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It’s a good thing I listen to selected episodes of “Democracy Now” via podcast, or I would have missed last Wednesday’s incredibly moving story about the Poor People’s campaign, barely mentioned in the New York Times. I hope you’ll go to http://www.democracy now.org and listen too. The story of the arrests (for demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court, which had just upheld suppression of voter rights in Ohio), what participants had to say, and the songs they sang (“Everybody got a right to live”) had me on the verge of tears. Go to www.poorpeoplescampaign.org and volunteer to join the campaign and/or donate. I did both.
This campaign inspires me for two powerful reasons: its goals not only need to be realized, but when they are the promises of my era, the ’60s, will be fulfilled (this campaign is a continuation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign). Another key podcast, a speech by Black Panther founder and leader Bobby Seale broadcast on June 7th, is available on Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org). Seale’s ideas are right in line with the Poor People’s Campaign. Power to the people!
In “A Murderous History of Korea,” published 5-18-17 in the London Review of Books, historian Bruce Cumings asks how “a puffed-up, vainglorious narcissist, whose every other word may well be a lie (that applies to both of them, Trump and Kim Jong-un), comes not only to hold the peace of the world in his hands but perhaps the future of the planet? We have arrived at this point because of an inveterate unwillingness on the part of Americans to look history in the face and a laser-like focus on that same history by the leaders of North Korea.
North Korea celebrated the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25th, amid round-the-clock television coverage of parades in Pyongyang and enormous global tension. No journalist seemed interested in asking why it was the 85th anniversary when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was only founded in 1948. What was really being celebrated was the beginning of the Korean guerrilla struggle against the Japanese in northeast China, officially dated to April 25, 1932. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, many Koreans fled across the border, among them the parents of Kim Il-sung, but it wasn’t until Japan established its puppet state of Manchukuo in March 1932 that the independence movement turned to armed resistance. Kim and his comrades launched a campaign that lasted 13 difficult years, until Japan finally relinquished control of Korea as part of the 1945 terms of surrender. This is the source of the North Korean leadership’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people: they are revolutionary nationalists who resisted their country’s colonizer; they resisted again when a massive onslaught by the US air force during the Korean War razed all their cities, driving the population to live, work, and study in subterranean shelters; and they’ve continued to resist the US ever since.”
Cumings says North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) “is less a communist country than a garrison state, unlike any the world has seen. Drawn from a population of just 25 million, the North Korean army is the fourth largest in the world, with 1.3 million soldiers – just behind the third largest army, with 1.4 million soldiers, which happens to be the American one. Most of the adult Korean population, men and women, have spent years in this army: its reserves are limited only by the size of the population.”
US treatment of North Korea is completely “ahistorical, demonization transcending party lines and drawing on a host of subliminal racist and Orientalist imagery; no one is willing to accept that North Koreans may have valid reasons for not accepting the American definition of reality. Their rejection of the American worldview – generally perceived as indifference, even insolence in the face of overwhelming US power – makes North Korea appear irrational, impossible to control, and therefore fundamentally dangerous. But if American commentators and politicians are ignorant of Korea’s history, they ought at least to be aware of their own. US involvement in Korea began towards the end of the Second World War in 1945, when State Department planners feared that Soviet soldiers, who were entering the northern part of the peninsula, would bring with them as many as 30,000 Korean guerrillas who’d been fighting the Japanese in northeast China. They began to consider a full military occupation that would assure America had the strongest voice in postwar Korean affairs. Several of the planners were Japanophiles who’d never challenged Japan’s colonial claims in Korea and hoped to reconstruct a peaceable and amenable postwar Japan. They worried that a Soviet occupation of Korea would thwart that goal and harm the postwar security of the Pacific. Following this logic, on the day after Nagasaki was obliterated, John J. McCloy of the War Department asked Dean Rusk and a colleague to go into a spare office and think about how to divide Korea. They chose the 38th parallel, and three weeks later 25,000 American combat troops entered southern Korea to establish a military government.
To shore up their occupation, the Americans employed every hireling of the Japanese they could find, including former officers in the Japanese military like Park Chung Hee and Kim Chae-gyu, both of whom graduated from the American military academy in Seoul in 1946. (After a military takeover in 1961, Park became president of South Korea, lasting a decade and a half until his ex-classmate Kim, by then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, shot him dead over dinner one night.) After the Americans left in 1948, the border area around the 38th parallel was under the command of Kim Sok-won, another ex-officer of the Imperial Army, and it was no surprise that after a series of South Korean incursions into the North, full-scale civil war broke out on June 25, 1950. Inside the South, whose leaders felt insecure and conscious of the threat from what they called ‘the north wind,’ there was an orgy of state violence against anyone who might somehow be associated with the left or with communism. The historian Hun Joon Kim found that at least 300,000 people were detained and executed or simply disappeared by the South Korean government in the first few months after conventional war began. My own work and that of John Merrill indicates that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces. In short, the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work – and were then put back into power by the Americans.
