Fruits of intervention
Yassamine Mather surveys the mess that imperialism has created
As Esen Uslu reports in this edition of the paper, on October 10, around 100 demonstrators were killed and many more hundreds were injured in Ankara after a suicide bomber attacked a rally organised by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The party had organised the demonstration to coincide with the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire to be made by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) later that day. The Turkish government had already dismissed any ceasefire deal, claiming that it was a tactical manoeuvre by the Kurdish nationalists, and said Turkey would continue its battle against the PKK until it gets “results”.
Soon after the atrocity, acting prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggested that either Kurdish rebels or Islamic State militants were to blame. Blaming the Kurds or the left is standard practice for rightwing governments in Turkey, but, given the PKK’s commitment to a ceasefire in the run-up to the November 1 Turkish elections, the accusation was ludicrous. Sunday’s demonstrators in Ankara, Istanbul and Diyarbakır were unanimous in blaming Erdoğan for the bombings, shouting “Erdoğan: murderer”, “Government, resign” and “The state will be held to account”. By October 12, Turkish authorities were changing their tune, pointing the finger solely at IS. While that cannot be completely discounted, at this stage there is no reason to dismiss other potential culprits amongst a number of Turkish nationalist groups - the ruling AKP, to start with - or Islamists such as the Syrian al-Nusra. The same day, Turkish planes bombed PKK targets in both the south-east of the country and over the border in northern Iraq.
Of course, no-one can be in any doubt that the horrendous attack in Ankara is directly connected to events across the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in Syria can potentially change the balance of forces in favour of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey is concerned that its allies in al-Nusra and other Islamic groups may be defeated. More significantly, last week came news that US president Barack Obama has decided to end, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, the “Pentagon’s failed effort to field its own proxy force in Syria”. The paper continued: “Instead of trying to back a moderate Syrian rebel force that the US would train, the administration will focus on supporting the Kurds and other established rebel groups in the country’s civil war.”1
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook announced: “The Pentagon will provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units, so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by Isil.”2 IS has, of course, taken control of large parts of northern and eastern Syria, and remains the main US target in the country. Cook added: “We will monitor the progress these groups make and provide them with air support, as they take the fight to Isil.”
Throughout the week, representatives of the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party, a close ally of Turkey’s PKK) had been in Washington, trying to convince US authorities that Russian involvement in Syria does not mean they do not need US air cover. Sadly this is where asking for intervention from the US (and Russia) takes you. A senior member of the PYD boasted: “Russia says it wants to work with us to combat the group that calls itself the Islamic State and other extremist organisations.”3 All this at a time when the Obama administration and Turkey were accusing Russia of focussing on bombing ‘more moderate’ Sunni Arab opponents of Assad, rather than IS.
The PYD view of Russia’s bombing campaign was summed up in this way by spokesperson Ilham Ehmed: “a good step for the fight against terrorism, but, on the other hand, it is empowering the Assad regime, which is a bad point”. Ehmed also asserted, by the way, that there are no members of the US-backed Free Syria Army in the area around Aleppo and Idlib, which has been carpet-bombed in the current Russian offensive. The Pentagon has a different view - it claims Russia is hitting fighters there who have received US funding and training.
To understand the PYD’s total collapse into calling for and accepting US and Russian intervention we need to look at the current battle ground in Syria. According to Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speaking to Al-Monitor:
The PYD, which has expanded its territory in northern Syria on the border with Turkey since a battle for Kobanê earlier this year, wants to unify two pockets of Kurdish control. The Kurds want to take Azaz, al-Bab, Manbaj and Jarabulus, which are all west of the Euphrates River.4
Balanche said Azaz is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra and a brigade of the FSA. According to her, although the United States supported the PYD in expelling IS from Kobanê, during the negotiations over the use of Turkey’s İncirlik air base by US war planes, Washington had assured Ankara that the Kurds would not be allowed anywhere west of Kobanê. According to Balance, the PYD was unhappy about this situation and saw it as a major obstacle to its military tactics: “There are 500,000 people between Azaz, al-Bab, Manbaj and Jarabulus, including a Turkmen minority ... It would be very difficult for the Kurds to capture this area without heavy US support.”5
Of course, Balanche had predicted that if the United States does not back the Kurdish advance, the PYD will look to Russia and Assad, “if that is its only path to a continuous territory in the north”. Indeed PYD leader Salih Muslim has suggested that “the group may be seeking a strategic alliance with Assad and Russia in order to achieve that goal”.6
PYD officials have consistently blamed Turkey for allowing new recruits for IS to cross its border into Syria. Referring to Turkey’s role, Ehmed commented: “Terrorism didn’t come from the sky.” However, unfortunately for the Kurds and the ordinary citizens of Syria, Iraq, etc, in the current tragic situation in the Middle East every major power, every regional power is pursuing its own interests. It is precisely because of this that calling for any intervention is madness - at the end of the day the PYD on the ground will pay the price for this type of opportunist manoeuvring. The events of the last few weeks have proved beyond doubt that foreign intervention, far from resolving the problems, have made the situation worse.
Who are the main players and what are their regional/global interests?
