No, US bombing of Syria did not begin today

Chemical massacre in Syria

by Michael Karadjis

US bombing of Syria did not begin on April 7, it began in September 2014, two and a half years ago. Nearly 8000 US air strikes have been launched, in which, according to the monitoring organisation Airwars, at least 1400 civilians have been killed. This includes killed hundreds just in recent weeks in some horrific strikes, like the slaughter of some 57 worshippers in a mosque in western Aleppo – which Trump’s Russian friends defended as aimed at “terrorists” – and the massacre soon after of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa. In fact, US bombing in March killed more Syrian civilians (260) than either Russia (224) or ISIS (119), dwarfed only by the massive toll of the Assad regime itself. This bombing has included the use of deadly depleted uranium. Not to mention the mass killing of hundreds of civilians in Mosul in Iraq in just one week in March, just a few of the thousands killed in recent months in the joint US, Iranian and Iraqi regime (ie, the US-Iran joint-venture regime) offensive in that city.

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.

Despite countless assertions that Trump’s Syria policy was “unclear,” everything Trump has said was very clear: for many months, he insisted the US must ally with Russia and Assad to “fight ISIS,” as he believed Russia and Assad were doing; and that the US should cut off whatever remaining fragments of “aid” he believed were still going to some vetted Syrian rebels. Even Defence Secretary James Mattis, who many have mistakenly seen as more anti-Assad than Trump, has always opposed “no fly zone” plans, and announced several years ago that the time to support Syrian rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS “had passed,” ie, he agreed with the Obama-Kerry line that the US would only support rebels who fought ISIS and Nusra only, not the regime.

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’.”

Brief comments on the Russia-Turkey colonialist “ceasefire”

the-powers-carve-up-china
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.

Save Aleppo! Oh, hang on, Aleppo is not Kobani …

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.

Turkey, Rebels, Kurds & Assad in northern Syria: Contradictions in moves towards regional counterrevolutionary alliance

Two linking operations in northern Syria
Two rival linking plans at expense of Daesh (Grey area on map) in northern Syria: Green – FSA/rebels, Yellow – YPG/SDF. Pink area underneath controlled by Assad regime. At time of writing, the distance between rebel-controlled territory beyond the towns of al-Rai and Jarabulus was only 10 km, as shown on map. Since then, they have fully linked and Daesh expelled from the border.

By Michael Karadjis

(An abridged version of this article appeared in ‘The New Arab’ under the title ‘Tensions tried and loyalties tested in northern Syria’, at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/9/2/tensions-tried-and-loyalties-tested-in-northern-syria).

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 Manbij and 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.

Indeed, as the SDF was pushed south of the Sajoor river separating the Jarablus and Manbij regions, Pentagon spokespeople demanded the fighting stop, calling it “unacceptable,” called on Turkey to focus on ISIS, and stressed their continued support for the SDF.

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 angleboth 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)

Meanwhile, the latest news is that they have now been joined by fighters from:

  • Jabhat al-Haq
  • Syrian Revolutionaries Front
  • Harakat Hazm

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.

Al-Bab

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.

 

 

 

 

Downing warplanes, Orwell and “US-backed” rebels

Russian helicopter on humanitarian mission
The Russian helicopter shot down by rebels on August 1, showing the “humanitarian” cargo Russia claimed it was carrying.

Originally published in The New Arab with the title ‘Anti-aircraft missiles could be a game-changer in Syria’: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/8/9/anti-aircraft-missiles-could-be-a-game-changer-in-syria

Comment: Syrian rebels are frequently portrayed as US-armed western stooges. The truth couldn’t be more different, as Washington denies opposition fighters the weapons needed to protect lives, writes Michael Karadjis

On August 1, Syrian rebels shot down a Russian armoured assault helicopter in Idlib which was returning from neighbouring Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian regime aircraft have been waging a merciless aerial massacre.

The ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, Idlib, Daraya and elsewhere highlights the rebels’ dire need for anti-aircraft weaponry. However, the United States has vigorously enforced an embargo against the rebels receiving these crucial weapons throughout the war.

While rebel downings of air-war vehicles have thus been few and far between, this latest hit followed the downing of some half a dozen warplanes or helicopters around Damascus in June and July.

A handful of Russian-made SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles, which were used in these hits, were captured by the rebels from the regime back in 2012. As they were few, they are used sparingly, and it took them years to make them functional.

Likewise, most weaponry in the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been gained by capture or made in back-yards. As one (more honestly titled) article put it: ‘Syria’s ‘Western-Backed’ Rebels? Not in Weapons’.

The routine use of the adjective “US-backed” for non-jihadist rebels – a grossly Orwellian piece of media-speak – greatly obfuscates the real US connection to the indigenous mass uprising against the Assad dictatorship.

