What is to be done about Syria?
After Paris, Syria can no longer be ignored. French president Francois Hollande has declared his country at war. World leaders are scrambling to find a strategy to confront ISIS. Former rivals are coming together to speak of coordination and “deconfliction”. Over two years after the British parliament decided against intervening in Syria, the government is once again proposing a military response.
But if global inaction after the August 2013 chemical massacre in Syria yielded a disaster—at the time of the attacks, 30 months into the conflict, close to a hundred thousand people had been killed; in the next 30 months, the number of the dead would treble—action now is unlikely to make things better. The action being considered in 2013 at least had the merit of good faith. The debate now is driven by fear and optics alone. The flawed logic guiding the rush to action might deliver some telegenic victories, but will certainly make things worse in the longer run.
In the autumn of 2013, violence in Syria had reached dramatic levels, but it could still be considered a remote conflict. Bashar al Assad’s regime might have killed over 1,400 civilians in a chemical attack but he didn’t pose a threat to London or Paris (indeed, he had been welcome in both). Today Syria has become synonymous with a different monster. ISIS poses a threat not just to Syrians but also to western capitals. Action is no longer a choice, but is deemed a necessity.
This has induced some to reconsider their former antagonisms. A gathering din of approval is converging around Russian and Iranian proposals for an anti-terror alliance with Assad against ISIS. The logic was best articulated by former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine who, even before the Paris attacks, justified the rapprochement to a radio audience: “Let’s not forget that in the fight against Hitler, we had to ally with Stalin, who killed more people than Hitler.”
This logic—which strains to convey the impression of hard-nosed realism—is dubious in fact and myopic in its counsels. By misdiagnosing the problem, it prescribes a medicine that will only inflame the fever.
The US has already poured billions into fighting ISIS with little to show for it. Britain and France too could join the campaign and they will have achieved little. The reason is simple. ISIS is a symptom of regional realities that remain unaddressed. There are many causes for the rise of ISIS, the Iraq war being a salient one. But none has done more to ensure its rise and survival than the regime of Bashar al Assad, both practically and symbolically.
Beginning in autumn 2011, the regime started releasing jihadists from its prison as part of a political amnesty scheme (the amnesty however was denied to Syrian civil activists). With help from former Iraqi Army officers, many of these jihadists went on to form the nucleus of ISIS in Syria. The regime contributed to the rise of ISIS by sparing it in its military campaigns. The regime also sustained ISIS in the first years of its existence by buying oil from it. But more significantly, through a sectarian strategy of mass murder, the regime ensured a steady supply of jihadi recruits to ISIS by serving as a lightning rod for Sunni anger.
“95 percent of all civilian deaths in Syria have occurred at the hands of the regime”
ISIS and Assad are both murderous, but the Hitler/Stalin analogy is fatuous insofar as it ignores the disproportion in their terror and reality of their co-dependence. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 95 percent of all civilian deaths in Syria have occurred at the hands of the regime. In a report for the UN Human Rights Council concluded just before the August 2013 chemical attack, special investigator Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro held the Assad regime responsible for 7 out of the 8 massacres committed by then. A year later, despite the rise of ISIS, Pineheiro noted that the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”. According to Physicians for Human Rights, 283 out of the 298 medical facilities attacked in Syria and 655 out of the 687 medical staff targeted since the start of the conflict have been by the regime and its allies. Close to 70 percent of refugees surveyed in Germany have cited Assad as the cause of their flight.
There are reasons also to doubt Assad’s value as an ally against ISIS. In 2014, the year ISIS returned to Syria in force, only 6 percent of the regime’s military operations were targeted at ISIS. By contrast, the regime has on many occasions bombed Syrian rebels fighting ISIS, effectively serving as its air force. Before the entry of Russia into the conflict, the regime had lost nearly all of its military encounters with ISIS. Its reliance on sectarian Shia militias, Hizbullah mercenaries, and Iranian special forces has also alienated Syria’s Sunni majority.
