Category Archives: The Syrian civil war
On June 26th, the Supreme Court handed the president a huge victory in Trump v. Hawaii, the case challenging the legality of his executive order barring citizens of five Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The verdict upholding the ban generated a wave of condemnation across the country, as well as comparisons to some of the most ignominious court decisions in U.S. history.
The same day, in an episode of his podcast, “Deconstructed,” journalist Mehdi Hasan went over “some of the patently absurd and dishonest arguments made in favor of the ban by Trump and by his Republican apologists over the past year and a half. This is about national security, they said. Despite the fact that the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by citizens from countries on the banned list is exactly zero. This is about vetting refugees from Syria, they said. Despite the fact that it is near-impossible for a Syrian refugee to get into the United States without already going through quote-unquote ‘extreme vetting’ by both the United Nations and the FBI.
This isn’t about security, this isn’t about vetting, this Muslim ban is about white nationalism, just as stripping brown kids from their parents at the border isn’t about security or vetting; it’s about white nationalism. Wake up America, wake up media, and smell the racist coffee. This is not a drill. This is the real thing; the United States is being governed by a group of racists, nationalists and, yes, wannabe fascists, who it turns out have the full blessing and protection of a nakedly partisan and rigged judiciary. Let’s not forget that the Republican 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court this morning only happened because the Republican Party stole a Supreme Court seat that should have been filled by President Obama in his last year in office.
But, look: We can complain all we want about Supreme Court fixes and the pro-Trump Electoral College, but we are where we are. We now have to look forward, not back. How do we push back against decisions like this going forward? How do we stand with those families who won’t be able to see or meet the people they love because of this cruel and discriminatory ban? How do we make a stand with kids from Muslim communities, minority communities, migrant communities, who are seeing kids being banned from the U.S., who are seeing kids being stripped from their parent? How do we make sure that we don’t become immune to this stuff, and turn a blind eye to it? Because there’s so much of this racist, discriminatory stuff around. It’s exhausting. Last week it was caged kids, this week it’s the Muslim ban; it’s easy to want to switch off and look away.
But we can’t afford to. And I say this to my American friends and neighbors, as well to my fellow journalists here in the United States: We Muslims, and our Latino brothers and sisters at the border, are the canaries in the coal mine, and we’re not just chirping right now, we’re screaming. This is not a drill.
My guest today is one of America’s leading progressive politicians, the first-ever Muslim American to be elected to the United States Congress and now running for attorney general of the state of Minnesota. Who better to speak to for reaction to this horrific Supreme Court ruling than Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, who’s also deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, the DNC? Keith, you’ve been very active on Twitter this morning talking about this. Give us your initial response to this verdict from the Supreme Court.”
KE: This is really sad because we’ve seen these kinds of failures by Supreme Courts over the years. We all know Dred Scott, where they ratified slavery. We know Plessy, where they said separate but equal. They ratified Korematsu, where they said it was OK to intern Japanese Americans, U.S. citizens. So this is an ugly issue, but there’s also another history and that is people pushing back, people fighting back, people litigating, marching, protesting, speaking out and that is what I’m counting on now.
MH: Yeah. A lot of people, today, are going to be very dejected, really dispirited. The whole reason this ban got to the Supreme Court was because lower-level federal judges took on the Trump administration and shot it down as discriminatory. Now it’s gone to the highest court in the land and they’ve rubber-stamped it. Where do we go legally, judicially from here? You’re running for attorney general of Minnesota; a lot of states attorney generals have tried to push back against Trump. What’s the legal strategy, before we get to the politics. Is there any?
KE: Well, I think that there absolutely is, because the Supreme Court made a decision that I think is wrong, that’s not based on the facts. We could continue this battle in the courts, and we should, since real people are aggrieved and separated from their families. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a stellar life. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had an exemplary history. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a two year-old girl. It just matters what your religion and your country is, and I don’t believe that can stand. In order to overrule this decision, we need another case. We have to keep up the fight and not relent. I’m committed to it. That’s why I’m running for attorney general of the State of Minnesota, to protect people’s rights.
MH: We have a Supreme Court that’s not really about the law, the precedent, or the principle. They’re a highly partisan, carefully selected group of politicians, and I expect we’ll see more bad decisions that favor the powerful over regular people, that allow the big to roll over the small. These are the kind of decisions that Neil Gorsuch specializes in. He doesn’t need to know what the law and the history and the facts are. He just needs to know who’s got the money and the power, and then he knows whose side he’s on. What’s your message to Americans listening to you today on a dark day like this in American history? What’s your message to Americans, especially Muslim Americans? What would you say to someone like my 11-year-old daughter who’s wondering what her place is in the country, with the Supreme Court ruling like this?
