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”).
Regarding Turkey’s attack on Kurdish Afrin, controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia the Peoples Protection Units (YPG): two years ago I wrote this article condemning the YPG’s brutal conquest of the Arab-majority Tal Rifaat-Menagh region of northern Aleppo province from the democratic rebels (Free Syrian Army [FSA] and allies), in direct collaboration with the mass murdering Russian imperialist airforce, which had just recently begun its Nazi-style Blitzkrieg against Free Syria and thousands upon thousands of Syrian civilians.
In that article, I noted in passing how bad what the YPG was doing was by posing it in reverse:
“If Turkey were invading and bombing Kurdish Efrin and Syrian rebels were acting as ground troops and expelling the YPG from Kurdish areas, it should be vigorously condemned, yet this is not happening; the exact opposite of that is happening.”
This scenario has now come to pass, unfortunately, and should be condemned unreservedly; if the rebels were merely taking advantage to seize back their regions, the Arab-majority regions around Tal Rifaat that the YPG/Russia conquered then, and allow tens of thousands of people “cleansed” by the YPG to return, that would be entirely valid. But advancing instead to Kurdish-majority Afrin, where the bulk of the population see the PYD/YPG/SDF as their leadership (and it is up to them to change that if they choose), is doing *exactly* what the YPG did back then.
Clearly, the political weaknesses among both Arab and Kurdish rebels have killed solidarity and the necessary unity they will need to destroy the Assad genocide-regime, which is backed by all the world’s imperialist and regional powers. But while defending Afrin today, and condemning the Turkish invasion and the part played in it by some Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, all I can say about the sweet romanticisation of the YPG is, WOW what hypocrisy.
For years, the PYD/YPG-controlled part of Syria known as ‘Rojava’ (west Kurdistan) has been spared the fate of the rest of Syria for two main reasons: firstly, due to a pragmatic deal with Assad in 2012, they have been untouched by Assad’s years of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, incendiary weapons, white phosphorus, ballistic missiles, starvation sieges and torture archipelago that all other regions outside regime control have been flattened with; secondly, since 2014, they have become the key allies of the US in its air war against ISIS, and as such have the permanent protection of the US air force. Just last week, the US announced a 30,000 strong “border force” consisting largely of the YPG and its slightly broader front, he Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to be stationed with US troops who would remain indefinitely in northeast Syria.
Meanwhile, while enjoying this relatively enviable situation – not ideal, of course, but we are talking here about Syria, after all – the PYD and its propaganda organs constantly emit crude Orientalist, Islamophobic style propaganda, which depicts only those microscopic ex-rebel forces who have joined their ranks in the SDF as “democratic”, and everyone else in Syria in the anti-Assad camp as deranged “jihadist head-choppers,” a discourse so disgustingly dehumanising, so mind-bogglingly reactionary, that at times it leaves the average Assadist, Zionist or Neocon for dead.
Meanwhile, all those in the West who have suddenly noticed the potential for massacre in Syria now that Turkey has attacked Afrin, and believe that the last time any massacre was threatened in Syria was in Kobani in late 2014, check yourselves: is this because you view only Kurds as worthy victims, as honorary whites (in the same way as US imperialism has only intervened to defend the … “anti-imperialist” YPG in east Syria from ISIS, for many years now, but never to defend the rest of the Syrian people form Assad)? Or otherwise, what? Do you believe Syria has been a fairly peaceful place between Kobani and Afrin?
Are you aware that in East Ghouta, besieged, bombed and starved for years by Assad, the regime has slaughtered hundreds since the beginning of this year alone, both with bombs and with starvation? Or does that not matter because you think the entire population of 400,000 people there are all “head-choppers”? Are you aware that in the same period, the Assad regime, the Russian imperialist airforce, and Iranian-backed sectarian death squads have killed similar numbers in the northwest – yeh, right there next to Afrin – and driven over 200,000 people from their homes in a massive wave northwards? Or again, are these people also just all head-choppers?
If anything, one of the worst things about the Turkish invasion of Afrin and the rebel participation in it is the widespread suspicion that this was part of an Afrin for Idlib deal, whereby Turkey, dealing through its new allies … Russia and Iran, who just happen to be Assad’s allies, goaded the rebels to stop their recent counteroffensive against Assad in Idlib and instead direct them to help take Afrin – allowing Assad to reconquer all the regime had just lost. Just why a section of the rebels has agreed to go along with this is another matter. For some, it may be revenge for what the YPG did two years ago; for others, it is simply a reflection of long-time bad politics regarding the Kurdish issue, and refusal to recognise Kurdish rights; for some it may be the illusion that Turkey’s support for the rebels over these years means Turkey is a true friend, rather than a self-interested party like any other, so they need to “repay the debt”; for others it may be in reaction to years of listening to the PYD’s vile propaganda depicting them in dehumanising terms; for some it may be just the general impression, part justified, and part unjustified, that the PYD’s long-term ceasefire with Assad means they are collaborators; for still others, recent YPG provocations, such as its shelling of a mental hospital in rebel-controlled Azaz on January 19, injuring five women, might have been the last straw.
Whatever the reason, these Syrian rebels have entered a war that is not theirs, that pits Arab against Kurd on behalf of a foreign power, that allows Assad to mop up, that further consolidates the divisions that earlier events, such the YPG’s actions two years ago, have helped to create.
Meanwhile, one irony here is that while the PYD/YPG and their backers call all the rebels “jihadists” or (in true neocon-style) “al-Qaida”, the actual former al-Qaida organisation, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name when it split from al-Qaida in 2016), now part of the military coalition Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is not taking part in the attack on Afrin, as it is not subservient to Turkish interests, and is continuing the war against Assad’s drive into Idlib.
It is not only HTS, of course; over the last few months of Assad’s offensive northwards, many FSA brigades have also been involved – but not the more firmly pro-Turkish Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and others. But with Assad advancing in this region that Turkey, Iran and Russia had declared a “de-escalation zone”, at a certain point the pressure of the Turkish-backed rebels to join the fight – Turkey had been holding them back – forced the Turkish regime to unleash them, several weeks ago, and provide them with significant arms. The result was a dramatic turnaround, with Assad losing a large amount of ground. Aside from rebel pressure, Erdogan himself also probably saw that Assad was going too far, and wanted to remind him that there were certain lines. But it seems that, above all, Erdogan wanted to consolidate some support in order to use the rebels elsewhere.
To now stop that offensive again, and not only allow Assad to advance again, but to again leave only HTS and some more independent FSA brigades to do the fighting, has a further consequence: it allows Assad, Russia and the US to paint the Idlib battle as one against “al-Qaida”, thus “justifying” even more barbaric Assad-Russian terror bombing, with US connivance and the support of a section of the western “Old Left”. Never mind that the Assad-Russia bombing has been furiously targeting all the key centres where the revolutionary forces have continually, and successfully, resisted attempted HTS-Nusra oppression over the years: Saraqeb, Kafranbel, Maraat al-Nuuman, Atareb etc. The people know why they are resisting Assad’s genocide regime, and they are not keen to replace it with the rule of other oppressors; the armed groups have never all been HTS or “jihadists” , just as the revolution has never only been about armed groups: but they are necessary, and come in all forms, when the necessity is defence against a far more savage military force.
To hell with all enemies of the Syrian people: defend Ghouta, defend Daraa, defend the zone Idlib/northern Hama/south and west Aleppo/defend Afrin.
The deepening American intervention in Syria under the administration of president Donald Trump has been both far bloodier than that under Barack Obama, and also more openly on the side of the regime of Bashar Assad, as has been clarified by a number of recent official statements and changes.
Emphatic pro-Assad orientation of Trump regime
First was the recent declaration by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that the US and Russia must work together on Syria, that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue and that the US is largely agnostic about “whether Assad goes or stays.” Tillerson also made one of the clearest statements to date that the US sees all forces fighting the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) as essentially allies and that it has no fight with Assad:
“Actors in Syria must remember that our fight is with ISIS. 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 and protocols for de-escalation.”
This was followed by Trump’s official ending of the long-dormant CIA program to arm and train some “vetted” anti-Assad rebels. In reality, this effort was only ever aimed at co-opting and taming the rebels anyway. The aims of the concurrent Pentagon program were more explicit: it would only arm and train rebels who agreed to drop the fight against Assad and only fight ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, and therefore it failed, since few rebels would agree to such conditions; as was quipped, it aimed to support only those rebels who do not rebel. While the CIA program, in contrast, is normally seen as more supportive of actual anti-Assad efforts, in reality it mainly differed in style; by initially supporting viable Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, once such groups were entrapped by an arms pipeline, the CIA was in a position to then pressure them to stop fighting Assad, thereby enlisting real forces for the US “war on terror” against ISIS and Nusra. Yet even the anti-Assad façade was too much for Trump: he considered it “dangerous and wasteful.”
Even worse, 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, which went to a vast array of local governance and civil society organisations which kept society running in the absence of the regime. To be clear: the Trump regime put an end to all US funding, no matter how minimal, to both the civil and military sides of the revolution.
It is notable that this US trajectory has continued and deepened even as conflict between the US and Russia in the global arena has sharpened elsewhere. As the US Congress and Senate voted in late July, against Trump’s wishes, for new sanctions on Russia (for its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election), and Russia retaliated with the expulsion of 755 of the 1,210 US diplomatic staff in the country, both sides made clear this would not affect cooperation in Syria. Putin stressed that the US-Russian brokered southern “de-escalation zone” had seen “concrete results” and that such coordination would continue. Meanwhile, a “new” US strategy was in the same week presented to the House and the Senate 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 right now,” Dunford (who has sometimes been referred to as a traditional military “hawk”), noted “my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS.”This has now reached the point where US personnel are “bragging” about their cooperation with Moscow. “The Russians have been nothing but professional, cordial and disciplined,” according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, Iraq-based commander of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
However, within a number of months of Trump’s election, some events began to cast doubt on this trajectory. Above all, in contrast to the complete absence of any military clash between the US and Assad in the Obama years, the first half-year of Trump saw one regime airbase bombed, one regime warplane downed, and three minor hits on pro-Assad Iranian-led Iraqi militia in the southeast desert.
Various reasons were put forward for these clashes, and the apparent contradiction between this military activity and Trump’s stated goals, which some believed were heralds of an almost inevitable US drift into conflict with either Assad, Russia or Iran, if not all three, despite Trump’s predilections. Of these reasons, three stand out.
First, from the outset, many observers said that while Trump and some of his leading officials may be pro-Putin for various reasons, others were traditional Republican “hawks”, who were either very anti-Russia or anti-Iran and aimed to “re-assert” US strength against these traditional rivals. Either they would undermine Trump’s policy, or Trump himself would be won over to their views, given his own American nationalism and militarism.
Second, many point to the glaring contradiction between Trump’s pro-Putin, and essentially pro-Assad, position on the one hand, and his rabid anti-Iranian rhetoric on the other. Since Iran is just as crucial a backer of Assad as is Russia, unless he could get quick results trying to divide Russia and Iran on Syria, Trump would stumble into conflict with Assad via conflict with Iran.
Finally, from a different angle, many assert that the common desire of both global and regional powers to avoid the collapse of the Assad regime via an outright revolutionary victory was the main obstacle all along to these rivalries coming out into the open. Now that Assad has largely turned the tables on the armed opposition, with the revolutionary uprising as a whole subsiding, the only thing holding the various global and regional powers back from openly fighting each other has now been removed. Therefore, traditional rivalry between the various imperialist and regional powers will re-assert itself.
As an extension of this, we also see all of these rival powers, in continually changing “blocs,” involved as “allied rivals” in the mopping up operation against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, so when that is over, there will be even more of the corpse of Syria to fight over.
While all three explanations have merit, this piece will show that the reality of the deepening US intervention in Syria is much more in tune with Trump’s original pre-election views than the handful of clashes may superficially suggest, and that, therefore, these factors cannot adequately explain the evolving policy of the Trump administration.
Divisions within the Trump administration?
While the divisions over a great many issues in the Trump regime are hardly a secret, virtually none of this has ever been related to Syria policy.
What we can schematically call the ‘Trump side’ on the question of Putin and Assad has, in any case, always had a substantial presence, despite constant changes, from former chief advisor from the “alt-right”, Steve Bannon, with his ideological affinity for Putinism shared by Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, an open Putinist stooge, and his deputy NSA KT McFarlane, who advocated Putin be given the Nobel peace prize; to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with huge economic connections to Russian business, and others like Trump’s son Donald Jnr and son-in-law Jared Kushner with own Russian connections; and Trump’s Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, who probably combines far right ideological leanings with his own Russian connections.
On the other side, it is often claimed that Defence Secretary James Mattis, Flynn’s replacement as National Security Advisor, HR McMaster, and others in the Defence/Security establishment are traditional Russia and/or Iran hawks; UN ambassador Nikki Haley is generally slotted in here. Trump also has strong support among a number of former leaders, like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, who in their time were considered to be traditional Republican “Russia hawks.” Somewhat less convincingly, it is sometimes claimed that vice-president Mike Pence is more hawkish than Trump on Syria.
A left-wing version of this is has it that those leaders who represent the broader interests of US capital in its rivalry with Russian imperialism are in conflict with the narrow Russian-connected business interests of Trump’s circle.
Of course, many in the Defence/Security establishment and other traditional Republican circles may well be embarrassed by the somewhat shameless way in which the Trump coterie has indulged Putin. In reality, however, when we look at the stronger positions many of these leaders have expressed about Russia, it has been overwhelmingly about the East Europe-Ukraine-NATO theatre, not about Syria. For example, after Trump refused to clearly state his commitment to NATO’s Article 5, on mutual self-defence of members, during his Europe trip in May, Mattis stepped in to strongly endorse the article. In other words, there is no dispute that US-Russian rivalry exists and that many US leaders express more anti-Russian views than Trump, but it is virtually impossible to demonstrate that this has any bearing on Syria.
Mattis is a clear case: he has always opposed “no fly zone” plans over Syria, and he opposed Obama’s threat to strike Syria in 2013 over Assad’s chemical attack on East Ghouta, claiming it did not involve US interests, and more recently declared the time to support Syrian rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS “had passed.” In McMaster’s past statements there is little of note about Syria, but he came out with the most conciliatory statements after Trump’s strike on Assad’s airbase (see below). While Haley, conversely, came out with very anti-Assad statements at that point, just days earlier she had issued perhaps the most conciliatory statement towards Assad to date, just before his chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun.
Coming from the Christian right camp, vice president Pence does not belong in this camp at all; the only reason some consider him ‘tougher’ on Assad was due to some remarks he made during last year’s vice-presidential debate, when put on the spot about the horror then taking place in Aleppo; even then went out of his way to stress he was only talking about civilian protection, not about confronting Assad. The Christian right on the whole is ideologically inclined to be as ‘Trumpist’ as Trump on Syria (former presidential candidate Ted Cruz being a good example).
As for past leaders now in the Trump camp, Gingrich strongly opposed Obama’s threat to strike Syria in 2013, declaring “both sides in Syria are bad. One side is a brutal dictator, and the other includes Islamists and terrorists who are dangerous already and who would be brutal in power if given the chance.” Giuliani reacted to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea by stating that unlike Obama, Putin is “what you call a leader,” and compared Trump-Putin to Reagan-Gorbachev. Even the idiosyncratically hawkish John Bolton, at one point being considered for a post in the Trump administration, opposes overthrowing Assad (which he says will bring “al-Qaida” to power), even while advocating “regime change” in Iran; and to block Iran, he advocates creating a “Sunnistan” in eastern Syria where ISIS is defeated, to be led by Kurdish forces, leaving western Syria (where the anti-Assad uprising was mostly taking place) to Assad; interestingly, very much the current de-facto US-Russian agreement (as will be explained below).
The various tendencies and increasingly new versions of the Trump regime can be described as a mix of right-wing ideologues with a fascination for Putin, leaders with Russian business connections, anti-Islam warriors and a group of ‘muscular realists’ in the defence and security establishment. While there are no liberal interventionists, nor are there any “neo-conservatives”, essentially a dead species; to the extent that they make background noise, they are divided on Syria in any case, with some such as Leslie Gelb and Daniel Pipes advocating alliance with Assad.
Therefore, there is no dissension within the Trump regime on Syria, and, aside from the odd permanent internal oppositionist such as John McCain, essentially none within the Republican Party as a whole.
Drifting into confrontation with Iran … in a very strange way?
The second issue, Trump’s fierce anti-Iranian rhetoric, is a clear example of the need to distinguish between “wars of rhetoric”, which have their own uses, and what is actually happening in the region. To date, little of the rhetoric appears to have any practical application whatsoever. Yes, Trump when visited Saudi Arabia he repeated the stock phrase that Iran was the number one supporter of “terrorism” in the region. This pleased his Saudi hosts and Trump scored a fabulous US arms deal.
Yet in terms of practical impact in the region, Trump’s visit was closely followed by Saudi Arabia and a group of allies (United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and others) using Trump’s “anti-terrorist” endorsement to slap a siege on Qatar, a key supporter of the Syrian rebels who fight against Assad and Iranian interests in Syria.
This most major of all US military operations at present does not look a lot like a US-Iranian confrontation. These very same Iranian and Iran-backed Iraqi militias have been operating in Syria for years as death squads for the Assad regime, and given that the PMU is actually recognized as part of the Iraqi regime army, this effectively constitutes a pro-Assad invasion of Syria by some 20,000 troops of the US-backed Iraqi regime. While the US has been bombing Sunni jihadist forces in Syria for several years, again with a massive intensification the last few months under Trump (see below), these Shiite jihadist forces have never been hit. We will get to the significance or otherwise of the three small recent hits on them (out of 9000 US airstrikes) in the southwest desert below.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s close ally, the Christian rightist Michael Aoun, has recently taken over the presidency, backed by other traditional rightist forces. In recent weeks, the allied forces of the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah have launched a brutal military operation against Syrian refugees in Arsal, mostly Sunni refugees from Hezbollah’s sectarian cleansing of western Syria, where Hezbollah has created a “pure” region linking Damascus to Lebanon. Up to 18 refugees were shot, including an amputee shot in front of his family, in a Lebanese Army attack just before the onset of the larger operation; the army then arrested dozens, of whom between five and ten were tortured to death. Hezbollah has demanded the refugees be deported back to Syria, obviously not to the part it expelled them from, but probably to the new dumping ground/kill zone of Idlib. Now US Special Forces in Lebanon are operating on thê ground providing training and support to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) working “in close proximity to Hezbollah” in the war against ISIS in the Syria-Lebanon border region. The LÀF is the 5th largest recipient of US arms in the world, and given the fact that Hezbollah has openly paraded American-made M113 armored personnel carriers on the Syrian battlefield, the possibility that the LAF is partially a conduit to the arming of Hezbollah seems highly plausible.
It is true that Trump is aiding the Saudi air war in Yemen, where the enemy is mostly the pro-Iranian Houthis allied to the forces of former dictator Saleh. But the US was already doing this under Obama. However, Trump has intensified the parallel US air war against villages controlled by Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not against Saleh-Houthis; there have been more than 80 strikes against AQAP since February, double the number of the whole of 2016. And like in Iraq and Syria, this has gone hand in hand with a significant rise in civilian killings. And now US special forces are on the ground supporting UAE troops in a major offensive against AQAP.
Thus the expected radical shift against Iranian interests simply has not materialized, and is unlikely to unless Trump decides to break with fourteen years of US policy in Iraq, the largest and most strategic of the countries discussed above.
Mattis was commonly referred to as an “Iran hawk” before the elections and he is also fond of the “world’s biggest supporter of terrorism” stock phrase. But when Trump was making noises about ripping up the Iran nuclear agreement, it was Mattis above all who insisted that this would not be done. He also stresses that change in Iran can only come about “internally,” differentiating himself from any “neoconservative” illusions that may still be around in some odd dejected pockets of the US foreign policy elite.
Given the grotesque crisis the Trump regime is in, it is not out of the question that Trump may at some stage decide to create some “war distraction” for the masses, by striking Iranian missile sites for example, “putting some meat into the rhetoric” when needed. The discussion above however suggests that if any such attack did take place, it would have little relation to current US policy in the region; the more detailed discussion below will show that it would have no relation to US Syria policy.
The fact that such a hypothetical strike would likely be driven by domestic “bread and circuses” concerns rather than any drift in US policy or “rivalry” with Iran is further suggested by the fact that it is precisely those imagined to be “hawks” in the security establishment who appear to be holding back a personally volatile Trump. In July, for the second time, Trump recertified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but this followed an hour-long meeting where “all of Trump’s major security advisers” – Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford – recommended recertification despite Trump spending “55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.” McMaster’s dismissal of leading Iran-hawk, Derek Harvey, from the NSC may also better underline the direction of the US government than a bunch of Trumpist rhetoric.
The third argument – that the creeping victory of Assad over the revolution removes an obstacle to all these global and regional rivals from clashing with one another – is more persuasive, and based on sound premises. Despite tactical differences on how to do it, destroying the revolution one way or another was one thing that united these various powers. Now, any clashes that may erupt would have even less connection with the question of revolution and counterrevolution than at any time before.
However, there are two points here. The first is that, yes, Assad has the upper hand in the military struggle against the revolutionary forces at present, but whether or not it is all over remains to be seen. The fact that the present reality does not yet indicate any approaching clash between rival global and regional powers may well indicate that the death forecasts are premature.
