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.


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…

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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


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.

How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

Extraordinary read. The great Palestinian activist Budour Hassan in occupied Jerusalem shows more genuine solidarity with Syrians than all the rest of the world’s selective solidarity activists combined.

Random Shelling قصف عشوائي


The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about…

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FSA appeal to Kurds

Above: Aleppo Free Syrian Army statement calls on “the honorable Kurds” in Efrin “to put pressure on those gangs to withdraw from those violated towns.”

by Michael Karadjis

This piece deals with an aspect that many involved in the Syrian issue have strong views on, and no doubt will make some very unhappy – the issue of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and their role in the current Russian-led Blitzkrieg against the Syrian rebels in Free Aleppo. As a long-time supporter of the Kurdish struggle for justice and self-determination, who formerly admired the PYD for the significant achievements it has made in Rojava, I had no interest in reaching such conclusions, but reality needs to be looked at in the face and analysed, not obscured by ideology and myths.

I welcome comments and discussion, and if that includes a reasonable amount of hate mail, that will indicate more about the haters than about my attempt at honest, if forthright, discussion of this important issue. All constructive criticism, even if harsh, will be seriously taken on board.

This piece is much too long, as much of it documents what exactly has been going on, and in particular which rebel groups are/were in control of various parts of Aleppo province that are under attack from the Russian-YPG alliance; both issues have been deliberately clouded by those defending this catastrophic course. Therefore, I have produced it more as a resource than an easy-reading essay.



Once the Russian Reich began its all-out Blitzkrieg against the Syrian revolutionary forces in Aleppo on behalf of the Assad regime – a massacre that has involved massive displacement, with tens or hundreds of thousands fleeing north towards Turkey, and the large-scale, deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools and other basic civilian infrastructure – a most unwelcome development occurred, that has led to much heated debate among supporters of the Syrian revolution.

Namely, the Kurdish-based People’s Protection Units (YPG), based in the Kurdish canton of Efrin on the western side of Aleppo province, launched an all-out attack on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebels in Aleppo – ie, the very forces being bombed by the Russian imperialist onslaught – attacking and conquering rebel-held, Arab-majority towns throughout the region with the direct aid of Russian bombing.

Whatever the ups and downs in the relationship between the Syrian revolution as a whole and the ‘Rojava revolution’ before this point (and I believe both Syrian opposition and Kurdish leaderships can be faulted on many points), the only possible conclusion at this point is that the PYD/YPG has joined the counterrevolution on a massive scale, at its most murderous moment, the biggest knife that could possibly be put through any chances of Arab-Kurdish unity against the regime.

As many of the more progressive aspects of the Rojava revolution became apparent during 2014, I was as supportive and impressed as countless others were (though always holding back from the over-romanticisation of the process); I was also strongly supportive of what appeared to be a growing convergence between the YPG and the FSA during the defence of Kurdish Kobani against genocidal ISIS siege in late 2014.

Subjectively, therefore, I had no reason to want to reach such conclusions. However, for the Syrian revolution, the Russian imperialist Armageddon in Aleppo is every bit as decisive as Kobani’s resistance to the ISIS siege was for Rojava; yet, in contrast to the solidarity that the FSA extended to Kobani, the PYD has become a direct participant in the counterrevolutionary siege of Free Aleppo.

Of course, the YPG is a very small player in this act of mass homicide, whose major practitioners are Russia, Assad and Iran. Devoting an article to the role of the YPG does not suggest it bears the same level of responsibility. But these reactionary states do what reactionary states do; by contrast, when a supposedly revolutionary organisation claiming to be running a quasi-state on a radical-democratic basis joins the actions of imperialist invaders and the local fascist state, that deserves analysis.

One final point: Turkey. For months now, the Turkish regime has been waging its own war of terror against the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey, a brutal counterinsurgency against the PKK. Hundreds of civilians have been killed as the regime uses tanks, artillery and other heavy weaponry to terrorise the population into submission. Turkey, for its own reasons, is a main supporter of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. The difference in scale, is of course, phenomenal; Erdogan’s operation has been going on for months and has killed hundreds; Assad’s has been going on 5 years and has killed nearly half a million. Anyone with an ounce of human solidarity should have no trouble supporting the popular uprisings, and opposing regime counterinsurgencies, in both cases, regardless of issues of geopolitics or tactical alliances. Opponents of oppression do not see this as a contradiction.

The excuse of the PYD/YPG, that it is fighting “Turkish-backed groups,” is cynical in the extreme; if the YPG could employ US imperialism, which has committed far more crimes on a world scale than the Turkish regime, to help defend Kobani from ISIS, why is it wrong for the Syrian rebels to get essential help from Turkey against this gigantic genocidal assault? After all, if anyone has their backs to a wall, and tgus forced to get help fromm wherever they can, it is the Syrian rebels; by contrast, ‘Rojava’ has been untouched by Assad and is permanently protected by the US airforce. If Turkey were invading and bombing Kurdish Efrin and Syrian rebels were acting as ground troops and expelling the YPG from Kurdish areas, it should be vigorously condemned, yet this is not happening; the exact opposite of that is happening.


Background: PYD, YPG, SDF

The three main concentrations of Kurdish population in Syria, Efrin in northwest Aleppo province, Kobani in the far northeast of the province, and the larger Jazirah canton, including the city of Hasaka, in northeast Syria, have been ruled since mid-2012 by the PYD, a political party allied to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The YPG, and its sister militia, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are the armed forces led by the PYD, though theoretically other non-PYD elements participate as well. They have declared these regions to be ‘Rojava’, meaning West Kurdistan, but do not aim to separate from Syria to form an independent Kurdish state. Rather, their official policy is to promote “Democratic Confederalism” throughout Syria, whereby the current Kurdish-majority Rojava regions are a mere nucleus, which allow them to demonstrate their model.

Supporters claim this model is based on radical council-based grass-roots democracy, is strongly feminist, and is multi-ethnic and non-sectarian. Critics claim that while democracy may well thrive at the council level, all major decisions are made by the PYD, which rules a one-party state that represses political opposition. Nevertheless, there does seem to be genuine drive to empower women, which is far ahead of much of the region; while assessments of the multi-ethnic element are mixed, with constitutional aspects that appear very good combined very serious charges – disputed by the PYD – of large-scale mistreatment of Arabs in some areas where the YPG has driven out ISIS. It is beyond the scope of this piece to seriously discuss this issue.

In 2015, the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was set up as a front led by the PYD/YPG to incorporate some of its smallish non-Kurdish allies. Its aims speak only of fighting ISIS, not the regime, and it has been strongly backed by the US, which sees it as a useful vehicle via which to blunt Turkey’s objections to its military alliance with the YPG, while supporting an anti-ISIS force that makes no problem for the Assad regime, which the US aims to keep in power.

  • In the Jazirah region, the YPG’s main Arab ally in the SDF is the al-Sanadid militia, based among the Shammar tribe (which indirectly involves the YPG in inter-tribal rivalries in the region). While the Shammar have mostly been anti-regime, there are some indications that al-Sanadid itself has had regime connections in the past. Whatever the case, it was never an FSA-connected group.
  • In the Kobani-Raqqa region, the YPG was allied to a number of FSA groups in the defence of Kobani in late 2014, but the major local FSA group involved – the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade – has seriously fallen out with the YPG (http://syriadirect.org/news/tribes%E2%80%99-army-disbands-in-north-amidst-accusations-of-ypg-blockade/), and so the US has refused to arm it to liberate its Raqqa homeland (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article41559747.html); there are however a few smaller FSA groups (eg Northern Sun Brigade) still allied to the YPG in the SDF; and if this includes some representation from Arab opposition in tiny Jarablous, this could give some validity to a YPG-led move against the far eastern end of the ISIS-held border strip.
  • In Aleppo, the main non-YPG element of the SDF is Jaysh al-Thuwar, which seems to consist of a handful of ex-FSA fighters mainly motivated by vengeance against Nusra after the latter attacked and destroyed the FSA brigade Harakat Hazm in January 2015 (the vast majority of ex-Hazm cadres likewise detest Nusra, but continue to see the main enemies as Assad and ISIS and so joined other FSA brigades or the Shamiya Front in the region). In Idlib, Jaysh al-Thuwar/SDF seems to be essentially mythical.


‘Linking’ Kobane and Afrin: a reactionary irredentist plan

First I want to clarify something about the ethnic configuration of the region in question, which is very relevant in understanding the current conflict, and one reason for the PYD’s fateful decision. The PYD states that it plans to “link” the Kurdish canton of Efrin with the Kurdish canton of Kobane. Polat Can, a senior PYD official, recently stated that “We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani. We will do everything we can to achieve it” (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article41559747.html).

