Several days ago, several conspiracist media outlets “reported” that a number of units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) near Damascus had signed a non-aggression pact with the local Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). As is well-known, the FSA has been the main force fighting ISIS in Syria for over a year.
The “news” spread like wildfire around conspiracist, “anti-imperialist”, right-wing Islamophobic and similar networks, “evidence” yet again that can never trust an Arab moderate, because no such thing exists etc, and if “we” let them get arms they’ll give them to jihadists etc.
Then the entire story, predictably, turned out to be a bunch of lies: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/16/syrian-opposition-blasts-reports-it-signed-a-truce-with-isis.html
But here I want to make some more general points about the issue. The FSA are not America’s puppets, to simply dance to the tune of the master. The USA did not arm the FSA in their heroic 3-year fight against a fascist tyranny, and the USA did not arm them in their year-long fight against fascist ISIS. For the last year, tens of thousands of FSA fighters have borne the brunt (alongside further tens of thousands in various mainstream Islamist militias) in this 2-sided war against the allied double fascisms Assad/ISIS. The entire time, the regime and ISIS did not attack each other, but both focused on destroying the revolutionary forces. The US gave them nothing, unless one includes radios, night-goggles, tents and “ready-meals” as useful weapons against barrel-bombs, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons etc..
The Idlib-based Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a coordinated network of FSA units in the north-west region of Syria, virtually single-handedly drove ISIS out of that part of Syria in January. With no help from the US.
In this context, revolutionary fighters are entitled to make truces or non-aggression pacts with whoever they feel like. That’s a question of tactics, of pragmatism, of avoiding exhaustion etc. If several FSA groups near Damascus (the original false articles suggested four groups, even if subsequent propaganda turned it into the FSA as a whole) had indeed signed a non-aggression pact with ISIS, that would have been their freaking business. In fact, some other FSA units have similarly signed temporary truces with the regime in recent months. That’s also their business. “Revolutionaries” in the West have no business judging fighters going through hell on the basis of what truces they are forced to make.
Question: why did a good part of “the left”, an increasingly meaningless term regarding such issues, scream blue murder when they thought some FSA units had signed a tactical truce in one area with ISIS, but haven’t been doing the same when some other FSA units sign tactical truces with the regime? Indeed, many of the same leftists probably think the latter is a good thing.
After all, it cannot be based on any objective weighing up of the nature of the regime and ISIS; because objectively speaking, leftists have always understood that it is those possessing capitalist state power, that systematically use the most horrific weaponry against the people, that are a greater problem than the similar crimes at a far lower-tech level carried out by groups of semi-state goons like ISIS. Certainly, ISIS shows of their horrific low-tech barbarism in a way designed to shock and sicken. But a regime that has tortured at least 11,000 to death in its dungeons (just during the war years, not to mention all the 10s of 1000s before that), that has been hammering Aleppo with barrel bombs non-stop for a year, that turned Homs into Hiroshima, that fires long-range missiles at apartment blocks, that has destroyed hundreds of hospitals, that gassed hundreds of sleeping children to death with sarin, that is guilty of systematic rape (http://www.iht.com/2014/03/12/syrias-silent-war-crime-systematic-rape/), that is responsible for 53,000 disappearances (http://www.iamsyria.org/syria-in-the-international-day-of-the-victims-of-enforced-disappearance.html, most of which are on top of the 191,000 killed), that has flattened the whole country – that surely, by any objective basis, doing any kind of deal with this kind of regime is worse than doing one with ISIS, no?
Just one example from right now – 120 civilians, one third children, killed in regime airstrikes on Douma in working-class Damascus suburbs in just 4 days: https://www.zamanalwsl.net/en/news/6570.html
So why does “the left” disagree? Simple, because, like everything else about this conflict, “the left” is in full agreement with imperialism, while imagining, as always, that when they say the same as the imperialists they are being “anti-imperialist.”
