The Syrian revolution, part 5: update
Approximately 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Bashar al-Assad regime began violently repressing peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011. Assad’s repression led to activists arming in self-defense and what’s been called a civil war, now joined by Islamist fighters from other countries. (Assad is an Alawite, a cultural group originally practicing a form of Shia Isam, as are many of his supporters, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.) As of March 2017, at least 700,000 Syrians were trapped in areas besieged by the regime, including 388,575 in eastern Ghouta, 15 kilometers east of Damascus; at least 4.9 million were living in hard-to-reach areas inside the country; and at least 6.3 million were internally displaced. According to the United Nations, the number of Syrians who’ve sought refuge outside the country passed 5 million in March of this year. As of December 2016, approximately 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, according to the CIA Factbook, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The population of Syria was estimated in July 2016 to be 17,185,170, 82.5% of which was living below the poverty line in 2014.
Eastern Ghouta, the area east of Damascus, is in one of four proposed de-escalation zones designated in a deal reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May. The accord specified four initial areas: Idlib in the northwest, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Syria. More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the four zones. The accord has yet to be fully implemented because of government violations of ceasefire agreements and disagreements on who will ensure security in the four areas (Turkey and Iran are hoping to increase their influence by means of this plan). A new meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana is expected during the last week of August, with rebels as well as representatives from Turkey and Iran attending, Russia has said.
Following a meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg in early July, a ceasefire agreement – since violated – was also declared in southwestern Syria, affecting the provinces of Suweida, Deraa, and Quneitra.
On 4-26-17, SocialistWorker.org Ashley Smith published an interview with Anand Gopal, a journalist who’s reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East war zones, in which he said, “The U.S. has been heavily involved in Syria for five years and has been bombing the country for three. It’s conducted nearly 8,000 air strikes against a variety of targets, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to members of the anti-Assad opposition, and many civilians have died as a result. Since the beginning, the U.S. has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests. The core American interests in Syria are: one, defeating ISIS and similar groups; and two, preserving the network of dictatorships and client regimes in the region, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. Popular revolutionary movements directly threaten this project, especially when they pose the possibility of overthrowing client regimes and replacing them with independent states. A successful revolution in Syria, especially one outside of American control, would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the U.S. doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused solely on fighting Assad. The Assad regime is now clearly winning the war, having retaken Aleppo and repelled rebel offensives in Homs and Damascus.
Ashley Smith: “It seems like Assad and his backers are succeeding in routing the last remnants of the Syrian revolution, leaving only the jihadist opposition in control of the last redoubt of Idlib. What are conditions like in Syria now after the fall of Aleppo?”
Anand Gopal: “The Syrian battlefield is extraordinarily complex, but as a simplification, you can say that the non-regime side of the equation consists of six forces. Starting with the strongest, politically and militarily, they are:
- the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish group closely allied with the U.S.;
- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the descendant of al-Qaeda in Syria;
- the northern Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied groups, which are backed by and in some cases effectively proxies of Turkey;
- the Southern Front, consisting primarily of revolutionary-nationalist Free Syrian Army groups south of Damascus;
- ISIS; and
- civilian revolutionary activists.”
The first group mentioned by Gopal, the YPG (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, “People’s Protection Units”) is a mainly-Kurdish militia, the primary component of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces. It controls the area in yellow on the map above, also known as Rojava. Rojava has been praised by some on the left for having a government based on the ideas of American social anarchist Murray Bookchin and criticized by others as being authoritarian and overly influenced by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Regarded as an effective force in fighting ISIS in Syria, the YPG receives substantial air and armament support from the United States and some support from Russia.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” in Arabic), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is a Salafist jihadist militant group formed in January 2017, following violent clashes with Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups. It’s a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” formerly the al-Nusra Front) and several other Islamist groups, including foreigners and fighters from Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. Wikipedia says, “Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate, run by al-Qaeda.” Many of its members defected from Ahrar al-Sham, which has a Syrian leadership and “emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad.” A number of analysts and media outlets continue to refer to Tahrir al-Sham by its previous names: al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. (Al-Sham, or Greater Syria, refers to an historic area before Western colonialism, and today would include modern Syria, Lebanon, most of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and parts of southern Turkey.)