Aleppo is a very large province, not just the large city that is its capital. The Kurdish majority cantons of Efrin and Kobani, both along the northern border with Turkey, are situated at the far west and the far east of Aleppo province respectively. Both are part of the PYD’s ‘Rojava’ state.

However, the 60-mile stretch between Efrin and Kobani is not ‘Rojava’, as is often blithely claimed by Rojava-Firsters. Here is a demographic map http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Syria_Ethnic_summary_lg.png:

Syria demographic map

Enlarge the Aleppo section of it, and you can follow what I am talking about below:

  • Beginning in the north-west of the province, the green section is Kurdish Efrin
  • Next along the northern border is the yellow section, the heavily Arab-populated territory controlled by the rebels, currently under attack by the Russia/Assad/YPG alliance, beginning with a narrow neck on the Turkish border with the town of Azaz, just to the east of Efrin, and then widening out south of Azaz and forming the great bulk of western and southern Aleppo province (which then connects to rebel-held territory in neighbouring Idlib and northern Hama); this includes half the city of Aleppo itself (the other half is controlled by the regime, which is connected to a thin neck of territory further south, but it controls nothing north of the city).
  • Back north to the Turkish border, to the east of the rebel-controlled Azaz-Marea-Aleppo ‘vertical’ corridor begins ISIS-controlled eastern Aleppo province. The bluish-coloured western part of the ISIS-run border strip is heavily Turkmen-populated, one of the most Turkmen-populated parts of Syria;
  • Further east again, still under ISIS, is the Arab-populated Jarablus region, coloured yellow, on the west side of the Euphrates
  • Just to the east of Jarablus, across the Euphrates, is green-coloured Kurdish Kobani

Quite simply, therefore, the PYD/YPG has no god-given right to “link” separate Kurdish-majority regions by annexing Arab-majority and Turkmen-majority territory! Yes, there are other Kurdish—majority regions under ISIS control further south from the Turkish border, which the YPG has a right to seize (eg Manbij, south of Jarablus), but clearly the only “link” that can be established between Afrin and Kobani is one based on Arab-Kurdish-Turkmen solidarity (ie, the thing that is being blown to bits at the moment)

Turkey’s opposition to the PYD’s aim of “linking” Kobani and Efrin is, of course, based on Turkey’s anti-Kurdish interests; it does not follow, however, that just because Turkish nationalist motivations are bad, that Kurdish nationalist plans to ride roughshod over non-Kurdish populations are justified. Thus the opposition of the local rebels, based among the local peoples, to this PYD plan, while it happens to coincide with Turkey’s interests, is just in its own right.

The dangerously Kurdish chauvinist aim would, if carried out, lead to massive bloodshed; is this part of the aim of the current YPG offensive under Russian air cover? And if so, doesn’t this suggest that the rebels were right all along to be suspicious of the PYD’s motives?

As for Turkey itself, the regime has two separate motivations in its Syria policy; one is its reactionary anti-Kurdish interest, especially as it now wages its own war of terror against its Kurdish population in eastern Turkey; the other is its interest in getting rid of the source of the massive instability on its borders that has led to Turkey being overwhelmed by 2.5 million Syrian refugees, ie, the Assad regime. Thus the article cited above by Roy Gutman is not wrong where it says that one of Turkey’s reasons to oppose such a move is that it “fears that if the YPG seizes the corridor, millions more Syrian Arabs and Turkmens will flee to Turkey” (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article41559747.html, though “millions” is certainly an exaggeration).

Moreover, as Leila al-Shami, co-author of ‘Burning Country’, puts it, the very “attempts to carve out a new state through linking the cantons” is in sharp contradiction to “the idea of democratic confederalism” which she says she “strongly supports” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/#more-368) – let alone  when such a state is created via military conquest, Russian air power and destruction of the revolutionary councils of the Arab peoples living in this “link.”


The demand for “evidence” of Russia/YPG coordination

Faced with the reality of the YPG’s flagrant participation in the Russian-led Blitzkrieg, a number of Rojava-Firsters have been demanding “evidence.” I have some trouble understanding the demand, since it is all over the news that the YPG has been attacking and conquering these rebel-held towns; and also that Russia is bombing these rebel towns. I was therefore unsure whether this meant that some hadn’t been reading the news, or whether it was a demand for secret documents proving coordination; because, for example, maybe Russia and the YPG attacking the same towns at the same time was just coincidence. Since I don’t have such documents, and consider such coincidence unlikely, I have just put together some “evidence” for those who simply haven’t been watching.

First though, it is true that there were initial reports that a few villages had asked the rebels to leave, and for the YPG to take over, not out of love for the YPG, but so that they wouldn’t get bombed into oblivion by Russia. In these instances, we cannot fault the YPG. But the idea that this was the rule, rather than the exception, was soon belied by massive evidence of fighting and armed resistance to these YPG conquests by the local FSA defenders.

But then there are other excuses. The PYD’s Salih Muslim asks “Do they want the Nusra Front to stay there, or for the regime to come and occupy it?” This actually combines two excuses. First, he asserts that it is OK for the YPG to seize these towns (even with the help of Russian bombing) if they are run by Nusra (me: it still wouldn’t be); implying that they are mostly run by Nusra (me: they’re not, as we will see below), indeed, the YPG has a habit of calling whichever rebels it is fighting, or Russia is bombing, “Nusra.”

Second, he is claiming that it is OK for the YPG to conquer these towns while the Russians bomb them, because the YPG’s intentions are good; the Russians are bombing them anyway, and Assad will try to conquer them, so better we conquer them, even against local resistance, because we are preferable to the regime.

Yet if the YPG had stood in solidarity with the local rebel brigades and said “we will not conquer you, but if the regime comes, we will help defend you,” then they would have been able to keep Assad out – not to mention what it would have done for Arab-Kurdish solidarity.

An even more fantastic version of the events is given by İlham Ehmed, Co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political body connected to the SDF, in an unfortunate article in Green Left Weekly (https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/61132). Repeating the disgusting slander that “the majority of the opposition forces in the region are loyal to Jabhat Al-Nusra,” and “are proxies with no political program, she added the further lie that this “is why they ran away after recent Russian bombardments”! Ehmed claimed that the YPG was therefore “trying to prevent the advance of regime forces by capturing the areas evacuated by jihadis.” So all the countless reports, and videos, of YPG fighting against local FSA and rebel forces as they conquer these towns under Russian bombs are just phantoms; the YPG is merely occupying empty towns. I’m sure Orwell would love to meet these folk.

Below is some evidence of the YPG-Russian attack on rebel towns, and of rebel resistance:

Syrian Observer reports on how the Aleppo province council “has been forced to leave its main base in the town of Hreitein and carry out its work from inside a tent east of the city of Azaz” after being attacked by Russian warplanes and “the advance of Assad’s forces,” but this was not the first displacement of the council, as it was preceded by the displacement from its previous base in the town of Deir al-Jamaal, which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units seized months ago, as a result of Russian aircraft targeting the base” (http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30611/Aleppo_Province_Council_Operating_Out_Tent_Near_Azaz).

In the article “Moderate Syrian rebel factions face wipeout’ (http://www.voanews.com/content/moderate-syrian-rebel-factions-face-wipe-out/3180474.html), we read:

“YPG and rebel factions have been protecting civilians as they travel from Azaz. But at the same time the YPG has launched attacks on Islamist and moderate rebel factions around Afrin, seeking to expand the Kurdish enclave. Russian airstrikes on Saturday helped Kurdish fighters alongside militiamen from Jaysh al-Thwar, a YPG Sunni Arab ally, to capture the strategic Tal Zinkah hill north of Aleppo,” and in the same article, PYD leader Salih Muslim is quoted as saying that “the Russian airstrikes are targeting terrorists, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Likewise, Syria Direct (http://syriadirect.org/news/side-campaign-in-north-aleppo-raises-fears-of-sdf-linking-kobani-to-afrin/), reports on the lead-up to the SDF capture of the Minagh airbase:

“Russian warplanes, which have been essential to the Syrian regime’s progress in the north, bombed rebel positions around the Minagh airport Wednesday as battles raged between the SDF and rebels, reported pro-opposition Aleppo News Network Wednesday. A war journalist present at the airport front confirmed to Syria Direct that Russian planes had carried out 16 airstrikes Wednesday on rebel positions there. On Tuesday, the SDF took control of two villages and a military base on the outskirts of the Minagh military airport” (and captured the base on Wednesday).

The same article, also reports on the truce negotiated at the end of the December skirmishes between the FSA and the YPG/SDF, stipulating that “the FSA would not move towards Kurdish-controlled areas and vice-versa.” It is fairly obvious who broke that eminently sensible truce, as the article continues:

“This week’s incursion into rebel-held areas in northern Aleppo is the fourth truce violation between them and the Marea Operations Room, Mohammed Najem a-Din, correspondent with pro-opposition Smart News, told Syria Direct Wednesday. “The SDF and Jaish al-Thuwwar have taken advantage of rebels being busy fighting the regime on Nubl and Zahraa” in order to make gains into their territory, said Najem a-Din.”