By mid-2012, a flow of weapons from former Libyan rebels began to reach Syrian rebels via Turkey. Later that year the US began its first major intervention in Syria, positioning CIA agents in Turkey to restrict the quality, quantity and destination of these arms.

While warplanes and helicopters had replaced tanks as the main form of regime slaughter by mid-2012, this US embargo blocked not only anti-aircraft but also anti-tank weaponry. Thus only small arms and ammunition were allowed, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran.

Such weapons were barely enough for survival, but this was no oversight; despite calling on Assad to “step down,” the US government made clear that the aim was precisely to bolster the regime as a whole. Therefore, these arms were not even remotely intended to be of the quantity or quality necessary to aid a rebel victory, but more to the point, they were not even aimed at enhancing tactical rebel victories on the ground. In fact, not even creating a permanent ‘balance’ with the regime, so that “no-one wins”, was the aim, despite this being a common claim; even an objective as limited as that would have required a more consistent amount of better weaponry, given what the regime possesses.

No, allowing for the bare survival of the rebels was the US (and western) aim: western policy-makers knew if the rebels were totally crushed, this would bolster Sunni jihadist forces as the only opposition to which the dispossessed Sunni majority could gravitate; whereas if they survived but were weakened, the moderate opposition leaderships could hopefully be pressured into accepting a role within a “reformed” regime, which would then wage war on the jihadists – and anyone else still resisting, who would be labelled “terrorists.”

This ‘Yemeni solution’ has been US policy all along, from Geneva I and II through the current round in close cooperation with Russia. In its latest edition, even Assad himself could remain as head of an “transitional” government.

Thus while the US itself restricted its own support to non-lethal aid, the only arms it would allow regional states to send the rebels were those of the quality they already had. This could allow the US to attempt to contain and co-opt the uprising, while leading to no “danger” of strengthening them.

When the US did start supplying some “vetted” rebels with light arms in late 2013, the fact that the aim was bare survival plus co-optation is exemplified by reports of rebels getting supplied 16 bullets a month. As for the CIA training program that went with this, many rebels – who already knew how to fight – felt the main American interest was surveillance.

Why then did the US lift its embargo on anti-tank weapons in 2014? Of course, to do this two years after tanks had been superseded by aircraft as the main killer was far too late; nevertheless, ground warfare still plays a crucially important role.

The first reports of US-made TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM’s) supplied to the FSA group Harakat Hazm emerged in April 2014. They were mainly supplied by Saudi Arabia from its stocks, but it is believed that the Saudis need US permission to supply US weapons, though this may often be a tussle between the two.

US pressure is clear: only “vetted” groups get TOWs, sometimes only 3-4 at a time, they have to apply for them for specific operations, they have to return the shells to make a claim for more, which may or may not be approved. Even favoured groups soon found supplies dwindling, and the program had greatly diminished by late 2014.

However, after Russia invaded in October 2015, Saudi Arabia sent some 500 Tows to Syria, which led to the famous “tank massacre.” The furious Saudis had promised a swift response to the Russian invasion, so it is likely they would have sent these TOWs regardless of US permission. Even if the US gave permission for a large supply in this instance, to remind Russia it was there and to treat it as a partner, it was a one-off; supplies again dwindled to nothing by late 2015.

While the TOW was a significant improvement in US support, in fact the same pattern applied as with small arms. By the time the US began allowing the Saudis to send TOWs, the rebels had already acquired a large range of ATGMs, which had already taken out 1800 tanks by late 2013. Nearly all were Russian or East European made, that is, they were captured Syrian army weapons.

So again: as the rebels already had them, opening an “official” supply allowed for influence for future co-optation and some US control of who gets what, while not upping the quality of rebel weaponry. In fact, the TOW is reportedly less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels have captured from the regime.

This leads to the current appearance of anti-aircraft activity, which as explained did not result from any loosening of the US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons. In fact, in the last 6-8 months the US has tightened its arms embargoes on all weapons against the rebels, while more or less openly collaborating with Russia against them.

In theory, the embargo aims to prevent anti-aircraft weapons getting into the hands of terrorists who might down civilian planes. Yet such weapons exist on the black market; the US, however, has gone out of its way to prevent the FSA from getting any even from there. What this means is that the anti-aircraft weapons that do get snapped up from the black market end up in the hands of anyone other than the FSA.

This thereby reduces whatever control western states might seek to have over the destination of black market anti-aircraft missiles. Most of the six southern hits are thought to have been made by the Islamist militia Jaysh Islam, which captured the weapons from the regime in 2012. While not strictly speaking FSA, neither is JI a “terrorist” group that would hit civilian aircraft.

However, ISIS also recently shot down a Russian warplane. Thus, US policy of blocking these arms to the FSA has not prevented the most uber-terrorist organisation getting its hands on them.