For those unfamiliar with the term “Salafism,” Wikipedia defines it as “an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century, advocating a return to the traditions of the ‘devout ancestors’ (the salaf). The Salafist doctrine can be summed up as taking a fundamentalist approach to Islam by emulating Muhammad and his earliest followers. Salafists reject religious innovation and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). The movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group: purists or quietists, who avoid politics; the second largest group: activists who get involved in politics; and the smallest group (a tiny minority): jihadists, those willing to use violence to try to create an Islamic state or caliphate. The majority of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – 46.87% of Qataris, 44.8% of Emiratis are Salafis, and they are a ‘dominant minority’ (22.9%) in Saudi Arabia.”
Returning to Ashley Smith’s interview with Anand Gopal, the latter says that the current “weakness of the FSA and of what was once the mainstream democratic opposition in Syria is due to a number of factors. First and foremost is the sheer brutality of the Assad regime, which crushed any sign of democracy, freedom or dignity wherever it appeared. The U.S. and the regional powers also sought to manipulate these elements to serve their interests rather than the interests of Syrians. For example, when the regime was besieging Darayya [a suburb of Damascus], one of the iconic centers of the revolution, where ordinary people built a local council in the attempt to rule themselves democratically, FSA groups in the Southern Front wanted to save their comrades, but were blocked by Jordan, which did everything from stanching the weapons flow to closing the border to block ambulances. Today, fighters in the Southern Front are so frustrated with Jordan’s stranglehold that some talk about defecting to ISIS, which is actually fighting the regime. Similarly, in northern Syria, a longstanding FSA group lost its foreign funding when it insisted on focusing on fighting Assad. This eventually led it to join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for access to better resources and protection.”
As a socialist, Gopal also believes that the democratic revolutionary councils of 2011 should have confronted “class divisions in Syria” directly, perhaps “confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to meet their revenue needs. Instead, the councils and their armed protection – the FSA – sought outside funding from NGOs and foreign intelligence agencies, which inevitably introduced corruption and fragmentation, creating the space for Islamic fundamentalists to challenge their authority. It’s no coincidence that the three strongest state-building movements in Syria – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the YPG – relied very little on foreign funding. ISIS’s main source of revenue, for example, was confiscation, followed by taxation and oil.
Of course, it’s easy to make this critique in the abstract, and we should recognize the extremely difficult conditions that the rebel movement was operating under. To begin with, the sort of organized left that might have made class demands was very weak in Syria, in large part because of the legacy of Baathist rule, which co-opted or crushed any type of progressive alternative. Meanwhile, ISIS and Nusra could draw on the legacy of fundamentalist political organizing, and the YPG could draw on the longstanding organizational and ideological perspectives of its parent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey.”
Ashley Smith: “It seems likely that the U.S. and its highly contradictory alliance will defeat ISIS in the coming months. What will defeat look like, and will a military victory lead to any lasting political settlement in Iraq or Syria?”
AG: “The defeat of ISIS will look very different in Iraq and in Syria. In Iraq, the offensives will succeed in toppling ISIS, but will keep in place many of the same predatory phenomena that helped fuel ISIS’s rise in the first place. This includes a variety of [Shia-dominated government] militias that have committed grave human rights violations,” largely against Sunnis, “security forces responsible for torture and disappearance of individuals accused of ‘terrorism,’ and a wildly kleptocratic Iraqi state. We may not see an ISIS 2.0, but the country is likely to be unstable and prone to insurgency for a long time to come. In Syria, on the other hand, the main phenomenon that fueled the rise of ISIS was the brutality of the Assad regime. The YPG is the key anti-ISIS force, and in areas where it’s ejected ISIS, locals generally much prefer it to the regime, even in Arab-majority cities like Manbij. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which contains the YPG as its key component, will likely capture Raqqa by the end of this year. After that, the Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria known as Rojava, along with Arab-majority areas like Manbij and Raqqa, will probably make up a de facto independent region within the Syrian state.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. will continue to back the YPG after the fight against ISIS is over, because it’s hostile to some of the group’s left-wing ideals and because its alliances with Turkey and the Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan, both of whom are mortal enemies of the YPG, will come first. The U.S. is merely using the YPG for its own ends, and once it abandons them, there’s a possibility of a showdown between the regime and the YPG.
