Britain joins bloody Syrian conflict

December 2, 2015
Protest outside British parliament. London December 2.

British parliament sat late into the night on December 2 before eventually voting up Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to join the US-led air war in Syria.

Opposition Labour Party leader and veteran anti-war activist Jeremy Corbyn argued strongly against bombing Syria, as did protesters outside parliament. However, many right-wing Labour MPs supported the government.

Britain was already part of the US-led coalition conducting air strikes in neighbouring Iraq, the main theatre of the US-led “war on ISIS”. The US-led coalition secured an invitation for their air strikes from the Iraqi government, a product of the 2003-2011 US-led invasion and occupation.

This is not possible in Syria where the government of dictator Bashar Assad is not recognised by the West, who instead recognise the Syrian National Coalition. In theory, although not in practice, the SNC represents several of the armed groups fighting Assad.

This is the stated reason for Britain having restricted its involvement to Iraq, a position also previously shared by France. However, since the November 13 ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, France has joined the Syria bombing. The Paris attacks were also the justification used by British Prime Minister David Cameron for joining the Syrian air war.

On December 1, Germany, not previously involved in Iraq or Syria, announced that it would support France by sending 1200 soldiers, reconnaissance aircraft, tanker planes and a warship to the region. It said these would be for “support roles”, not front-line combat.

Australia previously expanded its air strikes into Syria for domestic political reasons, although the small size of the Australian contingent makes this of limited significance. Far more significant was the bombing campaign begun by Russia on September 30.

'War on ISIS'

Russia is an ally of Assad, and Western leaders have condemned Russia for hitting other, officially SNC-affiliated, anti-Assad forces, some of whom have also clashed with ISIS.

Turkey also officially joined the “war on ISIS” in July. As a NATO member, it officially recognises the SNC. However, its air strikes have left ISIS untouched and have been directed against Kurdish-led Rojava-based left-wing forces fighting ISIS - who the US recognises as the only effective military opposition to ISIS in Syria.

On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian bomber, which it accused of straying into Turkish air space, something Russia has denied. In the diplomatic spat that followed, Western leaders expressed support for Turkey.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, accused Turkey of giving military aid to ISIS. This allegation has been consistently made by the left-wing Kurdish-led forces, some Western journalists and Turkish opposition journalists. At least one Western journalist has been assassinated and two Turkish journalists jailed over such allegations.

Meanwhile, the December 2 Sydney Morning Herald said the US was increasing ground combat operations by special forces in Iraq and extending these into Syria. The Iraqi government was cautious in its enthusiasm for the new force.

Iraqi Defence Ministry official Naseer Nouri told the SMH: “We will only approve special and limited ops. A permanent presence of US forces in Iraq is rejected as it violates the security agreement between the two countries.”

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a constituent part of the occupation-created Iraqi state, is likely to be more enthusiastic. The November 30 Guardian reported that US special forces were already engaged in combat operations with KRG forces, although the US has denied this.

Both the Iraqi state and the KRG receive arms from Russia as well as the West. Russian forces are not involved in Iraq, but forces from Iran, an ally of Russia, are heavily involved in both Iraq and Syria.

The war in Iraq and Syria is clearly intensifying, but it is less clear who is actually fighting who.

Tangled mess

The SMH quoted former US military officials as citing operations against Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2003-11 occupation as a model for the special forces operations.

This does not bode well for their success. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not wiped out by Western intervention. Rather, it went on to become the nucleus of ISIS after relocating to Syria when civil war began in 2011.

The Syrian civil war began with a peaceful uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The defection of some of Assad's armed forces created the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

However, the FSA has never really existed as a unified force. Initially a loose network of independent brigades, the lack of unity worsened as a result of Western military aid. Largely channelled through the West's regional allies, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it was directed towards individual units.

Qatari, Saudi and Turkish aid mainly went to Sunni fundamentalist groups who soon overshadowed the FSA, which itself became increasingly religious sectarian. This played into Assad's hands: the Sunni sectarian nature of the opposition allowed the regime to win some support, or at least acquiescence, from religious minorities.

In turn, the previously secular regime's increasingly anti-Sunni sectarian nature caused most remaining Sunni officers in the Syrian army to defect to the opposition.

Al Qaeda in Iraq evolved into ISIS after it sought to takeover the Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front. From its inception, ISIS was characterised by extreme hostility to other jihadi groups. It sought to carve out a niche by outdoing all other jihadi groups in its extreme hostility and ultra-violence towards the rest of humanity.

The extreme, often genocidal, brutality of ISIS has provided an excuse for a wide array of competing forces to enter the Syrian conflict in the name of “fighting ISIS”. For ISIS, this enhances its prestige.

One the most powerful arguments Corbyn and the anti-war protesters outside the British parliament made in arguing against air strikes on Syria is that more bombing was precisely the response ISIS was hoping for.

The ineffectiveness of Western and Russian air strikes against ISIS partly reflects the fact that both are less interested in defeating ISIS than in gaining strategic advantage against each other. It also reflects the limitations of their favoured allies on the ground.

The Russian-allied Assad regime is hanging on to power in a minority of the country. It only survives due to the limits of its enemies. Opposition groups are often as keen to fight each other as Assad – and more keen on fighting Assad than ISIS.

Conversely Assad, and therefore Russia, views ISIS as just one of several enemies - and not the most threatening to its survival. Furthermore, what popular support both Assad and the Sunni sectarian opposition have is based solely on communal allegiances.

In Iraq, the post-occupation state is totally dysfunctional. Its armed forces are based on Shia-communalist militias whose sectarian violence wins recruits for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The KRG forces are only slightly better.

Defeats for ISIS

However, ISIS has been suffering some defeats. On November 13, Shengal in Iraq – home of the mostly Kurdish Yezidi religious minority, was liberated. The KRG sought to take credit, but the liberation was achieved by left-wing Kurdish forces: the Peoples Defence Forces (HPG), the Free Women Units (YJA-Star), the Shengal Resistance Units (YBŞ) and the Shengal Womens Protection Units (YPJ-Ş).

The names reflect two unique things about the movement these forces come from. Firstly, it is a feminist movement, with separate mixed gender and women-only military formations.

Secondly, the brutal ISIS assault on Shengal in August last year was resisted by left-wing Kurdish forces from Turkish and Syrian Kurdistan after KRG and Iraqi government forces fled. They created local organs of grassroots democratic self-rule on which the local forces, the YBŞ and YPJ-Ş, are based.

The HPG and YJA-Star are military forces aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is criminalised as a terrorist group by the Turkey and the Western powers.

The PKK's allies in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) have created a liberated zone based on an ideology that combines participatory democracy, feminism, secularism, multiculturalism and ecological socialism. The Rojava armed forces, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ), have proven to be the most effective forces fighting ISIS.

For Turkey, combating the Rojava liberated cantons, as well as the Kurdish freedom movement and left forces in Turkey are its key priorities.

Yasin Sunca explained in a November 27 article on TeleSUR English that to this end, Turkey this has given arms and other forms of support to various jihadi groups, including ISIS, in the hope of crushing the Rojava revolution. The sale of Iraqi and Syrian oil by ISIS to Turkey is also an open secret.

For the US, this has created a dilemma. The PKK-aligned forces, particularly the YPJ and YPG in Rojava, have a demonstrated military effectiveness against ISIS as well as conforming to the stated, if not actual, US policy goals of spreading democracy, secularism and women's empowerment.

That the US does not actually want a genuinely feminist, democratic revolution in the Middle East need not matter. Rojava is just a small part of Syria and, as the convoluted relationship between the US and jihadis demonstrates, the US is capable of allying with a force it knows will be a future enemy.

Since September last year, the US has been coordinating air strikes with YPJ and YPG forces. However, the benefit of this to the Rojava forces is considerably less than the potential benefit of providing the type of missile systems that the US has supplied to FSA and other opposition groups in Syria.

US weapons supplies to the YPG and YPJ have been insignificant, involving some rifles and grenade launchers. This contrasts with the vast weapons supplies to the West's official allies, including Iraq, the KRG and Turkey.

The October 30 Hürriyet Daily News reported the latest US arms sales to Turkey - a $70 million “smart bomb” system. Turkey, a regional power and NATO member remains a far more important ally to the West than Rojava's fighters.

Turkey's agenda

Turkey's decision to join the “war on ISIS” was provoked, ironically, by the Rojava fighters' successes against ISIS – the successful linking of two of the three Rojava cantons through the capture of Tel Abyad from ISIS by the YPG, YPJ and their Arab and Assyrian-based allies in June.

Turkey's “war on ISIS” has involved thousands of sorties against Kurdish left forces in Turkey, Iraq and Syria and three sorties against ISIS. The YPG says the sorties against ISIS involved bombing empty fields.

At the same time, Turkey pressed the US to support its bid to stop the Rojava forces from uniting its third canton, Efrîn, which would also cut ISIS off from the Turkish border and its resupply routes.

This explains why Rojava's leaders made positive statements about Russia entering the air war, while at the same time pressing the US for closer cooperation. It was a bid to play global powers off against each other.

After the Paris attacks, with the Western powers wishing to be seen as serious in their fight against ISIS, the West's support for Turkey's demand to stop Rojava forces entering the territory between the Euphrates and Efrîn seemed to be wavering.

This was the context for Turkey's shooting down of the Russian jet. This was underscored by the fact that the operation appeared to be coordinated with Turkish intelligence-run militias that the Turkish state hopes to use to replace ISIS in the area of Rojava between the Euphrates River and Efrîn.

Militia leader Alparslan Çelik boasted of executing a captured Russian pilot. Çelik is a member of the fascist Grey Wolves, the paramilitary wing of Turkey's extreme right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Western leaders have supported Turkey in its dispute with Russia over the incident.

Nothing could demonstrate the hypocrisy of the West's “war on ISIS” more than a British court sentencing Silhan Özçelik to 21 months jail on terrorism charges. She was sentenced on November 20 for trying to travel to Kurdistan to join the PKK.

Although it is farcically banned as a “terrorist” group, the PKK is a key part of the Kurdish revolutionary forces that have proven the most effective at defeating ISIS – and at promoting democracy, women's liberation and rights for all ethnicities and religious groups.

On the other hand, the British government's decision to bomb Syria will, far from harming ISIS, increase the suffering of Syria's people.

[Tony Iltis is a Green Left Weekly journalist and Socialist Alliance member who contributed to the recently published Resistance Books pamphlet, the Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today.]

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