Another round of international talks on Syria, and a ceasefire, have come and gone. The five-and-a-half-year-old civil war continues unabated, as do the competing military interventions — all ostensibly targeting ISIS — by various regional and global powers.
The direct involvement of foreign powers in the conflict was significantly increased with the August 24 occupation by Turkey of the previously ISIS-controlled border town of Jarabalus and the surrounding area.
Estimates put the conflict’s death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000 people, about half of whom were civilians.
Most Syrians have been forced to flee their homes: about 8 million are “internally displaced” — meaning they have fled their communities without crossing any international borders. Between 4–5 million have fled the country as refugees. The total population of Syria is about 17 million.
Western and Russian air strikes
A US-led coalition of Western powers has been engaging in air strikes in Syria since September 2014, while Russia has since September last year. Both air wars are allegedly directed against ISIS and the Fateh al-Sham Front (until recently affiliated with al-Qaeda).
However, Russia and the West were deeply involved in the Syrian conflict before the emergence of ISIS — on opposing sides.
Russia is a close ally of the embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, while the West recognises as Syria’s legitimate government the exiled Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The SNC claims to represent most of the estimated 1000 different armed groups opposing Assad, although its influence over these groups is tenuous.
The announcement on September 12 of the latest US and Russian sponsored ceasefire was accompanied by statements that Russia and the US-led coalition intended to coordinate air strikes against ISIS. The ceasefire specifically allowed attacks against ISIS and Fateh al-Sham to continue.
Within a week, however, the ceasefire had broken down spectacularly. On September 17, US, British, Australian and Danish planes attacked Syrian government army positions near Deir ez-Zor airport, killing 62 soldiers and wounding 100, according to the Syrian government. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 90 soldiers killed.
The US claimed the attack was an accident, with government soldiers mistaken for ISIS fighters. Syrian government spokespeople pointed out that the attack allowed ISIS to make gains in the locality. Russian media questioned whether the Western air forces, with their precision-targeted smart weapons, could make such a mistake.
On September 19, a Syrian Red Crescent aid convoy was bombed in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo, killing 12 people and destroying 18 trucks of relief supplies. Western politicians immediately blamed Russia, who claimed a US drone sighted in the area could have been the culprit.
No conclusive evidence on culpability has yet emerged. If the bombing was deliberate, the Syrian government forces or their Russian allies would be the more likely suspects as the aid convoy was destined for opposition-held parts of Aleppo.
The ceasefire broke down the next day. In the following weeks, talk of joint anti-terrorist air strikes was replaced by increasingly recriminatory and belligerent exchanges between US and Russian leaders. In Aleppo, government forces and their allies have made advances aided by devastating Russian air strikes.
The US accused Russia and the Assad regime of fighting the opposition in contravention of the ceasefire. Russia and the regime claimed their attacks only targeted Fateh al-Sham and ISIS.
On October 6, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura offered to go to eastern Aleppo and personally escort 1000 Fateh al-Sham fighters out of the city in exchange for a halt to the bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces.
AAP reported on October 7 that Russian leaders had responded favourably to de Mistura’s proposal. However, the BBC reported on October 7 that Fateh al-Sham had rejected it.
The failure of the latest ceasefire was likely inevitable as talks ignored conflicting interests in Syria.
The Assad regime is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. The Syrian port of Tartus is the location of the only Russian naval base outside Russia. For this reason, Russia is opposed to any change of regime in Damascus unless its interests are secured. Western interference in the conflict since the 2011 uprising against Assad has ensured that an opposition victory will threaten Russia’s interests.
The Syrian Civil War began with the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in opposition to the Assad regime’s use of military force against pro-democracy protests in 2011.
The FSA was initially comprised mainly of defectors from the government army and young men connected to the pro-democracy protests. However, from the outset it comprised a range of independently-operating groups and has always been more of a brand name than a unified force.
US support was provided directly and through US allies in the region — in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. All three have intervened to push their own interests.
