New movements for change will need to arm themselves with the lessons of the Syrian tragedy.
The military victory in Aleppo by Assad’s regime and its foreign backers was a turning point in the war in Syria. It has put the Syrian government once more in formal control of the country’s main urban centres. But is this the prelude to a broader peace settlement that could end the litany of horrors inflicted on the Syrian people?
In the weeks and months following the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Syria was witness to a mass popular revolt against the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Bashar al Assad. The counter-revolutionary responses to that uprising started off the chain of tragedies that unfold in Syria today. The absence of independent workers’ organisations able to harness this movement along class lines and to outstrip the religious and ethnic divisions upon which the Assad dynasty had consolidated its power, created multiple openings: to the regime to carry out savage repression; to various sectarian groups to usurp the anti-Assad movement; and to several foreign capitalist forces to intervene on both sides in order to exploit the conflict to their benefit. Diverse counter-revolutionary forces have fed each other in a devastating war for supremacy which has displaced more than half of the country’s population, killed hundreds of thousands of people and reduced this once beautiful country to a gigantic pile of rubble.
An important turn of events came last December when the regime and its foreign allies recaptured Aleppo, the country’s most populous city before the war and its economic stronghold. This allowed them to come back on the negotiating table this year with significantly more leverage than during the previous, largely token, international peace negotiations. These developments are taking place in the context of new shifts in the Middle East’s ever-changing power relations - regional alliances rendered even more volatile in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, that unsettled the ruling elites’ long-standing political arrangements.
The peace talks on Syria recently held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, aimed at entrenching a nationwide ceasefire, reflect the new realignments. Organised under the sponsorship of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, they testify to the recent decline of US imperialism’s influence on the Middle East, and the more assertive geo-political role played by Russia. As journalist Erika Solomon described in the Financial Times, “Western envoys found themselves relegated with journalists to the plaid-carpeted Irish Pub of a hotel in Kazakhstan”.
Erdogan and Putin patch up
While the US remains the world biggest military power, its uncontested domination over world affairs is long gone. This has led to a situation whereby various other regional and international powers are willing to play by their own rules. A pivotal axis of such a development can be seen in the tentative rapprochement, since last summer, between two opposing camps of the war in Syria: Russia, a long-time ally of Assad’s regime, and Turkey, a historical partner of US imperialism and pillar of NATO, that had equipped and financed an array of right-wing Islamist forces in the hope of bringing the Syrian regime down.
The reasons for this diplomatic twist are multiple. Beyond the importance of the Russian market for Turkey’s contracting economy, there is a simpler, more pragmatic calculation: Putin’s far-ranging military intervention in Syria since the autumn of 2015 has helped switch back the balance, and quite importantly so, in the advantage of Assad and his regime. Russia’s merciless bombing has killed many civilians, destroyed infrastructure and medical facilities, and reduced entire neighbourhoods to ruins, extending the tactics of collective punishment already practiced by the Syrian Army and its affiliated militias. It has also imposed heavy military losses to the armed rebels and jihadist warriors supported by Turkey (as well as by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and swept aside the immediate possibility of a military debacle for Assad’s rule.
In these conditions, Turkish President Erdogan’s ambition for “regime change” in Damascus was quietly brushed under the carpet. By playing with jihadist fire, the Turkish government has created a colossal blowback at home. As victims of frequent terrorist violence, ordinary working people are paying with their blood the price of their government’s wicked foreign policies. This factor, for instance, played a certain role in angering sections of the Turkish army, feeding the attempted coup against Erdogan in August 2016.
The Kurds: a price in the bargain?
Apart from Assad, the main target of the Turkish state’s use of jihadist proxies in Syria was the Kurdish fighters of the YPG/YPJ (People’s Protection Units/ Women’s Protection Units) who, via their political arm the Democratic Union Party (PYD, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) had in the summer of 2012 managed to seize power in the north of Syria following the withdrawal of Assad’s army.
Despite the many fault-lines in the PYD’s political methods (such as a top-down administration and a short-term military strategy based on problematic deals with imperialist forces) the Kurds living there were granted rights suppressed for decades by Assad’s rule, which helped reinvigorate the Kurdish people’s struggle against oppression within Turkey and in the broader region.
