Syria: Government victory in Aleppo a major setback for NATO imperialists

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Syrian army units

On 14 December 2016, in perhaps the most important battle of the war, the Syrian military and its allies won complete control of the major city of Aleppo from jihadist and imperialist-backed rebel groups. As well as a major victory for the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad against a waning insurgency, this was a victory for a whole constellation of powers – notably Russia and Iran – over the NATO imperialist powers and their allies. The changing role of Turkey has proved crucial as the focus of the war in Syria looks set to shift to the struggle between Turkey and Kurdish forces in the north and east. The Syrian government has entered 2017 in a position to begin mopping up the last pockets of rebels in western Syria, before turning its focus to rebuilding its devastated cities and infrastructure, and facing the Islamic State group (IS) threat. The legacy of the NATO imperialists’ attempts at regime change in Syria is hundreds of thousands of corpses, many more maimed and disabled, and a country taken back in time. As reconstruction contracts are handed out, it will be those that stood with Syria against NATO who will benefit and increase their regional influence. Toby Harbertson reports.

Astana peace talks

The escalation of the campaign by the Syrian army and its allies from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah to retake Aleppo – Syria’s largest city before the war – coincided with the election of Donald Trump as US President. Speculation abounds in the ruling class media about how this change of US government will affect the US relationship with the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin, and their respective policies on Assad and IS in Syria. However, by the time Trump was inaugurated, the situation on the ground in Syria demonstrated the failure of NATO imperialist regime-change policy, limiting Trump’s options. Trump has supported the idea of ‘safe zones’ in Syria. Russia plans to expand its permanent military presence in Syria, extending the port of Tartus and establishing a second runway at the Hmeimin air base.

Russia has also demonstrated its ability to play a major diplomatic role, working with Turkey and Iran to negotiate ceasefires in Syria on 14 and 29 December 2016, and organising peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, beginning on 23 January. Rebel groups are attending the talks, except those declared terrorist groups by the UN – Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS) (formerly the Al Qaeda aligned Jabhat Al Nusra), and IS. Many of them, however, have close links to these banned groups and share similar ideology. The US and Europe are not playing a major role in these talks, having been sidelined by Russia and Iran. Turkey insisted that the Kurdish PYD and YPG – who are fighting Turkey for their national liberation – were not invited, perversely equating them with IS.

Significant to the achievement of the Astana talks has been the changing position of President Erdogan’s Turkish government. Relations between Turkey and Russia have improved from the tensions of October 2015. Turkey was a major supporter of armed groups in Aleppo, but in August 2016 it moved thousands of rebel fighters out to focus on the fight against the Kurds in north east Syria. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek signalled a toning down of the government’s position on the future of Assad: ‘The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad, it’s not realistic’ (Davos, 20 January 2017). This shift towards reconciliation with the Syrian government has been even more pronounced elsewhere, with Algeria openly talking about restoring legitimacy to Assad, and talks being held between the Syrian and Egyptian militaries (Vijay Prashad, Counterpunch, 13 January). British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has suggested that Britain would accept a deal with Assad running as a candidate in future elections. Many armed groups in Syria reported being abandoned by their Gulf backers – primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar – in the run-up to the government victory in Aleppo.

Victory in Aleppo

Aleppo was once Syria’s industrial and business capital, and home to the most important pharmaceutical industry in the Middle East. A vast array of unique historical monuments were testament to its 5,000 years of constant settlement. In the first months of the war it was relatively untouched, with its Sunni majority and significant Christian minority largely supportive of the government. In 2012, rebel groups moved in, occupying the historic old city, and subsequently taking control of the east of the city. Jabhat Al Nusra (now JFS) became increasingly dominant.

A major offensive to retake Aleppo was launched by the Syrian government and its allies in mid-November 2016. Within a month the city was back under Syrian state control, and tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the east to other parts of Syria, with only a third of them choosing to go to rebel-controlled Idlib. The agreement for the evacuation and ceasefire required the evacuation of the villages of Fua and Kefraya, which had been under siege by rebel groups for almost two years. A group hostile to this evacuation – presumed to be JFS – undermined the ceasefire on 18 December by attacking and burning six buses sent to evacuate these villages. However, the evacuations were completed successfully on 22 December, allowing the government and Aleppo’s inhabitants to turn to rebuilding the city.

The destruction in eastern Aleppo is massive. More than 33,500 buildings in the east of the city are estimated to have been damaged. Reconstruction is expected to cost $100bn.

