dictator, at least some among the Syrian opposition are Jihadists, and not a good alternative. Let me know if this is not correct mate.”
I’m not sure how to summarise the last 7 years in one Facebook reply, but I’ll give it a go and provide you some links to articles on my site below.
The first thing is that Assad is not merely “a horrible dictator” like countless others; this is a tyrannical regime that has bombed every city and town in its country to pieces, including all the surrounding (ie, working class, semi-proletarian, semi-rural) suburbs of the capital, reduced its entire country to rubble, in its attempt to keep itself and its narrow oligarchic clique in power. I’m not sure when we’ve ever seen such massive and long-term use of an air-force by a regime against its own people; not that it is better when it is used this way against another country (eg the US in Vietnam), or people under occupation (eg, Israel in Gaza), or a secessionist part of a country; just that precisely this underlines the nature of the conflict in Syria: to the regime, the people are an enemy nation, to the people, the Assad clique is similar to a foreign occupation – even before it in fact became little more than the local sheriff for Russian imperialism and the Iranian theocracy. The last count of 470,000 killed was from January 2016, so we need to stop quoting this ancient figure as if no-one had been killed in the last two plus years; one can only imagine how high the figure must be by now. Half the population has been uprooted from their homes, including 5.5 million (a quarter of the Syrian population) outside Syria, mostly in massive concentrations in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, a new al-Nakbah on a colossal scale.
The second thing I want to say is that there is a problem with method: while I disagree with your presentation of the geopolitics of the conflict (as I will outline below), even if I agreed, I think it is the wrong way to analyse Syria. The fundamental issue is that the Syrian people rose up against a bloodthirsty tyrant, who used massive murderous violence against them for months until some started taking arms to defend their demonstrations and their communities, and some troops began deciding to protect their brothers and sisters instead of killing them, ie, defecting, and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). After that the regime upped its violence to genocidal levels, and as you note, this also provoked a degree of Islamic extremism on the fringes of the anti-Assad movement as well (similar to what previously happened in the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq, in Palestine and so on). But the fundamental issue is the people’s uprising; the rebels merely arose as the armed reflection of it. But armed struggle in itself then creates its own issues, and so many rebel groups are often a very imperfect reflection of the uprising, which nevertheless continues behind armed conflict and is its beating heart. Overwhelmingly, the armed formations play a defensive role, defending the revolution-held towns against being overrun by the regime; there is no “military solution” by which they would ever be able to “take power” in their own name (any more than the democratic-secular Palestine we aspire to will come about by a military conquest of Tel Aviv by Hamas from Gaza), and indeed they have never claimed that is their aim. The aim of the military struggle is two-fold: firstly, as I pointed out, defensive, and secondly, to pressure the Assad regime into honest negotiations, from a better bargaining position. Therefore, exaggerated and often wildly inaccurate descriptions of the politics of the rebel leaderships (which in fact vary widely from democratic-secular to hard Islamist) have much less relevance than is often made out.
By the way, just on that question, when you say that at least part of the armed opposition are “jihadists”, I can only assume you mean Jabhat al-Nusra (now HTS) and ISIS – other Islamists range from very moderate to much harder but are not in any sense “jihadists”. Of these, only Nusra can be considered to be in any sense a part of the armed opposition, and even that has always been at an arm’s length. ISIS of course has nothing to do with the anti-Assad rebellion, rather it is an open enemy of it – it always fought the rebels much more than it fights Assad; and the rebels have fought ISIS much more than Assad ever has. In fact, for the first year and a half of ISIS in Syria (essentially an invasion from Iraq), from March 2013 to September 2014, the Assad regime barely touched it; rather, both Assad and ISIS overwhelmingly fought the rebels, often enough in tandem. In January 2014, the rebels launched a coordinated nationwide attack on ISIS, driving it out permanently from the whole of western Syria (and as they did, the regime stepped up its bombing of the rebels) and temporarily even from most of north-eastern Syria (briefly even from its capital Raqqa). ISIS only made a comeback in north-eastern Syria after it captured the entire US-supplied military arsenal of the US/Iran-backed Iraqi army, which ran away, in Mosul in June 2014.
In September 2014, the US began bombing ISIS in Syria, and has been bombing them for 3.5 years, finally driving them almost completely from Syria late last year. However, the US also began bombing Nusra from Day One, and has since launched hundreds of strikes against Nusra. Nusra is a sectarian and reactionary organisation which the rebels will need to deal with in the time of their choosing, but is nothing remotely like ISIS, and is a little mouse compared to the genocidal Assad regime; and unlike ISIS, they are usually in areas adjacent to the rebel groups, so when the US bombs them, it effectively weakens the rebel front militarily against Assad. The rebels themselves often fight Nusra, in acts of resistance against their attempts to impose their reactionary program, and many liberated towns in rebel-held regions also resist Nusra encroachment. However, Nusra (unlike ISIS) focuses on fighting Assad, so when the US bombs Nusra, it is seen as an attack on the rebellion, and so it in fact boosts Nusra’s standing as a force seen to be resisting both Assad and US imperialism. Last March, the US bombed a mosque in Idlib, targeting Nusra, and killed 57 worshippers; this was just before the first ever US strike on the Assad regime, when it bombed a half-empty airbase in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons; no civilians were killed in the strike on Assad. Yet the response of the fake western “anti-war” movement to the murderous strike on the mosque was, meh, whereas when Assad was struck for the first time ever, it rose up in horror. In any case, the US bombs have also struck mainstream Islamists and even the FSA many times.
In fact, it was only after the US began bombing ISIS that the Assad regime also began bombing ISIS at all, in order to show it could be a partner of the US “war on terror” (officially Damascus welcomed the onset of US airstrikes); often enough they began bombing Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other places in tandem. But it remained overwhelmingly a US war. It was only really in 2017 that Assad and Putin, having crushed rebel-held Aleppo, joined this US war on ISIS on a large scale, after the US had done most of the softening up. Assad has the US to thank for allowing him to re-take the east of the country from ISIS.
So, does the geopolitical take which you outlined (and I’m not blaming you for it – this is the simplistic way it is often presented in mainstream and “left” media) take into account that the US has actually been bombing Syria for years, just not bombing Assad, but rather bombing enemies (or in ISIS’ case, ‘frenemies’) of Assad, often enough in semi-alliance and at times in open coordination with Assad? Of course, the US war in eastern Syria has mostly been in alliance not so much with Assad directly (and never with the rebels), but overwhelmingly with the Kurdish-led YPG (ie, the PKK-connected Kurdish militia in Syria); the US chose them as a partner not out of love, but because the YPG prefers to only fight ISIS and not the Assad regime, which thus fits US policy perfectly. The US war on ISIS (and Nusra etc) has killed thousands of civilians, and destroyed 90% of the city of Raqqa, more or less completely. By contrast, this recent US strike on Assad’s chemical plants was over in an hour or so, killed zero civilians, and probably destroyed nothing much anyway, because Trump and Macron had tipped off their mate Putin who tipped off his mate Assad, days before, so the plants were almost certainly emptied (just like the airbase had been, that the US hit a year ago, after Assad’s chemical weapons attack last April). In short, the “anti”-war-o-sphere has been up in arms about this brief piece of elaborate theatre, warning about … “World War III”, while none of them ever had anything to say on the last 3.5 years of actual US war in Syria, including the slaughter of civilians, even the use of white phosphorus etc (needless to say it has had even less to say about the real war on Syria waged for years by Assad and Putin). That is not anti-war, or anti-imperialist, rather it is just pro-Assad, even those who do not claim to be. Otherwise, how can we explain this blatant contradiction?
