Eastern Goutha, outside Damascus, is “hell on earth”, according to UN chief, Antonio Guterres. The day after the UN decision to organise a ceasefire, bombing continued. A doctor interviewed by the BBC says his hospital has “no electricity, no medication, no oxygen, bombs, no medication for anaesthesia, no painkillers, no antibiotics”.
By Monday 26 February, 541 people, including more than 150 children, had been killed in eastern Goutha in the last week. More than 2,500 were injured. Several hospitals have been attacked by Syrian bombers.The UN Security Council decision on 30 days’ immediate ceasefire has had little effect. The Assad regime in Syria and its ally Russia, state that the conditions for the ceasefire are not clear and that they are entitled to continue “attacking terrorists”.
The western powers are indulging in rank hypocrisy. US forces led several massive military assaults against cities in Iraq over the last decade, including Fallujah, and more recently, demolishing Mosul in 2017. Today, the major powers back the Saudi regime’s air attacks on Yemen, where many civilians have died and chronic hunger stalks the land.
Eastern Goutha has, since the war in Syria started in 2011, been held by various Islamist rebel groups. Since 2013, the area, with today just under 400,000 inhabitants, has been under siege by the Syrian army with the support of Russia and Iran.Besides constant military attacks, the occupation has resulted in total lack of medicines and widespread starvation and malnutrition due to lack of food and the extremely high prices of the food available. And this takes place in what was a productive agricultural area.
The UN resolution speaks of immediate ceasefire except in the case of violations by Isis, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra. The latter, formerly al-Qaeda in Syria, is now acting under the name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The dominant armed groups in eastern Goutha are two other militias, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman. These jihadist groups have regularly launched missiles on inhabited areas of Damascus, causing casualties among the civilian population, although on a smaller scale than the regime’s strikes.
Instead of peace after Isis was forced to retreat by Assad/Russia/Iran forces and US and its allies, the war in Syria has entered a new, if possible even bloodier phase. Those who were supposed to secure peace have stepped up the war.
The conflict centres on how global and regional powers will secure their positions in a future Syria. Above all, it is a clash over power, influence and prestige between the United States and Russia, with Turkey and Iran as active participants. Israel has also taken action, with fighter aircraft used against Iranian forces in Syria in recent weeks.Russia has strongly strengthened its position by backing up Assad, while other regimes, such as Erdogan’s in Turkey, believed that Damascus would fall. Today, Moscow is conducting bombing operations against remaining forces of the armed opposition in eastern Goutha and Idlib in the northwest.US imperialism, burned by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, backed down from sending large troop contingents.
At first, Washington supported the same Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But with the emergence of Isis, which established a “Caliphate” in 2014, the United States was forced to find new allies. Its most important allies on the field in recent years have been Syrian Democratic forces, with the Kurdish PYD’s YPG/YPJ troops in the leadership.The subsequent focus on fighting Isis and Russia’s military intervention in Syria since the autumn of 2015 rescued Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Isis is not completely defeated and has the capacity to carry out individual attacks, but has lost its capital Raqqa and major geographic areas.
Other forces in the war will use the fact that Isis still has a limited presence to legitimise military action. The Turkish propaganda over the war in Afrin continuously speaks of the Kurdish PYD and Isis as if it were a single entity. Isis is also the convenient opposition that the US uses to maintain troop forces in northeastern Syria. In reality, US actions are about limiting both Russian and Iranian influence.The “stabilization” that both the US and Russia say are striving for will be far from stable.
Syria was already a dictatorship shaken by a series of crises before the uprising of 2011 and the subsequent war. Today, the country has collapsed, with over 500,000 killed and more than 10 million have fled their homes. This is a result of the wars of imperialism, capitalist exploitation and Assad’s dictatorship. Against this, in order to prevent further war and the revival of Isis or similar groups, a revolutionary socialist movement is needed for all peoples’ workers and oppressed.