KE: What I say to her is that we love her, that she’s safe, that her family is with her, and that her community is looking forward to her offering her leadership to this nation. I say: Go run for student council. Go be a leader in your community. Go offer your leadership, your talent, and your skills, because it’s you who’s going to lead us forward, not these people who let hate drive them. That’s what I say to your wonderful, blessed young daughter. Because I know she’s a little nervous, but she has all of us around her, and she’s our hope.
MH: Congressman Keith Ellison, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
KE: You bet, buddy. Take care.
MH: For more on the impact of the travel ban on the ground, inside of Muslim-American, Arab-American, Iranian-American communities who are suffering as a direct result of this ban and now of this Supreme Court ruling, I’m joined by Debbie Almontaser, one of the co-founders of the Yemeni-American Merchants Association.
Debbie, when you heard the news of the Supreme Court ruling upholding this Muslim ban, what was your response?
DA: I felt like someone punched me so hard in the stomach. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was trying very hard to be optimistic and say to myself, you know, the Constitution is on our side, this is a country that was built on the back of immigrants, this is a country that was built on freedom of religion and expression. But today’s decision didn’t uphold these great values.
MH: You’re a Yemeni-American immigrant who came to this country as a child, right?
DA: Yes. I came at the age of three.
MH: And you came with your family. You now have a family, a community in New York and beyond. Members of your family, your own children have served in the armed forces and the police, I believe. You’ve done a lot for this country, your family, and the Yemeni-American community. And now people from your community can’t see members of their own family because of this ban.
DA: That’s correct. My phone and text messaging has been off the hook with people calling and saying, “What does this mean?” “Is my daughter going to be able to come?” “Is my wife going to be able to come?”And, I have to say, this is truly a betrayal to the existence of my family, seven of whom have served in the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have family members in the New York Police Department. I have family members who are teachers, you know, civil servants. And this is saying to me and my family, “You don’t belong here,” when, in fact, we’ve been a part of the American fabric and building this nation.
MH: And your father, who brought you to this country, I believe he passed away. How do you think he would feel if he were alive today to see the Supreme Court ruling? He came here as an immigrant — to build a life for his family, for his kids, for his community — from Yemen.
DA: My father, today, would be devastated to hear this. When we first came to the United States, his thing was: “You’re an American now. You’re going to get educated, you’re going to work, you’re going to be a part of this country. You don’t need to speak your language, talk about your culture. You’re American.” And I know that if he were here today, he’d be absolutely devastated, because this isn’t the country that welcomed him and gave him an opportunity to raise his children in America.
MH: Where do we go from here? We’ve seen so much protesting, so many examples of people taking to the streets, and yet the Supreme Court comes along and says: This is all fine. This is all legal. Where do you as an activist go from here?
DA: Well, where we go from here is we continue to resist this decision. For example, today, at 6 PM, we’re congregating at Foley Square in New York City with thousands of Yemeni Americans and other impacted countries, along with our allies and organizers. This isn’t over. We have to stay strong, we have to stay committed, and we’ll get through this. The best and greatest way for us to combat all of this is to make sure that people across this nation are registered to vote, and when it comes to the presidential race, we put this administration out of its misery.
MH: What would you say to a young Muslim-American kid who’s listening to this podcast, who wonders about his or her place in America?
DA: Be proud of who you are and where you came from. Stay strong. Don’t let this break you. You have people like me and other activists in your community, and outside of your community, who believe in you and believe in your right to exist with respect and dignity in this nation.
Yesterday, 2-13-18, Democracy Now aired a segment entitled “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Worse: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar.” Here’s my edited version of the transcript:
“Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amid a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched in Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from which the drone was apparently launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. For more, we speak with Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent articles are titled ‘Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet’ and ‘It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.’ And we speak with Syrian-Canadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.
ELIZABETH THROSSELL (UN high commissioner for human rights spokesperson): This has been a week of soaring violence and bloodshed in Syria, with more than a thousand civilian casualties in six days. We’ve received reports that at least 277 civilians have been killed, 230 of them by airstrikes by the Syrian government and their allies. In addition, 812 people were injured.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in the last week alone.