Syrian Observer (http://www.syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30560/Syrian_Democratic_Forces_Advance_Towards_Tel_Rifaat_Under_Russian_Air_Support) reported that:

“The Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces achieved a significant military victory in the area of Tel Rifaat in the northern Aleppo countryside, seizing control of the village of Kafrnaya to its south … one day after they captured Ayn Daqnah, in an effort to blockade the town from three sides. The sources said that Russian warplanes had been providing covering fire for the SDF during its attempt to enter the town and attacked opposition positions with dozens of rockets and bombs.”

According to Scott Lucas (http://eaworldview.com/2016/02/syria-daily-kurdish-pyd-we-will-not-pull-back-v-turkey-and-rebels/):

“With rebels under pressure from a regime-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive north of Aleppo city, Kurdish forces began advancing earlier this month into rebel areas, taking a series of villages and the town of Deir Jawad on the Turkish border. … Despite the Turkish intervention, the Kurdish forces are still advancing. They captured Ayn Daqna, east of Azaz, on Sunday. They also are continuing assaults on the important town of Tal Rifaat, having been repelled on Friday and Saturday. Russia is now openly supporting the Kurdish attacks with airstrikes — at least 15 were reported on Tal Rifaat on Sunday.”

Lucas report also noted that the media activist Ahmad Khatib “was killed in the fighting for Tal Rifaat,” as was his brother.

According to the just-released Amnesty report on the deliberate Russian/Assadist campaign to bomb hospitals (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/syrian-and-russian-forces-have-deliberately-targeted-hospitals-near-aleppo#.Vtfha0kwkrg.twitter):

“Two doctors and an activist from the city of Tel Rifaat who left two days before the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, took control of the town on 15 February, told Amnesty that all three health facilities – including a field hospital, a rehabilitation centre and a kidney dialysis centre – were directly targeted by missiles during the week of 8 February, just as the ground offensive on the town began. The attacks injured six members of the medical team and three civilian patients, leaving the population with no working medical facility. Doctor “Faraj” (his real name has been withheld for security reasons), who manages the field hospital, rehabilitation and kidney dialysis centre, told Amnesty:

The Kurds started gaining control of some villages in the northern part of Aleppo Countryside at the beginning of February and they were advancing towards Tel Rifaat. As they approached, Russian and Syrian forces targeted medical facilities. As a result, the civilians injured from the indiscriminate shelling had to be transferred to the Syrian-Turkish border because the hospitals were no longer operational.”

Meanwhile, Roy Gutman (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/16/syria-ceasefire-brings-turkey-closer-to-war/) writes:

“Moscow actually stepped up its barrage of missiles and cluster bombs targeting primarily rebel-held towns close to Aleppo and on their main supply route to Turkey. Russia has even coordinated its airstrikes with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which captured towns and villages held by anti-Assad rebels after an intensive bombing campaign,” going on to give some stunning detail:

“In Tal Rifaat, a town of 30,000 that lies close to the main route from Turkey to Aleppo, Russian aircraft carried out an average 100 airstrikes a day this past weekend, emptying the town of its inhabitants and thousands of displaced, who fled to the Turkish border, according to humanitarian aid officials. The YPG captured the town on Monday.”

Gutman continues with the claim that:

“Faced with a manpower shortage, the Assad regime is relying on the Kurdish YPG to seize key real estate from rebels on the main route to Turkey.”

I mean, is all this what is meant by evidence? Or is this all just coincidence?

Meanwhile, there have been so many tweets/direct reports from the field of YPG attacks/conquests with Russian air support that I could fill pages with them, but hopefully the facts are now clear. Here’s a few:

Syrian Kurds backed by Russian airstrikes advance on Syrian airbase
Aleppo: Syrian Rebels recaptured Al Alagamiyah & Al Shil’aa after heavy clashes with YPG & treacherous so called “Jaish Thuwar” https://twitter.com/Malcolmite/status/697120652218798080
YPG has sent an ultimatum to the FSA and Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, either give them the Menagh Airbase or they will take it militarily https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/697096507250581506
Following airstrikes by the Russian Air Force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in the enclave of Afrin in northern Aleppo province took control of Ziyarah
YPG has captured Maarnaz from FSA-Ahrar Al-Sham. https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/696428417584070657
YPG seized Maranaz and Deir Jamal villages in northern Aleppo after clashes with the rebels, mainly Shami front (former Tawheed brigade) https://twitter.com/Abduhark/status/696646293536563200
YPG/Jaish al-Thuwar have taken Deir Jamal from the rebels , with Russian air support https://twitter.com/Paradoxy13/status/696476896616390656

With Russian Airstrikes, YPG progressing around Azaz

Kurds militias withdraw their positions surrounding #Azaz after heavy clashes with #FSA HEROES. #Aleppo cs #Syria FEB 11 https://twitter.com/AEJKhalil/status/697894948109225984

Finally, Jim Rodney M points us to http://syria.liveuamap.com/en/time/01.02.2016, which shows the day to day events; he has been following it closely and says its shows “the SAA and allies pushed up through the east of Aleppo city while Russian bombers destroyed everything in their path. They met resistance all along the way but advanced to Nubl and Zahraa where they were then face to face with the YPG between Dayr Jamal and Mayer but instead of confronting each other they shared a battle line against free Syrians while the YPG advanced west under Russian air power taking town after town culminating in completely cutting Arab rebels off from Aleppo. … There is no other way to describe the events other than to say the YPG and the Assadi axis are allied with each other in a common assault against free Syrians.”

Meanwhile, the #‎Aleppo LCC reports on alleged meetings between SDF, Russian and Assad regime representatives in Efrin, and claims “The Russian side asserted to SDF intensifying the airstrikes on Azaz city and Aleppo northern suburb so SDF can advance and take over ‪#‎Izaz city and ‪#‎Tal_Rafaat town and Assad’s forces can advance toward Aleppo city,” as well as an earlier meeting where they allegedly agreed for the SDF to take the Menagh airbase: (https://www.facebook.com/LCCSY2011/posts/1720204668120076?fref=nf).


Which rebel groups control the towns under Russian/YPG attack?

Aleppo map who controls what

Map of northern Aleppo before latest fighting, showing control by Rojava Kurds (yellow), rebels (green), regome (red) and ISIS (black), source: https://media.almasdarnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/untitled24.png

The other main issue often arising in discussion is that of which rebel groups control the various parts of Aleppo now under attack.

For many Rojava-Firsters, this is a good excuse to support this counterrevolutionary action: “Oh, but that area is controlled by Nusra, so it’s good that the “democratic” forces are ejecting them” (even if with Russian air power – let me try that: Oh, but Iraq is run by Saddam Hussein, who is an extremely brutal tyrant, so of course we need to fight on the side of the US Blitzkrieg to unseat him, etc etc).

A particularly disgusting (and disappointing in the extreme, given the source) example of this was a tweet sent by the head of the leftist/Kurdish-based HDP in Turkey, Selahattin Demirtaş: “Davutoğlu says #Azez won’t fall. Who’s in Azez? Al Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Rapists & people who sell women” (https://twitter.com/hdpenglish/status/701036280751247361).

Now the level of outright racism and dehumanisation in this tweet is unbelievable (so ordinary Arabic people don’t live there? Were the babies killed by Russian bombing of the maternity hospital there also rapists?); and of course it is also a lie that either Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham engage in a policy of rape (that would be the Assad regime) or sell women (ISIS), regardless of their other sins. But as we will see, it is also a lie about who is actually in control of Azaz.


First, however, I disagree with the premise in any case. It is up to the local peoples to choose their political/military leaderships in revolutionary situations (in the same way as the PYD/YPG is in control of Kurdish regions), and to change them; and even if we dislike some of them, it is not up to an outside force; still less one operating with Russian air support, to forcefully eject them; and the ethnic factor in a military attack cannot be ignored, even if the SDF may theoretically be very good on the multi-ethnic issue.

And even in the case of Nusra, a group I detest, it is a new development in left-wing thinking that it is OK to be on the side of an invading imperialist power bombing the country to bits against even a reactionary local militia; in the conditions of this genocide from the sky, if even Nusra got its hands on good anti-aircraft missiles and shot dozens of Russian warplanes out of the sky it would be a victory for all humanity (and anyone wanted to now express outrage, kindly express it to children ripped to bits by Russian bombs in Aleppo).

