… 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.
While my blog is mostly for my own articles, I do very occasionally put up something else I think is exceptional. This is definitely an example. Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a well-known Syrian leftist dissident who spent 16 years in Assad’s torture chambers for having an opinion. When you read his opinions, you can see why. This is a masterful essay, and should be read from start to end by anyway concerned with these issues.
I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.
Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.
There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.
The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.
The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.
But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.
The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. 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. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.
During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.
This remains true even when the anti-imperialist left stands with the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. It stands by their side on the basis of stereotyped and simplistic discourses that are inherited from the Cold War era. 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: to stand in opposition to the great amounts of imperialist power that are concentrated at the White House and 10 Downing Street. 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 anti-imperialist left remembers from the Cold War era that Syria was close to the Soviet Union, so it sides with this supposedly anti-imperialist regime. Consequently, those who resist this regime are “objectively” pro-imperialists. Framing imperial power as something that only exists in the West ascribes to the anti-imperialists a Western-centric tendency, which is no less severe than that of imperialist hardliners themselves.
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. It should be said that this particular mode of analysis, which belongs to the transcendental anti-imperialism, is a belittling imperialist tendency that should to be resisted. There is no just way, for instance, to deny the right of the North Koreans to resist their fascist regime on the basis of such an abstract scheme. Instead, such a scheme can only serve to silence them, just as their regime does.
It is absolutely necessary to rebuild an intellectual and political foundation for criticism and seeking change in the world, but metropolitan anti-imperialism is totally unfit for this job. It has absorbed subordinating imperialistic tendencies, and it is fraught with eurocentrism and void of any true democratic content. A better starting point for criticism and change 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. Imperialism as such has shifted from an essence that exists in the West to a major aspect of local, domesticated power structures. Ironically, the power elites protecting this neo-imperialism may well draw on classical anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to discredit local dissidence and suppress potential political schisms. This is especially true in the Middle East, the world’s most heavily internationalized region. It is characterized by an extensive and aggressive imperialist presence that is directed mainly at suppressing democracy and political change.
From this perspective, working to overthrow the Assadist state is a grassroots struggle against imperialism. Conversely, the victory of the Assadist state over the revolution is a victory for imperialism and a consolidation of imperialist relations in Syria, the Middle East, and the world. Meanwhile, thetranscendental anti-imperialists continue to be mere parasites who barely know anything, practically contributing to the victory of imperialism by opposing the Syrian revolution.
In short, it must be stressed that individual struggles are autonomous, and that their internal structures and histories should be understood, rather than dismissed and subordinated to an abstract struggle that looks down on whole societies and people’s lives. 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. As I have just mentioned, in its relationship with its subjects, this regime reproduces the structure of imperial domination; this is a thousand times more telling than any anti-imperialist rhetoric. Significantly, there exists a strong racist predisposition that is inherent to the structure of this neo-bourgeoisie and its ideology, which celebrates materialist modernity (the modernity of outward appearance and not of relationships, rights, values, etc.). This privileged class regards poor Syrians –Sunni Muslims in particular– just like Ashkenazi Jews regard Arab Muslim Palestinians (and even Sephardic Jews, at an earlier time), and just like whites of South Africa regarded the blacks in the last century. The colonized groups are backward, irrational, and savage, and their extermination is not that big of a deal; it may even be desirable. This attitude does not exclusively characterize the Assadist elite. In fact, the regime and its supporters are emboldened by identification with an international symbolic and political system in which Islamophobia is a rising global trend.
It is well known that the Assadist state has succumbs throughout its history to what can be assumed as imperialist preferences: guarding the borders with Israel since 1974, ensuring stability in the Middle East, weakening the Palestinian resistence independency, treating Syrians as slaves, and destroying all independent political, social, and trade organizations. Indeed, the Assadist state is an integral part of what I call the “Middle Eastern system,” which was founded upon Israeli security, regional stability, and the political disenfranchisement and dispossession of our countries’ subjects. Herein lies the secret of Arab/Islamic exceptionalism with regards to democracy – in contrast to the popular interpretations of cultural critics in the West. Imperialist self-fashioning in such a regime, or the reproduction of imperialism therein, invalidates the conventional notion that imperialist power only exists in America, or in both Europe and America. This suggests that the anti-imperialist left has deep anti-democratic and patriarchal tendencies and suffers from intellectual primitiveness.
We have our own local anti-imperialist communists who adhere to the Assadist state, the Bakdashists. They are named after Khalid Bakdash, who was the Secretary-General of the official, Moscow-aligned Syrian Communist Party since early 1940s up to his death in early 1990s (his wife WissalFarha inherited his post after him, and their son Ammar subsequently inherited it after she passed away). These communists are exactly those who were faithful followers of the Soviet Union within Syrian communism during the Cold War. Today, Bakdashists are middle-class apparatchiks, enjoying a globalized lifestyle and living in city centers, completely separate from the social suffering of the masses and utterly lacking in any creativity. While a diverse array of Syrians had been subject to arrest, humiliation, torture and murder throughout two generations between the 1970s and the 2010s, Bakdashists have persisted in recycling the same vapid anti-imperialist rhetoric, and have paid nothing in return for their blindness to the prolonged plight of their country. This plight has included a sultanic, patriarchal transformation of the regime, the outcome of which was turning Syria into what I am calling the Assadist state, a country privately owned by the Assad dynasty and its intimates. This demonstrates a clear example of the collusion of transcendental anti-imperialism with domesticated imperialism.
In the third place, i.e. after stressing the autonomy and specificity of each conflict, and then emphasizing that nothing about the Assadist state is anti-imperialist, the anti-imperialists should be questioned about their own struggle against imperialism. I do not know of a single example of someone from Western anti-imperialist circles who has been subjected to arrest, torture, legal and political discrimination, travel ban, dismissal from work, or deprivation from writing in his “imperialist” country. I believe that these deprivations do not belong to their world at all, and that perhaps they do not know what a travel ban, deprivation from writing, or torture could possibly mean. They are just like the African who does not know what milk is, the Arab who does not know what an opinion is, the European who does not know what shortage is, and the American who does not know the meaning of “the rest of the world,” as in/goes the famous joke in which four people were asked their opinion about food shortage in the rest of the world. I have never heard of an anti-imperialist comrade who is resented, persecuted, personally targeted or subjected to smear campaigns by imperialism. Actual and moral assassination had actually been common imperialist practices until 1970s. This was especially true in the third world, but also true to a certain extent in the West. Names like Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Mehdi Ben Barka, and Angela Davis, among others, come to mind.
Neither does it seem that these comrades are aware of how privileged they are compared to us Syrians. I do not wish to evoke the guilt of traditional Western leftists. I am merely asking them for humility, to direct their eyes downwards to the laymen in Syria and elsewhere, not towards murderers like Bashar al-Assad and his ilk, and not to a bunch of hypocritical Western journalists who grew bored with London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and New York and now find amusement and a change of scenery in Damascus, Cairo and Beirut– knowing that their monthly multi-thousand dollar salary allows them to live wherever they wish.
As democratic Syrians, we do not wish upon them that they lose the rights to travel and freedom of speech that they enjoy. But how can they not be required to stand in solidarity with us, we who are deprived of such rights, and to denounce the junta that persists in subjugating us?
What I am arguing based on the three points discussed above is that, our comrades are making three major mistakes, all of which are unforgivable: they appropriate our struggle against a regime with which imperial sovereignty in the Middle East is perfectly in peace, for an alleged struggle against imperialism to which they are not even remotely close, supporting an extremely brutal and reactionary bloc about which they are utterly clueless. I will conclude that their anti-imperialist tendencies signify a desirable identity-form for these groups, not an actual mode-of-action in which they are engaged. The transcendental anti-imperialist left today is but a small, bigoted sect, which is not only incapable of taking power, but is also arrogant, reactionary, and ignorant. Gramsci deserves better heirs.
