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.