A recent article in Jacobin by Patrick Higgins, The War on Syria (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/syria-civil-war-nato-military-intervention/), has been taken down well by a number of authors (http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/08/31/jacobin-and-the-war-on-syria, http://freecharlesdavis.com/2015/08/31/all-rebels-in-syria-are-imperialist-pawns-except-americas-favorite-proxy/, http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/jacobins-war-on-syria.html). All three critiques are excellent and I strongly recommend reading them; therefore I don’t intend to do the same.
However, I will just focus a little on one of the key “contradictions” (a word loved in Higgins’ article) of the article: Higgins’ assertion that any time an imperialist power, such as the US, is involved militarily in a country, it automatically makes whoever the US is fighting against the good guy (if only momentarily), and anyone “on the US side,” however tactically, the bad guy, the reactionary.
This is virtually a caricature of the mechanical “anti-imperialist” line, yet it is meant to be serious. Strangely, however, for Higgins this means damning the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebels as reactionary US proxies (if not representatives of feudalism), while giving support to the genocide regime of Bashar Assad. Even more strangely, Higgins sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava as a ray of light. I say strangely, because such views are in flat contradiction to his premise about who is and isn’t tactically in league with the US.
Here I have assembled a simple set of facts about who has and who hasn’t been a recipient or beneficiary of US military intervention in Syria since September 2014. Some may take issue with what they see are some of the implications of this. Therefore, please see my discussion of this below the table.
Who has been hit by US airstrikes?
- Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) – well over 90 percent of the 9000 US-led airstrikes to date (number of airstrikes updated to July 2017)
- Jabhat al-Nusra – hundreds of times at the very least. US had launched 22 airstrikes on Nusra to June 30, 2015: http://airwars.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/airwars-cause-for-concern-civilians-killed-by-coalition.pdf, but then soon after this report, it bombed Nusra most of the week preceding the arrival of the 54 US-trained proxies on July 30, eg https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/10948.html?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=socialnetwork, https://twitter.com/IbnNabih1/status/624482111886655488, and then more after they arrived http://eaworldview.com/2015/08/syria-daily-us-war-with-jabhat-al-nusra-escalates/), and many more times since this article was originally written, so the number may have already been in the hundreds before Obama announced a new major bombing campaign in December 2016. From then, under both terminal Obama and under Trump, the US greatly stepped up its war against Nusra (now JFS), especially in Idlib, killing hundreds their cadres, as well as allied fighters from the Nour ed-Din al-Zinki brigade (and significant numbers of civilians). The bombing of Nusra in Idlib and western Aleppo reached its most horrific point with the slaughter of some 57 worshippers in a mosque in western Aleppo – which Trump’s Russian friends defended as aimed at “terrorists.”
- Islamist Groups – many times, including: Ahrar al-Sham, many times (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikegiglio/us-goes-to-war-with-jabhat-al-nusra#.grnPNE5kd, http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/civilian_killed_by_the_international_coalition_forces_en.pdf, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Nov-06/276728-syrias-ahrar-al-sham-says-coalition-strikes-on-it-killed-civilians-statement.ashx?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter#ixzz3IN0xFtGL, http://eaworldview.com/2017/02/syria-daily-the-race-to-capture-al-bab-from-islamic-state/#almasri); Liwa al-Haq (http://www.aksalser.com/index.php?page=view_articles&id=0c9a0c60f2a055595be113ce9f70ec5e); and Jaysh Islam twice (https://twitter.com/YallaSouriya/status/632522839363584000, http://tinyurl.com/gu8buln).