Americans like to see themselves as mere bystanders in postwar Korean history. It’s always described in the passive voice: ‘Korea was divided in 1945,’ with no mention of the fact that McCloy and Rusk, two of the most influential men in postwar foreign policy, drew their line without consulting anyone. There were two military coups in the South while the US had operational control of the Korean army, in 1961 and 1980, during which the Americans stood idly by lest they be accused of interfering in Korean politics. South Korea’s stable democracy and vibrant economy from 1988 onwards seem to have overridden any need to acknowledge the previous forty years of history, during which the North could reasonably claim that its own autocracy was necessary to counter military rule in Seoul. It’s only in the present context that the North looks at best like a walking anachronism, at worst like a vicious tyranny. For 25 years now the world has been treated to scaremongering about North Korean nuclear weapons, but hardly anyone points out that it was the US that introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, in 1958; hundreds were kept there until a worldwide pullback of tactical nukes occurred under George H.W. Bush. Every US administration since 1991 has also challenged North Korea with frequent flights of nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace, and any day of the week an Ohio-class submarine could demolish the North in a few hours. Today there are 28,000 US troops stationed in Korea, perpetuating an unwinnable stand-off with the nuclear-capable North.
To hear Trump and his national security team tell it, the current crisis has come about because North Korea is on the verge of developing an ICBM that can hit the American heartland. North Korea tested its first long-range rocket in 1998, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the DPRK’s founding. The first medium-range missile was tested in 1992, and North Korea now has many sophisticated medium-range missiles within range of 200 million people in Korea and Japan, not to mention hundreds of millions of Chinese, and the only US Marine division permanently stationed abroad, in Okinawa. It isn’t clear that North Korea can actually fit a nuclear warhead to any of its missiles – but if it happened, and if it was fired in anger, South Korea would immediately be turned into what Colin Powell memorably called ‘a charcoal briquette.’ But then, as General Powell well knows, we’d already turned North Korea into a charcoal briquette with years of aerial bombing, much of it with huge quantities of napalm, during the Korean War.
American policy has cycled through a menu of options to try and control the DPRK: sanctions, in place since 1950, with no evidence of positive results; non-recognition, in place since 1948, again with no positive results; regime change, attempted late in 1950 when US forces invaded the North, only to end up in a war with China; and direct talks, the only method that’s ever worked, which produced an eight-year freeze – between 1994 and 2002 – on all the North’s plutonium facilities, and nearly succeeded in retiring their missiles. On May 1st, Donald Trump told Bloomberg News: ‘If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim Jong-un], I would be honored to do it.’ There’s no telling whether this was serious, or just another Trump attempt to grab headlines. But whatever else he might be, he is unquestionably a maverick, the first president since 1945 not beholden to the Beltway. Maybe he can sit down with Mr. Kim and save the planet.”
This article was written before President Trump began threatening North Korea with utter destruction and personally insulting Kim Jong-un.
For more, read Cumings’s books, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, North Korea: Another Country, and The Korean War, A History.
This post completes my notes from the book Burning Country (see part one for full title and authors), but stay tuned. I’ll be posting more key information every day for the next few days. Want to help Syrians involved in this struggle before reading more about it? Scroll down for a list of websites.
The tilt toward jihad
BC quotes Syrian activist Aziz Asaad as saying that the Syrian revolution “‘gradually became sectarian because support was offered to revolutionary brigades that raised Islamic banners and slogans.’ Monzer al-Sallal adds, ‘We used to laugh at regime propaganda about Salafist gangs and Islamic emirates. Then the regime created the conditions to make it happen.’
Tormented, bereaved, and dispossessed, the Syrian people took refuge in religion. They didn’t become advocates of compulsory veiling and public beheadings – almost all were horrified by the appearance of these phenomena, and most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than an Islamic state. But Islamism in both moderate and extreme forms flourished, especially among fighters. This inevitably sharpened divisions between the Sunni Arab majority and everyone else, especially the Alawis, 90% of whom still supported the regime.
The persistence of sectarian resentments in secular, even unbelieving countries demonstrates that they involve group fears and tensions and their exploitation by power rather than theology. The sectarian breakdown in Syria was deliberately provoked and manipulated by the regime in order to frighten secularists, religious minorities, and the West into tolerance of the dictatorship’s violence. Writer Samar Yazbek says that in August 2013, Assad’s forces shelled Kafranbel exactly at the moment when people were about to break the Ramadan fast. ‘This is where extremism comes from – from violence and brutality.’ Similarly, the Zahra neighborhood of Homs, had a ‘Sunni market’ selling cheap furniture, clothes, and electronics looted from opposition homes. Alawi women were encouraged to go into Sunni homes and take money and mobile phones. Using locally recruited sectarian gangs as death squads also transformed neighboring communities into bitter enemies.
The entry of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias into the conflict gave it conflict a Sunni-Shia flavor, too, fitting it into a regional struggle that had flared since the American occupation of Iraq. The Shia were by no means a natural target for Syrian Sunni enmity – they constituted only 1% of the population and before the revolution weren’t particularly associated with the regime. When Hezbollah was perceived as an anti-Zionist resistance force, it was wildly popular among Syrians, Sunnis included. The alliance between Assadist Syria and Shia-theocratic Iran is political, not religious, but that’s not the way it felt on the ground.
