Category Archives: The Syrian civil war
A few days ago, Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist and social critic, was interviewed on “Democracy Now,” and asked to sum up the first few months of the Trump regime. He said that “anything that can be of assistance to ordinary people” is being “decimated, while anything that adds to wealth and power or that increases the use of force is being carried forward.” Meanwhile, the two most important issues – climate change and the threat of nuclear war – on which our survival depend are being largely ignored. The media are largely taking the bait of daily Trumpist distractions, including the question of whether the Russians interfered in the 2016 US election. “Half the world is cracking up in laughter,” Chomsky said about this, since “the United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like.” Even in Russia, the US government got “their man Yeltsin in.” Chomsky understands that “Democratic Party managers want to try to find some blame for the way they utterly mishandled the election and blew a perfect opportunity to win. But that’s hardly a justification for allowing the Trump and right-wing Republican policies to slide by quietly, many of them not only harmful to the population, but extremely destructive, like the climate change policies.”
Chomsky finds the new hostility toward Russia disheartening, since lessening tensions with that country would be “a step forward. NATO maneuvers are taking place hundreds of yards from the Russian border, and Russian jet planes are buzzing American planes. This could get out of hand very easily. Both sides, meanwhile, are building up their military forces, and the US is establishing an anti-ballistic missile installation near the Russian border, allegedly to protect Europe from nonexistent Iranian missiles, a first strike threat. These are serious issues. People like William Perry, who has a distinguished career and is a nuclear strategist and is no alarmist, are saying that this is one of the worst moments of the Cold War. And we should bear in mind it’s the Russian border. It’s not the Mexican border. There are no Warsaw Pact maneuvers going on in Mexico.”
When asked about Trump’s policies with regard to North Korea, Chomsky noted, that North Korea didn’t seriously pursue a nuclear weapons program till after George W. Bush scuttled an agreement Clinton had negotiated according to which “North Korea would terminate its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the U.S. would reduce hostile acts. I mean, you can say it’s the worst regime in history, but they’ve been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy. And why are they developing nuclear weapons? I mean, the economy is in bad shape. They could certainly use the resources. Everyone understands that it’s a deterrent.” North Korea is still offering to stop developing nuclear weapons if the US “stops carrying out threatening military maneuvers with South Korea on its border. Not an unreasonable proposal. And it’s worth bearing in mind that North Korea was practically destroyed during the Korean War by some of the most intensive bombing in history. When there were no targets left, the US bombed dams, a war crime that wiped out crops. The North Koreans lived through that, so having nuclear-capable B-52s flying on their border is no joke. Instead of concern about whether somebody talked to the Russians, this is the kind of thing that should be pursued. That’s what anyone hoping for some form of peace and justice should be working for.”
Relations with China are also “an extremely serious issue,” Chomsky said. “China isn’t going to back down on its fundamental demands, concerning Taiwan, for example. And Trump threatening force is extraordinarily dangerous. You can’t play that game in international affairs. We’re too close to destroying ourselves. You take a look at the record through the nuclear age, of near misses. It’s almost miraculous that we’ve survived. As soon as Trump came in, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock was moved to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, both because of the nuclear threat, recognized to be serious, and the threat of environmental catastrophe, which wasn’t considered in the earlier years, but now is. These are, overwhelmingly, the most crucial issues that face us. Everything else fades into insignificance in comparison. They’re literally questions of survival.
There are now three nuclear powers that have refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: China, the United States, and Israel. If tests begin again, it would be an extremely serious danger. It was when the first tests were carried out that the Doomsday Clock went to two minutes to midnight. There’s been an inadequate, but significant, reduction in nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, and the New START Treaty is supposed to carry that forward. Russia and the United States have the overwhelming mass of the nuclear weapons. And this would cut down the number, especially of the more threatening ones. Trump has said this a ‘bad deal’ for the United States, suggesting maybe we should pull out of it, which would be a disaster.
Sooner or later, people are going to see through Trump’s con game, and at that point something will have to be done to maintain control. The obvious technique is scapegoating – blame it on immigrants or Muslims. But that can only go so far. The next step would be an alleged terrorist attack, which would be easy to construct or stage. I don’t particularly anticipate it, but it’s a possibility. And this is a very frightened country. For years, this has been probably the most frightened country in the world. It’s also the safest country in the world. It’s easy to terrify people.”
On the question of Iran, Chomsky indicated that for years the US and Israel have insisted that it’s the greatest threat to world peace, even though the US comes first in international Gallup polls. “Nobody else even close, far ahead of any other threat. Pakistan, second, much lower. Iran, hardly mentioned. Why is Iran regarded here as the greatest threat to world peace? The intelligence community provides regular assessments to Congress on the global strategic situation. It’s said for years that Iran has very low military spending, even by the standards of the region, much lower than Saudi Arabia, Israel, others. Its strategy is defensive. So, if they’re developing nuclear weapons, it would be as a deterrent. Why are the United States and Israel so concerned about a deterrent? Because they want to be free to use force.”
When asked for his thoughts “on Syria, Russia, the United States,” Chomsky said, “Syria is a horrible catastrophe. The Assad regime is a moral disgrace. They’re carrying out horrendous acts, the Russians with them.”
