“Aleppo stands in front of a big war machine, armed only with small weapons. It is not just a geographical target. Aleppo is karama, it is dignity, it is the revolution against injustice.”—Aleppo activist
Thousands of Russian airstrikes have created havoc in Syria. Mutilated and dead children, collapsed and burning hospitals, schools, and mosques, and desolate roads filled with hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees testify to genocidal war crimes. Dozens of desperately needed hospitals have been destroyed. Doctors Without Borders has stopped providing information on its clinic locations to the Russian military, since they have just used it for targeting. These crimes coincide with hypocritical “peace” negotiations that include the big powers (U.S., Russia) and the genocidal Assad regime but not the Syrian people who have fought for freedom and dignity unrelentingly for five years.
Russian carpet bombing is designed to instill terror and despair among civilians and armed fighters alike; to create more refugees, to depopulate the country that has refused to surrender. It is meant to say: You have no allies in this world; the freedom and dignity you speak of are worthless in an order of cynicism underwritten by state terror. This embodies a philosophy of unfreedom. It is imperialism’s final answer to the humanism of the Arab Spring.
It continues the Assad regime’s genocidal policies. The “peace” negotiations and “cessation of hostilities” include loopholes that would allow continued Russian and regime attacks. A statement from the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army said: “We are skeptical that Russia will hold to these commitments when its current policy is to indiscriminately bomb all parties in Syria into the dust, in particular civilians and moderate opposition, and with complete impunity, while saying they are bombing terrorists.”
Already over a million Syrians are under siege, many starving and dying for lack of health care. A similar siege is now threatened for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which, although already partially destroyed, still holds a half million civilians. Citizen journalist Rami Jarrah has reported, “Air strikes are targeting mainly markets, busy markets. The area is falling under siege by the regime and the Islamic State. They are performing this siege together. It’s going to get a lot worse, a humanitarian crisis on a bigger scale than we have seen.”
COLLUSION OF U.S. AND RUSSIA
This state terrorism would have been impossible without the tacit cooperation of the U.S. It is the culmination of the maneuvering that followed the Aug. 2013 chemical weapons massacre in East Ghouta. After the murder of over 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children, the Obama administration was under serious pressure to take action—this had been his previously declared “red line.”
At that point it was the Russians who “bailed out” President Obama after a highly theatrical “gaffe” by Secretary of State Kerry that led the Russians to endorse a plan by which Assad would give up his chemical weapons. This never happened and chemical weapons attacks have continued if on a lesser scale. The deal did serve to legitimize Russian imperial intervention in Syria, which had already been a factor in its military and diplomatic support to Assad. Afterward, Putin even had the fascist audacity to write in The New York Times that the Assad regime was innocent.
We wrote then: “Failure to understand the fundamental hostility of imperialism toward revolution indicates a failure to understand the nature of reality….Revolution will only come through the creation of new human relations. Those who can’t see the dead of Ghouta, who can’t hear the insistent voices of Syrian freedom fighters, will have nothing to contribute to the creation of a new, human society…We see this revolutionary moment as the test of world politics, which could very likely determine the next stage of history.” (“The Syrian Revolution as the test of world politics,” Nov.-Dec. 2013 News & Letters)
Thus the Russian air assault, which began in more limited form last year, was accompanied by the U.S. cutting even the meager aid that had been supplied to Syrian revolutionaries. Now thousands of bombs rain down upon the Free Syrians while the ostensible target of the campaign, ISIS uses the bombing to attack previously liberated territory. Regime allies—Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, sectarian Iraqi militias, Russian special forces, and mercenaries from across the earth—have also advanced into devastated and largely emptied villages.
COUNTERREVOLUTION IS IMPERIALISM’S GOAL
All this is happening, incredibly, shamefully, at a moment when both ISIS and the Assad regime are at their weakest. The Syrian Army is beaten. As some have said, the Syrian Army now works in the kitchen and cleans the toilets for foreign occupiers. A rare effort at a show of strength in East Ghouta Feb. 5 led to the deaths of around 180 troops at the hands of revolutionaries.