In addition, most areas have been controlled by coalitions of rebel groups. Trying to single out areas allegedly controlled only by “Nusra” would be very frustrating; in general there is a loose military alliance between all the factions confronting the Assad regime/ISIS, necessary due to the overwhelming military superiority of those two (especially the regime), and their cooperation. Politically, Nusra tends to stand out on a limb compared to all other groups, but in military terms, it is entirely sensible for the FSA to reject the years-long US-prodding to wage war on Nusra now (though the FSA often finds itself clashing with Nusra *in defence* against Nusra transgressions). And in any case, as we’ll see below, Nusra has much less to do with the Aleppo fighting than is commonly made out.

But anyway, below is a little summary.



First, on Azaz. In September 2013, ISIS seized Azaz from the ‘Northern Storm’ brigade of the Free Syrian Army. Before that, Northern Storm had put up a several-month resistance to furious ISIS siege, thereby also protecting PYD-controlled Afrin further west; the YPG did not lift a finger. But in January 2014, the FSA and other rebels drove ISIS out of the whole of western Syria (and temporarily much of eastern Syria), and so it was of course driven from Azaz. Since January 2014 Azaz has again been the major connection between the rebels and sources of funds, arms, trade, refuge etc in Turkey. That is why it is so crucial for the rebels to keep control of Azaz.

Since then, the main militia controlling it has again been FSA Northern Storm (Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (according to this well-researched article from January 2015: http://www.aymennjawad.org/15865/special-report-northern-storm-and-the-situation), just as it was before September 2013; therefore, the YPG has attacked, with the aid of Russian airstrikes on children’s hospitals, those who previously protected it. This article continues: “also present within Azaz town but lacking any governing authority is Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra” (it runs a mosque), while Northern Storm “also solely controls the (nearby) town of Sawran” (http://www.aymennjawad.org/15865/special-report-northern-storm-and-the-situation).

Notably, despite long-term tension between Azaz and Efrin, there has also been significant cooperation, which underlined the potential, and the folly of the YPG’s siege of Azaz:

“However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight to drive ISIS out … Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara. Securing water from Afrin would therefore require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying reasons behind the agreement publicly announced in February (2015) between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities” (http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-administration-of-the-local-council-in-azaz/).


Menagh airbase

Syria Direct (http://syriadirect.org/news/side-campaign-in-north-aleppo-raises-fears-of-sdf-linking-kobani-to-afrin/) reports that the base had been held by a combination of Ahrar a-Sham and Jabha al-Shamiya (also known as Shamiya Front, or Levant Front). Meanwhile, we also read that the “YPG has sent an ultimatum to the FSA and Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, either give them the Menagh Airbase or they will take it militarily” (https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/697096507250581506), while a statement by the FSA FastaqemUnion claims it was “under the national brigades of the FSA” (https://twitter.com/FkoUnion/status/698990013007196168). Rudaw also claims the YPG seized it from “the Levant Front,” ie, Shamiya Front (http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/11022016).

Thus it seems we had FSA, Shamiya Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. The claim that “Nusra” was there at all now seems most likely to just be standard YPG propaganda. Leaving aside the FSA, these other two forces may be called ‘Islamists’; as Leila al-Shami explains, “the Islamists represent the conservative culture of rural Aleppo. They are comprised primarily of Aleppo’s sons, brothers and fathers” who “have strong local support” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/). However, they are two very different strads of ‘Islamist’. Ahrar al-Sham is a relatively hard-line Islamist militia, but as al-Shami says, genuinely based in the community, and moreover, it has continually condemned violations by Nusra (eg, see this vigorous condemnation of Nusra’s attack on the Druze in northern Idlib https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/609449774673211392), and even clashed with it recently.

As for the Shamiya Front, while it can also be broadly described as ‘Islamist’, this is only true in the same sense that various Christian “liberation theology” movements could be described as “political Christian” (for those who immediately express outrage, I recommend quickly checking your pulse for Islamophobia levels). A coalition of starkly moderate, FSA-aligned ‘Islamists’ – nothing like Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh Islam – who have all played leading roles in the war against ISIS, the Shamiya Front’s ‘Islamist’ credentials are best shown in this video where they treat ISIS prisoners to a mock execution, with a terrific ending: http://www.news.com.au/technology/syrian-rebel-brigade-al-shamiya-front-punk-isis-prisoners-with-mock-execution/news-story/a70b7280f010cccbd6a7136c03848e84.

In a recent Op-Ed in FP, Shamiya Front leader Abdallah al-Othman says they are “local fighters who wish to attain democracy and defend our hometowns from slaughter,” and declares “the Levant Front desires a Syria that is free and pluralistic, with respect for human rights, peaceful elections, and the rule of law” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/17/fighting-for-aleppo-abandoned-by-the-world-islamic-state-levant-front-isis/).

Does an ‘Islamist’ group like this really deserve to be attacked by YPG/SDF thugs supported by Russian terror bombing?

Tel Rifaat

 It is very difficult to get a clear idea of who exactly “controls” the iconic revolutionary town Tel Rifaat, if not simply a coalition like elsewhere. What we do know is that it was in Tel Rifaat that ISIS mastermind, Hajji Bakr, was killed by rebels as the anti-ISIS war began in earnest early January 2014; and his family was taken prisoner by Liwa al-Tawhid, the strikingly moderate ‘Islamist’ brigade that previously dominated Aleppo before breaking apart when its leader was killed by Assad. So ‘moderate’ in fact, that one former part of it, the Northern Sun Brigade, is now with SDF (so they have ‘Islamists’ too!), though most simply became Shamiya Front.

Tel Rifaat has seen months of demonstrations in support of the revolution, demanding that the revolutionary brigades unite to face their enemies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hEBtN-RK-Y), where the only flags we see are FSA flags; activists in Tel Rifaat released a statement demanding leaders resign to take responsibility for recent defeats , leading to the deputy commander of the Shamiya Front doing just that, in a small sign of grass-roots democracy in action (http://syriadirect.org/news/rebel-leader-resigns-amidst-aleppo-protests/). Not quite the kind of town that needs to be “liberated” by hundreds of Russian air strikes (as one of the sources I quoted above described).

Meanwhile, here is a charming video showing victorious YPG fighters (well, that is if you call victory by Russian air strikes a “victory” by the YPG) gloating over the bodies of FSA defenders of Tel Rifaat: https://www.facebook.com/BABAMAMABOBO/posts/1118834781494675


Mare (Marea)

In fact it is still uncertain whether or not Mare – another iconic revolutionary centre and the front-line in the war against ISIS – has fallen to the Russian-YPG offensive or not. Some days ago, YPG sources claimed that the local rebels had reached a deal with them. Of course this is possible – when confronted with the dilemma “do you want to let our Russian allies obliterate you, and Assad forces take over, or just give up and let us take over?” Which is hardly an argument that that YOG is carrying out a humanitarian operation. But in any case, FSA sources claim to still be in control.

Mare is run by the Mare Operations Room. According to the very reliable ‘archcivilians’ site (https://twitter.com/archicivilians/status/671741957706788864/photo/1), this consists of the Suqor al-Jabal Brigade (FSA, also known as the Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade, previously part of the 5th Corp), the Fursan al-Haq brigade (FSA, now fused with other FSA groups as the Northern Division), Liwa Ahrar al-Surya (FSA), the Fastaqim Kama Umirt Union (FSA), and Faylaq al-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood connected brigade, also loosely associated with the FSA on the same ‘soft-Islamist’ wavelength as the Shamiya Front. A Wikipedia page adds the Shamiya Front, which would seem likely. Some sources (http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30384/Free_Syrian_Army_Expels_ISIS_from_Aleppo_Villages), add the Turkmen-based Sultan Murad Brigade (FSA), and some add Ahrar al-Sham, both of which also seem likely. No sources anywhere suggest Nusra.

It has been the Mare Operations Room that has been signing ceasefires with the YPG over the last 6 months of on and off skirmishes connected to the appearance of a handful of embittered ex-FSA fighters known as ‘Jaysh al-Thuwar’ (the main non-YPG component of the SDF in Aleppo). The last ceasefire in December called for neither side to cross into the other side’s territories (which Jaysh al-Thuwar had done in December, seizing four FSA-held towns, with Russian air support). It is pretty obvious who has now broken the ceasefire.

According to this article, ISIS and the YPG are both attacking revolutionary Marea at the same time: http://syriadirect.org/news/is-and-sdf-each-attack-rebel-held-marea-%E2%80%9Cevery-brigade-is-striving-to-build-their-dreams-on-our-guts%E2%80%9D /


Aleppo City

As for Aleppo itself, a mega-coalition, Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), dominates here, initially set up by 31 mostly FSA brigades (all the big ones, eg Fursan al-Haq, Divisions 13, 16 and 101, others listed above in Marea), along with all the soft-Islamist brigades (Shamiya Front, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Authenticity Front, Jaysh Mujahideen, Faylaq al-Sham), and also Ahrar al-Sham, but not Nusra (http://archicivilians.WORDPRESS.com/2015/06/18/infographic-fatah-halab-military-operations-room-coalition-of-31-rebel-factions-syria). It was later joined by another 19 small, locally-based FSA brigades (https://twitter.com/BosnjoBoy/status/626060428519571456).