ANNE BARNARD: Well, thank you so much, first of all, for being interested in this subject. It’s very important that it continues to be talked about. I haven’t been in Syria for a year. I’m constantly applying for visas, but the Syrian government is quite unpredictable and restrictive about when it grants visas to foreign journalists. And once you’re there, you can’t operate entirely freely anyway. We’ve covered recent events from here in Beirut through an extensive network of contacts on all sides inside Syria. Over the last seven years, these kinds of death tolls are happening all the time. Civilians and hospitals are under attack, and it’s very hard to get humanitarian aid access. The Syrian government’s attempts to take back rebel-held areas have been particularly characterized lately by an intensified bombing campaign that’s taken a heavy toll on civilians, who are already tired, malnourished, maybe displaced already several times. Some of them are stuck behind siege boundaries. So, it’s really been a tough week.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, most of the media attention in the United States has been focused on the war against ISIS, and with the declaration that most of the ISIS enclaves had been defeated, the attention has largely dropped from the U.S. media. What’s happened since the so-called defeat of ISIS? How has the war in Syria transformed?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes, the U.S. focus has tended to be on ISIS within a framework of the so-called war on terror. But the war in Syria didn’t begin with ISIS and isn’t going to end with it. First of all, I think it’s probably a mistaken “mission accomplished” moment to claim that ISIS has actually been defeated, because many fighters have gone underground, and their ideology, of course, is continuing to assert itself. But since then, what the relative defeat of ISIS has unleashed is the ability of the Syrian government and its allies – Russia and Iran – to turn their attention fully back to fighting the rebels, who have already been on the run. And it’s very complicated, because there are different patches of areas around the country that aren’t connected to each other, that are controlled by different rebel groups, Islamist groups, some al Qaeda-linked groups. There are many wars within the war. And the rest of the world cares less about them than they cared about ISIS, because they saw ISIS as a threat to themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Saturday’s event marking the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s, also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. Can you talk about the significance of this?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes. This brings us to the second consequence of the end of the main part of the territorial fight against Islamic State. Many different international powers, as well as the Syrian government and some of its opponents within Syria, were all against each other, in a way, but united against the Islamic State. And they launched competing campaigns to defeat the Islamic State, racing one another to take its territory. Now that the Islamic State has been largely driven out of territory in Syria, these different combatants are finding that their conflicting interests are coming to the fore again. So, you see Turkey going against Syrian Kurdish groups supported by the US, and even confrontations between the US and Turkey. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria throughout the war, with relative impunity, but this is the first time that the Syrian government has managed to shoot down a jet. You also have Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran – which have differing views about how exactly the future of Syria should be laid out. So, we may be getting to a phase in the Syrian war where all the foreign interveners are turning it into an arena to fight each other, regardless of what Syrians want or the effect on Syrians. And, unfortunately, that could go on for a long time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, I wanted to ask you about the role of Hezbollah, because, it’s been widely involved in the fighting in Syria, and has undoubtedly grown stronger as a result. Could you talk about its role in the conflict, and the concerns of Israel over the growth of Hezbollah?
ANNE BARNARD: Hezbollah entered the war overtly as an expeditionary force in 2013. And that was a big surprise, because this is a group that was founded to fight Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, not to go and help put down uprisings in other countries. But nonetheless, because of their close alliance with Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah entered the war, first in areas that made sense, in a way, for it in a local sense – areas near the Lebanese border. But gradually their role expanded. They were a much more effective pound-for-pound force than the Syrian military, and they ended up helping out in battles across the country. The southern part of Syria is now the biggest issue, because Hezbollah is entrenching itself increasingly in areas bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So, that’s obviously of big concern to Israel. There is also, of course, an Iranian presence in Syria. That’s something Israel’s been trying to counter throughout the conflict, and I think we’re going to see more tensions around that.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, you’re a Syrian-Canadian researcher. Talk about the situation in Syria, your country, as you see it.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: It’s absolutely tragic – a complete annihilation of the struggle for Syrian self-determination by various communities within the country. You’re seeing the complete devastation of a society. The healthcare system is gone. Half the population are either refugees or amputees. It’s absolutely devastating. What we’re witnessing in Syria is the failure of international mechanisms to hold states accountable. This has happened before in places like Iraq, Palestine, Congo, the Central African Republic, and in Myanmar now with the Rohingya. [And Yemen.] And it’s going to continue in various places, as long as states are allowed to do as they please. This can only end if populations and communities around the world start mobilizing and pressuring their governments to stop these types of actions.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yazan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Western powers were originally calling for regime change to end the civil war, and now that’s dropped off the table for a lot of them. Could you talk about that?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: I’m not surprised it dropped off the table, because, let’s be honest, Western governments don’t really care about dictatorships. In fact, they’re quite a fan. They don’t care if Bashar stays or not, as long as he plays ball and fits into their interests. Should Bashar go? Yes, obviously. He’s a dictator. But it can’t happen through Western intervention or Western forms of regime change, because we’ve seen what happened in Libya and Iraq. So we need to do something else here. There needs to be an international mechanism to hold dictatorships accountable, whether they’re allies to the West or to Putin.