Thursday, May 18, 2017

Syria isn't complicated

It's sometimes said that Syria is complicated, or at least beset by incoherent alliances.   It isn't that complicated if you accept that some of the allies passionately deny they're allied.

Bullshit aside, there are three sides in Syria, each opposing the other two (so, yes, just a little complicated).  They are:

1.  The rebels, Turkey.

2.  ISIS

3.  Assad, Russia, Iran, the Syrian Kurds (those represented by the PKK affiliate, the YPG), the US, Australia, Canada, the EU, Jordan, plus some less involved parties like Egypt.  Were the term not already taken, this group might be called The Coalition.

One of these parties, ISIS, needs no explaining as far as alliances are concerned.  ISIS has no allies.  As for the rest, explanation is a straightforward matter of ignoring statements and observing actions.

This approach clarifies relations between the rebels and Turkey.  Turkey and the Free Syrian Army undertake joint operations in northern Aleppo.  Some rebels don't want Turkish troops on Syrian soil, and they sound like they are enemies of Turkey.   But even these rebels want and get indirect support from Turkey or via Turkey, so despite the trash talk and occasional confrontations they are pretty much allies.

So most of the explaining has to do with the third group, which developed in the last couple of years, partly as a reaction to the expansion of ISIS.

First, the EU and the US are enemies of Turkey, the NATO link notwithstanding.  The US and the EU have never shown the smallest inclination to defend Turkey against Assad or Russia.  They have instead protected Turkish expatriates associated with the very serious, very bloody coup attempt of 2016.  They have also backed the armed Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.  They do this by supplying large quantities of arms to the insurgents' Syrian affiliate.  Like Russia, the US has installed troops to block the expansion of Turkish/rebel operations.  In other words if you simply ignore a bunch of verbiage divorced from reality, the active campaign against the Turkish government could hardly be more obvious.

Second, the US is allied with Assad, Russia, and Iran.  It bombs ISIS assets engaged in attacking Assad in the Deir Ezzor region.  In supporting the Kurdish YPG, it supports a force whose alliance with Assad is day by day establishing itself as an open secret.  Moreover the US is dedicated to destroying the only remaining serious armed opposition to Assad, the (anti-ISIS) radical Islamists.  Again like Russia, it regularly conducts air strikes against these factions, a practice instituted already years ago.  The EU goes along with all of this.*

The motive for supporting Assad is extreme paranoia about association between rebel groups and Al Qaeda.  But why the US and the EU support Assad is not at issue here.  The point is, they do in fact support him.

Yes, years ago, the US CIA actually armed rebel groups that actually fought Assad.  This is very old
news.  As of about three years ago, US support for these groups, now via the Pentagon, was accorded on condition that these groups cease to rebel - that is, that they fought only ISIS, not Assad.  US and Jordanian relations with formerly rebellious 'rebel' groups is now entirely confined to restraining their anti-Assad operations as much as possible.  Occasionally, especially in the south around Daraa, these groups do attack Assad, but feebly, because always without US and Jordanian backing.

Since the US is allied with Assad, it is also allied with Russia and Iran.  The US and Russia mount air attacks on the very same rebel groups.  US operations against these groups are a minor adjunct to very serious régime and Iranian operations against them.  The US is also very closely allied with Iran in its Iraqi anti-ISIS campaigns.  Again, verbiage to the contrary does nothing to obscure these realities.

Exactly why things have turned out this way is another story.  Essentially the US has decided that its allies are the best bet for over-running all of ISIS' holdings.  Probably that's correct.  However there is no question that by at least one powerful objective measure - civilians killed, tortured, maimed - Assad is not the least but the greatest evil.  Many also argue that to prefer this evil, to back yet another pathologically sadistic secularist is, in the medium or long term - hell, in the all-but-extremely-short term - hardly the strategy most likely to blunt anti-Western Islamist extremism.  This piece isn't intended to engage in this debate.  It just seeks to undermine the pretense that the debate is about something complicated.


*  It appears that Trump's missile strike in response to an Assad chemical attack was a momentary outburst of decency, not a policy change.  The May 18th strike on a régime/Shia convoy at Tanf was stated to be a ground commander's response to a threat, again, not a change of policy.  The US claimed it happened after Russian attempts to dissuade the convoy from its course.


  1. 'Anti-imperialists', as generally manifesting themselves at the moment, won't want to admit the US is de facto pro-Assad, because their 'anti-war'/'anti-imperialist' politics requires the opposite to be true.