“Why the Russians with them?”
“Syria is their one ally in the region. Their one Mediterranean base is in Syria. But it’s kind of like the North Korean case. There have been possible opportunities to terminate the horrors. In 2012, there was an initiative from the Russians, which wasn’t pursued, so we don’t know how serious it was, but it was a proposal for a negotiated settlement, in which Assad would be phased out. The West – France, England, the United States refused to consider it, believing at the time that they could overthrow Assad. Could it have worked? You never know. But it could have been pursued. Meanwhile, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting jihadi groups, which aren’t all that different from ISIS. So you have a horror story on all sides. The Syrian people are being decimated.”
On Israel-Palestine, Chomsky said, “There’s a systematic Israeli program that’s been going on since 1967 to try to take over every part of the West Bank that’s of any value, except for areas of Palestinian population concentration, which can rot on the vine. In 1980, the US joined the world not only in calling the settlements illegal, but in demanding that they be dismantled.”
Amy Goodman: “Now you have David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who raised money for the settlements. And Jared Kushner in charge of the policy.”
“Yeah, it’s been step by step. Reagan and Clinton weakened it. Obama and Trump let it stand. Meanwhile, the Kushner Foundation and this new ambassador are strong supporters of the Israeli ultra-right, way to the right of Netanyahu. The Beit El, the community they’re pouring their money into, is run by an Orthodox rabbi whose position is that the army should follow the rabbi’s orders. General discussions about this are extremely misleading. What’s said on all sides is that there are two options: either a two-state settlement, in accord with the long-standing international consensus, or else one state, which would be an apartheid state, in which Palestinians wouldn’t have rights, and you could have an anti-apartheid struggle, and Israel would face what’s called the demographic problem – too many non-Jews in a Jewish state. But there’s a third option, the one that’s actually being implemented: construction of a Greater Israel, which won’t have a demographic problem, because they’re excluding the areas of dense Palestinian population and removing Palestinians from the areas they expect to take over. The United States is providing diplomatic, economic and military support for this project, which will leave the Palestinians with essentially nothing while Greater Israel won’t have to face the dread demographic problem.”
On Latin America, Chomsky agreed that after a 10-year period of enormous social progress via socially minded governments, there have been steps backward in the last few years. The popular governments, with the exception of Ecuador, have been thrown out of office, and there’s a deepening crisis in Venezuela. “The left governments failed to use the opportunity available to them to try to create sustainable, viable economies. Almost every one – Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and others – relied on the rise in commodity prices, which is a temporary phenomenon. Commodity prices rose, mainly because of the growth of China, so there was a rise in the price of oil, of soy, and so forth. But these countries didn’t try to develop a sustainable economy with manufacturing, agriculture and so on during this period. Venezuela, for example, is potentially a rich agricultural country, but they didn’t develop it – they simply relied on oil. On top of that, there was just enormous corruption. It’s painful to see the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which did carry out significant measures, but just couldn’t keep their hands out of the till. They joined the corrupt elite, which is robbing all the time, and discredited themselves. I don’t think the game is over by any means. There were real successes achieved, and I think a lot of those will be sustained. But there’s a regression. In Venezuela, the corruption, the robbery and so on, has been extreme, especially since Chávez’s death.”
On the question of whether fascism could come – or has come – to America, Chomsky said that we could be “in real danger, if a charismatic figure appears who can mobilize fears, anger, racism, a sense of loss of the future that belongs to us. We’re lucky that there never has been an honest, charismatic figure. McCarthy was too much of a thug, Nixon was too crooked, and Trump, I think, is too much of a clown. So, we’ve been lucky. But we may not be lucky forever.”
Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, was just published.
The situation in Syria has seemed so complicated and depressing that I’ve all but ignored it for the past couple of months. Now, however, I’m trying anew to understand what’s going on. I hope you’ll join me by reading this condensed version of an article just published on the Socialist Worker website, socialist worker.org:
How was Syria turned into hell on earth? by Ashley Smith, Socialist Worker, 3-1-16
The U.S. and Russia celebrated the success of last weekend’s “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, purportedly organized so the United Nations (UN) could deliver humanitarian relief to besieged cities like Aleppo. The agreement didn’t include the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which continued to exchange attacks with government troops and Russian forces. In the end, the brief respite in Russian air strikes actually allowed dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army, along with Iranian militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to consolidate control over sections of Syria they’d re-conquered.
Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have justified their savage war by claiming that they’re striking back against ISIS forces that control large parts of the east of the country. In reality, Assad and Putin have been waging a counterrevolutionary war against a resistance to the regime that first arose as part of the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy rebellions. In the process, Syria has been plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe. In a country of 22 million, some 470,000 people have been killed in the war so far, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, with the government and its foreign backers responsible for 95% of civilian deaths. More than 11 million people – half the population – have been driven from their homes. Seven million have fled to other parts of the country, another 4 million have crossed the borders to surrounding countries, and more than a million Syrians have journeyed across the Mediterranean hoping to find refuge in Europe.