By 2011, Sunnis and Alawis were used to working together in mixed urban areas, sometimes even intermarrying. Yet almost every Alawi family has a son, cousin, or uncle in the army or security services, and those living in the Alawi enclaves built by the regime on strategic approaches to the main cities are overwhelmingly employed by the military or security services. The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces, and the security agencies are almost exclusively Alawi. Once despised, Alawis are now feared and resented, even though – because of regime pressure over the years – most of them aren’t religious and know little about their own tradition. Alawi group identification today isn’t primarily religious; they see themselves as a historically oppressed community whose fortunes are now inextricably tied up with the repressive mechanisms of the state, and with the Assad family.
During the 1960s much of the Arab world was on a secular trajectory similar to Europe’s. Political discourse referenced socialism and nationalism more than religion, and such visible signs of piety as the headscarf were diminishing. Then came the catastrophic defeat by Israel in 1967 and the collapse of nationalist dreams. By the time of the 1979 revolution in Iran, Islam was at the top of the political agenda, and in the following decades there was a region-wide religious revival. Religion was both exploited by power and served as a site of resistance to it. The return to religion came in the age of security states, and was in large part a consequence of them: the corruption of education systems, the clampdown on free expression, and the general pollution of public space gave the mosque an importance it had been losing. The elimination or cooptation of the left also removed one of religion’s natural competitors. Religion responded to popular dissatisfaction with an economic, cultural, and social reality wrongly perceived as secular, and filled welfare gaps for those abandoned by neoliberal regimes.
Atheism was forbidden in the Assadist ‘secular’ state, and the constitution mandated that the president be Muslim. There was no civil code for personal law – marriage, divorce, and inheritance were governed by sharia for Muslims and church law for Christians. The regime frequently conceded to the conservative social demands of the Sunni clergy (the ulema), as long as it failed to call for, or openly opposed, democratic reform. The Sunni religio-political alternative to the ulema is Islamism in its various forms. [For more on Islamism, see the Glossary under Realities/Syria.] In Syria Islamists demanded free elections and an end to the single-party system and respected human rights. (Though Islamism generally tends to the right, it can support liberation theology, bourgeois democracy, dictatorship, or apocalyptic nihilism.)
Unlike the tame shaikhs of the big cities, the provincial ulema stood firmly with the revolution. The failure of nonviolent Islam in the face of savage regime repression greatly benefited political Islam in general, however, and in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist [Islamic fundamentalist] trend in particular. [More on Salafism in the Glossary.] In Syria Salafism had been both savagely repressed and cleverly exploited. The regime allowed Salafist networks sending fighters to Iraq against the Americans and the Shia government to operate unimpeded, then arrested and imprisoned them when they returned. By 2013, activist Salafism was in the air, providing a ready vocabulary for previously apolitical men suddenly finding themselves having to fight, alienated by the weakness of traditional religious discourse, and searching for an ideology to frame their experience. Yassin Swehat describes many revolutionary fighters as needing ‘discipline and a strong ideology to be able to live in post-apocalyptic conditions.’ Conspiracies aren’t needed to explain the phenomenon, but once again the regime did its utmost to encourage it. From March to October 2011, at the same time that it was targeting thousands of nonviolent, non-sectarian revolutionaries for death-by-torture, the regime released from its prisons up to 1,500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists and helped them create armed brigades. It wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaeda, but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning, so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. Many leaders of key Islamist militias were beneficiaries of Assad’s ‘amnesty.’
Even in circumstances of war, most Syrians aren’t Islamists. In a 2014 opinion poll conducted among refugees, only 30% expressed the desire for a religious-based state – a remarkably low proportion, considering that in the ears of many Syrians the phrase ‘Islamic state doesn’t connote corporal punishment or enforced gender segregation, but rather ‘just government’ or ‘a clean social space.’ Fighters, however, were finding that the most easily tapped sources of funds were Salafist businessmen from the Gulf. State donors like Saudi Arabia funded militias led by men with tribal or personal connections to the Kingdom, some of whom were Islamist. Qatar armed Muslim Brotherhood-linked and Salafist groups. Another factor was the air of corruption and disorganization hanging over the FSA and the Islamists’ contrasting reputation for order. Because of their enthusiasm and willingness to die, and sometimes because of their previous experience in Iraq, Islamists proved the most effective on the battlefield and in providing services to civilians. A final factor in the military Islamization of the revolution was the lack of an international response to Assad’s massacres, particularly the August 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus, when the opposition’s hopes of significant Western support were finally buried.
On November 22, 2013, the Syrian Islamic Front declared its existence. Five of the seven brigades contained in the alliance – Jaysh al-Islam (prominent in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus), Liwa al-Tawheed (Aleppo’s most important formation), Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Kurdish Islamic Front – had previously fought for the FSA and would still fight alongside it, but were now emphasizing their independence and Islamic identity. Some Syrians saw the Islamic Front’s formation as a necessary move to deny the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS a monopoly over armed Islam. Others worried over the Front’s position on democracy. Its spokesmen called for a sharia state, rejecting the concept of popular sovereignty as expressed through democratic elections, while at the same time promising not to impose its program on the Syrian people and saying that its role was just to bring down the regime. Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush promised protection for minorities (which implies no equality of citizenship), while vowing to ‘cleanse Syria of Shia filth.’ In May 2014, after revolutionary criticism, the Islamic Front, alongside other ‘moderate Islamist’ brigades, signed a Code of Honor rejecting ‘extremism’ and stating that ‘the Syrian revolution is one of morals and values, aiming to achieve freedom, justice, and security for Syrian society and its diverse social fabric.’ The idea of a sharia state was dropped.
