Foreign intervention worsens Syria crisis

October 9, 2015
Revolutionary fighters from Rojava, who defend a democratic, multi-ethnic and feminist vision.

Russia followed the lead of Western powers on September 30 and began direct military intervention in Syria – using the same form (air strikes) and the same declared enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Russia's campaign, aimed to shore up the beleaguered regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, will also target the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other armed groups fighting the dictatorship.

Russia's entry into the fray has dramatically heightened tensions between Russia and the West and further complicated the already confused, multi-sided conflict in Syria.

Russia's intervention mirrors the West: use of air strikes with involvement on the ground limited to military advisors and weapons supplies to allies.

For Russia, the question of allies on the ground is straightforward. Syria has been a long-term ally of Russia. Since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the US, through its first war on Iraq, asserted its primacy in the Middle East, Syria has been Russia's closest regional ally.

Tartus in Syria is the only remaining Russian naval base outside Russia and gives the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean.

For the US and other Western imperialist powers, the question of Syrian allies is more complicated. The Syrian civil war began in 2011 after a spontaneous mass uprising against Assad, part of the wave of uprisings dubbed the “Arab Spring” by the Western media.

The evolution of this uprising into a civil war was largely the result of Western interference.

After Assad resorted to military force to crush the uprising and some officers in his army defected to the opposition, the West began arming opposition militias. This took place directly through the CIA and indirectly by US allies in the region, in particular via Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Western powers sought to bolster their hegemony over the oil-rich and strategically important Middle East, with the ability to install and bring down regimes at will. This hegemony had been severely weakened by the failure of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US suffered a big setback in Iraq, where it was only able to establish a semi-functioning government through an alliance with its key regional rival Iran, also an ally of Syria and Russia.

A key tactic to strengthen Western hegemony has been fuelling sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.

The 2011 Syrian uprising was viewed by the US as both an opportunity and a threat. It was a chance to weaken an ally of Russia and Iran, as well a provider of material support to groups fighting Israel, such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

But – pro-democracy rhetoric notwithstanding - mass uprisings against tyranny and economic injustice are not the West's preferred form of regime change as it frequently backs such tyranny and supports unjust economic policies.

But helping turn a democratic uprising into a sectarian civil war has its own problems – and some benefits for the Assad regime.

The opposition groups fight each other as much as the regime. The rise of Sunni sectarian forces within the opposition has allowed Assad to present his regime as the only thing standing between religious minorities and intolerant Sunni fundamentalism.

The result has been a chaotic, multi-sided blood-letting with no clear winners. The Assad regime has not been overthrown, but it has been neutralised as a regional power.

Hezbollah can no longer rely on Syria as a source of weapons and logistical support against Israel. Instead, the Shia-based group has been increasingly drawn into the Syrian conflict in defence of the regime, largely because many of the Sunni armed groups in Syria have links with Hezbollah's Sunni opponents in Lebanon.

The rise of ISIS and the Nusra Front arose out of the chaos of US-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. The failure of these interventions, based clearly on lies, has created war-weariness on the part of Western populations – who strongly opposed the Iraq adventure to begin with.

ISIS, however, with its deliberate promotion of spectacularly gruesome atrocities, provides Western governments with a new enemy to hook propaganda around.

The US-led “War on ISIS” was precipitated by the ISIS invasion of Iraq early last year. In Iraq, the US-led air war is legitimised by an invitation from the government.

But in Syria, the US and its allies have ceased recognising the government. This makes the West's air war legally dubious.

Russia's entry into the “War on ISIS” in Syria, however, is legitimised by an invitation from the Assad regime, which is still recognised by the United Nations.

The West has condemned Russia for not just targetting ISIS, but Western-backed anti-regime groups too. However, the West is having difficulty identifying who their allies are.

Some Western-backed groups have been fighting in alliance with al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, while others oppose Nusra. All are dissatisfied with the intermittent and often arbitrary nature of Western material support and opposed the West's air strikes.

Most Western air strikes against ISIS have been in Iraq. However, the West's allies in Iraq have been ineffective on the ground - despite receiving huge amounts of weapons from both Russia and the West and being backed by Iranian ground troops.