The United States is committed to ending the rule of Assad and therefore so far its air campaign against IS has been both ineffective and half-hearted. Assad’s attempts at ingratiating himself with the US authorities have failed.
This has nothing to do with the dictator’s repressive policies before or after the ‘Arab spring’ (after all, the US maintains good relations with other repressive regimes in the area), nor has it got anything to do with the current civil war in the country. Wikileaks has revealed that as early as December 2006, five years before the first Arab spring protests in Syria, the policy of destabilising the Damascus government was a central part of US policy. Wikileaks has published cables sent by William Roebuck, who was at the time chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies for regime change in Syria. Roebuck wrote:
We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarises our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements and signals that the US can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.7
Roebuck lists Syria’s relationship with Iran as a “vulnerability” that the US should try to “exploit”. His suggested means of doing so are:
Possible action: play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence. There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytising and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focussed on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business.
Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicise and focus regional attention on the issue.8
Roebuck’s advice was clear: the United States should try to destabilise the Syrian government by coordinating more closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fan sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia. For all the talk by rightwing apologists of the United States about Salafi ideology and its crucial role in the rise of IS, Wikileaks documents make it clear who is to blame for starting this particular sectarian war in the region. Ironically the cable was written at a time when sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict in neighbouring Iraq was causing serious problems for the US military.
Throughout this period the US has also been concerned with “weaning Syria from Iran”. Wikileaks documents from March 2009, entitled ‘Saudi intelligence chief talks regional security with Brennan delegation’, give us proof of this:
Brennan asked Muqrin [bin Abdulaziz, head of Saudi intelligence] if he believed the Syrians were interested in improving relations with the United States. “I can’t say anything positive or negative,” he replied, declining to give an opinion. Muqrin observed that the Syrians would not detach from Iran without “a supplement”.9
There can be no doubt that at the time for the US government the main issue was separating Syria from Iran. “Improving relations with the United States” was only possible if the Assad regime could be ‘weaned’ from Iran. In other words, the US couldn’t care less about human rights in the country or the Syrian dictator’s treatment of national and religious minorities. Its only concern was the regime’s close relations with Iran.
Having started the whole debacle, by 2014 US authorities were becoming concerned with the sectarian Sunni-Shia character of the civil war in Syria.
Here the Unites States has been facing a dilemma: given the distrust of Assad and his Iranian backers, given the clear animosity of its regional allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and by proxy their covert or direct support for Sunni jihadists (mainly al-Nusra, but also IS), why not back the Syrian opposition, including IS, and commit fully to the overthrow of the Assad regime?
It is not just lack of strategy or timidity that has led to the current stalemate and uncertainty. The problem here is that, although elements within the state department have over the last few weeks considered the possibility of an IS victory and the establishment of a Salafist state in parts of Syria and Iraq, in the US it would very difficult - almost impossible - to sell the idea of accepting such a situation. After all, the origins of both al-Nusra and Islamic State go back to al Qa’eda and for the last 14 years the rationale of successive US administrations in the ‘war on terror’ has been ‘revenge for 9/11’.
So it is here that the dilemma for the Obama administration lies. Striking a deal with the jihadists would appease regional allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey, ensure regime change in Syria and weaken Iran’s regional position. However, for all those ‘positive outcomes’, it cannot be sold at home. It is this more than anything else that has created the current stalemate, resulting from indecision and half-hearted attempts by the US administration in its dealings with IS.
In addition, the United States is obsessed with countering Russian influence.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has a number of strategic aims, including the wish to challenge US dominance in world affairs and the declared aim to weaken Islamist radicals, who Moscow claims are amongst Russia’s enemies.
The Soviet-Syrian alliance was forged during the rule of Hafez al Assad and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hafez and his son, Bashar, remained amongst Moscow’s regional allies. In addition the Russian navy keeps a relatively small but important resupply and light repair facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. Although this is not a major naval base, it plays a significant role in Putin’s strategic, geopolitical ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia’s largest and most important military base in a foreign country is its Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol, Crimea. However, in order to be deployed beyond the Black Sea, Russian warships also need the base in Syria. In addition Moscow considers Iran’s Islamic Republic as an ally and is willing to support Iran’s allies and the country’s interests in the region.
The Soviet navy began using Syria’s deep-water port at Tartus for submarines and surface vessels under a 1971 agreement with Damascus and Tartus was later upgraded to become the “720th logistics support point” for the Soviet Navy. Russia continued to use the base after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Assad regime has no particular allegiance to Russia and would have accepted US bribes for closing the base. However, no attempt has yet been made to achieve such a rapprochement.