Erdogan’s attempt to use ISIS and other jihadist fighters to tame the Kurdish movement in northern Syria largely turned into a fiasco: far from diminished, the Kurdish fighters built an international reputation as the bitterest enemy of ISIS’ murderers, and last year came close to link up their eastern territories of Jazeera and Kobani with their isolated canton of Afrin in the west, confronting the Turkish rulers with the prospect of having a PKK-related group controlling a contiguous strip of land at their doorstep.
All in all, Erdogan was compelled to re-adjust his priorities. Last August, the Turkish army intervened directly for the first time into Syrian territory, a campaign tellingly named “Operation Euphrates Shield”, with the main objective of preventing the YPG/YPJ and their allied fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from crossing the Euphrates river and connecting the areas under their control.
The absence of any strong reaction against Turkey’s ground invasion by either Russia, Syria or Iran speaks volume about the changing nature of the relations between the powers involved. The Baathist rulers of Syria and the right-wing clerics in power in Iran both share with Erdogan a strong desire to put the Kurds back in their place. As a leading member of Turkey’s ruling party (AKP) was reported saying last summer in reference to Kurdish autonomy, “We may not like each other, but on that we’re backing the same policy”. Reports of secret talks held in Algeria between Syrian and Turkish officials suggest that the latter probably received some guarantee on this question which facilitated a deal, according to which Turkey would give up on Aleppo in exchange of a ‘security corridor’ in northern Syria that could effectively prevent the unification of the Kurdish areas.
Aleppo recaptured by Assad
Turkey tightened up its border with Syria, long used to resupply Sunni extremist armed groups. The Gulf States, facing economic problems of their own and incapable to reverse the tide, also reduced their flow of supplies to their respective sectarian militias on the ground. The right-wing Islamist rebels were dried of their masters’ payrolls, and deprived of anti-aircraft missiles or an air force capable of competing with the intensive bombing campaign of the Syrian and Russian armies, whose military superiority became plainly obvious.
In the last few months, Eastern Aleppo, up until recently the last major urban stronghold of the armed rebels, was thus sealed, starved off by a siege that stopped not only reinforcements to armed fighters, but also deliveries of food and medical supplies to the tens of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.
In political terms, the armed rebels, who entered Aleppo in 2012, fell victims to their own methods of rule that alienated important sections of the local population – a fact overlooked by some sections of the left, uncritically praising the glory of a “revolution” which unfortunately long turned sour.
Whereas some pockets of popular resistance, underground networks of community activists, and residues of the once numerous local committees that emerged in 2011 in the fight against Assad’s rule across Syria reportedly still exist, the overall nature of the conflict has been qualitatively transformed into a devastating armed conflict dominated by reactionary forces, a conflict through which the original demands of the revolution have become increasingly difficult to hear.
Across the country, the growing influence of Sunni sectarian groups undoubtedly compelled important sections of the population, especially among religious minorities, to stomach Assad’s regime for fear of something worse replacing it. In Eastern Aleppo, these militias’ exactions, which have included lootings and sectarian killings, explain why they failed to secure a steady basis of popular support. Many inhabitants fed up with the regime’s repression found out that the corruption and brutality of life in the so-called “liberated zones” was not an alternative worth dying for. The civilian deaths resulting from the indiscriminate rebel shelling on Western Aleppo also helped Assad forces to secure support for the siege in the other part of the city.
Some left commentators have made a big case about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) being a completely different entity; this, however, remains unconvincing. The FSA has never been more than an umbrella name, with no central command, behind which lie a myriad of disparate armed factions, many of which have cooperated and fought alongside jihadists on the ground. For example, in northern Syria, the FSA is mostly made up of right-wing Islamist fighters providing direct assistance to Turkey’s war plans of establishing a buffer zone against the Kurds.
After Aleppo, war operations are now moving towards the northern province of Idlib, large parts of which are still controlled by the al-Qaeda-related Jabhat Fatah al Sham (formerly named Al Nusra Front) and the Salafists of Ahrar al-Sham, as well as various other armed factions who recently partnered with these two groups. On the back foot after their defeat in Aleppo, these outfits have started turning their guns on each other. The control of territorial fiefdoms, weapon supplies, and tax levies has become paramount to their survival. Assad’s camp might escalate its military operations in those areas; but it might as well content itself with sitting and watching as the opposition fights itself for the control of less strategically important bits of Syria.