Russia’s military intervention last fall has destabilized European politics because of the effects of the refugee crisis and enflamed conflicts between regional rivals in the Middle East, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Amid the spiraling crisis, the U.S. has been forced to shift its policy in Syria. It had been committed to an orderly transition that would get rid of Assad and incorporate handpicked figures from the rebel side into the existing state, which could then be bolstered in the war on ISIS. Now, however, the U.S. seems ready to capitulate to Russia’s demand that Assad remain in power as the joint war on ISIS continues. It’s failed to challenge the Russian intervention, plainly directed toward helping the Syrian regime regain the initiative against rebel forces, not ISIS. Unless something changes, this will be a geopolitical victory for Russian imperialism and Assad’s counterrevolution against what remains of the Syrian Spring.
There are two central causes to this immense international crisis.
The first is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which set in motion the imperialist and regional conflicts that have come to a head in Syria. The Bush administration’s war on Iraq was designed to secure America’s status as the world’s only superpower. The Bush team wanted to conduct rolling regime changes across the Middle East; install puppet rulers in Iraq, Syria and Iran; and – with the region securely under America’s thumb – manipulate energy supplies to control potential imperial rivals like China. The plan failed because both Sunni and Shia Arabs rose up against U.S. forces.
To salvage the failing occupation, the U.S. turned to the classic trick of all empires: divide and rule. It pitted Kurds against Arabs, and Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims. That triggered a devastating sectarian civil war, in which the U.S. backed the Shia-dominated Iraqi state – despite Shia ties to Washington’s enemies in in the Iranian government – against the Sunni resistance. In this context, ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged as a force among embattled Sunnis, launching unrelenting attacks on the Shia population and its religious sites.
Iraq, once one of the most economically advanced countries of the region, was already devastated by a decade of bombing and economic sanctions, and the civil war further unraveled the social fabric. The invasion and the sectarian war caused the deaths of well over a million people.
Iran, the real victor of the Iraq War, could now count the new Shia state in Iraq in its list of allies that included the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – the so-called “Shia Crescent” sweeping from Tehran in the East, through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. To contain Iran, the U.S. turned to its historic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both see Iran as their principal rival in the region. Saudi Arabia used sectarianism to unite Sunni states in the region against the “Shia Crescent,” prompting Iran and its axis to turn increasingly to Russia and China as superpower backers.
Obama adopted a new strategy of balancing between the Middle East’s main powers in the hopes of defusing conflicts and stabilizing the region. The goal was to maintain America’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, while developing a live-and-let-live arrangement with Iran. When the U.S. made a deal with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia and Israel recoiled in anger. The U.S. responded by inking enormous weapons deals with both countries, antagonizing Iran, which doubled down on its relationships with Russia and China.
All of these geopolitical antagonisms have erupted in Syria. Russia, China, and Iran have lined up with Assad, while the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have tried to use the resistance as a tool to get rid of the dictator, while preserving his state.
But these geopolitical conflicts wouldn’t have emerged in Syria in the same form without the second cause of the crisis in the Middle East: the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring.
In 2011, students, workers and peasants rose up across North Africa and the Middle East against dictatorship and repression, as well as neoliberalism and class inequality. The rebellions, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then spreading around the region, were fought for freedom, democracy and equality. The wave of struggle swept away entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but the rulers of other countries in the region, though shaken, managed to cling to power, and the Arab Spring lacked the political development to go further.
Three agents of counterrevolution intervened to preserve the existing order against the tide of revolt.
First, the imperialist powers turned against the uprisings. The U.S. opposed the Arab Spring revolts from the start, turning a blind eye when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened to brutally put down Bahrain’s revolt. Only under duress did Washington abandon its opposition and call for “orderly transitions” in Tunisia and Egypt. It tried to use a grassroots rebellion to get rid of “frenemy” Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but that turned into a disaster, with the country devolving into civil war. This led the U.S. to renounce regime change in favor of stabilizing the existing order.
The U.S. wasn’t the only imperialist power to back counterrevolution. Russia and China also have imperialist stakes in the region. Russia has a naval base in Syria, alliances with Iran and the Assad regime, and investments in both countries. China does, too – it’s eager to invest in the region’s oil economy and curry alliances with oil-producing states to ensure independent access to energy supplies. China and Russia have therefore backed Assad with money and armaments to suppress the Syrian revolution.
The second force of counterrevolution has been the region’s ruling classes and their state machines, which have used brute force to crush revolts and stoked sectarian conflict to divide them. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed various Islamist militias fighting against Assad in Syria, and Iran has supported the Houthi revolt against the Saudi-backed state in Yemen (Saudi Arabia’s responded with a bombing campaign that’s laying waste to the country).
The final counterrevolutionary force is ISIS, which brought together personnel from Saddam Hussein’s former regime with remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq to oppose the Shia-dominated state’s suppression of mainly nonviolent demonstrations in Sunni areas in 2012. In 2014, ISIS carried out a stunning offensive across Sunni areas in western and northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and other cities to proclaim its new caliphate. While not supporting ISIS’s reactionary politics and heavy-handed repression, most Iraqi Sunnis view it as a lesser evil compared to the brutal sectarian rule of the Shia state.
