On Aug. 25, for the first time in the five-year civil war, Turkey’s military crossed over into Syrian territory and engaged directly in a ground operation. Turkey’s tanks entered the Syrian border town of Manjib, drove out the Islamic State, and handed over control to the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed rebel faction.
While this action by Turkey received U.S. air support, Turkey’s subsequent action is surely not welcomed by Washington. On Aug. 28, Turkey started bombing areas around Manjib, killing dozens of civilans, targeting what it calls “Kurdish terrorist” forces. Explaining the aims of the military operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We will make any kind of contribution to the work to clear Daesh (IS) from Syria.” Erdogan continued, “[regarding] the PYD (Democratic Union Party) terror group in Syria, we have just the same determination.” The PYD is the main Kurdish party in northern Syria, along with its militia, the YPG.
Washington has supported Kurdish rebel factions in Syria. This is a continuation of a decades-long approach where the U.S. supports Kurdish militias in countries it wants to overthrow—Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran under the Islamic Republic, and now Syria under Bashar Assad—while simultaneously supporting the oppression of the Kurds and the crushing of its political parties—the PKK—in Turkey.
This is not a confused policy. Obviously, the policy has nothing to do with genuine sympathy for the Kurdish people. It is based strictly on a cold calculation about how the U.S. can implement its imperialist agenda. In Syria, the U.S. agenda involves the overthrow of the secular and largely independent state of Bashar Assad, and, to a lesser extent, defeating ISIS. Currently, for these purposes, supporting the Kurds in Syria is expeditious for Washington.
Turkey, on the other hand, considers the Kurdish movement an existential threat. Of all the four countries that have a sizeable Kurdish population—Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria—Turkey has by far the largest Kurdish population. Over decades, Turkey has ruthlessly oppressed the Kurds. Turkey has used its air force to bomb Kurdish villages within its own borders, forcefully evacuated dozens of Kurdish villages, and implemented a campaign of terror against any semblance of the Kurdish independence movement.
Turkey has indeed vacillated on ISIS. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Turkish government was an avid supporter of opposition rebels of all stripes. The Turkish border with Syria served as staging and training grounds for jihadist rebels, many of whom were non-Syrians, entering Syria through Turkey. Much of the funding reactionary Gulf monarchies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and others—provided the Syrian rebels was channeled into Syria through Turkey.
But now, following several large-scale ISIS terror operations within Turkey’s borders, Erdogan wants to show that he is serious in the fight against ISIS. But that is not the only reason, or even the main reason, why Turkey is now going into Syria. If Turkey has vacillated on ISIS, it has been consistent on the Kurds—it wants to crush their forces at all costs.
The relative weakening of ISIS in recent months has resulted, among other things, in gains made by the Kurds, as the YPG controls some areas bordering Turkey. A strong, armed Kurdish militia on its borders is a terrifying prospect for Turkey’s ruling class, considering how it can potentially arm and organize Kurds in Turkey.
Turkey is a member of NATO and historically a client of the U.S. and European imperialists. However, the July coup attempt in Turkey has changed Erdogan’s approach. It is widely believed in Turkey that the now failed coup had at least the tacit support of the United States.
In his recent trip to Turkey, in a “fence-mending mission,” Vice President Joe Biden went out of his way to prove that the U.S. had nothing to do with the coup. But this seems to have been less than convincing to Turkish officials. Afterwards, Biden half-jokingly said that his meetings with Turkish officials had resulted in a “frank and candid exchange of views.” In diplomatic language, this means that the meetings were not friendly and did not result in agreements and understandings. Given this background, Erdogan no longer feels obligated to overly concern himself with playing by Washington’s rules in Syria.
Most obviously, by sending its tanks into Syria, Turkey is violating Syria’s territorial integrity. Its renewed calls for a neutral zone within Syria is yet another violation of Syria’s rights. It is not a turn in a progressive direction. But its direct attacks on the Kurdish forces is reportedly increasing anxieties in Washington.
On Aug. 26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva, Switzerland. After nine hours of meeting with the goal of agreeing on the terms of a new ceasefire in Syria, the talks came up short, although both sides reported progress.