This is why the US has struggled to find a ground force willing to join its campaign. Syrians loathe ISIS and the regime in equal measure: but it’s to the latter’s systematic terror that they are mostly exposed. They will not join a strategy that privileges the west’s enemy over their tormentor, let along one that uses their tormentor to fight the west’s enemy.
ISIS cannot be wished away; neither can it be defeated without a ground force. If the ground force is provided by the regime and Iran, this will only exacerbate sectarian tensions and, as in Iraq, serve as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS. Sunni rebels on the other hand have a record of confronting and defeating ISIS. They did it in January 2014, when they drove ISIS out of much of western Syria, without any support from the west. But they will not join an international coalition that they cannot rely upon to protect them from regime and Russian bombings. Airstrikes in themselves will achieve little and inevitably cause civilian casualties, creating potential recruits for ISIS.
The battle for Syria will be won or lost on the ground. The choice of the ally is therefore important. The Free Syria Army and the Kurds have already proved themselves in Kobane. They need support. They also need protecting from the regime and Russia’s aerial bombings. This can be ensured either through the imposition of a no-bombing zone across Syria or by giving shoulder-fired MANPADs to the Syrian rebels. This may also create the conditions for a political resolution by revoking the regime’s impunity, by neutralising its airpower. As long as the regime believes it can win militarily, it has no reason to negotiate; and as long as its usefulness is tied to its perceived value as an anti-ISIS force, it will have little reason to eliminate ISIS and loose its raison d’etre. It is not possible to address one without confronting the other. Without that affirmation, diplomacy will be as futile as the Israeli-Palestinian “peace-process”.
A Response from Idrees Ahmad to the many comments (30/11/15)
There are compelling reasons to oppose David Cameron’s plans for airstrikes in Syria. Some of them I laid out above. These are echoed by residents of Raqqa, a city often described as the “ISIS capital” but is really a city occupied by ISIS.
But this novel idea—listening to the supposed beneficiaries of our good intentions—is fraught with danger, because it might erode ideological certainties.
For most commenters, Syria isn’t about Syrians; it is about ideological battles at home. For them it is not about what is good or bad for Syrians but about whether David Cameron is or isn’t a bastard (as it happens, I share their contempt for the Tories). And if David Cameron says Syrians have suffered under Assad then what better way to show him up than to deny that Assad has had anything to do with Syrian suffering (Syrians own testimonies notwithstanding). To this end, they have trawled the nether regions of the internet to find any conspiracist drivel they can find to absolve Assad for his crimes. Of course it would be easy enough for them to find out the truth if, say, they were to follow the vast network of Local Coordination Committees, the Violations Documentation Centre (established by the great Syrian revolutionary Razan Zeitouneh), the Syrian Human Rights Network, or reports from Medicins Sans Frontiers, Physicians for Human Rights, the Red Cross, the UN Human Rights Council, or Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But why rely on such tainted imperialist institutions when you can get the complete unbiased objective truth from the world’s only truly socialist, progressive, independent news channel: RT (Russia Today). It’s not like they have conflicts of interest! (One fool even cites the disgraced truther Nafeez Ahmed as a source)
Inevitably, the conspiracists skip over the hundreds of incontrovertible, well-documented atrocities to reach for the one where, through help from credulous hacks, Assad and his Russian backers tried to manufacture doubt. Shortly after the regime’s August 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta, a group of truthers in America promoted the idea that the attack was carried out by Assad’s opponents. To back this, they cited an open letter to Obama from former intelligence officials, which claimed that they got the info from “numerous sources” in the region. Putin mentioned this theory in an op-ed for the New York Times and Russian officials in Geneva distributed this letter to members of the UN. Except, it was soon revealed that the letter was plagiarised from a Canadian conspiracy site and the intelligence officials had no sources. It was embarrassing for many who had circulated it and at least one of the signatories (Matthew Hoh, formerly of the State Department) publicly disavowed it. I was one of the people who exposed the false claims.
A few months later, one of the authors of the forged letter retailed an embellished version of the same story to Seymour Hersh who published it as two frontpage stories for the London Review of Books. The story quickly unraveled and Hersh and the LRB were left with egg on their faces.