The Syrian regime has indeed a vested interest in maintaining a low level of jihadist presence in the country, so as to maintain a sectarian scarecrow to help maintain control over its population, and to frame its exceptionally repressive rule as a justified weapon in the “war on terror”. This well-oiled tactic explains why the majority of Syrian and Russian bombs have fallen far away from ISIS-controlled zones up till the present day. Interestingly, the Russian Ministry of Defence recently rebranded Ahrar al-Sham a “moderate opposition”, showing that in the end, the Russian ruling class does not have more of a principled issue with legitimising brutal sectarian militias than its Western counterparts.
After all, the regime and its foreign backers share with the jihadist armed groups a common interest in preventing a genuinely progressive and grassroots movement for social justice and democratic rights from re-emerging. This truth, inconvenient for the pro-Assad left, explains why the Syrian regime methodically suppressed, tortured and killed many peaceful and secular-leaning activists over the years, while it freed hundreds of dangerous jihadists from prison in 2011 and 2012, some of whom occupy up to this day leading positions in groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and others.
ISIS, for its part, is still entrenched in parts of Syria’s northern and eastern provinces. During the final stages of the battle of Aleppo, the group managed to reconquer the desert city of Palmyra, only months after the town’s Roman theatre had been the scene of a triumphal orchestra celebrating its recapture by Syrian government forces, under the backing of the Russian army.
This episode shows that Assad’s regime is not as strong as it pretends, and that winning local battles and holding on regained ground are not one and the same thing. The regime is now confronted with the need of re-establishing state authority over large swathes of hostile, populated land. This will not be an easy task, since the Syrian army is now exhausted and diminished by deaths and defections – to the point that even men in their fifties are being conscripted into its ranks, despite an upper age limit of 42 years. It is fragmented into a variety of local cliquey forces, and propped up by an array of various foreign and domestic militias with their own agendas. A big chunk of the late fighting has been carried through by Shia paramilitaries from Iran and Iraq and by the Lebanese Hezbollah, with Russian air support. All these people will want their share of the spoils of war, laying the ground for a country extremely difficult to administrate, torn apart by infighting and by a continued, although less intense civil war.
Also, unless a movement emerges to rebuild a unified struggle across communities, the widespread resentment against the murderous regime of Assad could well be translated into new spikes of sectarian bloodshed and terrorist attacks in regime-controlled areas. The desperation and alienation in the impoverished Sunni population, who has been at the receiving end of Assad’s violence for years on end, will continue to provide extremist armed groups with a recruiting tool to carry on their activities.
Even among the layers who support or tolerate the regime, resentment is probably widespread, and fear a big motivation in that stand. Many of their relatives have died while Assad, his family and his business cronies are still in their palaces and have got even richer through the war. The country is in ruins and the regime is also burdened by the need to provide for the survival and feeding of several hundred thousand internal refugees. This and the reconstruction will require enormous resources, something which Russia and Iran will probably be far less keen to provide than military assistance - unless, of course, they can see profitable returns for their respective companies, a factor which might push Syria further into becoming a client State for its foreign patrons. In short, Assad’s victory in Aleppo may still prove to be a pyrrhic victory.
What future for Syria?
Western imperialist powers have largely been side-lined from the talks on the future of Syria, their diplomacy being largely reduced to gestures aimed at not losing face. Despite the Assadist left’s obsessions about the idea of imperialist-sponsored “regime change”, the inflammatory declarations against Assad have been dropped a long time ago. As the New York Times reported, “The Europeans, at one time fierce adversaries of Mr. Assad, have been largely silent as he obliterates Aleppo". Although a race for influence has undoubtedly been raging for years between US and Russian imperialisms over the future of Syria, a full-scale military intervention for regime change has in fact never been considered as a workable option by America’s most influential strategists.
