Reply to a friend: How much can geopolitics tell us about Syria?
Below is a reply I wrote to an old friend who asked some questions about Syria. He is far from being an Assadist, indeed he notes that Assad is a horrible dictator, and states that the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance should not be given any support at all. However, like a great many who don’t have time to read deeply on the issue, he view is partially informed by the simplistic geopolitics as presented in the mainstream media, and unfortunately, by much of the “alternative” media that should know better. I have decided to put my Facebook reply up here as an article because, in order to reply, I wrote a substantial summary of the Syria issue, both challenging the idea that geopolitics can be our main guide to analysing Syria, but also showing how much more complex the geopolitics of Syria in fact is. In fact, these two aspects are related: it is precisely because of the fact that in Syria we are dealing with real social forces, with real revolution and counterrevolution, that the geopolitics is messy, because all the different imperialist and local reactionary states seek to crush, control, co-opt or divert the revolution in different ways, which end up having little to do with traditional “alliances”.
As initially a Facebook reply, I have not filled this article with referencing as I usually do; those who read my work know that everything I write is normally fully referenced, and most of what I write here has already been covered in countless articles on this site.
First, the question I am replying to:
“Give us some more backgound on this Mike. I see the US supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Russians supporting Assad and Iran. Neither are right or supportable in any way. While Assad is a horrible dictator, at least some among the Syrian opposition are Jihadists, and not a good alternative. Let me know if this is not correct mate. You are in a better position than me on this area.”
I’m not sure how to summarise the last 7 years in one Facebook reply, but I’ll give it a go and provide you some links to articles on my site below.
The first thing is that Assad is not merely “a horrible dictator” like countless others; this is a tyrannical regime that has bombed every city and town in its country to pieces, including all the surrounding (ie, working class, semi-proletarian, semi-rural) suburbs of the capital, reduced its entire country to rubble, in its attempt to keep itself and its narrow oligarchic clique in power. I’m not sure when we’ve ever seen such massive and long-term use of an air-force against its own people; not that it is better when it is used this way against another country (eg the US in Vietnam), or people under occupation (eg, Israel in Gaza), or a secessionist part of a country; just that precisely this underlines the nature of the conflict in Syria: to the regime, the people are an enemy nation, to the people, the Assad clique is similar to a foreign occupation – even before it became little more than the local sheriff for Russian imperialism and the Iranian theocracy. The last count of 470,000 killed was from January 2016, so we need to stop quoting this ancient figure as if no-one had been killed in the last two plus years; one can only imagine how high the figure must be by now. Half the population has been uprooted from their homes, including 5.5 million (a quarter of the Syrian population) outside Syria, mostly in massive concentrations in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, a new al-Nakbah on a colossal scale.
The second thing I want to say is that there is a problem with method: while I disagree with your presentation of the geopolitics of the conflict (as I will outline below), even if I agreed, I think it is the wrong way to analyse Syria. The fundamental issue is that the Syrian people rose up against a bloodthirsty tyrant, who used massive murderous violence against them for months until some started taking arms to defend their demonstrations and their communities, and some troops began deciding to protect their brothers and sisters instead of killing them, ie, defecting, and formed the Free Syrian Army. After that the regime resorted to a genocidal level of violence, and as you say, this also provoked a degree of Islamic extremism on the fringes of the anti-Assad movement as well (similar to what happened in the resistance to the US invasion of Iraq, in Palestine and so on). But the fundamental issue is the people’s uprising; the rebels are merely the armed reflection of it. But armed struggle in itself then creates its own issues, and so many rebel groups are often a very imperfect reflection of the uprising, which nevertheless continues behind all the fighting. Overwhelmingly, the armed formations play a defensive role, defending the revolution-held towns against being overrun by the regime; there is no “military solution” by which they would ever be able to “take power” in their own name, and indeed they have never claimed that is their aim. The aim is defensive, and to pressure Assad into honest negotiations. Therefore, exaggerated and often wildly inaccurate descriptions of the politics of the rebel leaderships (which in fact vary wildly from democratic-secular to hard Islamist) have much less relevance than is often made out.