Iran’s Islamic Republic has been amongst Assad’s main backers. According to Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar strategic base and a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
Syria is Iran’s 35th province. If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take over Syria or [Iran’s] Khuzestan, the priority lies in maintaining Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. However, if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.10
This is a stance supported by all factions of the Islamic government in Iran. According to former president Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani, speaking to Iraq’s special envoy in December 2012, “We must possess Syria. If the chain from Lebanon to here is cut, bad things will happen.”11
We should note Rafsanjani’s instructive use of the term “chain”. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states justify supporting Salafi militias and jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria with claims that Shia Iran now controls vast territory in the region - from the western borders of Afghanistan to Beirut and the Mediterranean coast. Clearly Rafsanjani and other Iranian leaders have a similar analysis. Of course, neither side would admit that Iran’s regional success is the inevitable by-product of the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Other Iranian officials - such as Qasem Soleimani, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards - have talked of Syria as an integral component of the Iranian-led “resistance” to Israel and the United States. Soleimani is currently involved in organising Shia militias in Iraq and has played a significant role in planning military moves against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Last week, the Revolutionary Guards announced the ‘martyrdom’ of one of its high-ranking commanders, brigadier-general Hossein Hamadani, who was killed near Aleppo in Syria. During his funeral it became clear that, despite Iranian and Syrian denials about the involvement of Iranian ground forces in Syria, the general had led 80 missions during the country’s civil war. According to the Iranian press, he was involved in “creating national defence forces for Assad”.
In the last few years Iranian security and intelligence services have advised and assisted the Syrian military in order to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. However, Iran’s involvement in this war is not popular at home. The country is facing major economic problems after years of punitive sanctions and most Iranians see their rulers’ obsession with maintaining regional influence as a waste of money and irrelevant to their daily lives.
No doubt the dispute between Turkey and the Kurds has undermined US military plans in Syria, in terms of closing a 68-mile section of the Turkey-Syria border that has been controlled by IS and used for the transit of foreign fighters into Syria.
However, the AKP and Erdoğan have other regional ambitions. Erdoğan, in the words of his advisor, professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, wanted to
solve century-old problems with Turkey’s neighbours, and become progressively the inevitable regional mediator. In order to do so, Turkey had to become a political model and build relations with its Arab partners, without losing its alliance with Israel.12
Pursuing this policy, Turkey took a dual approach of cosying up to the Saudis as well as Israel - all part of its ambition to join the European Union as the ‘political link’ between the east and west. It was this ambition, together with the AKP’s own Islamic credentials, that led it to side with jihadi forces.
When Turkey announced in July 2015 that it would allow US military planes to use its İncirlik air base , Robert Fisk correctly summed up the country’s role in the Syrian conflict in this way:
Having spent the best part of the conflict in Syria acquiescing to Isis - which has been using Turkish territory as a transit point into Syria, and using it to build a lucrative commercial hub - Turkey has started targeting the jihadis in Syria.13
Patrick Cockburn, writing in the London Review of Books, puts Turkey’s help to Islamic Sate in context:
The estimated 12,000 foreign jihadis fighting in Syria, over which there is so much apprehension in Europe and the US, almost all entered via what became known as ‘the jihadis’ highway’, using Turkish border crossing points, while the guards looked the other way. In the second half of 2013, as the US put pressure on Turkey, these routes became harder to access, but Isis militants still cross the frontier without too much difficulty …
When Syrian rebels led by al-Nusra captured the Armenian town of Kassab in Syrian government-held territory early this year, it seemed that the Turks had allowed them to operate from inside Turkish territory.14
In other words Turkey, the west’s Nato ally, has been an active player in the rise of both al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Saudi support for all jihadists, from al Qa’eda in Afghanistan to IS in Iraq and Syria and al-Nusra in Syria, is motivated by rivalry, in terms of regional power and dominance, with Iran. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia has paid for weapons for the rebels and arranged for them to be delivered via Croatia. In August 2013, “Saudi Arabia sent a new batch of anti-tank missiles that gave rebels in southern Syria a tangible boost on the battlefield.”15
The Saudi intervention has many facets. However, one of most important aspects is the fact that Saudi rulers consider themselves guardians of all Sunnis in the region - and that means combating Iran’s influence. The nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers was not to its liking. According to classified leaked cables in 2010, King Abdullah even urged US officials to crush Iran’s nuclear programme, so as to “cut off the head of the snake”.16
Let me repeat once again: given the conflicting and at times shifting interests of both regional and world powers, revolutionary forces should never have had any illusions about foreign interventions, be it by the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey or anyone else.
To demonstrate this, let me summarise the events of this week - in addition to the Ankara atrocity:
- US troops have air-dropped aid to the FSA (in reality al-Nusra).
- The Russians have bombed al-Nusra and on some occasions Islamic State bases.
- Turkish planes have bombed PKK bases.
- Iranian troops on the ground in Syria are allegedly waiting for reinforcements from Hezbollah.
- It has become clear that the majority of IS’s Twitter followers are in Saudi Arabia!
- In the midst of all this Russian and US war planes had a near collision.
What a mess. Obama might insist that this is not a proxy war with Russia, but to everyone else it does look like one. The situation in the region is getting worse day by day, hour by hour, and we are on the verge of a number of other regional hot wars - in Yemen and in Iraq, for instance.
Those who fail to see how severe the situation is, those who still call for ‘humanitarian’ interventions have no place in the ranks of our movement. Given the terrible price paid by the peoples of the region, I take no pleasure in reminding all those who were calling for US intervention in the war in Syria: we told you so.