Turkey: War or agreement with Assad?
Turkey’s military attack against Afrin started a month ago: 176 civilians killed, including 27 children, 484 wounded, 60 of them children, according to Kurdish PYD.Socialists and the oppressed worldwide condemn Turkey’s war. The Turkish regime’s goal is to crush any Kurdish rule in Afrin and Rojava in northern Syria while whipping up Turkish nationalism at home to hinder the development of a united workers’ movement against its authoritarian rule.
The Turkish regime saw the opportunity to launch an attack when the United States’ direct dependence on Kurdish forces fighting Isis decreased.The fact that the ‘Free Syrian Army’ participates alongside Turkey in the assault against Kurdish areas only confirms it acts as a Turkish regime support group.By the end of February, the Turkish regime seems open to either an escalated war or some form of agreement with the Assad regime in Syria.
Despite Erdogan’s very tough stance, accusing the US of being involved in the attempted coup against him during summer 2016, and condemning Washington for its cooperation with the PYD in Syria, the White House has avoided direct conflict with Turkey.The US State Department stressed that cooperation with PYD is temporary and scaled down its ‘security force’, including Kurdish troops, planned along the border between Syria and Turkey. Trump’s Security Advisor, HR McMaster, visited Ankara to reassure Erdogan.
However, the United States has not acted according to Turkey’s request to leave Manbij, in northeastern Syria, or, alternatively, to make the PYD to leave the city. The latter, however, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was prepared to consider. It is easier said than done, since the PYD had the decisive influence in the city for 18 months and established a base among the Arab-majority population, especially among women who have dramatically improved rights, such as the right to divorce.
The Erdogan regime claims that the war in Afrin continued as planned. It is reported that the notorious special forces, JÖH, used against the Kurds in eastern Turkey, will be deployed when the Afrin war nears urban areas. But as yet the Turkish troops are not in Afrin city and have few allies among the area’s100,000 inhabitants.The Turkish military says the UN resolution on the ceasefire does not apply to its military actions because it is a “war on terrorism”. This also applies to aerial bombings, according to Ankara.
That Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, gave Turkey the green light to attack by air strengthens the theory that Erdogan is looking for some form of agreement with the Assad regime. Russia also evacuated its troops from the area before Turkey’s military action. Armed forces supporting the Syrian regime arrived in Afrin in mid-February. Turkey responded that these troops were welcome if they attacked PYD, not if they came as defender of Afrin. This can be interpreted as meaning that Erdogan has opened up some form of deal with Assad, with Russia as a broker. There has been some shooting exchanges between Turkish and Syrian forces, however, so the outcome is not yet clear.
Nouri Mahmoud, spokeswoman for the PYD’s armed forces (YPG), urged the Syrian government to send troops to secure the border with Turkey. But there is no reason for the Kurds in Afrin to trust troops sent by Assad. The regime in Damascus acts in response to Turkey, but also to regain control of northern Syria from Kurdish rule. To block the Kurds is also a priority for Assad’s allies in the Iranian regime. The YPG made some concessions to the central power, through Russian mediation. Whether the Syrian army has the capacity to go further is an open question.The PYD and YPG, and its female forces, the YPJ, showed by their defense of Kobane against Isis that they are a force to count on. It was the PYD’s political actions and promises of democratic rights and a decent life that laid the foundations for its military strength.
But the Kurdish forces also mistakenly relied on support from the US and Russian air bombings, holding back the possibility of building a larger support for their struggle among the people whose livelihoods have been shattered by these airstrikes. Nonetheless, Turkey’s military forces face strong opposition, reinforced by Kurdish forces returning from the victory in Raqqa.
The Kurds’ struggle for independence and the class needs of workers and poor in the Middle East, will never find any allies in imperialism or regional pro-capitalist governments. Behind the region’s deep crisis lie the crisis of capitalism and the historic weakness of the workers’ movement, whose struggle for democratic socialism is the only way forward.