In Syria, ISIS was an embattled, unpopular and mainly foreign force. But once it seized Mosul in Iraq – and, with it, enormous amounts of money and arms – it was strong enough to carve out territory in Syria as well. It hasn’t sought to engage in direct war with the Assad government. It has a de facto non-aggression pact with the regime, going so far as to trade oil with it. ISIS’s military moves in Syria have mainly targeted anti-Assad rebels in areas liberated from the regime’s control, with the aim of expanding the caliphate.
Assad’s regime, like the others in the region, is an utterly corrupt capitalist dictatorship. In recent years, Bashar al-Assad has specialized in imposing neoliberal measures, privatizing sections of state capitalist industry for the benefit of cronies linked to his family. He commercialized agriculture, impoverishing peasants in the countryside, and dismantled the social safety net, pauperizing urban workers. As a result, as Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami report in their brilliant book Burning Country, “inequality grew, until 50% of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 5% of the population.”
While nominally secular, Assad’s regime is controlled by the country’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Like other tyrants in the region, he’s been adept at manipulating Syria’s sectarian divisions, repeatedly posturing as the defender of the Alawite and Christian minorities against Sunni Islamists, who he portrays as a terrorist threat. The regime has also manipulated the country’s principal national division between Arabs and Kurds. It allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), rebelling against the government in rival Turkey, to base itself in Syria until 1998. At the same time, it denied citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds living in Syria, banning their language and crushing an uprising in 2004. The government did allow the formation of the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, at times cutting deals with it and at others repressing it.
Many grievances, including the government’s inadequate response to agricultural drought caused by global warming, drove Syrians to revolt against Assad in 2011. Tens of thousands marched peacefully in cities throughout the country, especially in the Sunni provinces, chanting slogans against sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism, like “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” and for nonviolence: “Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
Assad attempted to crush the revolt, deploying his police and paramilitary thugs, the shabiha, to attack, beat, jail, and torture thousands of activists. To justify this brute display of repression, and with the hopes of maintaining some base of support, the government claimed that the demonstrators were agents of foreign powers and Islamist sectarians who would attack the Alawite and Christian minorities. To make this threat more credible, Assad released 1,500 Sunni Salafists from his jails. They organized as many as 12 sectarian groups that targeted religious minorities and their places of worship.
Attempting to keep the Kurds from joining the revolt, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 of them and withdrew his forces from the Kurdish north, effectively ceding control of the area to the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Because of the history of Arab prejudice against Kurds and its own peculiar form of nationalist politics, the PYD kept its distance from the predominantly Sunni Arab revolutionaries and attempted to carve out a Kurdish autonomous zone, Rojava, in Syria’s north.
Threatened by the state’s savage counterrevolution, Syrian revolutionaries had no choice but to take up arms in self-defense. They formed an estimated 1,000 militias, won over the Sunni rank and file within the Syrian military, and forged the Free Syrian Army, numbering over 150,000 fighters, which progressively liberated cities and territory from the crumbling regime.
Assad retreated to predominantly Alawite strongholds among Syria’s coastal cities. In the liberated areas, revolutionaries built a network of local councils called Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that organized the struggle and attempted to replace services previously provided by the government.
With his regime collapsing, Assad turned to rule-or-ruin tactics. His air force bombed cities and dropped chemical weapons on civilians, laying waste to whole sections of the country.
Amid this catastrophic situation, various Islamist forces emerged within the revolution. Some were accepted as part of it; some competed with the LCCs and the FSA from outside, but still fought the regime; and others, like the al Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front, sometimes came into conflict with the FSA while also clashing with the regime.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar funded the FSA. But they never supported the revolution. The U.S., for example, never provided the heavy weaponry FSA fighters needed to defend their cities against Assad’s air force. When Assad dropped chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus in 2013, pressure built on the U.S. to intervene against Assad. But Obama balked, instead agreeing to a Russian deal to save the regime, on the condition that it destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
The U.S. and its allies hoped to co-opt the revolution’s representatives organized, first, in the Syrian National Council, and later, in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The U.S. wanted to use these bodies to put pressure on Assad to step down, then broker a deal that incorporated sections of the rebel leadership it could rely on into the existing state.
Regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided limited support to some Islamist forces, prompting many militias to rebrand themselves Islamist in order to procure desperately needed funds and arms. At the same time, the desperation conditions in Syria drove many to find succor in religion to alleviate their suffering. Thus, sections of the revolution increasingly gravitated to Islamist forces. ISIS, the most extreme and counterrevolutionary expression of this dynamic, continued to concentrate its fire on anti-Assad opposition groups rather than government forces.
After ISIS established itself as a power in Syria following its victories in Iraq, Assad claimed to be waging a “war on terror” against it. But other rebel forces were the overwhelming targets of the slaughter carried out by government forces – later even more effectively with support from Russian warplanes.