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne Barnard, could you talk about whether the potential is increasing or decreasing for some kind of a conflict between the outside powers spreading beyond Syria?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, that’s certainly the danger. I mean, and just to build on what Yazan was saying, the reason that the international community, such as it is, hasn’t been able to come to any consensus is the deadlocked Security Council. So, we start from a situation in which Russia and the United States are completely deadlocked – they can’t agree on anything. And now they’re each backing a side in Syria that sees itself as fighting an existential battle. For Russia this is about restoring its great power status and countering the U.S. in a key area of the Middle East. Russia has interests with its port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Tartus on the western coast of Syria. And it’s clearly put more skin in the game than the US has. At the same time, the US has extended its commitment, perhaps indefinitely, in northeastern Syria, where most of Syria’s oil is. Now we’re hearing that last week US forces hit a pro-government force that may have included Russian contractors
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking January 17th at the Hoover Institution, calling Iran a ‘strategic threat’ to the United Sta,tes and using this alleged threat as justification for keeping U.S. troops in Syria.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking U.S. interests, our allies and personnel in the region. US disengagement from Syria would allow Iran to further strengthen its position there.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, if you can respond to the U.S. secretary of state?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: This concern by the US about Iran is typical, in terms of the warmongering mentality within the U.S. military-political establishment and their need to dominate the region. At the same time, Iran is a dictatorship and a problematic regime, just like every other regime in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Zionist regime, the Saudi regime, and others. We need to start creating mechanisms of accountability that force these regimes to accept the power of people and respect their rights of people beyond all.
AMY GOODMAN: Anne, what percentage of Lebanon is now Syrian refugees who have come over the border, not to mention Jordan and other places?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, Lebanon is a country of around 4 million people, and there are at least one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees here, more than a quarter of the population. So, Lebanon is bearing a huge brunt, and Turkey and Jordan also have large numbers of refugees. I like Yazan’s idea of creating a mechanism to hold the powers accountable, but look what happened when Syrian people and people in many other countries in the region tried to speak up and use people power to ask for more rights or reforms in their countries. Almost all of them were defeated by state power in one way or another. So, it’s really a puzzle. I wonder, Yazan, if you have any, you know, specific ideas about how things can go differently for ordinary people who want to make their voices heard. I mean, you know, we’ve seen a lot of idealistic people try, and, you know, you see the results.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: People have tried and are still trying, and we should continue. I mean, one of the most important things is international solidarities, right? Working between communities, whether it’s the Syrian community, working with communities in the United States, for example – let’s say the Black Lives Matter, because they are facing injustices and tyranny of the state. So I believe in creating ties like that. I believe in creating ties between the BDS movement in Palestine with other pro-rights movements in Bahrain or among the Rohingya. That’s the only way forward, because we’re dealing with an international problem of domination over our communities, wherever we are. What’s happening in Syria is a violent, physical manifestation of that. And it’s going to continue in other forms in other places, as long as states still have all the power.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually in Beirut, Lebanon, now in Kuwait, and Anne Barnard, the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.”
Approximately 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Bashar al-Assad regime began violently repressing peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011. Assad’s repression led to activists arming in self-defense and what’s been called a civil war, now joined by Islamist fighters from other countries. (Assad is an Alawite, a cultural group originally practicing a form of Shia Isam, as are many of his supporters, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.) As of March 2017, at least 700,000 Syrians were trapped in areas besieged by the regime, including 388,575 in eastern Ghouta, 15 kilometers east of Damascus; at least 4.9 million were living in hard-to-reach areas inside the country; and at least 6.3 million were internally displaced. According to the United Nations, the number of Syrians who’ve sought refuge outside the country passed 5 million in March of this year. As of December 2016, approximately 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, according to the CIA Factbook, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The population of Syria was estimated in July 2016 to be 17,185,170, 82.5% of which was living below the poverty line in 2014.
Eastern Ghouta, the area east of Damascus, is in one of four proposed de-escalation zones designated in a deal reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May. The accord specified four initial areas: Idlib in the northwest, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Syria. More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the four zones. The accord has yet to be fully implemented because of government violations of ceasefire agreements and disagreements on who will ensure security in the four areas (Turkey and Iran are hoping to increase their influence by means of this plan). A new meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana is expected during the last week of August, with rebels as well as representatives from Turkey and Iran attending, Russia has said.
Following a meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg in early July, a ceasefire agreement – since violated – was also declared in southwestern Syria, affecting the provinces of Suweida, Deraa, and Quneitra.
