War planes from the US and its allies bombed the village of Birmehli in northern Syria on the night of April 30. US Central Command spokesperson Major Curtis Kellogg claimed that at least 50 fighters from the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group were killed and there was “no indication that any civilians were killed”.
However, human rights groups, including the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), have reported that all the casualties were civilians: 64 people, including 31 children.
The human rights groups have listed names of casualties. Of the 34 adults killed, 19 were women.
US military authorities have said the allegations of civilian casualties would be investigated. However, as is the case with the recent occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the US prefers to leave its civilian body count uncounted.
The US has consistently maintained that the air strikes it has been conducting with its allies in Iraq since August and in Syria since September, supposedly targeting IS forces, have not killed any civilians.
On May 4, however, the Daily Beast reported that a not-yet-released internal military investigation had conceded two civilian deaths. In reality this is a grotesque underestimation.
On November 12, the SOHR said that 50 Syrian civilians had been killed so far in US-led air strikes, Reuters reported. McClatchy Newspapers reported on January 11 that the Syrian Network for Human Rights said a December 28 strike on Al Bab killed 55 civilians, including prisoners held in an IS jail.
The civilian casualties from US air strikes have been overshadowed by those from air strikes by forces of the Syrian government of Bashar Assad using “barrel bombs”. These are crude but deadly weapons made by filling oil barrels with high explosives.
“At least 10 people, including four children and a teacher, were killed on [May 3] when a barrel bomb hit a nursery school in the Saif al-Dawla district,” the BBC said on May 5.
A report released by Amnesty International on May 4 said that in the contested city of Aleppo alone, 3124 civilians — but only 35 opposition fighters — were killed by government barrel bombs between January last year and March this year.
The Amnesty International report said that opposition forces had also indiscriminately targeted civilians, although to a much lesser extent than the government.
The report noted that both government and opposition forces had been responsible for arbitrary arrests, abductions and torture. In Aleppo, however, government forces were again responsible for most of the abuses.
The IS has the worst record of human rights abuses among anti-government groups. In contrast to other parties to the conflict, the IS does not deny its atrocities, but advertises them.
The January 14 Wall Street Journal, citing “US and independent assessments” said the IS had expanded the territory it controls in Syria since the US-led air strikes began.
Unlike Syria, in Iraq the US has allies on the ground. The Iraqi state, and its semi-autonomous constituent, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), have provided ground forces fighting in concert with the US-led air strikes.
Furthermore, it gives the operation in Iraq a clear objective: the entrenchment of the authority of the Iraqi state.
In a February 10 interview with the BBC, Assad claimed that while there was no direct cooperation between the US, and his government the US was passing on information about air strikes. “There is no dialogue. There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue,” he said.
The West has indignantly denied any contact. Since 2011, it has provided material aid to opposition forces, but half-heartedly and inconsistently.
US President Barack Obama has threatened direct military intervention against Assad — notably after the regime used chemical weapons in August 2013. But this was withdrawn in the face of opposition among the public, Congress and European allies.
When Assad has used anti-Western rhetoric, it has been in the context of opposing direct or indirect military intervention against his regime.
In contrast, the IS has deliberately provoked the West into intervening — playing up the role of Western volunteers in its forces, applauding acts of terrorism in Western countries and releasing gruesome English-language videos of Western hostages being beheaded.
In the face of this, the stated US policy is to arm and train allies from among the “moderate opposition”: the military groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army and officially affiliated to the National Coalition, a Western-constructed coalition of exiled politicians.
However, the Free Syrian Army has never been a homogeneous group, and US military aid has been channelled through the West's sectarian Sunni Islamist regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This has strengthened sectarian Sunni Islamist tendencies within the opposition.
This, in turn, has benefited the regime's strategy of making the civil war a religious-sectarian conflict so it can present itself, domestically and internationally, as the only alternative to Sunni extremism.
In an article posted on May 5 on Tahrir-ICN, Syrian journalist Shiar Youssef said that “the Free Syrian Army … was initially largely made up of defecting soldiers and locals picking up arms to defend themselves against increasingly brutal attacks by regime forces and militias.