So again, how can this overall US role fit with the geopolitics outlined above? Yes, the US is allied to Israel and to Saudi Arabia. So what? Yes, the Saudis used to support the Syrian opposition, for their own reasons; partly due to be their geopolitical-sectarian struggle for regional leadership with Iran; and partly because once Assad’s slaughter of mostly Sunni Syrians became a region-wide Nakbha, the supposed head of the Sunni Islamic world felt the need to take a stand or get swept aside by its Sunni jihadist enemies. However, it is unlikely that an absolute monarchy ever actually wanted a people’s victory over Assad (indeed, in the first 6 months of the uprising, the Saudi regime strongly supported Assad, as did Qatar and other Gulf monarchies); they wanted to pressure Assad to compromise, because his war on Syrians was causing massive destabilisation to the entire region. Since they launched their own bloody war on Yemen in 2015, however, the Saudis have shown far less enthusiasm for Syria, and over the last couple of years have essentially lost all interest in helping evict Assad, as is widely recognised.
But the Americans were much less enthusiastic than the Saudis even from the start (absurd leftist myths about “regime change” aside), and often held them back, sometimes blocking them from shipping any arms. Of course, the US also wanted some (milder) pressure on Assad to compromise (a little), and so their aims partly corresponded with Saudi aims; but the US’ main reason for doling out some arms with an eye-dropper to some select rebel groups was much more about co-opting them in order to divert them from fighting Assad into fighting ISIS only. Actually, it is not even clear how much the US has provided at all, despite the hype; for a time the issue was only what kind of arms and how much the US would allow the Saudis or Qatar to send and what and how much it blocked; when the US allowed the Saudis (or Qatar) to send more, that was often interpreted as US arms.
The main US role, apart from pushing rebels to quit fighting Assad in order to only fight ISIS, was to block, from 2012 till today, anyone – Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, former Libyan rebels, the black market – from sending defensive anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels, in a war that has been, since 2012, overwhelmingly an air war. I’m not sure what one is to make of this elephant in the room – I see this as a much more decisive intervention than any other in the war, and I’m unsure why not many others see it the same way, including many anti-Assadists. Of course, anti-aircraft weapons are not a panacea to end all suffering, but the fundamental fact is that in the era of modern air-forces, it is very difficult for a revolution to resist; if the rebels had these decisive defensive weapons, it would not allow them to seize Damascus or any region where Assad has a support base, but it would allow the battle on the ground to be on a slightly more levelled playing field (the regime would still have overwhelming military superiority), without the overwhelming suffering caused to the rebels’ civilian base by Assad’s air-power.
We can romanticise the Vietnamese victory over US imperialism as much as we want, as long as we remember that at least when the Soviets were also doling out military “aid with an eye-dropper,” as we complained at the time, that at least the “eye-dropper” then allowed through decisive anti-aircraft weapons that the Vietnamese used to great effect, especially during Nixon’s horrific Christmas bombing of 1972, when the skies were filled with fireworks displays of exploding US warplanes.
As for Israel, it has never aided the rebels, and has since the outset adopted a rather standoffish, if not hostile stance towards them (and the rebels have never shown any interest in gaining Israeli support either, have always insisted that the Golan is Syrian, and rebel-held Syria erupted in anti-Trump demonstrations when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital”). Israel prefers Assad keep power, but has been increasingly drawn in to attacking Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Of course, Iranian-backed forces and Hezbollah are major backers of the largely collapsed Syrian army; but Israel has tended to strike in a way narrowly focused on its own interests, taking on the nature of a parallel war. It has never targeted the regime or Iran or Hezbollah in the context of a battle with the rebels (and, to be fair, the rebels probably didn’t want it either); in fact, the one time Israel intervened directly in battle was in late 2017, near the Golan, when it prevented the rebels taking a town from the regime. After an Israeli strike on Iranian assets in January 2018 in central Syria, we saw the whole genocidal Assad bombing of Ghouta, killing 1700 people in 4 weeks, with “conventional” weapons of mass destruction rather than chemicals, and so there was not a peep out of Trump, the US, France, the UK etc, and neither was there another peep from Israel – this was of no concern at all. In fact, when Israel did just recently hit Iranian assets again in central Syria, it was after the end of the Ghouta battle, as if this bracketing of Assad’s decisive showdown with the Ghouta opposition, at both ends, was deliberately aimed at symbolising that this fight was of no concern to Israel at all, if not that it preferred Assad’s victory there.
This shows my problem with a discussion that says on one side is the US allied with Israel and Saudi Arabia and on the other is Russia and Iran allied to Assad!
Moreover, we should add that while Israel targets Iran, it has excellent relations with Assad’s other major backer, Russia, the imperialist state engaged in a massive air war against the Syrian people on behalf of the tyrant, much like the US in Vietnam or elsewhere. After Russia invaded, Putin and Netanyahu had so many high-level love fests that I lost count – Israel clearly saw the opportunity for Russia to replace Iran as Assad’s main backer; the reason this hasn’t (yet) come to pass is that Assad and Putin still need Iranian, and Iraqi and Afghan Shiite, and Hezbollah cannon fodder on the ground. Of course, Russia’s advanced anti-aircraft system that it provided to Assad and which it operates never downs Israeli warplanes that attack Iranian and Hezbollah targets, knowing full well that these strikes do little damage to Assad. And a major piece of US-Russian collaboration last year, involving Israel and Jordan, was the southwestern “de-confliction zone”, which while banning rebel moves against Damascus, also ensured that Iranian and allied forces were to be nowhere near the Golan (this obviously did not apply to Assad’s own forces).
Further to the geopolitical problem is that the US is also allied with the Egyptian dictatorship of al-Sisi, and to the Iraqi regime, which it installed via invasion and still provides massive military backing to. Yet both Egypt and Iraq are strongly pro-Assad. Saudi Arabia helped overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in 2013; that regime had been supporting the Syrian uprising; despite the Saudis own support for the anti-Assad uprising, from the very start the new al-Sisi tyranny clearly identified Assad as a kindred-spirit, and sends not only arms but even fighter pilots to aid his regime. As for Iraq, the regime is a US-Iranian joint-venture, a gigantic hole in the geopolitical theory if ever there was one! The Iraqi regime has poured thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Shiite sectarian militia into Syria to prop up Assad; if the US had not been actively arming the Iraqi regime and providing large scale military intervention to help it against ISIS, all those Iraqi forces would have been needed in Iraq. In a sense, the US directly aided the mass Iranian-Iraqi Shiite sectarian intervention in Syria.