On 4-26-17, SocialistWorker.org Ashley Smith published an interview with Anand Gopal, a journalist who’s reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East war zones, in which he said, “The U.S. has been heavily involved in Syria for five years and has been bombing the country for three. It’s conducted nearly 8,000 air strikes against a variety of targets, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to members of the anti-Assad opposition, and many civilians have died as a result. Since the beginning, the U.S. has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests. The core American interests in Syria are: one, defeating ISIS and similar groups; and two, preserving the network of dictatorships and client regimes in the region, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. Popular revolutionary movements directly threaten this project, especially when they pose the possibility of overthrowing client regimes and replacing them with independent states. A successful revolution in Syria, especially one outside of American control, would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the U.S. doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused solely on fighting Assad. The Assad regime is now clearly winning the war, having retaken Aleppo and repelled rebel offensives in Homs and Damascus.
Ashley Smith: “It seems like Assad and his backers are succeeding in routing the last remnants of the Syrian revolution, leaving only the jihadist opposition in control of the last redoubt of Idlib. What are conditions like in Syria now after the fall of Aleppo?”
Anand Gopal: “The Syrian battlefield is extraordinarily complex, but as a simplification, you can say that the non-regime side of the equation consists of six forces. Starting with the strongest, politically and militarily, they are:
- the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish group closely allied with the U.S.;
- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the descendant of al-Qaeda in Syria;
- the northern Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied groups, which are backed by and in some cases effectively proxies of Turkey;
- the Southern Front, consisting primarily of revolutionary-nationalist Free Syrian Army groups south of Damascus;
- ISIS; and
- civilian revolutionary activists.”
The first group mentioned by Gopal, the YPG (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, “People’s Protection Units”) is a mainly-Kurdish militia, the primary component of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces. It controls the area in yellow on the map above, also known as Rojava. Rojava has been praised by some on the left for having a government based on the ideas of American social anarchist Murray Bookchin and criticized by others as being authoritarian and overly influenced by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Regarded as an effective force in fighting ISIS in Syria, the YPG receives substantial air and armament support from the United States and some support from Russia.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” in Arabic), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is a Salafist jihadist militant group formed in January 2017, following violent clashes with Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups. It’s a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” formerly the al-Nusra Front) and several other Islamist groups, including foreigners and fighters from Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. Wikipedia says, “Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate, run by al-Qaeda.” Many of its members defected from Ahrar al-Sham, which has a Syrian leadership and “emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad.” A number of analysts and media outlets continue to refer to Tahrir al-Sham by its previous names: al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. (Al-Sham, or Greater Syria, refers to an historic area before Western colonialism, and today would include modern Syria, Lebanon, most of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and parts of southern Turkey.)
For those unfamiliar with the term “Salafism,” Wikipedia defines it as “an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century, advocating a return to the traditions of the ‘devout ancestors’ (the salaf). The Salafist doctrine can be summed up as taking a fundamentalist approach to Islam by emulating Muhammad and his earliest followers. Salafists reject religious innovation and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). The movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group: purists or quietists, who avoid politics; the second largest group: activists who get involved in politics; and the smallest group (a tiny minority): jihadists, those willing to use violence to try to create an Islamic state or caliphate. The majority of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – 46.87% of Qataris, 44.8% of Emiratis are Salafis, and they are a ‘dominant minority’ (22.9%) in Saudi Arabia.”
Returning to Ashley Smith’s interview with Anand Gopal, the latter says that the current “weakness of the FSA and of what was once the mainstream democratic opposition in Syria is due to a number of factors. First and foremost is the sheer brutality of the Assad regime, which crushed any sign of democracy, freedom or dignity wherever it appeared. The U.S. and the regional powers also sought to manipulate these elements to serve their interests rather than the interests of Syrians. For example, when the regime was besieging Darayya [a suburb of Damascus], one of the iconic centers of the revolution, where ordinary people built a local council in the attempt to rule themselves democratically, FSA groups in the Southern Front wanted to save their comrades, but were blocked by Jordan, which did everything from stanching the weapons flow to closing the border to block ambulances. Today, fighters in the Southern Front are so frustrated with Jordan’s stranglehold that some talk about defecting to ISIS, which is actually fighting the regime. Similarly, in northern Syria, a longstanding FSA group lost its foreign funding when it insisted on focusing on fighting Assad. This eventually led it to join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for access to better resources and protection.”
As a socialist, Gopal also believes that the democratic revolutionary councils of 2011 should have confronted “class divisions in Syria” directly, perhaps “confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to meet their revenue needs. Instead, the councils and their armed protection – the FSA – sought outside funding from NGOs and foreign intelligence agencies, which inevitably introduced corruption and fragmentation, creating the space for Islamic fundamentalists to challenge their authority. It’s no coincidence that the three strongest state-building movements in Syria – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the YPG – relied very little on foreign funding. ISIS’s main source of revenue, for example, was confiscation, followed by taxation and oil.
