Russia, Turkey and USA stoke sectarian and ethnic conflict while Assad bombs Aleppo and expels Darayya’s residents The FSA’s opposition to Kurdish autonomy and the YPG's reliance on the USA and its hostility to Syria's popular uprising has isolated the Kurds
By Marcus Halaby
AS WE go to press, the ceasefire in Syria agreed in Geneva on 9 September between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seems to have taken hold on some fronts, though the bombardment of eastern Aleppo seems to be continuing.
If the truce lasts for seven consecutive days and humanitarian aid begins to flow unimpeded to besieged areas, the United States and Russia will then establish a “Joint Implementation Centre” to coordinate their intelligence and air attacks against agreed terrorist targets in Syria.
As with all the previous attempts at a negotiated “political transition”, it envisages the preservation of of Bashar al-Assad’s totalitarian regime, whose existence has been the main source of the killings and devastation in Syria ever since the popular revolution that began in March 2011 escalated into a bitter civil war. Welcome as is a ceasefire that allows the sending of relief to a besieged population, this “agreement”, even if it holds, can only be a reactionary one.
The deal envisages joint US and Russian airstrikes against elements of the anti-Assad opposition that they both designate as “terrorists”. The global imperialist rivals have presented the Syrian rebels with a terrible dilemma: to break all ties with al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant”), until recently known as the Nusra Front, or face continued bombing and siege till they are forced to surrender or abandon their last strongholds.
However, unlike Islamic State, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham does not possess any territory of its own, but has a presence in many (if not quite all) of the “liberated zones” from which Assad’s army has been expelled.
Sharing common origins with its rival, Islamic State (an enemy of the whole anti-Assad camp including Nusra since January 2014), Nusra had until very recently been quite an unpopular group, and has faced repeated attempts from all the main Syrian rebel factions to isolate it, quite without any prompting from the outside.
However, Nusra’s exclusion from the nationwide “cessation of hostilities” brokered by Russia and the USA in March gave Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies a pretext to continue bombarding and besieging all of the liberated zones, even those without any Nusra presence. In the eastern half of Syria’s largest city Aleppo, held by rebels since the summer of 2012, this has meant a genocidal siege backed by Russian airstrikes involving the use of napalm, sarin, chlorine, white phosphorous and thermobaric weaponry.
However Nusra’s recent role in repelling Assad’s failed attempt to overrun Aleppo in August has enhanced its prestige, making it unlikely that the rebels can break with it according to an outside timetable in return for unreliable promises about another “ceasefire” pending negotiations that leave Assad in place.
Far from promoting the overthrow of Assad, the Western powers seem intent on using various sources of pressure to persuade Russia to accept an orderly transition that allows them to salvage some of their reduced influence. This is what lies behind their various manipulations and betrayals of Syria’s various popular forces, Kurdish and Arab.
A three-way partition?
This “transition process” if it takes hold, will probably involve a de facto partition of the country, with the USA acting as a guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in the north and north-east of the country, while Russia and Iran prop up the decaying Assad regime. Turkey may also acquire a semi-official role policing the northern liberated zones around Aleppo and Idlib, in return for a Russian quid pro quo that its protegés amongst the Syrian rebels will fight not against Assad but against Islamic State, and probably also against Turkey’s main enemy, the Kurdish-nationalist People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Whether or not eastern Aleppo will be part of this Turkish “protectorate” will be decided partly by US and Russian military action, in return for which the Assad regime is expected to restrict its operations to the regions held by Islamic State.
Further south, where Syrian rebel forces are much more “secular” than in the north, the USA has used its influence over Jordan to starve them of arms and to prevent the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) from conducting its planned advance on the capital Damascus.
And in the Damascus suburbs, barely a few miles from Assad’s seat of power, the regime has begun forcing the the inhabitants of rebel-held regions to agree to mass “evacuations” to Idlib in the north-west, in return for an amnesty for the fighters that have defended them and a “safe” passage to their new homes as refugees.
The first such deal was struck in Darayya on 25 August, which like the other locations affected has been the subject of four years of siege that put Israel’s siege of Gaza into the shade, and whose name was once synonymous with nonviolent resistance in the early, unarmed phase of the revolution.
Its fate is likely to be extended to Moadamiyah (where residents were forced to eat cats and dogs to survive) and Madaya (where there has been a starvation-induced meningitis epidemic). In Waer district in regime-held Homs, up to 80,000 people are likely to be uprooted.
This ethnic cleansing of Syria’s predominantly Sunni anti-Assad majority will poison inter-communal relations for decades, in a way that will make Israel-Palestine and post-occupation Iraq look like bastions of moderation.
