Before the death of ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 (an event that has dominated Iranian politics and news), Iranian clerics and leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had been competing with each other in making exaggerated claims about the significance of the fall of Aleppo: it was a victory against “heresy” and for the “ascendancy of Shia Islam”. One cleric called on Iranians (presumably he meant the Revolutionary Guards already in Syria) to clean up Aleppo, as the 12th Shia Imam would soon be paying a visit!
This, together with the triumphalism during the inspection of the ruins of east Aleppo by major general Qasem Soleimini (credited with commanding Iranian troops in Syria’s recent battles), should be condemned. The intervention of Iran and Russia in Syria has cost the lives of thousands of civilians. All such foreign intervention – be it by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Russia – should be condemned, and Iran and Russia cannot be exempt from this on the basis that they were invited by the Syrian regime.
Having said that, we now have a clearer picture of the final days of the battles in and around east Aleppo. The latest round of ‘peace talks’ between some rebel groups and Turkey, Iran and Russia gives an indication of who backed the main armed rebel groups. Most of these groups, far from being democratic, secular forces, were close to Turkey’s Islamic nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The extended participation of Syrian Kurds on the same side as those fighting against ‘rebels’ in Aleppo (in other words, on the same side as Hezbollah and other Shia groups) demonstrates that accusations of Turkish involvement in arming and sponsoring a section of the rebels in east Aleppo should be taken seriously.
By all accounts, at least since 2015 the claim that the Free Syrian Army represents moderate or secular forces has been untenable.
It is worthwhile repeating what Ben Hall, in his book, Inside Isis: the brutal rise of a terrorist army, tells us. The FSA leading light, Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who was promoted by the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has never denied his support for jihadist groups – to the embarrassment of the US authorities. After the battle for Al Menagh, al-Oqaidi’s victory speech is quoted by many to show that, while he was on the US government’s Syria support payroll, he fought alongside and publicly praised IS fighters, calling them “heroes”.
Robert Fisk gave us a similar view in 2015, when he wrote about claims that the Syrian regime was not fighting IS:
This rubbish has reached its crescendo in the on-again, off-again saga of the Syrian ‘moderates’. These men were originally military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as a possible pro-western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the ‘moderates’ defected all over again, this time to the Islamist Nusra Front or to Isis, selling their American-supplied weapons.Washington admitted their disappearance, bemoaned their fate, concluded that new ‘moderates’ were required, persuaded the CIA to arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish border to fight – whereupon all but 10 were captured by Nusra and at least two of them were executed by their captors. Just two weeks ago, I heard in person one of the most senior ex-US officers in Iraq – David Petraeus’s former No2 in Baghdad – announce that the ‘moderates’ had collapsed long ago. Now you see them – now you don’t …1
In a letter to the Weekly Worker published on December 22, Hannu Reime made a number of claims in relation to my article, ‘Reaping the harvest’ (December 15), and I will attempt to reply to some of his points.
Yassamine seems to argue – obliquely, but still – that the Syrian uprising against the Assad tyranny was almost nothing else but a US, Saudi and Qatari regime-change scheme and had very little in common with the Arab spring in other countries of the Arab world, Egypt in particular.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have written extensively on the importance and legitimacy of opposition to Bashar Assad, notably the protests of 2011 and 2012 and the opposition to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Assads (father and son). I have also written in support of the Kurdish peshmergas, who were for a long time the only forces fighting IS and Al Nusra, and criticised their subsequent rapprochement with Russia and later the United States.
I am also very clear in my December 15 article that no-one should doubt the legitimacy of the opposition to Assad in 2011 and 2012. However, I believe that the deliberate destruction of Syria and the defeat of the genuine opposition to the Assad regime – after Saudi Arabia got involved and Turkey, Qatar, etc, intervened, supported by the United States – played an important role in changing the balance of forces among those fighting the regime, leading to the dominance of jihadist groups and forcing the secular opposition into exile. This is also the opinion of Syrian socialists in exile and what comrades I know in Beirut are saying. The population of eastern Aleppo had no allegiance to Al Nusra or pro-Turkey groups fighting in the city and it was right to express concern about the people of the city. That is why I opposed Russian air raids and opposed Iranian intervention in articles and in a number of interviews/debates on BBC Persian TV.2
Moreover, I do not equate calling for no-fly zones with pro-imperialist posturing. I just do not think it is a rational or practical suggestion. However, the ‘socialists’ mentioned in my article have called unambiguously for ‘humanitarian’ imperialist intervention. That is what I am arguing against. Imperialist intervention is part of the problem and will play no role in strengthening or saving the Syrian secular opposition. Any illusions the Kurds had about such interventions have been shattered in recent months.