Since the rise of ISIS – especially after the terrorist attacks it orchestrated last year in Paris and elsewhere – all the imperial and regional powers have intensified their intervention in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has built an international coalition forged around NATO, but encompassing 66 countries in total, with the stated aim of degrading and eventually destroying ISIS. But Obama’s new war has only deepened the crisis in Syria and the region. It’s blown up more of the country, exacerbated the refugee crisis, and increased recruitment to ISIS, and will undoubtedly trigger more blowback, as ISIS resorts to terrorist tactics in the region and internationally.
The U.S. wants to avoid a protracted ground war against ISIS. Instead, Washington aims to provide air support for proxy forces on the ground overseen by military advisers and Special Forces. In Iraq, the Pentagon hopes to bolster the existing Iraqi government by getting it to incorporate the Sunni elite, integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi Army, and turn its united forces against ISIS. In Syria, the U.S. has escalated its air strikes against ISIS targets, but has found it difficult to secure proxy forces on the ground. A U.S. training program designed to field a fighting force against ISIS failed, largely because Syrians who might have taken part wanted to fight to overthrow the regime rather than being U.S. proxies against ISIS. The program, which recruited and graduated a total of 60 people, was wrapped up last year.
The U.S. has also struck a de facto cooperation pact with Assad in order to fight ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration established backchannel contacts with Assad to ensure that it could use Syrian airspace for its bombing runs. It also forged an alliance with the PYD and YPG. When the U.S. finally did expand its air strikes into Syria, its warplanes struck not only ISIS, but also the al-Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis tolerate because it defends them from the regime. Syrian Sunnis perceive this de facto alliance between the U.S. and the regime as a betrayal of the revolution, and, out of despair, some are joining ISIS for the same reason that Iraqi Sunnis see it as a “lesser evil” – however brutal and reactionary, it’s an alternative to violence and death at the hands of the state.
Late last year, Russia took advantage of America’s weakened position to intervene directly in Syria in support of the regime. The Russian air force backs up ground operations by government troops, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah, to retake the country’s liberated areas. Proclaiming that it was targeting ISIS, Russia’s directed 80% of its strikes against rebel forces.
Russia hopes to force the U.S. to accept Assad’s regime as an ally in the grand coalition against ISIS. Just like the U.S., Russia’s air force has supported the PYD, YPG and its broader umbrella fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nominally to fight ISIS. But the Kurdish forces have also attacked rebel fighters and imposed their rule on Arab areas in an effort to enlarge the Kurdish autonomous zone. Tragically, this has broken the potential unity between the Kurdish struggle and the Syrian revolution. The PYD’s calculation is that it can win liberation for Syrian Kurds with this strategy. More likely, the imperial powers will merely use and betray the PYD, as they’ve done in other countries, like Iraq.
Russia’s atrocities could eventually rival those that the U.S. committed in Iraq. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 679 civilians killed in January alone – 94 of them children and 73 women – as a result of Russian air strikes.
The UN Commission of Inquiry has accused the regime of the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure” and using starvation as a weapon of war. Doctors Without Borders reports that Russia and the regime have attacked its 67 hospitals with 94 air strikes, completely destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 of its staff.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has enflamed America’s allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, which launched a campaign of state terror against Kurds and the PKK within its borders, has objected to Russia’s intervention, as well as American support for the PYD. It classifies the PYD in Syria as a terrorist group and views the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone along its border with Syria as a national security threat. Earlier this year, Turkey shot down a Russian jet in contested territory along its border with Syria. It’s also carrying out cross-border artillery and air strikes on PYD and YPG positions. Turkey’s President Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. choose between supporting Turkey and supporting the PYD.
Saudi Arabia is also protesting Russia’s intervention and Washington’s retreat from its insistence that Assad must go, which it views as another American concession to Iran. That’s what is behind threats to send Saudi weaponry to Turkey and launch a ground invasion of Syria with Saudi forces. Justified as a war against ISIS, it’s really a threat to stop the advance of Assad and his allies.
Russia’s air war has driven untold numbers out of besieged cities like Aleppo, with many desperate to escape to Europe.
Outfoxed by Russian imperialism, worried about the growing consequences of the flood of refugees to Europe, and scrambling to maintain some leverage in the region, the U.S. government seems to be shifting its Syrian strategy in the run-up to the so-called peace negotiations set for Geneva, Switzerland, on March 7th. It’s accepted Assad’s participation in the process in order to continue with its priority of fighting ISIS, and is apparently willing to postpone a transition to a post-Assad regime until an uncertain date in the future. Secretary of State John Kerry, who long ago abandoned Assad’s removal as a precondition for any political settlement, now states that the U.S. and Russian views on Syria “are fundamentally very similar,” and that the replacement of Assad would come at the end of a long “transition government.” Such a deal will never be accepted by the majority of Syrian Sunnis, who rightly look upon Assad as a mass murderer. To frighten the various sides into accepting what’s on the table, however, Kerry’s floated a plan to partition the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Alawite states. This would not only trigger mass ethnic cleansing in Syria, but would destabilize the entire region. Turkey, for instance, would certainly oppose any plan that set up a new Kurdish state led by the PYD, since that would encourage Turkish Kurds to secede and join it.
The imperialist and regional powers offer no solution to the mess that their interventions and counterrevolution have caused. They’re all committed to preserving the rotten system that the people of the Middle East and North Africa revolted against in 2011.