Of course, it’s easy to make this critique in the abstract, and we should recognize the extremely difficult conditions that the rebel movement was operating under. To begin with, the sort of organized left that might have made class demands was very weak in Syria, in large part because of the legacy of Baathist rule, which co-opted or crushed any type of progressive alternative. Meanwhile, ISIS and Nusra could draw on the legacy of fundamentalist political organizing, and the YPG could draw on the longstanding organizational and ideological perspectives of its parent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey.”
Ashley Smith: “It seems likely that the U.S. and its highly contradictory alliance will defeat ISIS in the coming months. What will defeat look like, and will a military victory lead to any lasting political settlement in Iraq or Syria?”
AG: “The defeat of ISIS will look very different in Iraq and in Syria. In Iraq, the offensives will succeed in toppling ISIS, but will keep in place many of the same predatory phenomena that helped fuel ISIS’s rise in the first place. This includes a variety of [Shia-dominated government] militias that have committed grave human rights violations,” largely against Sunnis, “security forces responsible for torture and disappearance of individuals accused of ‘terrorism,’ and a wildly kleptocratic Iraqi state. We may not see an ISIS 2.0, but the country is likely to be unstable and prone to insurgency for a long time to come. In Syria, on the other hand, the main phenomenon that fueled the rise of ISIS was the brutality of the Assad regime. The YPG is the key anti-ISIS force, and in areas where it’s ejected ISIS, locals generally much prefer it to the regime, even in Arab-majority cities like Manbij. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which contains the YPG as its key component, will likely capture Raqqa by the end of this year. After that, the Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria known as Rojava, along with Arab-majority areas like Manbij and Raqqa, will probably make up a de facto independent region within the Syrian state.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. will continue to back the YPG after the fight against ISIS is over, because it’s hostile to some of the group’s left-wing ideals and because its alliances with Turkey and the Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan, both of whom are mortal enemies of the YPG, will come first. The U.S. is merely using the YPG for its own ends, and once it abandons them, there’s a possibility of a showdown between the regime and the YPG.
In the end, a combination of the brutality from the regime and cynical manipulation by outside powers means that the revolution is at its weakest point since it began in 2011. The revolution may be edging closer to total defeat, but among many Syrians inside the country and among the refugee diaspora, who tasted freedom and dignity for the first time in their lives, it will never be forgotten.”
An article on the World Socialist website titled “Trump Pulls Plug on CIA’s Syrian ‘Revolution’ by Bill Van Auken, 7-22-17, says that “Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian-aligned militias and, since September 2015, Russian air support, have driven the rebels out of every major urban center and into the rural areas of Idlib province, where they’ve been engaged in bitter internecine combat against each other…Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to carry out deadly airstrikes against Syrian targets, with the independent monitoring group Airwars reporting at least 415 civilians killed by US bombs and missiles last month alone. This estimate undoubtedly leaves many of the dead uncounted, and the numbers will rise dramatically with the siege of Raqqa.
According to Zvi Bar’el, in a 7-23-17 article for the main Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, “the steering of the diplomatic process has officially been transferred to Russia and Iran, while Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE are expected to keep funding their pet militias, pointlessly extending the fighting. The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war. Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s service in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily by fighting Assad. Others, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that funds them and coordinates their training and military activity. But not all of these militias obey orders or stick to the missions assigned them. Some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help. One is the al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups still fighting, but mainly among themselves.
American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones, and above all steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran. Turkey, once Assad’s bitterest opponent, made it clear months ago that it wouldn’t oppose his continued rule ‘during a transition period’ for which it specified no time limit. Aside from Saudi Arabia, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.
The most dangerous divergence among the major powers’ interests is the rising tension between Turkey and Washington, which hit new heights this week when the Turkish news agency Anadolu published a map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, replete with the number of American soldiers serving on each. This infuriated not only Washington but all NATO members, because never before has one NATO country revealed another’s military secrets. The reason for Turkey’s leak was its deep unhappiness over American aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey suspects the SDF’s Kurdish fighters of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Ankara defines as a terror group. It also fears that some of the American weaponry the SDF is using against ISIS in Raqqa will be given to Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey. Washington’s promise that the weapons have been counted and will be collected from the Kurds when the campaign is over hasn’t assuaged Turkey’s concerns, and rightly so. A lot of American weaponry made its way to terror groups after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington sees the Kurds as an effective and essential fighting force against the Islamic State, so it has no intention, at least for now, of halting aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The distinction Washington has drawn between Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, which merit aid, and non-Kurdish militias fighting Assad, which no longer do, could increase clashes between the Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting alongside Turkey to expand the Syrian territory under Turkey’s control. Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, defined the United States’ support for the Kurds as a ‘strategic mistake,’ arguing that Raqqa could be captured by Turkish and American forces. Turkish officials say Ankara offered to contribute tens of thousands of soldiers to such an effort, but Washington also wanted $80,000, which the Turks considered excessive. Moreover, they said, the United States didn’t have a serious plan of action. Now the concern is that Turkey’s expanding involvement in Idlib province and the expected clashes between its troops and local militias could force the United States, which wants to decamp once Raqqa is taken, to keep its own forces in the field to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian militias.