In the last few weeks leftwing Syrian exiles have given a number of interviews, reminding us that there was a genuine opposition to Assad in 2011-12 and I agree with what they say. My only additional comment is that, once Saudi Arabia and the United States got involved in the conflict, it was inevitable that the much weaker secular opposition would be ignored by the ‘international community’. On a far larger scale the same is true of Iran, where tens of thousands of workers have protested against the neoliberal economic policies of the clerical rulers, but there is no mention of their protests in most of the western media. This is not the kind of news they are looking for.
In the case of Syria’s contemporary history, the constant betrayal of the ‘official’ Communist Party, its support for Hafez al-Assad and later his son, and the absence of an alternative left, meant that the working class movement was in a much weaker position when the conflict started. That is why I agree with those on the Syrian left such as Yassin Al Saleh, who says:
For 30 years, the Ba’ath Party has made a project of crushing all political life in Syria. So, when the uprising came, we had no real political organisations – only individuals here and there. Islam, in our society, is the limit of political poverty. When you don’t have any political life, people will mobilise according to the lowest stratum of an imaginary community. This deeper identity is religion. When you have political and cultural life, you can have trade unions, leftist groups, and people are able to organise along any number of identities. But when you crush politics, when there is no political life, religious identity will prosper.3
Of course, we should blame the dictatorial regimes of Assad and Saddam for suppressing all secular opposition and paving the way for jihadist dominance. However, it remains the case that the main countries currently funding these groups are imperialism’s allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the emirates of the Persian Gulf.
I also disagree with those who argue that the US should have provided the heavy weapons required by Syrian rebels to defend themselves against the regime’s air attacks, We have seen enough leaked documents to know that the US turned a blind eye when the Saudis and Qataris armed and financed jihadi groups, and we also know that such weapons have ended up in the hands of IS or Al Nusra.
Even if the weapons were ‘defensive’ – ie, anti-missile or anti-aircraft – the fact remains that they would have lengthened the military life of the murderous jihadists. Al Qa’eda’s origins in Afghanistan should give some indication of how CIA anti-aircraft missiles not only saved the group from air attacks, but encouraged them to believe they had defeated one superpower – the Soviet Union – and they could do the same to the rest of the infidel world. In Syria any weapons supplied to non-Islamist groups have either been captured by jihadists (who were stronger and better armed than smaller groups, courtesy of the west’s main allies in the region) or handed over by rebels who left the ranks of the ‘moderate opposition’ to join Al Nusra or IS. The idea that imperialism would have considered supporting secular, democratic forces within the Syrian opposition, as opposed to relying on Saudi Arabia, the emirates and their jihadist protégés, is both naive and contrary to the history of colonialism and imperialism – not only in Syria, but in the entire Middle East.4
It is understandable that, faced with the current devastating situation in their country, individuals in the Syrian opposition, including some socialists, still have illusions about western intervention. However, internationalist socialists have a duty to say they are mistaken. The battles in Syria are part of a bigger war, engulfing all of the Middle East. They are the direct result of the situation created after the collapse of Saddam’s regime and subsequent Israeli and Saudi paranoia about Iran’s Islamic Republic. Assad’s Syria’s remains a target for regime change, not because he is a progressive secular leader, as the Syrian Communist Party tells us, but because, if there is an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, Syria and Hezbollah could facilitate Iranian retaliation. The pro-Zionist ‘left’ I was referring to is well aware of this and its advocacy of western intervention is in fact support for the state of Israel – such people could not care less about Syrian progressives.
Of course, that does not mean we should tone down our opposition to Assad or his allies in Iran, I am in favour of the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran and I have no sympathy with the Shia clerics’ ally, the Assad regime. But the reality is that US failed attempts to overthrow the clerical regime in Iran and to impose regime change from above on its ally, the Syrian regime, have only strengthened both Damascus and Tehran.
2. The last of these was on December 22 and can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO6oQn49It4&feature=youtu.be.
4. See my article, ‘The fall of the Ottoman empire and the current conflict in the Middle East’ in Critique: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03017605.2014.972151.