School basement used as underground bomb shelter, before and after bombed by Russian airforce on March 20 (Mohammed Abdullah)
By Michael Karadjis
In early April 2011, shortly after the start of the Syrian uprising on March 15, people poured into the streets in Ghouta, peacefully chanting “The people want the fall of the regime.” Watch this video, and see what happened next: this slaughter of peaceful protest throughout Syria continued for the next six months before some citizens began defending their protests with weapons, and some regime troops began to protect their brothers and sisters rather than kill them; thus was formed, organically from the struggle, the Free Syrian Army.
As the Assad regime, backed by Russian terror-bombing, today closes in on rebel-held East Ghouta, where 400,000 reside among the bombed-out ruins of this vast working-class district, it is important to consider what is at stake. As we will see, beyond the stick-figure style analysis in both the mainstream western media and, generally worse, in the woke “alternative” media, that speaks of a battle between the regime and “terrorists” or “militants” holding East Ghouta, the reality is that a powerful civil side to the revolution continues to exist, a Free Syrian Army also continues to exist alongside better-known Islamist brigades, and even the most odious of the Islamist brigades has been unable to completely dominate over the organs of the revolution, including the democratic local councils.
As we will see, what is at stake in the crushing of Ghouta are the hopes and dreams of millions of Syrians to live with basic freedoms without being saddled by one of the world’s most savage dictatorships.
The Assad-Putin Armageddon
Ghouta has been under horrific siege, with every conceivable weapon of mass destruction bar nuclear poured into the region, with an ongoing war against hospitals and medical centres, and with starvation used a key weapon, for some six years. However, the current offensive that began on February 18 is possibly the worst to date.
According to the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), 1678 people were killed in East Ghouta in the four weeks between February 18 and March 17, of whom 91.4 percent were civilians, and 230 were children. By way of comparison, 1462 civilians were slaughtered by Israel in Gaza during the seven-week period of its ‘Operation Protective Edge’ massacre in 2014.
These horrendous figures are consistent with those of other monitoring bodies, for example, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF):
“In the two weeks between the evening of 18 February to the evening of 3 March 2018, the medical data reveals 4,829 wounded and 1,005 dead – or 344 wounded and 71 dead per day. … Two of these facilities have yet to submit data for 3 March, so this is an underestimate. There are many other medical facilities in East Ghouta that are not supported by MSF, so the overall toll is significantly higher.”
If over 1000 killed in two weeks was an underestimate on March 3, by March 17 the MSF figures would be at least as high as those of the VDC, given death tolls of anything up to 100 on many days; for example, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, on March 7 alone, 93 were killed.
As much of the Ghouta population hides in underground shelters, the bloodthirsty Russian airforce is now using bunker-busters to penetrate these last havens. On March 20, the Russians bombed an underground school in Arbin, killing 15 children and two women. “They used a rocket which went through 3 floors & exploded in the basement.”
As Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote, rightly noting the whole world’s abandonment, and the loss of all humanity of the so-called “anti-imperialist” left:
“Do you remember how the American bombing of the Ameriyah shelter in Baghdad in 1991 became an image of imperialist evil? Today the Russians hit an underground school turned shelter in the Ghouta. Seventeen corpses have been pulled from the rubble so far. Almost all are women and children. At other times Assad drops chlorine – which is heavy and gathers in basements – to force the people up to the surface. Then Russia incinerates them with napalm. But none of these events will be fixed as images of imperialist evil. Nobody is even noticing.”
Mass starvation has been a weapon of this war since 2013. On 27 October 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, warned that “the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law” and called for access of humanitarian workers to deliver aid to Ghouta. To date, however, the regime has barely allowed in any relief. The first 46-truck relief convoy that was allowed in on March 5 was stripped of 70 percent of its medical supplies by the regime, including trauma kits, surgical kits, insulin and other vital material, according to the World Health Organization.
As Mark Boothroyd writes, “the UN and World Food Programme (WFP) carried out over 257 air drops of food to Deir Ezzour, a regime controlled city in north eastern Syria that was besieged by ISIS from 2015-2017, yet the UN and WFP has carried out zero air drops” to any areas besieged by the regime, including Ghouta, despite the apocalyptic situation.
At the same time, certain others who are well-aware of this tragedy draw an equals sign between “two sides” who both kill, focusing on some of the less savoury rebel groups in Ghouta. This article will show why this is an invalid way of looking at Ghouta.
Attacks out of Ghouta
Before moving on however, it is worth noting one valid point often made: the Ghouta rebels also sometimes kill civilians in regime-held Damascus by firing imprecise rockets into the city. According to the UN Human Rights Council report, the numbers killed by rebels in recent months is in the “dozens.” All killing of civilians, whether intentional or unintentional, should be vigorously condemned. Civilians, who include children, are not the enemy, are not responsible for the actions of regimes or of militias. In the spirit of the revolution for freedom against dictatorship, targeting civilians ought to be seen as not only morally wrong but also in fundamental conflict with that spirit.
Nonetheless, it is a hypocrisy of the tallest order when supporters of the Assad regime claim that their slaughter of thousands of civilians is in “defence” against the killing of some dozens by rebels. Chronologically it is sheer nonsense, given the years of siege, slaughter and starvation Ghouta has been subjected to; clearly these desperate acts of firing unguided rockets at Damascus are the misguided attempts at “defence” against the regime’s massacre. Even if the chronology were somewhat grey, it is sensational hypocrisy to accept the killing of thousands of civilians by an airforce and advanced weaponry as “defence” against the killing of dozens, but to not accept the reverse.
In all civil conflicts, civilians get killed on both sides. During Israel’s various Gaza massacres, for example, Hamas has similarly fired imprecise rockets into Israel which have sometimes killed civilians – at a similarly tiny rate compared to the civilians killed by Israel. In most cases of such desperate firing out of a besieged ghetto, supporters of human emancipation, while condemning any attack on civilians, do not put an equals sign between these acts and the systematic crimes of the massively armed oppressor. Not only are the numbers so vastly different, but it is this systematic mass violence that creates the overall atmosphere in which small-scale crimes from the side of the oppressed also take place. It is only in Syria that some who have always understood this have reversed their thinking and adopted “war on terror” justifications for mass killing.
“Terrorists” in Ghouta?
To listen to supporters of the regime, and their echo chamber in the western far-right and alt-left, Ghouta is full of “terrorists”, “al-Qaida” and “head-choppers.” Therefore, the regime has no choice but to bomb the region into oblivion.
Even many non-supporters of the regime buy into this grotesque propaganda. For example, in a recent exchange, I challenged a supporter of the Rojava Kurdish struggle on his assertion leftists “would be the first to be beheaded” if they were to enter Ghouta. Asking for a single instance of rebel beheading in Ghouta, his response was “Ghouta is full of all these al quaida [sic] and other headchopping organisations.”