Much has also been written about the system of local councils in Aleppo, though years of barrel bombing have no doubt made these much less functional than they might be. However, this description of grass-roots struggle in Aleppo by Leila al-Shami gives a good picture of what is at stake:

“When we talk of ‘liberated areas’ it’s more than just rhetoric. Under threat in Aleppo are the different local councils which ensure the governance of each area and have kept providing services to the local population in the absence of the state. We are talking about more than 100 civil society organizations (the second largest concentration of active civil society groups anywhere in the country). These include some 28 free media groups, women’s organizations and emergency and relief organizations such as the Civil Defense Force. It also includes educational organizations such as Kesh Malek which provides non-ideological education for children, often in people’s basements, to ensure school continues under bombardment. Under Assad’s totalitarian state, independent civil society was non-existent and no independent media sources existed. But in Free Aleppo democracy is being practiced as the people themselves self-organize and run their communities” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/).


Where is Nusra?

It is interesting to note that, despite the constant refrain of “Nusra” being everywhere, this close reading of the sources suggests Nusra only has a secondary presence in Azaz, that it may or may not be represented at the Menagh base (and if it is, again in a very secondary role), that it does not exist in Mare or Tel Rifaat, and that in Aleppo it is the only militia excluded from the grand military coalition. Of course, Nusra does exist, and operates more on its own, as well as in a separate military front with Ahrar al-Sham (Ansar al-Saria, ie, Ahrar operates in both Fatah Halab and in Ansar al-Sharia); and appears to be more present further south, in southern Aleppo near its main base in Idlib.

But its relative absence is in fact no mystery: mid-last year, when Turkey began calling for a “safe zone” along the Turkish border to settle refugees, allegedly to include a Turkish-backed push by rebels to expel ISIS from the region between Azaz and Jarablus – a plan blocked by the US – Nusra was the only brigade in Aleppo to oppose this plan. Strikingly, for a group that is often bandied about as “Turkish-backed,” Nusra declared Turkey to be motivated only by its “national security interests” and not by Syrian interests, declaring it to be “not a strategic decision emanating from the free will of the armed factions,” though the rebels “have the ability to combat ISIS — if they unite through means sanctioned by sharia law… without seeking the help of international or regional forces” (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565709-nusra-withdraws-from-turkey-border).

Therefore, Nusra  announced its withdrawal from Azaz, Marea, Tel Rifaat and all the more northern and eastern regions, which have now been under attack (thus even the first link above, which in January 2015 said Nusra had a secondary presence in Azaz, may be old information).

In a later interview, Nusra chief Joulani explicitly declared that Turkey’s “national security” issue, which Nusra did not want to be involved with, was “the Kurds,” and clarified, that Nusra withdrew from northern Aleppo countryside not to ease the way for the Turkish zone as some had suggested, but because “we don’t see it permissible to fight ISIS under a Turkish or an international coalition air cover” (https://t.co/3gldQBYqY9).

(As an aside: Regardless of my very low opinion of Nusra, this declaration actually showed a strange political intelligence; much as I would be sympathetic to the reasons for the entire non-Nusra rebellion supporting such a Turkish move, it is interesting that the most reactionary organisation had the clearest understanding that Turkey would be acting in its own interests which do not necessarily coincide those of the Syrian masses. So calling Nusra a Turkish-backed group has no basis. And the fact that Nusra saw these Turkish interests, which it wanted no part of, as being anti-Kurdish, indicates that Nusra’s hostility to the PYD is more political (opposed to the PYD’s politics) and monopolistic (Nusra has attacked FSA brigades far more than it has attacked the YPG), rather than “anti-Kurdish” as such).


Conclusion: An attack on the Syrian revolution and possible suicide for Rojava revolution

It is difficult to call this turn of events anything other than an outright betrayal of the revolution by the YPG leadership, with likely catastrophic results for all concerned. Right now, the YPG is a direct participant in the catastrophe of the Arabic peoples of the Aleppo region and their revolution, in direct partnership with the Russian Blitzkrieg and therefore indirect (to be charitable) partnership with the fascist regime and its Iranian-led global sectarian invaders.

Tomorrow, this betrayal may also be catastrophic for the Kurdish civilians and their own revolution as well. While it is not unusual for nationalist leaderships to make decisions based on the narrow interests of their own nation (one would have expected better from an officially left leadership, but anyway), in this case it is short-sighted even from this narrow point of view. The Assadist representative at Geneva, Bashar al-Jaafari, made a point of telling the PYD that they should forget about autonomy or federalism, “take the idea of separating Syrian land out of your mind” … “we have said before our theme for these talks is Syrians in Syria and our precondition is to protect the unity of the land and Syrian nation” (http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/310120162). When you add to this a couple of recent regime bombings of the YPG, the regime is essentially laughing at the Kurdish leadership even as it declares that “these Syrian Kurds supported by the American administration are also supported by the Syrian government” – a “support” which goes for now as the YPG serves its purposes (http://www.trtworld.com/mea/assads-un-envoy-reveals-regime-support-for-pyd-49189), but certainly not for the day after.

Hence, the position now being implemented by the PYD/YPG in this conflict is crucial both to the future existence of the revolution as a whole, and to the Rojava revolution. Getting it wrong here can mean that all the stories of setting up a radical-democratic, non-sectarian, multi-ethnic, feminist model – and despite exaggerations and romanticisation, a certain amount of this is undoubtedly true – may shortly afterwards turn to dust. What has protected the Rojava revolution for three years, while it was untouched by Assad’s barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, sarin etc, so that this model could be built, was none other than the enormous sacrifice by the rest of the country, the Syrian revolution in Arab Syria, the blood of hundreds of thousands of people outside Rojava, who continually fought and died in the struggle against Assad (and whose similarly revolutionary-democratic councils were bombed into oblivion); they were a wall protecting Rojava, and the moment they fall, Assad, with mathematical precision, will turn Rojava into dust, with no-one left to help (I’m reminded of a poem by Martin Niemoller: http://allpoetry.com/First-They-Came-For-The-Communists). At that point, Assad and Erdogan may find they have less problems with each other than they thought.

The PYD appears to be relying on the idea that its current US and Russian sponsors will save it some autonomy due to their own interests, even if it means Assad, or an ‘Assad regime without Assad’, won’t be able to fully carry out the threat to “unify” the country. Nothing is out of the question. As SDF Co-President İlham Ehmed speaks of Syria being divided into three “federal regions,” with the northern one ruled by them (https://anfenglish.com/features/ehmed-three-federal-regions-will-be-formed-in-syria-part-ii), corresponding closely to the plan recently flagged by the US Rand Corporation (http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE182.html), John Kerry now says that partition may be part of a ‘Plan B’ if a ceasefire cannot be achieved (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/john-kerry-partition-syria-peace-talks?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail). Yet putting the PYD/SDF in charge of a “northern” federal unit outside that extends beyond ethnically Kurdish areas is not the same as Kurdish autonomy, and would instead turn it into a US-Russia-backed police force guarding a brutal occupation of land seen as occupied by the Sunni Arab majority there, not to mention by those millions driven from northern Syria in this gigantic Nakbah. WE are reminded of other dark events in Mideast history. Even then, I suspect this “solution” would be temporary while the post-Assadist state re-gathers its resources.

I have no interest in reaching these conclusions. I always supported the Rojava revolution along with the rest of the revolution, and despite disagreeing with many uncritical supporters of the PYD leadership and its views, I was willing to recognise the relatively politically advanced nature of the process in Rojava. Moreover, regardless of this process, I’ve always supported the right of self-determination for the Kurds throughout the region, including, if they choose, an independent state. But the leadership has made these decisions, and needs to be held accountable.


Responsibility of Arab and Kurdish leaderships for Arab-Kurdish disunity

It is true of course that the various opposition leaderships, both political and military, share responsibility, for not having taken a clear position in support of Kurdish national self-determination. The initial refusal of the exile-based Syrian opposition to agree to dropping the word “Arab” from “Syrian Arab Republic” was an important symbolic example. The opposition advocates general rights for Kurds and other minorities, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) consisting of some 15 parties, is part of the Syrian National Coalition. When it officially joined the Coalition in 2013, a joint declaration was released in which the Coalition confirmed its commitment to “constitutional recognition of the Kurdish people’s national identity, considering the Kurdish affair an integral part of the general national cause in the country, the recognition of the national rights of the Kurdish people in the framework of the unity of the Syrian people and lands, the cancelation of all discriminatory politics, decrees and measures against Kurdish citizens, the treatment of their effects and repercussions, granting the victims compensation and returning rights to their rightful owners.”