The only lasting solution is to get all of the foreign powers out of Syria and Iraq, especially the U.S., but also Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The borders of all the countries of the region, of Europe and beyond should be opened to the fleeing victims of the slaughter. Finally, the struggle from below for democracy and freedom, the national self-determination of oppressed people like the Palestinian and Kurds, and the self-emancipation of the region’s laboring masses should be allowed to recover. That will require a radical left alternative, rooted in working-class organization, which stands for unity against national, sectarian, and ethnic prejudices and divisions.
When I heard that the French government was bombing Raqqa, the Syrian capital of ISIS, to get back at the terrorist group for its attacks in Paris, I shook my head, thinking, “Yeah. Tough guys. More hate. More hurt.” Eight ISIS terrorists killed over 100 innocent people in Paris and wounded many more. How many innocent people in Raqqa have now been killed and wounded (ISIS holds hostages there)?
The leader of the Paris terrorists, still at large, is from Syria, where ISIS is based, but had lived in Belgium. Innocent Syrians in their thousands are fleeing Syrian government and ISIS violence, risking their lives in flimsy rubber boats and trudging past countless barriers to find safety in Europe and elsewhere. Will they now be confused with the terrorists?
Nicholas Hénin, a French journalist once held prisoner by ISIS, wrote an editorial in the Guardian yesterday describing his captors as ill-informed and thoroughly indoctrinated with ISIS propaganda. That propaganda, which envisions apocalyptic battles between ISIS good guys and evil Western “Crusaders” is the mirror image of the propaganda disseminated by anyone in the West who views the struggle the same way.
You don’t put out a fire with oil or more fire. You use water — something antithetical to fire. You don’t stop terrorism or any kind of violence or hate with more terrorism/violence/hate. That just makes things worse. And, as Hénin says, it’s just what ISIS wants, because it verifies their propaganda, helps them gather more recruits, and keeps the battle going.
Violent Western policies have helped create these terrorist groups in Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Middle East. And they just seem to get bigger and bigger (remember al Qaeda? Seems to have morphed).
I don’t claim to know what the answer is (I’d start by looking into 1. recent history, the chain of events, and 2. the psychology of the young recruits)…But more violence isn’t going to help — including violent responses by politically motivated macho Western governments that hurt more innocents and escalate the horror.
Amy Goodman interviewed Sarab al-Jijakli, a Syrian-American community organizer on Democracy Now! today, and he shed some light on the Syrian refugee crisis. For one thing, he thinks the US should join Europe in offering resettlement to the refugees (it’s only taken in 1,500 so far in four-plus years), “a drop in the bucket,” as al-Jijakli said, asking “everyone in America to reach out to their elected representatives” on the subject.
Al-Jijakli also criticized US policy in Syria, both now and in the past four years that the civil war’s been going on. “The biggest problem we have in Syria, from a Syrian perspective,” he said, “is who are the overwhelming perpetrators of violence that are driving these refugees out. And overwhelmingly, we know and we find that 85 to 90 percent of all civilians killed are killed by the Assad regime…There are two forces waging war from above. First and foremost, the United States for a year now has controlled the skies over Syria. Much debate is being made over a no-fly zone, etc., but the United States controls Syrian airspace. What’s even more perplexing is that with that control, they’ve allowed the Assad regime to utilize their helicopters and air force to bombard and kill tens of thousands of Syrians from the sky. So it begs the question not about no-fly zones, but why the United States, which is the overwhelming broker of power in the sky over Syria, is allowing so many Syrians to die.”
Juan González then asked al-Jijakli about the Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey that have taken in millions of Syrian refugees over the past four years, and the latter said that “literally half of Syria’s population is displaced: 4-plus million refugees who have fled outside the country and about 8 million people inside the country. Those refugees that we see on those boats today are fleeing for the second and third time in their lives. The picture we saw of that poor child drowned on the beach, his father initially lived in Damascus, was detained by the regime and had to flee Damascus a first time as a refugee with his family. He went back into Syria to Kobani and then again had to flee again. So, you see this is not a new issue. It’s four-plus years of dispossession and displacement.”
Amy Goodman then spoke with Erik Leidal, a volunteer with the community-run relief group Train of Hope, which is providing assistance to the migrants passing through the Central Train Station in Vienna, Austria. Leidal said, “the Austrians, they don’t take to the streets in protest very often, but they’re showing enormous compassion with their help during this crisis. Train of Hope isn’t run by the Red Cross or Caritas. It’s self-organized, and well over a thousand volunteers have helped out over the past week at the central train station here in Vienna. It’s a very diverse group of individuals who want to make a difference together. And I’d say Train of Hope is resonating off of Occupy in many ways and is taking full advantage of the capacity for social change through social media, like Twitter and Facebook. We’re even using an Indiegogo campaign to fund transportation at ‘Help Syrian Refugees Get to Germany.’ Essential to our team are translators of Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other languages. We also have doctors and lawyers on our staff who volunteer.
The train station where we meet them, for many, is the first stop in Austria after getting out of Hungary. Most of them are exhausted and confused. The trains are often filled to the brim, and many haven’t eaten for days. Many must wait overnight, some for longer, at the train station before they can go on. Most describe their experience in Hungary as hell on earth.”