On the one hand, even if there were a smidgeon of truth in this, it is difficult to see how anyone on the progressive side of politics could use this to justify this all-out slaughter of the civilian population. Surely this is the kind of argumentation that imperialist invaders and oppressive regimes have always used to justify slaughter. The Assadist justification for the slaughter in Ghouta is identical to the Zionist justification for the slaughter in Gaza, the American justification for Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, the Russian justification for Grozny, the Saudi justification for Yemen, the Turkish justification for its decades-long war on the Kurds in the east, and the list goes on.
This desire to justify the Assad regime by exaggerating the role of reactionary jihadists among the opposition also overlooks the detail that the Assad regime has slaughtered, gassed, starved, raped and tortured at a rate that leaves even the worst jihadists a very distant second. It is equivalent to defending the Nazi invasion of Greece in 1941 on the basis that Greece was then ruled by a dictatorship.
That said, there is no truth in these assertions whatsoever; the essentialist, racist labelling of a whole population as “head-choppers” is based on nothing other than prejudice.
The horrific practice of head-chopping is in fact an ISIS specialty; no rebel groups in Syria, not even the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS, practice this method of killing. The only people who believe that ISIS is in Ghouta are those lacking the most elementary knowledge of the Syrian situation. When ISIS has come anywhere near Damascus, it has been decisively chased away by the Damascus rebels. This video, showing the way the Ghouta-based militia Jaysh al-Islam (JaI) deals with ISIS captives reveals a very brutal streak in JaI practice; even though the captives are ISIS, this action should be condemned. But it leaves no illusions that they have anything to do with ISIS.
The only other major force in Syria that practices beheading at times is the Assad regime, or otherwise similar acts such as cutting bodies into several pieces, but this is just run-of-the-mill activity for a regime which excels in horrific tortures and mutilations in its gulag.
If admitted that there is no ISIS, the accusation is that the Ghouta rebels are “al-Qaida”. By this they mean HTS, whose main component group, JFS, used to be Jabhat al-Nusra, then the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. JFS severed links with al-Qaida a year and a half ago, but remains a deeply reactionary, Sunni-sectarian organisation, which the rebels will need to deal with in their own time, such as when they do not need to fight for survival against an infinitely more murderous regime and invading imperialist powers.
In any case, no serious analyst believes there are more than a few hundred HTS fighters out of the twenty thousand or so fighters in Ghouta.
But even many of those who concede that the HTS presence is tiny note that one of the main rebel militia in Ghouta, Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), is just as bad. JaI certainly has a reactionary leadership, though it is a homegrown Islamist group with no links to global terrorism. But just who the other rebels are in East Ghouta, what the role of JaI is, how much power these rebel military formations have over the populations, who the civil resistance is, and what the term ‘revolution’ means in this context, are important questions if we want to go beyond a superficial analysis that says that “bad guys” run both sides of Damascus – as if the aim of the uprising were to place the JaI leader on the throne in Damascus.
Who are the rebels?
So, who are the rebel groups holding out in East Ghouta? There are two major rebel brigades, and a scattering of smaller groups. The two major forces are:
Jaysh al-Islam (‘Army of Islam’), a Salafist-led brigade formed in 2011 by Zahran Alloush, the son of a Saudi-based preacher, dominates the eastern-most region of East Ghouta, particularly the suburb of Douma. It is thought to have around 10,000 fighters or slightly higher. For a time Alloush specialised in very sectarian and anti-democratic language, but in the period before he was assassinated by a Russian airstrike, he had moderated much of this. JaI also engages in repressive practices against opposition. The famous Douma Four revolutionary activists – Razan Zeitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil, Wael Hammadeh and Nazem Hammadi – were kidnapped in late 2013 and have not been heard from since. Family and friends believe JaI was responsible; it denies the charge, but evidence strongly points towards its responsibility.
JaI’s unsavoury character is often cited not only by those justifying Assadist genocide against the Ghouta population, but also by many who condemn the regime’s slaughter of civilians. They say the presence of this militia indicates that we are not dealing with any revolutionary process in Ghouta; it is just a sectarian war where one side happens to be in a far more powerful position to carry out its murderous designs than the other. This omits the broader question of the relationship between these militias and the civil opposition and the people in a revolutionary situation, which will be examined below; but even on the level of armed militias, it leaves out the other most powerful brigade in Ghouta:
Faylaq al-Rahman (‘Rahman Brigade’), a large FSA military coalition, dominates the western side of Ghouta, closer to regime-held Syria, with some 8-9000 troops. FaR has clashed with JaI numerous times in the last few years, usually due to the latter’s attempts to dominate the region. Most of the big battles against the regime over the last year and a half have been led by FaR, including the big battles linking Jobar and Qaboun early last year, and in Harasta late last year. FaR is led by SAA defector Captain Abd al-Nasr Shmeir, who claims to be fighting for a non-sectarian future for Syria, stating he defected from the SAA in order to protect the people and “because he seeks a Syria that does not serve one sect.” FaR advocates a civil, democratic state.
It was formed in November 2013, as a fusion of several FSA brigades, including Shmeir’s original Liwa al-Bara, consisting of defecting SAA troops in Douma; then the FSA 1st Brigade based in Qaboun and Tishren districts, and the soft-Islamist Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, both fused into FaR in 2016. The latter was itself formed in November 2013, from five Islamist brigades, on the basis of a more moderate interpretation of Islam in line with traditional Damascene Islam, as an explicit rejection of JaI’s increasingly hard-line stance; Ajnad al-Sham makes explicit its goal of protecting minorities.
While JaI’s sectarian stance is often highlighted, neither the mainstream nor the woke “alternative” media note the opposite stances of the other major armed brigade in Ghouta. During last year’s offensive in Jobar and Qaboun, the FSA, and Faylaq al-Rahman itself, released statements declaring their commitment to “all laws of war”, specifically, avoiding civilians “of all religions and sects”, avoiding touching any places of worship or their “symbols” with “direct or indirect fire”, fair treatment of prisoners and the bodies of the dead “without insulting or abusing them” and working to secure and protect “medical personnel, civil defense crews and all humanitarian aid and media groups.”
Two minor brigades are the local branches of Ahrar al-Sham, which controls the suburb of Harasta and has about 1000 fighters, and of HTS, which has several hundred fighters. Ahrar al-Sham fought alongside FaR in the big battles against the regime last year, when JaI was little involved. HTS has been in conflict with both JaI and FaR.
In response to the spurious attempt to justify this latest massacre on an “al-Qaida” presence, Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham offered to expel HTS’s small presence there, evacuating them within 15 days, in exchange for full implementation of the UNSC’s ceasefire resolution, a full end to bombing and full access to humanitarian aid. FaR spokesperson, Wael Olwan, last year offered to expel HTS to Idlib, but claims “the Russians did not let the evacuation happen.”
The question of arms and alleged foreign support
In the Assadist disinformation war, a common piece of discourse states that in Ghouta Assad is fighting a “US- and Saudi-armed terrorist insurgency at the gates of the capital,” often padded out with ironic statements calling JaI “moderate rebels.” Since those defending this genocide have no argument, they rely on such complete red-herrings.