The root of these three mistakes lies, in my view, in the worn-out nature of the essentialist theory of imperialism, which reduces imperialism to Western hegemony. This theory fails to recognize imperialism as a system of international relations that manifests in different ways throughout the various spheres of political and social conflict that span all countries and regions. Syrians live in one of the cruelest forms of this relational system, deprived of political liberties and exposed to a corrupt and criminal junta, which has turned Syria into a hereditary monarchy owned by a dynasty of murderers.
I mentioned above that there is something imperialistic inherent in leftist anti-imperialism. The Syrian struggle is a good example of this.
The US administration, along with Russia’s autocratic regime, denies the Syrian struggle an independence from the war on terror. The Obama administration has done everything to avoid doing anything that the Syrians could benefit from in their struggle, even after Bashar al-Assad broke Obama’s red line. Why? Because this administration preferred the survival of Bashar al-Assad –Israel’s favorite candidate for the rule of Syria– to a transfer of power that would not be fully controlled by them. It was not in favor of Syrian citizens steering political change in their country. The United States has been involved militarily in Syria since September 2014, targeting Daesh and al-Qaeda. The anti-imperialists do not seem to object to this war, however, as much as they did when the Obama administration considered punishing Bashar al-Assad for violating the red line (not for killing Syrians, by the way) in August, 2013. This is despite the fact that US officials rushed to say that the strike would be limited; John Kerry stated in London in the beginning of September, 2013 that the potential strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort!”
The root of all of this is that 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: This is what imperialism has done.
In this regard, the anti-imperialist promulgators of the concept of terrorism fail to realize that the war on terror is centered around the state; it is a statist conception of the world order which strengthens states and weakens communities, political organizations, social movements, and individuals. It is furthermore a war in which Bashar al-Assad, who has been in direct conflict with his people for two years, is made partner in a cause that favors the continued domination of the world’s powerful. But perhaps it is not just a matter of realizing or not realizing. There is an inherent statist component in the structure of the anti-imperialist left, which has originated since the Cold War era. This statist quality confirms the observation that the typical anti-imperialist leftist has a geopolitical mindset. Perhaps this is why Trotskyists and anarchists, who are less state-centered and more society-oriented, have stood by Syrians in their struggle.
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). Yet this record is not surprising, considering that these imperialist forces are characterized by arrogance, racism, and immunity vis-a-vis the crimes they commit and the destruction they leave behind in foreign societies.
The anti-imperialist left, just like imperialism itself, has supplemented the Syrian-struggle to something else, “regime change.” From the point of view of anti-imperialist comrades, regime change in Syria appears to be an imperialist plot. This is a hundred times worse than any mistake. This is an insult to Syrians, to our struggle over two generations, and to hundreds of thousands of victims. This is an insult to a struggle that most of these comrades know nothing about.
I repeat: imperialism, and the Americans in particular, have not wanted to change the regime at any time. Following the chemical massacre in August 2013, they strived to invent reasons not to hurt it, despite the fact that, at the time, they had a very strong justification had they wanted to change –or simply hurt– the Assad regime. The change in Syria is our initiative, and it is our project. Anti-imperialists must consider us agents of imperialism, then. Some are not far from saying so outright – a few months ago, a number of Italian “comrades” attacked an exhibition displaying photographs of the victims of Assad’s killing industry. Otherwise, any change to any regime is a bad thing and serves imperialism. But isn’t that a rather wonderful definition for reactionism?
Annexation is a fundamental aspect of imperialism, and the anti-imperialist activists who deny the autonomy of our struggle and supplement it to their pseudo-struggle are no different from imperialist powers. The two parties find common cause in the denial of our struggle, our political agency, and our right to self-representation. Practically, they are telling us that they are the ones who can define which struggles are in the right; and that we are not worthy of either revolutions or the production of knowledge. But isn’t that a wonderful definition of imperialism?
It is worth mentioning that subordinating our struggle for another one is the defining characteristic of the Assadist rule. For almost half a century, and in the name of yet another pseudo-struggle against Israel, the Assad regime has not ceased to suppress the rights and freedoms of its subjects and to crack down on their attempts to assume political agency in their country. Meanwhile, it has showed a great willingness to wage two hot wars inside Syria, the first of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and the second in hundreds of thousands of deaths, up to now. Additionally, subordinating our struggle to something else is also a feature of Islamisms that have worked to appropriate the Syrian struggle for political agency (freedom) in the name of something external to this cause (sharia law, Islamic statehood, and a really imperial caliphate).
Here we have four specific cases of our cause’s subordination; the American government and its followers, Russia and its followers, and Iran and its followers all making our revolution secondary to endless war against terrorism; the Western anti-imperialist left making our opposition secondary to its struggle against imperialism, understood as something practiced only by Western powers; the Assadist rule making our emancipatory aspirations secondary to a struggle with Israel that it has never been engaged in; and Islamists making our common struggle secondary to their own sectarian leanings. The four cases have one thing in common; a patriarchal view. Each of these powers acts like a archetypal father who knows everything, and decides alone what is proper for us, the little boys. Those who reject being infantilized in this manner are considered ignorant, agents of the enemy, or infidels, deprived of speech and of political action. They may even be deprived of life itself, annihilated by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, starvation, or an organized death industry in prisons and hospitals.
The basis of these reactionary patriarchal attitudes by our fellow anti-imperialists contains two important issues. The first is the transformation of the communist left and its heirs into the educated middle classes, which is separate from human suffering and incapable of creativity, just like our local Bakdashists. This is in part due to economic transformations in the central capitalist countries, deindustrialization, the decay of the industrial working class, and the emergence of the “campus left,” which does nothing and knows very little despite its position within academia. There is no longer anything revolutionary or emancipatory in the formation of the contemporary left, and it is not engaged in any real conflicts. The second important issue that underpins these patriarchal attitudes is the intellectual maps that have been inherited from the Cold War (knowledge by recollection, following the Platonic method), added to intellectual sterility and a severe lack of creativity.
Among the main sources of knowledge about Syria for this left are the likes of Robert Fisk, the embedded journalist who accompanied the regime tanks as they stormed Darayya and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. His work later evolved into interviewing notorious murderers such as General Jamil Hassan, of Air Force Intelligence. He publishes his pieces in what are supposedly pro-democratic independent platforms such as The Independent. Another main source of information is Patrick Cockburn, who is Fisk’s partner in friendship with the Assadist junta, and who I doubt knows a single Syrian leftist dissident, just like Fisk. Also in their ranks is Seymour Hersh, who was spoiled by the Pulitzer Prize he had received, becoming fixated on thinking exclusively about “high politics” and seeing nothing down below. In fact, Bashar al-Assad himself is a source of knowledge for this left, as he is frequently interviewed by Western media and visited by delegations from the Western left (and fascists and Western Christian rightists as well), enjoying a status that he had not dreamed of before killing hundreds of thousands of his subjects.
This left no longer has a living cause of any kind. It merely intrudes upon causes like our own, about which it hardly knows and to which it ultimately does a great deal of harm. This left feels guilty because it lacks nothing, so it directs its disordered anxiety at Merkel, Teresa May, Obama, and Trump. It stands with Bashar al-Assad after it has convinced itself that this vile person is against those Western politicians. It is far less knowledgeable or curious about the fate of Bashar al-Assad’s subjects, about whom it knows nothing other than confused impressions it draws from watching TV or reading newspapers.
None of the above is to suggest that Western leftists should not interfere in our affairs or should not comment on what we say about our conflicts. We want them to interfere. In turn, we do and we will interfere in their affairs. We live in one world, and universality must always be defended in both analysis and action. What we expect is that they become a bit more humble and willing to listen, less eager to give lessons, and that they develop knowledge that is not based on recollection. We expect them to be democratic, not to make our conflict secondary to others, to take our opinion into account on the subject of our affairs, and to accept that we are their equals and peers.
