Syria’s largest city strangled by Assad

Ceasefire will bring neither a just nor a lasting end to the civil war By Marcus Halaby

RUSSIA’S bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has created a new wave of refugees, with 35,000 stranded on the border with Turkey. Its purpose was to encircle Syria’s largest city Aleppo, before a US-Russian brokered “ceasefire” agreed two weeks previously began on 27 February.

A statement by US State Secretary John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov promised to allow “humanitarian access” to besieged areas like rebel-held Aleppo and Daraya, claiming that the ceasefire agreement would enable the resumption of peace negotiations.

But this agreement specifically excludes not just ISIS, but also the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, which has a presence in some rebel-held regions. This has allowed Russia and Assad to continue bombing civilians under the pretence of “fighting al-Qaeda”, even where (as in Talbiseh, Daraa and Daraya) there is no ISIS or Nusra Front presence at all.

Regional rivalries

In the middle of this, US forces dropped weapons to the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who then aided the Russian siege of Aleppo by seizing the rebel-held Arab-majority region around Azaz, on the border with Turkey. This has almost completely cut off Aleppo from the outside world.

This gave Turkey a pretext to shell Syria’s Kurdish-held regions, not to relieve the siege of Aleppo but to keep the Kurds in check. Turkey has also given Saudi Arabia and Qatar permission to base aircraft at its Incirlik airbase, amid talk from Saudi Arabia that it might send troops into eastern Syria, far away from the Assad versus rebel fighting, as ground forces to “fight ISIS” with US and British air cover.

For the moment it is unlikely that the Western powers will agree to a Turkish and Saudi intervention, given their own alliance with the YPG in Syria, and their fear of Saudi-Iranian clashes that might disrupt Western cooperation with Iranian forces in Iraq. Even so, Russia and the USA are playing a dangerous game, in which their respective allies’ rivalries could drag them into direct conflict.

Assad in particular boasted that his forces would take back the whole of Syria only the day after the ceasefire plan was announced, having previously said that he would “make no concessions” in negotiations.

And the role of Turkey and Saudi Arabia is no less destructive than Russia’s or Iran’s. Alongside the West’s, their protests at Russia and Assad’s bombing of civilians look like crocodile tears once you notice the Saudi bombing of Yemen, or Turkey’s siege of its Kurdish-majority towns and cities.

A popular revolution

The ultimate cause of Syria’s misery is the totalitarian Baathist regime’s determination to hold onto power by force, in the face of mass (and initially peaceful) opposition. It is Assad’s dictatorship, which tortured schoolchildren, shot down unarmed protestors and launched artillery shells and jet missiles at apartment blocks, that is primarily to blame for the “militarisation” of the popular struggle against it that began in March 2011.

As many as 470,000 have now been killed, while half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced, 4 million of them outside the country. This diaspora will be a source of instability for decades, much as Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was.

But “outside forces” have their own share of the blame, and their claim now to be acting as “peacemakers” should be seen for the deception that it is. Any “peace plan” put together by these arsonists will be a prelude to renewed war.

No to all foreign intervention

Assad would not have been able to conduct his war against his own people without Russian and Iranian loans and military aid, Iranian proxy ground forces and now Russian airpower.

Turkey and Qatar aided those forces amongst the Syrian rebels who they expected to support their own regional agendas. In the process they ensured that Islamists became the leading force within the anti-Assad rebellion, despite the anti-sectarian politics of its mass base.

In Turkey’s case, its involvement reinforced Assad’s efforts to create divisions between Arabs and Kurds that have weakened the popular movement to the regime’s advantage.

And all the states now involved in Syria are at least indirectly responsible for the rise of ISIS, with the poisonous legacy of the US-led occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi government’s sectarian mistreatment of Iraqi Sunnis, and Russia and Iran’s encouragement of the Assad regime’s brutality on which ISIS has thrived.

Assad and Turkey’s Erdogan both turned a blind eye to ISIS for as long as it was the enemy of their respective enemies (the Syrian rebels and the Kurdish national movement), while Saudi Arabia, which supported the secular “moderates”, is also the principal source of the ideology out of which sectarian movements like ISIS have emerged.

Finally the Western powers, who pretended to support calls for democracy in Syria, intervened only when the rise of ISIS threatened their access to Iraq’s oil. They are bombing Syria today to protect their interests in Iraq, and to keep Russia’s influence in the region under control. That is why they didn’t bat an eyelid at the bombing of Aleppo, despite their claims to be supporting “moderate Syrian rebels”.

No confidence

What this should tell us is that the majority of Labour MPs who voted alongside Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament on 2 December were right to oppose war.

If David Cameron had really wanted to help ordinary Syrians, then he would not have been dropping bombs but sending food to rebel-held towns like Madaya, which Assad has subjected to starvation sieges that put Israel’s siege of Gaza into the shade.

And Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, who invoked the anti-fascist struggle in Spain in the 1930s against the “new fascism” of ISIS, has a lot less to say about the mini-holocaust that Assad has created in his own country.

But Corbyn’s support for the “Vienna process” as an alternative to war, shared by much of the anti-war movement, ignores the fact that the terms of a “political settlement” will be decided not by talks, but by the actions on the ground of all of the powers involved and by the resistance to them of the insurgent Syrian people.

Worse, it opens the way to future wars to enforce its terms, like the current war in Yemen, in the likely event that a large part of the rebel camp refuses to sell out Syria’s revolution in return for a powerless “transitional government”. The opponents of this settlement will probably be slandered as “allies of ISIS”, while Russia and the West work out how best to bring about their defeat in pursuit of their own rival agendas.

The Stop the War Coalition opposed Cameron’s bombing of Syria quite vocally, provoking a media witch-hunt against it and against Jeremy Corbyn in the process. But the hostility or indifference of many of its public figures to the Syrian revolution has prepared them quite badly for the twists and turns that we are likely to see in the coming year.

The only principled course is to oppose the machinations of all of the global powers and their regional allies, whoever they might claim to be supporting at any given time, and to expose the agendas of all of them. The slogan that “the main enemy is at home” should not mean ignoring the crimes of our own countries’ rivals and their allies, but showing solidarity with people in revolt everywhere, whose resistance will be directed primarily against those agents of our global ruling class with which they are in most direct conflict.

In Syria, that means supporting self-determination for the Kurds and defending the struggle of those rebel forces, both secular and Islamist, that are fighting both ISIS and Assad. And in Britain, that means opposing our own government and its war.

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