The nature of Islamic Front rule is best judged by examining Douma and the rest of eastern Ghouta, where Jaysh al-Islam is the dominant armed force. Jaysh al-Islam enjoys a degree of genuine popularity among the Ghouta’s hungry residents, primarily because of its courage and military prowess. Ziad Homsi explains, ‘By the summer of 2012 all of Douma was liberated, but sometimes Assad’s army reentered town and then the Free Army brigades fled while Alloush’s men stayed.’ Neither did they persecute the few Alawis still in the Ghouta, who were supporters of the revolution. Secularists and minorities were nevertheless compelled to live according to Alloush’s social standards (Lubna al-Kanawati, for instance, was told to wear the hijab in public). Jaysh al-Islam won plaudits for pushing ISIS out of the area in 2014, but by then residents were accusing the militia of stockpiling food. Lubna: ‘The people know they’re pursuing their own interests, not religion. In the Ghouta, people still want freedom and human rights, but increasingly they’re too scared to speak. It’s a new form of dictatorship.’
The most blatant sign of the new dictatorship was the militia’s likely abduction and perhaps murder of the Douma Four on December 9, 2013. Three of these revolutionaries – Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi – were part of the founding core of the LCCs. The fourth was Samira Khalil, wife of prominent leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who’d stayed in Douma to set up women’s centers. Asaad al-Achi says, ‘Razan, Wael, and Nazem were the backbone of the LCCs. Razan was documenting the violations committed by Alloush’s Army of Islam, and the LCCs were competing with his Mujahideen Consultative Council. Beyond that, he was offended by Razan, a woman who will never veil and who won’t allow anyone to dictate to her. For a Salafist, such a free spirit is dangerous.’ In Aleppo, too, new forms of authoritarianism were constricting revolutionary space. Zaid Muhammad was detained for three days by the sharia court there for expressing secularist ideas.
The first major jihadist organization to arrive on the battlefield was Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, whose core members fought with al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Its arsenal, acquired from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf, and its cadres’ fearless fighting skills allowed it to capture a string of military installations in the east, and to procure weaponry, including heavy guns. In Aleppo, regime bombing of bakeries, poor supply lines, and the looting and indiscipline of the FSA militias, sparked a bread crisis in the winter of 2012/13. Jabhat al-Nusra stepped into the breach, setting up the Islamic Services Committee to provide bread and water, and winning plaudits from locals as it safeguarded and fairly distributed grain supplies. Basel al-Junaidi says, ‘They were respected as strong, well-trained soldiers, so people – including secularists like us – decided to tolerate them until the regime had gone. We had faith that Syrian society would never accept their rule. Now we can see this was a mistake.’ Al-Nusra’s large popular base consists mainly of Syrians who joined for pragmatic reasons and, at least at first, didn’t necessarily support its Salafist state-building project. Research conducted by the Voices of Syria project in early 2012 showed that the Islamist fighters interviewed were surprisingly supportive of democracy: 60% of the fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra agreed that democracy is preferable to any other form of governance. Seventy percent also strongly agreed that ‘it’s essential for Syria to remain a unified state.’ Though the terrors of the intervening years have likely hardened attitudes, it’s probable that many of these men will leave the jihadist ranks once Assad falls.
The foreign fighters are a different matter. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed that al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) had birthed Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the two organizations would now be merging under his leadership as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – ISIS, or Daesh according to its Arabic acronym. Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, backed up by al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, refused the merger. ISIS fighters arrived in Syria as they’d once arrived in Iraq, gently at first, exploiting the people’s torments. But in the town of Saraqueb in Idlib province in May 2013, they whipped two men in the public square for an infringement of Islamic law. In June they took absolute control, forbidding drinking and smoking, making public prayer compulsory, and closing the printing press used by local revolutionaries. In July they attacked Saraqueb’s media center and abducted Polish journalist Martin Soder.
In March 2013, revolutionaries took control of Raqqa, a city between Aleppo and the Iraqi border, the first provincial capital to be entirely liberated. Jabhat al-Nusra was there in force, setting up a sharia court. Like-minded jihadists, more interested in establishing their own power base than in toppling the regime, flooded to the city from Idlib and Aleppo. From April, ISIS increasingly dominated Raqqa, attacking shrines and churches and causing the city’s substantial Christian population to flee. Like the regime, ISIS specialized in exemplary barbarity. Its territories witnessed not only public floggings, but stonings, crucifixions, and the hurling of gay men from towers. Its rule presaged a totalitarian year zero: libraries and shrines were destroyed, schools were turned into propaganda and recruitment centers, and a reign of terror targeted FSA, Islamic Front, and Nusra fighters; civil activists and media workers; and foreign journalists and aid workers. Syrians who were in any way ‘different’ – those who’d lived abroad, even those with light features – risked death at ISIS checkpoints. From southern Turkey, Bashar Abu Hadi, says, ‘We are all wanted by both the regime and Daesh. Daesh killed the elite of the revolution.’