Neither am I suggesting that we, the Syrian democrats opposed to the Assadist state, are correct in everything that we say simply because our cause is just, or that we do not accept criticism from others. We want to be criticized and advised, but our critics do not seem to know anything about us or to even be offering criticism or advice. They do not see us at all. Their lofty perspectives render us invisible. Had they been more open over the years to the realities of the Syrian conflict, its dynamics and transformations, they would have been in a better position to synthesize more informed perceptions and to offer more nuanced criticism. Our leftist partners in the West, a multitude of radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, and Trotskyists, have come closer to the grassroots Syrian world and have listened to Syrian narratives. None of them has shaken the blood-stained and pillaging hands of the likes of Bashar al-Assad and the murderers and thieves that constitute his circle.
We are not simplistic, and we do not reduce our struggle to the single dimension of bringing down the Assadist junta. There is another dimension, the struggle against nihilist Islamic organizations. But only among us, the people who are involved in the Syrian struggle on a democratic and emancipatory basis, can radical democratic politics be formed regarding Islamists. We do not approve of essentialist hatred of Islamists, which may be driven by class or sect, and which is definitely reactionary and most probably racist. The most optimal position for a struggle against Islamism is undoubtedly the revolutionary democratic position that also resists Assadist fascism.
Having said that, we are not unaware of a third dimension to our struggle, which pertains to various interventions by conventional or emerging imperialist centers; interventions which are carried out either directly or through regional proxies, in the form of states or sub-state organizations. Here, too, we find that the most coherent and radical position against imperialism is that which takes internal, Assadist colonization into account, and takes sides with the weak and disadvantaged, in Syria and the region at-large. Those who think that Bashar al-Assad and his junta are supportive of the struggle against imperialism are insensible fools at best, and anti-democratic racists at worst.
This three-dimensional struggle defines universality for us, and perhaps for the world as a whole.
Moreover, I am not suggesting that we have no short-comings, or that what we say about these causes and others should be the final word. We work and we learn. Our greatest shortcoming is that we are dispersed and our forces are unorganized. This has been exacerbated by the conditions of detention and killing under torture, which have mainly targeted the social base of the revolution; by the condition of displacement and the extensive destruction of Syrian society by the tyrannical andsectarianAssadist junta and its imperialist partners; and finally by nihilist Islamist organizations. Our efforts are constantly at odds with the shocking and unprecedented extremes that the Syrian tragedy has reached. But we continue to work.
In short, for us, Syrian democrats and leftists, the struggle is a fight for independence. First, we seek the independence of our country from colonial powers, which have donned false masks that boast about sovereignty, territorial unity, pluralism, or the war on terror, much like all colonial powers have throughout history. Second, we seek the independence of our struggle from other colonists, who don equally false masks, such as anti-imperialism and also the war on terror, demanding that we stay silent or act as local copies of them.
This criticism of Western and non-Western anti-imperialist left is both a contribution to the struggle for independence, that is, for freedom, and an effort to own authority over our own discourse. It remains open to partnerships that are based on comradeship and equality.
This article is part of a book about Syria, edited by FouadRoueiha and due to be published soon in Italian
No “anti”-war movement has protested all this US bombing. No “anti”-imperialists have ever cared less about any of this. Because all these years of US bombing have been of opponents of Assad, have often been in direct collaboration with Assad, and have had the tacit support of the Syrian regime.
Then in recent months, under both the late Obama administration and Trump, this US role had become even clearer. From December, the US launched a more intense bombing campaign against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Idlib and western Aleppo, thus joining the Assadist and Russian slaughter from the skies in that region. Hundreds of JFS cadre were killed, and the bombings also hit other rebel groups at times. The US role alongside Assad, Russia and Iran in the latest reconquest of Palmyra was widely reported on. Calculating all US bombings in February from the US CentCom site (ie, the site of the US-led Coalition bombing Syria) shows that while 60 percent of US bombings were carried out in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, mainly the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG), most of the other 40 percent was in alliance with Assad in Deir Ezzor, Palmyra and Idlib, some 195 strikes of the 548 in total. And that was in a month when the bombing of Idlib was minimal, compared to January and March. Even in SDF-controlled Manbij, the US landed forces to patrol the region with Russian and Assad troops to block the Turkish-led FSA Euphrates Shield forces from advancing.
Then in the very days just before Assad’s monstrous chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s US policy even clearer, announcing that Assad should be allowed to stay. On March 23, US UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” (sic) focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; the Russia-connected US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, used Assad’s very words on March 30, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” – a would-be obvious statement, if one assumed Syrian people could hold a democratic election under a tyrannical dictatorship; and the foillowing day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.” Of course this had long been unofficial US policy; and had even become partly official under Obama and Kerry when they agreed that Assad could continue to rule in an allegedly “transitional” regime following a political process. But the Trump team made this clear.
Then Assad goes and blows it by throwing sarin in their faces! The interesting issue is why Assad was stupid enough to do this, just days after he received so much explicit US support. Presumably, he was encouraged precisely by all this US verbal and actual military support, and so he decided to test the waters, to see if this meant that even sarin could now be re-normalised. But that just highlights the arrogance of power. The US was giving him everything; Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons in 2013, and then his withdrawal from action, in the US-Russia-Israel deal that saw Assad’s chemical weapons removed, was saying to Assad you can use everything else except chemical weapons; and thus Assad did use everything else in the four years since, in unbelievable quantities, with complete US indifference, if not support. For Assad to then go and use the very weapons that the deal supposedly removed, and show off that he still has them, was simply impossible for the US to ignore in terms of its “credibility.” Assad was reading the messages correctly from this last week, that US leaders were encouraging him; he just read it wrongly that this could include sarin. Look at Nikki Haley, fuming in the UN; she had to fume, because three days earlier the same Nikki Haley had made the official announcement about Assad being good to continue ruling. Assad should have been more gracious about being kissed like that.
The US thus had no choice but to respond in some way for the sake of its alleged “credibility.” Many are claiming Trump is “taking advantage” of Assad’s action to launch a war, just because he likes war, to show what he is made of, to show that he did what Obama didn’t have the spine to do and so on, or alternatively that the strike aims to cover up Trump’s Russia connections that are under investigation at home, by showing he can stand up to the Russians, and so on. This is all a misunderstanding. Certainly, these may well be useful by-products of “taking action” for Trump. But they do not explain the action at all. No, Trump sent a bunch of missiles against the Assadist military facility responsible for the chemical attack, going against everything he wanted to do, and that his entire team wanted to do, as seen by their declarations in the very days beforehand, because Assad’s use of sarin had put US “credibility” at stake.
That is all from the point of view of US imperialism. But from the point of view of supporters of the Syrian revolution, and of liberation and humanity in general, can I ask in all honesty, what is the big deal? Why are 8000 strikes on opponents of Assad (and not only on ISIS), killing thousands of civilians, not “intervention,” yet when you finally get one strike against the biggest, most heavily armed and most highly dangerous terrorist group in Syria, the one currently occupying Damascus, after it slaughters dozens of children with chemical weapons, only that is considered “intervention,” that is supposedly something more significant, that is something we should protest. Really, what is the difference? Surely, if we oppose all US intervention on principle, then this particular bombing is nothing worse than all the other bombings against Anyone But Assad the last two and a half years; and if the left, on the whole, has not been actively demanding the end of US bombing of Syria – far from it – then surely we can say in as much as the US is already there, at least this particular bombing hit the most appropriate target to date.
Frankly, whoever has not been protesting the US bombing of Syria all along the last two and a half years, and who now suddenly protests this US “intervention” today, cannot in any sense be considered anti-war, or anti-imperialist, but simply an apologist for the Assad genocide-regime. As Joey Husseini Ayoub, who runs the excellent Hummus for Thought site, wrote, “For those who care, this is 7,899th US airstrikes in Syria since 2014. I don’t remember 7,898 waves of outrage or concern.”
