On March 27, the Syrian military forced the Islamic State out of Palmyra and retook the historic city. By all accounts, this is a significant victory. Palmyra has been in the news since May 2015, when the Islamic State took it over. A major tourist destination prior to the civil war, the ancient city of Palmyra has attracted international attention mainly because of the IS destruction of some of its historic sites and artifacts. The recapture of Palmyra, more than its cultural significance, is another strategic victory for Damascus.
In September 2015, Russia launched its military intervention mainly in the form of providing air support for the Syrian Arab Army. Since then, President Assad’s forces have made advances on several fronts, including victories in the area of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. On March 15, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made the surprise announcement that most Russian troops would be pulled out. Putin said that Russia had achieved its strategic objectives in Syria. At the time, the announcement seemed to signify a turning point in the civil war. But the battle for Palmyra proved Russia’s continued active role.
According to Russia’s defense ministry, in the last 24 hours of fighting, Russian warplanes carried out 40 combat sorties around Palmyra, striking 117 targets and killing 80 IS fighters. According to the Russian presidential spokesperson, President Assad has “noted that successes such as the liberation of Palmyra would be impossible without Russia’s support.” It is apparent that Russia continues its air campaign, its key contribution to the support of Assad. Russian ground forces, many of which have now been withdrawn, were never a significant factor. Further, journalists have reported seeing Russian soldiers on the ground in Palmyra. So there are no actual signs of a reduced Russian role, Putin’s announcement notwithstanding.
Russia’s military intervention has reasserted its international role, particularly because of the decisive role it has played in the balance of forces in the civil war. Russia is a capitalist country that wants to be seen as a partner and equal to Western European imperialist powers and the United States. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western imperialism wanted Russia reduced to the role of a third-world country. Russia wants to reassert itself and force the imperialist powers to recognize it as a major power. As such, Russia wants to enter deals and understandings with the U.S.
After several negotiating sessions with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s troop withdrawal announcement may have been part of an agreement with the U.S. The objective, at least in part, may have been putting pressure on President Assad to make concessions in the negotiations in Geneva.
The United Nations has appointed a special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. De Mistura announced the conclusion of the latest round of talks in Geneva by voicing optimism on the prospects of eventually reaching a deal acceptable to all sides. De Mistura called the negotiations a partial success, saying that there were “no breakdowns, no walkouts,” and that the sides had agreed to some principles that he hoped would lay the foundations for the next round of talks, scheduled for April 9. Among the principles are that Syria’s sovereignty must be respected and terrorism must be rejected.
Ceasefire and prospects for an end to war
Contrary to most expectations, the ceasefire that was put into effect on Feb. 27 has largely held. Of course, the ceasefire does not include the Islamic State or the Nusra Front (Syria’s branch of Al Qaeda), the two largest rebel forces fighting Damascus. Still, the relative effectiveness of the ceasefire and the modest progress made in Geneva make it a possibility that some form of political agreement might eventually emerge.
There is little doubt that most sides have a desire to reach a political settlement and eventually end the civil war. The Syrian war has entered its sixth year. It has taken casualties in the hundreds of thousands, sent millions of people into internal and external exile, and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure.
Despite a series of significant recent advancements, the Syrian state has suffered huge casualties in the civil war. Fallen soldiers cannot be easily replaced, while the rebels have replenished their ranks from thousands of jihadists coming to Syria from across the world. Backing from Iran and Russia, as well as battlefront support from the Lebanese resistance force Hezbollah, have played a pivotal role in enabling the Syrian Arab Army to fight on multiple fronts against the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army and a myriad of other militia forces. The U.S.-supported rebels, despite being armed by the U.S. and its client states Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey and Jordan, have suffered major defeats in recent months and are in no position to reject negotiations.
A shift in the U.S. political line has also been a significant factor in making some form of a negotiated solution possible. The fact that Syria has been in a 5-year-old civil war is a consequence of U.S. policy. Following the NATO/U.S. overthrow of the nationalist state of Libya in 2011, the Obama administration seized upon the opportunity of anti-government demonstrations in Syria to finally put into practice its long-running effective policy of regime change. Just as Qaddafi had been demonized by the imperialist propaganda machine, Assad was being demonized as a bloodthirsty leader bent on killing his people, almost all of whom were supposedly united against him. Most expected Damascus to fall as a result of U.S. intervention, either in the form of direct bombing, or funding, arming, training and organizing opposition forces.
The U.S. declared: “Assad must go.” Through arch-reactionary Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, arms and funding flooded the opposition rebels. Syria’s U.S. client state neighbors, Turkey and Jordan, turned their border areas into training grounds for armed opposition forces.
Failure of U.S. policy
But when Obama’s plan to bomb Syria eventually faltered in fall 2013, the U.S. dream of replacing Assad with a client state in Syria came crashing down. The emergence of ISIS in the summer of 2014 and its takeover of huge parts of both Iraq and Syria further signified the failure of U.S. policy.
Today, U.S. policy in Syria lacks a realistic objective. On the one hand, the U.S. still wants Assad and the Ba’ath Party rule of Syria to be overthrown. On the other hand, the only real alternatives to Assad are the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. The Free Syrian Army lacks the strength and influence to be a viable alternative today, if it ever was. What the U.S. considers to be “moderate rebels,” really the good terrorists from Washington’s perspective, are those willing to enter tactical alliances with the U.S. On the ground, the “moderate rebels” have long been in regional and local alliances with Nusra, with whom they share basic tenets of the same ideology.
In early 2011, when demonstrations broke out in Syria, U.S. support for “pro-democracy” rebels was motivated by the fact that the leadership of the FSA, and its political wing, the SNC, largely formed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were under Washington’s control. In U.S. foreign policy, pro-democracy means pro-imperialist and subservient to Washington. At the time, many liberal forces parroted the Obama administration’s pro-democracy characterization of the opposition rebels.
But the fact is that Assad’s secular and independent state continues to be far more democratic and progressive than any of its opposition forces. The Islamic State and Nusra are certainly not democratic forces, nor do they even claim to be. And imperialist stooges posing as “pro-democracy” forces were never going to bring Syria closer to democracy or independence.
In 2011, the lineup of forces was not as clear as it is today. Then, it was possible, although not correct, to imagine that there were some democratic political forces yet to be discovered among the opposition. Today, over five years into the civil war, the political forces engaged in fighting on the ground are well-known. Not one of the opposition rebel forces can be characterized as being democratic or progressive.
However Syria’s civil war concludes, the destruction of Syria is yet another crime of the U.S. government against the people of the Middle East. U.S. intervention in Syria has been less direct, but the results have been equally as devastating as its interventions in Iraq and Libya. The task of the anti-war movement continues to be opposing all forms of U.S. intervention in Syria.