But even if for argument’s sake we say it is all over, this present reality indicates that while the end of the revolution would remove an obstacle to such clashes, it does not follow that such clashes are inevitable. There is, of course, always rivalry at some level between various imperialist and capitalist powers. But capitalist rivalry does not always lead to conflict; in reality this is only sometimes the case.
Of course, I have no crystal ball and events may prove this wrong. Mistakes, accidents, minor clashes over tiny bits of ground, conflicts over “credibility”, or the actions of wild cards, all have the potential to blow a situation out of control despite anyone’s intentions. And if my predictions are wrong, and the end of the Syrian revolution did lead to the Trump regime feeling free to launch an attack on Iran, for example, such a war should indeed be recognized as naked imperialist aggression with no connection to Iran’s bloody role in the crushing of the Syrian people, which the US has facilitated. At present, however, the current US role, as discussed in the section above, would appear to make this an unlikely eventuality.
The argument here is that there is no appetite for any serious conflict over Syria; there is little fundamental the powers would want to fight over anyway (conspiracist nonsense about “gas pipelines” notwithstanding); and that the main desire of imperialist and regional powers is to restore some kind of capitalist stability to the region, necessitating compromises. A Dayton-style regional deal is more on the cards than a new war.
Strikes on Assad: Entirely circumstantial
Furthermore, regarding the idea that the five or so clashes between the US and Assadist or pro-Assad forces indicate a new trend, a drift in the direction of some future war, I suggest that on the contrary they have all been entirely circumstantial. The only “trend” one might discern is a greater concern to enforce “red lines” than Obama showed, but even that is debatable. If anything, these minor clashes and clearer red lines are making the main game – all that is allowable within these “lines” – also much clearer: a US-Russia alliance, a victory for Assad, an enormous joint massacre within ISIS-held territory, a division of the spoils, and an abandonment of all pretenses of supporting any democratic transition in Syria.
It is also useful to place these five US-Assadist pinprick clashes in context; these first few months of the Trump regime have seen a far more massive intensification of the US war on ISIS, including a very dramatic rise in civilian casualties: the number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months is now higher than the number of civilians 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 figures for Iraq in particular are likely to be massive underestimates, with evidence of a death toll as high as 40,000 from the battle of Mosul; meanwhile, the real civilian toll from the decimation of Raqqa is likely to be much higher than current figures suggest, and by the time of writing in late August, enormous massacres are occurring daily, for example, 158 civilians killed between August 18 and 22.
From any human point of view, a comparison between the US bombing of a mosque in Idlib in March (allegedly targeting Nusra), where 57 worshippers were killed, and the US strike on the Assadist air base a few weeks later, highlights what a mundane event the second was, even ì only the second drew the ire of the alleged “anti-war” movement in the West.
So, while the five clashes with Assadist forces in six months might seem like a lot compared to none in six years, we are talking about microscopic numbers compared to the gigantic US assault on ISIS, on Nusra, on Idlib, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Mosul, and above all the civilian populations of these places. When these five strikes are placed alongside the actual war trend under Trump, it demonstrates that they are not indicative of any trend at all.
The Shariyat strike and its aftermath
Did the US bombing of Assad’s Shariyat airbase in April – the first US hit on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes in Syria at that point – signify a new US policy?
Not even remotely. In the very weeks before Assad’s chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s pro-Assad position even clearer. US UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” (sic) focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; Tillerson used Assad’s very words, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
When Assad took all this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of its own “credibility.” The whole point of the US back-down on its “red line” in 2013, after Assad had slaughtered 1400 with sarin in East Ghouta, was that it was exchanged with the “victory” of getting Assad to remove all his sarin, an arrangement facilitated by Putin and Netanyahu. In demonstrating not only that he was still keeping some sarin despite the agreement, but also that he was willing to use it, Assad forced Trump to make a credibility strike, going against the very clear stated intentions of the entire Trump regime just days earlier.
One might say this shows that Trump at least enforces “red lines” more than Obama. But in reality, it was Obama’s deal with Assad and Putin that created the necessity of a strike this time: Assad had simply not used sarin again (at least in any large enough display to get media attention) during Obama’s reign, so we cannot make any assumptions about what may have happened (though of course Assad has used chlorine dozens of times under both Obama and Trump).
To soften the blow, Trump gave ample warning to Russia, who warned Assad, that the base would be hit. As a result, according to the Russians, some half a dozen clapped out warplanes were hit. By the following day, the base was again in use bombing Syrians around the country, and Khan Sheikhoun was again being bombed – just not with sarin.
The follow-up, again by all wings of the regime, clarified further that for Trump, this really 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. There has been no change in that status.” Trump stressed that “we’re not going into Syria,” but the strike only occurred because of the use of chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” In other words, the US had no interest in Assad’s continued use of his other weapons of mass destruction. Mattis stressed that tensions with Russia would “not spiral out of control,” and 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. McMaster, allegedly the most “hawkish” towards Russia, clarified that if there were to be any “regime change” in Syria, it would be carried out by Russia, not the US; that the US had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, as 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, for all the thousands of pages that have been written about the US aiming for “regime change” in Syria, it turns out that the ‘hardest’ policy within the Trump regime, at the tensest moment, was for “regime character change” under Assad, facilitated by Russia.
The downing of an Assadist warplane
What then of the fact that the US shot down an Assadist warplane near Tabqa, in Raqqa province, on June 18, for the first time in the 6-year Syrian war – does this represent a new policy direction?
In fact, once again there was little change. For six years, the Assad regime has bombed cities and towns held by the rebels all over Syria, reduced everything to rubble, killed hundreds of thousands, and there has never been a US move to down a single Assadist warplane even to defend civilians, or schools, or hospitals, let alone rebel fighters. In fact there has been a US-enforced embargo on the supply of anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels, preventing them from doing it themselves as well. Both policies continue.
Yet as soon as Assad made the highly unusual move of attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed military and political front dominated by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), the US shot down the Assadist plane.
The main reason the YPG/SDF has become the most strategic US ally in the conflict (the US providing wall-to-wall air cover for its operations, large numbers of US special forces, and several military bases) is that both the US and the SDF are focused entirely on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria, and neither have any interest whatsoever in fighting the Assad regime or supporting the anti-Assad rebellion. As the anti-Assad struggle is mostly centred in the more populated west of the country, the US and SDF/YPG just carry out their parallel war on ISIS in the east.
This means there is normally no reason for Assad to bomb the SDF/YPG. The attack this time came as the US/SDF were besieging the ISIS capital Raqqa, when Assad’s forces broke out of southeastern Aleppo to advance on Raqqa themselves. A conflict over the mopping up operation against ISIS. The US defence of its allies thus had no connection one way or another to the question of the anti-Assad revolution.
But even from the point of view of “red lines,” once again the action was set by the Obama administration, which announced its first and only No Fly Zone in Syria in the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Syria known as ‘Rojava’, controlled by the YPG/SDF, in August last year. At that time, Assadist jets suddenly decided to do a little unprovoked bombing of the YPG in Hassakah, apparently just to remind the YPG who was boss.
The US warned the Assadist warplanes to keep away or they would get bombed. They ran away fast. They did not try again under Obama. Now they tried again under Trump, to see if Obama’s NFZ still applied. They learnt that it did. But bombing everywhere and everyone else in Syria continues, and Assad knows not to expect any problem from Trump with that.
The US Centcom statement on the downing of the warplane emphasised that its mission is only to defeat ISIS and that it has no interest whatsoever in fighting Assadist, Russian or pro-regime forces, but that it will defend itself or its “partner forces.”
Still, was this at least a sign of the growing conflict between the rival camps? Of course, the fact of a hit demonstrates that clashes can occur. That it has not re-occurred in that theatre is just as important; according to embedded journalist Robert Fisk, a “coordination centre” has been set up in the east to prevent “mistakes” between “Russian-backed and American-supported forces,” as “all sides are determined to avoid any military confrontation between Moscow and Washington.” As we will see below, this may also involve a US-Russia agreement on how to divide the spoils in the ISIS-held east.
The conflict in the southeast desert
The other three US hits between mid-May and early June, on Iranian-backed, pro-Assad Iraqi militia, all took place within a 55 square kilometer patch of desert around a US base in al-Tanf, a town wedged into the corner where the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders meet.
Do these three micro-hits in this tiny region signify that Trump is “taking up the Iranian threat to the region” and proving to the Saudis and others that he is on their side? What a laugh.
The US presence at al-Tanf began when the Pentagon set up the New Syrian Army (NSA) in 2015, as a brigade that would specifically fight ISIS only and not the regime. However, as such a fight does not attract many rebels, the NSA seemed to disappear. But in the meantime, the US and Jordan were putting enormous pressure on a real mass FSA formation – the powerful Southern Front – to stop fighting Assad and to only fight ISIS and Nusra. So while the southern front against Assad went quiet, the US quietly assembled two new brigades in al-Tanf, Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT), or the Commandos of the Revolution, and Shohada al-Quartayn. It is unclear whether they were previously part of the NSA, or former cadres of the Southern Front, but neither are currently members of the SF. They appear to have crossed into southeast Syria from Jordan, following CIA training and vetting to ensure they do not fight Assad (though as discussed above, Shohada al-Quartayn has now quit for precisely this reason).
Looking at a map, it is striking how distant al-Tanf is from the centres of revolutionary conflict in western Syria. And notably, while the headlines featured these microscopic clashes in the distant desert, the Assad regime was conducting a major murderous offensive against the revolutionary stronghold of Daraa in the southwest. There were of course no US hits over there to defend the FSA or the Daraa citizenry.
The US base at al-Tanf is where the Pentagon works with these brigades in its war on ISIS. To facilitate this work, it declared a 55 square kilometre zone around it as a “de-confliction zone” (in line with the de-confliction zone policy being pushed by Russia, Turkey and Iran). This meant there were to be no clashes between the US-backed forces and nearby pro-Assad forces, so that they could all focus on fighting ISIS.
All three strikes on the Iranian-backed forces have been inside this very small pocket of desert. In each case, the strikes only took place because the Iranian-backed forces were advancing against the US-backed forces rather than against ISIS.
In every case, the US-led Coalition’s ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ released an almost identical statement, which stressed that although it had acted against these forces advancing towards the US base inside the zone, with seemingly hostile intent,
“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 garrison is a temporary Coalition location to train vetted forces to defeat ISIS and will not be vacated until ISIS is defeated. … Coalition forces are oriented on ISIS in the Euphrates Valley. 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.”
This seems pretty clear. One might argue that this is just window-dressing, that really the US presence in al-Tanf is aimed precisely at fighting Iran. But in that case, would we not have seen more than three pin-prick strikes, and not only restricted to this tiny patch of desert in the furthest corner of Syria?
In any case, other events here revealed the limitations of US aims in that region.
First, when these US-backed brigades, or other FSA forces, have been operating outside the zone and are confronted by Assadist forces, the US has not helped them. In fact, Assad’s forces took advantage of the US and MaT focus on fighting ISIS only, and the continued US-Jordanian freeze on the Southern Front, to seize significant parts of the eastern Qalamoun and eastern Suweida regions from the rebels, but these brigades was not allowed to link with the FSA in east Qalamoun, with some reports claiming the US promised to cut their pay and arms if they did so:
“As opposition forces battled IS fighters farther east over the weekend, pro-regime soldiers attacked the overstretched desert rebels roughly 60km southwest of the ancient city of Palmyra, … The regime’s assault led to a swift victory. … On Monday, rebel sources told Syria Direct that the US-led coalition provides financial and logistical support for opposition forces to combat IS but stops short of funding the rebels to directly attack the regime. “The coalition is a partner of ours in the war against Daesh [the Islamic State], 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.
Perhaps even more stunningly, the US has even given permission to the Assad regime to bomb inside its exclusion zone. On June 6, the Assad regime relayed a request to the US military via Russia to bomb the US-proxy forces inside the US-declared zone, because they were attacking Iranian-backed forces operating just inside the zone. So, even though the US itself demands these pro-Assad forces not enter the zone, it does not give permission for its own proxies to attack them, because it only supports them fighting ISIS. So the US gave permission to Assad to bomb its (the US’s) own proxies inside its own exclusion zone! Yet later that same day, when the Iranian-backed forces refused to leave and allegedly brought reinforcements in, the US made its third (and last) trike against them.
One reason commonly cited for the US stand in al-Tanf is that the Baghdad-Damascus Highway passes through the town, and the US is thereby blocking a direct Iranian connection, a “land bridge”, to Syria, which would effectively link Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon by land. So, even if the strikes have been few, small and circumstantial, the very US presence here fulfils an important anti-Iranian outcome.
Another factor is that Jordan aims to have a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria along its borders once ISIS is driven away. Such a zone would enable refuges to stay rather than enter Jordan, and perhaps even allow Jordan to push refugees back into Syria. Therefore, it needs a strip of border free of regime or Iranian control.
While the real reason may be a mixture – or it may even be simply a convenient place for the US to train these forces in its fight against ISIS – the anti-Iranian reason is undermined by the fact that there remains a great expanse of Syria-Iraq borderland that Iranian, pro-Iranian Iraqi and Assadist forces can seize in order to form the land bridge. If we take out the small area around al-Tanf in the southeast corner, and the northern part of the Iraq-Syria border around Hassakah, controlled by the US-backed SDF, then we are left with the entire ISIS-controlled Deir-Ezzor province.
Now, just after the third strike, around June 10, it appears that Russia mediated, and persuaded the Iranian-backed forces to leave the Americans alone in al-Tanf. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis claimed that Russia had been “very helpful” in calming down the situation near al-Tanf, by “communicat[ing] U.S. concerns to pro-Syrian government forces in the area.”
A defeat for Iran? Unclear, because Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leaders simply re-routed their land-bridge concept: as this map shows, its proposed route passes through Deir Ezzor province, via the border town of Abu Kamal and the heavily bombed – by the US and Assad in tandem – town of Mayadin.
But wait – this “re-routing” had already been declared in early May. Further, it was not being re-routed north from al-Tanf, but rather south from SDF-controlled Rojava. Perhaps Iranian-backed forces entering from Iraq had assumed they would be allowed through, due to the SDF’s sometimes dealing with Assad; but the SDF made clear that it would fight the PMU if it crossed the border into Rojava. But this suggests that al-Tanf was not the original land-bridge plan anyway, not the big deal it was made out: the micro-clashes appear to have been a mere test of waters, if not a distraction.
But then we read in countless articles that the US was aiming to seize Deir-Ezzor from ISIS and so this would likely be the scene of the great US-Assad or US-Iran show-down.
But then something else also happened on June 10: ISIS suddenly withdrew from “thousands of square meters of land” in a strip that connected Assad-controlled Palmyra with the Iraqi border, just north of al-Tanf; Assadist and Iranian-backed forces immediately filled the strip without a fight, reaching the Iraqi border, thereby cutting off the only possible land-route for US-backed forces to advance north between al-Tanf and and Abu Kamal in Deir-Ezzor province. We can see the problem on this map:
Surely now the US had to react, to prevent this new major step in the Iranian land-route project, to ensure “US-backed” forces can get Deir Ezzor? Well, not according to the Pentagon, which reacted: “We give them [FSA] training and equipment, and they fight against Daesh. That is all. We don’t help them to control an area or fight against the regime … our only focus is Daesh. We are not a part of their struggle against the regime.”
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed forces in Iraq (the PMU) had also reached the Syrian border near the southern end of Rojava, already on May 29. Having thus reached both sides of the border, the pro-Iranian forces are now poised to meet up. Not immediately – the Iraq-based forces are far north of the Syria-based forces, and what stands in between is ISIS-controlled Deir-Ezzor province.
So, as the “nightmare scenario” has almost arrived, will the US now fight tooth and nail to prevent the world’s “number one backer of terrorism” from forming its land bridge all the way from Tehran to Beirut? Meaning, specifically, the US must prevent the regime and Iran from seizing Deir-Ezzor from ISIS; even if now blocked by land, should the US be expected to use the SDF to advance south to prevent this from happening?
Leaving aside the fact that the Iranian-backed forces in Iraq are part of the US-backed Iraqi regime, a US-Iran joint venture, and that the US, Iran and these Iraqi forces have just been on the same side in a gigantic and extremely bloody war in Mosul; leaving aside the fact that the US and Assad have been bombing ISIS in Deir-Ezzor province in alliance, or at least in tandem, since November 2014, with manybloodymass casualty events, indeed that the US has protected the regime airport from ISIS siege; leaving aside the fact that US bombing directly helped Assad reconquer Palmyra earlier this year, and Palmyra is the regime’s gateway into Deir-Ezzor; surely, so the ideology goes, the US must now do everything to prevent the Iranian land-bridge.
Well, not quite.
On June 23, US-led Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon explained that if the Assad regime or its allies “are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas” then “we absolutely have no problem with that.” Dillon said that “if they [ie, Assad regime] 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. That is what we want to do, and if the Syrian regime wants to do that and they’re going to put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir el-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”
This could hardly be clearer; far from the US engaging in “rivalry” in resource-rich east Syria with the Assad regime, Russia or Iran, far from a great new alliance with “conservative Sunni states against Iran” and so on, especially in the most strategic province of Deir-Ezzor, rather, for the Pentagon, if Assad and allies take this region from ISIS, the US “doesn’t have to” go there. Why go there, when your allies are headed there anyway?
Still, it may be surmised that the Assad regime taking Deir Ezzor does not necessarily mean this Iranian presence remains long-term, with which to build their land-bridge (since the question here is not morality – the Assad regime is far more genocidal than Iran’s theocratic despots – but the geopolitical issue of Trump’s alleged desire to “stop Iran”). It may be that a deal is done, that the US does not oppose Assad reconquering the province, as long as Iran later leaves. And to ensure this, the key would be a greater involvement of Russia.
And exactly this has supposedly been discussed: a deal by which Assad allows the US and SDF to take Raqqa, while the US allows Assad and Russia to take Deir-Ezzor, with no mention of Iran. In light of indications of Russian-Iranian rivalry – even claims that Assad is under pressure from “pro-Russian factions in his ruling circle” to dump Hezbollah, as a means of weakening Iranian influence – such a deal is quite plausible.
Yet it is doubtful that even that would change very much. Assad’s armed forces are simply so weak that they are dependent on the tens of thousands of foreign Shiite jihadists coordinated by Iran, above all the 20,000 or so Iraqi PMU fighters. Further, even if all these pro-Iranian forces were excluded, as long as Assad remains allied to Iran and Iraq, then Assadist control of Deir Ezzor ensures a geographical link between Tehran and Beirut – unless Russian troops were to actively block the border.
In other words, all indications are that the land-bridge that was supposed to be a red line is essentially US policy.
There are even indications that the Pentagon may be planning to give up even al-Tanf to Assad and Iran, just keeping some desert near Jordan’s border and the northern SDF-controlled region, thus allowing the land-bridge to proceed along the Baghdad-Damascus highway. According to some sources, the US-backed units “could be airlifted over the regime forces and ISIS to a front line near al-Shaddadi, which is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces.” As CentCom spokesman Dillon explained, al-Tanf is a mere “temporary garrison” which will not see growth, “if anything, it will be in the opposite direction.” Given that one of the US-backed brigades has quit al-Tanf and the US alliance in order to fight Assad in south Syria, and two groups of fighters from MaT have gone the other way and joined Assad’s army, it may also be that the whole US operation from al-Tanf collapses due to its own contradictions. However, this may not go down well with Saudi Arabia, as we will discuss below.
‘De-escalation’ and counterrevolution
The American acquiescence with Assad’s control of Deir-Ezzor, while trying to hang onto al-Tanf, is connected to the “de-escalation zones” process initiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the US, Jordan and Israel playing back-seat roles. The Assad regime has said little about them, despite both Russia and Iran being involved; it retains its “right” to violate them even when they are in its favour, continually bombing these zones. The opposition, by contrast, has from the start slammed the process as a form of partition of Syria, yet has been forced to take part in practice.
This process sets aside a number of opposition-controlled zones where the regime and rebels are to “de-escalate”, ie, freeze the battle lines. These various foreign powers would be guarantors of these local ceasefires; as Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin explained, the three countries are working on a plan to station their forces in these zones, suggesting that Russian and Turkish forces could be stationed in Idlib, Iranian and Russian troops around the Damascus region, and Jordanian and US forces in Daraa. Without going into detail, anyone who follows events in Syria closely will see from these ideas what a counterrevolutionary conception this is.
Initially, four zones were laid out: the rebel-held province of Idlib and adjoining parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces; a stretch of rebel-held territory in northern Homs; the remaining rebel-held Damascus suburbs; and rebel-held parts of the south, particularly Daraa. At this stage, however, all these fronts remain active and have only barely de-escalated; and even where the zones have officially been declared, the regime continues to bomb.
Meanwhile, the US added the southeast desert region around al-Tanf as another zone, because the rebels there are only to fight ISIS and not the regime. And to much fanfare, the US and Russia declared they had successfully negotiated a de-escalation zone in the southwest, the region adjoining the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, involving Jordan and Israel. Russia has begun occupying this zone, as a guarantee to Israel that the regime’s return to the Golan “border”, which Israel is in principle in favour of, is not coupled with Iranian or Hezbollah presence; under the agreement, Iranian-backed forces have to keep out of this zone. Russia has also occupied rebel-held southern Daraa, and deployed its forces in the new de-escalation zone, negotiated via Assad’s Egyptian ally, in rebel-held East Ghouta, likewise signaling the regime’s return by stealth; and Egypt was again brought in to help broker the Homs de-escalation zone; this Egyptian involvement is a powerful link between the interests of Assad, Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the rebel-held region of northern and eastern Aleppo province where Turkish troops are present as part of the Euphrates Shield operation is effectively a de-escalation zone, as the rebels there only fight ISIS and are not permitted to confront the regime (and, at least in this case, it also means they are free from regime bombing); and the ‘Rojava’ region under SDF control and US protection, stretching from Manbij to Hassake (as well as the Russian-occupied Afrin pocket in the northwest corner) can also be considered such a zone, because it is likewise only at war with ISIS, and neither confronts, nor is bombed by, the regime.