Israel must now adapt its strategic paradigm to a situation in which Russia has become a dominant player in Syria in particular and the Mideast in general, while the Americans are heading back across the ocean.”
Don’t forget to look under Realities/Syria in the top menu bar or side menu for maps, a glossary, a timeline, the historical background of the conflict, more information on the Kurdish area of Rojava, and most importantly — ways you can help. Under Books, you’ll also find a bibliography and more complete quotes from Syrians from We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled.
More Voices from We Crossed A Bridge
In the first post in this series on the Syrian revolution and civil war, I interwove quotes from Syrian refugees with history and analysis. Here are some more of these poignant and informative quotes from We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman (2017):
Abu Firas, a fighter from rural Idlib, told Bridge interviewers, “For every action there is a reaction. When the regime is killing in this way, people become what we call jihadists and you call terrorists. I swear to God that I have nothing but respect for you regardless of your ethnicity, religion, or nationality. But when my sister is arrested and they rape her, I have no problem entering any place in the world with a car strapped with explosives. Because no country in the world is paying attention to me. Not a single one is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights I should have as a human being.”
Jalal, a photographer from Aleppo, had similar thoughts. “The regime has turned us into monsters so it can justify killing us. Syrian society has been shattered – bring any family together today, and you’ll find four or five empty chairs. I once photographed a barrel bomb that killed three kids as their father sobbed, ‘I left them for an hour to look for a safer place to live. I came back and they were gone.’ I have four kids, and the whole purpose of my life is to guarantee their future. So I imagine this man who loses his kids and completely understand if he turns into a monster.”
Yousef, a former student from rural Hasakh told interviewers, “I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when ISIS showed up. Syria’s oil is located in our eastern part of the country, and ISIS recognized how valuable it is. They took over our village and then moved to take Deir al-Zor, which has the largest oil reserves. Regime planes backed them up. They bombed the rebels and people, not ISIS. There were many men and women ready to fight ISIS, and we could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons – no one supported us. Instead, the U.S.-led coalition started bombing us. Two months ago, 27 people in my village were killed that way, waiting in line for bread. It’s airstrikes that have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and ISIS doesn’t have planes.”
Adam, age 29, a media organizer from Latakia: “We opened a Pandora’s box – we had this innocent, childlike desire to see what was inside it. We thought we’d get a present, and what we got was all the evil in the world. I completely understand why someone would join ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Assad regime or the Kurdish groups – you’re in dire need of a narrative that can justify this futility, this suffering. Otherwise, it’s too painful. I think I’m too old to dream now.”
Khalil, a defected officer from Deir ez-Zor, told interviewers he was “working with the FSA [Free Syrian Army] when the Nusra Front emerged. In June 2012, I went to talk to them. I said, ‘This is a popular revolution, why don’t you use the revolution’s flag?’ They said, ‘That’s the flag of the infidels. We’re raising the flag of the Prophet.’ I said, ‘Bashar let you go so he could say he’s fighting terrorism.’ They replied, ‘God willed that this should be done.’
We each went forward with our work separately. We in the FSA would attack a regime position, force the regime to withdraw, and move on to the next regime position. Nusra would come along behind us and take control of the point we’d just liberated. We were focused on fighting the regime while Nusra was looking to occupy territory. Most of Nusra’s fighters were foreigners – Saudis, Qataris, and Tunisians. The FSA had more men, but received little aid. We could afford to give fighters only a one-time payment. Nusra gave its fighters monthly salaries and top-quality weapons. It also distributed bread to people to try to win their support. People took it because they were hungry, but the first opportunity they had to go out and protest against Nusra, they did. Then ISIS emerged. It also paid people to join its ranks, and had plenty of weapons, and ammunition. Raqqa became the ISIS headquarters. There was no battle; the regime just handed it to them and left.
We’re against Assad because he’s a dictator, and we won’t accept another dictator in his place. What gives them the right to say something is blasphemy? ISIS killed a German doctor working in a field hospital, saying he was an infidel. This man had come from abroad to treat injured people. If that’s infidel, let’s all be infidels.”