The main sticking point, as in previous rounds, is the U.S. insistence that Russia refrain from bombing the U.S.-supported and funded terrorist forces, the “good” terrorists, and exclusively bomb only the Islamic State and other rebels the U.S. considers to be terrorists. Russia, meanwhile, refuses to play along with Washington’s regime-change game, aimed at overthrowing Assad at all costs. In Geneva, Lavrov referred to the cases of Libya and Iraq, two countries that fell victim to U.S. intervention and regime change, resulting in devastation and chaos. “Everyone understands one cannot make these mistakes once again,” Lavrov pointed out.
In response to U.S. criticism that Russia targets the “moderate” rebels in its bombing campaign, Russia constantly challenges the United States to identify who those moderates are, knowing full well that the many small groups that form the Free Syrian Army often form battlefront alliances and local coalitions with the jihadists. As much as the U.S. state department wants to invent a “pro-democracy,” pro-West rebel force that is actually independent and different, the FSA often coordinates its actions with other Jihadist forces on the ground. Nowhere is that more evident than in the city of Aleppo.
Battle of Aleppo
Aleppo was Syria’s most populated city prior to the civil war. Since 2012, different areas of Aleppo have been under control of the state and different rebel factions. After months of making gains around the city, in July the forces of President Bashar Assad and their allies managed to encircle the rebel-controlled areas, cutting off the rebels’ supply lines. In early August, in a major reversal, the rebels broke the siege and, for a few days, even threatened the government-controlled areas of the city—mainly western Aleppo.
How that happened was through the formation of an alliance between the FSA and the Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In what is widely seen as a publicity move, the Nusra Front recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and severed its formal ties with Al Qaeda. Of course, the group remains the same in its leadership and ideology. Reflecting the increasing weakness of the U.S.-supported rebels, for the time being eastern Aleppo is controlled by Nusra, welcomed by the FSA.
Elsewhere, government forces continue making advances. On Aug. 27, the government gained complete control of the town of Daraya, near the capital Damascus. The Syrian Arab Army moved into Daraya after rebels and civilians were evacuated following four years of fighting. AFP quoted a military officer saying: “The Syrian army completely controls Daraya and has entered all of the town. There isn’t a single armed man there.”
A common tactic that the Syrian army uses after its encirclement of a rebel-held area is to allow the rebels to leave unharmed with their personal weapons in their possession. This tactic does not exactly conform to the demonized image of the Syrian government in the West; that of a ruthlessly criminal government that takes pleasure in killing “its own people.” Providing buses for enemy fighters to withdraw carrying their weapons is not typically what bloodthirsty despots do. Using this tactic, the government gains control of more areas while the rebels get the chance to accept defeat under terms that are better than unconditional surrender.
Under the withdrawal agreement, at least 700 rebels were escorted on buses to the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwest Syria. At least 4,000 civilians from Daraya were directed to reception centers.
Now, of the major metropolitan areas, the capital Damascus and its surrounding areas, and the city of Homs proper are under the control of the forces of President Bashar Assad. But with recent developments, the fate of Aleppo is far from certain.
Tasks of the anti-war movement
The Syrian conflict is being fought on many fronts and involves a multitude of forces. The civil war intertwines the struggle of a secular state for independence from imperialism; the fight for democratic rights; the question of the rights of nationalities, such as the Kurds; and ethnic and religious groups, such as Alawites and Sunnis; U.S. and other imperialists; and Russia and regional powers. It is easy to get confused by the complexity of the conflict.
However, given the danger of a further U.S. escalation after the U.S. elections, anti-war activists in the U.S. must be clear about two things. First, U.S. intervention in Syria is not well-intentioned and will not bring about any salvation for the Syrian people. Destroying independent states in the interests of banks and corporations is the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy in Syria and elsewhere. Second, the terror and the misery that the Syrian people are living under is the product of U.S. policies in the region, specifically its invasion of Iraq and its support for reactionary opposition rebels in Syria. What we should be unambiguous about is the demand for the U.S., its imperialist allies and its client states to stop intervening in Syria.
U.S. hands off Syria!