Likewise, ISIS has lost many fighters and some territory in conflict with Kurdish and Free Syrian forces. Many of the lost youth who came to ISIS from Europe and elsewhere have become disillusioned and defected, or wish to defect. Local populations are restive under their occupation. Like Assad, they have received Russian help—in ISIS’s case as Russian technicians in the Tuweinan gas plant they seized near Raqqa, producing natural gas to be sold to the regime.
What motivates the big powers here? For Putin, imperialist war is an effort to stave off public dissatisfaction at economic difficulties faced because of falling oil prices and sanctions. These will increase in the coming year. Wars in Ukraine and Syria have also gained Putin a putrid corona of racist European parties that oppose immigration—immigration, in part, forced by Assad’s genocidal war—and that appreciate his persecution of dissidents, LGBTQ people, and minorities, and wish to emulate Putin’s “success.”
Putin’s regime embodies counterrevolution. President Obama’s motive is harder to fathom unless one realizes that the rejection of revolution is key to his politics, too. He has never believed in the capacity of people, Syrian “farmers and dentists” as he put it, to throw off oppressors and freely determine their own lives. When he looks at revolution, he sees only a rabble. Thus he could tell Wall Street in 2009, “My administration is the only thing that stands between you and the pitchforks.”
Even when the U.S. did provide minimal support to the Free Syrian Army, it came with anti-revolutionary strings attached. Thus the Southern Front of the FSA was told not to push too close to Damascus. When they did, their supply line was cut. This is the only “red line” Obama has been willing to enforce.
While their counter-revolutionary aims may temporarily coincide, the seeds of a new imperialist war are nevertheless being planted and nourished. Putin’s “Eurasianism” as formulated by fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin, popular in Kremlin and military circles, calls for ultimate war against the U.S. In return, imperialism remains the essence of U.S. capitalism and its hyper-militarism. Thus we see new moves to strengthen NATO militarily, as Syrian and other refugees are demonized.
PYD BETRAYS KURDS AND REVOLUTION ALIKE
The heroic defense of Kobane represented a high point of the Syrian Revolution. Both Kurdish People’s Defense Units and Free Syrian Army elements came together to fight ISIS’s attempt to destroy Kurdish society and self-determination. World outrage was such that it forced the U.S., which at first was indifferent, to support the defenders with air strikes and supplies. It placed the struggle in Rojava at the forefront of world consciousness, particularly among young revolutionaries.
It is clear that the way forward in Syria requires that kind of unity of the majority Sunni with the minority Kurds, Druze, Palestinians, Christians and others. As we wrote: “It was clear as early as Assad’s first civilian massacres that he was taking a cue from what President Slobodan Milosevic had done…In massacring the majority Sunni, Assad wanted to implicate the other minorities (especially his own Alawite group) in such crimes that these groups would never be able to live together. It was a scheme that could only retain Syria’s national unity at the price of genocide….Assad’s will was to destroy the social fabric. But the Revolution began by countering his will: ‘One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!’…Now, in opposing both Assad and IS, this revolutionary idea is the issue to be fought for.” (“Counter-revolution in Middle East shows crisis of humanity,” Sept.-Oct. 2015 News & Letters)
However, there has been reason to doubt the capacity of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leadership. The organization has its own sectarian history, both in relation to other Kurdish organizations and in relation to Arabs living in majority-Kurdish areas. It also has demonstrated a tone-deafness in relation to the broader Syrian Revolution that is not justified by the anti-Kurd policies of some armed majority Arab groups. Revolutionary unity in Syria isn’t just a tactical issue, but a philosophic question, a call for that revolution in permanence which can open new pathways to freedom. From the beginning of the Revolution, the best elements—including civilian revolutionaries who have borne the brunt of the regime’s genocide—have spoken out for Kurdish rights, and continue to do so.
