Syria: Going backwards in time

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

According to the UN Development Programme, Syria has lost 35 years of human development in just two years. Natalie Roberts, from Médecins Sans Frontières, explains that Syria’s health care system is ‘going backwards in time, at a rate of a decade a month’. The increasing influence of jihadist groups in the war in Syria, has led to continued fighting between opposition groups and sustained fighting has spread to Lebanon and Iraq. This was the context for the Geneva II conference at the end of January 2013. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.

Geneva II

The conference, far from the reality on the ground, provided a stage for an international propaganda war. The Syrian government is negotiating with representatives of the opposition who in fact represent nothing but the interests of their international backers. The rebel groups who have influence on the ground never had any intention of attending the talks. The war for Syria continues as its once modern infrastructure is increasingly destroyed. The imperialist powers, who will not give up their war on the Syrian government, are centrally responsible for one of the worst modern humanitarian catastrophes.

Geneva II coincided with the 2014 World Economic Forum at Davos, also in Switzerland. The ruling classes of the imperialist nations, including 900 company and banking CEOs, had gathered to discuss ‘The Reshaping of the World’. It is the interests of this global financial and political elite which are being served in Geneva. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon must have found the short journey from one meeting to the other, especially convenient.

On 24 January representatives of the Syrian government met in the same room as members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) for the first time. Iran was invited to the talks by Ban Ki Moon on 19 January, but this invitation was withdrawn the next day following pressure from Saudi Arabia, France and the US. The US and Britain had made future support for the SNC provisional on its attendance at Geneva II. The Syrian government entered talks with the understanding that President Assad’s position was not up for negotiation, and arguing, alongside Russia, that their purpose was fighting terrorism. The SNC, backed by the US, Britain and France, insisted that the removal of Assad from power was a necessary precondition for negotiations. This deadlocked conference could not even achieve much-needed local ceasefires and aid deliveries. UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi explained: ‘We never expected a miracle.’

Qatar accuses Syria of war crimes

Just as Geneva II was about to begin, the Qatari government, one of the most active enemies of the Syrian government, revealed a dossier of evidence accusing Syria of systematic war crimes. The 55,000 photos are purported to show 11,000 people tortured and murdered by the Syrian government. The report, commissioned by Qatar and carried out by a British law firm, drew comparisons with Nazi death camps. The photographer was recognised in the report to be a supporter of the Syrian opposition, and has remained anonymous, with the code name ‘Caesar’. It is far too early to say how credible these reports are. In the four months since the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, which came close to triggering open imperialist intervention in Syria, many doubts have been raised about the evidence which was used to point the blame at the Syrian government, in particular Seymour Hersh’s myth-busting article ‘Whose Sarin?’ in the London Review of Books on 19 December 2013. Irrespective of the truth behind the claims by Qatar, the release of the report has clearly been used to undermine the Syrian government in the Geneva II talks, and shift credibility to the irrelevant opposition delegation.

The state of the opposition

The state of the opposition forces in Syria is increasingly difficult for their international supporters to justify. The last few months have seen sustained serious fighting between groups in the north. The US and Britain were forced to cut off their ‘non-lethal’ support to the Syrian Military Council of the Free Syrian Army on 6 December when their headquarters and warehouses were taken by Jabhat Al Nusra (JN), and then the Islamic Front (IF). JN is a major jihadist group, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US. IF is a coalition which includes Ahrar Al Sham, in which a leading member, Abu Khaled Al Suri, has been designated by Al Qaeda head Ayman Al Zawahiri as ‘regional emir’ according to the Daily Beast (9 January). A CIA spokesperson refused to comment on whether US weapons were in the seized warehouses.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Al Qaeda

Many rebel groups have joined together to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a strong Al Qaeda linked group in Syria. However, these alliances and rivalries are more pragmatic than ideological. Most groups continue to fight alongside JN. Others are attempting to win imperialist support by being seen to be fighting ‘terrorism’ in Syria. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front was formed in December 2013, with major backing from Saudi Arabia, in order to differentiate itself from the increasingly jihadist opposition. At Geneva II, the SNC also attempted to use this strategy. Referring to the Syrian government’s stance on fighting terrorism in Syria, Oubai Shahbandar, an opposition adviser explained to the BBC, ‘We want to use Geneva to turn the tables and show the world that we are the solution to fighting Al Qaeda.’ (13 January).