- Free Syrian Army (FSA) or general rebels – at least half a dozen times, twice early in the US bombing were assumed to be “accidents;” (3) the third and most devastating time was deliberate and the US was unapologetic, the attack on Jaysh al-Sunna rebels in Atmeh in mid 2015 which also wiped out a family: http://eaworldview.com/2015/08/syria-feature-residents-grieve-as-us-finally-admits-airstrike-on-rebels-near-turkish-border/. More recently, reports of US bombings of rebels have become more commonplace: (4) Al Jazeera Arabic claimed in August 2016 that US F-16s “committed a massacre of civilians in the city of Aleppo, targeting a bridge on which refugees were escaping from ongoing bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russian airforces. Dozens of refugees have been reported killed. The targeted bridge was in an area recently taken by rebels from the regime during their recent campaign to break the siege of Aleppo, between the village of Khan Touman and the neighbourhood of Ramousa in South Aleppo (https://www.facebook.com/aljazeerachannel/videos/10154650225289893/). (5) Shortly before, during the same Assad/Russia siege of Aleppo, Orient News claimed that International Coalition aircraft took part in the siege, that heavy bombing by F-16 warplanes targeted vehicles, resulting in direct casualties
(https://yallasouriya.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/syriadid-ic-participate-to-aleppo-blockade/); (6) According to “Halab today” on one day there were 4 sorties over Aleppo by the US-led coalition aircraft which struck the rebels: “Counting about 125 aircraft raided the City yesterday, including a Russian warplane, 72 Syrian and four Alliance” (https://twitter.com/HalabTodayTV/status/760656520572960768). In early 2017, the US bombed fighters from the Nour ed-Din al-Zinki brigade, but by then al-Zinki had been moving away from the FSA and mainstream rebels for some time and had joined the new JFS-led HTS coalition.
Who has NOT been hit by US airstrikes?
- Assad regime
- Global Shiite-jihadist forces fighting in Syria for Assad, including Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite-sectarian death squads (with copious US arms from the US- and Iranian-backed Iraqi regime), and poor Shiite recruits (often forced recruits) from Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Peoples Protection Units (YPG)
Who has the US carried out joint bombing with?
- Assad regime – in Raqqa (http://leftfootforward.org/2014/12/raqqa-to-appease-iran-obama-gives-assads-air-force-a-free-pass-for-slaughter/, http://aranews.net/2015/05/u-s-and-syrian-warplanes-launch-simultaneous-strikes-against-isis-in-raqqa/, or more generally we read: “We are seeing coalition warplanes hit targets during the day in Raqqa province and then Syrian warplanes follow-up with more indiscriminate strikes at night,” a commander with the Free Syrian Army told The Daily Beast. “This is not a coincidence—to argue that it is stretches credulity” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/10/here-s-how-obama-and-assad-team-up-against-isis.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter), al-Bab (https://twitter.com/OptimisticReb11/status/515847289857118208), Deir-Ezzor (http://www.almasdarnews.com/article/nowhere-retreat-isis-militants-deir-ezzor-syrian-army-intensifies-attacks-west, https://twitter.com/uygaraktas/status/514353488193523712), Homs (https://yallasouriya.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/syria-homs-rif-intl-coalition-target-the-rif/), Hasake (https://twitter.com/HASAKH_NEWS/status/565828914472177664) Palmyra (https://twitter.com/Syricide/status/603250703268769792), after ISIS take-over, but before ISIS seized Palmyra, they “jointly” didn’t bomb as a couple of hundred ISIS fighters advanced across open desert! https://sarabiany.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/isis-takeover-palmyra/). The US then directly took part alongside Russia in Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra in early 2017 (http://eaworldview.com/2017/03/syria-daily-regime-with-russian-us-help-retakes-palmyra-from-isis/).
Who has the US bombed on behalf of?
- Assad regime (Deir Ezzor (https://twitter.com/usembassysyria/status/540972704741220352, (in Arabic, also see commentary on it in English: https://twitter.com/hxhassan/status/541138358106193920), https://twitter.com/Flea1337/status/551844640467738624), Hasake (http://aranews.net/2014/11/u-s-warplanes-pro-assad-forces-target-isis-locations-hasakah/?utm_source=twitter, https://twitter.com/TaziMorocco/status/536166833251172352)
- YPG (widely reported and well-known, for nearly a year now, both in defensive and offensive operations).
- 54 US-trained proxy fighters who signed contract to only fight ISIS (and probably Nusra) and NOT to fight Assad. The saga of how the US got the numbers of its “train and equip” program down from 1200 already heavily “vetted” fighters to a mere 54, since all the rest refused the US demand that they NOT fight Assad, is here: http://eaworldview.com/2015/07/syria-daily-did-the-us-abandon-its-54-trained-rebels. Only now (early September 2014), has the US began some sporadic bombing ISIS in northeast Aleppo in concert with this new force on the ground.
Who has the US NOT bombed on behalf of?
- FSA or other Syrian rebels: it is difficult to give links to something the US has simply NOT done. However, this article explains in a rather straightforward way why the US has refused to bomb ISIS in northeast Aleppo province where it confronts the rebels who control the west: because to hurt ISIS there would hurt Assad! (whose forces occupy the south of the province and are in strategic alliance with ISIS in this region, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/05/31/key-rebels-ready-to-quit-u-s-fight-vs-isis.html).