And that is only noting the absence of protest against US bombings before this one. One might rightly criticise my post for focusing on these US crimes, terrible as they are, rather than the truly massive crimes against humanity that have been carried out by the Assadist regime, its airforce and torture chambers, and the Russian imperialist invader that backs it, the crimes that have left at least half a million dead and turned the entire country to rubble, even before this latest horrific atrocity. That is simply because I have been focusing on the issue of the inconsistency of those allegedly “opposing US imperialism,” indicating that this is entirely fake. But from the point of view of humanity, from the perspective of the part of the left that still believes in the politics of liberation, the malignancy of those “anti-imperialists” who only protest bombing now, but who have never protested the Assadist and Russian bombing, or in fact support this genocide, is far worse.
Meanwhile, while launching a singular “punishment” strike may have the potential to escalate beyond its purpose, this seems almost certainly not the intention of any wing of the Trump regime. As State Secretary Rex Tillerson explains, this punishment strike should not be confused with a US change of line on Syria:
“US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the attack showed the President “is willing to take decisive action when called for. ‘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’, he said. ‘There has been no change in that status. I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways’.”
The colonialist Russia-Turkey imposed Syria “ceasefire” is a disaster, yet at the same time unavoidable at this point. A disaster because of the way that it came about (ie, via defeat, a ceasefire where the cards are stacked against the revolution side, no prisoner releases, no siege endings, expulsion from Aleppo, regime upper hand etc), and because it excludes war against Nusra, giving Assad, Russia and the US (and perhaps Turkey and the YPG) the excuse to make Idlib a legal Kill Zone without “violating the ceasefire.” Even outside of Idlib, does the “ceasefire” mean the regime will end its current savagery in Damascus suburbs? And indeed, we have already seen constant regime violations. Unavoidable because, given the relationship of forces on the ground, Turkey’s obvious betrayal, the Gulf’s complete lack of interest, the continued US-Jordan-imposed freezing of the southern front etc, we need a ceasefire, for the revolutionary forces, both civil and military, to regroup, for the people to breathe etc. I guess the civil movement needs to try to make the most of it while it lasts, as it did earlier this year, bring people into the streets, keep the end of Assad as the target, revive popular committees etc. However, if the regime uses it to continue to massacre in Idlib, East Ghouta etc, then what is the FSA to do? If it doesn’t fight back because the regime is (allegedly) “only bombing Nusra” which is outside the ceasefire, while in fact committing its usual massacre, then this will greatly boost Nusra vis a vis FSA – and, in a sense, rightly so. So the FSA is in a bind.
As for the media pointing out that the US is not part of the ceasefire agreement (only Russia, Turkey, Iran), this seems a moot point (apart from the fact that Putin has made clear the US will be brought into the process when his mate in ultra-right politics, Trump, is inaugurated), as the US is not a belligerent in the main part of the Syrian war. The US role has been to (1) bomb ISIS, (2) bomb Nusra, (3) bomb in favour of the YPG. But the ceasefire doesn’t involve any of these forces or conflicts. Clearly, the “ceasefire” is part of the colonial unofficial soft partition “solution” with Russia, Assad and Iran getting what they want of “useful” and western Syria, Turkey getting its own northern zone (filling it with right-wing Turkish nationalists who believe in Greater Turkey, want to expel Syrian refugees into the zone, but have no quarrel with Assad, while blocking (and not unjustly) the YPG’s irridentist “linking” project, the AKP’s change of policy represented by its current alliance with fascistic Grey Wolves and MHP). But the US has manoevured its way into 3 air bases in YPG-controlled territory, so the large Manbij to Hasake region is effectively a “US-backed” zone anyway; the zone controlled by the Southern Front in Daraa has been converted from a fighting front to a strip protecting the Jordanian border from Daesh; and the prizes are Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east: as the US has bombed on Assad’s side for 2 years against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, that will probably go to Assad. Not sure they’ve worked out Raqqa just yet, with so many contenders; for a while probably just another Kill Zone. I suspect the Saudis will want some kind of Sunni entity in the east to expel ISIS in exchange for accepting Assad’s “temporary” rule (according to the Russia-Turkey agreement) and being left out of the process.
Please help the people of Aleppo, just like we helped the people of Kobani. Oh, hang on, Aleppo? Kobani? Oh, that’s right. In Kobani they were Kurds. Civilised, secular, “progressive”, feminists, even green warriors apparently. They were like “us.” “We” (western imperialists and western … “anti-imperialists”) understand them. Therefore, they deserved to be saved from ISIS beasts, said the imperialist leaders, and their “anti-imperialist” echo in unison. Aleppo? Facing a fascistic enemy that has massacred twenty times as many people as ISIS fascists could ever manage, is not full of Good Kurds. It is full of Arabs. And we all know what western imperialist leaders, the far-right, neo-Nazis, Trumpists, racists, and “left-wing anti-imperialists” think of Arabs, especially when they live in Syria. They are all backward, blood-thirsty, barbaric, “jihadis” and “head-choppers,” *all* of the above categories tell us, yes, the left-fascists just as emphatically as any of the others. So those men, women and children, schools, hospitals, markets, every sign of life, are not deserving like Good Kurds are. Indeed, the left-fascists are now all over social media, in unison with their far-right co-thinkers, expressing their great joy with the victory of the most violent, most mass-murderous counterrevolutionary massacre of our era, expressing how happy they are that a fascist regime with an airforce, backed by an imperialist state invading with its airforce, have together bombed a whole country to pieces for 5 years, but moreover have bombed 300,000 people cramped into east Aleppo for months with every conceivable weapon of mass destruction except nuclear, ripping children to pieces on a daily basis, destroying hospital after hospital till none left.
See, when US imperialism intervened in Syria with its airforce in September 2014, bombing ISIS away from Kobani, many “anti-imperialists” decided that just this time they were not opposed to imperialist intervention, because Kurds and especially the PKK are “Good”, and ISIS are Really Bad. And so even though US imperialism has gone well beyond the emergency of defending Kobani from being overrun by ISIS, and has continued to bomb Syria for over 2 years, bombing not only ISIS, but also Nusra, other (non-jihadist) Islamists, and even on occasion non-Islamist FSA fighters, that’s OK; even though every time the US airforce has fought ISIS on behalf of the Kurdish YPG, in full coordination, in full-scale cooperation, including with US special forces, and even US air-bases, that’s OK; even though, beyond the Kobani emergency, all the rest of the US/YPG war on ISIS-controlled territory has been offensive, not defensive, operations, and the US airforce has killed 850 “collateral damage” civilians in these operations, that’s OK say the “anti-imperialists,” because the one armed force the US has never attacked are the armed forces of the Assad fascist dictatorship. Yet, when Aleppo (and countless other towns before this) have been confronted with murderous sieges by an enemy far more murderous than ISIS, and the US has not ever even hinted at helping the people against Assad, the same “anti-imperialist left” that hails the YPG, and did not organise a single “anti-war” demonstration for two years as the US bombed Everyone But Assad, has the impossible gall to slander the heroic Syrian revolutionaries as … “US proxies.” And when Hilary Clinton meekly implied that she might be in favour of some kind of “no-fly zone” to prevent Assad’s airforce from bombing children to bits – not to bomb Assad on behalf of the rebels with the US airforce, to drive back Assad and help the rebels advance, as the US does for the YPG against ISIS, but rather to prevent an airforce from bombing – the “anti-imperialist left” decided that this meant Clinton would bring “World War III”, and so the KKK-loving Trump team were preferable because Trump openly declared his love for Putin and Assad.
Hypocrisy is nothing new historically from any quarter, of course. However, it is rather difficult for me to conceive a level of hypocrisy coming from “our” side – the left, those supposedly dedicated to human liberation – that comes close to this.