“As the war escalated and the military and financial support … was channelled more and more towards Islamist groups — many of the FSA’s members either joined these groups or simply gave up and fled.”
The Islamist groups “enjoyed better military and financial support by regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, presumably because they were seen as less dangerous allies, or clients, in the long term than democratic revolutionary forces,” Youssef said.
“In this sense, this support, which came at the expense of that provided to the moderate Syrian opposition, also had the effect of derailing the revolution.”
The Islamist groups are themselves divided. The Islamic Front has been willing to ally with non-Islamist opposition groups. It is officially labelled “moderate” by the West, allowing the possibility of continuing Western aid.
The Nusra Front is the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, and has, like the IS, been a target of Western air strikes.
The IS originated from a bid by the Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate to take over the Nusra Front. Expelled from al-Qaeda, it has positioned itself as the most extreme Sunni Islamist group.
The Nusra Front and the IS have both attacked other opposition groups.
The IS received some Saudi and Qatari assistance, but this stopped after the declaration of the universal Islamic caliphate last year that challenged the Saudi kingdom, whose legitimacy is based on its credentials as the theocratic guardian of Islam's holiest cities.
Turkey, however, has continued covert support for the IS. Turkey fears the Kurdish democratic autonomy in northern Syria (Rojava).
Rojava's revolutionary armed groups, the People's Defence Units (YPG) and Women's Defence Units (YPJ), are allied with Kurdish forces in Turkish Kurdistan in conflict with the Turkish state.
Throughout the siege of the Rojavan town of Kobani, which began in September, Turkey aided the IS.
The YPG and YPJ eventually drove IS forces out of Kobani on April 21, just the latest battlefield success against the group. The military effectiveness of the YPG/YPJ against the IS reflects their strong base in communities that are undergoing a grass-roots democratic revolution.
This grass-roots democratic transformation, while geographically limited to three besieged cantons in the predominantly Kurdish area, is integrating non-Kurdish communities into its structures on the basis of full ethnic equality. This creates a model that could be the basis of a democratic, multicultural Syria.
However, the West has been reluctant to help the Rojava cantons. This is partly in deference to Turkey, a close ally and NATO member. It also reflects the fact that, while democracy and women's rights feature prominently in Western propaganda, Western intervention is aimed at maintaining strategic dominance in an oil-rich region.
On May 6, the latest round of Western-sponsored talks on the future began. For the first time, the Rojava-based forces were invited, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
However, in March, the British government published a report in response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee outlining reasons to not support the YPG/YPJ and PYD.
These included allegations the PYD had cooperated with Assad and its refusal “to cooperate fully with the moderate Syrian opposition”.
In a response submitted to the British, PYD Co-Chair Saleh Muslim said: “Since March 2004, the PYD has been fighting the Assad regime … More recently, the PYD, People's Protection Units (YPG), and Women's Protection Units (YPJ) have clashed with Assad's forces … in Aleppo city and Al Hasakah Province.
“The PYD and other Kurdish forces have always sought full cooperation with moderate Syrian opposition groups. However, the so-called 'moderate Syrian opposition' is exclusionary and has ignored the demands and rights of minorities including the Kurds. Nonetheless, the PYD and the YPG have worked with moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), such as the Euphrates Volcano and Raqa's Rebels.”
More tellingly, the British report also criticised Rojava's establishment of autonomy as “not conducted in consultation with the wider Syrian population or the international community. It will be for all Syrians to decide the exact nature of the political settlement in Syria as part of a transition process, including whether an autonomous region will be created for the Kurds in Syria.”
Saleh Muslim responded: “The self-administration was not declared unilaterally by the PYD, but by all diverse ethno-religious communities, including forty socio-political organisations in Rojava … the Kurds cannot be expected to give up Rojava in the expectation that some supposed future transition process will secure the democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people ...”
“In fact, we would propose the devolved democratic model that has been established in Rojava as a viable model of popular democracy that should be adopted in a future free and democratic Syria.”