As President Trump prepares to pull US troops from Syria, many regional and local powers are falling behind Bashar Al-Assad. Memet Uludag gives his take on the developing situation.
There are many moving pieces in Syria and the wider region. These days a week can be a long time. Syria, with all its complications continues to test our theoretical analysis of the world as well as our political responses to rapidly developing situations.
Internationally, there has been a mixed reaction to Trump’s decision to militarily pull out of the region. The Western mainstream reporting has been mostly limited to questioning whether this decision is wise and whether ISIS is sufficiently defeated or not. Many concluded that it wasn’t a wise decision and that ISIS was not defeated yet. These were nothing more than narrow debates turning into excuses for supporting US military presence in Syria. Yet again ISIS proves to be a useful distraction from the real issues that are shaping the future. If ISIS is not fully defeated, one reason must be the indiscriminate US airstrikes that did more displacement and killing of civilians than eliminating ISIS.
The defeat of ISIS in Iraq was announced in 2017. Today, Iraqis are talking about the ongoing economic-social conditions and oppression which give rise to forces like ISIS. Not much is reported in the Western media but the people of Iraq are constantly protesting their living conditions.
Renad Mansour, a research fellow specializing in Iraq at the UK’s Chatham House think tank says, “It’s (ISIS) a dynamic organization, it can understand what the main grievances are and try to act as a representative for these disenfranchised populations. If corruption is rampant and if the economy doesn’t improve, ISIS will be back. Part of the problem is that the US and allied forces have focused on territorial military tactics, not the underlying problems that lead people to join the group…The retreat from Syria is a clear example of that. If you bomb them and take over their territorial rule, it’s a job done. But what they haven’t tackled is why they are there and how to prevent them from coming back”.
What Mansour fails to say is that the imperialists were never in Iraq to tackle the miserable conditions people are living in.
New Calculations on Syria
From Israel to Iran, the ‘Syria calculations’ of all regional forces have to change, yet again. Without the US, the Russia-Assad-Iran camp feel stronger in defining Syria’s – and Assad’s – future. Turkey is preparing for a military intervention in Northern Syria to stop the Kurdish control of the region. The Assad regime is preparing for renewed relations with other Arab states. Kurds find themselves stuck between Turkey and Assad. Furthermore, what imperialism did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion may be repeated in Syria: a deeply wounded and divided people turning against each other in sectarian conflict, which will help Assad to regain his political and territorial control.
While everyone was busy discussing the consequences of the US pullout, another major development has taken place that will have a lot more impact on shaping the future of Assad’s Syria. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is reopening its embassy in Damascus. Others will follow. Syria was suspended from the Arab League after the regime’s attacks on civilians began in 2011. Now, it is more than likely that Syria will be re-admitted as a full member. This will have far reaching consequences, not just for the Assad regime but also the opposition groups, the Kurds and all foreign forces in the country.
Assad is sure to stay in power, at least for now. Everyone is re-adjusting their position on Syria based on that. The potential rebuilding contracts he will dish out will be very lucrative for those who want to have piece of the action. This means first rebuilding good relations with Assad. But also, bringing back the old status quo (they will all call it stability in the region) – as the final nail in the coffin of the 2011 revolution – will be sufficient reason for the Arab States to turn a blind eye to years-long terror and torture, to forget about political prisoners and ignore whatever may happen to the Kurds in the future. The Arab states are all well practiced at maintaining a miserable status quo in the Middle East. One has to remember the long Palestinian struggle to understand how the rulers of the Arab League states operate.
For the Syrian Kurds, life under the old Assad regime was not a straightforward situation. While the Syrian state wouldn’t give any political and ethnic-citizens’ rights to Kurdish people, it would somewhat ‘tolerate’ the presence of PKK leadership in the country. Until 1998, the PKK leader Öcalan was a resident in Syria. The Turkish Syrian relations were very tense before they got very friendly and hostile again.
Today, as protests are spreading across Sudan, the heads of Arab states are worried about their own people rising up. The memories of 2011 are too fresh for them to ignore. A revolution in one country is a potential ‘danger’ to all ruling classes of the whole region. The ideas and realities of a popular revolution are not a distant past or a fantasy. At the time of wringing this article there were protests in towns across the Idlib region denouncing the counter-revolutionary forces and the regime.
In another bizarre, but not surprising, development, French President Macron, who is facing serious protests at home, came forward in challenging Trump’s decision. Macron said France would stand by Kurdish fighters after the US withdrawal.