At present there is much talk of a counterrevolutionary agreement between Russia, Turkey and the regime, directed at both the SDF in Afrin and HTS in Idlib. According to one scenario, Russia, which has troops protecting the SDF-held region of greater Afrin, would withdraw from some areas to allow Turkey to help its FSA allies to re-take the Arab-majority Menaq-Tal Rifaat region, which was conquered from the rebels by the YPG, with Russian airforce support, in early 2016. In exchange, Turkey would use this as passage into Idlib to attack HTS, and facilitate the entry of Russian troops into Idlib to occupy the “de-escalation zone” alongside Turkey. While the FSA would probably go along with recovering their occupied territories, it would be quite another thing if they were to go along with more ambitious Turkish plans to seize Kurdish-majority Afrin itself. It is also unclear whether the rebel groups working with Turkey in Idlib would go along with a frontal attack on HTS, if on behalf of an impending Russian occupation, regardless of their own ongoing conflict with HTS in Idlib. For its part, Russia has put it to the SDF that if it does not want to be conquered by Turkey, they need to allow a return of the regime to Afrin.
Meanwhile, while the US has not been bombing Idlib the last few months, as it focuses on the east, it is now using the HTS presence to justify any impending Russian attack on the province, despite Russia’s well-documented use of the “attacking al-Qaida” trope to bomb all Syrian rebels. “In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” State Department Syria official Michael Ratney stressed, warning rebel groups to move away from HTS before it was “too late”.
Much more could be said of what these zones and these various conflicts around their implementation mean for revolution and counterrevolution, but that would be beyond the scope of this piece. However, this ‘pacification’ program, in the context of the regime having the upper hand, is the prime means by which the global imperialist and local reactionary intervention aims both to extinguish the revolution and also “equitably” partition the spoils, partially in order to avoid the much warned about imminent conflict.
US policy in the east fits firmly into this context. Regarding the global imperialist powers, the US-Russian partition of Syria is reasonably clear: Russia, via its tool in Damascus, is in control of most of western Syria (“useful Syria”), and the US, with its allies (SDF) and proxies (MaT or others) controlling much of the east. Russia’s new 50-year agreement for its air base in Latakia, simply highlights the fact that the US has never appeared to have any objective of trying to eject Russia from its bases on the Mediterranean; other than in the most conspiracist literature, there has simply never been any suggestion that this had any relation to US Syria policy.
At the same time, it is quite true that this process is unlikely to be smooth, and that real regional rivalries and obstacles will hamper its easy execution.
While the thesis here downplays the idea of global imperialist conflict in Syria, and also the vague idea of “rivalry” between global and regional powers, a more solid case can be made regarding rivalry between these regional sub-imperialist powers of similar size themselves, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey (with its Qatari ally).
Defeating ISIS in the Sunni east and replacing it with some kind of local Sunni-based authorities, without Iran, appears to be a fundamental Saudi interest, giving them some influence in post-revolution Syria. This coincides with its ally Jordan’s desire to have a “safe zone” on its border to keep out refugees. Thus the strip of desert along Jordan’s border currently controlled by US-backed militia, ending in al-Tanf, would appear to be a step along this path. But with apparent US acquiescence to regime control of strategic Deir-Ezzor, meaning the fulfilment of the Iranian land-bridge, a rather large gap is thus driven through the concept of a US-controlled east Syria where Saudi interests could balance Iran. Whether the proposed Russian occupation of a regime-controlled Deir-Ezzor would satisfy Saudi Arabia that Iran could be kept out seems uncertain, despite excellent Saudi-Russian relations. Interestingly though, this Saudi interest in the east, while the Saudi-led bloc feuds with Turkey’s ally Qatar, has created potential for an ideologically odd rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the US’s SDF allies controlling the northern part of east Syria.
The issue of the Iranian land-bridge could also be undermined by other factors, above all the fact that both Deir Ezzor province, and the Iraqi side of the border opposite Deir-Ezzor, namely Anbar province, are overwhelmingly Sunni. The Iraqi regime and PMU will need to control Anbar to effectively link with an Assad-controlled Deir Ezzor, but Anbar was the heartland of the Sunni-led insurgency against the US occupation from 2003 onwards. How the locals will take to being ruled by sectarian Shiite forces remains to be seen, but that is connected to the entire question of what a post-ISIS Iraq will look like now that ISIS has been defeated. Moreover, the US ceding of Deir-Ezzor to Assad may be no guarantee of smooth sailing there either; Deir-Ezzor was an early centre of the anti-Assad uprising. The FSA’s Unified Military Council of Deir-Ezzor was founded on March 19 with the aim of unifying efforts to liberate Deir-Ezzor from both ISIS and the regime; important brigades formed by Deir Ezzor locals, such as Jaysh Assud Al-Sharqiyah, are operating in the southeast to block Assad’s advance into Deir Ezzor, which they claim will be liberated “by its sons.” Moreover, as the opposition site Enab Baladi Online explains, “the tribal population [of Deir-Ezor] have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, which sees control of the area as strategic to counterbalancing the Iranian Shiite influence.”
Other issues involving Israel, Hezbollah, Turkey and the Kurds have already been noted above. Yet whichever way we look at it, the overall US-Russia agreement appears to guarantee a chunk of Syria for everyone. Aside from the guaranteed US and Russian zones, Israel gets to keep its Golan theft, if not effectively extend it somewhat; Turkey gets to keep the Azaz to Jarablus strip, regardless of the fall-out of the current dealing in Afrin and Idlib; even if Iran does not get its land-bridge fully intact, it still gets to keep the “cleansed” Qalamoun region linking Damascus to Lebanon and to the Alawite coast and Homs, as long as its Hezbollah allies don’t venture too far south; and Jordan gets to effectively control a strip of pacified southeast Syrian desert as a buffer.
It goes without saying that such an arrangement may well break down, and that such unjust “peace” agreements are often creators of future wars. But we can also confidently say that the revolutionary wave that began in the Arab Spring is not over, despite its setbacks in Syria and elsewhere – see the current uprising in Morocco’s Rif for example – and will continue to threaten the “stability” enforced by the regional soft-partition being enacted. The various imperialist and local reactionary powers, however much some may hate each other, will continue to be confronted by situations which force them into unwritten alliance against the masses of the region.
The US administration has annexed the Syrian conflict to its own war on terror. It has tried to impose its battle on Syrians so that they will abandon their own battle against the tyrannical discriminatory Assadist junta. … [but] the war on terror is centred around the state; it is a statist conception of the world order which strengthens states and weakens communities, political organizations, social movements, and individuals… In the record of this endless fight against terrorism there has not been a single success, and thus far three countries have been devastated over its course (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria).”1
– Yassin al-Haj Saleh, former Syrian Communist dissident who spent 16 years in Assad’s dungeons
This article deals with a specific aspect of the US role in the Syrian conflict: its drive to co-opt the Free Syrian Army (FSA) into a proxy force to fight only the jihadist forces of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or JFS) and the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh), while giving up their fight against the Assad regime.
This reality sharply contrasts with the comic-book view widely expressed in tabloid journals of the mainstream, left and right, that alleges the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad is a conspiracy involving both the US and al-Qaida, along with the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel, George Soros and many others.
In reality, the US and the al-Qaida spin-offs have been involved in Syria on opposite sides from the outset. It is a particularly bad case of “alternative news” when the US is depicted as “supporting” the forces it bombs in Syria – the Islamic State and Nusra/JFS (and often mainstream rebel groups2) – while supposedly “trying to overthrow” the Assad regime which is untouched by US bombing.
Both the US and Nusra/JFS are enemies of the Syrian revolution and the FSA; yet both act to undermine it through maintaining some kind of relationship with it. In this they play a different tactical role to the direct counterrevolutionary role of Russian imperialism and Iran, and also of the Islamic State.
But in this process of “soft” undermining of the revolution from within, the US and Nusra/JFS have been in radical conflict with each other, forcing the FSA and other rebels to walk a fine line, given the overwhelming military superiority of their enemy.
Overview: US policy on Syria
This story of deceit, conflict and betrayal involving the triangle US-FSA-Nusra is only one aspect of the US role in the Syrian conflict, so an overview of general US policy on Syria will be presented first.
Fundamentally, the US has always been hostile to the revolution, for the same reason imperialist powers generally oppose people’s uprisings against “stable” capitalist regimes that serve their interests. The starting point needs to be an understanding that the long-term, multi-faceted, all-encompassing Syrian uprising is a revolution, regardless of the limitations of political leadership; and even more so, when looking at where the revolution has been at its strongest, that class has been the more decisive factor than sect and other issues that often appear to superficially dominate.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh sums up the regime as “an obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has proved itself ready to destroy the country in order to remain in power forever”. Moreover, “in its relationship with its subjects, this regime reproduces the structure of imperial domination” which “is a thousand times more telling than any anti-imperialist rhetoric”.3
This is central to understanding the American view, which was highlighted when US State Secretary Hilary Clinton’s asserted that Bashar Assad was a “reformer”4 as Assad was gunning down peaceful protest in early 2011.
At the same time, the US has no special love for particular representatives of such a “brutal neo-bourgeoisie”, if in destroying its country it cannot crush the masses and instead only intensifies the revolutionary instability – the US assassination of its client, South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Diem in 1963 being a case in point. So eight months and thousands of deaths later, President Obama finally called on Assad to “step aside”.
This “Yemeni solution” – named after the arrangement in Yemen whereby former dictator Saleh ceded power to his deputy to preserve a cosmetically ‘reformed’ regime – was spelled out when US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, in July 2012, 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”.5 This has been US policy from Geneva I and II through recent rounds in close cooperation with Russia, in which even Assad himself could remain in a “transitional” government.6
US leaders understood that Assad cannot completely crush the uprising, and if the FSA were crushed it could only lead to further growth of Islamist and jihadist formations to absorb the dispossessed Sunni majority, given the real divisions among the population and the exploitation of them by the regime.
For a reformed capitalist regime to stabilise the country for capitalist rule would therefore, in this context, require it to incorporate some conservative sections of opposition leadership. Therefore, the more ideologically heterogeneous sections of the opposition, such as the FSA, should not be crushed, but weakened enough to be susceptible to co-optation; the search was on for a Syrian Abbas.
Thus bare survival for the FSA was the purpose of US aid: and the minimal level of this aid demonstrated this: it was never even remotely of the quantity or quality necessary for the FSA to win even tactical victories on the ground (let alone win outright), or to allow a permanent “balance” with the regime.
Till late 2013, the US only provided non-lethal aid (which was regularly cut off),7 such as binoculars, radios, “ready-meals” and tents.8 When the CIA arrived on the Turkish and Jordanian borders in mid-2012, its role was blocking others from supplying the advanced weapons that the FSA needed,9 especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons;10 often the US blocked any weapons getting to the FSA.11
The US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons remains today; 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”.12
When the US finally began providing some “vetted” rebels with light arms in late 2013 – i.e. the kind of weaponry which they already manufactured or captured13 – reports of rebels being supplied 16 bullets a month exemplified the limited objectives of this “support”.14 As for the concurrent CIA training program, many rebels who already knew how to fight felt the main American interest was surveillance.15
The rest of the essay will look at the main purpose of this “aid” to some Syrian rebels: the main US aim has been to try to re-direct them away from fighting Assad into its own “war on terror” as a deliberate counter-revolutionary strategy.
Some background: the US-FSA-Nusra triangle of conflict
Two lines on the question of dealing with jihadism have been in conflict throughout the war.
The first is the Syrian revolutionary line. The rebels see the Assad regime as their main enemy, and believe attempting to defeat the jihadists without defeating Assad would be unsuccessful, because the regime is responsible for conditions leading to jihadism. However, they have clashed with Nusra/JFS throughout the conflict on their own terms, defending themselves or their communities against Nusra/JFS attacks. At the same time, they often cooperate militarily against the massively more powerful regime; and have refused US prodding to launch a frontal attack on Nusra/JFS, which they see as suicidal for the anti-Assad forces. However, the dramatically more violent terror against the Syrian people launched by ISIS led the rebels to make their own decision in late 2013 to launch an all-out frontal attack on it; but did not view this war as taking precedence over their war against the regime: they fight the dual counterrevolution.
The opposing US-backed line was the imperialist-Sawhat line, named after the Sunni militias recruited by the US in 2006-07 to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. Mobilising Sunni fighters to fight Sunni jihadists was a positive step for the US compared to its previous reliance on Iranian-backed Shiites, which encouraged sectarian slaughter. However, the US-Iranian backed Shia-led regime dropped its promises to incorporate Sunni into the regime once al-Qaida was defeated, hence its negative connotations. In Syria, the Sawhat’s key differences with the revolutionary position are that, firstly, the US has pushed the FSA to launch a full frontal attack on Nusra as well as ISIS, and secondly, to gain US support even for their own war against ISIS, the US demands the rebels fight ISIS only and end their fight against the regime.
For most part the FSA has walked this fine line successfully – defensively fighting Nusra attacks, while rejecting US demands to launch a frontal offensive on Nusra, launching its own war against ISIS while rejecting US demands to stop fighting the regime – highlighting the absurdity of claims that the FSA is either a CIA or an al-Qaida front.
The FSA is the armed expression of the 2011 uprising, composed of troops who decided to protect fellow Syrians rather than killing them, and popular forces who armed themselves for protection against Assad’s violence. Its main goal is the overthrow of the Assad dictatorship. But the Islamic State set up its own murderous dictatorship which also must be overthrown. The problem with the US line – of fighting ISIS only – is that the very conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq – the large-scale political and social dispossession of Sunni Arabs by the Assad regime and its allied, US-backed Iraqi sectarian regime – are thereby entrenched. Syrian revolutionaries therefore see the overthrow of Assad as a prerequisite for the destruction of ISIS – the very reverse of the US strategy.
Sporadic early FSA clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra
To demonstrate this, we will first review the early clashes between the FSA and Nusra. The first main cause was when Nusra tried to capture FSA-controlled regions. In March 2013, for example, fighting broke out between the FSA-aligned Farouk Brigades and Nusra in Tal Abyad, as the latter attempted to seize the Turkish border post from the FSA.16
The other reason for clashes was to defend communities from Nusra, accompanied by popular demonstrations against theocratic repression. In Idlib, protests and clashes began in late 2012.17 In Raqqa, liberated in March 2013, demonstrations broke out against Nusra, including women’s demonstrations;18 heated discussions between FSA and Nusra cadres highlighted the tensions, but also the fact that Nusra was unable to forcibly impose its rule.19 When Nusra executed three captured military officers, local coordination committees organised demonstrations, chanting “Not Sunni and not Alawite, our revolution is for civil freedom”. In Kafranbel in Idlib, demonstrators raised a banner reading “Executions in Raqqa, and lashing in Saraqib. Who’s given you legitimacy to rule the people?” In Aleppo they chanted “The Sharia Committee has become the Air Force Intelligence”, or “What a shame, what a shame, shabbiha have become revolutionaries”.20
FSA units often went to the aid of protestors. In June 2013, in the Jabal al-Wastani region of Idlib, Nusra assassinated two civilians, accusing them of owning a bar, and tried to arrest someone they accused of working for the regime. Fighters from the National Unity Brigade of the FSA prevented them, and seven FSA battalions forced Nusra out. When Nusra tried to force a checkpoint in another village, they were arrested and barred them from the region.21
During a battle in the Damascus region, an FSA soldier got angry and cursed God. When a Nusra chief demanded he be charged with blasphemy, the local FSA battalion kicked Nusra out of the area. An FSA activist stated “If Nusra are going to be extremist, their services are not wanted”. In the village of Museifra in Daraa, Nusra executed a local man they accused of working for the regime. Civilians “surrounded the al-Nusra court with heavy weapons and forced the jihadists out of the village”. In in the village of Medineh, when a local was ordered to appear before a Nusra “sharia council”, he “drove his car by the relevant building and threw a bomb inside, killing five Nusra militants”.22
In September 2013, FSA units defeated Nusra in the eastern city of Abu Kamal. The ceasefire forced Nusra to expel foreign fighters, established that security would be handled by FSA-affiliated groups, prohibited Nusra checkpoints, and stipulated that a court order was required for house-raids, which could only be performed by FSA brigades. These clashes make nonsense of assertions that the FSA is part of a “jihadi” conspiracy. But they also revealed that Nusra was unable to impose its full control, and that it could be defeated. Following the Abu Kamal events, Nusra issued a two-page apology to the people of Abu Kamal!23
This was the start of a softening of Nusra views and actions. Nusra leader al-Jouliani “denounced transgressions by al-Nusra fighters and called for redressing how the civilians in Nusra-controlled areas are dealt with”.24 The context was the split between Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) around mid-2013. Nusra’s most reactionary elements, and most foreign fighters, went with ISIS. Nusra’s relative moderation reflected the pressure of its mostly Syrian base, many of whom only joined Nusra due to its superior funds, arms and organisation compared to the FSA, rather than due to ideological commitment;25 many quit FSA units to join Nusra for these reasons. “If you join al-Nusra, there is always a gun for you but many of the FSA brigades can’t even provide bullets for their fighters”, according to a fighter in Idlib.26
In September 2013, the entire 11th Division of the FSA, based in Raqqa, joined the smaller, but better-armed Nusra branch, to better resist ISIS.27 When a rebel coalition led by this “Nusra”, stuffed with FSA ranks, briefly liberated Raqqa from ISIS in January 2014, they removed the black flags which ISIS had placed on the spires of Christian churches.28 In April 2014, this Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade re-emerged from “Nusra”, and became the main FSA ally of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) defending Kobani against ISIS.
This highlights the contradiction between the sectarian Nusra leadership and many of its ranks.
From mid-2013 until late 2014, FSA-Nusra clashes virtually ceased; both focused on fighting the regime, alongside various mainstream Islamist brigades.
US drive to turn FSA into the ‘Sawhat’ against Jabhat al-Nusra
These sporadic clashes with Nusra demonstrate that the FSA is not some “jihadi” organisation. But the other side of this equation was the policy being pushed by the US.
As shown above, the limited US “support” to the FSA demonstrated its hostility to the latter’s revolutionary objectives, but the US is also hostile to the jihadist forces. However, this hostility to the latter is used as cover for its hostility to the whole revolution. “We can’t send arms to the FSA because they might end up with the jihadists.” Yet when this becomes “we need to send some arms to FSA moderates to boost them against the jihadists”, such arms are severely inadequate.
What better way to deal with both than to prematurely set the “moderate” FSA against the jihadists, and let them kill each other, in the face of the regime’s overwhelming power, sapping the FSA’s revolutionary potential by turning it into a Syrian “Sawhat”?
When rebel commanders met US intelligence officers in late 2012 to discuss getting US arms, the US officers were only interested in discussing drone strikes on Nusra, and enlisting the rebels to join the attack. When the FSA members said that unity against Assad’s more powerful forces was paramount at present, the US officers replied: “We’d prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army” [later].29 This has been the main condition on which the US has offered to send a few guns to select FSA units ever since.
The G8 communique in June 2013 made no mention of the regime but called for the expulsion from Syria of “al Qaida and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism”, while French president Francois Hollande demanded rebels expel “extremist” groups as a condition for getting any French arms.30
So, if the FSA’s clashes with Nusra showed it was not a “jihadist” organ, was it a “CIA” organ willing to carry out these US orders? Not at all: FSA clashes with Nusra had been on their own terms, and defensive in nature. According to FSA Colonel Akaidi, from the Aleppo military council, if the US wants to turn the FSA “into the Sahwat” and thus “help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help”.31
The FSA wanted to avoid full-scale war with Nusra to prevent anti-Assad fighters killing each other in the context of Assad’s massive military superiority; the contradictory nature of many of Nusra’s anti-Assad ranks was another reason. It was Nusra that was provoking conflict with its reactionary consequences, while the US, from the opposite side, was also pushing for a full-scale confrontation.
Even when the US first listed Nusra as a “terrorist organisation” in December 2012, many Syrians took to the streets claiming “There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad”,32 though other revolution activists disapproved of slogans which could imply sympathy for Nusra. But their message was that, given Assad’s greater terror, the US could not tell them who their enemy was: hardly the message of CIA proxies.
Thus the imaginary US-FSA-al-Qaida conspiracy against Assad collapses on both sides.
The FSA and rebel war on ISIS
But the period of relative peace with Nusra was not the end of the FSA’s war on jihadism. While Nusra’s Syrian base acted to partially moderate its behaviour, the split had the opposite effect on ISIS, whose base among foreign jihadi fighters, whose very presence in Syria was dependent on their sponsor, facilitated its imposition of open terror.
While Nusra focused on fighting the regime, ISIS and the regime largely ignored each other to concentrate their fire on the rebels.33 The second half of 2013 saw a growing war as the FSA acted to defend the masses in liberated zones from ISIS attempts to impose theocratic tyranny.