So, for years, imperialism has refused to arm the FSA using the excuse that any arms they get will inevitably end up going to the “jihadists”; likewise “the left” right through the war had insisted that any arms the FSA might get would inevitably end up in the hands of the “jihadists”, so they warned the imperialists not to send any arms, as if imperialism had any such intention, and in saying the same thing they imagined they were being “anti-imperialist.”
Fast forward to now, US imperialism is leading a war on ISIS, not on the Assad regime. That is the first thing that is difficult for leftists to get their heads around. The “left” agrees with imperialism that ISIS is worse than the regime, but it wants to imagine that imperialism thinks otherwise, despite the actual war in their face.
Secondly, as part of this war, the US aims to train and arm a very small number of highly “vetted” rebels to use as a battering ram against ISIS. That is, the US aims to change some small part of the FSA from the armed wing of the popular uprising against the regime and also ISIS into merely a “Sawha” against ISIS. The US states this explicitly. I know “leftists” don’t like reading what doesn’t agree with them, but Obama and all the other US leaders have made crystal clear that the arms and training will be to defeat ISIS *and not the regime*.
Of course, once again the left agrees that it is better to fight ISIS than the regime. But since “the left” hates the FSA worse than either ISIS or the regime, they have to find a spanner in the works. Since they have slandered the FSA since Day 1 as “US-backed jihadists,” they jump at both the proposed US arming of some FSA units, and this alleged truce between some other FSA units and ISIS, somehow without realising that these are totally contradictory positions, which relate to completely different FSA units, which make their “US-backed jihadist” theory of the FSA positively UFOish.
They think they have a difference with the imperialists here because imperialism has supposedly found at least some FSA moderates to arm against ISIS, whereas “the left” prides itself on being even more essentialist, racist and Islamophobic than the imperialists: they “know” there are, and can be, zero moderate FSA rebels. In reality, the difference is tiny: the reason the US is proposing to arm and train such tiny numbers is precisely because for the most part, regarding the great bulk of the FSA, imperialist strategists are on the same page as “the left.”
A few important quotes here. First on the size of the vetted Sawha:
“Rough estimates, presented by military officials to key congressional committees in closed-door briefings last week, called for using $500 million to train a *2,300-man force*—*less than the size of a single brigade*—over an 18-month period that probably *won’t begin until next year*, according to officials” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB40001424052702304223004580033052289746586?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB40001424052702304223004580033052289746586.html).
There you go, a 2,300 man force, so not the 60,000 strong FSA. The bill that finally came through suggests 5000, though, as we will see below, this seems unlikely. But even the bigger figure leaves rather a lot of FSA that do not get US arms or training, some of whom may form the odd truce with ISIS if necessary, or, more likely, will not, and may continue fighting on two fronts without help from the US etc.
If $500 million sounds like a lot of money to arm a mere 2300-5000 rebels, it is: the point is, it is mostly about “training” rather than “arming.” The FSA, of course, says it has been on the battlefield 3 years, they need arms, not “training” (http://news.yahoo.com/syrias-moderate-rebels-weapons-not-training-094000772.html), while others that have done some of this “training” report that they learnt nothing they didn’t know; rather, the US officers “just wanted to see us, see what our thinking is” (http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-harakat-hazm-20140907-story.html#page=1).
But when the US pays its military “consultants” to do “training” in a distant and “hostile” part of the world, how much does it pay? Think about it? $15,000 a month? Hard to imagine less. So how many “consultants” would you need over 18 months to “train” 5000 fighters, plus their accommodation, transport and everything else “consultants” get – yes, the “training” money can be used.
Second quote, about the aim:
“Pentagon and State Department officials told key congressional committees that the purpose of the military-led training-and-arming effort would be limited to enabling the moderate opposition to hold the ground it now controls and to *fight against extremists*, rather than to enable the moderates to mount offensive operations against the Assad regime, according to officials” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB40001424052702304223004580033052289746586?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB40001424052702304223004580033052289746586.html).