The regime pursued an undeclared nonaggression pact with ISIS for months, bombing Raqqa’s schools, hospitals, and marketplaces, but not its large and obvious headquarters. It also bought oil from the jihadists. This strategy aimed to achieve the usual twin goals – to scare minorities, secularists, and the religious but non-extremist population into loyalty, and to convince Western powers that the dictatorship was the lesser threat. Depressingly, many Western columnists and government officials took the bait, calling for cooperation with Assad against ISIS, and ignoring the context – Assad’s even worse atrocities – which created the chaos in which ISIS thrived. [Note: 97% of civilian casualties in the Syrian civil war have been caused by the Assad regime, and in recent years Russian bombs and rebel fighters have come second and third, with ISIS a 2% fourth.]
The people in liberated areas proved they could take on ISIS without seeking the aid of their chief tormentor. During the winter of 2013/14, popular protests against both Assad and ISIS spread across the north. The FSA, the Islamic Front, and Nusra all responded, driving ISIS from its border strongholds in Idlib and Aleppo, where it had controlled the passage of men, goods, and weapons. ISIS was also pushed out of Aleppo city and greatly weakened in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. A few weeks of rebel operations backed by popular support had done what Assad had refused to do, but the turnaround was lightly covered by the Western media.
Then in June 2014, events in Iraq brought ISIS back from the brink in Syria. Iraq had also been touched by the Arab Spring, though protests there, coming in a post-Saddam, post-civil war context, had a sectarian flavor from the start. A ‘Day of Anger’ across the country’s Sunni Arab area on February 25, 2011 had developed into weekly protests by tens of thousands, protesting the sectarian oppression of the Shia-led post-occupation Iraqi state. Repressed, these protests erupted again even more strongly in 2013. In December, in response to the kidnapping of a Sunni member of parliament, tribal forces joined by defected Sunni policemen took over the major towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. Sensing an opportunity even as it reeled from its defeats in Syria, ISIS increased its presence in Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas through the spring of 2014. By June, though it fielded a minority of fighters, it was leading a Sunni coalition. Iraqi Shia, Christian, and Yazidi civilians in ISIS-controlled areas were forced to flee or suffer mass execution, enslavement, or forced conversion to Islam. Many Iraqi Sunnis were prepared to tolerate the jihadists at first, alienated as they were from the Iraqi government, but hundreds have since fled their rule.
In June 2014, ISIS led an offensive which took huge swathes of northern and western Iraq out of government hands. Most significantly, Mosul, the country’s second largest city, fell on June 10th after only four days of battle. Shia General Mahdi al-Gharawi – a proven torturer who’d run secret prisons but was nevertheless appointed governor of Nineveh province by Maliki – fled, and his troops, who greatly outnumbered the ISIS attackers, deserted or, if Sunni, defected. ISIS collected the arms left behind, much of it high-quality American weaponry, and cleaned out Mosul’s banks. Then it returned to Syria in force, beat back the starved FSA, and bought new loyalties.
The FSA and Islamic Front in Deir al-Zor, besieged by both ISIS and Assad for months, begged the United States for ammunition, warning the city was about to fall. Their plea ignored, they pulled out in July, leaving the province’s oil fields and the Iraqi border area to ISIS. ISIS reinforced itself in Raqqa and surged back into the Aleppo countryside and the central desert. Dominating a third of Iraq and a third of Syria, it declared itself a caliphate at the end of June 2014. ISIS’s precipitous expansion ended its undeclared nonaggression pact with Assad. In August it took on regime forces in the east, most dramatically at the Tabqa airbase, where its execution of 220 surrendered conscripts shocked Syrians on both sides. Assad’s opposition was limited to areas of regime influence, and when the FSA and ISIS fought, his planes bombed the FSA.
For some, the very extremity of its rule makes ISIS attractive; its violence seems to herald a completely new start, and its repression removes crime and dissension from the public space. Some support it, therefore, for the sake of stability, and because it appears to be the strongest, most credible available option to Assad. As it parodies nationalism and Islamic history, so its nihilism parodies the anarchist
ideal; in its territories the rich, the notable families, and all political parties are rendered irrelevant, and peasant boys and Bedouin can rise to command. Because its militants aren’t numerous enough to govern the vast areas it controls, ISIS sometimes relies on local leadership, co-opting sections of tribes or villages against others with divide-and-rule strategies as coldly intelligent as Assad’s. Many young people have joined up in order to fight the regime that bombs them and been shocked to find themselves fighting Kurds or the FSA instead.