More than 1,500 historic structures are damaged – 70% of the historic old city, with 30-40% totally destroyed (Al Monitor, 16 January). Many of these buildings were intentionally damaged by rebel groups. On 27 October, Putin called for international co-operation to construct a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the reconstruction of the Middle East. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem confirmed that Russian companies had been offered priority in reconstruction contracts (Euronews, 22 November). The first 14 contracts worth $5m were signed in January. Rebuilding Aleppo will be central to attempts to recover the national economy. On 7 January, the Syrian parliament agreed on a plan to reconstruct and return services to Aleppo city, prioritising clearing roads of rubble and providing electricity and water.

Hypocrisy and hysteria

The propaganda machine of the ruling classes in Britain and the US went into overdrive in the run up to the government victory, with comparisons to Rwanda and warnings of huge massacres by Syrian government and allied forces. However, eastern Aleppo under the rule of JFS and other rebel groups was marked by brutality and intolerance, with executions for blasphemy and widespread torture (The Guardian, 12 November 2013). The UN Special Envoy for Syria claimed that much of the population were held against their will. Rebels frequently launched rocket attacks against the civilian areas in the west of Aleppo. The absurd media reaction was a clear expression of the importance of the rebel enclave in Aleppo for the strategy of the NATO imperialist powers, and of their relative powerlessness in the face of the political and military reality on the ground.

On 14 December, as the Syrian government took control of Aleppo, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to UN, asked of Syria and Russia at an emergency UN Security Council meeting: ‘Are you incapable of shame?...Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin? Is there literally nothing that shames you?’ The hypocrisy of such a statement should be clear to anyone with any knowledge of US history – a country responsible more than any other for the death, destruction and rise of jihadist groups in the Middle East, having led wars which have killed at least four million people in the region since 1990 (Nafez Ahmed, Middle East Eye, 8 April 2015).

The Guardian published a stream of opinion pieces calling for military action in Aleppo, stating ‘the time for standing back is over’, and asking ‘did we learn nothing from Srebrenica?’. Other media whipped up even stronger pro-war sentiments, and every day headlines vilified Russia. The pro-imperialist left in the US and Britain followed suit. The International Socialist Organisation (the US counterpart of the British Socialist Workers Party) described the government victory over jihadist groups in Aleppo as ‘counterrevolution’(socialistworker.org, 13 December 2016). The British Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) called for demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy – echoing Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s call in October (workersliberty.org, 9 December).

A few honest voices managed to put the events in Aleppo in perspective. Robert Fisk compared the stark differences in the coverage of Aleppo with the similar battle for Mosul in Iraq. In both cases, state forces and their allies were fighting to reclaim large cities occupied by brutal jihadists. However, Mosul remained a minor issue for the media. Fisk calls this the ‘extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria’ (Independent, 21 October). Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria, also pointed to ‘selective indignation’ over Aleppo. Referring to the evacuation, he continued: ‘There were no green buses in Gaza. There were no green buses after the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia. I think we need to give the [Syrian] government a little bit of credit for what has been a relatively peaceful end to this terrible period.’ Ford pointed to the Christmas tree in Aleppo’s central square, explaining that it would not be there ‘if the other side had won’ (The Guardian, 23 December).

IS and NATO

Much of the east of Syria is still in the hands of IS, despite the group losing 25% of its territory in 2016. On 11 December, IS retook the historic city of Palmyra, which had been recaptured only months earlier. In January IS also made significant gains around the city of Deir Ez Zor. The battle against IS in Mosul, Iraq, is progressing slowly, but is still driving IS fighters into Syria. In the north east of Syria, 500 US military personnel are working with Kurdish forces in a campaign to take Raqqa from IS, and in Iraq 5,000 US troops are also engaged in the campaign against IS, both with US air support.

However, evidence continues to come to light of the role of the US and its allies in the rise of IS. A leaked tape of former US Secretary of State John Kerry from September 2016 provides evidence that the US watched the rise of IS without taking action: ‘We were watching. We saw that Daesh [IS] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.’ New Wikileaks emails acknowledge that the US was aware that the Gulf states were supporting IS from the beginning. A leaked US government memo from 17 August 2014 (shortly after IS declared a ‘global caliphate’) stated ‘…Qatar and Saudi Arabia, … are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis [IS] and other radical groups in the region’ (Patrick Cockburn, Independent, 14 October 2016).

The suffering, death and destruction in Syria are unimaginable. Former President Obama, in his 2016 end-of-year press conference, stated: ‘Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone, with the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, and this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.’ This is coming from a president whose government dropped more than 26,000 bombs in 2016. All the focus on the role of Russia and Iran from the media and the ‘left’, serves only to divert attention from the central role of the NATO imperialists in orchestrating, fueling and fighting this murderous war. The responsibility for the destruction in Syria lies with Washington, London and Paris. All those in the media, and the so-called ‘left’ who echo Obama are working in the service of imperialism, and must be exposed as such.


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017