Now, before continuing, I can already hear many supporters of Rojava feel they are under attack here. So to clarify, this post is not directed at the Kurds in Syria (despite my political criticisms of the PYD leadership), and still less anyone in the western left who gives solidarity to all equally, those expressing solidarity to both Kurdish and Arab resistance to both Assad and ISIS. The post rather is about the gross Orientalism of parts of the pro-Rojava movement. Further, I am not at all suggesting support for the defence of Kobani was wrong. And for all the anti-imperialist-intervention principles that many of us grew up on, when the US intervention did finally take up the defence of Kobani (about a month into its bombing campaign, which I did oppose from the start – for the first month, the US bombed anywhere but Kobani, especially in Aleppo and Idlib where there was no ISIS), it never occurred to me to go out in the streets and demand “US out now” at that point! Yes Kobani was in danger of being overrun by ISIS maniacs who had just acquired a windfall of US advanced weaponry courtesy the US-Iranian regime in Iraq which handed them Mosul, and the YPG was squeezed into a corner. Like with the defence of East Timor in 1999, I very reluctantly understood that at this point, the US was doing something necessary. For its own reasons. Even though I regard the rest of the US intervention in Syria highly negatively. I am also deliberately making a distinction between the US/YPG defensive, emergency operation then and the more general offensive operations since because I frankly do not support permanent US intervention in Syria to help one side militarily, with all the “collateral damage” and more general political damage it causes (including to the Kurds), yet even then I certainly prefer the YPG/SDF to ISIS rule, whatever criticisms I have of the former. No, the post is about selective solidarity. About those saying ‘Yes to the defence of Kobani against ISIS, including even 2-year ongoing US air support to the YPG’, but ‘no to even a single US gun to help the people of Aleppo (and elsewhere) resist Assad’s bloody dictatorship, Russian imperialism and the global Shiite-jihadi invasion forces’. That hypocrisy has just turned genocidal.
While it may be true that Syria is “complicated”, and not everyone has the time or interest to study the most profound revolutionary upheaval of the 21st century (except a bit of it in “Rojava”, the bit allied to US imperialism to the hilt and also the bit never hit by Assad or Russia), nevertheless, mass murder is not “complicated.” Of course, many on the left are not in the category of the left-fascists, who are a breed of their own which are indistinguishable from their right-wing co-thinkers. Many are personally appalled, but seek to relativise the slaughter (isn’t Qatar also arming some rebels? Oh yeh, that’s why the rebels are SO able to protect themselves and the civilians from the 5-year aerial massacre), or satisfy themselves with the fact that they can do little about it since it is not their own government doing it. Apparently, that makes active solidarity a bad thing, in their view. Whatever. I don’t have a big beef with those genuinely appalled who are simply confused. What we need to stress however is this. Far too much of the western left have labelled themselves the “revolutionary” left, by which they mean that, unlike some other leftists, who they see as mere reformers, they are “the revolutionaries.” Well, revolution, as Grenada’s Maurice Bishop once said, is not like making a cup of instant coffee. In the real world, revolutions are extremely complicated and messy. People like those in Syria, living for decades under a totalitarian tyranny that brutally suppressed all opposition thought, do not emerge from this with fully developed “revolutionary” programs and “correct” ideas that those of us living our entire lives in the relative comfort of western cities may think are necessary. Yes, there is much we need to evaluate in terms of lessons of lost revolutions (if the crushing of Aleppo does end the revolutionary process, by no means a given). But that is entirely different to not knowing which side you are on. The fact is, much of the self-declared “revolutionary” left turned out to be only marginally better than the centrist/Stalinist/”mainstream”/pacifist/”anti”-war left, who were the most resolutely counterrevolutionary. That is, confronted by an actual people’s revolutionary uprising, warts and all, they decided either to support bloody counterrevolution or to declare a plague on both your houses or to use the same racist discourse about “jihadis” and “liver-eaters” etc or one way or another simply had no idea what to do or what to say.
So, while many of these people and groups indeed do an enormous amount of highly dedicated great work around concrete *reforms* in their own countries (eg, they campaign to defend refugees – even Syrian refugees from Assad’s holocaust, ironically enough – among many other valuable campaigns), a very good thing, how about we drop the BS about being the “revolutionary” left? No great harm in being honest. In Australia, two far-left socialist organisations, Socialist Alternative and Solidarity, have distinguished themselves with their unstinting support for the Syrian people’s revolution, to the bloody end, and the same is true of countless other left and socialist organisations around the world, mostly also parts of the far-left alongside many individuals from among the more honest sections of the reformist left. Although I am a member of neither, I am proud to be associated with these comrades.
One week the United States rushed to the defence of its Kurdish allies, People’s Protection Units (YPG), when the Assad regime bombed them in Hasake; the following week many pro-YPG voices were accusing the same US of betrayal, for supporting Turkey’s intervention into Syria, with up to 5000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops, to expel ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
However, fickleness would not be a useful explanation of US behaviour. Rather, both events suggest that the outlines of a regional understanding on a reactionary solution to the Syrian crisis may be in the making. If this sounds conspiratorial, let me stress at the outset that none of it is set in concrete, much could change, and many of the players may be only half-pleased; nevertheless, the fact that states that appear at odds with each other conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations is hardly a huge revelation.
And above all, it is always important to keep in mind that when capitalist states half-back revolutions for their own geopolitical or other reasons, the aim is some kind of pressure or manoeuvre; it has always been the ultimate aim of all regional and global powers for the magnificent people’s uprising in Syria to be defeated, one way or another, even if via different routes.
Turkey: the AKP’s diplomatic back-flips
Some of this relates to the recent diplomatic back-flips of the Turkish government of Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a decisive supporter of the Syrian rebels. This includes Turkey’s widely publicised reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have been forming a very close alliance over the last year, with countless high-level visits between Putin and Netanyahu); the further strengthening of its relations with Iran (which have always remained strong despite backing opposite sides in Syria); and the declaration by prime minister Binali Yildarim (who recently replaced Ahmet Davutoglu) that Turkey is no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements of the regime and opposition, a position bringing Turkey into line with the position of the United States and in conflict with that of the Syrian opposition. Yildarim also recently stated that Turkey’s ties to Syria will “return to normal.”
US imposes first No Fly Zone in Syria: To defend Rojava
As is widely known, the YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and the Assad regime have had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact, which sometimes breaks into minor conflict, and at other times leads to collaboration – including aiding in the recent siege of rebel Aleppo.
However, the ferocity of the latest clash in Hasaka was new; this was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG; the airforce is normally dedicated to slaughtering the civilian population of rebel-held areas.
This may have been a message from Assad to Turkey, a response to Turkey’s own feelers. A senior AKP official recently noted that while Assad is a killer, “he does not support Kurdish autonomy … we’re backing the same policy.” This is true; despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy. And given the current rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran, the prominent Turkish-Iranian meetings are most certainly anti-Kurdish in content; Iran may be acting as a link between Erdogan and Assad.
Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. From the outset of the Russian invasion last September, the PYD/YPG declared in favour of Russia bombing “jihadists” (even though in practice it mostly bombed mainstream rebels and very rarely ISIS). In return, Russian air strikes were employed to aid the Afrin YPG against the rebels in February, helping it seize a number of rebel-held, Arab-majority towns in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat, an iconic centre of resistance to both Assad and ISIS. But Putin’s high-level reconciliation with Erdogan, while being Assad’s main backer even as he attacks the YPG, suggests Russia has dropped the YPG like a hot potato.
The US alliance with the YPG, however, is far more fundamental. The US has been the permanent air force for all anti-ISIS operations led by the YPG, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance it leads which includes small non-Kurdish components, for two years now. The US has also fielded “special forces” to work with the YPG, and has set up its first military base in Syria in the eastern part of Rojava.
With so much invested in its SDF alliance, the US imposed its first No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Syria, over eastern Rojava. After Syrian SU-24 attack planes bombed the area on August 18, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis warned that regime aircraft “would be well-advised not to do things that place them at risk,” as US warplanes intercepted regime jets. US Coalition aircraft confronted regime warplanes again the next day, which “encouraged” them “to depart the airspace without further incident,” Davis said.