The US has never provided arms to the Damascus brigades, and especially not to Jaysh al-Islam. The assertion of any US arming is just a bald-faced lie. Nor has the US, or any western government or media ever referred to JaI as “moderate” rebels, a label only ever used to refer to non-Islamist groups dedicated to a civil state (JaI’s main rival, the FSA Faylaq al-Rahman, could very deservedly be awarded this title). indeed US Defence Secretary John Kerry even referred to JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. These Assadist attempts at irony are therefore simply stupid.
Given the geographic isolation of the Damascus suburbs, the prevention of the SF – whose Daraa-based territories border on Jordan – from linking up with them could hardly be more counterrevolutionary; in late 2016, this led to the fall of the iconic revolutionary centres in south-west Damascus, Darayya and Moadamiya.
Trump could hardly make things clearer in any case, announcing in March, in the middle of one of the worst Assadist sieges in the war, that the only US interest in Syria is “to get rid of ISIS, and to go home.”
The question of Saudi support is more complex. Media reports often refer to JaI as “Saudi-backed” (and of FaR as “Qatari-backed) as a matter of course; a discerning reader would notice the complete absence of any attempt to back up these assertions with a shred of evidence. A google search on Saudi support to JaI will turn up a number of articles, all of which were from around October 2013. Even these articles provide precious little evidence of Saudi arms; rather, they claim that the conversion of Alloush’s former Liwa al-Islam (Islam Brigade) into Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) was a Saudi-backed manoeuvre attempting to curb the growing influence of the extremely anti-Saudi Jabhat al-Nusra.
JaI denies ever receiving Saudi weapons. In 2016, JaI spokesman Captain Islam Alloush, stated that “we in Jaish al-Islam have not received any Saudi military or logistic support. As far as we know, Saudi Arabia is involved in military support only through the international cooperation rooms, which in turn do not support Jaysh al-Islam.” “International cooperation rooms” means the MOC; it is true that Saudi support has gone through the MOC, and that the MOC has only ever armed the Southern Front (and even this has often been blocked by the US), and never sent anything to JaI. If there has been any Saudi support beyond the MOC, it has left no trails. In any case, JaI, despite its change to a more grandiose name, remains almost entirely based in Ghouta, which is encircled; the Saudis would need to fly in weapons to arm JaI.
It is also worth noting that, despite the common association with Saudi Arabia, largely due to the fact that Zahran Alloush’s father is a Saudi-based preacher, JaI and the Saudis have often been sharply at odds politically.
Where then does JaI get its arms? In fact, apart from arms seizures from battle, both JaI and FaR have the advantage of operating in heavily industrial Ghouta, full of little workshops, where they have become very proficient at making the largely primitive arms they overwhelmingly possess, giving them a degree of independence of foreign backers. On the other hand, JaI’s power has almost certainly been boosted by finance from the Gulf, from mostly private Islamist sources in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, rather than any regime.
Class and the uprising in the Damascus ‘suburbs’
If the above sketch of the armed formations shows that that they are not all Jaysh al-Islam, or not even all Islamist, nevertheless a major Islamist component of the uprising exists in Ghouta, as elsewhere in Syria. For many western observers, it seems that Islamists come from Mars, or from anywhere but Syria; or at least it indicates the influence of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Gulf-based Islamist networks. While some of these factors have had influence, these explanations avoid the most important place to look for a powerful, if relatively moderate, Islamist component to the uprising, armed and unarmed: Syria.
The “Damascus suburbs” which ring the east and south of the city – East Ghouta, including Douma, Harasta, Hamouriya, Saqba, Zamalka, Jobar, and further south towns such as Moadamiya and Darayya – have been major sites of the Syrian revolution from the beginning, under full control of opposition councils since 2012.
While the revolution always had a strong component of students, teachers, intellectuals, artists and other urban-based middle-class activists, alongside a heavily rural- and poor provincial-based uprising, the real motor was where the urban and rural worlds of Syria intersect: in the newer working class and poor suburbs and shanty-towns surrounding Damascus (and in east Aleppo city, crushed by Assad a year ago after five years under opposition control), composed of hundreds of thousands of relatively recent rural immigrants from the countryside.
Bashar Assad’s neo-liberalisation of the economy in the last decade before 2011 brought the political demand for democracy and the economic issues of the poor together to form a highly combustible revolutionary mix. As these policies facilitated the growth of an “obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie,” according to Syrian intellectual and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh, especially around the Assad family and its cronies, like Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf who controls some 60% of the economy through his holding companies, at the other end they impoverished the already poor. From the countryside – where peasants had benefited from the Baathist land reforms of the early 1960s – a vast human wave of poor peasants uprooted by these policies fled to the outskirts of the big cities and formed these vast semi-urban, semi-rural slums and shantytowns.
The class divide between regime and revolution was striking in both Damascus and Aleppo. Qadri Jamil, a former minister in Assad’s government who was one of his left window-dressers until sacked in 2013, claims to have long believed that Assad’s economic liberalisation would “lead to a social explosion,” noting it had left “44 percent of Syrians in poverty, and raised unemployment levels to 20 percent.” These policies, he claims, “destroyed local producers in places like the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka, Harasta and Douma — now centers of opposition” — while enriching the new elite. “All those towns whose names we are hearing now are similar to Detroit in America, so how one cannot expect to have resentments in their circles?”
By contrast, the central Damascus bourgeoisie and upper middle classes are of course the base of the Assadist regime – though countless others in central Damascus who don’t entirely belong to either “world” chafe under the totalitarian rule of the regime, including many with secret sympathies for the people of Ghouta, because that is the only place to be safe from Assad’s bombs, missiles, napalm, poison gas and starvation siege.
The division in Aleppo between regime and former opposition-controlled regions was a similar study in sociology. As a Syrian exile wrote who returned to her city:
“Aleppo today is cut in two distinct halves, as was Beirut. Whereas Beirut was divided along confessional lines, social classes separate the two Aleppos. In the East the Free Syrian Army rules over the poor, working-class neighbourhoods; in the West the regime controls the middle class and bourgeois parts of town.”
Islam, Class and Revolution
How does this relate to the question of Islam? Basically, at least some degree of ‘Islamism’ simply represents the traditional conservatism of the countryside and its reflection among the rural immigrants living in the regions ringing the cities. They were never “secular” in the sense of the Assadist elite; official state “secularism”, and the relatively middle-class lifestyle that went with it, was limited by the savage class structure of Assadist Syria. So while Qatar and Turkey tended to support many soft-Islamist brigades (though also FSA brigades) via their Muslim Brotherhood networks, it is important to understand that a certain level of mild political Islam was always going to be part of the mix, just as it is in Palestine with Hamas, in Iraq during the resistance to US occupation, and throughout the Middle East.