Who does the US share intelligence with (directly)?
Who does the US share intelligence with (supposedly indirectly via their mutual Iraqi regime ally)?
- Assad regime (http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.615892). But many indications from people on the ground suggest coordination is more direct; eg, Raed Fares, highly respected civil oppositionist in Kafranbel, Idlib, claims: “their (the US’) airplanes fly over our city along with the regime air force, which means that they and the regime are coordinating. They say they don’t want to coordinate with the Assad regime, but [U.S.] planes are flying with the regimes in the same air space” (http://www.worldcrunch.com/54d9089fd29b53f0e879ecc81cd99d34/world-affairs/no-the-progressive-syrian-opposition-is-not-dead/protests-raed-fares-activism-assad/c1s17292/#.VEzWuxYxg1J).
Who does the US NOT share intelligence with?
- FSA or other Syrian rebels (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/14/no-syrian-rebels-allowed-at-isis-war-conference.html, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/10/15/5244747/its-official-us-wont-be-working.html#.VESY0hZ0Yg9#storylink=cpy).
Who can call in US air-strikes?
- YPG (widely reported in media as being the only group that can until now).
- 54 US-trained proxy fighters who signed contract to only fight ISIS (and probably Nusra) and NOT to fight Assad (http://www.wsj.com/articles/pentagon-to-defend-new-syria-force-from-assad-regime-others-1438549937). Actually, even these proxies were sent in initially with no guarantee of air cover, but the US changed its mind after they were attacked by Nusra, who the US had been bombing right in that vicinity for a week.
Who does the US directly drop arms to?
- YPG (“US military aircraft have dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State (IS) militants in the key Syrian town of Kobane … US Central Command said C-130 transport aircraft made “multiple” drops of supplies” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29684761)
Who has been aided by US ‘Special Forces’?
Who has provided the US with a military air-base on Syrian soil?
Who welcomed the onset of US bombing in September 2014?
- Assad regime (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/24/us-syria-crisis-minister-idUSKCN0HJ19S20140924?utm_source=twitter, http://syriadirect.org/rss/1580-syria-direct-news-update-9-24-14, https://twitter.com/MousaAlomar/status/514789879180701697/photo/1); indeed, Syrian leaders even called on Iran and Russia to join the US-led Coalition: http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/28092014).
- Exile-based Syrian Opposition Coalition
Who opposed the onset of US bombing in September 2014?
- Most Syrian rebel groups (https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/syrian-rebels-overwhelmingly-condemn-us-bombing-as-an-attack-on-revolution/).
As I said above, some may feel uncomfortable with the message from these facts. If supporters of the Assad regime, pretending to be “anti-imperialists,” feel uncomfortable, then so they should. However, some supporters of the YPG may also feel that, because facts show the YPG to be the main beneficiary of US airstrikes in Syria, in a more direct sense even than the Assad regime, that I am attacking the YPG.
However, this is not the case; while the PYD/YPG should indeed be as open to criticism as any other armed (or unarmed) group, the mistake here would be to assume that I follow the mechanical “anti-imperialist” mind-set, which says you automatically put a plus where the imperialists put a minus (and vice-versa); but of course I don’t.
So the fact that the US intervention, in a broad, overall sense, has mainly benefited the Assad regime is not the main reason we should condemn the Assad regime; fascist regimes that wage unlimited war against their peoples with “conventional” WMD for years ought to be condemned by the left as a matter of course. The underhanded US support for such a regime is a good reason, among others, to slam the general thrust of the US intervention; a general thrust that is, of course, entirely logical in terms of class interests.
On the other hand, while I certainly think the PYD/YPG’s growing alliance with and reliance upon the US is a matter of significant concern, in itself it is not a reason to damn them; this is a genuine Kurdish-based movement, which must be supported, or criticised, based on its own merits and actions; the direct US support for the YPG is being carried out for the US’s own reasons, which at this point in time happen to coincide with those of the YPG. So for the record, while I am somewhat ambivalent about the long-term, full-scale US bombing on behalf of the YPG’s offensive operations, and while I have a number of political issues with the PYD/YPG (indeed, as I would with most Syrian rebel formations), I certainly supported their victories on the ground against ISIS, even with US warplanes in the sky, however critically.