    (Beyond most positions one encounters, and taking one version of anti-imperialism to a quasi-logical conclusion, I believe the Spartacist League is arguing for military support for ISIS against US imperialism, because defeat for US imperialism is a win for the global proletariat, and such.)

    'Anarchists' and others who find the social program of those running Rojava to be relatively admirable won't want to confront just how allied the latter have become with Assad, including Rojavan forces attacking anti-Assad forces whether they are ISIS, non-ISIS Islamists, or non-Islamist rebels.

    I'm not sure if these pro-Rojavan people, or some of them, would want to confront just how allied the PKK's affiliated are with the US, either.

    The third side also includes the Party of God, of course.

  2. Yeah, maybe I should have given Hezbollah a mention separate from Iran.

    I don't bother with the Anti-Imperialists any more, but I'd think someone could tell a whole story about *why* the left clings so desperately to old loyalties.

  3. This is a comment on the last paragraph.

    The past is irrelevant except as evidence for the future. The death count during Basher's rule before 2011 is the correct comparator, not the filth he's been up to since then. Back then he was operating a filthy autocracy with the usual numbers of sick night killings, the occasional mass monstrosity and so on. The immense spike in deaths has come with the rebellion, which in fact failed in 2011-2, but mutated with the advent of foreign arms. The increase in deaths since 2011 is as much the responsibility of the rebels and their descendents as of the disgusting Assad. This is an elementary moral calculation. If you can't see the rebel groups are /also/ morally responsible for the ensuing catastrophe, you are really outside the party of humanity. What we see is the result of their intervention /and/ Assad's totally inevitable response which everyone foresaw.

    But again the past is relevant only as a sign of what to expect under the rule of any of your 3 parties. It is quite plain that generalized Isis rule would in fact outdo the Nazis in its genocidal character, speaking proportionally. This I think is simply known. You are working with the past deaths Isis has managed in a period when they have rule over a minute proportion of the Syrian population. You don't seem to have any evidence that it will not be the same for the various so called rebel groups, maybe it wouldn't be. You should be looking for peace rather than for maximizing blood, which is verifiably what you are doing.

    - Mark

  4. no, 1. Assad went over the top in Daraa with torture-death of a child & bombing demonstrations before armed groups were formed. 2. foreign arms were not crucial; most captured from régime. 3. Many of Assad's worst atrocities had no military value. 4. Much of rebel activity defends civilians, so no, they're not substantially responsible for the carnage (see(1)). Not only did Assad kill far more than the rebels, he had other military options. The mere correlation between more deaths and rebel activity is mere correlation, no reason to assign responsibility. 5. No evidence it won't be the same hardly implies evidence it will be the same. 6. I give reasons (not evidence) to expect less carnage if rebels win in previous posts. 7. (6) is hardly worth discussion since rebels won't win.

  5. Yes he is managing a police state and the first year was already full of corpses. You are stuck on Assad hatred, which is perfectly correct attitude, I would strangle him with my bare hands too if I could, but it isn't politics. At this point even politics are a joke; the only question a serious person asks at this point is how to minimize the wall of corpses, but you are indifferent to this and have been for years. Compare Syria 2010 to Syria now. What produced the difference?

    Why were rebel militias occupying part of a huge populous city like Aleppo when they knew they would never win over even a majority of it, and when they knew it was going to attract unrelenting bombing from the regime killing countless children and inducing mass exodus? It is because they were simply indifferent to human life just as Assad is. Counting which side killed more is nonsense, both sides are responsible for each single death. If they had the least interest in human life they would have left for the countryside and maintained it as something Assad and his creeps could not enter. But they didn't; they were simply monsters alongside Assad who were indifferent to the continued existence of a city. You have been praising them for years and blood just as much on your hands. This is a very, very elementary moral calculation anyone who cannot make it has put himself or herself outside the human race.
    - Mark

  6. For years, it was anything but apparent that the rebels wouldn't win over Aleppo. And even if, implausibly, "both sides are responsible for every single death", the proportion of responsibility could still be, say, a billion on one side to 1 on the other. That's not the only problem with such claims. First, some deaths for which people are responsible are nevertheless justified; some are not. More important here, in the case of some deaths for which more than one party is responsible, one party may have acted justifiably, and the other unjustifiably.

    I see no point in further discussion.