Husayn, playwright (Aleppo): “We created the first movement against Islamization after Islamic groups killed a 14-year-old who used to sell coffee on the streets. Three Islamists – an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Syrian – wanted to take coffee and pay the boy later. He told them, ‘Even if the Prophet Mohammed came, I wouldn’t give it to him on credit.’ The Islamists considered that blasphemy and killed the boy. It was around that time that ISIS arrived in Aleppo. They started kidnapping journalists and activists. There were few of us left by then, but we organized a sit-in in front of ISIS headquarters. After an ISIS car followed us home and blocked our taxi, we began working in secret. When I could only oppose ISIS by living in a neighborhood protected by a violent warlord, I decided to leave Syria. I no longer had a purpose for staying.”
Life as a refugee
Safa, a mother from Homs, is in Lebanon, where “life is terrible – a neighborhood of shacks, lack of hygiene, germs making the kids sick. The roof leaks, and the tap water is so polluted you can’t even use it to wash vegetables.
Lebanese won’t work for less than $20 a day, so bosses fire them and hire Syrians for $10, which leads to tension between poor Syrians and poor Lebanese. The UN used to provide $30 per person. Then they announced that they ran out of funding. One woman had little children and they kept telling her to wait in line to apply for help. It was such a humiliation – they’d leave her to wait for hours in the sun, saying ‘tomorrow,’ or ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Finally, she poured fuel on herself and set herself on fire – right there, outside the UN building.
There’s nothing to protect us – no state, no government, no law, no human rights. Animals have more rights than we do.”
Bushra, a mother from al-Tel says that “kids today don’t think about going to school in order to get a job someday – they think about getting a job in the hope that someday they’ll be able to go to school. Or they think about living in a real house. One day I took my young daughter with me to a women’s center, and after living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and floors. She said, ‘Take a photo of me next to the wall!’”
Abdel-Aziz, a teacher from rural Daraa: “The Zaatari camp in Jordan is a dead area. They found a place in the desert where not even a tree or an animal can live, and they put the Syrian people there. The other day we saw a butterfly in the camp. Everyone got so excited, we were shouting at each other to come and look at it. It must have really lost its way if it wound up here.”
Disappointment and hopelessness
Sham, who was part of a Red Crescent emergency response team in Douma, says regime soldiers sometimes took injured people out of their ambulance. They also shot three friends from another team. She and her husband Munir fled the country after he was released from prison on condition of leaving immediately. “Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We check the news every second to see who’s been killed and who’s still alive. Believe me, if the world had helped us from the beginning, we never would have reached this point. If I died this second, I wouldn’t care, because I’ve reached a point in my life where I hate everything. I’m disgusted by humanity. We’re basically the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”
Kareem, the doctor from Homs, wonders “why the world has so little sympathy for people dying in Syria. It’s as if the blood that circulates in our veins is of lesser value. Syria is just a chessboard for great powers to settle their accounts. Our family is scattered. My parents and one of my brothers are in Qatar, another brother is in Egypt, and another is trying to get to get to Germany. My son spent the first years of his life in Homs stuck inside because of the curfew and the bombing. He had no contact with anyone but his parents and grandparents. He was two years old when he saw another child for the first time. He went up to him and touched his eyes, because he thought he was a doll.”
Imad, a former student from Salamiyah, says the media have “tied the revolution to terrorism. If a Syrian asking for asylum says he was with the revolution, European authorities ask if he interacted with terrorists. You feel like you’re being accused of something. It’s easier just to say that you’re running from war, and in this way the truth of the revolution gets buried. And that alone is a crime against everything that’s happened.”
Ghayth, a former student from Aleppo, says, “We worked so hard for the revolution, and it was so innocent. Then it turned into a war, and everyone got involved in stealing it. Good leaders were assassinated, and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] was reduced to a matter of funding. We would prefer to stay in our country. If you don’t want refugees, help us make peace in Syria.”
Husayn, a playwright from Aleppo, asks, “If everyone who participated in the dream of a free Syria leaves or gets killed, who’s going to build Syria later? I have hope that there are still people inside the country who’ll want to build it. Half of those living under regime control don’t support the regime. But the conflict doesn’t belong to us anymore. Syria has become an arena to settle scores, and there’s a lack of agreement about what we need for the future. I know some people fighting the regime want to control my life. But we can argue about that later – first we need to bring down the regime…We’ve accepted the fact that we need to make our dreams smaller if that’s what it takes to keep dreaming.”
You’ll see the final post in this series, an update on the situation in Syria, tomorrow, though I’m sure I’ll write more on this subject in the future…Remember to check out the series resources under “Realities/Syria” in the top menu bar or along the right hand side under “Pages/Realities/Syria;” there’s a timeline, a glossary, maps, and more, including more complete notes on We Crossed a Bridge.