From the outset, ISIS was far more brutal than Nusra, firing into demonstrations with live ammunition and brutally killing rebels.34 When ISIS assassinated senior FSA leader Kamal al-Hamami in Latakia on July 11 2013, the FSA declared “war” on ISIS.35 When it seized control of Raqqa, ISIS acted with wanton violence, leading the FSA Raqqa Revolutionaries Front to launch resistance.36 In August, ISIS drove the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigades out of Raqqa by destroying their headquarters with car bombs, and in September launched a campaign of “Purification of Filth“ aimed at destroying the FSA. Clashes erupted in Deir Ezzor; in Aleppo, where 44 fighters were killed in October; in Azaz, where the FSA Northern Storm resisted an ISIS drive to seize the border; and throughout the country.37
The survival of the revolution required decisive action. On January 2014, the major FSA and Islamist brigades launched a full-frontal war on ISIS throughout Syria,38 Significantly, this was triggered by nation-wide demonstrations against ISIS on January 3,39 calling ISIS “alien invaders” and demanding their expulsion.40 This was evidence of a continued link between the civil uprising and its military reflection.
Within weeks, the rebels had driven ISIS entirely from Idlib, Hama, Latakia and most of Aleppo, then in the east from Deir Ezzor and briefly even Raqqa, the biggest and most rapid defeat suffered by ISIS any time in the war. Western Syria has remained free of ISIS ever since.
Not only did the rebels achieve this without US air support, the Assad regime bombed them in support of ISIS, even helping ISIS reconquer towns it had been driven from.41 Areas that were untouched by regime bombs while under ISIS control were immediately subjected to regime bombing once under rebel control.42
After refusing to arm the FSA because jihadists who fight alongside the FSA might get their hands on the arms, now the US refused to arm the FSA because these jihadists might get their hands on the arms while fighting against the FSA! Although the FSA attacked ISIS with its own agenda, one might assume US leaders would be pleased it was doing what they had been demanding, yet the US was reluctant “to boost assistance to moderate groups battling ISIS until the fighting in northern Syria ends”.43
The New York Times explained that “neither of the two sides in the rebel fighting presents a particularly attractive face to Western policy makers”,44 while James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, asserted that Nusra, then aiding the rebels against ISIS, had aspirations to attack the US – an absurd proposition.45
An explanation more in keeping with US policy was that the US refused to aid the rebels even against ISIS unless the rebels dropped the fight against the regime.
This same pattern – Assad bombing to help ISIS against the rebels and the US refusing to aid the rebels against ISIS – continued when ISIS made a comeback in eastern Syria following its windfall of advanced US weaponry seized in Mosul in June. In June-July, rebels held out in the city of Deir Ezzor for weeks against an ISIS siege, during which the Assad regime bombed the rebels in tandem with ISIS, helping it seize the city.46
The US, already bombing ISIS in Iraq, refused to aid the Deir Ezzor rebels against ISIS. Yet, from the time conflict between the regime and ISIS over Deir Ezzor began in November 2014, the US has been bombing on the side of the regime.47
The myth that the CIA and Pentagon programs were in conflict
The secret CIA program of supplying light arms and “training” to “vetted” FSA groups from late 2013 is often contrasted to the $500 million Pentagon program, launched later in 2014, to equip an armed force to fight ISIS only and not the regime.
As we will see, the Pentagon’s “full Sawhat” collapsed: attracting anti-Assad fighters to a force banned from fighting Assad was a logical disaster.
The CIA program, by contrast, is usually presented as anti-Assad, aimed at helping the rebels exert military pressure on the regime. We even read that the CIA and Pentagon were working at cross purposes.
However, a closer look shows that this was façade: not only because the weapons were grossly inadequate for the purpose of pressuring a regime with such massively superior killing equipment, or for defending already held positions; but also because the purpose of the CIA’s co-optation was for a more round-about, yet more effective, route to the same destination as the absurd Pentagon program. The CIA understood the need to “sweeten up” viable rebel groups first before bending them into a viable Sawhat.
CIA’s TOW program: Helping fight Assad or same old Sawhat?
Once the rebel war on ISIS had reached its limits, the US did begin a program of tightly controlled delivery of “TOW” anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) to several of the “vetted” FSA groups who had defeated ISIS.
The delivery of TOWs does not prove the US is supplying them; most are supplied by Saudi Arabia from its own stocks.48 However, it is understood that the Saudis must have US permission to deliver US-made weapons, though the reality may be more tug-o-war at times.
This followed a two-year CIA-enforced embargo on US allies supplying anti-tank weapons to the rebels49 (meanwhile, the US has continued to vigorously maintain its embargo on anti-aircraft weapons).50 But the rebels’ increasing ability to capture anti-tank weapons from the regime anyway, 51 and use them effectively, pushed the US to change direction and instead try to take some control of this supply as a co-option tool (and the TOWs were less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels have captured).52
The first TOWs were delivered in April 2014, and the number of groups receiving TOWs soon spread to nine,53 though they only received “a few dozen TOW antitank missiles” between them, “resulting in a minimal effect on the battlefield”.54 By the end of the year it was down to only four groups,55 with few weapons actually being delivered to anyone.56 What occurred in between?
The large Idlib-based FSA coalition, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), is often referred to as one of the “US-backed” TOW recipients. However, it was not on the initial list of groups receiving TOWs, and its leader, Jamal Maarouf, claimed “We have received lots of promises from the US, but so far nothing more”.57 The SRF, which had successfully driven ISIS from Idlib, was also dedicated to overthrowing Assad.
But while Maarouf’s “immediate group of fighters” did not receive TOWs, “some of the other factions who pledged allegiance to his front did”. An April video depicting cadre from an SRF component, the Ghab Wolves Brigade, training in the use of TOWs, helps explain why, when a fighter reveals: “The weapons are sent by the Americans…and they onlygive weapons to those who specifically fight ISIS. They are not giving us weapons to fight Assad, they give us weapons to fight ISIS”.58
In June 2014 Nusra suddenly ended the year-long truce and launched a murderous attack on the SRF in Idlib. In response, the SRF, Harakat Hazm and other local FSA groups (Division 13, Division 101, Fursan al-Haq, etc.) decided to “suspend any and all forms of cooperation and coordination with the Jabhat al Nusra”.59
However, there was a difference between not cooperating with Nusra and the US demand to wage war against it. The SRF stressed that “despite al-Nusra’s atrocities, the SRF has no intentionto carry weapons against al-Nusra, as it is busy fighting the Syrian regime”,60 thus refusing to become a Sawhat brigade.
The US initially had more faith in another northern FSA coalition, Harakat Hazm (some of whose member groups had quit the SRF), to which the first TOWs were delivered in April 2014. But the TOWs were few and far between, with shipments containing “only three or four missiles”, which were “no better than the Russian weapons” they captured from the SAA. Hazm leaders admitted to still fighting alongside Nusra, despite the declaration ending cooperation, since “the failure of the U.S. to deliver adequate weapons leaves them unable to refuse whatever allies come their way, including those with opposing politics”.61
Hazm was caught in a vice: the paucity of US support forced them to maintain some cooperation with Nusra; yet this cooperation was used by the US to wind down support.
The real goal of this US “support” was explained by a former Hazm member: “by September 2014 the United States started to pressure us to leave the battle field 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”.62
US launches war on ISIS and Nusra and dumps FSA
The test came when the US-led Coalition started bombing ISIS in September; the US also bombed Nusra from the first day, even though Nusra, with all its faults and crimes, was not engaged in the kinds of near-genocidal activities that ISIS and the regime were. Since Nusra was based in many of the same regions as the rebels, US bombs hit other rebels, especially Ahrar al-Sham,63 and killed numerous civilians. The regime was untouched by US bombs, and welcomed the US intervention,64 collaborating with it via intelligence sharing65 and coordinated bombing.66
Now was the time for “US-backed” groups who had received handfuls of TOWs to aid the US in destroying the jihadists. Yet despite their own war against ISIS, and conflict with Nusra, they refused to endorse a campaign that targeted only these groups but not the regime.
Harakat Hazm issued a powerful statement condemning the US bombing as “a violation of national sovereignty and an attack on the revolution”.67 The SRF joined a dozen large FSA-linked and Islamist brigades and denounced the US air strikes as aiding Assad.68 Most FSA and rebel brigades denounced the US intervention.69
Failing this US proxy test, the FSA was excluded from the start from any voice in the US-led coalition to fight ISIS;70 John Allen, the general in charge of the coalition, confirmed that “there is no formal coordination with the FSA”,71 while Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declared the US does not “have a willing, capable, effective partner” in Syria.72 This lack of coordination led to near-strikes against the FSA.73
This was the background to the reports by late 2014 showing the US had virtually halted all support to the FSA.74
Nusra launches war on the FSA, US throws them under a bus
The US attack on Nusra also provides background to Nusra’s destruction of the SRF in Idlib in November and Harakat Hazm in in Aleppo in January 2015. Most Nusra cadres in Deir Ezzor had fled to Idlib following their defeat by ISIS in July; battle-hardened fighters, weapons and experience flooded in, suddenly making Idlib a new Nusra stronghold. But the SRF was a competitor in Idlib, and Nusra does not like competition.
The bombing led to a surge in support for Nusra, seen as the martyr of an unjust US attack that benefited Assad. In mass demonstrations throughout Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs, demonstrators chanted “We are all Nusra” or “Nusra came to support us when the world abandoned us”.75
Nusra used this surge in moral authority to turn on the SRF and Hazm. Its propaganda claimed that any groups that had accepted US weapons were US proxies. Despite their refusal to be the Sawhat, Nusra’s case was helped by the very vocal way in which the US advocated the FSA use its weapons against Nusra.
Demonstrations in support of the SRF broke out in the SRF heartland, with a strong role played by women,76 but Nusra’s martyr status neutralised opposition to Nusra’s attack elsewhere in Idlib. It also militated against the SRF putting up stiff resistance; it maintained its established policy to avoid soaking the province in fratricidal bloodshed.
Meanwhile, the winding down of US support meant that the SRF, Hazm and the FSA were in a weaker military position had they wanted to confront Nusra, while in a weaker position politically due to Nusra being bombed by what was seen as their US backer. As one FSA official put it, “We have a huge American flag our back but not a gun in our hand”.77
Faysal Itani sums up this US policy:
US airstrikes on JAN immediately produced a new and powerful rival to already vulnerable moderate forces. By striking JAN without sufficiently strengthening its moderate counterparts first, and promising (publicly, no less) to use them to fight JAN and not the regime, the United States made the opposition appear just threatening enough to provoke JAN, but not so threatening as to deter the jihadist group.78
State of the Free Syrian Army at the outset of 2015
Nusra’s crushing of the SRF and Harakat Hazm did not end the FSA in the north. There were other large FSA units in the Idlib and Aleppo regions (e.g. Division 13, Fursan al-Haq and others who formed the 5th Brigade coalition) and countless smaller units. In addition, there were various rebel groups with some kind of “Islamist” reference but were not “Salafist”, such as Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Jabhat al-Shamiya and the MB-linked Faylaq al-Sham.
The 10-20,000 SRF and Hazm troops did not just disappear. Many went to these other FSA groups; many Hazm cadre in Aleppo joined Jabhat al-Shamiya; some SRF cadre in Idlib joined an expanded Ahrar al-Sham (Nusra’s aggression against the SRF was condemned by Ahrar al-Sham leaders).79 Some SRF cadre deserted to Nusra at the outset, but even some cadre who had opposed Nusra’s takeover subsequently fought under Nusra purely as a powerful vehicle to keep fighting the regime, another indication of the fluidity of group membership.80
Relative strengths led to markedly different military coalitions. In Aleppo, the Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest) coalition of over 30 major brigades – FSA, soft-Islamist, and Ahrar al-Sham – excluded Nusra from membership. Nusra’s disagreements with other rebels led it to largely withdraw from northern Aleppo province and Aleppo city.81 Nusra remained in a strong position in south-west Aleppo bordering Idlib, but even there was continually challenged by popular protest, especially in towns such as al-Atarib.82
In contrast, Idlib now became Nusra’s main base. While it did not “rule” Idlib, the exclusion it faced in Aleppo was impossible. The new military coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), comprised eight groups, of which Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were the two largest. Others (Faylaq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham) were part of the ‘soft-Islamist’ middle; while Jaysh al-Sunna was a “non-ideological” brigade of Homsi exiles.83 In the string of major victories in early 2015 (Idlib city, Jush al-Shugr, etc.), the major FSA Idlib brigades (Division 13, Fursan al-Haq) fought alongside Jaysh al-Fatah, but were not members.
South of Idlib, FSA brigades were more prominent: in northern Latakia province, the FSA First Coastal brigade; in northern Hama, the FSA Nasr Brigades; in Homs, the new Homs Liberation Front.
US allies and proxies against ISIS: whoever does not fight Assad
When the US ground down its support to northern FSA groups in late 2014, it shifted its support in several directions. What these different forces had in common was that they did not fight Assad.
In the north, the Pentagon announced its $500 million plan to train and equip “vetted” individual rebels (rather than FSA units) to form a new force from scratch to fight ISIS.84 It collapsed in a heap. The vetting process reduced the initial 1200 fighters interested to 125, the rest either rejected by the US or quit. While more than willing to fight ISIS, they rejected the US demand that they sign a declaration pledging that their weapons would only be used against ISIS and not against the regime.85
Even worse, the Pentagon first engaged in a week of bombing Nusra in northern Syria before dispatching the first 54 fighters of “Division 30” into that very region.86 Not surprisingly, they were captured by Nusra. In a statement concerning the attack on Division 30, Nusra claimed the captured fighters admitted that their job was to fight Nusra “and other terrorist groups”, and accused them of spotting for the US air strikes.87
Of course, “confessing” while Nusra captives is hardly reliable, but the context makes these assertions plausible. They also blend with suspicions among Syrian rebels; several weeks earlier, the MB-connected Liwa al Haqq warned that “all the checkpoints need to inspect those coming from Turkey. There are stray dogs the Americans have finished training that will enter Syria soon. Their mission is spying and assassinations”.88
Whether this disaster was US incompetence or malice was the only question. One local activist noted that “sending in the 54 and then bombing JAN a few miles away from their positions – implying the 54 acted as spotters for the US Air Force – looks like constructing a case that “See, all our well-meant support is hopeless”, justifying the US abandonment of the FSA even for Sawhat purposes.89
Meanwhile, in the south, the US cobbled together the New Syrian Army. In November 2015, the NSA, backed by US air strikes, expelled ISIS from the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq, releasing a video showing copious US weaponry. Later it launched a failed raid on Abu Kamal, where the going was tough, because many Deir Ezzor rebels “distrust its American backers”, especially because the NSA’s introductory video made no mention of fighting the regime.90
Meanwhile, while backing these toothless ventures, the Pentagon refused to provide air cover the FSA and allied rebel forces in their ongoing conflict with ISIS east of the strategic frontline rebel-held towns Mare and Tal Rifaat in northern Aleppo province. In June 2015, the Syrian air force bombed the rebels “assisting an Islamic State offensive on rebel-held areas”.91
Explaining why the US did not aid the rebels against ISIS, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said the rebels are not a “willing partner on the ground”.92 But according to the Syrian American Council, US officials gave “the astounding reason that aiding the rebels in Aleppo would hurt Assad, which would anger the Iranians, who might then turn up the heat on U.S. troops in Iraq”.93
However, a year later, the US did launch several air strikes in support of a new north Aleppo rebel brigade attacking ISIS. The Mu’tasim Brigade also became the first ever rebel brigade in Syria to receive airdropped weapons from the US, insignificant quantities. This US support is explained by the views of the brigade’s leader, Mu’tasim Abbas: “When extremist groups started festering in our society… We redirected our battles just to fighting ISIS and other extremists … Once we get rid of ISIS, then the regime will crumble”.94
However, by late 2014 the main US ally on the ground had shifted to the Kurdish-based Peoples Protection Units (YPG), led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), already involved in its own war against ISIS in northeast Syria. In 2015, the US helped hammer together the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting overwhelmingly of the YPG alongside small numbers of Arab fighters from rebel or non-rebel groups in northeast Syria.
Since late 2014, every YPG (and SDF) offensive against ISIS has been heavily backed by fully coordinated US air strikes; the YPG/SDF is the only group in Syria with the right to call in US air strikes; US arms have been dropped directly to them in the field; hundreds of US special forces have been sent in to work with them;95 and several US air bases have been built in their territory.96
The YPG/SDF are not US proxies. They have their own goals, centred around a Kurdish autonomy expanded into what they call a ‘democratic confederalist’ entity that incorporates non-Kurds and promises a revolutionary model for post-Assad Syria. It is not the aim of this essay to assess the realities of this project. The point is merely that the US and the YPG/SDF are currently allied as their interests have converged.
Spokespeople for both sides claim that the US provides air cover for the YPG/SDF because they are the “most effective” fighters against ISIS. They were indeed effective, especially when fighting to liberate Kurdish-populated territory from ISIS tyranny. However, as we saw above, the FSA/rebels drove ISIS out of the whole of western Syria without any US air strikes to aid them.
Thus both the FSA/rebels and the YPG/SDF have been effective fighters against ISIS, due to their real roots among the populations they represent. Both have done a much better job than the Assad regime, whose only victory against ISIS was the reconquest of Palmyra (after spectacularly losing it), with the aid of Russian air strikes; Assad then lost it again, and the second reconquest was carried out with the aid of both Russian and US air strikes.97
Rather, the issue is what the YPG/SDF has in common with the US proxy forces: it fights only ISIS, and not the Assad regime. In its case, this is their own decision; the Assad regime made a pragmatic deal with the PYD in 2012 to withdraw its forces from the three main concentrations of Kurdish-majority territory, leaving them to the PYD. This was not due to Assad’s love for Kurdish autonomy; it merely enabled Assad to concentrate his fire on revolutionary forces elsewhere; nor to any PYD love for Assad –not getting barrel-bombed like everyone else has its advantages.
Nevertheless, this policy of not fighting the Assad regime meant that the US condition imposed on ex-rebel proxies was already met by this far more significant fighting force of its own accord. Thus the US-PYD alliance makes war on ISIS in eastern Syria, while both can ignore Assad and Russia bombing the revolutionary populations in western Syria.
US subversion of the Southern Front
Though the main US shift, when it dumped the FSA in the north, went towards proxies or the YPG, another subtle shift was towards the real FSA in the south, the Southern Front, based in Daraa province. With 35,000 troops in over 50 brigades, the SF carried out a string of victories in in late 2014 and early 2015.
The SF’s democratic, secularist anti-sectarian politics,98 alongside its dominance over jihadist groups in the south, is often cited as the reason for this new US support, as the numbers of TOWs increased among SF groups, as they were drying up in the north.
However, like the abandoned SRF and Hazm, and unlike the YPG and the Pentagon proxies, the SF’s main enemy was the regime. Did this indicate actual US support for anti-Assad resistance in the south?
In mid-2015, the SF released a declaration rejecting “any military or [ideological] cooperation or rapprochement with the Al-Nusra Front or any takfiri [ideology] adopted by any group among the ranks of the Syrian rebels”,99 provoked by Nusra claiming “victories” that had been made by the SF. Like all Syrian rebels, the SF vigorously condemned the massacre of some 20 Druze in Idlib by a Nusra unit and announced “its readiness to protect Druze villages”.
However, this was well within FSA-revolution, rather than ‘Sawhat’, parameters. The SF made clear that ceasing cooperation with Nusra “is not a declaration of war” and would not “face off” with Nusra.100 So, like the SRF-Hazm-FSA non-cooperation statement in Idlib, and the exclusion of Nusra from Fatah Halab in Aleppo, this highlights the fine line the FSA tries to walk between the demands of the jihad and the demands of the Sawhat.
US support to the southern FSA, coordinated via the Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Amman, consisting mostly of US, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence officers, had not always been forthcoming. 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.101 Throughout summer 2013, the US failed to supply “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa”, and “actively prevented deliveries” of Saudi arms and ammunition.102 It also involved training a group of people to maintain order in the event of a catastrophic collapse of the Assad regime, rather than to fight Assad.103
The new US interest in arming the SF was connected to the war on ISIS. Unlike the Pentagon shambles, the CIA wanted to work through viable military organisations, all of which were fighting the regime. The US strategy appears to have been to allow the SF to feel some victories, then once a level of dependence was created, turn on the screws.
After the SF’s string of victories in early 2015 (taking the Jordanian border crossing at Nasib, Sheik Miskeen, Nawa, the historic town of Bushra al-Sham, and regime base 52), the US and MOC imposed a series of “red lines”, where the SF was not to go.104 These included the central area of Daraa city, the neighbouring province Suweida, north towards the city of Sasa, and any attempt to link up with the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
SF offensives to take Daraa city, and the Thala airbase, were unsupported,105 or blocked.106 According to some reports, if the SF violated the “red line” against advancing towards Damascus, it would come under US attack.107
By mid-2015 the MOC had scaled back support for the SF,108 and use of TOWs trickled off in late 2015 “and totally vanished in the first two weeks of 2016”, though SF spokesman Isam El Rayyes denied this was new; rather “MOC-licensed resupplies have remained as low as they ever were”.109 Reports in early 2016 indicated that Jordan had “forced the Southern Front to halt all military actions”. The context included Jordan’s acquiescence with the Russian invasion, and indications that Jordan would be happy with the Assad regime re-taking the entire region from the SF.110
When the US and Russia jointly tasked Jordan with listing “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from talks, Jordan’s list included some 160 rebel groups.111
However, a full regime reconquest of Daraa would be a major undertaking; as long as the SF is held back by red lines and arms freezes, it posed no problem to the regime’s aim of destroying the main revolutionary centres there (East Ghouta, Moadamiya, Darayya, etc.).