Will this appearance of captured anti-aircraft weapons lead the US to ease its embargo on providing them to the FSA, in the pattern of small arms and later anti-tank weapons? The likelihood would appear remote.

These weapons are simply too decisive. The fundamental US and western opposition to significant military defeats for the regime – requiring as they do weakened rebels for an Oslo-style capitulation – remains the underlying reason for the embargo on decisive weapons reaching the rebels, rather than the scarecrow of them reaching terrorists.

My Thoughts on Syria

My Thoughts on Syria

An excellent summary of the situation by a new young writer who has so much more of a clue than so many leftists with years of experience who have ended up their political lives as professional propagandists for a genocidal fascist state.

Your Laissez Fairey

Syria’s Civil War really isn’t that difficult to understand. For the past four decades Syria was a totalitarian dictatorship. It was a fascist police state, institutionally racist, corrupt, free-market capitalist and run by an elite of rich cronies – the Assad dynasty. By 2011, many Syrians were fed up with this shite state of affairs and, inspired by similar uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia against the ruling class, hit the streets demanding change. They were fed up of never-ending corruption and unemployment. They were fed up of skyrocketing poverty and social subsidies for the poor being slashed. They were angry that schoolkids had been tortured just for spraying anti-government graffiti.  They were yearning for an end to oppressive dictatorship and for the freedom to control their country’s destiny. However the Assad government weren’t keen on this vision and shot back at the pro-democracy protesters. This provoked outrage across Syria. Assad’s…

View original post 1,352 more words

Left wing imperialism in Syria

Reblogged: Excellent summary of the actual US intervention in Syria, its fundamental agreement with Russia’s Blitzkrieg invasion, and the loss of credibility of a so-called “anti-war” left that cares more for its own antiquated obsessions than the reality of years of aerial mass murder – Michael Karadjis

Response to US airstrikes in Syria has been decidedly muted, writes Davis [Getty]

Charles Davis

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/7/5/left-wing-imperialism-in-syria?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=sf

Date of publication: 5 July, 2016

Comment: Failure to recognise that imperial rivalry does not mean fundamentally different interests, is obscuring the reality and Washington’s intention to preserve the regime in Syria, writes Charles Davis.

We were told to expect another world war and all we got instead was more lousy imperialist collusion and the misreading of US and Russian objectives in Syria. The failure to recognise that imperial rivalry does not mean fundamentally different perceived interests is obscuring the reality that rhetoric and a dead-end peace process aside, in 2016 both Moscow and Washington are dropping bombs on the Levant with an eye toward preserving the regime in Damascus, not changing it.

When 51 US State Department diplomats openly dissented from the de facto US policy of regime preservation, calling for Barack Obama to use the threat of US military power to ground Syrian jets violating a US-Russian crafted ceasefire, popular left-wing reaction accused the warmongers of being at it again. “I don’t know about you”, wrote Benjamin Norton, a blogger for the liberal website Salon, “but starting WWIII sounds like a great idea”.

Analysis suggesting that such dissent demonstrates that US policy is not dead set on seeing a hodgepodge of militias overrun Damascus, was left untouched; abandoned for more click-worthy fear-mongering based on a flawed premise: Even if the advice of these diplomats were followed (and it won’t be), that either the US or Russia would allow a tactical difference to prompt a shooting war between global powers.

Indeed, it’s the nature of that difference – one of tactics, not ultimate goals – that has been conspicuously overlooked by an “anti-imperialist” left which settled on a narrative of regime change five years ago and has stuck with it ever since.

The response to actually existing imperialism, including the 4,300 or more airstrikes the US has launched in Syria, targeting everyone but those aligned with the Syrian regime, has been decidedly muted. And when The Washington Post reported on June 30 that the Obama administration is proposing to formalise and expand US-Russian cooperation in Syria, left-wing media’s most outspoken anti-war-iors were as quiet as a barrel bombed mouse.

That’s because, as journalist Avi Asher-Schapiro wrote in The New York Times, “the United States finds itself in an awkward alignment with Mr. Assad” – and Mr Putin, a fact awkward not just for US officials who have publicly criticised both figures, but for those who pride themselves on seeing through US rhetoric but, in the case of Syria, based their analysis more on words than on actions.

Rhetoric and a dead-end peace process aside, in 2016 both Moscow and Washington are dropping bombs on the Levant with an eye toward preserving the regime in Damascus, not changing it

“The crux of the deal”, the Post reported, “is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

That would be a boon to Assad, particularly as just about every Syrian with a beard and a gun is a part of al-Nusra in Russian eyes, meaning fewer rebels of all stripes that his air force will need to bomb themselves.