This tendency appears reinforced by the election of Donald Trump, who is pushing to prioritize the struggle against ISIS. UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently announced that “Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to run for re-election in the event of a peace settlement in Syria”. Of course, this kind of declarations should not be read as an end to inter-imperialist tensions, of which Syria is only one flashpoint anyway. Fierce competition for markets and strategic zones of influence is an unescapable trend in times of world capitalist crisis; furthermore, the victory of Trump is riddled with unpredictability. His recent calls for “safe zones” in Syria illustrate this, even though they do not seem to add up to something practically operational – that is without sparking a wider war and antagonising his own armed forces.
The military balance on the ground implies that for now, Assad’s regime and Russian imperialism have the upper hand on the battlefield, and Western powers have been forced to acclimatize to that reality. The proposal put forward by the EU Foreign Commissioner Federica Mogherini of a new “Plan B for Syria” follows this logic. It involves EU financial support in exchange for a power-sharing agreement where so-called “moderate” insurgents would be allowed to join a government, admittedly recomposed with the present despotic regime’s apparatus.
New working class movements
This, if anything, displays once more the utter hypocrisy of imperialist powers, for which one rule prevails above all else: “No permanent friends nor enemies; only interests”.
The Kurds, of all people, have learnt this lesson the hard way many times before. At the moment, both Russian and US imperialism need to maintain functioning terms with the YPG/YPJ and the SDF, as these groups are heading towards the Syrian city of Raqqa in their campaign against ISIS. At this point, it is also clear that Assad’s army is not strong enough to initiate a new violent war of attrition against the Kurds. Yet the capitalist regimes’ interests to restore a balance of power in the region might well be done at the eventual expense of ordinary Kurdish people; either by subjugation through military force, or by domesticating their leadership along the lines of the close ties established between the Turkish regime of ErdoÄŸan and the conservative and pro-capitalist government of Iraqi Kurdistan. Espousing a programme that unapologetically campaigns against imperialist meddling in the region’s affairs will be essential for the Kurdish movement to find open ears among the working classes and poor communities in the rest of Syria and the region. Similarly, the legitimate right for self-determination of the Kurds needs to be incorporated into the demands of the labour movement and the left – so as to cement the objective community of interests that exists between all the workers and poor, against all their capitalist and imperialist oppressors.
New movements for change will need to arm themselves with the lessons of the Syrian tragedy. A strong political party armed with socialist ideas - aiming for the region’s wealth to be transferred into public ownership and to be reassigned for democratic planning-, defending the democratic rights of all ethnic and religious components of society, and forging links with the labour movement across the region, could have united the workers and the poor in a revolutionary struggle against dictatorship, sectarianism and imperialism. The lack of such an alternative left the masses’ struggle hijacked and crushed by various counter-revolutionary forces.
Competing militias and corrupt capitalist regimes have caused Syria to enter a process of advanced fragmentation, involving sectarian massacres, mass internal displacements and forced demographic changes. In these conditions, it is evident that the “old Syria” will never be put together again. The end results of the “peace” talks are likely to entrench a de facto “cantonisation” of the country, the various players sitting around the table to decide how to carve up their slice of the cake.
However, importantly, each time the guns have fallen silent, demonstrations, albeit limited in scope, have re-emerged in various parts of Syria, against the regime, against fundamentalist right-wingers, against foreign intervention. Even among the Alawite populations along the Syria’s Western coast who constitute the core support for Assad’s regime, protests have occasionally been staged, braving state repression, to criticise the government for the price hikes, the forced conscription of their sons, or the failure to relieve the sieges on some towns. Although such resilience under the most adverse situations cannot be romanticised, these examples remain a sure and encouraging sign that the rivers of blood spilled in the last six years have not been able to completely silence the masses’ thirst for change.
In an article entitled “The tragedies of Syria signal the end of the Arab revolutions”, the veteran war journalist Robert Fisk writes: “Just as the catastrophic Anglo-American invasion of Iraq brought an end to epic Western military adventures in the Middle East, so the tragedy of Syria ensures that there will be no more Arab revolutions.” This is a serious misjudgement. Whereas the Syrian masses have experienced a critical defeat, the situation in the broader Middle East will inexorably lead to new revolutionary upheavals, that will offer new opportunities to change the course of history and heal the open wounds of the Syrian catastrophe.