The US-Jordan strategy involved the familiar Sawhat: in January 2016, MOC officials told the SF to stop attacking regime forces and instead focus their efforts on the jihadists, and fighting Nusra was even more important than fighting ISIS. If they did as demanded, they were promised new weaponry.112
In May, the MOC tasked some 4500 SF troops with driving ISIS-connected militia out of some pockets around Daraa, telling the SF it was “tired of your excuses” for “delaying” these operations, and warning it would cut cash flows until they scored victories over ISIS.113
In March 2016, the SF took part in the US-Russia facilitated nation-wide ceasefire. In reality, however, it was only a lull in bombing: so while the regime continued bombing at lower intensity – particularly in Aleppo and Darayya in the Damascus suburbs – “maintaining the ceasefire” became the new rationale for holding back the SF.
In May 2016, new US/MOC “red-lines” were set in a meeting with rebel groups from around the country, deeming the “destruction of military and security structures” in Syria a “red line”, and called on rebels, as part of a peace process, to “join the ranks of the Syrian Army in its fight against Jabhat al-Nusra and all armed groups that refuse to join the Army”.114
The betrayal of Darayya
In mid-2016 Assad’s troops marched into the iconic revolutionary town of Darayya, one of the key centres remaining wedded to the ideals of the 2011 uprising. Thousands of residents still remaining after years of bombing, starvation and dispossession, but also heroic resistance, were deported to other parts of Syria.
While 748 barrel bombs were dropped on Darayya in June 2016 alone,115 and the other Damascus suburbs were also being furiously bombed, besieged and starved, just a little to the south the once mighty Southern Front was forced to abide by the “ceasefire”.
Many popular forces demanded the SF reactivate the fronts against Assad. According to one pro-Islamist rebel declaration, “conspiracies against the Revolution can’t be foiled except by opening up the Damascus front. … And Deraa [i.e. the SF] won’t act except with a “white/soft coup” against the MOC”.116
How this US/MOC intervention against the SF betrayed Darayya is explained by this piece that appeared just a few weeks before the surrender:
[T]he MOC summoned leaders in the Southern Front for an emergency meeting in which they were warned against launching an offensive to seize Sheikh Maskin, a town lies along a motorway that run northward from Daraa’s provincial capital toward Damascus… The same month that the town fell into government hands, the MOC ordered the Southern Front to halt its operations against the Syrian regime in the Daraa province in order to focus its fight on ISIS-affiliated groups in the region.
[A]n official in Ahrar al-Sham issued a fiery warning to Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebels in southern Syria, saying they were culpable for the regime’s recent advances into the besieged western Damascus suburb of Darayya.117
Conclusion: CIA and Pentagon programs had same goal
To sum up, therefore, as with the CIA-program and the delivery of TOWs in the north, the much heralded CIA “support” to the once magnificent Southern Front turned out to be a long way round to the same goal as the Pentagon program: to end the rebel war against Assad and turn them into US proxies against the jihadists only. With results such as the crushing of two large FSA coalitions in the north, the demobilisation of the Southern Front, and the crushing of Darayya, the CIA program was more effectively counterrevolutionary than the Pentagon program, precisely because the latter could mobilise no significant forces (except the YPG) from the start.
So let’s lay to rest the myth of the “anti-Assad” CIA program being at odds with the anti-ISIS Pentagon program.
Return to the north: How does Euphrates Shield fit this picture?
Between the crushing of Darayya and the crushing of eastern Aleppo later that year, attention must swing back to the north. Does Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation fall within the “Sawhat” strategy?
Turkey’s Erdogan regime had been one of the strongest supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion. While Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy is usually given as a main objective of its intervention in Syria, this explains little. Erdogan had a very strong relationship with Assad until 2011, and Assad could be relied upon to crush Kurdish Rojava once he crushed the rest of the rebellion; and until mid-2015, Erdogan had been involved in a half-hearted “peace process” with the PKK anyway.
But Turkey could not sit by as millions of refugees from Assad’s slaughter poured across the border. Overwhelmed, Turkey’s government eventually decided that the cause of this massive instability needed to be removed. And a regime pushing a soft-Islamist discourse at home and regionally allied to the Muslim Brotherhood would lose credibility if it ignored Assad’s wholesale slaughter of mostly Syrian Sunnis.
Turkey initially put forward its plan to evict ISIS from Azaz to Jarablus in the northern Aleppo border region and set up a “safe zone” in mid-2015. Erdogan’s plan was partly to relieve the refugee burden by allowing refugees to settle, safe from air strikes, in northern Syria. However, his alliance with the rebels, who were to patrol the zone, meant that Turkey’s intervention threatened to go beyond its border issues, and provide back-up for the rebels war against the regime. Therefore this was rejected by the US, which insisted “there are no U.S. plans for a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone or any other protected zone of any kind”.118
Yet in mid-2016, when Turkey launched the Euphrates Shield operation in alliance with FSA and Islamist militia to evict ISIS from the Azaz to Jarablus strip, it was supported by both US and even Russian airstrikes, even though its theoretically resolute anti-Assad policy clashed with both US and Russian objectives.119
Ironically, it was YPG actions that laid the basis of this US/Russian. In February 2016, the YPG seized a chunk of Arab-majority northern rural Aleppo from the FSA and rebel groups with the direct aid of Russian air cover, including the iconic revolutionary town of Tal Rifaat. This cut rebel-held eastern Aleppo city off from rebel-held northern Aleppo regions around Mare and Azaz and from the Turkish border.
So the Azaz-Mare rebels, squeezed between the Turkish border, the YPG to the west and south and ISIS-held northeast rural Aleppo, attacked east and seized the border town of al-Rai from ISIS.120 Turkey meanwhile had been gathering rebels across the border to drive ISIS from Jarablus.121 Turkey’s decision to evict ISIS from this zone thus coincided with the need of the Azaz-Mare rebels to break their isolation.
However, because the YPG was occupying Tal Rifaat, and ISIS held al-Bab, there was no route for the Turkey-FSA offensive to link up with and help defend fellow rebels in Aleppo city from Assad.
Therefore, as it had no way of fighting Assad, this FSA operation against ISIS could gain both US and Russian support, regardless of the rebels’ desires; they could support an “unintentional Sawhat”.
However, for Erdogan it may have been less unintentional. Following the botched coup attempt in mid-2016, the AKP began moving in a more conventional Turkish nationalist direction, symbolised by its new alliance with the far-right Turkish-chauvinist MHP. This push into northern Syria offered this nationalist consensus an influence in this heavily Turkmen-populated region, an opportunity to block the YPG’s threat to “link” its Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Afrin by seizing this non-Kurdish zone in between, and a potential zone to push Syrian refugees into122– while offering no danger of a clash with Assad.
This new Turkish policy made it easier for Erdogan to reconcile with Putin, and Turkey became a key partner, with Russia and Iran, in a new “peace process” launched in the Kazak capital Astana. For Russia, ensuring the process worked in the regime’s favour involved facilitating Assad’s victory in Aleppo, meaning the rebels entered the process drastically weakened.
The question then was whether Euphrates Shield weakened the rebels in the face of the decisive Aleppo showdown. One might argue that, given the Azaz-Mare rebels were already cut off from Aleppo, driving back ISIS was the best they could do, and did no harm to the Aleppo front.
However, Euphrates Shield not only involved the Azaz-Mare rebels, but also several thousand rebels Turkey had recruited from across its northwest border, from rebel-held Idlib and southwest rural Aleppo, while “60 percent of Turkmen fighters pulled out of Aleppo [city] in August to take part in Euphrates Shield”.123 This left east Aleppo drastically weakened when Assad reimposed total siege.
Accusations of Turkish betrayal came from various quarters. Abu Abd, the final leader of rebel forces in Aleppo city claimed that due to “the orders of the sponsor a lot of fighters from Aleppo left it to fight in the northern countryside;”124 Ahmed Hussein, from Ahrar al-Sham, noted that despite the regime’s “worst attack so far … we have not received any significant support to counter them;”125 while Abdul Ilah al-Fahed, the opposition National Coalition, claimed that “Aleppo’s fall was facilitated in an international agreement”.126
Possibly some of the rebels who moved north imagined that expelling ISIS from northeast Aleppo could open the front against Assad from the north. This would have required Euphrates Shield seizing al-Bab from ISIS, yet that operation only began once Aleppo was crushed. Whatever the subjective intentions of the rebels or Turkey, the effect was the same: Aleppo was abandoned.
Turkey was also abandoning traditional positions. Turkish leaders now stated their agreement with the US position that Assad could play a role in the “transitional government”,127 a point on which they had previously differed. During the siege, Turkish leaders repeated the demand made by the US 128 and Russia that the rebels “separate themselves” from JFS and expel it from Aleppo.129 Yet there were only 8-900 JFS fighters of the rebel force ten times that number in Aleppo, and were only inside the city at all due to their role in breaking Assad’s first siege of Aleppo from the outside. In the context of apocalyptic regime and Russia bombing, the demand to expel JFS was a demand on the rebels to weaken their own defences.
Clashes between Syrian rebels and HTS jihadists early 2017
In this context of Euphrates Shield, the crushing of Aleppo, Astana, the intensified US war on Nusra, and Donald Trump’s new pro-Putin US administration, new clashes erupted between different groups of rebels in Idlib and western Aleppo in early 2017.130 On one side was the new Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, formed by JFS (which split from al-Qaida in mid-2016) and four small rebel groups. On the other were the majority of rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, which expanded as six moderate Islamist brigades joined it,131 and the FSA.
These clashes did not last long; the need to avoid all-out conflict, in order to focus on Assad, the Russian and Iranian invaders and ISIS, reasserted itself. At the time, however, analyses of this conflict ranged from the idea that it represented a “new revolution against al-Qaida”,132 to the claim that HTS was leading a struggle against rebel leaderships trying to end the revolution in the service of Turkey, Russia and the US.133
As we have seen, the struggle against Nusra/JFS in Idlib both by the FSA/rebels and popular struggle has been ongoing, sharpening with Nusra attacks on demonstrations bearing the flag of the revolution and on FSA Division 13 early in 2016.134 This legacy lends legitimacy to the “new revolution” discourse.
Complicating this picture, however, was that Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation was allied to a range of rebel groups most of whose Idlib chapters were in conflict with JFS, while Turkey was involved with the Astana process with Russia and Iran. Astana aimed to trap the opposition into accepting a “transitional” role for the Assad regime, while pushing them to turn all their guns against both ISIS and JFS: classic Sawhat.
After the Astana meeting of January 23-24, Russia, Turkey and Iran released a statement that “reiterate[d] their determination to fight jointly against ISIL/DAESH and Al-Nusra [i.e. JFS] and to separate from them armed opposition groups”.135 According to one source, this clause “transformed the positions held by al-Nusra into a cake that the regime forces and opposition factions are trying to annex”.136
However, while taking part in the discussions, the rebel leadership resisted capitulation at Astana. Stressing they “were not party to this agreement”, the FSA’s Osama Abu Zaid noted that the “three countries can sign any agreements they want to”.137
The opposition delegation “refused to talk about confrontation with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria, before removing the foreign, “Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian” militias from Syria”.138 Likewise, the Syrian Coalition stressed that only “areas controlled by the ISIS extremist group”, should be excluded from the ceasefire, i.e., not areas with JFS presence.139
The rebels also continued to reject any role for Assad in a “transitional” regime,140 and declared their aims at Astana were to achieve basic preconditions for real negotiations, including the release of captives and an end to regime sieges.141
However, caught in a bind, the rebels abided by the ceasefire for the sake of the civilian population, despite its terms legitimising regime, Russian and US attacks on JFS-controlled territory; yet the Assad regime refused to abide by any ceasefire, and continued to furiously bomb East Ghouta and Wadi Barada.142
Furthermore, some statements from the exile-based Syrian Coalition were less principled than the rebels’ positions. For example, in one statement the Coalition called for “the formation of an international coalition to oust all terrorist organizations from Syria”.143
JFS began its attacks on rebel groups that very week; either JFS believed it had to pre-emptively attack the rebels before they coveted its territory, or could use this clause as a pretext to attack its adversaries.
Astana was in full accord with the US position. Over December 2016 and January 2017 the US stepped up its war against JFS, killing hundreds their cadres,144 as well as allied fighters from the Nour ed-Din al-Zinki brigade,145 and plenty of civilians, though it also bombed Ahrar al-Sham, JFS’s main opponent.146
Along with being the main target of US bombing, JFS was also the only significant armed group that opposed the Turkish intervention and Astana process.147 Together with a small degree of moderation which has crept into its governance 148 and its discourse 149 since breaking with al-Qaida, this has allowed JFS to project itself as the only true “resistance” to Astana and capitulation.
Trump continues and intensifies the Obama-Kerry legacy
While Trump’s Syria policy shows much continuity with the Obama legacy, his open praise for Putin’s and Assad’s alleged “fight against ISIS” suggested an even greater counterrevolutionary role for the US.150
Under Trump, the bombing of JFS in Idlib and western Aleppo reached its most horrific point with the slaughter of some 57 worshippers in a mosque in western Aleppo 151– which Trump’s Russian friends defended as aimed at “terrorists”,152 while the nature of the “war on ISIS” was highlighted with massacre of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa,153 and the mass killing of hundreds of civilians in Mosul.154 Meanwhile, the US role alongside Assad, Russia and Iran in the latest reconquest of Palmyra was widely reported;155 and a calculation US bombings in February from CentCom (i.e. the US-led Coalition bombing Syria) shows that while 60 percent were carried out in coordination with the SDF, most of the other 40 percent was in alliance with Assad in Deir Ezzor, Palmyra and Idlib, some 195 of the 548 strikes.156
Then in the very days before Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders announced that the US was “no longer” (sic) focused on removing Assad, whose “longer term status will be decided by the Syrian people”, but is for now “a political reality that we have to accept”.157
Assad mistook this encouragement to mean that even the use of sarin would pass, resulting in the first ever US strike on the regime, on the airfield from where the sarin was launched. After this singular US “credibility” strike on Assad – following 7,899 strikes on anti-Assad targets – all wings of the US leadership scrambled to emphasise that it was a one-off, that “we’re not going into Syria”, that it was only in response to sarin, that the US had no interest in Assad’s continued use of his other weapons of mass destruction, that defeating ISIS remains the priority, that tensions with Russia would “not spiral out of control”,158 and that there was “no change in US policy”.159
National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that if there were any “regime change” it would be carried out by Russia, and that the US goal was limited to “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular”.160
It is not surprising that key revolutionary centres that continually resist the jihadists – Ma’arrat al-Numan,161 Atareb,162 Kafranbel, Darayya and so on – centres where revolutionary councils have been most successful, have been continually targeted by regime airstrikes.
It is also not surprising that the US again cut off its meagre “support” to the rebels when the latest conflict erupted with JFS, allegedly “to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands”.163 This may seem counterintuitive, given US pressure on the rebels to fight Nusra, but is logical when we remember that the rebels refused to drop the fight against Assad.
These facts indicate that both the US and Assad see the real revolution as the main threat, with “anti-jihadism” a useful propaganda device. But this regime, Russian and US bombing boosts the standing of JFS amid false ‘ceasefire’ processes. As Felix Legrand points out, “the very inverse dynamic” from that intended has resulted from these ceasefires, as Nusra/JFS “emerged indisputably strengthened from the failure of the agreement between the regime and the non-jihadist opposition”.164 Because Assad continues to slaughter through the ‘ceasefires’, when the rebels try, for good reason, to respect them, JFS gains points as the “true resistance”.
A genuine ceasefire, especially one based on a more positive relationship of forces than at present, would aid the democratic revolutionary forces, because the jihadists thrive on military struggle; every time there is some lull in the fighting, the masses return to the streets with the flag and slogans of the revolution. A revival of the civil movement would provide a chance to overcome the sectarian atmosphere; massive slaughter is not conducive to rebuilding harmony.
At this point, the military side of the struggle appears to be largely lost; the long-term US drive to divert the revolution to the “war on terror” and other forms of sabotage, and the undermining of the struggle by other alleged foreign “friends”, alongside the massive Russian and Iranian intervention and the rise of ISIS, have all led to this point.
Of course, there is no military “solution” (and the arguments that some Syrians fear certain rebel formations “taking power” in Damascus are as unreal as fears of Hamas emerging from Gaza to rule in Tel Aviv). However, the military balance on the ground is a decisive factor: it is the difference between a ceasefire leading to a political arrangement in which the opposition can demand the release of political prisoners, the end of sieges, keeping their weapons, providing security and democratic governance to the areas they control and so on, 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.
At the same time, the severe political limitations of the opposition leaderships are also crucial factors; the issue is not merely military. But it is beyond the scope of this article to analyse this question; the point here, however, is that the sabotage of the FSA’s military position has also had profoundly negative impacts on the relationship of political forces within the Syrian opposition. It imposes a false choice between total capitulation, dressed up as the only acceptable form of “moderate” politics (so reminiscent of Palestine), and nihilistic rejectionism and jihadism as the as the face of “continuing the struggle”.
Such an evolution of the political situation within the anti-Assad camp does not bode well for the revolutionary possibilities of a genuine ceasefire, even one based on a more favourable military balance than at present. However, from afar, we can do little but provide solidarity with both the military and political struggles that do presently continue, and not give up on the revolution while its sparks continue to rage throughout Syria, in some cases to amaze.
On the evening of June 29, I went up against Dr. Tim Anderson, Australia’s most well-known and prolific propagandist for the murderous Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, at the Gaelic Club’s Politics of the Pub evening. A packed house, and, as might be expected at a drinking gathering, stormy enough, the evening highlighted the severity of the challenge of reconstructing a viable, credible, emancipatory political left able to confront today’s neo-liberal capitalist disaster.
Some may well say the issue is “only Syria” and we shouldn’t generalize about the bad politics that some people have on only one issue. That is a valid enough point. Nevertheless, confronted with close to the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our era – not just “any issue” – a dogged section of the western left has thrown overboard the politics of elementary human solidarity, without which, the bigger task I outlined above would appear to be a very long way away.
As usual, I had too much to say and didn’t get round to making a number of important points, particularly about the role of US imperialism, though I did get to it a little at the end, and in discussion. Some might say that is the most important issue, but given that the US has had very little to do with the dynamics of the Syrian revolution and counterrevolution, it quite simply is not – therefore I believe I was correct to focus more on the actual dynamics of what is going on in Syria rather than abstract geopolitical schemas and prejudices beloved by many western “analysts” who often couldn’t care less about what happens to real people.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Syria’s “internal First World” v the “black Syrians”
Before going on, I will first produce the lines I opened with, quoting Syrian Communist dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh (who spent 16 years in Assadist torture chambers for holding an opinion), because he so eloquently sums up the political method I support on this issue:
“That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.”
“This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world.
“The anti-imperialist comrade is with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt for the same reason that led him to “resist” alongside the Syrian regime. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, people are invisible, and their lives do not matter. We remain marginal to some other issue, the only one that matters: the struggle against imperialism (a struggle that, ironically, is also not being fought by these anti-imperialists, as I will argue below).
“The response to this discourse need not be to point out the truth, that the Assadist state is not against imperialism in any way whatsoever. First and foremost, the autonomy of our social and political struggles for democracy and social justice must be highlighted and separated out from this grand, abstract scheme.
“A better starting point would be to look at actual conflicts and actual relationships between conflicting parties. This could involve, for example, thinking about how the structure of a globally dominating Western first world has been re-enacted in our own countries, including Syria. We have an “internal first world” that is the Assadist political and economic elites, and a vulnerable internal third world, which the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate. The relationship between the first world of Assad and the third world of “black Syrians” perfectly explains Syria’s Palestinization.
“Only then would it be meaningful to state that there is nothing within the Assadist state that is truly anti-imperialist, even if we define imperialism as an essence nestled in the West.Nor is there anything popular, liberatory, nationalist, or third-worldly in the Syrian regime. There is only a fascist dynastic rule, whose history, which goes back to the 1970s, can be summed up as the formation of an obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has proved itself ready to destroy the country in order to remain in power forever.”
Support Assad?? Why not Pol Pot, the Taliban or ISIS?
As I then explained, this is what the Syrian revolution is about: the struggle against this “obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has reacted by destroying its country to remain in power forever.” By contrast, this ivory-tower anti-imperialism, which supports this monstrously repressive dictatorship as it bombs its entire to country to bits for six years, is the same kind that would support Pol Pot, or ISIS, or the Taliban, on the basis of alleged “anti-imperialism,” regardless of what they do to their own peoples.
However, I also pointed out the difference: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did actually fight US imperialism for half a decade before coming to power (1970-75); the Taliban has actually been fighting US imperialism in Afghanistan for the last 17 years; and ISIS is also actually at war with US imperialism in Syria and Iraq. So while all this support the apologists are providing one of the most savage right-wing dictatorships on Earth is predicated upon this mythical “anti-imperialism”, as Saleh points out, not only is this method wrong, but in the specific case the rationale itself is false: the Assad regime has never resisted imperialism, and the US has never bombed Assad (until a few pinprick, militarily insignificant strikes recently, a needle in a haystack among the 9000 US strikes on non-Assadist forces in Syria).