By the way, just one that question, when you say that at least part of the armed opposition are “jihadists”, I can only assume you mean Jabhat al-Nusra (now HTS) and ISIS – other Islamists range from very moderate to much harder but are not in any sense “jihadists”. Of these, only Nusra can be considered to be in any sense a part of the armed opposition, and always at an arm’s length. ISIS of course has nothing to do with the anti-Assad rebellion, rather it is an open enemy of it – it always fought the rebels much more than it fights Assad; and the rebels have fought ISIS much more than Assad ever has. In fact, for the first year and a half of ISIS in Syria (essentially an invasion from Iraq), from March 2013 to September 2014, the Assad regime barely touched it; rather, both Assad and ISIS overwhelmingly fought the rebels, often enough in tandem. In January 2014, the rebels launched a coordinated nationwide attack on ISIS, driving it out permanently from the whole of western Syria, and temporarily even from most of north-eastern Syria (briefly even from its capital Raqqa). ISIS only made a comeback in north-eastern Syria after it captured the entire US-supplied military arsenal of the US/Iran-backed Iraqi army, which ran away, in in Mosul in June 2014.
In September 2014, the US began bombing ISIS in Syria, and has been bombing them for 3.5 years, finally driving them almost completely from Syria late last year. However, the US also bombed Nusra from Day One, and has since launched hundreds of strikes against Nusra. Nusra is a sectarian and reactionary organisation, but is nothing remotely like ISIS, and is a little mouse compared to the genocidal Assad regime; and unlike ISIS, they are usually in areas adjacent to the rebel groups, so when the US bombs them, it effectively weakens the rebel front militarily against Assad. The rebels themselves often fight Nusra, in acts of resistance against their attempts to impose their reactionary program, and many liberated towns in rebel-held regions also resist Nusra encroachment, but Nusra (unlike ISIS) focuses on fighting Assad, so when the US bombs Nusra, it is seen as an attack on the rebellion, and so it in fact boosts Nusra’s standing as a force seen to be resisting both Assad and the US. Last March, the US bombed a mosque in Idlib, targeting Nusra, and killed 57 worshippers; this was just before the US first ever strike on the Assad regime, when it bombed a half-empty airbase in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons; no civilians were killed in this strike on Assad. Yet the response of the fake western “anti-war” movement to the murderous strike on the mosque was, meh, whereas when it struck Assad for once ever, it rose up in horror. In any case, the US bombs have also struck mainstream Islamists and even the FSA many times.
In fact, it was only after the US began bombing ISIS that the Assad regime also began bombing ISIS at all, in order to show it could be a partner of the US “war on terror”; often enough they began bombing Raqqa, Deir Ezzor etc in tandem. But it was overwhelmingly a US war. It was only really in 2017 that Assad and Putin joined this US war on ISIS on a large scale, after the US had done most of the softening up. Assad has the US to thank for allowing him to re-take the east of the country from ISIS.
So, does the geopolitical take which you outlined (and I’m not blaming you for it – this is the simplistic way it is often presented in mainstream and “left” media) take into account that the US has actually been bombing Syria for years, but just not bombing Assad, but rather bombing enemies (or in ISIS’ case, ‘frenemies’) of Assad, often enough in semi-alliance and at times in open coordination with Assad? Of course, the US war in eastern Syria has mostly been in alliance not so much with Assad directly (and never with the rebels), but overwhelmingly with the Kurdish-led YPG (ie, the PKK-connected Kurdish militia in Syria); the US chose them as a partner not out of love, but because the YPG prefers to only fight ISIS and not the Assad regime, which thus fits US policy perfectly. The US war on ISIS (and Nusra etc) has killed thousands of civilians, and destroyed 90% of the city of Raqqa, more or less completely. By contrast, this recent US strike on Assad’s chemical plants was over in an hour or so, killed zero civilians, and probably destroyed nothing much anyway, because Trump and Macron had tipped off their mate Putin who tipped off his mate Assad, days before, so the plants were almost certainly emptied (just like the airbase had been, that the US hit a year ago, after Assad’s chemical weapons attack last April). In short, the “anti”-war-o-sphere has been up in arms about this brief piece of elaborate theatre, warning about … “World War III”, while none of them ever had anything to say on the last 3.5 years of actual US war in Syria, including the slaughter of civilians, even the use of white phosphorus etc. That is not anti-war, or anti-imperialist that is just pro-Assad, *even those who do not claim to be*. Otherwise, who can we explain this blatant contradiction?