Nevertheless, the KNC still fights within the Coalition for a clearer position on the issue. A crystal clear position in support of self-determination (as opposed to the emphasis on “the unity of the Syrian people and lands”), is essential to win national minorities such as the Kurds to the side of revolution. Significantly, however, the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, to which the PYD has long been affiliated with, does not have no clearer position on the Kurdish issue than the Syrian National Coalition.

This is a longer-term discussion that needs to be had about the ultimate fate of the revolution. However, supporters of the Syrian revolution have rarely given their support on the basis that its various leaderships are politically advanced; the exile-based leaderships are conservative and bourgeois, and widely criticised by the revolutionaries on the ground; while the internal civil and military leaderships of the FSA and the LCCs etc are empirical revolutionaries who arose from the grass-roots, without strong traditions of political consciousness, crushed as political thought was for 40 years under the Assads. In contrast, the PYD leadership comes from a consciously left-socialist tradition, and one would therefore have expected a better approach than the treacherous one now being implemented.

Moreover, it is not even clear that the Kurdish masses – whatever suspicions they may rightly have about sections of the opposition – are necessarily in support of these current moves, or that their mistrust of the opposition is driving the PYD’s current actions (here is statement of a Kurdish FSA faction condemning the PYD’s actions: http://en.eldorar.com/node/1500). While the Kurds have been nationally oppressed in Syria – especially by the Assad regime – it has been the Sunni Arab majority that has suffered far and away the most over the last five years, subjected to massive slaughter and large-scale dispossession, while the Kurds in Rojava were left alone. In such circumstances, it is just as much the stance of the Kurdish leadership – especially a leftist Kurdish leadership – towards their Arab brothers and sisters that is crucial as is the reverse. Moreover, the position of the PYD leadership in relation to the uprising against Assad was unclear from the outset, and over time evolved into a “plague on both your houses” position, casting themselves as a third alternative, rather than seeing their role as providing a critical left perspective in support of the revolution.

Assad withdrew from the main Kurdish regions in late 2012 and handed them over to the PYD. Of course, Assad did not do this to support Kurdish autonomy, but to be able to focus on slaughtering the more immediate threat of the rest of the revolution; the PYD did not accept because it is pro-Assad, but because it saw the sense of building their own Rojava project rather than demanding to be barrel-bombed. They can hardly be condemned for the latter. However, this situation tended to harden this position of “third-force” neutrality, leading many oppositionists, rightly or wrongly, to see the PYD as a stalking horse for the regime, which often led to, mostly small-scale, clashes (as well as other instances of revolutionary cooperation).

While the PYD claims its Rojava project is multi-ethnic, and in some places this seems to be valid, the momentum of Arab-Kurdish joint demonstrations against the regime throughout 2011-2012 took place independently of the PYD (see this article to get a feel for this period: http://www.developmentperspectives.ie/serdar-ahmad-the-story-of-a-syrian-grassroots-leader/). Some have even argued that the separation of Rojava and its withdrawal from the anti-Assad struggle tended to dull this momentum, ironically enough. I have no information to sustain this view, but it is notable that when the PYD used repression against Kurdish opposition – most famously in Amuda in 2013 (http://www.syriauntold.com/en/2013/07/amuda-shouts-once-again-he-who-kills-his-people-is-a-traitor/) – it was directed against Kurdish activists with strong links to the wider revolutionary movement.

The rise of jihadist forces, first Nusra and then ISIS, led to further conflict, especially as these forces were based mostly in the north and east of the country, and thus tended to vie for some of the same regions, resources and border crossings as the PYD. In late 2013 in particular, they launched murderous attacks on the Kurds in the northeast. While the Syrian opposition did not endorse these jihadist attacks, some small rebel formations on the ground in eastern Syria found themselves stuck between the jihadists and the YPG, where local, conjunctural factors often played a role in deciding who was their chief opponent at the moment’ and in some cases local FSA groups seem to have taken an anti-YPG position. However, the simplistic assertion that “the FSA joined the jihadist attacks on the Kurds” in late 2013 is essentially slander, especially as the FSA was also already at war with ISIS in this period.

Considerable study would be required to ascertain the various errors made by both Arab and Kurdish leaderships. Yet ultimately, it is difficult to see the PYD’s current actions in Aleppo as mere “mistakes” of a revolutionary left leadership under extreme pressure of events, as has been put to me (and amusingly, the same people often tell me how wicked it is for the Syrian rebels to be receiving aid from the Erdogan regime in Turkey – as if it is not the rebels who are the ones under extraordinary, super-human, pressure, and for whom the opening to Turkey, and the little support they get via Azaz, is an absolute lifeline; talk about the pot calling the kettle black!).


How did the PYD arrive here?

No, the PYD’s current betrayal is rooted precisely in it not surpassing the bounds of being a nationalist force, despite the rhetoric. In particular, this is combined with the nature of large-scale decision-making in a one-party state, no matter how much power the democratic councils have in local decision-making. For example, the PYD has just banned the Kurdish publication ‘Rudaw’ from operating in Rojava, and “also banned journalists and freelancers from sending their work to Rudaw and warned all agencies and organizations to cut off all contacts with the media network” (http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/250220161). Was this act of political repression decided upon by local councils, with relevant information, discussing the issue across Rojava and coming to this decision? Or was it a ruling by some Political Committee of the PYD?

Further, it is my view that the road to becoming a ground force for Russia’s counterrevolutionary Blitzkrieg in Aleppo today was set by the evolution of the PYD/YPG into the main ground force for the US-led Coalition also bombing Syria.

The initial cooperation with the US, when the US airforce came in to bomb ISIS away from Kobani in late 2014, was undoubtedly necessary, when defence against the threat of ISIS subjugation and terror in Kobani was a question of survival. When FSA forces formed an alliance with the YPG for the defence of Kobani, this was also a high point of revolutionary unity between the Arab and Kurdish masses and their leaderships.

However, the US-YPG arrangement then turned into a long-term alliance, and not one for immediate defence as in Kobani, but one for offensive operations against ISIS. Much as the Islamic State is a monstrously reactionary state that needs to be overthrown, it is questionable that this can be achieved via the military actions of a nationalist Kurdish militia on the ground, completely reliant on US air strikes, where the Islamic State is based among Arabs. Since early 2015, every offensive operation by the YPG against ISIS relies on US air-strikes; these US bombings are netting an increasingly higher number of civilian casualties (even this week, the US bombed a bakery and killed 28 civilians in the town of Shadada in Hasaka region, at the onset of a YPG offensive against ISIS: http://www.orient-news.net/en/news_show/103136/0/US-led-coalition-jets-kill-civilians-in-Hasakah-countryside); the YPG is the only ground force sharing coordinates with the US; US special forces have arrived in Rojava and work with the YPG; and even a US airbase has been set up on Rojava soil.

This pattern of dependence on foreign imperialist powers thus emerged, along with a haughtiness, an arrogance, that comes with the idea that you will always be protected by powerful foreign states. This has now reached a tragic climax.

One final point: there is some talk that this move by the PYD is a “pro-Russian” move away from alliance with the US. It isn’t. This view relies too much on the “Cold War” myth, and ignores the “fundamental similarity” of US-Russian views on Syria, as John Kerry rightly put it – especially the studied, deliberate, cold US indifference to the current Russian-led slaughter of the revolutionary forces in Aleppo.

Is it really surprising that the very weeks that the YPG is acting as the Russian ground force in Aleppo, the US and YPG launch a new offensive in Hasaka region; that the SDF includes the logo of the US-led Coalition in their list of allied militias (https://twitter.com/defenseunits/status/700741630618370049); that US Government Counter Terrorism Center, which had linked the PKK and PYD in 2014, removed this reference in 2016 (https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/701451967692845056); and that Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, paid an official visit to the PYD in Kobani “in what appeared to be the first official trip to Syrian territory for several years” by an official from the Obama administration, where he was presented with a plaque by YPG founding member, and former PKK member, Polat Can (http://www.nrttv.com/en/Details.aspx?Jimare=5199). Thus, the counterrevolutionary position currently adopted by the PYD is an embodiment of the US-Russia agreement on Syria, not a problem for their alleged “Cold War.”