With a perceived distinction being drawn by media and governments between ISIS (‘bad’ jihadists) and the rest (‘good’ jihadists) some imperialist political and military figures are suggesting more of a direct alliance with the IF. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan is also pushing for the US to openly support the IF. On 9 January the New York Times reported: ‘The Obama administration is considering the resumption of non-lethal military aid to Syria’s moderate opposition, senior administration officials said on Thursday, even if some of it ends up going to the Islamist groups that are allied with the moderates.’ This aid was resumed on 27 January, undermining the ongoing talks at Geneva.

Reactionary social policies continue to be implemented in areas which are under control of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadists. All-male courts have been set up in many rebel controlled areas, and restrictions on women’s dress, work, and behaviour have been implemented. Non-compliance has been punished with restrictions on freedom of movement, including the prohibition of buying bread. Access to education and sexual health care has been severely limited. The Syrian constitution protects equality for women, and in government held areas religious and cultural freedoms are maintained. Even US NGO Human Rights Watch are speaking out against the reaction in rebel-held Syria: ‘Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra are undermining the freedoms that Syria’s women and girls enjoyed, which were a long time strength of Syrian society’, (Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch).

The actions of the imperialists and their Gulf allies in their attempts to reshape the Middle East, have led to the threatened breakdown of states and borders across the region. The conditions which have led to the rising strength of jihadist groups operating in Syria and Iraq, and significantly threatening Lebanon were created by invasion, economic warfare, and the huge-scale transfer of weapons and money into the hands of warlords and militants. How imperialist and regional powers will respond to this developing situation is yet to be seen. For them ‘terrorists’ are allies to be tacitly supported, or an enemy to be destroyed, justifying direct military intervention, depending on immediate political and economic interests. Closer security co-operation between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran is likely to continue to develop, in the face of a shared threat. Syria will continue to go backwards in time until the imperialists and their proxies leave or are driven out.

Rojava: Kurdish revolution in Syria

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

Rojava is the Western (Syrian) part of Kurdistan with a population of three million. Despite its relatively small size in terms of area and population, Rojava is today under attack by the reactionary and colonial forces in the Middle East. Embargoes are imposed and neighbouring countries try to isolate Rojava by closing borders. Puppet gangs are carrying out massacres.

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The plight of Syria's refugees - racism, poverty, and imprisonment

Three years of war in Syria have created a major refugee crisis. At least 2.3 million people have been forced over Syria's borders. Britain, France and other European governments are happy to fuel the war with money and weapons, but less generous when it comes to accommodating these refugees. The entire European Union has offered refuge, under a UN plan, to only 12,000 people – 0.5% of the total displaced. The vast majority are living in Syria's neighbouring countries. Those seeking to escape from these overcrowded and deprived situations face the militarised borders of the EU, immigration prisons, hostility and racism.

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Syria: Peace talks and proxy war / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

The Syrian government has complied with the Russian-US chemical weapons plan, destroying all its production facilities by the November deadline. The war has dropped from the top of the news agenda. The international struggle over Syria’s future has shifted focus to the arrangements for the Geneva II peace conference. Relative negotiating positions will be determined by the balance of forces on the ground which is shifting in favour of the Syrian Army. In the northeast, Kurdish forces have taken the upper hand. The strategy of the imperialists and their regional clients is in tatters and they are struggling to reverse this. In the midst of this brutal war, the humanitarian crisis deepens. Epidemics of once controlled diseases threaten millions, and the refugee crisis intensifies. An effective ceasefire and peace settlement would be welcomed. However, peace is not the primary objective as far as the imperialists of Britain, the US, and France are concerned. Toby Harbertson reports.

Geneva II

The Geneva II conference was planned for May 2013 but has been continually delayed. At the time of writing it has been set for 22 January 2014. It aims to bring the Syrian government and opposition together with the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Geneva I in June 2012 agreed a plan to implement a ‘political transition’. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared that the goal was to give ‘the people of Syria the opportunity to choose their future’. However, the Syrian people have little room for choice, with his insistence that the US ‘will continue to support the opposition’ (4 November 2013).

For the imperialists, any peace talks must help bring about regime change. The British government hosted 11 Western and Arab nations from the ‘Friends of Syria’ group, who agreed that neither Syrian President Bashar Assad nor his ‘close associates’ should have any role in a future government. The ‘London 11’ asserted: ‘We will step up our joint efforts to channel support to the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council [SMC] of the Free Syrian Army.’ The National Coalition (NC) is a puppet body of bourgeois exiles. It means little outside the conference rooms of London, Geneva and Istanbul.