In the end, a combination of the brutality from the regime and cynical manipulation by outside powers means that the revolution is at its weakest point since it began in 2011. The revolution may be edging closer to total defeat, but among many Syrians inside the country and among the refugee diaspora, who tasted freedom and dignity for the first time in their lives, it will never be forgotten.”
An article on the World Socialist website titled “Trump Pulls Plug on CIA’s Syrian ‘Revolution’ by Bill Van Auken, 7-22-17, says that “Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian-aligned militias and, since September 2015, Russian air support, have driven the rebels out of every major urban center and into the rural areas of Idlib province, where they’ve been engaged in bitter internecine combat against each other…Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to carry out deadly airstrikes against Syrian targets, with the independent monitoring group Airwars reporting at least 415 civilians killed by US bombs and missiles last month alone. This estimate undoubtedly leaves many of the dead uncounted, and the numbers will rise dramatically with the siege of Raqqa.
According to Zvi Bar’el, in a 7-23-17 article for the main Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, “the steering of the diplomatic process has officially been transferred to Russia and Iran, while Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE are expected to keep funding their pet militias, pointlessly extending the fighting. The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war. Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s service in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily by fighting Assad. Others, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that funds them and coordinates their training and military activity. But not all of these militias obey orders or stick to the missions assigned them. Some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help. One is the al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups still fighting, but mainly among themselves.
American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones, and above all steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran. Turkey, once Assad’s bitterest opponent, made it clear months ago that it wouldn’t oppose his continued rule ‘during a transition period’ for which it specified no time limit. Aside from Saudi Arabia, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.
The most dangerous divergence among the major powers’ interests is the rising tension between Turkey and Washington, which hit new heights this week when the Turkish news agency Anadolu published a map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, replete with the number of American soldiers serving on each. This infuriated not only Washington but all NATO members, because never before has one NATO country revealed another’s military secrets. The reason for Turkey’s leak was its deep unhappiness over American aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey suspects the SDF’s Kurdish fighters of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Ankara defines as a terror group. It also fears that some of the American weaponry the SDF is using against ISIS in Raqqa will be given to Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey. Washington’s promise that the weapons have been counted and will be collected from the Kurds when the campaign is over hasn’t assuaged Turkey’s concerns, and rightly so. A lot of American weaponry made its way to terror groups after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington sees the Kurds as an effective and essential fighting force against the Islamic State, so it has no intention, at least for now, of halting aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The distinction Washington has drawn between Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, which merit aid, and non-Kurdish militias fighting Assad, which no longer do, could increase clashes between the Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting alongside Turkey to expand the Syrian territory under Turkey’s control. Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, defined the United States’ support for the Kurds as a ‘strategic mistake,’ arguing that Raqqa could be captured by Turkish and American forces. Turkish officials say Ankara offered to contribute tens of thousands of soldiers to such an effort, but Washington also wanted $80,000, which the Turks considered excessive. Moreover, they said, the United States didn’t have a serious plan of action. Now the concern is that Turkey’s expanding involvement in Idlib province and the expected clashes between its troops and local militias could force the United States, which wants to decamp once Raqqa is taken, to keep its own forces in the field to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian militias.
Israel must now adapt its strategic paradigm to a situation in which Russia has become a dominant player in Syria in particular and the Mideast in general, while the Americans are heading back across the ocean.”
Don’t forget to look under Realities/Syria in the top menu bar or side menu for maps, a glossary, a timeline, the historical background of the conflict, more information on the Kurdish area of Rojava, and most importantly — ways you can help. Under Books, you’ll also find a bibliography and more complete quotes from Syrians from We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled.