Fighters in the Rojava-based Women's Protection Units (YPJ) militia.
Since a “cessation in hostilities” in Syria's multi-sided civil war was declared on February 27, about 6000 people have been killed in the conflict.
This “cessation in hostilities” was brokered by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), made up of the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League and the governments of Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
The ISSG is co-chaired by the US and Russia.
Both are directly involved in the conflict, conducting air strikes that are — officially — directed against ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Both are also arming and sponsoring opposing sides in the conflict.
The EU, the Arab League and all the countries in the ISSG are likewise officially part of the war against ISIS while arming and sponsoring various participants.
On May 4, US and Russian officials announced that the ceasefire would be extended to Syria's largest city, Aleppo, which is divided multiple ways between various parties in the conflict and has suffered some of the worst violence.
The “cessation in hostilities” notwithstanding, April was the most violent month in Aleppo for a year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Right said.
On May 5, an airstrike killed at least 30 people in an internally displaced persons' camp near Sarmada, in Idlib province, near the Turkish border. “Around 200,000 refugees are amassed on the border with Turkey, [which] is refusing to open the border,” Rudaw reported.
For the ISSG, a total and permanent end to hostilities is tied to the success of the supposedly ongoing “Geneva III” peace talks. However, for all but a few days since they started on February 1, these talks have been suspended.
There are a number of factors preventing any possibility the talks ending the conflict that has, so far, claimed 400,000 lives.
The war began in 2011 after the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad responded to a mass civil uprising with military force and sections of the armed forces defected from the government to form the Free Syria Army (FSA).
Many opposition activists warned against militarising the uprising. But the lack of organisational and ideological coherence enabled the military rebels to overshadow the civilian opposition.
The military opposition itself also lacked organisational and ideological coherence, and the FSA was from the outset a brand name for a large number of independent opposition military units.
The actions of outside powers also fed this process.
Syria under Assad has been Russia's closest ally in the Middle East. This motivated the US and its Western allies to arm opposition groups.
Some of this military aid has been distributed directly by Western intelligence and military agencies. Most, however, went through the US's Middle Eastern allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
These countries have Sunni Islamist regimes and military aid went to Syrian Sunni Islamist outfits that either began as FSA units or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups that crossed into the country from Iraq. ISIS originated as a split from al-Qaeda.
The transformation of the rebellion into a religious sectarian war suited Assad. It allowed his regime to gain support from religious minority communities as a lesser evil. The regime therefore assisted the process, to the extent of releasing jihadi terrorists from its jails.
The fractured opposition, combined with Western military aid, has been enough to prosecute a war but not enough to win it. This has meant the conflict has been a bloody stalemate for most of its existence. For its part, the regime has increasingly relied on Iranian forces and, in Shiite majority areas along the Lebanese border, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
In Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), there was a coherent opposition force: the left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD); its affiliated mass movement; the Democratic Society Movement (Tev-Dem); and militias; the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ).
These forces initially resisted getting drawn into a military confrontation between forces equally hostile to minority rights. However, in 2012 Tev-Dem led an uprising to liberate Rojava, initially confined to three geographically distinct cantons.
In the liberated areas, a radically democratic system of grassroots popular power was instituted.
The emphasis on gender equality and female leadership is the Rojava Revolution's most striking feature, but equally important in the Syrian context is the emphasis on ethnic and religious equality and inclusion. Tev-Dem, the YPG and the YPJ are Kurdish-led but have never been wholly Kurdish.
The revolution in Rojava increased Turkish support to Islamist opposition groups because of the ideological affinity between the Rojava revolutionary movement and the Kurdish-led Turkish democratic left. After Western-backed Islamists and the Nusra Front both failed to crush Rojava, Turkey began large-scale material and logistical support to ISIS.
Air strikes by the US and its allies began in September 2014. ISIS's barbarity and sponsorship of terror attacks in the West provided a pretext.
At the same time, ISIS, with Turkish support, began the siege of the Kurdish city of Kobanê. The initial, extremely cynical, US strategy was to allow Kobanê to fall, and use the ensuing massacres as a pretext to establish a “safe zone” in Rojava occupied by NATO troops, largely Turkish.
Because of tenacious resistance, Kobanê did not fall, and from October 2014, the US began coordinating air strikes with the YPG and YPJ, and allied Assyrian, Arab and Turkmen-based militias. Since last October, the YPG, YPJ and their allies have been grouped as the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD).
The US has supplied arms to the QSD but in minimal quantities compared to what the Western powers and their Middle East allies have supplied the FSA-branded and jihadi opposition groups. Despite this, throughout 2015, the liberated areas of Rojava increased, mainly at the expense of ISIS.
In July, Turkey officially joined the US-led air war against ISIS, although its air strikes have actually targeted the YPG and YPJ. At the same time the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged an increasingly violent war against the domestic left-wing electoral opposition, grassroots movements and the entire Kurdish population of Turkey.
Turkish Kurdistan increasingly resembles Syria with its bombed-out cities. In the rest of Turkey, civil liberties have disappeared and journalists and academics have faced crackdowns — increasing the Erdoğan regime's transformation into a dysfunctional dictatorship.
In September, Russia began its air war. Again ISIS provided a convenient pretext, but the dire military position of the Assad regime was a greater motivation — reflected in the fact that Russian air strikes have targeted Western-backed jihadi and FSA groups as much as ISIS and the Nusra Front.