Many of the refugees take a boat from Turkey to one of the Greek islands, then make their way to Athens and north to Macedonia. From Macedonia, they travel through Serbia, finally reaching Hungary. Much walking is involved, as well as conflict with and bribing of officials. The refugees finally reach Austria and take a train to Vienna, from which they hope to reach Sweden, Belgium, or Germany, where many have relatives.
Annette Groth, a member of the German Parliament and spokeswoman for human rights for the Left Party, spoke to Amy earlier in the program. She had just returned from a trip to Hungary, where she saw thousands of migrants stranded at the Budapest train station, and visited “concentration camps” holding hundreds of migrants in horrifying conditions – in handcuffs, with no food or water. When I heard Ms. Groth described a family with a young baby being treated in this inhumane way, tears came to my eyes. It’s just wrong.
A friend who’s also concerned about the Syrian refugees sent me a video showing that there are others suffering in the world whom no one hears about. The video shows villagers in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan being bombed by the Sudanese government, which is fighting “rebels” in the area and wants control of the oil and gas in the region. It points out that most of these people have never used electricity or ridden in a motorized vehicle. They hide in caves, behind rocks, and in holes in the ground, trying to shelter from the bombs. An American medical missionary, Dr. Tom Catena, the only doctor in the area, feels privileged to be helping these people (Google his name to find out how to help him).
I e-mailed my friend back saying that her concern about the Sudanese villagers reminded me of the fact that few people know that 8 million civilians have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past 15 years, and suffered atrocities, including vicious rapes. As in Sudan, different groups, “rebels” and governments (the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda) are fighting over the natural resources, such as coltan, which is used in cell phones and other electronics, with which the Congo is “blessed.”
I think it’s important to be informed about all of this unnecessary suffering, all of which is equally atrocious, and to do our best to find out what we can do to end it. I believe that when you start to do this, you’ll find that governments like ours – and the corporations they support – are complicit in and responsible for the suffering. After all, it was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that set off the destabilization of the Middle East, just as European colonial powers like Britain, France, Belgium (the Congo), and Portugal created the conditions plaguing Africa today – starting in the 17th century with the slave trade. (Another destabilizing factor in the Middle East is US support for Israel, which has driven millions of Palestinians from their homes, and continues to oppress them in the West Bank and Gaza. Talk about having to flee for your life multiple times – many of these Palestinians, as well as Iraqis, fleeing sectarian conflict in their country, had taken refuge in Syria.
I could go on…but you get the idea.
Become informed, including learning the history. Then I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s ordinary people like us who care who need to overthrow or circumvent their governments and start handling things, including relations with other peoples, themselves. In the meantime, feel free to contact the president and your Congressional representatives. I rarely do, out of principle, because I don’t think they should have so much power, when we have so little, and because I don’t want to support the system. But sometimes when other people do, temporary help is forthcoming that saves lives for the moment.
This reminds me of the upcoming (2016) elections and the campaigning for them already taking place. With Donald Trump in the picture, the process should finally be revealed to all what a ridiculous (though dangerous) sideshow it all is. I can see the age-old argument waiting in the wings – vote for Hillary to avoid the Donald…She is the lesser of two evils, but damn…When/how are we going to demand something better?
The current issue (#485, September 2015) of the New Internationalist magazine is devoted to the nonviolent civilian activists of Syria’s “forgotten revolution,” still trying to do their work despite the carnage of four years of civil war.
Rajif Jouejati writes in one article that “when the Arab Spring began several years ago, Syrians looked with envy at the freedom movements sweeping Tunisia, Libya, and Eygpt. Change seemed unthinkable in Syria, where everybody knew that you could be imprisoned for merely criticizing the president. And yet the unthinkable happened: in March 2011, Syrians began protesting against more than 40 years of tyranny. The revolution began peacefully, with Syrians from all backgrounds and walks of life calling for freedom, dignity, and democracy. Peaceful Syrian protesters – often numbering in the hundreds of thousands in a single demonstration – demanded change.”
In December 2011, as Daniel Adamson reports, fellow nonviolent activists got creative, doing things like releasing 2,000 ping-pong balls, each inscribed with the word “freedom,” down a steeply-sloping Damascus street. “Insisting that Assad’s regime could be crippled by civil disobedience, they instigated a general strike, closing shops and disrupting transport networks.” At the same time, however, Assad let hundreds of known Islamic militants out of government jails, hoping, “many analysts believe, to transform a civil uprising into an Islamic insurgency that would legitimate the crushing of the revolution. It took a long time for Syria’s revolutionaries to take up arms, and still longer before they were eclipsed by the ferocity of the Islamic militias. In the end, though, Assad’s selective release of prisoners, the army’s murderous assault on peaceful demonstrators, and the meddling of foreign powers [see below] ensured that Syria was engulfed in a full-scale civil war.