To help us understand this, this video shows us a protest by 500 women in Douma, all in veils, protesting when Assad’s security forces detained and tortured children and teenagers early in 2011. Many of these women had never before left their houses alone, but came out into the streets to demand their release. One of them explained (see video at 19.04 – 20.20):
“Sometimes I feel like a man working among men. There’s no more differentiation between men and women in Douma. On the contrary. Men now let women take care of the injured because they know better how to deal with them.”
While this may seem little from the perspective of western feminism, for the traditional Muslim women involved this was an important step; unless we understand the movement of real people where they are at, western observers are merely playing with concepts of “revolution,” or for that matter, women’s liberation.
These are the ordinary people who made the revolution. As Sam Hamad puts it: “Syrians are bearded Muslims. They are hijab-wearing women. They are in general quite poor and haven’t had access to western-style education. They aren’t all liberals and photogenic Good Arabs. Sorry. This belief obscures everything and reflects an internalised racism and Islamophobia. For the majority of the population, like Egyptians or Jordanians or Tunisians etc., their default point of orientation in life, coexisting with other points of belief, is their faith.”
Now, all that said, this does not entirely explain the presence of a particularly odious character in the form of Zahran Alloush, the late leader of Jaysh al-Islam. Some of these Islamist formations are strikingly moderate and committed to a civil state, while others are more hard-line, and JaI, though furiously anti-ISIS, is generally seen as on the hard-line end. But here’s where conjunctural factors come in. JaI was not set up as a cadre-based ‘jihadist’ group like Nusra (or even Ahrar al-Sham in its early years), with chapters all over the country dedicated to a particular system of thought; rather, it arose as a genuine anti-dictatorship movement based in the traditionalist working class region of Douma. One reason it ended up with someone like Alloush at its head was that Assad released Alloush, along with 1000 other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests and tortures was taken up by people like Alloush, who also had connections among Gulf Islamist circles.
Moreover, just as the most traditionalist areas tended be more ‘Islamist’, after the war began the most devastated areas were going to tend towards radicalisation. As a Palestinian friend in Sydney put it, this is the same reason Hamas is in Gaza, whereas Fatah is in relatively more comfortable (by occupation standards) in Ramallah; in similar vein, JaI arose in Douma, a kind of Syrian Gaza, except where Assad’s version of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ goes on for years instead of weeks, an obvious breeding ground for more radical politics. While the current siege reaches cataclysmic proportions, mass killing and starvation has been the staple all along; for example, regime shelling killed 250 people in Douma in February 2015 alone, then on just one day, March 15, 83 were killed; in virtually any period over these years similar figures could be pulled out. As Gaza shows, reducing a slum to smashed up ruins tends to strengthen “Islamist” forces or anyone who can offer either “radical” action, or God, as some kind of alternative when the entire world has abandoned you.
The question of Jaysh al-Islam’s sectarianism
More significant than the extent of JaI’s ‘radical’ evolution was the vocal sectarianism of its leadership. Alloush made his most famous sectarian rant, promising to “cleanse” Damascus of Shiites and Alawites, in September 2013. More than any other speech or action in Syria outside the realms of Jabhat al-Nusra, this particular speech, coming from an Islamist with generally friendly relations to the mainstream opposition, was of almost decisive importance in helping cement the sectarian divide that Assad had deliberately and cunningly created; most Alawites who may have been hedging their bets, especially in the Damascus region, would likely have resigned themselves to putting up with Assad.
Alloush made this speech soon after the most devastating event Ghouta has suffered: Assad’s sarin massacre in August that year, just weeks earlier, which killed 1400 people, above all children, in various suburbs throughout Ghouta. While this hardly justifies a speech that virtually re-labels the democratic struggle as a sectarian war, context is hardly irrelevant: where a people are being literally smashed to pieces and starved to death by an Alawite-dominated military, which then uses chemical weapons and is granted licence by the world, the emergence of anti-Alawi sectarianism is surely no mystery. This was made worse a few months earlier, with the mass entry of Hezbollah into the war on Assad’s side, when this Lebanese Shiite-communalist militia played the decisive role in besieging, conquering, destroying and “cleansing” the strategic rebel-held Sunni town of Qaysar, in June 2013. Alloush’s appalling statements reflected a rise in Sunni sectarianism in the context of this onset of the invasion by the Shiite-sectarian international, of Nasrallah’s sectarian war.
A year and a half later, however, Alloush publicly retracted these views. Regarding co-existence with minorities, he said this has always been the situation in Syria, and “we are not seeking to impose our power on minorities, or to practice oppression against them”, including the Alawites who are “part of the Syrian people.” Alloush claimed his earlier statements were due to the pressure he lived under in Ghouta: “We are under siege. We all suffer psychological stress. When I was in prison and the jailer would come and torture prisoners, after he would leave prisoners would quarrel and beat each other.” Regarding democracy, which he had previously denounced, he claimed that if they succeed in toppling the regime, “we will leave it to the people to choose what form of state it wants.” In another interview later in 2015, he again said that Alawites “are not our enemy, they are victims of the regime.”
Of course, the damage had already been done, given that the damage was political, not that Alloush’s loud noises from the ghetto ever had any reality. We also have no way of knowing if this reincarnation was genuine. But the issue is not the personal honesty or otherwise of one individual, now dead; even when he was alive, the issue posed was never of Alloush taking Assad’s place on the throne. Nor was it ever an issue of JaI having the military capability to overrun central Damascus, still less the distant Alawite coast, to be able to carry out Alloush’s threats; to harbour such fantasies would be equivalent to imagining that Hamas may one day win a military struggle with Israel and rule over Jews in Tel Aviv.
Rather, the issue is that, regardless of the reason for this change, JaI was never Nusra, ie, was never a militia whose existence was defined by an ultra-sectarian ideology. As a vehicle for the local people to resist Assad’s attacks with arms, carrying out a sectarian war on Alawites had nothing to do with the reasons thousands joined the group. As one civil activist in Douma, hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around. Two years ago, we went from a partial siege to a total siege. The bombardments come from the heights of Ghouta Valley, and these missiles condition our daily life. The fighters are not all Salafists, or, rather, they are Salafists by circumstance.” As such, an idiosyncratic leader could flip this way or that without it changing much on the ground.
Jaysh al-Islam, repression and civil resistance
Actually, JaI is more a danger to the local Sunni population and the democratic revolutionaries of Ghouta than to out-of-touch Alawites; the disappearance of the Douma Four revolutionaries is a good example. Yet it should not be forgotten that before disappearing, these four were leaders of the fight against the Assad regime; whatever they may have thought of JaI, it already held the same powerful position in parts of Ghouta that it does today (indeed, the Violations Documentation Centre, which they had set up, was not shy about also reporting rebel violations). Moreover, since their disappearance, thousands of other democratic revolutionaries still continue to operate in various ways (as we will show below), including those who consider themselves the continuers of their work, often called the “Razan Zeitouneh network,” around the Local Coordinating Committee they had built, including the Violations Documentation Centre, the Douma Women’s Protection Centre and various health and educational activities. One such activist, named Hani, notes that the armed brigades cannot override Ghouta’s social dynamics: “… the women in the Razan network don’t give up. These types [eg, Alloush] are the new local despots. But they are not Bashar’s murderous forces.”