Before the “Geneva III” talks started, the US cobbled together a High Negotiation Committee (HNC). It drew in various FSA-branded groups, “moderate” jihadi groups (“moderate” meaning not ISIS or the Nusra Front) and the exiled politicians of the Western-recognised government-in-exile, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), who — in theory at least — represent the FSA and “moderate” jihadi fighters.
The US ensured that the QSD were excluded from the talks. Officially this was to appease its NATO partner, Turkey, but it also reflects that the feminist, ecosocialist grassroots democracy being pioneered in Rojava (and other QSD-liberated areas) is not the US's vision for Syria's future.
The QSD supports a negotiated end to the war, but no Syrian participant in “Geneva III” does. Both the HNC and the regime seek to monopolise power and refuse to recognise that neither is able to.
When the talks began on February 1, the HNC demanded Assad's resignation as an initial step. The regime responded with a military offensive, spearheaded by a huge Russian air assault. The Russian blitzkrieg succeeded, at the cost of thousands of civilian lives, in dislodging opposition forces from much of the north-west of the country.
However, while the forces of the regime army and Iran regained some territory, their advance was slow and QSD forces occupied much of the bombed opposition-held areas before they got there.
On March 17, a Constituent Assembly that met in the Rojava town of Girkê Legê (Al-Muabbada) established a “Rojava-Northern Syria Democratic Federal System”. This was partly in response to the QSD's exclusion from “Geneva III” but also to unite the administration of Rojava and QSD-held territory in Arab-majority areas.
This was immediately condemned by the Assad regime, the SNC, the US, the EU, Turkey and Iran. Interestingly Russia has said nothing, perhaps indicating an awareness of the Assad regime's lack of political and military viability.
All those condemning the establishment of the Democratic Federal System have done so on the basis of opposing “separatism” and opposing the partition of Syria. An obvious irony is that those claiming to oppose partitioning Syria are responsible for a war that has done just that.
Furthermore, far from being separatist, the Democratic Federal System presents a model for reuniting Syria based on a democratic federation of democratically self-governing local communities. The model explicitly opposes dividing Syria into ethnically based statelets.
Threat of 'pluralist democracy'
As Turkish left-wing opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş tried to explain to the May 2 Washington Post: “It is an oasis within a morass of instability. Only by taking it as your starting point can you get a solution and stability in Syria …
“They are building a pluralist democracy over there. They are preventing the partition of Syria and they're preventing a new dictatorship from emerging.”
This is precisely the reason why the Democratic Federal System is a threat to both the regime and the Western-backed opposition.
After the Girkê Legê Constituent Assembly, opposition forces stepped up attacks against Şêx Meqsûd (Sheikh Maksoud), a Kurdish-majority QSD-held suburb of Aleppo.
Previously attacks on Şêx Meqsûd had been carried out by ISIS, Nusra Front and, to a lesser extent, the “moderate” jihadis. In the latest attacks, SNC-affiliated jihadi, FSA-branded and right-wing Kurdish militias were at the fore.
YPJ fighter Nujîn Derîk told Firat News Agency on April 14: “Armenians, Assyrians and members of other faiths and groups live alongside Kurdish people in Şêx Meqsûd, and the neighbourhood has been receiving and welcoming migrants from other parts of Aleppo and Syria.”
She said “the main goal of [the] SNC … gangs was to destroy people's coexistence with their attacks on civilians”. She noted that “the attacks of SNC … gangs began during the first minutes of the ceasefire the US and Russia made, and has intensified since then.”
She criticised “the silence of the US and Russia regarding the attacks on Şêx Meqsûd, [which] shows that neither country wants a solution in Syria”.
There is evidence chemical weapons were used. Al-Monitor reported on April 22: “On April 7, Jaish al-Islam admitted using prohibited weapons when targeting Sheikh Maksoud.
“UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon subsequently called for an investigation into reports of the use of chemicals … [Chairman of the civil administration Imad] Daoud said that the opposition is using weapons containing toxic substances.
“Moreover, activists posted videos on April 12 that include testimonies by civilians and a nurse at the Kurdish Red Crescent Hospital in the neighbourhood, accusing the opposition of using toxic substances. The opposition denied the allegation.”
On April 23, as SNC-affiliated opposition attacks continued, the Assad regime's air force dropped barrel bombs on Şêx Meqsûd.
A YPG statement alleged that on May 1, SNC-affiliated forces used chlorine gas in an attack on the village of Pino to the north of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, on April 19 Assad regime forces attacked QSD forces in the city of Qamişlo. After three days of intense fighting — during which the QSD forces liberated a regime prison and seized other regime-held territory — the government forces agreed to a ceasefire, which recognised their territorial losses.
Betul Ehmed Dahul, an Arab QSD fighter, told Firat on May 3: “As women, we are in better conditions … compared to the past. With the attacks in Qamişlo, the Ba'athist regime tried to divide Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian peoples but failed to do so …
“We live equally and freely in our self-administration areas. The regime tried to break our will and reestablish its rule … with its attacks, but failed to do so. We resisted these attacks … and will continue to respond to all attacks as we govern ourselves.”
Esma Mihammed Salih, another Arab QSD fighter, told Firat: “The Ba'athist regime tried to prevent the Federal system with its attack, and we resisted so that peoples could live freely … we do not want to be governed by anyone.
“This is why we joined the resistance against the regime's attack on the Federal system wholeheartedly and will continue to govern ourselves.”