“This will worsen the situation”, Karam Alhmad, a Syrian activist originally from the city of Deir az-Zour who is now a refugee in Turkey, told me. “This deal will only serve as a campaign of recruitment for Jabhat al-Nusra”, he said. “I heard of so many guys from college, people who were doing dabke (line dancing) with us at the festivals or at concerts we had in my city, who lately joined Nusra – and the reason was only to fight that stupid guy who is sitting in Damascus, laughing and killing Syrians with all the means of death.”

In the Iraq years, this would have been an argument a leftist made: That non-state terrorism could not be defeated with the state variety, and that in fact bombs are the extremists’ best friend. Now much of the left embraces the logic of the war on terror because it’s a logic shared by other governments who haven’t always been best of friends with the West. That these governments are more cooperative than might be inferred from the things they say in public, may come as a shock to this crowd, but it is not surprising.

Despite a war of words and competition for influence among the various actors in the Syrian conflict, US cooperation with Russia – and, indeed, the Assad regime – has been evident for quite some time, and not just in the thousands of civilians their airstrikes have killed between them.

Despite a war of words and competition for influence among the various actors in the Syrian conflict, US cooperation with Russia – and, indeed, the Assad regime – has been evident for quite some time

When the US first began bombing Syria in September 2014, Iraq’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Jafari, told the Los Angeles Times that US Secretary of State John Kerry “asked me to deliver a message to the Syrians”. That message was that the US would be bombing Syria shortly, but “that it would be limited to Daesh bases”. (In fact, the first US strikes would target Jabhat al-Nusra as well.) The response from the Syrian regime was illustrative and, to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, encouraging.

“Assad”, wrote Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb in The Daily Beast, “seems to be turning off his air-defense system when U.S. aircraft attack.” And that was promising, in Gelb’s view, for his observation came in a column arguing that the only real way to fight the threat of the Islamic State group was for the United States to “work with Bashar Assad’s Syria, and with Iran. It is a tricky and perilous path, but there are no realistic alternatives.”

In this, Gelb, the consummate insider, was and is not alone. When the RAND Corporation assembled “experts from the U.S. intelligence and policy communities” for a workshop on Syria in December 2013, it came away with two key findings: That a negotiated settlement “was deemed the least likely” outcome of the war and that, “Regime collapse… was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests.”

Assuming what these insiders say amongst themselves is what they truly believe, and is reflected in the US foreign policy they help shape – that President Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” was crossed, with an Israeli-brokered deal to save the regime in response – then recent developments make a lot of sense, as does the awkward silence of some who purport to anti-imperialism.

So set on a narrative, many neglected to consider that a myopic, obsessive fear of providing aid to the imperialist enemy at home by critiquing the official enemy abroad risks undermining one’s own credibility to condemn the former’s war crimes, while potentially rehabilitating a once and future friend.

“We have always been ready to help and cooperate with any country that wants to fight terrorism”, the Syrian leader said in a 2015 interview when asked why he helped the CIA by “interrogating and torturing people” on its behalf, a characterisation of the relationship he did not challenge.

“And for that reason we helped the Americans”, Assad added, “and we are always ready to join any country which is sincere about fighting terrorism”.

The problem with taking selective offense at crimes against humanity based on one’s reading of geopolitics is that one’s reading can be wrong

Western states appear to be taking Assad up on his offer. “They attack us politically”, Assad said of Western nations in a June 30 interview, “and then they send officials to deal with us under the table”.

The problem with taking selective offense at crimes against humanity based on one’s reading of geopolitics is that one’s reading can be wrong, with what seems like an anti-war strategy in the short-term proving to be a boon to imperialism in the long run. How can one claim to be morally outraged by one bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan but silent on the repeated bombing of hospitals in Aleppo?

And after condemning one and condoning another, why should anyone not already a part of the left-wing subculture care what one has to self-righteously say?

In the absence of power, the antiwar left has its credibility – creditibility lost, it seems, when it proved an obstacle to a career “U.S.-backed regime change in Syria” becoming a hard left dogma and expressions of solidarity with bombed and besieged Syrians becoming problematic.

Leftist pundit Vijay Prashad, for instance, knew in 2012 that the US and Israel see “no alternative to Bashar’s regime”, and that their tough talk about his needing to go could be explained by the fact that, “The US cannot be seen to make any moves in defense of Bashar, and they need not do so: The Chinese and Russian wall allows the US and Israel to benefit as free riders.” By 2016, Prashad was referring to the millions of Syrians fleeing the Assad regime as “regime change refugees“.

If there’s a lesson for the less career-minded left, it ought to be that one’s solidarity with those facing mass murder should not be determined by the whims of US policy, which isn’t always what meets the eye. Syrians, at least, can take refuge in the fact that, should relations between the West and their oppressor continue to warm, it may once again become the good anti-imperialist’s duty to oppose their oppression. It just might take a few years.