Macron didn’t come out because of his goodwill for the Kurdish people or his concerns for a democratic future of Syria. He had to respond to Trump’s decision. The US withdrawal of 2000 soldiers would suddenly expose the estimated 200 French troops in north-eastern Syria that provide support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Imperialism in crisis
Syria is not the Iraq of 2003, and US and Western imperialism is in crisis. Here’s how:
Firstly, western imperialism is not represented in huge numbers in Syria. The US/French numbers don’t even compare to the Russian/Iranian forces on the ground. The numbers change each year but Russia has an estimated 65000+ personnel in Syria. According to The Gatestone Institute’s estimation, as of late 2016, Iran controlled over 70,000 troops deployed in Syria (15,000 soldiers of the Iranian military, 20,000 members of Liwa Fatemiyoun, 20,000 Iraqi Shia Militiamen in ten different groups, 10,000 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and 5,000 to 7,000 Pakistani and Palestinian militiamen). These numbers are, of course, only debatable estimates.
But numbers on the ground do matter for the ultimate control of the situation. France is simply relying on its mighty imperialist name rather than military power on the ground. Without the US soldiers the usefulness of a tiny French force is questionable. Will a small French presence alter the course of the events in the coming weeks? Or will Macron try, like the US, to find a way out of Syria?
Secondly, like in Iraq of 2003, the Western Imperialists in Syria are not united, not coordinated and they don’t move in the same direction. US Imperialism is not leading an ‘international coalition of the willing’ that has agreed tactical and strategic objectives in Syria. The referendum in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan was a clear example where the US and European imperialist couldn’t make up their minds and their traditionally close and loyal allies, such as Turkey and Barzaniregime didn’t listen to clear US demands.
Western imperialism is all over the place in Syria. The people of the whole region have been paying a very heavy price for these adventures but the U.S. imperialist project is also in trouble.
The Kurdish situation
The immediate threat to the Kurds in Syria is Turkey’s military intervention in Manbij and the wider Kurdish controlled areas in Northern parts of the country. Turkey sees the Kurdish controlled regions in Syria as a threat to its control of Kurdish territories within its own borders.
Back in the early days of the conflict in Syria, the Kurdish leadership of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) had tried to forge close relations with Russia in their attempt to take control of northern territories. Assad paying almost no attention to the northern regions helped the Kurdish ambition of creating autonomous regions. The Russians played a double game by not totally abandoning the Kurds but at the same time building closer relations with Turkey, almost saying the time to deal with the Kurds has not come yet. From Turkey downing a Russian war jet, to purchasing a Russian surface-to-air missile system, this relationship has been rather a complex one. Today, Russian-led Syrian talks involve Turkey and Iran, not the US or any other NATO country.
ISIS was expanding and the Kurds had to fight back. As a result the Kurdish-US partnership emerged as a military response to ISIS.
A few years ago the ‘coalition’ to fight ISIS in Northern Syria was different from today. In November 2014, with the agreement of Turkey, Northern Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Forces had travelled, via South-Eastern Turkey, to Kurdish Kobane in Syria to help YPG in their fight against ISIS. They were accompanied by Turkish security forces.
During the same week a group of 200 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters had entered the besieged town at the request of YPG, who have been defending Kobane against ISIS attack since September 2014.
Today, the FSA and Turkey are marching onto Manbij to oust the Kurds. The Kurds are fearful of the coming days and months.
In 2014/15 the historic Turkish-Kurdish (PKK) peace process was failing. At the same time, for many reasons, including Syria, Turkish-US relations were beginning to sour. Until recently, the relations between the two NATO allies have been going from bad to worse. Trump and Erdoğan had begun to engage in a long war of words. There is still a strong belief in Turkey that the US was somewhat involved in the attempted military coup of 15 July 2016, considering some of the planes taking part in the coup took off from US airbases.
The US partnership protected the Kurds and allowed the US to maintain its presence and influence via Kurdish forces on the ground. Having relied on the political and military support of the US for a long time, the Kurds feel abandoned now. The Kurds and the US had formed a partnership which was described as a ‘win-win’ situation. With this partnership the US could maintain its influence in Syria with minimum force on the ground and continue to build on Obama’s ‘risk-free war’ concept by limiting its military operations to (safe) airstrikes and leaving the ground offensive against ISIS to the Kurdish fighters. There are no body bags returning to the US from Syria. Trump couldn’t afford this to happen.
For the Kurds this was yet another attempt to form a long lasting partnership with a super power which meant political and military protection from Turkey, ISIS and potentially Assad in the near future. It was an opportunity to grow and maintain the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. It also gave YPG hegemony over other factions.
Trump’s decision to pull-out from Syria is not just another Twitter midnight madness. As far back as May 2017 the State Department had announced ‘US made no promises to YPG, our relationship is tactical’. The State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Jonathan Cohen described the US relationship with YPG in Syria as “temporary, transactional, and tactical.”