One result was the eclipsing of secular FSA groups by those with a Sunni Islamist orientation, reflecting the ideological preferences of the regimes backing them. This allowed Assad to use the spectre of Sunni Islamist tyranny to boost his regime’s declining popularity, particularly among religious minority communities.
Another result has been the further fragmentation of the opposition as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey used proxies in Syria to promote often competing national interests.
This is particularly the case with Turkey, whose intervention was initially motivated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions for influence in a post-Assad Syria. However, since 2012, Turkey has focused on crushing the feminist, democratic and secular revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).
The ideological affinity between the Rojava revolutionary forces and the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey — as well as the broader left-wing and democratic Turkish opposition — has meant that defeating the Rojava Revolution became an obsession for the Erdoğan regime.
To defeat the Rojava Revolution, Turkey went from backing “moderate” Islamists (meaning those not opposed to Western interests) to backing first the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and then ISIS. The rapid emergence of ISIS in 2014 was largely the result of Turkish support.
The West has threatened to intervene more directly in Syria at various times, but refrained from doing so in part due to domestic opposition to military interventions. The emergence of ISIS — with its theatrical violence, support of terror attacks in Western countries and stated aim of world domination — has created a more favourable domestic environment in the Western countries to intervene in the region.
Western policy in Syria, therefore, appears confused. The West has supported the SNC-aligned opposition groups, although inconsistently — providing enough weapons for the groups to keep fighting but not enough for them to win. This is largely because the SNC cannot actually control the groups that exist inside Syria.
The West has intervened with air strikes against ISIS, but turned a blind eye to support for ISIS from Turkey — a NATO member and close US ally.
The left-wing revolutionary forces led by the Kurdish Womens Defence Units (YPJ) and Peoples Defence Units (YPG), have held a tactical battlefield alliance with the US-led Western air forces.
Western powers recognise the Rojava-based revolutionary forces as the only ones in Syria to consistently and effectively fight ISIS. For the YPG, YPJ and their allies, grouped in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the tactical alliance aims to overcome the disparity in firepower between them and their opponents.
The US has consistently refused requests by the Rojava forces to pressure Turkey or the pro-Western Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq to ease the blockade stopping them obtaining heavy weapons. Co-ordinated air strikes have been offered as an alternative to heavy weapons.
The SDF is the military expression of a democratic revolutionary process. In the areas under “Democratic Self-administration” — since March organised as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava — political power is held by local grassroots participatory democratic bodies. A key organisational principal of these bodies is active participation by all national and ethnic communities.
This Rojava model, which also has a policy of religious freedom, can provide a template for a future democratic Syria that respects different ethnic, national and religious communities.
Western policy is officially in favour of such goals, but US actions in Syria confirm suspicions that these are not their actual aims.
The US has consistently blocked the SDF and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava from taking part in peace talks. The US insists only two sides be represented: the SNC and the regime — both of which support an ethnic nationalist Arab Syrian identity.
The US has also given air cover and special forces support to Turkey’s occupation of the area around Jarabalus in northern Syria. The US says this is because the occupation is directed against ISIS. However, Turkey is open that it is primarily against the YPJ and YPG.
Despite supporting Turkey’s occupation, the US is trying to keep the SDF as an ally actually willing and able to fight ISIS. However, the Rojava-based forces have no desire to serve as foot soldiers for an ally who will betray them.
The US opposes SDF plans for an offensive on al-Bab or Jarabalus to unite the whole of Rojava. Instead, the US would like to see the SDF attack Raqqa, the main ISIS stronghold in Syria.
On September 28, a leading revolutionary in Rojava, Hanifa Hussein, outlined the conditions under which the SDF would attack Raqqa, saying: “First we need to make sure that our federal project would be accepted by Washington and coalition members, the YPG forces would receive arms directly, and the Kurds would be officially invited to the Geneva peace talks.”
The Rojava Revolution is often slandered for being “separatist”. In reality, Rojava provides a model for a united, democratic Syria that respects national, ethnic and religious rights.
On the other hand, the peace talks between the SNC and the regime have only two possible outcomes —continued sectarian war or partition.