Bloody Counterrevolution in Aleppo: on Russian Blitzkrieg and US “betrayal”

Bloody Counterrevolution in Aleppo: on Russian Blitzkrieg and US “betrayal”

Hospital bombed by Russian warplanes

Today we are watching bloody counterrevolution, imperialist barbarism, in its most naked form, most visibly in the combined Blitzkrieg against the people of Aleppo and its northern countryside being carried out by the invading Russian air force, the fascistic regime of Bashar Assad with his barrel bombs, the invading Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their imports including Iraqi Shiite-sectarian death squads, Hezbollah and various manipulated, impoverished Shia troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan, with ISIS to some extent, and the US-backed Kurdish YPG on a huge scale, opportunistically joining in from either side like vultures.

Meanwhile, much the same continues in the south, with people still starving to death, even as world attention has gone away, in the various towns surrounding Damascus that are being carpet-bombed  by Assad and Russia, besieged and starved by Assad and Hezbollah. This scene from some apocalypse (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153676629524823&set=gm.495267943990549&type=3&theatre) is actually between Moadamiyeh and Daraya; this picture of Hiroshima is actually what the regime has done to to the once beautiful city of Homs: https://www.facebook.com/Channel4News/videos/10153492613721939/?pnref=story. Further south, regime and Russian bombing continues day and night against the mighty, and starkly moderate, Southern Front of the FSA, which has had its already miserable level of “support” cut off by Jordan and the US; 150,000 people have been uprooted in the latest offensives.

Returning to Aleppo, the bombing has reached extraordinary levels http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/06/aleppo-under-bombardment-fears-siege-and-starvation?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail:

“The bombs are falling so fast in Aleppo now that often rescuers don’t have time to reach victims between blasts. If the deadly explosions that struck on just one day last week had been evenly spaced, they would have struck every other minute around the clock.

“Sometimes there are so many airstrikes, we are just waiting and waiting at our headquarters, and the jets don’t leave the skies,” says Abdulrahman Alhassan, a 29-year-old former bank engineer from the city who coordinates “white helmet” rescue teams in the city.

“When at last we can’t see any more, we have to rush to all the sites to rescue people and evacuate them at once,” he said. On Friday, the group counted 900 airstrikes by government forces and their Russian backers, apparently throwing every weapon they have at the already devastated city.”

That is, 900 airstrikes on the city in one day.

As is widely reported, the targets include countless hospitals, schools, markets, bakeries, mosques and so on. This video shows the results of the deliberate Russian bombing of the children’s and maternity hospital in Azaz: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/not-terrorists-or-fighters-just-babies-syrian-charity-video-shows-devastation-after-azaz-hospital-a6875496.html, on the same day in mid-February that three other hospitals and two schools were bombed (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/16/world/middleeast/syria-hospital-airstrike-doctors-without-borders.html).

Of course, a bloody counterrevolution being carried out by a fascistic regime does not always involve “imperialist barbarism,” as I put it above; the Syrian regime has been doing the same for years before the Russian invasion. But as far as any foreign intervention by a world-class military power savaging a small country far from home goes, the current Russian invasion and terror bombing of Syria is second to only few.

However, Russian imperialism has been the chief armer of the regime with massive quantities of advanced weaponry for years, so there are no surprises here, and apart from our outrage, perhaps no need to dwell on the obvious (though if an anti-war movement existed in the West, calling for an end to this Russian barbarism would be its obvious aim; but alas).

US policy and the Oslo-style “peace process”

Yet it is the calculated indifference of the United States that stands out here; while this should not be a surprise, it is to those who still think the US was merely a weak and ineffective supporter of Syrian freedom. In fact, US Defence Secretary John Kerry was being completely truthful when he recently stated, not only that that the US does not support regime change in Syria (old news), but also that the US and Russia see the Syrian conflict “fundamentally very similarly” (http://abcnews.go.com/International/john-kerry-meets-russian-president-vladimir-putin-seek/story?id=35782171).

It may seem ironic that the current Russian Blitzkrieg is taking place in the shadow of the US-Russian driven Vienna/Geneva “peace process.” This process supposedly aimed to forge a ceasefire, and press a select group of oppositionists into a “transitional” government with the regime or parts of it, who would then jointly wage a war, supported by all the imperialist powers, against ISIS, Nusra and any other opposition forces declared to be “terrorists.”

However, while accepting negotiations for some kind of “political solution,” the Syrian opposition had some red lines. One was that, before real negotiations could begin, the regime needed to show some good faith by first implementing UN resolutions on lifting starvation sieges, stopping barrel bombing, releasing detainees and so on. Secondly, while the opposition was willing to begin negotiations with Assad, their bottom line for eventually agreeing to any political solution was that, at some point, Assad himself and his immediate entourage had to step down, so that the “transition” government they were to join would be formed with parts of the regime but not Assad himself.

However, the US, the UK, France and other western states began falling over each other to declare that Assad’s alleged “stepping down” can take place at the “end” of the “transition government” period rather than at the beginning; and then the length of this Assad-led “transition” kept getting lengthened beyond the “several months” initially discussed. This was made even more emphatic in an internal US State Department document which specified that Assad would continue to head the “transitional” regime, which the opposition was expected to join, until March 2017 (http://news.yahoo.com/apnewsbreak-us-sees-assad-staying-syria-until-march-081207181–politics.html); and then further, the US delivered new Russian-Iranian diktats to the opposition, moving from the concept of “transition” to that of the opposition forming a “national unity government” with Assad, while strongly rejecting the opposition’s conditions regarding sieges and so on.

According to Lina Sinjab, writing from the Geneva talks, a “US official was adamant that Secretary of State John Kerry wants to end the violence, and is determined to succeed. But everyone here thinks the opposite. Almost at every corner, you hear the same thought: The US has handed over Syria to the Russians for free” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35490273). And as Assadist/Russian bombing continually increased throughout the “peace” conference, Kerry claimed on February 5 that “the Russians have made some constructive ideas about how a ceasefire in fact could be implemented” (http://www.todayszaman.com/world_kerry-says-in-talks-on-syria-ceasefire-will-know-in-days-if-possible_411600.html).

As  reported on February 6, Syrian aid workers said Kerry told them on sidelines of the donor conference, after the Geneva “peace” talks broke down, that “the opposition will be decimated” and to expect 3 months of bombing, blaming the opposition for the Russian Blitzkrieg: “He said, ‘Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition’” (http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/opposition-blame-syrian-bombing-kerry-tells-aid-workers-1808021537). Another source in the same article, who claimed to have been a liaison between the Syrian and American governments, said Kerry had passed the message on to Assad in October “that the US did not want him to be removed,” but that if he stopped barrel bombing, could “sell the story” to the public.

As Russia then launched into the current apocalyptic bombing of Aleppo, Kerry and Lavrov stitched together a “ceasefire,” which, however, would begin after a week, allowing plenty of time for Russia’s hundreds of strikes a day to perform maximum devastation in the meantime, while excluding all operations against ISIS, Nusra and “other terrorists” from the ceasefire. Since Russia and Assad declare everyone they bomb to be either ISIS, Nusra or “terrorists,” this ceasefire was simply a cover for the genocide to continue, while outlawing the rebels from shooting back!

When Kerry announced the “ceasefire” alongside his Russian counterpart, he put all the blame on the Syrian opposition, and as usual praised his (new) allies to the skies, stating emphatically that “it was not Russia or Iran who stopped a ceasefire from being adopted at the very beginning. I want to make that very, very clear” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/12/russia-big-winner-syria-flawed-truce-assad-europe-us?CMP=share_btn_tw).

Then as Russia and Assad responded to the “ceasefire” by stepping up their genocidal bombing of Aleppo, Kerry said this has to stop, but told the opposition to stop “whining” about it, telling them it won’t stop “by walking away from the table or not engaging” (https://twitter.com/USEmbassySyria/status/696046559486607360).

It may be objected that these are just statements, perhaps driven by diplomacy. However, statements have a context. In the context of such horrific crimes being committed by Russia as we speak; of the US pressuring its “allies” to cut off the miserable aid they had provided the rebels (see below); of the US pushing the opposition into a national unity government with Assad for one and a half years; in the context of US bombing never touching the regime or its death squad allies, but often hitting non-ISIS rebel targets; these “mere statements” represent policy, not diplomacy.

US “betrayal”?

Below I have attached what is one of the better commentaries in mainstream media in recent weeks on the so-called US “betrayal” of the Syrian people in the face of this bloodthirsty Russian-Assadist-Iranian Blitzkrieg on Aleppo.

Of course, its use of words like “betrayal,” and the idea that the US is “handing” Syria over to Russia and Iran (clearly the US is handing it to Assad) still reveal a hint of the grand illusion that perhaps “real” US interests would have been to act differently, or that the open US-Russia ad US-Iran collaboration in Syria somehow represents the US abandoning its own interests in favour of those of others.