As former US ambassador Robert Ford explained recently, “One prominent American observer says it is folly to think that we can aid the moderate armed fighters to topple al-Assad. *But toppling wasn’t our goal before and shouldn’t be now*.” Certainly, extra arms can help the opposition “put pressure” on Assad to form a “new” expanded government, like just happened in Iraq, whose first aim would be to expel ISIS from Syria, so therefore “as we boost aid to the moderate armed rebels, we must condition that help on their reaching out to disaffected regime supporters and developing with them a common political stance for a new, negotiated national unity government, **with or without al-Assad**” (my emphasis) (http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/26/opinion/ford-isis-syria/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter).
In other words, while Obama long ago called on Assad to “step down” (this is the sole basis on which leftists imagine Obama called for “regime change”) in order to preserve his regime and state in a “Yemeni solution,” Ford is here making clear that if it could be negotiated, a “national unity government” would be fine even *with* Assad.
Over on marxmail, one poster, Ron Jacobs, sent a message that claimed that once those favoured by the US start getting arms, they will become puppets and do whatever the US wants them to. That is of course debatable; given the numbers are small and they are highly “vetted” anyway, this may, or may not, be true. But the curious thing was that he didn’t seem to understand that he was totally contradicting himself when he then sent another message with this false news of the non-aggression pact between certain FSA units and ISIS near Damascus.
Let’s see – the US is at war with ISIS, not Assad; the US aims to train and arm a small group to fight ISIS, not Assad; then a group of FSA brigades allegedly sign a truce with ISIS. I’m sorry, but common logic tells you that this example indicates that these FSA groups would have been telling the US to get stuffed. They would precisely be not doing what they are told. But I’m not sure why leftists are just not getting this elementary logic. I’m sure its deliberate self-delusion. Possibly that was not Ron’s meaning, I can’t read his mind. But this illogic is definitely the explicit thinking of a lot of left commentators on this issue.
Of course there are other aspects here – just because 4 FSA groups were accused of signing a truce with ISIS, this does not mean that these 4 groups were among the small number of “vetted” groups that the US aims to arm and train – they are not.
A further point is that, while Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) is the Syrian wing of al-Qaida and is certainly no likeable organisation – it is a sectarian organisation that the FSA has already had its own problems with and which it will no doubt have to deal with at a later time – it is also very, very different to ISIS. It does not lop off heads. It does not threaten minorities with genocide. It does not slaughter hundreds of POWS at a time. Throughout the entire past year, JaN has been fighting alongside the FSA and the Islamic Front and other soft-line Islamists against both the regime and ISIS. However, ever since late 2012, a key US war aim has been to turn the FSA into a “Sawha” against JaN (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/americas-hidden-agenda-in-syrias-war), and even after its break with ISIS, the US continues to view JaN as, if anything, worse than ISIS, perhaps precisely because it really does focus on fighting the enemy rather than just slaughtering the wrong religion as part of a conservative state-building project (ie, ISIS). The US still insists on this; I don’t know how many noticed the UN resolution “against ISIS” was also explicitly directed against JaN! Totally sneaky, and in a Syrian context at this particular moment, counterrevolutionary.
One of the articles on the bogus FSA-ISIS truce quotes SRF leader Jamal Maarouf saying that he would not fight Al-Qaeda as it was not his problem and that he would welcome “anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria” (http://rt.com/news/187580-isis-deal-syrian-rebels). Of course, the article pretends he is talking about ISIS. But this quote was from earlier this year, precisely when the SRF was the leader of the war on ISIS and drove it right out of Idlib and Hama. It is therefore obvious he was referring to actual al-Qaida, ie, JaN. So who would have asked him to fight JaN in exchange for arms, that this refusal refers to? Obviously, the US. As a result of which, he got no arms. And is therefore no US puppet. Yet as the only force that has actually driven ISIS back from anywhere in Syria or Iraq in the last year, also no jihadist. That’s why, I guess, “leftists” would probably insist that Maarouf and his SRF are a bunch of “US-backed jihadists.”