JaI, in other words, may often try to use repressive means, but it is limited by the very revolution all around it of which it is part, however deformed. Even JaI’s denial that it was involved in the disappearance of the four activists, and the secretive nature of the entire episode, reflects the fact that association with crimes against such outstanding revolutionaries would be met with rejection among the revolutionary masses. A comparison with the Assad regime’s practice of returning tortured and mutilated corpses of relatives, even children, to families following time in its dungeons is indicative of the contrast; the regime’s aim is precisely to terrorise, seeing, quite rightly, the mass of people as its enemies.
As a result, we have continually seen large demonstrations in Ghouta against JaI, and in the majority of cases, JaI forces do not attempt to repress them, though there certainly have been exceptions; and people also protest these attempts at repression. At times, JaI has also faced demonstrations against high prices caused by its alleged corruption and profiteering, such as the “hunger demonstrations” of late 2014. At this time, Douma residents also attacked the storage units of merchants who dominate the local food distribution business, and they identified Jaysh Islam with these merchants, in a particularly notable example of both the class nature of such “Islamist” leaderships and of the kind of “uninterrupted” revolutionary struggle that could result if the regime is ejected and the people are not dependent on the armed groups for elementary protection against the greater enemy. At the time, JaI guards did fire live ammunition at the rioters, but they fired back, and Ghouta’s Unified Judicial Council issued a statement warning against these JaI-backed “monopolists,” calling them “blood dealers” and partners of the regime in the siege on Ghouta. The council gave them a week to put the goods on the market at their previous prices. When someone then attempted to poison council members, the council made no bones about pointing the finger at JaI.
This back and forth between the dominant armed group, the people in the streets, and the Ghouta local council reveals a dynamic different to that pictured not only by enemies of the revolution, but also by some of its well-intentioned supporters, who condemn Assad’s slaughter of civilians but tend to see the Islamist hijacking of the revolution as a completed dead end. The reality of Ghouta is far greater than that of the armed groups that arose to defend it.
Ironically, this complexity has even been shown at times of some of JaI’s worst actions. On November 1, 2015, following a period of some of the most horrific bombing of the entire war, JaI attempted to force a pause in the bombing by publicly parading SAA prisoners of war, and their civilian wives and adult family members, in cages atop the backs of trucks, which were placed in public streets and squares in the city.
This followed an October 30 regime bombing of Douma, which killed at least 70 people and wounded 550, a mere spike within the daily slaughter. Earlier, on August 16, 112 were killed in the one day, again with some 550 wounded civilians, 40 percent of them children. The desire to do anything to protect local civilians form this daily devastation is more than understandable; the hypocrisy of those who condemn JaI’s action but not the regime’s mass killing, is beyond words available in the English language. That said, the use of prisoners in such a demeaning way – especially the civilians – was condemned by almost all pro-revolution activists, and organisations, and by most of the very people of Douma being battered by regime airstrikes.
Needless to say, the damage had been done, with global focus on “caging people” rather than slaughtering them, and the revolution seen to demean itself as it demeaned civilians, but the point here is not to defend JaI; rather, to note again that its susceptibility to popular pressure.
While this may have looked like the end of local democracy, several days later the judicial committee of Douma ordered the re-opening of all five organisations. Unfortunately, it maintained the closure of the magazine pending the court hearing, but protestors prevented the arrest of magazine staff. To compare JaI’s rule to Assad’s on the basis of this unsuccessful attempt to ban these organisations would be inherently self-defeating, since no such organisations would be allowed to exist in the first place under the Assad regime; their leaders would be in Assad’s torture archipelago.
The episode once again indicated the very complex nature of the relationship between armed militias formed out of crisis response to regime terror, the ongoing civil side of the uprising and its elected bodies, and the local population itself. At this point, it would be worth reviewing the main aspects of this civil resistance.
Elected Local Councils and Civil Opposition in Ghouta
Douma’s revolutionary democratic council was one of the earliest to rise to the task of running the region free of the Assadist regime, when the latter withdrew in October 2012. The Douma council has 19 offices, dealing with “water and electricity, health and education, agriculture, legal affairs, civil records, sanitation, subsidies, women’s affairs, employment, media and the cemetery.” After JaI took control of religious affairs in November 2014, it tried to also take control of the council, but soon gave up. “They knew they would fail if they put their sheikhs in charge,” says Taha, a then council member, who says most of the council’s members “are technocrats: engineers, lawyers, members of civil society.”
According to the elected president of the local Saqba council, Mr. Yasser Obeed, election officials “were keen to ensure the necessary environment for voters, such as secret rooms and the prevention of outside influences that might change voters’ opinions. In addition, the stages of the elections were subject to oversight from the ballot, to the counting of votes, and to the final statistical process.” According to Robin Yassin-Kassab, in the Ghouta elections, militia leaders were not allowed to stand, though fighters were, but none were elected.
The 2017 elections were also notable for the participation of women. “For the first time since the start of the revolution, female candidates formed coalitions, fund-raised and campaigned among the people,” resulting in the nomination of 14 women for the educational, medical, economic and engineering sectors.
This participation of women, despite the presence of Salafist militias like JaI, was helped along by the widespread activities of civil society. “During 2016 and 2017, a number of activities were carried out in the city of Douma to empower women in the fields of education and work. This included activities by The Day After organization, which held forums and lectures on political diversity for women,” despite the site of the activities sometimes being subject to attack and the organisers being beaten. Another organisation, Women Now for Development, which provides opportunities for women to work on their own projects,” also conducted workshops on women’s rights which they believe contributed to increased women’s participation in the elections. Indeed, given the anti-woman politics of most Islamist groups, the large-scale participation of women in organsing the anti-Assad resistance in East Ghouta is outstanding.
Some 70 civil society organizations operate in East Ghouta, in sectors “including women empowerment, child care and protection, relief, skills training, advocacy, associative action, etc,” a part of the revolution related to, but separate from, the councils. These organisations are related to the entire network of civil society built up by people like Razan Zeitouneh around the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which also organise anti-regime demonstrations and disseminate information about the revolution. At the Douma Women’s Protection Center, which she founded, over 300 women regularly distribute survival baskets; a member of the network named Madj recounts being involved in the creation of seven educational centers, which serve 200 to 250 children. These are just a few of the great range of activities taking place in Free Ghouta, despite the almost impossible situation of endless mass killing by the regime.
In the midst of this furious slaughter today, civil society organizations, activists, and leaders released a statement on March 18 demanding the UN and international community take action to save lives in Ghouta, to protect civil and humanitarian agencies and for the civil bloc to be included as a negotiating party. These people have stayed to the end. They are not staying to protect JaI, or because JaI is “using them as human shields”, the accusation used by every imperialist and oppressor regime as it rains death on civilians. On the contrary, the only reason the civilian population has put up with the likes of JaI is due to the desperate needs of defence against the tyrannical regime, but the civil society bloc speaks with its own voice.