As an aside, the ease with which the US effected this NFZ belies all the talk about an NFZ to protect civilians from Assad’s genocidal bombing leading to WWIII. Of course, most of the world won’t notice the imposition of this NFZ, as long as it is imposed by the US to protect US forces, or the YPG; it will certainly not be seen as any kind of “US intervention” by the western “anti-war movement,” any more than two years of bombing , with hundreds of civilian casualties, has been seen as such; a huge uproar against “US intervention” will only occur if the US, in some parallel universe, uses the forces already intervening in Syria to protect hospitals and schools from being blasted to bits in rebel-controlled areas.
But then again, the irrelevance of the dinosaur which calls itself an “anti-war movement” even while, in large part, shilling for one of the most brutal wars on civilians in modern history, is hardly new information. Its irrelevance to world politics today is richly deserved indeed.
Beyond ‘New Cold War’ nonsense: Regional alliance for counterrevolution
Recent discussion of an alleged “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding on Syria usually claims that Erdogan’s new tilt to Moscow was caused by the reticent support the US gave to Turkey’s government against the recent coup attempt, the US refusal to hand over Gulen, who Turkey blames for the coup, and the large-scale support the US gave the YPG/SDF in helping them expel ISIS from Manbij in northern Syria, not far south of the Turkish border.
However, the discourse that Turkey was thereby “moving towards Russia and away from the US on Syria” is based on the idea that the “Cold War” still exists. In Syria at least, the US and Russia see the Syrian conflict “fundamentally very similarly” as US Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear. While this does not exclude minor rivalry or tactical differences, in reality Turkey’s new position that Assad can remain “temporarily” means that Turkey has now reached the US position via coming half-way towards the Russian position.
This “Cold War” discourse fails to explain the prominent US-Russian negotiations to engage in joint bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra, which would almost inevitably mean bombing non-Nusra rebels as well, given the actual geography of the uprising. Indeed, there were even reports of the US-led Coalition bombing rebels in Aleppo during the recent siege.
In fact, the “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding is better seen as a “Russia-Turkey-Iran-US-Assad” understanding, with, of course, points of difference.
Part of this understanding is anti-Kurdish, though, as we saw in Hasake, this will be only partial in the US case, especially as it still wants to use the YPG for the potentially suicidal task of taking on ISIS in its capital Raqqa, due south of Kobani.
Another part of this understanding is anti-rebel, but this is only partial in Turkey’s case. Turkey allowed arms to flow to the rebels as they fought to successfully break Assad’s recent total siege of 300,000 people in Aleppo, which if unbroken would have led to catastrophe. This aspect does not entail aiding the regime in the impossible task of totally crushing the rebels, but rather in restricting them to current areas, forcing them to stop fighting the regime while using them only to fight ISIS or even Nusra, and pushing them into a deal with the regime that includes Assad “temporarily.”
This was the model the US has enforced on the politically moderate, but militarily tenacious, FSA Southern Front. The US held it back from advancing towards Damascus, thereby helping the regime force the surrender of the revolutionary town of Darraya. Thus, while outside the scope of this article, the surrender and ethnic cleansing of Darraya, and now a number of other small revolutionary centres, appears to be part of this same counterrevolutionary “tidying up” process.
The Turkish intervention in Jarabulus: Between liberation and slaughter
It was in this context that the US – while guaranteeing for now YPD-SDF rule over the territory it controls east of the Euphrates River (ie, from Kobani through to Hasake and Qamishle) – sought to “balance” between its Turkish and SDF allies by providing air support to Turkey’s direct intervention into Syria, along with 5000 FSA fighters from the Azaz-Mare and Idlib regions, to evict ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
The Turkish regime, of course, has its own aims in this operation, which may coincide at times with, but are distinct from, the aims of the Syrian rebels. And there are indications that FSA fighters are not unaware of the dangers of being entrapped by interests different to their own. However, it must be emphasised that these north Aleppo-based rebels, who have fought ISIS for years, acted in their own interests in liberating the Arab-majority town of Jarabulus.
Squeezed into the Azaz-Mare pocket in northern Aleppo since the Russian-Assad-YPG offensive in February which cut them off from Aleppo city, these rebels needed to expand their area of operation. Unnoticed by the world, they had just liberated – largely on their own – the important town of al-Rai on the Turkish border the previous week, in an offensive from Azaz eastward. By now seizing Jarabulus, they aim to link back to al-Rai and thereby Azaz, gaining full control of this section of the border from ISIS.
In both Manbijand Jarablus, video evidence showed the populations were relieved to be rid of ISIS tyranny (and in Manbij, of US bombing which had claimed hundreds of lives), despite the two different liberators.
Turkey has long said it would not allow the YPG to move west of the Euphrates river. To the east of the Euphrates is the iconic Kurdish town Kobani, which resisted a furious ISIS siege in late 2014, and the PYD/YPG/SDF controls the entire Turkish border from there to Hasake and Qamishle in the northeast (ie, the Kobani and Jazirah cantons of ‘Rojava’). Kobani itself, and much of the Hasake-Qamishle region, is majority Kurdish, and the Kurds have exercised their rightful autonomous rule there for a number of years, carrying out their own revolutionary process.
However, the Tal Abyad region in between Kobani and Hasake, which the SDF and US airforce liberated from ISIS in 2015, is majority-Arab; the defection just days ago of the main Tal Abyad-based FSA component of that operation, Liwa al-Tahrir, from the SDF, suggests the driving back of ISIS may reduce the need of FSA-connected rebels east of the Euphrates to remain under YPG domination.
The Arab-majority town of Jarabulus is opposite Kobani on the west side of the Euphrates. Arab-majority Manbij is also west of the Euphrates, but not on the border; several months ago Turkey accepted the large-scale US air support to the YPG/SDF offensive to expel ISIS from Manbij, on the condition that the YPG then returned east once Manbij was secured. This was understood to mean leaving Manbij to the Arab, non-YPG components of the SDF, in particular, to the ‘Manbij Military Council’.
After liberating Manbij, SDF forces called the ‘Jarabulus Military Council’ moved north and seized a number of villages from ISIS, with the ultimate aim of taking Jarabulus. Turkish and FSA troops pre-empted this, however, by seizing Jarabulus first. As a strategic Arab-majority border town, the fact that the FSA received direct support from Turkey in expelling ISIS is no different fundamentally to the SDF receiving direct support from the US in expelling ISIS from Manbij.
However, what happened next was much more concerning. While information is scarce on the ethnic composition of these small villages south of Jarabulus, and of the local people’s relationship to the SDF liberators, these are issues that need to be worked out by local Syrian forces – the FSA and the SDF – on their own, without the Turkish military playing a role. However, when the FSA began fighting these SDF forces south of Jarabulus, Turkey took a direct role. This almost immediately degenerated further, as the Turkish airforce began bombing these SDF-held villages, leading, as may be expected, to war crimes, such as the slaughter of 28 civilians in Amarinah on August 27.
It is crimes such as these that further drive wedges between Arabic and Kurdish civilians, and between liberation movements among both peoples, just as the far larger-scale YPG collaboration with the Russian Luftwaffe in February, in seizing non-Kurdish territory from the rebels, had already done. While the current clashes are not on that order, any participation by the Syrian rebels in a possible Turkish drive to seize Manbij would certainly reach the heights of the Tal Rifaat disaster (though the US appears to also oppose such a move).
Turkey claims it is fighting YPG fighters, who haven’t gone east; Kurdish leaders such as PYD official Nawaf Xelil have publicly agreed that moving east was the understanding, and claim they have done so, so Turkey is fighting the local SDF; whereas others have charged the US with “betrayal,” and YPG spokesman Redur Xelil rejected the demand to move east and denied leaving Manbij. Meanwhile US Vice president Biden, on a state visit to Turkey at the time, sought to please his Turkish hosts, warning the YPG that it would lose US support if it stayed west of the Euphrates.