On September 22, 2014, America and its allies finally intervened openly in Syria – not in support of the popular revolution or against Assad, but to attack ISIS. On the first day, they hit Jabhat al-Nusra, killing dozens of men and women and children. Later they struck at Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group at war with ISIS. More to the point, both were on the front lines against Assad, and both might have contained a majority of foot soldiers in favor of democracy. Syrians in the liberated areas were astounded that the US, which had declined to bomb Assad when he slaughtered them with barrel bombs and sarin gas, was now bombing fighters defending them against the dictator. Indeed, American and regime planes shared the sky, and it was often difficult to tell whose plane had caused the slaughter on the ground. The Americans were also bombing oil fields and grain silos, which funded ISIS, but also provided civilian communities with fuel and food. Monzer al-Sallal, a Free Army commander from Manbij, expresses the popular disgust: ‘They bomb far from the front lines where the Free Army could take advantage, and they bomb at night when Daesh have left their positions and are sleeping in people’s houses.’ In Kobani, at least, American bombs provided support for PYD fighters on the ground. The American raids provoked a series of protests across the north. And when ISIS took Palmyra from Assad on May 20th, Syrian-American activist Mohammed Ghanem commented, ‘We are mystified as to how ISIS columns with hundreds of fighters were able to traverse the Syrian desert and reach Palmyra without suffering a single air raid.’
In late March 2015, al-Nusra, the FSA, and the Islamic Front liberated Idlib city, the second provincial capital to escape Assad’s control. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia had set aside their differences and coordinated an improved supply of anti-tank weapons. While Assad was crumbling in Idlib, the Southern Front, a unified body of 57 FSA groups, was punishing him around Deraa. (The Southern Front has refused to enter into coalition with Jabhat al-Nusra, its symbology and rhetoric continuing to echo the revolution’s national and democratic aims.)
By February 2015 more than 220,000 Syrians had lost their lives, and four times that number had been wounded – 6% or more of the Syrian population. More than 150,000 have also been incarcerated in Assad’s dungeons, many of whom will never come out. Photos released by a defected military police photographer in January 2014 provide evidence of the murder of 11,000 detainees, tortured or starved to death in only one region of the country. With the collapse of the economy and the destruction of infrastructure, three million had lost their jobs, pushing unemployment to 57.7%. Four in five Syrians were living in poverty, and extreme poverty rose to 64.7%. 12.2 million people needed humanitarian aid to survive, 4.8 million of them in difficult to reach areas. More than 640,200 were besieged, facing starvation. Protestors calling for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from regime bombardment went unanswered.
A quarter of the country’s schools are inoperable – destroyed, damaged, or providing shelter for the displaced, and over half of Syria’s children aren’t going to school. More than half of the country’s hospitals are no longer functioning, and diseases like polio, hepatitis, and typhoid are spreading with the collapse of water, sanitation, and health systems. By January 2013, revolutionaries were struggling to respond to basic needs, as the regime (and sometimes other armed groups) restricted access to international humanitarian organizations. It took the UN until mid-2014 to authorize cross-border and cross-battle line aid without the consent of the state, finally allowing agencies to reach areas like Aleppo, Idlib, and rural Damascus.
By July 2015 half the population had been displaced, four million having fled the country and 7.6 million being internally displaced, often multiple times as the violence spread. Unplanned camps cluster in border regions not served by the UN or any organization other than those run by expatriate or local Syrians. At Atmeh on the Turkish border, 30,000 people living in tents endure an enervating, dust-laden wind in summer and bone-deep, biting cold in winter, children’s feet protected from the snow only by flip flops. Some have frozen to death; others have burned in tent fires. Battles between smugglers and Turkish police, ISIS and opposition militias, or Arab forces and the PYD have encroached on the camp’s borders, while other camps have been raked by machine gun fire from regime helicopters.
Abo Hajar, who crossed to Jordan and eventually made his way to Europe, says, ‘To flee the country you need $1,000 to $2,000 just to pay a smuggler.’ Of the four million who’ve managed to get beyond the border as of early 2015, 35.1% were in Turkey, 34.5% in Lebanon, 18.7% in Jordan, and 6.9% in Iraq. Only 6% have made it to Europe, the majority to Germany and Sweden.
Sprawled across two and a half miles, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, less than ten miles from the Syrian border, was at one point home to more than 150,000, now 81,000, refugees. Zaatari is a hostile environment, with temperatures plummeting below freezing in winter and above 100 degrees in summer. Residents can’t easily leave the camp, whose perimeter is patrolled by Jordanian police. Most of the 629,000 Syrians in Jordan don’t live in camps, however, but in towns and cities, often in squalid conditions. Syrians aren’t permitted to work in the country, but unscrupulous bosses give them jobs for long hours on very low wages. The 1,172,753 Syrian refugees in Lebanon as of July 2015 constitute well over a quarter of the country’s population, upsetting its precarious economic and sectarian balance. The government refuses to set up formal camps, so refugees move into already impoverished communities. Perhaps the most welcoming are the long-suffering Palestinian camps; refugees from Yarmouk go there to stay with relatives, sometimes accompanied by their former Syrian neighbors.
In July 2015, there were almost 2 million Syrians in Turkey, a wealthier and more populous country than either Jordan or Lebanon. Some are housed in formal camps of a comparatively high standard, but many more live in border towns in rented apartments and sometimes in the streets. Most of the two to three thousand Syrian refugees in Iraq are Kurds living in the territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Forty percent are housed in nine camps set up after 2013, when a large influx followed fighting between ISIS and the PYD. The KRG has warmly welcomed Syrian Kurds and allowed them to work, despite the worsening humanitarian disaster caused by ISIS’s rampage against Iraqi Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Syrians are less welcome in Arab Iraq. A few have sheltered with relatives in Sunni-majority Anbar province, but under ISIS rule and subject to assault by the Iraqi army, Anbar is little safer than Syria.