In August last year, ISIS began its horrific massacres of the Yazidi religious minority in Şengal (Sinjar) in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi government and Western-backed Kurdish Regional Government forces fled.

The West used the massacres as a pretext for its air war that did nothing to help the Yazidis.

The Yazidis were rescued by the only truly effective forces on the ground against ISIS and Nusra – who are also those with the least external support: the left-wing Kurdish liberation movement.

Fighters from the Syrian-based Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ), and forces affiliated with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), saved the Yazidis and stopped ISIS overrunning the KRG's territory.

Kurdistan is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The PKK has been resisting the Turkish state since the late 1970s.

The YPG and YPJ emerged as major players in the Syrian conflict in July 2012 when the people of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) rose up against the Assad regime and declared an autonomous zone.

In Rojava, the Kurdish left was able to realise its unique ideology in practice. A system based on grassroots democracy, tolerant secularism, ethnic inclusion, and an ecological, human-centred, anti-capitalist economy emerged.

The centrality of women's liberation and gender equality to this revolution caught the world's attention through the highly visible female fighters of the YPJ.

The YPG and YPJ's military effectiveness is linked to the democratic, progressive nature of its goals – ensuring highly motivated fighters enjoying popular support.

The Rojava revolution alarmed the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Alarm deepened when the Kurdish-led left-wing party, Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), won more than 13% in June elections by uniting with non-Kurdish left forces – denying Erdogan's party a majority in parliament.

Turkey is a key US ally and the only NATO member in the Middle East. Turkish support for opposition groups in Syria was initially motivated by ambitions to extend Turkish regional influence. But now, crushing the Rojava revolution is Erdogan's main goal.

Turkish support for ISIS, which has sought to conquer Rojava, is often ignored by Western powers.

Turkish-backed ISIS forces attacked the Rojava town of Kobane in September last year. The West ignored the defenders' pleas, amplified by worldwide protests led by the Kurdish diaspora, for heavy weapons and an end to Turkish support for ISIS and Western support for Turkey. Protesters also called for removing the PKK from Western nations' terror lists.

Due to remarkable sacrifice and fierce fighting over many months, Kobane did not fall. This resistance pressured the US into an uneasy tactical alliance. The West did not give the heavy weapons asked for, but air-dropped some rifles. It also, eventually, began coordinating air strikes with YPG and YPJ forces on the ground.

But in July, the US welcomed Turkey into the “anti-ISIS coalition” at the same time that Erdogan launched an all-out war against PKK forces and began repressing left forces within Turkey.

Turkish air strikes in Syria are officially directed against ISIS, but in reality are targeting the YPG and YPJ.

This makes Russia's entry into the conflict a double-edged sword for the YPG and YPJ.

In an October 8 interview with Al-Monitor, Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Rojava-based Democratic Union Party (PYD), said the Rojava revolutionary forces saw Russia as a counterweight to Turkey, but Russia's alliance with Assad was problematic.

Ilham Ehmed, a senior member of the PYD, told Al-Monitor: “Russia says it wants to work with us … a good step for the fight against terrorism but on the other hand, it is empowering the Assad regime, which is a bad point.”

Meanwhile, the US announced on October 9 that its US$500 million program to arm and train “moderate” rebels was being suspended due to all the fighters trained so far being either killed, captured by or defecting to the Nusra Front. US officials hinted that the YPG and YPJ could benefit from whatever the US replaced this program with.

The Rojava revolution appears to match the US's stated objectives -- such as democracy and women's rights -- but clashes with the US's actual political and economic agenda.

Russia's entry into the bloody conflict complicates an already messy mix of competing interests. The struggle of the Kurdish-led revolutionaries in Rojava, however, points to a potential alternative. Rather than more foreign intervention and bombs, it shows a vision of a multi-ethnic, feminist and democratic society based on autonomy and self determination, not military and economic domination by imperialism.

[Tony Iltis is a Green left Weekly journalist who wrote a chapter on the Rojava Revolution in a new Resistance books pamphlet, The Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today.]

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