What will be left of Syria this time next year? Already so many of its people have fled or have been slaughtered. Already its infrastructure, its treasures and wealth have been obliterated. Fighting over the rubble in Aleppo, Dara’a and Douma has all but exhausted the regime, fractured the secular and nationalist forces and allowed Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State to carve out geographic and political space. The Gulf states, Turkey, Russia and the West are wading waist deep through the destruction. Some lights of the uprising still flicker with popular forces fighting the regime and Islamist reaction. In the north of Syria, the Kurdish cantons have witnessed social upheaval to displace the Ba’athist state and push back the Islamists. Elsewhere, democrats are attempting to etch out a society in defiance of the regime and threats posed by the the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other reactionaries.
It seems a long time ago now but in 2011, right at the beginning of the uprising, spurred on and inspired by the Arab Spring events in North Africa Syrians braved bullets to try and overthrow the dictatorship. Despite the war, the atrocities and the intervention of foreign powers the hope for a Syria cleansed of the dictatorship still lives as civil society activists try to build judicial, governmental and social institutions. At present there are around 416 elected local councils and eight provincial councils in Free Syrian Army (FSA) controlled areas. Between the vying militias, Islamist reaction, Assad’s armies and constant airstrikes there is still a real attempt to build functioning democratic bodies.
The regime is the main actor in the conflict responsible for over 85% of civilian deaths according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Whilst there has been widespread defections and at least 88,616 combat deaths the regime is still fighting on and being propped up by outside support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The regime has increasingly relied on its air force to subdue restive populations who are first besieged. Starvation, indiscriminate bombings and mass terror have all been deployed against civilians who oppose the Assad regime. Take for example the suffering of the Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp. It is a residential district in Damascus that was home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees before the war. For demanding freedom and democracy from the regime they were encircled, over 70% of the camp is now rubble and less than 18,000 people remain. After years of siege and bombardment the Islamic State overran the rebels in the camp and committed further atrocities. Unlike the bombings and the siege of the Gaza strip, anti-war organisations and much of the international left ignored the plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk. Clearly outrage at violence against Palestinian refugees is only protest worthy when the other side is flying the Star of David.
We now seem to be entering some sort of endgame. Assad is likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future as Russian involvement, and fears over post war planning like after deposing Saddam Hussein, means that the Ba’athist state and its army will remain relatively intact. The world powers look set to strong arm the opposition into ceasefires and an accommodation with a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. To get to this point and survive the regime has called on all its friends, leveraged all sources of support and drawn on manpower from within and outside of Syria. Alongside the regular Syrian forces there are militias drawn from Shia populations across the middle east, particularly from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. It has recently gone on the offensive across a broad front to push back opposition forces from the Syrian central corridor.
The light in the north
Lots is now being written on the revolution taking place in northern Syria, what Kurds call Rojava (Western Kurdistan). In the middle of a brutal civil war and the collapse of central authority a society is being built that stands as a beacon across the region casting a real alternative to the barbaric monarchies, dictatorships and theocracies. The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons bequeaths a democratic settlement with a strong rule of law, an independent judiciary, the removal of religion from political life, gender equality, the right, and duty, to bear arms and much more. If there was a democratic and political solution to the civil war in Syria then what is happening in Rojava and in some rebel held areas of Syria is where to start.
The defensive action from September 2014 to March 2015 by Kurdish militias and their allies at the town of Kobani caught the world’s attention. Here, a clear stand for democracy was being pummelled by the Islamic State with weapons looted from the Iraqi and Syrian armed forces. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their allies were severely outnumbered, outgunned and thanks to the acquiescence of the Turkish state practically surrounded making reinforcement, re-supply and support extremely difficult. The YPG had no tanks, no heavy artillery and a limited and ageing collection of small arms. Thousands of Islamist fighters were cut down by the determined resistance and astute urban warfare tactics of the YPG. Many commentators likened the battle to that of Madrid in the Spanish revolution and the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War. If Islamist reaction won and overran the ramparts at Kobani, a positive and democratic settlement in Syria would have been almost impossible. After much popular clamour in the West the United States began to provide close air support to the YPG, undoing the siege and enabling the YPG, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and allies to go on the offensive. The Islamic State is now reeling from defeat after defeat in the north. PKK, YPG and allied militia have also scored successes in Iraq, notably the evacuation of tens of thousands of Yazidi civilians in August 2014 and participation in the action to oust the Islamists from Sinjar in November 2015.
The Kurdish cantons in the north of Syria operate under “democratic confederalism”, a system whereby municipal councils are the key decision making body in a neighbourhood, village etc. Councils are elected to administer local resources and infrastructure which are then networked with other councils at city, region and then a national level. Such a system eschews Kurdish nationalism in a traditional sense and attempts to divest power from the state to the ethnically and religiously diverse communities across a putative Kurdistan and the Near East.