As the US Government experiences another partial shutdown, Trump’s Syria decision continues to dominate the political debate. Last week The Washington Post wrote,
“Trump’s critics say leaving Syria means we lose. We already did. Without the will of successive presidents, Congress or the body politic, it wasn’t possible for America to compete with Russia, Iran and Turkey to impact Syria’s future.”
“In the wake of President Trump’s announcement that he intends to quickly withdraw US military forces from Syria, the who-lost-Syria debate has quickly ratcheted up – much as it did when critics cited President Barack Obama’s “indecision” as the reason US Syria policy fell apart”, wrote Aaron David Miller, Vice President For New Initiatives/Middle East Program Director and Richard Sokolsky a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program focussing on US policy towards Russia.
US imperialism is in crisis and it keeps haunting the US administrations.
Debates in the West
As it is important to discuss Syria and all related issues, so it is also important to have a critical view of some of the ongoing debates. A bit of ‘left-internalisation’ may be no harm if it helps developing a better understanding of debates being held.
Some find the easy way out of the challenge of Syria by reducing the whole situation into an imperialist vs. anti-imperialist struggle. That gives the opportunity to apply a basic anti-imperialist logic in their narrative. No wonder many ‘peace’ or ‘anti-war’ movements in the West have been Assad supporters (not always by choice but by conclusion) while maintaining their long anti-imperialist stand. This is a reductionist logic that sees nothing beyond itself, and very often dismisses the key details on the ground, such as the Syrian revolution itself and indeed the complexities it had from the beginning. Supporting and understanding a revolutionary struggle in action is a lot more hard work than simply relying on existing familiar anti-US imperialism. The latter is a ‘safe’ political position to have. Who on the left is going to condemn anti (US) imperialism? But promoting a difficult revolutionary struggle will get plenty of challenges from the wider left. Today, or seven years ago, many (all) forces on the left would easily support or join a rally at the US Embassy against US intervention in the Middle-East/Syria, but the same would not be the case if the rally was against the Syrian regime and all intervening forces in defence of the people’s revolt.
Some Western debates may look for politically ‘safe’ positions (safe from being ridiculed by others on the left), but Syria is not safe and millions of people and the revolutionaries had a lot less time to seek a ‘safe’ political position.
I see heated debates on social media that include – sometimes all at once – a blend of complex issues, such as Palestine, Israel, the Kurdish question, imperialism, secularism, revolution, political Islam, jihadism, nationalism, socialism and more.
Plenty of political challenges raise the temperature in the debates.These are not always helpful contributions to the ongoing debate, but are often understandable outcries by people who are horrified by what’s going on.
Some of the political challenges are an attempt to respond to horrors developing and others to understand the whole picture. Not an easy task, indeed. One danger in trying to answer these questions is the binary logic applied in isolation. But we have to also admit, there are many other factors defining the answers from the left to the issue of Syria. From a revolutionary Marxist analysis of the world to left-Islamophobia; from the hang-ups of Stalinism to a bipolar understanding of the world stuck in the Cold War era, there are many other deeper political influencers.
Whatever the influencers are, the situation in Syria deserves a lot wider and deeper analysis, both historic and contemporary, including issues specific to Syria but also the wider picture.
We need an overall understanding of the structure and contradictions in global imperialism – including the role of Russian imperialism – combined with a grasp of the complex interactions with and of sub-imperialist powers in the region (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel etc) and an awareness of the past and future potential for revolt from below by Middle Eastern masses. The most common defect of ‘analyses’ of the Syrian and regional situation is that they omit this last factor and see all the conflicts only in terms of struggles between various governments and nationalities.
The choices are not binary where we have to be simply for one power or the other.
A lot people in Syria are facing a vast range of options (or, possibilities). Some of those possibilities are due to their own choices and many others due to having absolutely no choices at all.
Binary-ism is not the way to debate Syria. It is possible to be for Kurdish rights in Syria as well as against the US presence. It is possible to criticise the Kurdish leadership but not fall into the trap of Turkish or western chauvinism. It is possible to be against all foreign intervention in Syria, despite the horrors inflicted by the regime. It is very possible to be against US-imperialism and denounce the Assad regime at the same time.
The most ridiculous thing I have heard for a long time came from a ‘peace activist’ at a meeting in Dublin sponsored by TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, where the former British Ambassador Peter Forde, a publicly defender of the Assad regime was speaking. In response to my criticism of the Assad regime the person responded, “Today, if you are not defending the Syrian government, you must be working for the Americans”.
Interesting isn’t it. Syria keeps testing our theory and practise. Now that the US is pulling out of Syria and given that Washington was never really interested in regime change, I wonder who I should work for now?