In March 2015, 132,375 Syrians were living in Egypt, having been welcomed during the country’s revolutionary phase. Now, however, General Sisi’s propaganda machine paints Syrians and Palestinians as agents of disorder linked to Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism, and they suffer discrimination and harassment. Thousands, including children, have been detained without charge, and hundreds have been deported, some back to Syria, where they risk being arrested as soon as they step off the plane.
Thousands of Syrian refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe, where countries have put up roadblocks to immigration and migration. In Calais, France, refugees try to reach the UK, alongside migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. Many try to cross the English Channel by strapping themselves to the undercarriages of trucks, and some have been killed in the attempt.”
The authors of Burning Country suggest that “the Obama administration’s obsession with reaching a nuclear deal with Iran meant appeasing Iran in Syria, while the killing went on. The American public and elite also had no appetite for intervention after the failure in Iraq, particularly with a fragile economy after 2008. Unfortunately, the Americans also prevented other powers from giving Syrian revolutionaries the anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons necessary to defend liberated areas from Assad’s bombs and shells. American diplomatic policy was to encourage Assad to stand down while keeping the regime – expanded to include a few safe oppositional faces – in place. This policy, which fundamentally misunderstood the nature of both the regime and the revolution, was reflected in the on and off flow of arms. When the FSA won a victory, the weapons dried up; when Assad surged back, it resumed. The Americans always insisted that the FSA had first to attack jihadists before it would send weapons. But as the secular Kurd Serdar Ahmed says, ‘Daesh’s worst crime in Syria was the massacre at the Taqba airbase where they killed 220. Assad has killed at least 200,000. When the people saw the American coalition leaving Assad alone and attacking Daesh instead, some started saying, “We are all Daesh.” Every bomb the coalition drops, the more popular Daesh becomes.’
Russia has preserved a web of business and military relationships with Syria since the Soviet era. The Syrian port at Tartous houses Russia’s only naval base outside of Russia and the Ukraine, but a greater motivation seems to be Putin’s desire to project Russian influence and prestige. So, barrel bombs are dropped on residential tenements from Russian-supplied helicopters, Russian military advisers train regime soldiers, and Russian fuel shipments arrive at Tartous. Russian military intelligence also helps coordinate regime actions.
Zaid Muhammad writes that ‘there are still many young people in Syria – whether secularists or Islamists – who believe in the freedom of the other, but they’re dying, they’re being murdered. The West knows this. I believe if Russia hadn’t vetoed action against Assad in the UN Security Council, America would have.’ Yara Nseir says ‘the international community is responsible for the desperation that leads people to Daesh.’ The Syrian revolution didn’t receive the international support and recognition it deserved, and not for want of information. Syria’s citizen journalists, as well as foreign reporters, struggled and even died while trying to communicate Syrian terrors and hopes to the world. Others have done the Syrian people great service in activism, in collecting and delivering aid, by volunteering in refugee camps, or advocating for refugees in Europe. Sadly, however, these were a small minority, and they frequently found themselves swimming against the tide. The dominant narrative on Syria was terribly flawed, beset by false assumptions, red herrings, and sensationalism. It was an unwitting carrier of Assadist propaganda, contributing to the manufacture of the popular assumption that in Syria a secular regime stands on one side and fanatical Islamist extremists on the other, with nothing in between. All Western readers knew of Arab Aleppo was that it was ruled by ‘Islamists’ of some stripe or other; they knew nothing of the grassroots activists, the committees and councils, or the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ men fighting to defend their communities. ISIS’s theater of atrocity also demonstrates an accurate understanding of Western media prejudices. The beheading of one American is headline news, while the tens or hundreds killed daily by Assad go unreported. The start of solidarity is to correct the narrative.
Had Assad not received such solid military and economic support from abroad, had the Free Army and the grassroots organizers not been in various ways abandoned and betrayed, the regime might have fallen in 2013. It would have been difficult to establish a more democratic and socially just society at that point, but the country would have been spared the rule of ISIS and the ongoing destruction of its cities. Many decent, forward-thinking Syrians still have stomach for the fight, even if many of them are in exile. There’s reason to hope that when the bombs finally stop falling, when ISIS and regime checkpoints no longer threaten death, these people will return and raise their voices for a better future. At the time of this writing, however, more Syrians flee the country every day, and more Sunni and Shia foreign fighters rush in.
We hope this book has shown that there are Syrians inside and in exile who are more than worthy of support. We ask the reader to engage with them, with media and creative workers, with the committees and councils, by working with refugees and in the camps. We ask the reader, rather than applying the usual grand narratives, to listen to voices from the ground.