But the PYD leadership has decided to make use of the genocidal Russian/Assad bombing campaign as a way to make petty territorial gains in North Aleppo (Tal Rifaat, Azaz villages) at the expense of the entire Syrian Revolution. They have in practice collaborated with both Assad and ISIS in attacks on Free Syrian positions. As one Syrian revolutionary said, “As a half-Kurd, half-Arab I am warning that what the PYD is doing is going to lead to an ethnic war between Kurds and Arabs in North Aleppo.”
It has further given excuse for Turkey’s reactionary and brutal Erdogan regime to intervene in Rojava, so far mainly through bombardment of Kurdish and regime forces and civilians. This is also a disaster in the making for Kurdish self-determination. Erdogan will use it above all to intensify attacks on Kurds in Turkey.
After the defense of Kobane put Kurdish self-determination at the forefront of world consciousness, the PYD’s dismal “pragmatism” falls far short of the revolutionary philosophy needed to meet the challenge of genocide and imperialist invasion.
We support Kurdish self-determination unreservedly, we support the struggles of the Kurdish people in Rojava to widen the spaces of freedom in their own lives, and we condemn attacks upon them from whatever quarter. We also condemn in the strongest terms the opportunism of the PYD leadership, which has struck a blow at the Syrian Revolution; which may disorient revolutionary youth around the world; which has criminally cost the lives of many Arab and Kurdish fighters; and which may create lasting enmities that become a further obstacle to revolution. For all this, these “leaders” will eventually have to answer to the Kurdish people.
FREE SYRIA’S WAR OF NATIONAL LIBERATION
After the initial impact of the intense Russian airstrikes, revolutionaries have begun to regroup and rethink their situation.
One Free Syrian spokesperson said, “They might take more land and occupy it. There will be a resistance, it will revert to a guerrilla war, and Syrians can make things even harder for the Russians than they experienced in Afghanistan. Our mistake was not to see our revolution as a national liberation struggle. This is no longer a civil war—we are occupied by many foreign forces, and we should make that clear. This is now a war to eject foreign invaders.” That Assad could retake the entire country remains a fantasy.
Along with military regroupment, there should also be hard thought about the role of armed struggle itself. It became a necessity in Syria because the peaceful protests of 2011 confronted the unleashed brutality of a heavily militarized fascist state. That the movement remained entirely non-violent as long as it did reflects how broadly based the Revolution is, and how, like all the Arab Spring revolts, it was reaching for new human relations and not just a change of power.
But armed struggle comes with a question mark: who is providing the arms? and what do they expect or demand in return? This has led to counterrevolution arising from within the revolution. Alongside the regime, Free Syrians have had to fight ISIS, and they have understood that Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) was a problem that would have to be dealt with. Women’s participation in the Revolution, vital as it has been, was made more difficult if not impossible at times by these and other retrogressive forces. Just so, the presence of ISIS and al-Nusra became the hypocritical pretext for the joint Russian/U.S. attempt to liquidate the Revolution. Perhaps thinking about armed struggle should begin from the premise that all imperialist powers will oppose revolution. (The PYD’s Salih Muslim should consider this as he praises U.S. democracy and opens offices in Moscow.)
While Saudi Arabia and Turkey have again begun providing some aid to the Free Syrians in face of the Russian onslaught, their own aims are hardly liberatory. On Feb. 8, Putin received a “Sword of Victory” from Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who owes his throne to Saudi Arabia’s intervention against Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolt. (The circle closes: Assad opposed that revolt as well!)
The Revolution must stand on its own ground of freedom and dignity. This is a profound assertion of true humanism. It is this idea, the absolute genius of the Arab Spring, that all imperialist powers have sought to bury. Free Syrians have borne the brunt of fascism, imperialism, and, in some ways most destructive, the philosophic abdication of the worldwide Left. Conversely, many international solidarity activists, like many Syrian revolutionaries, have begun asking questions of all existing revolutionary ideology. What comes from such questioning will be an important determinant of the future.
We Marxist-Humanists recognize our own struggle and aims in the Syrian Revolution. It has tested us, as well. As it has deepened our understanding of the philosophy of revolution in permanence, so we seek to continue our dialogue and offer our philosophic as well as material solidarity.
–Gerry Emmett, for the Resident Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees, Feb. 26, 2016