Actually, the author only just still borders on these illusions – like any serious observer, the author can see that the facts have long ago depleted most illusions. The author writes for example “Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would be carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway.” He is right that the US has “little respect or care” (“none” would be more correct) for the rebellion, but this very fact makes the word “oblivious” at the beginning of the sentence meaningless. This author can at least be congratulated on showing 90 percent cynicism of basic US motives and positions on Syria throughout the conflict, and only 10 percent remaining illusions of the US being “oblivious” to its interests. Far ahead of most.

It is high time, in my opinion, to call a spade a spade. This has nothing to do with the fact that there has been no “US intervention,” still less a call for it. In fact, those constantly warning against “US intervention” wilfully ignore that the US has been bombing Syria for some 17 months, just that it bombs Anyone But Assad (see my article on who the US bombs: . https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/who-has-the-us-bombed-for-in-syria/).

At this point, it doesn’t even have that much to do with the many years of very active US intervention against the revolution, to ensure that no Syrian rebels, not even the most “moderate”, could get their hands on any anti-aircraft weapons, the major defensive need of the rebels since mid-2012 when massive airpower became the main form of regime aggression; with the fact that sympathetic regional states were blocked from sending them, and that the FSA was even blocked when it tried to get them from the black market. No, this is all well-established; as one tweet put it concisely, “the only consistent, thorough, well-implemented US Syrian policy is tracking hunting and stopping MANPADS from reaching any opposition group since 2012” (https://twitter.com/THE_47th/status/659114328012931072); and the criminality of denying such weapons as the rebels face such apocalyptic bombing right now is for all to see. But it is even more than that.

All the reports from recent weeks, if not months, tell of the US winding down, if not cutting off, the already pathetic level of “support” to some “vetted” rebels (or, put more correctly, of the US forcing Saudis, Qatar and Turkey to wind down or cut off their support). As the author notes in the article below: “In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.” According to Syrian National Coalition Khaled Khoja, external support for armed opposition factions in Syria came to a complete halt following the Vienna talks in October 2015 (http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2016/2/6/the-fate-of-the-syrian-opposition-left-without-support), while videographic evidence shows that use of Saudi-supplied TOW anti-tank weapons on the battlefield “had trickled off in the last months of 2015 and totally vanished in the first two weeks of 2016” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/05/are-u-s-missiles-taking-out-high-ranking-russian-military-officials.html).

So let’s call the spade by its name: the US is opposed to, and has always been opposed to, the Syrian revolution. Period. Things have worked out this way not because the US was “weak,” or “incoherent,” or endlessly (for 5 years) makes “mistakes,” or “bungled it,” or unwittingly “handed over victory” to someone opposed to US interests etc; no, things turned out this way, have been this way for five years, because it is US policy.


One final comment: The author says it is “ironic” that this international Blitzkrieg against Free Syria is occurring at the moment the US and UN have been organising the Oslo-style Geneva “peace process”. Here I’ll allow a little conspiratorial thinking currently prevalent among many Syrians, who have more right to be cynical than anyone. That the Geneva farce – such an obvious farce – was organised as a cover to politically disarm and distract and try to divide the Syrian rebellion while the “final military solution” was being planned all along.



Obama’s Disastrous Betrayal of the Syrian Rebels

How the White House is handing victory to Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran.​


​FEBRUARY 5, 2016​


What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS.

The regime is everywhere on the march. Early on, the rebels mounted a vigorous resistance, but the much-touted increase in anti-tank weaponry could only delay their losses as their weapons storages, command posts and fall-back positions were being pounded. Around Damascus, the unrelenting Russian pounding has bloodied rebel-held neighborhoods; in December, the strikes killed Zahran Alloush, the commander of the main Islamist militia there. In the south, Russia has fully backed the regime’s offensive in the region of Daraa, possibly debilitating the Southern Front. Rebel groups in Hama and Homs provinces have faced a vicious pounding that has largely neutralized them. Further north, a combination of Assad troops, Iranian Shiite militias, and Russian firepower dislodged the powerful Islamist rebel coalition Jaish Al-Fatah from Latakia province.

But it is the gains around Aleppo that represent the direst threat to the rebellion. One perverse consequence of cutting the Azaz corridor is that it plays into the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, since weapons supplies from Turkey would have to go through Idlib, where the jihadist movement is powerful. Idlib may well become the regime’s next target. The now-plausible rebel collapse in the Aleppo region could also send thousands of fighters dejected by their apparent abandonment into the arms of Nusra or IS.

The encirclement of Aleppo would also create a humanitarian disaster of such magnitude that it would eclipse the horrific sieges of Madaya and other stricken regions that have received the world’s (short-lived) attention. Tens of thousands of Aleppo residents are already fleeing toward Kilis, the Turkish town that sits across the border from Azaz. The humanitarian crisis, lest anyone still had any doubt, is a deliberate regime and Russian strategy to clear important areas of problematic residents — while paralyzing rebels, neighboring countries, Western states, and the United Nations.

Assad all along pursued a strategy of gradual escalation and desensitization that, sadly, worked well. Syrians already compare the international outcry and response to the IS’ siege of Kobane in 2014 to the world’s indifference to the current tragedy.

To complicate the situation even more, the regime’s advances could allow the Kurdish-dominated, American-favored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conquer the area currently held by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias between the Turkish border and the new regime front line north of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra. This would pit the SDF against IS on two fronts: from the west, if the Kurds of Afrin canton seize Tal Rifaat, Azaz and surrounding areas, and from the east, where the YPG is toying with the idea of crossing the Euphrates River. An IS defeat there would seal the border with Turkey, meeting an important American objective.

The prospect of further Kurdish expansion has already alarmed Turkey. Over the summer, Ankara was hoping to establish a safe zone in this very area. It pressured Jabhat al-Nusra to withdraw and anointed its allies in Syria, including the prominent Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as its enforcers. True to its record of calculated dithering, President Barack Obama’s administration let the Turkish proposal hang until it could no longer be implemented. Turkey faces now an agonizing dilemma: watch and do nothing as a storm gathers on its border, or mount a direct intervention into Syria that would inevitably inflame its own Kurdish problem and pit it against both IS and an array of Assad-allied forces, including Russia.

​Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the rebellion’s main supporters, are now bereft of options. No amount of weaponry is likely to change the balance of power. The introduction of anti-aircraft missiles was once a viable response against Assad’s air force, but neither country — suspecting that the United States is essentially quiescent to Moscow’s approach — is willing to escalate against President Vladimir Putin without cover.

Ironically, this momentous change in battlefield dynamics is occurring just as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura yet again pushes a diplomatic track in Geneva. But the developments on the ground threaten to derail the dapper diplomat’s peace scheme. Fairly or not, de Mistura is tainted by the fact that the United Nations is discredited in the eyes of many Syrians for theproblematic entanglements of its Damascus humanitarian arm with the regime. Despite U.N. resolutions, international assistance still does not reach those who need it most; in fact, aid has become yet another instrument of Assad’s warfare. Neither Kerry nor de Mistura are willing to seriously pressure Russia and Assad for fear of jeopardizing the stillborn Geneva talks.

Seemingly unfazed by this controversy, de Mistura’s top-down approach relies this time on an apparent U.S.-Russian convergence. At the heart of this exercise is Washington’s ever-lasting hope that Russian frustration with Assad would somehow translate into a willingness to push him out. However, whether Putin likes his Syrian counterpart has always been immaterial. The Russian president certainly has reservations about Assad, but judging by the conduct of his forces in Chechnya and now in Syria, these are about performance– not humanitarian principles or Assad’s legitimacy. For the time being, Moscow understands that without Assad, there is no regime in Damascus that can legitimize its intervention.

Ever since 2011, the United States has hidden behind the hope of a Russian shift and closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard choices on Syria. When the Russian onslaught started, U.S. officials like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken predicted a quagmire to justify Washington’s passivity. If Russia’s intervention was doomed to failure, after all, the United States was not on the hook to act.

Russia, however, has been not only been able to increase the tempo of its military operations, but also to justify the mounting cost. And contrary to some pundits, who hailed the Russian intervention as the best chance to check the expansion of IS, Washington knows all too well that the result of the Russian campaign is the strengthening of the jihadist group in central Syria in the short term. This is a price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the Geneva process alive.

The bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper. The United States has alreadyconceded key points about Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return. In the lead-up to and during the first days of the Geneva talks, it became clear that the United States is putting a lot more pressure on the opposition than it does on Russia, let alone Assad. Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.

The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.

It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith. But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s successor.

The conditions are in place for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria. All actors understand that Obama, who has resisted any serious engagement in the country, is unlikely to change course now. And they all assume, probably rightly, that he is more interested in the appearance of a process than in spending any political capital over it. As a result, all the parties with a stake in Syria’s future are eyeing 2017, trying to position themselves for the new White House occupant. This guarantees brinksmanship, escalation, and more misery. 2016 is shaping up as the year during which Assad will lock in significant political and military gains.​