However, while the purpose here is therefore not to damn the PYD/YPG from a ridiculous “anti-imperialist” viewpoint, the reality of the facts ought to be a good antidote to the so-called “anti-imperialist” tendency to damn the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebels as “proxies of US imperialism”. In other words, while the “anti-imperialists’” framework is rubbish, they at least have the responsibility to be consistent with their rubbish; so since a whole year of US bombing Syria has resulted in NOT ONE even “accidental” strike on the Assad regime, or on the YPG, it is the purest kind of Orwellianism for these good folk to continue to insist that their support for Assad and their hostility to everyone fighting Assad is based on “anti-imperialism”; because, clearly, it is not. It is simply based on support for a murderous fascist dictatorship, period.
To be consistent, these folk should now be giving most of their support to ISIS, plenty to Nusra, a little to other rebels, but should be damning the “collaborationist” Assad regime, and above all calling for the defeat of the “US-proxy” YPG by the “anti-imperialist” ISIS.
As for PYD/YPG supporters, those who also support the rest of the Syrian revolution, and don’t use such demagogic slogans to attack the FSA and other rebels, have no necessary contradiction; much else can be discussed, but at least no rank hypocrisy is involved.
However, around a year ago, when many initially discovered the Rojava revolution, it was somewhat noticeable that many leftists at first thought the PYD/YPG would be a useful “anti-imperialist” alternative to the allegedly “US-backed” Syrian rebels. This nonsense was based on the ancient history of the PKK and irrelevant past geopolitics of who was allegedly in a “bloc” with who and other such class-analysis-free fantasies. This was useful for those who had got cold feet with the Syrian revolution and were increasingly adopting a sectarian attitude towards it.
In fact, at the very outset of the US intervention in Syria, one side of their argument seemed justified; despite ISIS’ relentless advance against the YPG-held Kobani, for several weeks the US didn’t lift a finger; while bombing ISIS, and also Nusra, elsewhere in Syria, US leaders suggested defence of Kobani was of no strategic interest. (The other side of their schema, however, was proven immediately wrong: virtually all major rebel formations opposed the US bombing as an attack on the revolution, even though they had been in a furious war against ISIS for a year already).
Within weeks, however, things rapidly changed, as the US saw the symbolic usefulness of a victory against ISIS, by aiding an armed force that, however left-wing ideologically, posed no greater revolutionary danger in Syria as it had a long-term pragmatic ceasefire with the Assad regime. These people must therefore have been sorely disappointed by the turn of events; in rapidly finding that the heaviest US bombing anywhere since 2001 was concentrated on defence of the YPG against ISIS in Kobani; that this full-scale support with US airstrikes continued well beyond the defensive stage in late 2014 (when Kobani was indeed threatened by genocide), and right through the YPG offensive operations up to Tel Abyad and down even to Sarrin over a period of many months; that only the YPG can call in US airstrikes and give coordinates; that the US dropped weapons numerous times to the YPG right in the midst of battle; that the US has even killed civilians while bombing on behalf of the YPG, in one case a massacre of 50 civilians just south of Kobani; that US “special forces” are on the ground operating with the YPG (and with no-one else); and that the US has set up its first air-base in Syria in YPG-controlled territory in Rojava.
Imagine if the FSA had received this kind of full-scale military support from the US, against the fascist regime which has slaughtered so many more than ISIS that it makes ISIS look purely amateur by comparison. What would Higgins and other “anti-imperialists” say?
But leaving aside the Assadists, those PYD/YPG supporters who had initially attempted to adopt such an “anti-imperialist” position had to adapt their position. So what they did was either: (1) end up eating their words fast, and returning to more sensible nuanced anti-imperialism, “we don’t put a minus everywhere the US puts a plus” (welcome back to reality); or (2) deny reality, and pretend it is not all happening like it is, or that it is OK just in their unique case, because they are so unmistakably revolutionary and pure that US support cannot be any problem.
For Assadists, there was a different division: (1) some who pretended to support the PYD/YPG likewise denied reality; while (2) others decided to be “consistent” and blasted the YPG as imperialist proxies. Of course, such “consistency” is limited precisely because to be really consistent they would also have to denounce Assad, but US support for Assad was covert enough for them to hide from reality.
And so “anti-imperialism” comes full circle – wrong as it already was when used in this mechanical way, it simply turned into defence of a fascist regime and condemnation of its opposition, regardless of the fact that this put them in essential alliance with imperialism.