Some of this appears to be sabre-rattling, for public consumption, or to test the waters; both Turkey and the PYD have ambitions beyond the agreed-upon terms. Turkish leaders talk about clearing “all terrorists” – ISIS and YPG – from the region, and many critics of the Turkish operation claim that Turkey’s real aim is to destroy ‘Rojava’. Any Turkish adventure to attack actual ‘Rojava’ – ie, the SDF-run, Kurdish-majority regions east of the Euphrates – should indeed be condemned, but is unlikely to occur on any scale (despite some border clashes around Kobani) because it will be strongly opposed by the US.
This re-focus appears to have occurred; on September 3, more Turkish tanks crossed over in to al-Rai, to aid the rebels who have captured about a dozen more villages from ISIS in the region, hoping to close the gap with Jarabulus. [And since the time of writing, Turkey and the FSA have linked al-Rai to Jarabulus and completely expelled ISIS from the border, an unquestionably positive thing].
The YPG’s plans to “link” to Afrin: A catastrophe well-avoided
The SDF had already alienated rebel supporters with its unilateral imposition of its system in Manbij, by scrapping the popularly-elected Manbij council which governed the city before ISIS seized Manbij in 2014. As reporter Haid Haid explains:, quoting Hassan Hamidi, an activist from Manbij:
“We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij’s local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF.”
Haid also quotes Mustafa al-Nifi, a local resident from Manbij:
“We were really hoping that the SDF would be able to share power with locals and allow them to govern themselves. However, it seems that it was a trick. Everything has been planned long in advance. They appointed people, who we do not know, to run the city. They also gave Manij a Kurdish name, which is ‘Mabuk’, and imposed a federal system on us. There is nothing left for us to decide.”
Haid notes that the PYD denies such accusations. “We are not imposing anything on anyone. We created a new local council and appointed people to run it temporarily, as it is difficult to organize elections in Manbij now,” said Kadar Biri, a member of the PYD party from Afrin. However, according to Haid, “although the creation of a local council was a positive step, imposing membership of the PYD’s choosing without coordinating with local notables, activists and members of the previous council has sent the wrong signals about the PYD’s commitment to inclusiveness and power-sharing with non-Kurdish communities in northern Syria.”
Further, according to leading spokesman on Kurdish issues, who is close to the PYD, Mutlu Civiroglu, the primary aim after taking Manbij was to “link” up with Kurdish Afrin in northwest Syria, by seizing the region in between (the PYD has been openly stating this was their goal for some time, eg, PYD co-chair Salih Muslim on July 3, PYD senior official Polat Can some months earlier). Indeed, some of the talk of US “betrayal” is simply sour grapes that Turkey’s intervention has blocked this “linking” project; and many of the assertions that Turkey is “destroying Rojava” or denying the right of “the Kurds” to have their united autonomous region are based on the disruption of this link.
However, most of the border region from Jarabulus to Azaz is ethnically non-Kurdish, mostly Arab and Turkmen, and the claim that the entire north is all ‘Rojava’ appears to be based on nothing more than the fact that the PYD has declared it to be so. In fact, the area unilaterally claimed as the ‘Rojava/North Syria Federation’ is triple the size of Kurdish majority regions, and double the size of the areas even where Kurds exist as minorities. This region has no ethnic, historic, geographic or cultural validity as a separate region.
To conquer these thousands of square kilometres of ethnically mixed, largely non-Kurdish, territory would be impossible without the support of either US or Russian air power. Both have decided, wisely, to avoid this, and there is zero validity in complaints about such an adventurous scheme not being supported. Indeed, if either imperialist power were to force through such an operation, it would lead to catastrophic loss of life, and an enormous new refugee outflux.
While Turkey’s own aims in preventing such a unified PYD-run state are of course anti-Kurdish and connected to its brutal war against its own Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey, it also just happens to coincide with the justifiable desire of the largely Arab and Turkmen rebels to liberate areas which are their natural support base.
On the other hand, the situation is not without its dangers. There are Kurdish minorities in this mixed region, in particular in some rural areas further away from the Turkish border strip (see the demographic map linked to above). If Turkey does not rapidly withdraw, or if the FSA fighters become too closely connected to the intervening Turkish forces, they could risk being drawn into conflict with their Kurdish brethren at the behest of an outside power.
US, Russia, Iran, Assad: Why it became OK, for now, to allow an FSA operation
Like the US, both Russia and Iran appear to have greenlighted the Jarabulus operation. While Russia has merely expressed “concern,” Iran initially remained “conspicuously silent,” while later suggesting that Turkey needs to move more quickly to complete its “anti-terrorist” actions in order to withdraw. Iranian sources have claimed that Turkey and Assad are coordinating through Iran.
While the Assad regime formally denounced a violation of its alleged “sovereignty,” Turkey claims to have informed it beforehand, with the deputy prime minister noting that “we believe Damascus is also bothered by what was happening in and around Manbij. They recently hit PYD targets.” Yildarim also suggested that Damascus understands that the PYD “has started to become a threat.” In the midst of the Jarabulus operation, Yildarim declared on September 2 “We have normalised our relations with Russia and Israel. Now, God willing, Turkey has taken a serious initiative to normalise relations with Egypt and Syria.”
However, the implication here that Assad may be secretly approving the Turkish operation, due to joint hostility to a Kurdish entity, has some holes in it. Most obviously, the fact that Turkey is working with the FSA, who are the very forces trying to overthrow his regime, regardless of his opposition to Kurdish autonomy.
Furthermore, the US support for this operation also comes with a question mark (and not only because Turkey apparently acted unilaterally at the last moment and upstaged US plans to exercise more control over the operation). To date, the central condition for US support to any rebels to fight ISIS has been the demand that they drop the fight against Assad – this was the case both with the ill-fated Division 30 in the north (indeed, the reason its numbers were so pathetically tiny), and the New Syrian Army in the southeast; while of course the SDF, the US’ favoured anti-ISIS force, mostly doesn’t fight Assad by definition. By contrast, while the Azaz-Mare-Tal Rifaat rebels have confronted ISIS in that region for years, they have never before received any substantial US support against ISIS (in fact, they normally get bombed by Assad whenever they fight ISIS in northern Aleppo).
Thus Erdogan’s push for a “safe zone” in northern Syria last year met out-of-hand US rejection, because the Syrian rebel groups who Erdogan wanted to let control it would have used it as a base to fight the regime. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed “we’ve been pretty clear from the podium and elsewhere saying there’s no zone, no safe haven, we’re not talking about that here,” insisting it could only support an “ISIS-free zone” but not any kind of safe zone and certainly not one patrolled by the rebels.
But something important changed in February this year. By bombing the YPG/SDF into Tal Rifaat and other Arab-populated northern Aleppo regions, Russia cut the rebels in the Azaz-Mare pocket off from Aleppo city and thus effectively cut them off from the front against Assad. So now even though they want to fight Assad, and hardly any have made the pledge to drop that fight, effectively they can’t. So backing them to take over the Jarabulus-Azaz border strip became “safe” from the American point of view – and safer than previously from Assad’s view as well. How ironic that it was the YPG’s own eviction of the rebels in Tal Rifaat that has enabled US support for the Turkish operation that has blocked the YPG’s “linking” scheme!
Then there is a final reason why Assad may be grudgingly approving of Turkey launching an FSA-led operation against ISIS in the north: aside from the fighters from Azaz-Mare, the operation has also meant fighters from Idlib moving to a distant theatre rather than the key battleground of southern Aleppo. By early September, in the midst of the northern operation, the regime began a new determined attempt to re-impose the total siege that was broken several weeks ago in the truly magnificent operation by some 30 rebel groups working together [Update: since the time of writing, the full encirclement has been re-imposed]. This again raises theory popular among some pro-revolution circles: Assad allows Turkey to stop YPG in return for Turkey abandoning Aleppo rebels to Assad. Conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But not out of the question. And if true, catastrophic in its implications.