Thus, on Assad, the ivory-tower anti-imperialists have got it wrong at both ends: to be really consistent in the mechanical, binary, amoeboid “anti-imperialism” they espouse, they should be supporting ISIS, not Assad.
Now, I said above that I focused on the actual dynamics in Syria, and didn’t get round to some of the things I wanted to say on the role of US imperialism; nevertheless, I did get to a number of aspects of the US role – the open support given to Assad by State Secretary Hillary Clinton at the onset of the Syrian uprising, when she called Assad a “reformer” and explained how this was different from the situation in Libya; the similar statements coming from the main Gulf states; the fact that Assad had never fought imperialism, and in particular in the last phase before 2011, Syria’s role as the favoured place for the US to send Islamist suspects for the best torture; the fact that the later call by Obama (after months of slaughter that was tearing the entire region apart) for Assad to “stand aside” had nothing to do with “regime change”, but rather was about regime preservation, with plenty of evidence provided; the fact that the main role of the US in relation to the Free Syrian Army and other rebels since 2012 has been to place spooks on the borders to prevent deliveries, by others, of ant-aircraft weapons to the rebels (in a war that has been overwhelmingly one of aerial slaughter since 2012); and the well-known fact for anyone who reads the news that that the US bombing war on Syria since mid-2014 has been overwhelmingly against ISIS, secondarily against Jabhat al-Nusra, and to some extent against other mainstream Islamist or even FSA rebels at times, not against Assad.
All of these points were ignored by Anderson and by all those supporting him either in question time or from the rowdy floor when I was speaking. Facts do not matter; when you have a semi-religious devotion to some bloodthirsty tyrant, facts and evidence are irrelevant.
On that note, to summarise the main thing I saw wrong with Anderson’s talk: he began by claiming I had largely ignored “the big picture”, and so he proceeded to give his version of what that was. The big picture included many points about the role of US imperialism in the world, the right of nations to run their own affairs and so on, issues that no-one in the room would necessarily disagree with in the abstract. As I pointed out privately to him later, all this “big picture” has little meaning without the “meat” of the “little picture” – in other words, if you cannot demonstrate that US imperialism has driven the entire Syrian movement against Assad from Day One, if you cannot demonstrate that there has been an active US intervention against Assad – then all the “big picture” is just a bunch of platitudes, with only the implication deliberately left hovering over the audience that the global role of US imperialism necessarily means it played a role in Syria that Anderson was not able to demonstrate it had.
As neither Anderson nor I were able to sum up due to time restraints (the chair understandably wanted to give more time to discussion from the audience), I was unable to respond to a number of issues he raised in his talk, so I will take the opportunity to do that now. Here were a number of points that stood out:
Fisk: New master of embedded journalism
Anderson brought up the issue of the gigantic Assadist massacre of hundreds of people in the FSA-controlled outer Damascus suburb of Darayya in 2012, noting that journalist Robert Fisk visited Darayya, interviewed locals, and found out that the FSA had committed this massacre of their own supporters and their own families (one wonders why then the regime had to endlessly barrel bomb Darayya for four years afterwards if the local people really saw the FSA as the enemy). Let’s get to the issue here: why did someone with an academic background cite Fisk, who rode into Darayya in a Syrian regime tank, and then went out “interviewing” the traumatized, terrorized locals in the presence of his regime handlers; yes, no doubt many of them knew what was good for their health and said the FSA did it (hell, so would you, especially if you had children). Fisk is someone who once upon a time rightly earned accolades for his progressive and often fearless journalism; that he now exemplifies “embedded journalism” to such an extraordinary degree is not something to be celebrated, still less to be used in argument by anyone who really wanted to know the facts. For the testimony of a real journalist, who managed to slip into Darayya without regime handlers, much better to read the account by Janine di Giovani.
The famous “DIA document”
Anderson also brought up the famous “US Defence Intelligence Agency document” that allegedly shows the US was openly supporting a “Salafist” rebellion against Assad in 2012 and that this paved the way for ISIS. Except that, once again, one would expect better from someone with his academic credentials. This scrappy document (http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf), brought out into the open by Trump’s first National Security Advisor, the right-wing spook Michael Flynn, tells us among other things that “THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER [ie, the Iraqi-Syrian border – MK] HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES.” Now, already this rather banal style, as Professor Gilbert Achcar has noted, “reads as if the report is based on loose talk by an “informant” and written by a novice.” To this we can add the other grammatical and spelling mistakes scattered throughout the document, which does not help the case that it is a DIA document. It even gets the name Jabhat al-Nusra wrong – calling it “Jaish al Nusra” – and wrongly translates it as “Victorious Army” – given the US intelligence focus on al-Qaida since 2001, these kinds of mistakes would be pretty embarrassing.
It is clear from reading the document that it is written by a source close to the Iraqi regime, which bridges being a US satellite derived from the US invasion, and being an Iranian satellite allied to the Assad regime. Therefore, it tends to talk with the same story as Assadists do, such as the vague assertions/accusations in the document about unnamed “western countries” supporting the opposition to Assad, supporting “Salafists” etc; but we can also see that this source does not think this is a good thing – the fact that the FSA had taken over parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border is presented as “a dangerous and serious threat” since the border is “not guarded by official elements” (ie, the Assad regime). And in the context of “the situation unravelling” the informant raises the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” clearly seen as part of this “dangerous and serious threat,” with “dire consequences” including the possibility of AQI declaring an Islamic state across Syria and Iraq which would create a “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity! As Achcar states, this “NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE” is “actually just worthless rubbish of the kind the files of the “intelligence” services are full of.”
Where does ISIS get its US arms from again?
Anderson also claims that the fact US weapons have been found with ISIS is evidence that the microscopic amount of mostly small arms the US has sent the FSA (to try to tame them) have made their way to ISIS. He even dismissed suggestions that the US arms came from Iraq. Now that is a really tall order. Most people know that by far the worst ever leakage of arms to ISIS came from the US/Iran-backed Iraqi army. When ISIS seized Mosul in mid-2014 and the Iraqi army ran away, ISIS seized “large quantities of US-supplied humvees, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and various small arms and light weapons and ammunition – enough to supply approximately three divisions in a conventional army (10,000 to 20,000 soldiers per division),” as well as $480 million. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi admitted to the loss of 2300 humvees! Masses of similar equipment was seized from Tikrit and a number of other Iraqi towns and military depots, and in particular in Ramadi in May 2015, when the Iraqi army abandoned “a half dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.” Actually, the Assad regime has also lost a significant amount of equipment to ISIS. When ISIS drove the regime from an airbase in al-Raqqa, Ayn Essa, along with the Tabqa air base in August 2014, ISIS captured MiG-21B fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, artillery (including SA-16 shoulder-fired anti- aircraft systems and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles) and ammunition. Similar losses occurred at the Tadmur base in Palmyra. Whatever odd gun ISIS may have seized form the FSA is certainly irrelevant compared to all these windfalls!
Mass exodus from Aleppo
Regarding the fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo after months and months of the most savage bombardment in the war in late 2016, Anderson claimed there were only 100,000 people left there, while most of the population lived in Assad-controlled western Aleppo. This was true by that time, but what he didn’t say was how many people used to live in eastern Aleppo. Still, he would probably claim they ran away from the rebels (or “al-Qaida groups” as he dishonestly calls everyone opposing Assad). If so, it is strange that 500,000 people fled eastern Aleppoin just the two months to mid-February 2014, from when Assad launched his new more massive barrel-bombing campaign there. Just by coincidence, Anderson was there in Syria shaking hands with Assad in his presidential palace as this was beginning in December 2013. The new groundswell of refugees from Aleppo, “emptying whole neighborhoods and creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war … flooded the countryside, swelling populations in war-battered communities that are already short on space and food and pushing a new wave of refugees into Turkey,” many arriving in Kilkis, “this once-quiet border town, where Syrians now nearly outnumber the original 90,000 Turkish inhabitants.” Even more dramatically, some 200,000 people fled Aleppo in just one 48-hour period in mid-2012 as the regime escalated its bombing of the city.
Schoolgirls in Niqab: How still-life photography aids still-life analysis
Anderson is also very good with photographic “evidence”. For example, he showed a photo of schoolgirls in Idlib with their faces fully covered, showing what control of the city by Nusra meant for local women. Without being able to check the photo, I am unable to determine when and where it is, but I am prepared to take his word for it. Even then, I do not know if it is from Idlib city, where Nusra plays a prominent role but shares control with others, or from some town in a part of the province under full Nusra control (it obviously is not from the parts of Idlib where FSA and other anti-Nusra forces hold full control). But again, let’s say it is Idlib city.
Despite Anderson’s slanders against all Syrian rebels as “al-Qaida”, in fact while it plays a prominent role in Idlib, Nusra/JFS has hardly gone unchallenged: a number of brilliant articles recently have explored the resistance to Nusra/JFS in parts of Idlib province by civil, pro-revolution resistance and by the FSA and other rebels (see for example here, here and here). But perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the underlying emancipatory dynamic of the revolution – which may temporarily accept Nusra rules as the lesser evil to the regime due to the crisis military situation, but is in sharp conflict with Nusra’s repressive goals – has come out and undermined Nusra/JFS even where it previously held major sway, including in Idlib city and in the area of women’s clothing:
“When Nusra took control here in March 2015, Idlib entered a dark tunnel of deprivation. Public education deteriorated, the university was closed, and public debate was stifled. But since Nusra broke with Qaeda and changed its name, the city has become a lot more liveable.
“When Nusra first came to power, it had the upper hand, because it was the biggest group in the Fatah Army. People saw no choice but to accept its rules. They saw it as less dangerous than the regime and the lesser evil.
“But the rulers have adapted. They thought they could rule with the “iron and fire” of the age of the Prophet Muhammad. But no one wanted Nusra’s dress code, which required women to wear ankle-length cloaks and to give up makeup. …
“Now the authorities have concluded they cannot oppress the people of the whole city. So they cut back the restrictions. The process began when Nusra disengaged from Al Qaeda, and it continues. Early in November, the Fatah Army leadership met with the city’s elders. Nusra hard-liners wanted to reinstate the tough measures, but the elders opposed it and won. However, there was no public statement.
“The liberation extends to primary schools. Last year, schoolgirls had to dress Sharia-style starting in the fifth grade, with black niqabs covering the face, a long black cloak, and a hijab or veil. Last month I visited a local school and saw girls in colorful mantos (a short jacket reaching to the knees) and hijabs colored with embroidery. Some even had makeup.
“The women’s police used to patrol the streets in black cloaks and a niqab, an identity card on their breasts, a rifle on their backs. They would take names of women wearing colored dresses or makeup and order them to the city administration building for a course in Sharia-style dress. They would go to a woman’s home and warn the man of the house to keep her in line, implicitly threatening arrest if he didn’t. Now the women’s police are off the streets. I see women driving cars, which would have been impossible early in the summer. Shopkeepers no longer have to close their shops at prayer time. They don’t have to hire a woman to sell clothes to female customers.
“The easing extends even to the security sector. There are fewer checkpoints and fewer searches. Meanwhile, respect for the authorities has sunk. The Islamic police, in their black pants and white shirt with a police badge, operate the checkpoints on the highways and inside the city, on the public squares and at security headquarters. They were once a feared security force, but now they are weak, powerless, and simple men, most of whom joined Nusra to earn a salary.”
It is also worth noting that Jaish al-Fateh, the military coalition (which includes Nusra/JFS but also seven other brigades) which had governed Idlib city since its capture in March 2015, handed over power to an elected local council in early 2017. The head of the election commission, Muhammad Salim Khoder, said this occurred “after efforts by the people of the city to persuade Jaish al-Fateh to deliver the city’s administration for the people to elect a local council manages its affairs”.
Now despite the mindless slanders that will inevitably come my way for writing the above about Idlib, neither the successful resistance to Nusra in other Idlib towns, nor the handover to the elected council in Idlib city, nor the sharp softening of JFS restrictions on personal issues, mean that JFS has become “nice” or anything similar. Rather, they show that, unlike under the savage dictatorships of Assad and ISIS, struggle goes on in the revolution-controlled areas, even those where the presence of Nusra is relatively strong as in Idlib. The situation remains in flux; the above is no guarantee it won’t swing back the other way at some time. But thousands of people did not come into the streets, brave bullets and tanks and warplanes in order to create more repression, but just the opposite; they will put up with Nusra’s reactionary rules for a little time perhaps due precisely to the war situation, but the pressure, including from many of Nusra’s own rank and file, is to throw them off as soon as they can.
That is, if we want to look at dynamic processes in all their complexity; for some, however, an orientalist photo of schoolgirls in niqab at one moment in time might suffice to justify “left” Islamophobic and “war on terror” discourses.
Further on the question of Islamophobic images, at an earlier confrontation between myself and Anderson organized by the Northside Forum on June 10, Anderson showed the audience an image of half a dozen severed heads, which he claimed were not severed by ISIS but by “moderate rebels.” He did not specify which rebel group was allegedly responsible for each head, nor what the source of such an allegation was (almost certainly it was his usual source, the Assad regime). In fact his more general accusation here is simply false – while no-one denies that crimes have been committed by all sides in such a merciless conflict, the FSA and mainstream Islamist groups have simply not engaged in decapitation; in fact not even Nusra/JFS does – it is indeed an ISIS specialty. The reason the single case of (horrific) decapitation by some rogue members of an increasingly roguish rebel group in 2016 (al-Zinki) became known to everyone in the world was precisely because it was so unique. Actually, there are plentiful examples of decapitation by regime forces – usually the propaganda pics claim the severed heads are only of “ISIS” troops – something only the most extraordinarily naiive would take at face value. I’d wager that was probably the origin of the regime propaganda pics in Anderson’s presentation.
In 2017, some believe “free elections” occur in fascist dictatorships
Anderson also claimed that Assad had been “elected” at an “election” held in 2014, and from memory one of the questioners even asked why we shouldn’t accept the results of a free election. This is indeed a unique occasion in leftist history when people who have rejected oppression and repression all their lives, and made great efforts at understanding how even our own bourgeois democracy is deeply flawed, uphold an “election” farce run by a murderous dictatorship. Aside from the fact that the only candidates allowed to stand against Assad were two nobodies, allowed precisely because they were Assad clones (to be allowed to stand, the first condition was that a candidate must have the support of at least 35 members of the existing Baathist-dominated parliament, and so 21 of 23 were rejected); aside from the fact that “voters” had to bloody their thumb to stamp the electoral roll, and thus could be spotted at workplaces the following day if the evidence was absent (a possible death or disappearance certificate); aside from large parts of the country being outside regime control; aside from 5 million Syrians being in exile; aside from all of this and more, why would anyone assume that the figures released by the State Ministry of Truth (ie, the 73.4 percent participation rate and the 88.7 percent vote for Assad) mean anything at all? Is anyone able to check?
If we assume these figures are “true” (even taking into account the manipulation and other factors), then do we also accept that in every other “election” that Assad has called since 1971, he has received 99 percent of the vote? Why would anyone with a brain accept that? And if so, do you also accept that Zairean tyrant Mobutu received 99 percent in his 1970 election? That Saddam Hussein got 99 percent and 100 percent in his last two elections? That Mubarak always got 97 percent? That Enver Hoxha usually got around 100 percent?
Anderson claimed large numbers of Syrian refugees voted in Lebanon, though outside Assad state control, thus proving that participation was genuine. However, every media report referred to “tens of thousands” rushing the embassy in Lebanon to vote. Yes, that is a great many. But there are 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, so do the maths – the “tens of thousands” probably do represent the actual level of support for Assad among Syrians in Lebanon. But in any case, the great majority were barred from voting even if they had wanted to: a law was passed that refugees who had fled Syria at checkpoints not controlled by the regime were not eligible to vote. I wonder which groups of refugees fled at regime-controlled checkpoints?
What a sad day for the left that it is even necessary for me to explain this.
The discussion and the noise
I will also note some highlights of the discussion.
On the whole, while the majority of the audience listened to both speakers and avoided too much interference, a small group of noisy Assadists near the front continually interrupted my talk and my responses to questions. But it was less the fact of these interjections than the content of them that was the problem. “You support ISIS”, for example, was a fairly typical piece of “discussion” from this group. “Al-Qaida and ISIS are funded/armed by the US” was another good one. Now, aside from the logical problem of how the US is “supporting” ISIS by bombing it for years (indeed slaughtering thousands of civilians in the process, which none of the Assadists were concerned about), while not bombing Assad, indeed often collaborating with Assad in joint bombing of ISIS, the other problem with this inane rubbish is – even if it were true, what does that have to do with anything? Since neither I nor any of my supporters in the room support either the US or ISIS, the intended target of the silly slogan is obscure.
One questioner asked why I said I “supported al-Qaida.” Of course, for anyone with ears and brains, it was fairly obvious that I said nothing of the sort. It didn’t matter – he was sure I must have meant it. What a waste of space.
When I claimed well over 90 percent of killing had been committed by the Assad regime and the Assad cheer squad made exasperated noises, I asked them – while my slides showed the Guernica that every town and city in Syria had been reduced to – “who has an airforce”? Of course my question meant, which side in Syria, the regime or the rebels. Who in other words has destroyed the entire country, and with it, been able to carry out truly large-scale slaughter (even leaving aside the regime’s industrial scale torture-to-death archipelago). The response from the peanut gallery? “Israel”. “The US.” So, “are you saying it was Israel that bombed all these cities in Syria to rubble?”, I asked. “Yes”, came the answer. Clearly a mob interested in discussion.
Anderson himself used some unusual expressions during discussion. For example, apparently it is now OK for leftists to refer to civilians massacred by aerial bombing as “collateral damage,” since such bombing, as always with the US, Israel, Russia etc, is allegedly aimed at “terrorists.” In Assad’s case, a rather gigantic amount of this “collateral damage” was thereby swept under the carpet. We’ve come a long way it seems. I also learnt that evening that the Arab Spring uprisings were a “western construction.”
One of the most sensible questions came from a Syrian refugee. He pointed to the photos Anderson had shown of Syrian people demonstrating in support of their great leader, and noted that anyone who lives in Syria is well aware of these staged farces – as a schoolkid he had been forced onto buses to go to such “spontaneous demonstrations” for example. Confronted by this piece of elementary knowledge (as with “election” circuses, most knowledgeable people know that dictatorships are good at staging “demonstrations” that support them), Anderson could not reject it; instead he said that as a kid in Australia, he was put on a bus to see the Queen of England when she visited. Even if we leave aside the differences – for example, in a dictatorship it is not only schoolkids but also workers from workplaces force-marched to these farces – it would be difficult to miss the irony of this response: I do not remember leftists, progressives or even remotely critical thinkers ever claiming that these staged circuses to greet the English queen were evidence of mass support for the monarchy.
The Syrian in question comes from Darayya, one of the outer Damascus suburbs controlled by the most democratic part of the revolutionary movement, bombed, besieged and starved by Assad for years until its forced surrender and the deportation of its people in 2016. A refugee in Australia who has abundant connections to people, including relatives, slaughtered by the Assad regime, a person profoundly opposed to all anti-democratic currents in Syria, he was slandered by Anderson as a “former jihadist fighter” in a subsequent facebook discussion about the evening.
Some discussion points about the end of the politics of solidarity
The first questioner referred to the message to Assad from the US government that week that it suspected he was preparing another chemical attack, and not to do it or he would again be punished, like after Assad’s horrific sarin attack on the village of Khan Sheiktoun in early April. He asked if this was a signal from the US to “al-Qaida” to “attack Assad.” While it was legitimate to ask what one made of the obscure US government statement, the way the question was asked allowed little in the way of a response. The facts as I presented them and which were never denied by Anderson are that the US has been bombing “al-Qaida”, or rather its former components, both Nusra/JFS and ISIS, for years now, essentially in alliance with Assad. The singular US credibility strike on Assad after Khan Sheikhtoun was surrounded both before and after by far more massive US bombing (than at any time in the war) of both Nusra/JFS and ISIS, and also by endless assurances by all wings of the Trump regime that the strike was a one-off only concerned with the use of sarin and nothing else; just why the Trump regime would want to deliberately fake an Assad sarin attack in order to strike it again is anybody’s guess -and the fact that nothing remotely of the sort has occurred (indeed US/Russia/Assad collaboration has increased in the weeks since) is evidence enough to me that the US warned Assad to not make another sarin attack precisely because it did suspect one and did not want to have to bomb him again!
But of course my assumption here is only based on this little thing called the facts. For the quite religious-like devotees of Assad that evening, such facts are irrelevant because they had all been working on the assumption that “everyone knows”, like they “know”, that Assad did not massacre children with sarin at Khan Sheikhtoun in April, just as he did not massacre hundreds of children in East Ghouta in 2013; they assume everyone “knows” that these were “false flags.” This is not the place to go into any of the massive quantities of evidence that Assad did indeed use sarin on both occasions.
But the fact that the questioner did not express any sympathy for the actual victims – disproportionately children – who suffered the particularly horrific death caused by sarin at the hands of their fascistic idol, but was only concerned with his grotesque conspiracies, is a clear enough example of the complete collapse of the politics of solidarity among this section of the left.