A momentary aside in Idlib …
Before concluding, it is important to note that all the same caveats about the relationship between armed militias (whether HTS, Islamist or FSA), civil uprising and councils, and the revolutionary people applies to the other large region still under the control of the revolution, Idlib province and neighbouring parts of south and west Aleppo and northern Hama – also under devastating attack earlier this year. And that is despite the larger role played there by HTS, and its anti-democratic practices, including kidnappings, killings and torture of other oppositionists.
Once again, therefore, the defence of Greater Idlib against Assad must not be seen as a defence of HTS, or of the armed brigades in general, but of the people’s revolution.
The loss of Ghouta: A huge loss to democratic prospects
Therefore, Assad’s likely military crushing of Ghouta will represent a massive blow against the democratic aspirations of Syrians trying to resist the full re-imposition of tyranny; the stakes are far bigger than the defeat of some Islamist militia.
But the stakes are bigger also than the survival of Ghouta itself. One propaganda device of the pro-Assad camp is to depict this struggle as a defence of the people of central Damascus, and the Alawites of the even more distant Mediterranean coast, from being overrun by armed Ghouta-based brigades like JaI. Apart from the reality of defence being the other way around, the problem with this is that it depicts all-or-nothing military victory by one side or another to be the issue, a flagrantly dishonest portrayal of the struggle.
At least since 2012-13, no serious observer has considered a sweeping military victory of the armed opposition even remotely likely; as stated above, the likelihood of JaI “coming to power” in Damascus, given military realities, is equivalent to that of Hamas “coming to power” in Tel Aviv. What then is the military struggle about, apart from the obvious desire of people in rebel-held pockets to not be ruled by Assad?
For Assad to be overthrown by a full-scale revolutionary uprising, armed or unarmed, would have required the armed and unarmed opposition to have had the political capacity to win a decisive part of the Alawite minority away from the regime, to the perspective of a democratic, non-sectarian revolutionary solution. Despite the democratic and anti-sectarian slogans of the early uprising, Assad’s militarisation of the revolution inevitably led to deepening sectarian fissures among the people; bloodshed has that effect, even aside from the fact that Assad’s massacres also had a deliberate sectarian nature. The rise of organisations such as Nusra, and vile statements such as those of Alloush in 2013, closed the immediate possibility of such a united, nation-wide insurrection against Assad. While civil oppositionists, FSA brigades and the exile-based opposition leadership continued to issue democratic and anti-sectarian statements, this would have needed to be daily shouted from the rooftops to counter the actual trends that had taken hold due to Assad’s war.
This left two possible ways of ending the conflict: military or political. But Assad plunged the country into military conflict not only to poison the political atmosphere, but also because as long as the struggle was purely military, his regime could not lose: the regime’s overwhelming military superiority could never be broken. Even if the West and regional states had properly armed the FSA – for example with the needed anti-aircraft weapons that in fact the US went out of its way to block – that would not have resulted in military parity; it would simply have allowed the rebels to hold onto their own territory without all this civilian slaughter, and to advance into areas where they had a natural support base (eg more of Daraa, Hama and Homs provinces); anti-air weapons would not have helped the rebels conquer regions where the regime had its support base, such as central Damascus, western Aleppo, Tartous or Latakia.
In fact, all major actors, both regime (officially if not in practice) and opposition (except Nusra) and all regional and global actors have been committed to some form of “political solution” since the Geneva process began in 2012. This has always been understood to involve a ‘transitional’ administration replacing the Assad regime, including mutually agreed upon members of the opposition and of the regime, tasked with organising free elections. From the opposition’s standpoint, this would exclude Assad and his immediate circle of mass murderers; from that of regime supporters and religious minorities, it would exclude jihadists and sectarians.
In all joint declarations of the Syrian opposition – political, military and civil – including the ‘Islamist’ brigades (including JaI), the form of state envisaged following the transition is “a democratic pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian society, with women playing an important role and with no discrimination against people regardless of their religious, denominational or ethnic backgrounds.” In 2016, he opposition Higher Negotiations Committee added that women must be represented “in all entities and institutions to be formed at a rate of 30 percent” while stressing that “the Kurdish cause shall be considered a national Syrian cause and action shall be taken to ensure their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural rights in the constitution.”
However, ceasefires, political arrangements and elections do not necessarily guarantee great steps forward for the people’s revolutionary dreams; this depends on the content of such stages. For the best outcome, the military balance on the ground is a decisive factor: it is the difference between a transitional political arrangement in which the opposition can demand the release of political prisoners, the end of sieges, be able to keep their weapons, to provide security and democratic governance to the areas they continue to control during the transition, and be able to hold meetings and demonstrations without being shot at, compared to one in which the regime is able to deny these basics: in other words, the difference between a ceasefire that leaves the door open to non-military revolutionary possibilities, and one that slams it fully shut, an Assadist regime without Assad – the preferred model of the imperialist powers and regional dictators (and they no longer insist even on the “without Assad” part).
Therefore, the crushing of Ghouta is not only a setback for democratic governance in Ghouta itself, but for the optimum balance of forces required for the future revival and success of the civil democratic revolutionary movement throughout Syria.
What can we do?
Many supporters of the Syrian people have advocated action such as dropping food and supplies to the besieged people, boycotting Russian airlines, or the coming World Cup in Russia, trying to get anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels, a No Fly Zone, or other ideas. The complete disinterest of the “international community” in adopting even the least militaristic approaches – especially that of dropping food as they did in Deir Ezzor – should make clear enough what has been blatantly obvious for seven years: the western imperialist agenda has been for the crushing of the Syrian revolution, just via a different tactical approach to that of the Russian imperialist mass murder machine. While people should continue to take solidarity actions as long as the unbelievably steadfast people continue to resist, the military crushing of most of Ghouta is probably a matter of time.
Given the irrelevance, when not outright malevolence, of a large part of the western political left on the question of Syria (despite many honourable exceptions) – many having formed an alliance with the fascistic, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist far-right on this question – it is probably most helpful at this stage to support organisations more relevant to the cause of human emancipation today who are aiding the battered people in various exemplary ways:
 For example, Saudi Arabia was angry with the US for not attacking Syria in August 2013 following Assad’s chemical massacre; JaI, like all Islamist groups, vigorously opposed the US plans. Saudi Arabia had been part of training some pliant opposition cadre in Jordan alongside the US around that time; JaI condemned them as puppets. In response to the (bogus) US threat to attack Syria, Liwa al-Islam (JaI’s former name) declared:
“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.” “It’s crew, which it has been preparing for months” can only mean the Saudi-supported “crew” being prepared in Jordan.
Several months later Saudi Arabia came out strongly encouraging opposition political and military forces (who were deeply divided on the issue) to attend the US-Russia organized Geneva II negotiations with Assad in January 2014. JaI, by contrast, demanded that the Islamic Front coalition (of which JaI was a founding member) “put the participants of both parties in Geneva II [ie, both regime and opposition] on a Wanted list” (the Islamic Front itself declared participation at Geneva “treason”).