This grim process has been prolonged by the contradictions between the rival “great” powers and the regional players Turkey, Iran, and further afield Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Both Russia and the USA’s NATO ally Turkey were alarmed by the USA’s support for the Kurdish YPG, which began during Islamic State’s siege of Kobane in the autumn of 2014, and which has seen the YPG consolidate an almost contiguous area under its control.
The USA’s intention here is to create its own sphere of influence in Syria, to rival Russia’s existing one in Damascus. This policy also has the goal of steadily shrinking Islamic State, thereby protecting the USA’s interests in Iraq, whose pro-Iranian government is also an ally of Syria’s Assad regime.
But the expansion of the YPG and its recognition by the USA is also seen by Turkey as a threat to the forced “unity” of the Turkish state, with its roughly 20 million oppressed Kurds. Whether under secular or “Islamist” leadership, Turkey would oppose a viable Kurdish statelet even if it were based on Mars.
The aftermath of the coup attempt against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on 15 July, which he is blaming on the US-exiled Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, has seen an Erdogan go for a reconciliation with Russia, one that is directed against the YPG.
Erdogan had previously been at loggerheads with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin over Turkey’s support for both secular and Islamist Syrian rebels. These tensions escalated into direct clashes as recently as November last year, when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet.
The first fruit of this reconciliation with Putin and Assad came on 18 August, when the Assad regime conducted its first-ever bombing of YPG targets in and around Hasakeh in the north-east of Syria, forcing the USA to scramble jets in response.
Six days later, Syrian rebel forces backed by the Turkish armed forces seized Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border from Islamic State, placing them within 35 kilometres of YPG-held Manbij, where the FSA and the YPG have since clashed with each other.
Like Manbij, Jarabulus is an Arab town in a mainly-Arab region, which under rebel control had been home to Syria’s first independent trade unions. Manbij had previously been taken from Islamic State forces by the YPG on 12 August, in a ten-week offensive supported by US airstrikes that killed hundreds and displaced thousands. The Turkish airforce has inflicted yet more destruction on the city since, albeit so far on a much smaller scale than the USA’s on behalf of the YPG.
It should of course go without saying that an Arab-Kurdish conflict over territory encouraged from the outside can only be a bad thing, whose only possible beneficiary will be the Assad regime.
All the same, whatever Turkey’s motives (and Russia’s) in trying to limit the westward expansion of the YPG, the Syrian rebels too have good reasons to resent the US-supported expansion of its Rojava mini-state, because it means the YPG has seized control of Arab-majority regions like Manbij that were previously controlled by the FSA until they fell to Islamic State.
The YPG has also frequently prevented the return of their displaced Arab residents, on the pretext of weeding out Islamic State sympathisers and “sleeper cells”, making these regions less “Arab” and more “Kurdish” in the process.
Assad effectively handed over control of northern Syria to the YPG in the summer of 2012, when he was busy fighting off rebel attempts to seize Syria’s Aleppo and Damascus, in return for an effective non-aggression pact with it, which has occasionally seen the YPG act as a tactical ally of the Assad regime, helping the Assad regime to enforce its siege of Aleppo.
But the Syrian opposition’s refusal to recognise Kurdish autonomy in a post-Assad Syria has naturally increased the YPG’s hostility to the Syrian rebels, despite the sympathy of most of Syria’s Kurds towards the revolution.
Oppose all foreign interventions
Socialists should be totally opposed to all the outside powers interventions in Syria, and first of all to Russia’s, which has saved the Assad regime from collapse and indeed put it back on the offensive. Likewise they should condemn the United States’ (and Britain’s) bombing campaigns and their selective arming of groups willing to play their game. This has done much to weaken the independence of the more revolutionary elements of the Syrian opposition.
The Turkish invasion and occupation of the north must be condemned too, as also should the FSA’s counterproductive involvement in Turkey’s intervention. Reported plans to deport Syrian refugees into a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border are yet another reactionary move. We should condemn and oppose the Russian and Syrian regime bombing of the liberated zones (made under the pretext of attacking the Nusra Front), as well as the bombing campaign conducted by the USA and its allies on behalf of the YPG.
Our solidarity remains with all the civilians targeted by siege, bombardment and massacre, whoever the perpetrators are. Between them, all of the imperialist and regional powers have intervened against the democratic and social aspirations of Syria’s people, whether Arab or Kurdish, despite false claims to be acting a “protector” of this or that threatened group. And all of them have in turn fanned the flames of sectarian and ethnic division amongst Syrians.
Only the rebuilding of the shattered unity of Syria’s popular forces against both dictatorship and foreign invasion, and their assertion of independence from all outside tutelage, can prevent the rival global and regional powers from forcing a negotiated “solution” onto the Syrian people over their heads. It would be a solution that would mark the final crushing of the Syrian revolution.