Changes in internal Turkish politics in relation to the safe zone
Turkey is overwhelmed by some 3 million Syrian refugees; the basis for much of the AKP’s opposition to Assad has been the need to remove the source of this massive instability, alongside the solidarity felt by much of the AKP’s moderate-‘Islamist’ base with these Syrian Arab refugees and their struggle – the same base which propelled the AKP to break Turkey’s decades of alliance with Israel and take up a pro-Palestine position. Ironically given the resurgence of the Kurdish war since 2015, this same moderate ‘Islamism’ had allowed the AKP to reach out to the Kurds in a way that the Kemalist Turkish-nationalist regimes had not done in 80 years, instituting important language and cultural reforms for the Kurdish minority and beginning a ‘peace process’ involving the PKK. Palestinians, Syrian Arab refugees and Kurds were all ‘Muslims’ after all, during the decade in which ‘Islam’ was temporarily elevated above ‘Turkishness’ as part of carrying out important changes in capitalist class rule in Turkey.
Erdogan’s regime needed to consolidate the new position in the state of the traditionalist Anatolian bourgeoisie that the AKP represented, after decades of playing second-fiddle to the big ‘secular’ Kemalist bourgeoisie. But once this new unwritten power-sharing arrangement was complete, the reconstitution of the Kemalist regime, albeit with slightly more ‘Islamist’ coloration, was on the order of the day. The contention that Erdogan’s increasingly repressive moves, since re-launching the war against the PKK and the Kurds in mid-2015, is part of setting up an ‘Islamic state’ is wide of the mark, and the contention that it is related to a new ‘Ottoman Empire’ is just Orientalism. The Kemalist Turkish national state is the vehicle through which the Turkish bourgeoisie rules.
In this context, Turkey can have its “safe zone” in northern Syria, that both prevents ‘Rojava’ from linking right across its southern border, and also allows a space for Turkey to transfer a section of its massive Syrian refugee population back into Syria. Indeed, Turkey aims to build whole “refugee cities” in the safe zone. Both aims allow for Erdogan to strengthen his new alliance with the opposition moderate (CHP) and right-wing (MHP) Turkish nationalists, both of whom despise Syrian refugees as much as they are hostile to the Kurdish struggle, and who have opposed Erdogan’s Syria policy from a pro-Assad angle; both support the current operation, as they can drive out refugees without the same “danger” of supporting the struggle against Assad as last year’s proposed zone entailed.
Yildarim’s statements on reconciliation with Syria since he replaced Davutoglu correspond closely with this general direction, as do Turkey’s increasing restrictions on the entry of Syrian refugees, which has led to a number of previously unthinkable brutal killings by Turkish border guards this year, and even the building of border walls.
Moreover, the strong ethnic Turkmen presence in this region also allows Turkey to attempt to control the safe zone via proxy ‘national’ forces, which gives Turkish nationalists an extra reason for intervening in this particular region. The relatively recent appearance of occasional pro-MHP fighters in Turkmen regions is connected to this new focus, following years of MHP opposition to the AKP’s anti-Assad policy.
Which rebel brigades are involved in the operation?
However, it remains a big question whether or not this will succeed. While the general analysis here indicates that the Assad regime may be, behind the scenes, generally part of this new consensus, this is only grudging, and Assad would also have reason to be nervous. Even if the analysis is correct that Turkey aims to hold the rebels in check within this zone, there is no guarantee that it will be able to control the significant rebel coalition now in operation in the region. The big majority of the FSA and rebel forces involved are neither ethnically Turkmen forces, nor specifically proxy forces in any other way. Most are genuine representatives of the Syrian revolutionary forces in the region. According to Charles Lister, who is someone who certainly knows what he is talking about, the groups involved in this Jarablus operation are:
Sultan Murad (ethnic Turkmen FSA brigade, now thought to be heavily infiltrated by Turkish nationalists)
Faylaq al-Sham (MB-aligned, very moderate; in Idlib it had been a member of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, but split away rejecting Nusra’s heavy influence in it)
Jabhat al-Shamiya (the ‘Levant Front’, a very moderate-Islamist coalition, which generally takes the FSA label, includes many former fighters from Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Mujahideen etc; those who think there can only be moderate Christians but certainly not Muslims could look at this video made by them)
Nour al-Din al-Zinki (independent soft-Islamist, though recently roguish behaviour seems to have increased)
FSA 13th Division (who have led the multi-month fight against Nusra in Idlib that erupted during the mass demonstrations during the ceasefire earlier this year)
Suqor al-Jebel (FSA brigade from Idlib, formerly part of Syrian Revolutionaries Front, then the 5th Brigade)
Jaish al-Tahrir (ie, just defected from SDF, FSA from Tel Abyad)
Hamza Division (FSA coalition of 5 groups, set up in Mare to fight ISIS)
Jaish al-Nasr (FSA coalition of 16 groups, mostly in Hama and Idlib)
Mutassim Brigade (well-armed by US, includes some of the former Division 30 fighters who the US armed to fight ISIS only; this appears to be the only of these FSA brigades known to have accepted this US diktat to drop the fight against Assad)
Ahrar Tel Rifaat (ie, FSA fighters expelled by the Russian-YPG conquest of Tal Rifaat in February)
Liwa al-Fateh (Islamist, formerly part of Liwa al-Tawhid)
These last two were large FSA coalitions destroyed by Nusra in Idlib and Aleppo in late 2014-early 2015, some of whose commanders then took refuge in Turkey.
By no means can this collection be brushed aside as a “Turkish proxy force” (and as an aside, the commonly stated claim that Turkey backs Nusra is shown as obvious nonsense by the composition of this list). The very different reactions to Turkey’s intervention from revolution supporters reflect the fact that the final outcome will depend on the relationship of forces on the ground, regardless of varying motivations; the situation is fluid and contradictory.
Even the fact that they are unable to fight Assad due to being cut off, as explained above, is a factor that can change. In particular, the fate of the very next big prize in the region – al-Bab, which is the last ISIS-controlled town in eastern Aleppo, away from the border, south of rebel-controlled al-Rai, west of SDF-controlled Manbij – is of critical importance. Both the rebel coalition and the SDF have indicated it is their next target; ISIS may try to hold onto it; and the regime may also try to take it, being just north of regime-controlled Aleppo. A catastrophic four-way contest is not out of the question.
Al-Bab’s fate probably depends on who the US and Russia will allow or facilitate to take it. Keeping the Turkish-backed rebels and the regime apart, which this analysis suggests is the plan, would require either ISIS remaining, or the SDF being allowed to take it, and thus establishing their “link” via occupied Tal Rifaat, but not on the Turkish border. But the momentum set in motion by Turkey’s action may make that unfeasible; and even if an ‘Assad-Erdogan Aleppo for Kurds’ deal is behind the events, it may not be easy for Turkey to hold back rebels who would be even more determined to take al-Bab, to pressure the regime from behind, if Assad’s full encirclement of Aleppo is re-imposed.
Conclusion: Necessity of people’s unity beyond ethnicity and sect
Of course, this is all very volatile, because no side comes out fully happy. But my conclusion remains that Turkey wants to cut an anti-Kurdish deal with Assad and Iran, with Russian backing, to include a Turkish-influenced ‘slice’ of the north; the US is in on it partly but won’t completely abandon the YPG, as long as it knows who is boss; and Turkey on its side won’t completely abandon the rebels, again, as long as they know who is boss.
The conflicts between Arab and Kurdish rebels, or between the FSA and its allies, and the YPG and its allies, and their pragmatic foreign connections, may not be responsible for this unwritten new reactionary alliance, but they most certainly facilitate it. Neither side is innocent in this regard – a long story in itself – but as a general statement, the current state of affairs underlines the necessity of finding a more cooperative relationship between forces fighting for liberation on the ground, of a more serious drive on all sides for Arab-Kurdish, and non-sectarian, unity in the struggle against tyranny and oppression in Syria.