On September 30, 2015, Russia declared active war on the Syrian revolution. Though its public rhetoric was stopping ISIS, it hit nowhere near ISIS positions, but rather struck the communities that had driven ISIS out. The bombing killed at least two dozen civilians, including many children, and destroyed such targets as a building used by a revolutionary council and Byzantine ruins near Kafranbel. Further bombing raids did target ISIS, but the vast majority of bombs continued to fall on those who opposed both Assad and ISIS. The liberated Rastan pocket in northern Homs, controlled by the FSA, and targets in Hama, Idlib, and Lattakia controlled by Jaysh al-Fatah were particularly hard hit.
The LCCs responded: ‘Russian troops are now openly fighting alongside the army of the dictator. Despite international consensus that the attacks haven’t targeted ISIS positions, we have yet to see any forceful condemnation regarding the killing of civilians, and this leads us to believe that the international community tacitly approves of these attacks.’
Today Assad, Russia, and America share the skies, occasionally bombing ISIS, but more usually the struggling Syrian people and their resistance militias. Russian intervention is a grievous setback for the rebels, but Assad will eventually have to face the demographic reality that he’s running out of fighting men; foreign troops, however many arrive, can extend but not win his war. And not only the opposition militias, but the majority of the Syrian people will refuse to cooperate with any plan envisaging regime survival. Assad is still likely to fall, perhaps suddenly, perhaps after several more years of struggle. Building a free and socially just society out of Syria’s wreckage, however, will be an almost impossible task.”
Hand in Hand for Syria: www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk
Karam Foundation: http://karamfoundation.org
Soriyat for Development: www.soriyat.org
Syria Relief: www.syriarelief.org.uk
The White Helmets: www.whitehelmets.org
The Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution on Facebook
Humans of Syria: www.facebook.com/HumanOSyria
Local Coordination Committees: @LccSy and http://www.lccsyria.org/en
Planet Syria: www.planetsyria.org/en
The Syria Campaign on Facebook and at https://thesyriacampaign.org
The Syria Solidarity Movement: on Facebook
The Syrian Nonviolence Movement: www.facebook.com/SyrainNonviolence
Syria Direct: http://syriadirect.org
Syrian Revolutionary Blogs and Websites in English
Darth Nader: http://darthnader.net
Leila al-Shami: https://leilashami.wordpress.com
Robin Yassin-Kassab: http://qunfuz.com
Syria Freedom Forever: https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com
Syria Untold: www.syriauntold.com
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: http://www.yassinhs.com
Remember how exciting it was to hear news of the Arab Spring in early 2011? I recall watching videos of people demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on my February birthday, and being so happy for them. Now Egypt’s ruled by a military dictatorship, but I believe – I hope – that once having felt the exhilaration of self-taken freedom, those involved will be ready to insist on it again when they can.
People in other Arab countries were also insisting on freedom and respect in 2011, but I don’t remember being aware that Syria, which has suffered so much since, was one of them. Now, however, I’ve read about the struggle of the Syrian people in Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (2016) by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, and have found some new heroes, apparently unknown to most of the rest of the world. I feel guilty that this book sat on my shelf unopened for at least a year, when all I knew about Syria was that its people were being cruelly bombed and gassed by the Bashar Assad regime and that no one, apparently, was helping them. Few were helping the refugees streaming out of the country either, and I got tired of feeling their pain and not being able to do anything about it.
I still need long breaks of doing things that bring me peace and happiness, but I’m back to trying to understand the history and current status of the conflict, and I hope to try to share what I find out with you. I don’t believe petitioning my government, the UN, or any other official body will improve things, but maybe there’s some way we can organize as ordinary people and reach out to the people of Syria, those still inside the country and refugees, to ask what they think would help.
The protests of today and tomorrow are mostly to psych ourselves up. When they’re done, we need to start the real work of opposing the new administration on whatever issues carry the most energy for us. They want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act? We want a single-payer, government-supported healthcare system — no need for a middleman, raking in undeserved profits. They want to make voting even harder than it already is? We not only want to make it easier, for all adults, we want to get rid of the Electoral College and initiate a new, more democratic primary system. Etc…
The biggest lesson of Trump’s election is that we need a more democratic electoral and legislative system on all levels of government. See my recent blogpost “How to move forward politically” for more on how this could be done. We don’t have the greatest, most democratic political system ever, as recent articles by international election monitors have demonstrated. It could be much improved. And, though it’s tantamount to heresy to suggest it, we don’t have to follow the Constitution (as sacred as the Bible to most Americans), which was written by the 1% of its day to protect their interests against “mob rule” (democracy). Proportional representation is not only a lot more democratic than the provincial, gerrymandered system we have, it puts the focus on issues rather than personalities. We don’t need any more personalities, especially show-business ones like Reagan and Trump. (We don’t need anymore dynasties either, à la Bush, Clinton, or Obama.) Winner-take-all’s a loser, too. I want my vote to count, even if my #1 choice doesn’t make it.
In short, there’s a lot of work to do, and we need to get started on it.
P.S. Let’s not get bogged down with either/or arguments about strategy and tactics, like “work on this issue in preference to this one,” or criticisms about each other like the ones I saw in my local paper this morning — letters to the editor criticizing the pussy hat phenomenon. We don’t all express ourselves the same way. That’s okay. Drop the judgment, especially when you’re thinking of directing it at someone who’s basically on your side.
Go get ’em, tigers!!