Syria can be broadly split into three parts. South and central Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo, are increasingly controlled by the Syrian government with support from Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The north and east are largely controlled by a variety of opposition militias and mercenaries (primarily the Al Qaeda linked jihadist groups Jahbat Al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)). The far northeast is under Kurdish control. With this balance of forces, the NC and London 11 are not setting realistic conditions. They have an interest in delaying or derailing Geneva II until they can change this balance. Equally, the Syrian government has no reason to participate while it continues to make military gains. As long as the conference remains premised on meeting the interests of the imperialists and its opposition, it cannot result in a solution for the people of Syria.

Imperialist mercenaries and Al Qaeda

States, individuals and organisations, particularly in the Gulf, are funding reactionary jihadist groups as direct proxies. In November Saudi Arabia announced that it would support Jaysh Al Islam (JAI), a coalition of Sunni groups, with millions of dollars of arms and training. JAI has joined with other Islamic groups, including Ansar Al Sham and Liwa Al Tawhid, in the new Islamic Front, unifying many of the Gulf-sponsored groups, providing an alternative to the irrelevant SMC. JAI head Zahran Alloush, recently met with the US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. Saudi Arabia still relies on the military and intelligence networks of US and British imperialism.

Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro revealed to Press TV how the CIA significantly increased arms deliveries to the opposition in September with 600 tons of weapons shipped in 2013 (10 November). On 31 October, Israel bombed Syria for the fourth time this year, effectively supporting the opposition. Israel and the imperialists have wider regional objectives: ‘Israeli pilots are using Syria as a laboratory to test radar and communications, flight patterns, its bombing accuracy, interception technology and assets to further their readiness for a pre-emptive attack on Iran’ (James Petras, 9 November). Strong Sunni jihadist forces are welcomed in order to fuel sectarian war with their Shia opponents.

Kurdish autonomy

In northeastern Syria, Kurdish fighters have made gains against jihadists with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) now controlling the Afrin region and the far northeast. On 12 November the PYD declared the liberation of Western Kurdistan/Rojava and announced a new Kurdish transitional government. PYD head, Saleh Muslim, stated: ‘We have found no allies and paid for our own bullets.’ The NC, who have found allies in the imperialist capitals, and never paid for their own bullets, declared the PYD ‘hostile to the Syrian revolution’ (13 November).

Syrian Kurds have found many other enemies. Turkey is constructing a border fence between the Kurdish towns of Nusaybin and Qamishli, sparking protests and hunger strikes. Nusaybin’s Mayor, Ayse Gökkan, called the wall ‘a declaration of war against Kurds’ (The Guardian, 8 November). This newly autonomous area could advance the Kurdish liberation struggle within Turkey, inspiring national aspirations and giving the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) more freedom to organise. Masoud Barzani, the sell-out President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, has also opposed the declaration. Syria’s Kurds face many challenges ahead.

Human cost

Syria has been polio-free since 1999, but in November cases were diagnosed in the northeast. According to the World Health Organisation, polio ‘has so far left ten children paralysed, and poses a risk of paralysis to hundreds of thousands of children across the region’ (8 November). Cases of measles, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis A have increased in Syria’s north and east. The movement of refugees into Turkey, Jordan and Europe threatens to spread these epidemics. According to UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, 9.3 million people in Syria now need humanitarian assistance, with 6.5 million people displaced from their homes (4 November).

The objective conditions for a successful peace plan do not exist in Syria. The majority of the armed opposition, such as JN and ISIS, will not participate in Geneva II. Arms are still being poured into Syria by the imperialists and the Gulf states. If they cannot shift the balance of forces, the Syrian government will soon control most major cities and roads. This will go some way to alleviating the suffering imposed upon Syria by the imperialist covert war. The sectarian violence has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, and will prove difficult to control. Ever resourceful, the imperialists will find ways to continue their strategy for regional domination.


Kurdish self-determination in northern Syria (Guest Post)

Down with colonialism and imperialist aggression!

While the contradictions amongst the imperialists and former colonial powers continue over their bloody war against the hegemony of Syria and the Middle East, in Rojava (western Kurdistan) in northern Syria the Kurdish people have taken into their own hands the struggle for self-determination. Through an uprising begun in July 2012, a democratic alternative, based on the people’s commitment to brotherhood and freedom, has been born. The Kurdish people have taken control of all important spheres of life, and started building councils, in which all regional ethnic, religious and social groups are represented. The Kurdish people of Rojava (West Kurdistan) are taking steps towards building an alternative way, a way that is completely separate from that of the imperialists and regional reactionaries. Inevitably, it is being attacked from all sides. All progressive and re­volutionary forces must therefore take the side of this revolution in Rojava.

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