But the reactions to this sordid episode were telling. Many people ignored all the incontrovertible evidence that was in the public domain, including survivor testimonies, first responders’ reports, UN”s conclusions, OPCW’s judgment, Independent investigations, to latch on to the conspiracist version that accorded with their dogmas. (It is sad but somewhat amusing that someone would mention Robert Fisk’s endorsement of the consrpiacy theory without actually checking Fisk’s source [a Russian he met in a cafe in Damascus—why bother with evidence, when the truth can be vouchsafed to you by a friendly Russian in a Damscene cafe?])
Perhaps it would help if the commenters here clarified what they hope to see in Syria.
They say they are opposed to any British bombing in Syria because it would cause human suffering. I’m with them on that. But is it only potential British atrocities they object to or also the regime’s actual, ongoing and systematic ones? If both, then what do they propose to do to end Assad’s atrocities?
For many years anti-imperialists have said Bush and Blair should be tried for the war in Iraq; or Sharon and Netanyahu for theirs against the Palestinians. I am with them on that. No justice, no peace used to be the slogan. And it is a powerful one. But what do they have to say about Assad’s and Putin’s atrocities, which are deliberate, systematic, and terroristic? Should they be held accountable for their actions or do they get an exemption?
If they oppose human rights violations in Syria, then surely they must be for UN war crime investigations against all parties, regime or rebel, who engage in them? If so, then what do they have to say about the Russian veto which has repeatedly thwarted such investigations?
Some “anti-imperialists” have endorsed Russian imperialism in Syria by pronouncing Putin’s murderous intervention legitimate because it was “invited by Syria’s government”. If so, then was the US involvement in Vietnam also legitimate since it was done at the request of the South Vietnamese government? And do they support current British bombings in Iraq since Britain was invited by the current Iraqi government?
I understand that you want to protect Syrians from British bombs; but what do you propose to do to protect Syrians from Russian and regime bombs? Surely you couldn’t have missed news like these?
Like me, I am sure you condemned the attack on a Medicins Sans Frontiers facility by a US bomber in Kunduz, Afghanistan. It was a war crime and we all demanded accountability. But just in October, Russian planes hit 10 healthcare facilities in Syria. Do you demand war crimes investigations against these too, or are these ones excusable?
I understand that like me all of you are against torture. We all want those who sanctioned torture to face justice, Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. But do you also demand accountability for the the industrial scale torture practiced by the regime?
We were all outraged when Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon and white phosphorus in Gaza. Russia is dropping white phosphorous on Syrians and has used cluster munitions against refugees. Do you want accountability in this case too?
Until you can answer these questions without dissimulation, you might want to reflect for a moment before you throw epithets like “warmonger” or “neocon” around. (I doubt most of the commenters know what a neocon is. Most people think its a synonym for warmonger. If you want to know more about this subject or how neoconservative deception led to the Iraq war, you can buy my book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Road-Iraq-Making-Neoconservative/dp/0748693033)
Lastly, if you are a supporter of the Palestinian cause and you are here making excuses for Assad, shame on you. Are you aware how many Palestinians Assad has killed? Have you ever heard of the Yarmouk refugee camp? have you heard about the siege and what immiseration it has caused? Perhaps you should educate yourself:
If you are against collective punishment, torture, and repression in Gaza but find excuses for it in Yarmouk or Aleppo or Idlib, then your concern for Palestinians has nothing to do with justice or human rights. Palestinians understand this. Here is Mariam Barghouti:
“For those that ever told me “we dont have time to show solidarity with #Syria, we’re trying to focus on #Palestine.” Douma, Yarmouk, Kafrnabel and other parts of Syria despite the shellings, despite the Russian imperialism and despite all of the despotism from the Assad regime managed to send out messages of solidarity.
Free Syria, and freedom to all oppressed people. May we always stand against oppression from a position of principle rather than an inherited cause.
PS: Never have those words come out of the mouth of youth I met on the streets fighting against Israeli aggression. They were always the ones that were eager to show solidarity with the oppressed. I am grateful that they have humbled me and taught me liberation transcends a single struggle.”