Another Assadist, one Elizabeth Tory, wanted to know our views on the “sanctions” imposed on the Assad regime by western countries such as Australia, which she claimed were causing suffering. She certainly has form to be talking about suffering. One was immediately reminded of Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s distinction between the internal first world in Syria and the world of the “black Syrians” who “the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate.” While her favourite oligarchic tyrant has besieged hundreds of thousands of people, pouring millions of tons of TNT into small towns while blocking exits and entrances and imposing a regime of mass starvation on these “black Syrians”, the appropriately named Tory is concerned with some alleged deprivation allegedly caused by some mild sanctions.
Once again, further evidence of the basic politics of solidarity down the toilet. One may as well be complaining about the sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s causing some deprivation among the white internal first world there, while the state massacred the downtrodden, hungry and disenfranchised black majority. And indeed I support BDS against Israel precisely because I would like to see our hypocritical western governments punish Israel and its internal first world for its ongoing occupation, slaughter and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
A third similar example, with a difference, was the discussion point raised by one Ruby Hamad, of Lebanese Alawite background. Her first point was that, as an Alawite, she objected to “all opposition to Salafism being called Islamophobia.” Since no-one had said anything so absurd, I asked her who she was referring to. She answered that I had said it, when I said Anderson’s ritual terming of everyone fighting Assad as “al-Qaida groups” was Islamophobic. In other words, her point was yet another example of people deciding to not learn anything from facts presented that evening, or at least to refer to them in order to refute them with evidence. The fact that “al-Qaida groups” (ie Nusra/JFS) make up an absolute minority of the anti-Assad rebellion, and that even “Salafists” in general are only one part of it, and that even among so-called “Salafists” there is enormous variation, is all irrelevant to those who have decided it is either “Assad or al-Qaida”.
Where she had a better point was in expressing the genuine fears of the Alawite part of the Syrian population about the outcome of the war. The fears of the Alawites are an extremely valid issue, which I will discuss in my final point below. For now though, I will risk censure by stating openly that I considered her contribution the third example of the end of solidarity. After years and years of slaughter, of hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Syrian Sunni, by a regime which is stuffed from the top, especially of the military-security apparatus which carries out this slaughter, by Alawites (often relatives of Assad), one thing Hamad could have done would have been to express some elementary solidarity with those actually being slaughtered like flies today, and for so many years. Not a word of sympathy or solidarity (though she did at least say she doesn’t support Assad “or any oppressive governments”), in a contribution aimed at garnering sympathy for possible future victims if the tables were to turn.
Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, how is this different to Israeli Jews fretting about how if they stopped endlessly slaughtering the Palestinians, one day the tables might turn and the Arabs would come and drive them “into the sea”?
That said, and I make no apologies for it, it is important to return to the issue of the fears of Alawites (or other religious minorities) and to the broader question of peace.
The final question of the evening: How to achieve peace
And that was the last question from the audience – from a Syrian who said he didn’t like any of the forces fighting on any side, and he would like to hear discussion of how to bring about peace. It was unfortunate that this question was right at the end of the night and there was no time for this at all – now that Assad has indeed “burnt the country” as his supporters promised to do in 2011, how to end the war is indeed the most crucial issue.
In fact, despite my time limitations, I made a point in my talk of stressing there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict, by which I meant both that it is militarily impossible for one side to totally prevail over the other, and that even if possible such a “solution” would not be democratic. I will just clarify both points.
Of course, the fact that the vastly outgunned rebels can never achieve full military victory over the regime is rather obvious (and I also made the point in my talk that fears some Syrians hold about certain rebel formations “taking power” in Damascus are as unreal as fears of Hamas militarily emerging from Gaza to rule in Tel Aviv). So let’s drop the “who is going to take over if Assad falls” talk (how about Syrians decide that rather than “anti-imperialist” westerners thinking it is their decision, with no apparent irony?); let’s drop the “there is no-one to replace Assad” (because just what Syrians need is another tyrannical dictator to rule them if Assad goes). On the other hand, it may be argued that the opposite – total Assadist victory – is possible given its overwhelming military superiority, but if so, it would be a pyrrhic victory, with the most brutally dispossessed part of the Sunni population potentially turning to jihadism and/or guerrilla struggle, millions of refugees (a quarter of the population) stranded in exile, while the regime continues to lose all semblance of independence to the various powers keeping it afloat.
As for why it would not be democratic, that goes without saying for an Assadist victory. However, as a rebel supporter, I have always believed that the rebels “seizing power” in a purely military victory, if it were even remotely possible, would not bring a very democratic outcome either (though it would be vastly superior to the regime). This is due to the sharp divisions among Syrians, in particular the alienation of many people among the religious minorities, and the majority of Alawites, along with many of the middle classes in the big cities, from the plebeian-based revolution. If a military advance on regime areas provoked a popular uprising against Assad among Alawites and others, that would be a different thing, and it would cut the ground from under the sectarian currents among the opposition; but the political limitations of the rebel leaderships have always made this unlikely, even in better times. By that, I do not mean all rebel leaderships are crazed Sunni sectarians – far from it, I gave a number of examples in my talk of anti-sectarian declarations from the FSA in various parts of the country and could give many more – but simply they have not prioritised this issue enough, or have not been able to, giving the pressing military needs of bare survival.
Moreover, Assad’s endless drive for full-scale military solution benefits the “uncompromising” jihadist fringes, especially the very sectarian Nusra/JFS. But my assessment does not depend only on the strength or otherwise of those like Nusra/JFS – civil war and massive bloodshed itself intensifies sectarian dynamics, and full-scale military victory would likely encourage a degree of sectarian “revenge” on the ground even if politically non-sectarian forces vastly prevail over the likes of Nusra. Just as there is no military solution in Israel/Palestine; just as Mandela understood the need for a transitional political arrangement to calm fears among white South Africans; so likewise, every political and military opposition formation in Syria, except Nusra/JFS, has long ago signed onto the concept of a transitional political arrangement, following a genuine ceasefire, involving delegates from both the opposition and from the regime (but not Assad’s immediate circle) to pave the way for elections.
Some examples of this include the 100 oppositionist delegates from a variety of political and military opposition groups (including the Syrian National Coalition, the National Coordination Committee, various FSA and Islamist rebel groups covering pretty much everyone except Nusra/JFS, and civil opposition groups, including a number of Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds), who met in the Saudi capital Riyadh in December 2015, who released their negotiating platform; the opposition’s Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) Executive Framework for a Political Solution Based on the Geneva Communiqué, released in September 2016; and the Free Syrian Army Southern Front’s Statement on ‘The Transitional Phase’, released in December 2014. All these declarations and plans call for a civil state and a democratic, pluralistic society with full and equal rights for all religious and ethnic communities.
The fact that even those Islamist groups usually considered more hard-line (eg Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam) have supported these transition plans gives a better indication of the relationship of political forces, when able to calmly discuss political outcomes, than some of their more heated rhetoric, and their relative weight as long as the military struggle remains paramount, would superficially suggest.
Such a political process could only begin following a genuine ceasefire. Over the last year and a half, the opposition has agreed, a number of times, to negotiated ceasefires; in every case, the regime actively violates them, using some excuse of having to bomb “Nusra/JFS”, while in fact bombing all rebels and usually focusing on one particular place each time to crush while the “ceasefire” holds. It does this because it can, and the fact that these US-Russia “ceasefires” have always left Nusra/JFS out of them has given the regime the pretext; the FSA/rebels have attempted to respect these ceasefires for the sake of the long-suffering civilian population.
Yet despite these “ceasefires” only producing a relative lull in the regime bombing, it has been enough for the masses return to the streets around the country with the flag and slogans of the 2011 revolution. What this indicates is that a genuine ceasefire would aid the democratic revolutionary forces; a revival of the civil movement would provide a chance to overcome the sectarian atmosphere; massive slaughter is not conducive to rebuilding harmony. In contrast, jihadists like Nusra/JFS thrive on military struggle, and because the regime never truly abides by the ceasefires, the jihadists are able to present themselves as the only true ongoing resistance, presenting a genuine dilemma for the FSA and allied rebels.
However, until a genuine ceasefire leading to a political process can be achieved, the military balance on the ground remains a decisive factor: in other words, desiring peace is not simply a matter of one side unilaterally giving up to be jailed, disappeared, tortured and slaughtered by the dictatorship. If the opposition had been able to achieve a better military balance on the ground (eg, if they had been able to receive some more useful military aid than the crumbs thrown them by their “friends”), then they would be able to push for a ceasefire and political arrangement including the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners, the end of regime sieges, the right of the FSA to keep their weapons and to provide security and democratic governance in the areas they control, as well as actually being able to keep control of more of the areas that are their natural support base. In contrast, a ceasefire in which the military balance gives the regime the upper hand would be able to deny these basics.
Note that I have used the term “political process” rather than the more popular “political solution.” There is no more of a “political solution” with the regime than there is a military solution; the only solution is revolutionary. But revolution is not only military struggle, especially such an exhausted and catastrophic one. The opposite kinds of ceasefire and political arrangement I have just outlined, based on different military balances, represent the difference between a ceasefire that leaves the door open to a renewal of the civil mass struggle and thus to non-military revolutionary possibilities, and one that slams the door fully shut.
… well, not quite, just the continuation of six years of genocidal war as Assad, Russia and the US pulverize Syria
By Michael Karadjis
For the first time in the 6-year Syrian war, the US shot down an Assadist warplane on June 18, in defence of its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed military and political front dominated by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). Assadist warplanes had carried out the highly unusual act of bombing the SDF in the town of Ja’Din, near Tabqa in Raqqa Province.
For most of the war, the Assad regime and the YPG/SDF have largely avoided militarily confronting each other. While not allies, neither are they enemies, and have at times collaborated in parts of the country when it suited, including the YPG’s assistance to Assad in the recent siege of rebel Aleppo.
In contrast, the YPG/SDF has become the largest and most strategic US ally in the conflict, as both the US and the SDF are focused entirely on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria. As neither have any interest in supporting the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship, a phenomenon overwhelmingly taking place in the more populated west of the country, they can get on with what is largely a parallel war elsewhere. Thus the US has provided the SDF with wall to wall air cover for all its operations since late 2014, has sent hundreds of US special forces to aid the SDF, and has set up a number of military bases in SDF-controlled territory.
The Obama administration announced its first and only No Fly Zone in Syria in the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Syria known as ‘Rojava’, controlled by the YPG/SDF, in August 2016, when Assadist jets suddenly decided to do a little bombing of the YPG in Hassakah. Although the YPG had not done anything to provoke this attack, at times the regime likes to remind anyone outside its control who is boss.
While the regime pragmatically allows the SDF to run Rojava so that it can use all its resources to crush the Syrian uprising, it occasionally likes to remind the SDF that it is opposed to either any Kurdish autonomy, or to any ‘democratic confederalist’ project the SDF seeks to run in Rojava, and that as soon as the rest of the rebellion is crushed, it will come for them.
Now they came back to test out the NFZ, so the US knocked a warplane out of the sky.
On the question of “World War III”
Last year during the US elections, Hillary Clinton, confronted with the daily genocidal slaughter carried out by the Assad regime against defenceless civilians throughout the length and breadth of rebel-held Syria, made some comments about examining the possibility of the US military – already involved in bombing enemies of Assad for two years at that point – also helping protect Syrian civilians against Assad’s warplanes through some kind of No Fly Zone.
Donald Trump opposed this idea and instead stressed his support for existing US policy, of only fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, he went further, expressing the view that the US alliance with the Assad regime and Russia against the jihadists should be even more emphatic.
Much of the pro-Assad but allegedly “anti-war” movement, and even many genuine anti-war folk opposed to Assad, claimed that a vote for Clinton would be a vote for “World War III.” Two years of actual US bombing of Syria, which had already killed hundreds of civilians, was seen as no problem, and certainly not a cause for a single demonstration (as it was not directed against Assad); in contrast, imposing a No Fly Zone to protect civilians would mean shooting down Assadist warplanes, which could cause conflict with Assad’s Russian backers, and therefore “World War III.”
Even leftists well aware of how much of a far-right neo-liberal racist Trump was, how hard-wired he was into the entire global far-right, expressed the view that on this issue, Trump was, relatively speaking, the “peace candidate.” They said this despite the fact that Trump openly warned that he intended the sharply step up the bombing of anti-Assad targets in Syria; he was the “peace candidate” in comparison to “World War III” Clinton even though he promised to not just “bomb the shit out of” those he called the “terrorists,” but also to “kill their families.” Promises he has kept.
The soft-on-Trump left had not noticed that the US had already imposed a No Fly Zone over Rojava, which had not caused World War III. US airforce protection the YPG, who identify as leftists, was not considered an issue, but if the US were to protect ordinary Syrian civilians, and their schools, hospitals, markets, refugee camps and so on, living in rebel-controlled zones, from years of relentless massacre, that would have been considered the ultimate evil.
Thus, Old Left “anti-war” views on these issues had no relation one way or another with any principled opposition to US intervention anywhere; whether or not US intervention, bombing, special forces, military bases, slaughter of civilians and so on was a problem or not depended entirely on who the targets and/or the allies of the US intervention were.
It is the same again in this case. When the Assad regime, encouraged after the entire Trump cabinet made clear that even Obama’s tepid “opposition” to Assad was no longer US policy, went a little too far and dropped sarin on the north Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in April, and so the US launched a relatively harmless “credibility strike” against Assad’s Shariyat airbase, angry mobs launched “anti-war” protests throughout American cities. The previous 8000 US airstrikes against non-Assadist targets had gone unnoticed, despite the significant civilian toll; one with a zero civilian toll, against a military airbase, from where chemical weapons had been launched, created a strange anger.
Others declared that Trump had now “changed his policy,” despite the fact that Trump, Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson and every other US leader of note went out of their way to declare that they were “not going into Syria,” that there was no change of policy, that the strike was only about sarin and not about any of Assad’s other weapons of mass destruction that he uses daily on a massive scale, that the only US interest remained the defeat of ISIS, and so on and so forth.
Yet when the US shot down its first Assadist warplane, we get a stunned, and confused, silence. Anti-imperialists are not sure whether to support the “anti-imperialist” Assad regime – which tortured Islamist suspects for the US rendition program, joined the first US Gulf war against Iraq, invaded Lebanon at the behest of the Lebanese counterrevolution and carried out an enormous massacre against the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance at Tel al-Zaatar, kept Israel’s stolen Golan “border” stone cold quiet for 40 years, and regularly massacred Palestinians and tried to extinguish their movement – or to support the “anti-imperialist” YPG/SDF, the strategic partner of the US in Syria.
If, in an alternative universe, the US were for once to knock down an Assadist warplane slaughtering civilians in a rebel-held town, then of course all hell would break loose, we would again have demonstrations, declarations, “anti-war” statements etc. #MilitaryAirfieldsLivesMatter, apparently.
The ongoing slaughter in Daraa and Raqqa
Meanwhile the Assad regime has been pummeling Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, with literally hundreds of barrel bombs for weeks on end now. According to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and Medicins du Monde already on June 7, “in recent days, the aerial bombardment campaign over Dara’a has intensified. According to reports from the ground, in the first five days of June, there have been approximately 330 direct fire activities, including air raids, explosive barrels, artillery, rockets, explosive cylinders, and explosive charges. These attacks have been carried out by the Syrian government and its allies, and represent a dramatic increase from the 165 aerial attacks which took place last month.”
Yet there is no US gun or bullet landing in the hands of FSA and allied rebels in Daraa defending their people against this genocide, let alone a downed warplane. Daraa, its civilians, its infrastructure, its symbolism as a centre of the most democratic part of the revolution, its unbelievable suffering, and unbelievable heroism, can all go to hell, but obviously the US considers the SDF to be a red line.
The US, in any case, is dong virtually the same thing to the ISIS “capital” Raqqa. As the SDF advances on Raqqa, US airstrikes (and SDF artillery) are creating what UN war crimes investigators described as a “staggering loss of civilian life.” The US is literally carpet bombing Raqqa, “destroying the town to save it.” The death toll from US strikes on Raqqa and neighbouring Deir Ezzor – where the US has been openly bombing in collaboration with the Assad regime since November 2014 – is so high that, for two months in a row, the civilian death toll from US strikes has been higher even than that of the Assad regime (and even in the previous month, the US toll was already higher than either the Russian or ISIS civilian toll). The monitoring site Airwars estimates the US-led Coalition is responsible for over 3000 civilian deaths in Syria, the vast majority in the last four months under Trump. The US has even used white phosphorus in its war on ISIS in Raqqa.
The anti-ISIS, anti-Assad resistance group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ released a statement declaring that Syria as we once knew it is has been “forever changed by the relentless brutality taking place across the country. The horrors happening now in the cities of Raqqa and Daraa are only met with utter silence – both international and local. For months now, the city of Raqqa has been exposed to a campaign of systematic destruction perpetrated by the International coalition and its local allies who are using a scorched earth policy to take control of the city. All violations against civilians receive little to no condemnation, as they are committed under the pretext of fighting ISIS.”
Yet this all appears to be a non-issue for the western anti-war movement.
Assad, Russia and Iran now decide YPG/SDF are “terrorists”
The Assad regime has sent out mixed signals about the YPG/SDF recently. One leader called them a branch of the so-called “Syrian Army”, while the recent declaration in the Russian state’s propaganda organ ‘Sputnik’ that the YPG/SDF are “terrorists like ISIS” quoted “Syrian expert” (ie, regime spokesperson) Husma Shaib, who explained that “we regard these forces as unlawful military formations which operate outside of the legal environment. They are the same as terrorist units like the al-Nusra Front and Daesh. The Syrian Democratic Forces do not coordinate their activities with the Syrian Army. We regard them as terrorists.”
This turn seems to be caused by rivalry over the mopping up operation against ISIS in the east: with the US-backed SDF advancing upon Raqqa, the Assadist army, backed by Hezbollah, recently broke out from southeast Aleppo and began advancing east as well, in a way that was, unusually, threatening towards SDF positions.
US: No quarrel with Assad as long as you’re just bombing civilians
The US Centcom statement on the downing of the warplane emphasised, as usual, that its mission is only to defeat ISIS and that it has no interest whatsoever in fighting Assadist, Russian or pro-regime forces (as is well-known), but that it will defend itself or its “partner forces.”
While the regime claimed it was bombing ISIS – in Taqba, which the SDF had liberated from ISIS months ago – this was rejected by the SDF. SDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Talal Silo accused regime forces of launching “large-scale attacks using aircraft, artillery, and tanks” on the SDF in the Tabqa area.
The SDF v ISIS and the issue of ethical dilemmas
Given the nature of the Islamic state tyranny – a pale, yet nonetheless horrific, reflection of the Damascus-based tyranny – there can be little doubt that the SDF can only be a vast improvement, regardless of one’s view of the reality of the Rojava revolution. Actually, even if one fully accepted the loftiest claims about Rojava in its heartlands, it is doubtful that such a vision can be brought about via such frightening terror launched by the US airforce; it would be a first in the history of revolutions. Yet still, whatever turns out can hardly not be a vast improvement on ISIS.
And while the hypocrisy and selective solidarity of much of the anti-war movement and sections of the western left are an obvious target here, the decisions of the SDF in a difficult environment are not. That does not mean that seriously incorrect decisions should not be criticized; but gratuitous condemnation of the SDF as “US proxies” merely for accepting any level of US support against the ISIS terror regime should be avoided (notwithstanding the fact that the PYD leaders themselves rarely give the same latitude to the forced tactical decisions of the FSA and Syrian rebels, despite the qualitatively greater pressure they have been under for six years; and their western backers, who include some with a strong streak of left-orientalism, are often considerably worse).
But at a certain point, quantity becomes quality. The massive US/SDF war to liberate Raqqa has turned into such an enormous massacre of the Raqqa citizenry that, no matter how much one hates ISIS and naturally prefers the SDF to win, the severity of the political and ethical dilemma here can no longer be avoided with dishonest platitudes about the SDF “accepting some limited US aid” against ISIS and the like. It is difficult to see that much progressive content can survive this massive “military solution” and relentless, barbaric imperialist bombing. And to the extent that it does in some form, who is there to speak for the thousands killed, and their many thousands more relatives scarred for life as a result, and thousands more maimed?
Finally, as the SDF leaders are no doubt themselves aware, neither the Assad regime, Russia nor the US are ever going to be reliable allies, and so they will need to constantly watch their backs. Yet this means the only real ally of the Syrian Kurdish people are the Syrian Arab people. “Tactical” alliances by either Kurdish or Arab rebel leaderships that lead to significant bloodshed and betrayal between the two peoples have much more than “tactical” consequences. Neither side have been innocent on that score.
Qatar – a tiny piece of fabulously wealthy real estate run by an emir as an absolute monarchy, relying even more than most of the other Gulf states on the large-scale exploitation of migrant labour – an icon of revolution in the Middle East?
Yet that doesn’t alter the fact that it is now the fall guy for the regional counterrevolution. It is an unfortunate reality that, in today’s Middle East, calling a particular state “reactionary” is mere tautology, and within that context, it is possible for some to push ahead here or there in a slightly more progressive direction than others.
The current siege of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and some of their proxies – involving ending diplomatic ties, closing airspace and ports to Qatari flights and ships – has created a great deal of confusion, especially among those who, for years, have fantasised about a joint Saudi-Qatari-jihadist “war on Syria” or even about spurious “Gulf pipelines” being the root of the heroic uprising of the Syrian masses against the genocide-regime of Bashar Assad.
This is not the first such break in relations between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar; similar events took place in 2014, coinciding with a renewed crackdown by these states on the Qatari-backed regional Muslim Brotherhood, but this round appears more intense.