So again, how can this overall US role fit with the geopolitics outlined above? Yes, the US is allied to Israel and to Saudi Arabia. So what? Yes, the Saudis used to support the Syrian opposition, for their own reasons; part of it would appear to be their geopolitical-sectarian struggle for regional leadership against Iran; part of it is simply that once Assad’s slaughter of mostly Sunni Syrians became a region-wide Nakbha, the supposed head of the Sunni Islamic world felt the need to take a stand or get swept aside by its Sunni jihadist enemies. However, it is unlikely that an absolute monarchy ever actually wanted a victory over Assad (indeed, in the first 6 months of the uprising, the Saudi regime strongly supported Assad, as did Qatar and other Gulf monarchies); they wanted to pressure Assad to compromise, because his war on Syrians was ripping the entire region to bits. Since they launched their own bloody war on Yemen in 2015, however, they have shown far less enthusiasm for Syria, and over the last couple of years have essentially lost all interest, as is widely recognised.
But the Americans were much less enthusiastic than the Saudis from the start, and often held them back, sometimes blocking them from shipping any arms. Of course, the US also wanted some (milder) pressure on Assad to compromise a little, and so their aims partly corresponded with Saudi aims; but the US’ main reason for doling out some arms with an eye-dropper to some select rebel groups was much more about co-opting them in order to *divert them from fighting Assad into fighting ISIS only*. Actually, it is not even clear how much the US has provided at all, despite the hype; for a time it was only whether or not the US would allow the Saudis or Qatar to send anything, or to send which kinds of arms; when the US allowed the Saudis (or Qatar) to send more, that was often interpreted as US arms. The main US role, apart from pushing rebels to quit fighting Assad in order to only fight ISIS, was to *block*, from 2012 till today, anyone – Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, former Libyan rebels, the black market – from sending defensive anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels, in a war that has been, since 2012, overwhelmingly an air war. I’m not sure what you make of it – I guess I see this is a much more decisive intervention than any other in the war, and I’m unsure why not many others see it the same way, including many anti-Assadists. Anti-aircraft weapons are not a panacea to end all suffering, but the fundamental fact is that in the era of modern air-forces, it is very difficult for a revolution to resist; if the rebels had these decisive *defensive* weapons, it would not allow them to seize Damascus or any region where Assad has a support base, but it would allow the battle on the ground to be on a slightly more levelled playing field, without the overwhelming suffering caused to the rebels’ civilian base by Assad’s air-power.
We can romanticise the Vietnamese victory over US imperialism as much as we want, as long as we remember that at least when the Soviets were also doling out military “aid with an eye-dropper” as we complained at the time, that even the “eye-dropper” allowed through decisive anti-aircraft weapons that the Vietnamese used to great effect, especially during Nixon’s horrific Christmas bombing of 1972, when countless US warplanes were shot out of the sky.
As for Israel, it has never aided the rebels, and has since the outset adopted a rather standoffish, if not hostile stance towards them (and they have never shown any interest in gaining Israeli support either, have always insisted that the Golan is Syrian, and rebel-held Syria erupted in anti-Trump demonstrations when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital”); Israel prefers Assad keep power, but has been increasingly drawn in to attacking Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Of course, Iran and Hezbollah are major backers of the largely collapsed Syrian army; but Israel’s strikes have tended to have the nature of a parallel war, narrowly focused on its own interests. It has never targeted the regime or Iran or Hezbollah in the context of a battle with the rebels (and, to be fair, the rebels probably didn’t want it either); in fact, the one time it intervened directly in battle was in late 2017, near the Golan, when it prevented the rebels taking a town from the regime. After an Israeli strike on Iranian assets in January 2018 in central Syria, we saw the whole genocidal Assad bombing of Ghouta, killing 1700 people in 4 weeks, with “conventional” weapons of mass destruction rather than chemicals, and so there was not a peep out of Trump, the US, France, the UK etc, and neither was there another peep from Israel – this was of no concern at all. In fact, when Israel did just recently hit Iranian assets again in central Syria, it was after the end of the Ghouta battle, as if this bracketing of Assad’s decisive showdown with the Ghouta opposition at both ends was deliberately aimed at symbolising that it was of no concern to Israel at all, or even that it supported Assad in this.
This shows my problem with a discussion that says on one side is the US allied with Israel and Saudi Arabia and on the other is Russia and Iran allied to Assad!