By 2013, the Sunni jihadist movement that had plagued Iraq for years had bled across the border and morphed into ISIS, a group even more nihilistic and vindictive than its progenitors.” As Adamson suggests, this was just what Assad wanted, since “he’d always said Syria was dealing with terrorists, and that his regime was the only bulwark against fanaticism.” Still, “wherever the regime was pushed from power,” the nonviolent revolutionaries continued their work, now trying to build a new civil society. The people who had marched for freedom ran hospitals and schools, documented human rights violations, and reported news. These initiatives were often shut down by fighting, or hampered by lack of funds or experience. But for all its flaws, the revolutionary movement was [and still is] lit up by the courage of the Syrian people.
Assad’s assault on this fledgling civil society is perhaps the saddest chapter in the tragedy of Syria’s war. In rebel-held towns, schools and hospitals were hit by a rain of barrel bombs that killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions more. In areas under regime control, security services detained anyone who showed too much independence of mind – web developers like Basel Khartabil, who campaigned for the freedom of information online; lawyers like Khalil Ma’touk, who defended Syria’s prisoners of conscience; humanitarians like Raed al-Tawil, who volunteered with the Red Crescent in Damascus. All three men vanished into the regime’s jails in 2012. None has been heard from since.
No one knows how many languish alongside them – perhaps as many as 150,000, and few can imagine the horrors these people endure. It wasn’t until 2014, when a forensic photographer defected from the Syrian military with 55,000 images on flash drives, that the world got its first glimpse into what goes on in these jails. The photos showed 11,000 corpses bearing the marks of starvation, pipe beatings, cigarette and acid burns, electrocution, fingernail extractions, strangulation, and stabbings.
But Syria’s nonviolent resistance is still alive. Much of its energy has, by necessity, been directed towards emergency relief – pulling the wounded from the rubble, keeping clinics supplied, and distributing food in areas under siege. But even under these conditions, there are activists working on the longer-term challenges of state building: creating a free press, educating women, and advancing the notion of transitional justice.
In its neglect of these activists and its lurid fascination with ISIS, the media has played along with Assad’s narrative of a war against terrorists – a narrative that depicts Syrians only as passive victims in a bloody game between Islamists and autocrats. After the fight that these people have put up and the sacrifices they’ve made, it’s hard to imagine how dispiriting this must feel.
Many of Syria’s nonviolent activists, when asked what the international community can do to help, converge on a single conclusion: Syrians need an internationally enforced No-Fly Zone to protect them from Assad’s barrel bombs.” As Hana Mourtada writes for planetsyria.com, “if liberated rebel-held areas were protected from Assad’s daily onslaught” in this way, “the nonviolent civil activism and self-governance that’s been established in Syria would start to flourish, refugees would return, and an alternative order to that of Assad would begin to emerge.”
The competing agendas of powerful nations have deepened the Syrian conflict. Iran and Russia have supported Assad with arms, Iran spending billions propping up the collapsing Syrian economy, and Russia has vetoing Security Council resolutions that might have led to military intervention against the Syrian regime. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are anti-Assad, with Turkey supporting the Free Syrian Army and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states funding Islamic groups. The United States initially pledged support for the rebels and in 2013 came close to military intervention against Assad. Since the rise of ISIS, however, it’s concentrated on attacking the jihadis.
Two Syrian Heroes
Ayham Ahmed is known as the piano man of Yarmouk, a densely populated neighborhood of southern Damascus that grew out of a Palestinian refugee camp in the 1950s. At the beginning of a government siege in 2013, Ahmed started playing a piano and singing in the streets to help children traumatized by the fighting. In April of this year, Islamists took control of the camp, banned music, and burned Ahmed’s piano. Risking his life now by playing outside on a keyboard, he says, “I’m sad that my piano has been burned, but I’m more sad at the lack of help from a limp world that looks at our suffering without lifting a finger…Still, I’m going to sing for love and peace, even if no one helps us.”
The White Helmets are Syrian civilians from all walks of life who search for and rescue survivors in the rubble after bombing and shelling. Ninety-three of them have been killed, while others have lost limbs and been blinded (the government often bombs the same area again after rescuers have gathered). White Helmets leader Raed Saleh, a former electronics salesman, says, “Every day we pull people out, most of them children. This generation that we’re pulling from the rubble, these kids are going to build a new Syria…We need to finish off the first source of terrorism, which is Bashar al-Assad, and then the second source of terrorism, which is ISIS. I am certain that when we’ve got rid of Assad, the Syrian people will be able to finish off ISIS.” Saleh notes that even though the UN has banned the use of chlorine gas and barrel bombs, the Syrian regime is still using these weapons against civilians. (A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device used by the Syrian Air Force, made from a barrel filled with explosives, shrapnel, and/or oil, that’s dropped from a helicopter.)
Half the Syrian population (11 million Syrians) is displaced, 240,000 have been killed, and there are more than 150,000 prisoners of conscience undergoing torture in government jails. People trapped in besieged locations: 640,200. Syrians drowned trying to reach Europe: 2,157 (75% women and children). European countries are hosting only 4% of the 4 million Syrians who’ve fled the country.
Syrian ‘good guys’ like Ayham Ahmed, the “piano man of Yarmouk,” and White Helmets leader Raed Saleh need our help.
Also, read Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, 2015.