US president Donald Trump immediately tweeted his support for the Saudi-led action, charging that Qatar had “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” Trump’s view appears to represent the views of a section of the US ruling class (there has been talk within the Republican Party right-wing of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organsisation): according to Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, there were 13 hostile opinion articles focused on Qatar in the US media in the five weeks leading up to the crisis.
While much focus has been placed on Trump’s view, as we will see, things are not so straightforward, firstly because Trump’s visit was followed by a high level Saudi visit to Moscow, and secondly because the Pentagon seems to have a sharply different view to Trump’s.
A US-Saudi plot against Iran?
The focus on an alleged US role is not only due to Trump’s tweets, but also because the Saudi-led attack on Qatar took place shortly after Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, where he sought to please his Saudi hosts by barking out his government’s exaggerated rhetoric about Iran being “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism” and the like.
Saudi Arabia has been engaged in regional rivalry with Iran for some time, and being the leading powers where Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam, respectively, are centred, this rivalry carries with it a powerful sectarian under-current, which often explodes into fierce rhetoric. So Trump’s rhetoric looked a lot like a declaration of support for Saudi against Iranian positions in the region.
Whether Trump’s rhetoric really means any more concrete support for pro-Saudi against pro-Iranian assets in the region, rather than a mere sop to his Saudi hosts to push through his magnificent multi-billion dollar weapons contracts with the Saudis, remains to be seen. There is simply no evidence of any change in US policy towards “supporting conservative Sunni states against Iran”, as much shallow media coverage puts it, anywhere in the region.
And unless the US were about to abandon the joint venture it runs with Iran known as the “Iraqi government”, together with which it is currently waging an unremitting and horrific war against the population of Mosul which has left thousands of civilians dead, the idea has no meaning.
Emboldened by this US support for Saudi positions on Iran, so the story goes, the Saudis and their allies decided to act against … Qatar.
Qatar, however, is not Iran. This part of the story is, in fact, stupid.
Of course, the Saudi-led group did not only talk about Iran. They accused Qatar of “sponsoring terrorism” in the region, by which they did not mean the real terror unleashed by Iranian-backed Shiite jihadists in Iraq and Syria (where they have played a key role in Assad’s counterrevolutionary butchery), but rather Qatar-backed Sunni Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, while also falsely accusing Qatar of backing the Sunni terrorist organisations al-Qaida and ISIS.
But, as Qatar is a tiny state and Iran is a great power, the Iranian bogey-man is more useful; so the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s official news agency was hacked and messages were created where he praised Iran. Furthermore, the fact that Qatar has maintained strong economic ties to Iran, partly due to their joint exploitation of a gas field which they share, was blown up to suggest Qatar was allied to the Saudis’ Iranian enemies.
Here I will demonstrate that not only is this nonsense, but in certain respects the opposite of the truth.
Qatar v the Egypt-Jordan-UAE counterrevolutionary bloc
The Saudi-led offensive against Qatar has nothing to do with Iran. That is just part of the Saudi-Iranian war of rhetoric.
Qatar supported the Arab Spring, Hamas and the Palestinian resistance, the Egyptian revolution, the Syrian revolution, and Islamist forces in Libya opposed to Egypt-UAE-backed general Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to seize control of that state. That is why the regional counterrevolution has united against Qatar, not due to spurious alleged connections to Iran.
Throughout these conflicts, Qatar has supported, or attempted to saddle these movements with, soft-Islamist forces linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. While a conservative and very pro-capitalist force, through which Qatar tries to contain these movements, the Brotherhood nevertheless works via these popular movements rather than head-on clashing with them. In recent decades, it has adopted a strikingly ‘moderate’ Islamist posture, claiming to be dedicated to democracy with a mere “Islamic” reference, opposed to forcible imposition of theocratic laws, and relatively ecumenical in its relations with other religions, including Shiite Islam.
This “mass approach” horrifies the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, who are threatened either by the Brotherhood’s populism, its republican tendency, the idea of Islamist democracy, and/or its international appeal, and so prefer the head-on confrontation approach to Qatar’s high risk strategy. In Jordan, the MB is the main opposition to the king. Qatar’s support for the elected MB regime of Morsi, overthrown by the Saudi-UAE-backed coup that instigated al-Sisi’s bloody dictatorship, is a particularly sore point. In this, they are in agreement with both Israel, which confronts the Brotherhood in the form of Hamas (whose leadership is based in Qatar), and the Assad regime, which confronts it in the form of many of the Islamist forces in the rebellion; and with alt-rightists around Trump in the US.
As for Qatar’s economic relations with Iran, the UAE – the most virulently anti-Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood member of the coalition – has a raging economic relationship with Iran. Dubai “has operated as a nerve center for Iran’s banking and trade since the 1980s.” According to an aide to Iranian ruler Khamenei, Iranian investment in Dubai amounts to “over 700 billion US dollars.” Further, Iran has used the UAE as an intermediary to sell Iranian oil products, manoeuvring around international sanctions. “Oil purchased from the UAE accounted for more than 60 percent of Egypt’s total imports for the year 2014,” much of it Iranian oil.
A couple of years ago, the UAE compiled a list of regional “terrorist” organizations, which included the Muslim Brotherhood of the whole region (thus covering MB-aligned groups in Syria), and specifically included a significant section of the Syrian insurgency, most of which (except Jabhat al-Nusra and other tiny hard jihadist groups allied to al-Qaida) are backed by Qatar, basically everyone within the softer to mainstream Islamist constellation. That is, the Qatari-backed forces in Syria, that the UAE calls terrorists, have been at war against Iran’s sectarian mass killers operating in Syria for Assad.
The UAE is tightly allied with the Kingdom of Jordan (which has so far only downgraded diplomatic representation with Qatar rather than joining the siege) and al-Sisi’s murderous dictatorship in Egypt. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE was a key enabler of al-Sisi’s bloody coup against the Qatari-backed government of Morsi in Egypt. Since then, Sisi’s Egypt and the UAE have intervened in Libya in support of the rebellion led by the military strongman Haftar, in its conflict with Qatari-backed Islamists.
The Egypt-Jordan-UAE alliance has also launched fierce rhetorical attacks on Qatar’s key regional ally, the AKP regime in Turkey (which is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood), claiming it is the sponsor of the “Islamist” problem in Syria. Egypt and the UAE (along with Assad’s Syria) explicitly supported the botched coup in Turkey. As David Hearst writes in the Huffington Post, “Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt are happy for Assad to stay, as long as Syria suppresses its Arab Spring. The last thing the king [of Jordan] wants is for its northern neighbour to hold real elections, form coalition governments and share power and wealth.”
There is evidence of a joint Egypt-Jordan-UAE plan to oust Palestinian president Abbas and replace him with his rival Mohammed Dahlan (the right-wing Fatah strongman and security adviser to Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi-UAE), as a ‘stronger’ leader who could better defeat Hamas and thus more convincingly offer surrender to Israel than the hapless Abbas has been able to achieve, however much he has tried.
Even more explicit was the welcome given to Russia’s September 2015 invasion of Syria to bolster Assad by Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. As David Hearst writes, “Putin got Jordan’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to attend a military airshow in Moscow in August. As MEE reported, Jordan recently withdrew its support for rebel forces on the southern front … Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday: ‘Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it’.” Egypt, in particular, has developed very strong economic and military ties with Russia since Sisi’s coup.
In other words, despite Saudi rivalry with and hype about Iran, the core group in this current anti-Qatar alliance is in closer agreement with the Iranian-led bloc on the question of Syria and Assad, and the region, than either are with Qatar. Of course, it is also not that simple: their connection to Assad is much more via Russia, with its conservative ‘state preservation’ strategy (which in fact coalesces with US positions, with tactical variation standing between them), than with Iran, with its more divisive sectarian-based strategy; and of course, while allies, Russia and Iran are also rivals, with interests that do not entirely converge.
Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that, at least from the point of view of this counterrevolutionary axis, Qatar is an enemy at least partially due to its support for the “wrong” anti-Assad forces, not due to Saudi rhetoric about Qatari connections to the pro-Assad Iranian regime.
Yes, Egypt/Jordan/UAE, but the Saudis?
Of course the question mark about the Saudis is not about the tyrannical Saudi regime being a bastion of regional counterrevolution, which is evident from its crushing of the Bahraini uprising in 2011 through its sponsorship of Sisi to crush the Egyptian revolution.
But the statement that its key allies are closer to Iran on the question of Syria would not appear to apply to Saudi Arabia itself. While Saudi Arabia is a rival to Qatar’s ambitions in the region, there is no doubt that it sees Iran as its major regional rival. There is also genuine fear of Iranian influence among the oppressed Shia minority in eastern Saudi Arabia and majority in Bahrain.
As such, the Saudi “war of rhetoric” with Iran has a somewhat stronger base in reality than the more pure “war of rhetoric” that exists between Israel and Iran (one largely conditioned on geographic distance); however, that does not mean Iran is either the Saudis’ only concern, or one they wish to lead to war. There is conflict with Iran, but the very useful (for both theocracies) war of rhetoric exaggerates it enormously.
In addition, while Saudi Arabia (along with the UAE, and Qatar and Turkey) initially supported Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian uprising, once it began to blow up the region, there is no doubt Saudi opposition to Assad became real. One reason was simply its rivalry with Iran, as Iran more and more became the key protector of Assad; the other was that Assad’s war more and more turned into a sectarian slaughter throughout Sunni towns and villages in 2012-2013, which enraged the Sunni populations of the Gulf, who were far ahead of their rulers on this. Saudi Arabia joined Qatar and Turkey in a joint statement denouncing the Russian invasion in September 2015; Egypt, Jordan and the UAE refused to sign it.
However, while the Russian invasion was initially followed by some Saudi hyperactivity over Syria (it made a one-off delivery of 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA), over the last year or more since then the Saudis, bogged down in their own criminal yet unwinnable war bombing Yemen (ironically to stave off the counterrevolutionary putsch by former tyrant Saleh, overthrown in the Arab Spring, but in a very “Saudi” way), have essentially lost interest in Syria.
Even when the Saudis were more involved in supporting the Syrian uprising, they were often in direct rivalry with Qatar. Many casual observers of the Middle East believe that, to rival Qatar’s support for the moderate Islamists, Saudi Arabia’s more reactionary theocracy naturally backed more extreme ‘Salafist’ groups, or even that it is behind Al-Nusra and even ISIS. Yet this is the opposite of the truth: the ultra-conservative Saudi rulers are even more hostile to the jihadists than they are to the MB: all these global revolutionary Islamist currents, from soft to hard, see the Saudi monarchy as apostates, and the jihadi fringe in particular promise to overthrow and destroy it.
If we look who the Saudi rulers support in the region – Mubarak, and then Sisi, Hafter in Libya, Harriri in Lebanon, Abbas in Palestine and so on – almost all are right-wing secular, if nominally Sunni, rulers. In Syrian terms, to counter the Qatari-backed forces, but also the Iranian-backed Assad, the Saudis have mostly supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the exile-based Syrian Coalition, with their democratic secular program. Not out of love for democracy and secularism, of course, but for the same reason they bankrolled democratic-secular al-Fatah in Palestine for decades and opposed Hamas – like Fatah, the FSA and the Syrian Coalition are politically heterogeneous forces with limited programs beyond overthrowing Zionism or Assadism; as such, vastly different political forces can support them against Islamists to push different agendas. The Saudis’ aim, in other words, was to find at least a Syrian Abbas, at best (from their viewpoint) a Syrian Sisi, to take part in the “political solution” with elements of the Assad regime in a reformed state preservation project.
However, their American partners were not even willing to go this far with them – the US was giving much more limited support to these same democratic-secular forces for a slightly different reason, namely to turn them away from any struggle against Assad into mere US proxies to fight ISIS and Nusra only as part of the US “war on terror.” The resultant military victories of Assad in western, populated, Syria, have led the Saudis’ main interest now being to preserve, via Jordan, some role in the resource-rich Sunni east of Syria once ISIS is driven out.
As such, whatever their fierce anti-Iranian rhetoric, the Saudis no longer have any interest in ousting Assad, but rather are engaged, like all the other foreign powers intervening in Syria – the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel – in preserving their interests in the coming carve-up. And as always, the Saudis see Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood as arch-rivals in this process.
This reached almost farcical proportions when Turkey declared support for Qatar in this clash, and the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which has been the main US ally on the ground in its war against ISIS, declared its readiness to cooperate with Saudi Arabia.
It is also useful to remember that the Saudi action took place not only after Trump’s visit. Almost immediately afterwards, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman flew to Russia to meet Putin, where they lavishly praised each other, and announced that their new oil alliance would be extended to one that would try to sort out Syria as well. “Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are going through one of their best moments ever,” declared the Prince.
As such, action against Qatar, seen as the key backer of the Syrian rebels, could just as well be connected this new Saudi love affair with Putin as with Trump’s lavish praise.
And then there is Israel
And then of course Israel also welcomed the campaign against Qatar. There is much exaggerated rhetoric coming from the ‘anti-imperialist’ camp about a blooming Saudi-Israeli alliance. In fact, while Sisi’s Egypt and Jordan have open relations with Israel, and the UAE has well-publicised under-handed connections, this is a more difficult road for the Saudis.
Of course it is not impossible; the fact that the Saudis demanded Qatar kick out Hamas, along with the rest of the MB, does suggest a move to please Tel Aviv, though it could more simply be a move to bolster Mohammed Abbas’s toothless Palestinian Authority. The guardian of Mecca and Medina cannot so simply make full peace with the occupier of Jerusalem without massive repercussions; it is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia was the power behind the Arab plan of 1982 and the almost identical Arab plan of 2002, both of which require full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In other words, the very opposite to the trajectory of all Israeli governments of the last two decades, if not ever, which refer to make no concessions at all.
Even al-Sisi’s openly and miserably pro-Zionist regime has found taking the deal further not so simple. Sisi allegedly attended secret meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog in April 2016 to work on a plan to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, with Jordan and the US allegedly involved. The aim was to push for a coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Herzog’s centrist Zionist Union party, given the unlikelihood that Likud’s far right coalition with the fanatic Jewish Home Party would make the kind of concessions to the Palestinians necessary, even the minor kind that Sisi was prepared to accept. But in any case, this initiative broke down when Netanyahu not only rejected coalition with Herzog but also expanded his right-wing coalition to incorporate defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s even more ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, creating what has been called the most right-wing Israeli government ever; any concessions are further away than ever.
Nevertheless, there is a case of “watch this space.”
Despite the Saudi-Israeli convergence on Iran, this Israeli support to the Saudi-led move pointed the finger squarely at Qatar as the enemy: a “new line [has been] drawn in the Middle Eastern sand,” declared Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy. “No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror.” Qatar, after all, hosts al-Jazeera, Hamas and Azmi Bishara, the most prominent former Palestinian leader from ‘Israel proper’ who was forced to flee Israel and took up refuge in Qatar. And Qatar in particular supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Gaza after the last genocidal Zionist Blitzkrieg in 2014.
Israel, even more than Saudi Arabia, finds having a rhetorical enemy in Iran a Godsend. There is nothing quite like an alleged “Fourth Reich” in the region, supposedly calling for Israel’s destruction, for Israel to likewise issue fierce rhetoric about, in both cases from a safe distance. In both cases it ideologically bolsters their theocratic projects, as they continue to slaughter Arabs in the regions that separate their states, always with the excuse of “resisting” the enemy they in fact have little to do with.
In the case of Syria, this involves Israel in a complicated way, whereby Israel leaders and strategists have stressed their preference for Assad to remain in power, but their opposition to the Iranian and Hezbollah role that bolsters his rule. So on the one hand, Israel’s Maariv newspaper recently reported that Israel would agree to allow the return of Al-Assad’s forces to the occupied Golan “border” which it kept quiet for 40 years, and the Begin-Sadat Centre released a report re-stating that Assad’s survival is in Israel’s best interests; on the other, US and Russian talks to set up another “de-escalation” zone in the southwest near the Golan, involving Jordan and Israel, notably do not involve Iran (which is involved in other “de-escalation” zone negotiations); Israel made clear its opposition to an Iranian presence near the occupied Golan.
Putin claimed these discussions are getting somewhere: “We are now considering how the interests of all the countries to the south of Syria can be best served, with consideration for the concerns of all the countries that face issues in this region. I am referring to Jordan, Israel and Syria itself.” (The Russian Embassy in London even sent out the cryptic tweet that “Russia is effectively working with Jordan and Israel on issues of a new Constitution of Syria”). Israel’s enthusiastic embrace of the Russian invasion of Syria, followed by four high-level Putin-Netanyahu love-fests, was based on this contradiction in Israeli policy: Israel saw the opportunity for Russia to outflank Iran as Assad’s chief backer.
But Qatar, a revolutionary icon?
As we said at the outset: hardly.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy like the other Gulf states who are now besieging it, but, as they say, contradictions, comrades. The mystery is not that one reactionary state could be playing a slightly more progressive role in certain areas than all the others in the region, it is more that there is simply no-one in the region, or even in the world, even among actually progressive governments in distant Latin America, that chose to occupy this position as the Arab Spring broke out and the traditional imperial order was swept aside. Quite the opposite, in fact; with the Latin American “Pink Tide” governments wedded to the Middle Eastern counterrevolution, the position remained open for an opportunist and risk-taking rising star that had no progressive credentials whatsoever to push a little ahead of the pack.
In 2006, when Venezuelan leader Huge Chavez stood steadfast with Hezbollah against the bloody Zionist Blitzkrieg on Lebanon (back in those ancient historical times when Hezbollah was an anti-occupation resistance organization in Lebanon rather than an occupationist death-squad in Syria), he rightly earned the title of being the most popular leader in the Middle East, ahead of all the Kings and tyrants of the region. Now the idea that Venezuela would be more popular than Qatar in the region would be a particularly bad joke.
With the world’s highest per capita GDP, Qatar felt its quest for a regional role independent of both the Saudi and Iranian blocs could be based on supporting the Arab Spring revolutions (except in Bahrain) with no danger of this leading to uprising or revolution at home – unlike the rest of the Gulf. It also sought to use the soft approach of supporting the uprisings while trying to safely saddle them from within with a conservative, very pro-capitalist, soft-Islamist/MB style leadership. No-one else in the region (except its ally Erdogan’s Turkey for its own reasons, largely due to being overwhelmed by literally millions of refugees from Assad’s slaughterhouse) was willing to take that kind of risk, so Qatar has now emerged as the fall guy for the regional counterrevolution: Russia, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, with the US and Iran in more ambivalent positions.
This odd situation of the Qatari state not only allowed it to promote the Arab Spring, but also to maintain a relationship with US imperialism, and a strange working relationship with Iran. It has always been an odd symbiosis, being the host of the US air-force on one hand, and of Hamas on the other; maintaining better relations with Iran than the other Gulf monarchies on one hand, yet being the main sponsor of the Syrian rebels who fight Iranian forces on the other.
Qatar’s ultimate contradiction all along has been that its territory hosts the largest US air-base in the region, from where the US bombs Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in its “war on terror.” So while Trump happily joins the regional reaction in calling Qatar a terrorist state, the Pentagon seems to want to take into account the fact that, for now anyway, Qatar hosts the al-Udeid US Air Base, where some 11,000 troops are based, along with around 100 US aircraft, from where they bomb Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for the US “war on terror”.
The Pentagon’s moves in the midst of the crisis appear almost a direct affront to Trump, if not to Saudi Arabia. Within days of the announcement of the siege, two US navy vessels arrived in the Qatari capital Doha to take part in a joint military exercise with the Qatari Navy, and the same day US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis welcomed his Qatari counterpart Khalid al-Attiyah to Washington to sign a $12bn agreement for the purchase of 36 F-15 fighter jets. The US and Qatari navies began manoeuvres the following day.
The Pentagon also praised Qatar for its “enduring commitment to regional security.” This coincides with the Iranian position (but not that of the viciously anti-MB Assad regime), with Iran also opportunistically declaring its “support” for Qatar.
Of course, this does not mean that either the Pentagon or Iran are supporting Qatar for doing the things that the regional counterrevolution opposes. Rather, both for their own reasons seek to use the pressure Qatar is under to push it in their direction – adopting the same “soft” approach to Qatar as Qatar adopted towards the regional revolutionary wave. In any case, with this wave largely suppressed, the Pentagon probably has a clearer view that the dangers of the Qatari approach are thereby receding, and thus question why Trump and the regional counterrevolution are so determined to upset the status quo for the US air force; and a certain pragmatism within the Pentagon/NSC circles (the leftist tendency to call them “neo-conservatives” is more a reflection of the limited vocabulary of many leftists than having any connection to reality) may also understand that Qatar’s approach was far less dangerous than depicted.
Another aspect is that Qatar’s key regional ally, Turkey’s AKP government, has gone through a drastic change in policy since the middle of last year, following the suppression of the botched coup. Patching things up with the Turko-nationalists at home and with Putin’s Russia abroad, determined to look after its own interests in an even narrower way than before, Turkey has largely abandoned the rebels it once supported against Assad, except in as much as they are part of its anti-ISIS and anti-YPG intervention in northern Syria. Since Qatar largely operated via Turkey in supplying rebels in northern Syria, it is unclear whether it is still in any position to do so.
Squeezed between its giant Saudi and Iranian neighbours, and supported only by the third giant, Turkey, which has largely abandoned the pretence, and with mixed signals coming from the US, Qatar will probably have little choice but to give up its over-sized ambitions of rival regional leadership, and junk whatever remnants it still supports among the leftovers of the Spring.