Square dancing with the world powers
There has been much indignation in Washington and Ankara over Russian airstrikes against opposition forces fighting Assad. The downing of a Russian aircraft by the Turkish air force has certainly put further pressure into a combustible situation. In the north of Syria everybody is getting their hands dirty. Turkey is waging a campaign against Assad but also Kurdish forces through its proxies in Syria and imposing martial law and state terror against the Kurds in southeastern Turkey. The United States has decided to play Turkey off against the PKK allied forces in Syria so it gets the airbase it needs from Turkey and ground support from the YPG to push back the Islamic State in Syria. Russia entered the war with all the diplomatic niceties one would expect and decided that anyone with arms, or in a hospital, a market or a school that was not under the control the regime was fair game. It made a small pretense of helping out Syria against the Islamic State but it was there to preserve the Ba’athist state, its only Mediterranean port and its brand new air base in the region. Britain, France and Germany seem to have had enough of looking on as their friends got to go to war and promptly used an atrocity carried out by French and Belgian terrorists as a pretext to enter the fray in Syria.
The Gulf states, though being slightly distracted by pummelling Yemen into the ground, are also very much involved. Each plying this or that militia with some ammunition here, some training there and a bit a cash for humanitarian relief. Until the massacres in Sinjar and the collapse of the Iraqi army the West was seemingly happy to look the other way as rebel factions including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vied for money, arms and support from wealthy, state and non-state, backers in the Gulf. At the time, almost anything was permissible for the West to see Assad’s forces ground down and pushed back. Now Saudi and the emirates are having to contemplate the United States and Europe switching to the Iranian and Russian line of preserving the Ba’athist state in the name of stability and fighting terrorism.
So quickly are the world powers, their regional consorts and the innumerable forces on the ground changing sides and amending their relationships it is a wonder everybody knows who should be shooting at who at any particular time. In this dance of death the masses can’t win, the great powers will try and throw the Kurdish forces to the new Ottoman wolves once the Islamic State is dismembered and some kind of peace established with Syria. The Hashemites, the House of Saud and the theocracy in Iran will only be too happy to see the democratic aspirations of Kurds and Syrians dashed. It would be a great challenge to their own regimes if the democratic forces in Syria won.
After the Paris atrocities there was a great clamour to do something. France, enlivened by its efforts in Mali and Libya has found a new martial vigour dragging its allies into a grand coalition with Russia against the Islamic State. Yet, like those who butchered Parisians this new coalition shares something with the Islamic State; they know, as the Al-Qaeda training manual states, that “it’s foolish to hunt the tiger, when there are sheep.” The victims of the air campaign in Syria will be those suffering the benighted rule of the Islamic State. It will be ordinary people going to the market, kids going to school or simply those sitting at home. For all of the bravado, phallic missile waving and hysteria over existential threats the world powers are going for the easy option and the soft targets. If Raqqa is demolished in a whirlwind of bombs the Islamic State will still stand. If the world powers impose a peace where the Ba’athist state remains intact and democratic hopes are crushed then the Islamic State will still stand. Why, because the Islamic State is a cancer born out of war, the political defeat of the Arab Spring, the working class and the democratic aspirations of millions across the region. It is part of a political and military project that thrives on the desperation and destruction war and dictators leave in their wake.
The only way the Islamic State can be defeated for good is for a thoroughgoing democratic transformation. The world powers, however, are too busy looking at the handlebars whilst the riding a bike and simply want stability. Basically, anything is permissible as long as it does not interfere with their designs, the world economy and local political concerns. David Cameron was frank about this in Parliament; when answering Ken Clarke he said that when he “talks about the future government of Syria- and the transition that needs to take place falling short of some of the democratic norms that we would want to see, and yes of course that is likely.” Following the other world powers Cameron seems to be channelling Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE) with his maxim that “an unjust peace is better than a just war” whilst simultaneously channeling Cato the Elder (234 BCE – 149 BCE) with opprobrious appeals of Raqqa delenda est, Raqqa delenda est to sate the appetite for martial action and revenge in the wake of the atrocities in Paris. Only the cheap simulacrum of the British Empire could give us an approach to a war, where the threat is apparently existential, the hubris and bravado seek lineage from Churchillian resistance to the Nazis but ultimately the response is a negligible gesture devoid of political or military worth.
So instead of supporting democratic forces the British establishment is split between two camps. The bomb first and ask questions later camp of David Cameron and Hilary Benn and the let’s focus on the political stitch up at the Vienna talks camp led by Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon. Neither offer a way forward, neither represent the aspirations, hopes and self-determination of the Syrian masses. The British establishment can’t be blind to the aspirations and gains genuine democrats have within Syria but they have no intention of supporting it.
We need to oppose British participation in Syria because it will do nothing to further the democratic cause that so many have already paid the ultimate price for. It does nothing to bring the dictatorship down, nothing to embolden the democratic opposition and less than nothing for the Kurdish forces fighting for self-determination. Our tasks in Britain are clear, we need to oppose the air raids and the imperialist stitch up. We must support the forces fighting for a genuinely democratic transformation of Syria, we must work to ensure that aid is sent to democratic forces and that any racist backlash, whether on the streets or in the Commons, is resisted.