Endgame for Syrian revolution

12 December 2016

DONALD TRUMP’S election on 8 November was welcomed in Moscow and Damascus. It was taken as the green light to wipe out what remains of the resistance to the rule of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

A final, unremitting offensive was launched on the remaining rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. As before, this has involved a merciless slaughter of civilians, 700 people being killed in the last ten days of November.

Leaflets dropped from the air warned besieged inhabitants that the world had “abandoned them”, and that they faced “slaughter” if they remained in their homes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed this on 6 December, saying, “If somebody refuses to leave on good terms, he will be eliminated.”

By 27 November, pro-regime forces succeeded in splitting the rebel-held areas of the city in two, forcing 20,000 of the 250,000 people besieged there to flee. The rebel enclave has now been reduced to a third of its previous size and is completely surrounded.

Refugees from eastern Aleppo have been placed in internment camps, with men between the ages of 18 and 40 separated from their families, some of them forcibly conscripted into the regime’s fighting forces. Most of these refugees will not be allowed to return to their homes, just as the refugees from Darayya and Moadamiyeh in the Damascus suburbs will not.

Around half of Syria’s population have now been driven from their homes, while pro-regime sectarian militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan are being encouraged to settle their families in strategically-located neighbourhoods. This forced expulsion of whole communities opposed to Assad’s continued rule should be considered ethnic cleansing, if not genocidal in its intention. Its similarity to the Zionists’ driving out of the Palestinians is striking.

Imperialist intervention

However loud their hypocritical claims to support a transition to “democracy” in Syria, Western governments are entirely complicit in this. Of course, US President Barack Obama and his Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have been loud in their denunciations of Assad and Putin for their violations of human rights.

Their policy, however, is to accept such brutality as the price to be paid for avoiding the destruction of the totalitarian Baathist apparatus of repression. That is the lesson they have learned from the US interventions in Iraq and Libya.

True, Obama did come close to bombing Assad when his “red line” was crossed in August 2013 by Assad’s use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, with the death of 1,500 civilians including 400 children. He drew back then, because military intervention would have threatened the nuclear deal with Iran. Instead he accepted a face saving Russian mediation to secure the UN-monitored removal of the regime’s chemical weapons.

Then, on 30 September 2015, when Russian warplanes intervened massively to prop up the retreating and shaken Assad forces, direct US involvement could have turned into a clash between the two nuclear powers. But Obama became ever more determined not to arm the rebels with the anti-aircraft missiles that could bring down Putin’s warplanes, especially as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former Nusra Front, had become an integral part of the rebel forces. US attempts to create a “moderate” or secular force also failed miserably.

What little aid has reached opposition factions has generally gone to forces like the Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces or the US-created New Syrian Army, whose exclusive mission is to fight the Islamic State, not the Assad regime. Elsewhere, the collapse of the resistance to Assad in the south of the country is partly a result of US attempts to divert the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army away from an attempted relief of the rebel-held Damascus suburbs and towards fighting the Nusra Front.

The USA and its allies have engaged in a complex and unstable game of alternating cooperation and rivalry with Assad’s Russian protectors. Their real priorities have been their oil interests in Iraq and the USA’s developing rapprochement with Iran. This has gone alongside an effective partition of the country, with the USA posing as a “protector” of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, while turning a blind eye to its NATO ally Turkey’s repression of its own Kurdish minority.

The anti-war movement in the West has failed to expose and oppose the real actions of our governments. It has, in effect, believed that the USA and its allies really were intent on bringing down Assad and his regime and concentrated on opposing such a policy. Organisations like the Stop the War Coalition have seen a replay of the Bush-Blair invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as the single biggest danger. They have ignored the actual atrocities of the regime and Russia and refused to defend the Syrian revolutionaries. It must be said that Jeremy Corbyn has taken the same line.


If Aleppo falls and Assad forces push west to Idlib, surviving Syrian rebel forces may turn towards a purely rural guerrilla war rather than the hopeless task of defending densely populated urban neighbourhoods from starvation sieges and mass murder from the sky. This will inevitably mean a change in the social base of that struggle and, with that, in its political dynamic.

Aleppo, with its large urban working class and vibrant civil society organisations, acted as a source of restraint on forces like the Nusra Front, with mass protests occasionally forcing a climbdown on unpopular measures and preventing them from being able to exercise exclusive control in the “liberated zones”.

Its loss will exacerbate the already visible trend of some of the armed factions towards unaccountability and a reactionary domination by “extreme” Islamist factions over the civil society that they claim to protect. These factions will still be able to access resources from the native and Syrian expatriate business communities in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

It will also increase Turkey’s influence over that wing of the opposition that is friendly to it, in turn allowing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to divert his rebel protégés away from fighting Assad and towards an ethnic chauvinist turf war with the Kurdish YPG militia, the Turkish state’s real enemy in Syria.

And like the Palestinian refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, many of Syria’s refugees will want to pursue a struggle to return to their homes and lands, under the protection of an armed force recruited from amongst their ranks.

Where next?

Military defeat for the remnants of the revolutionary forces is now looming, even if it is still premature to say that there is nothing left to defend of the popular uprising that began so heroically almost six years ago. However, Assad has wrecked his own country and his regime rests on foreign armed forces. The social and political contradictions within the regions he rules are likely to burst forth the moment they withdraw.

The task of socialists in the West should neither be to encourage their own governments’ interventions nor to “accept” the victory of Assad, Russia and Iran as a lesser evil. Rather, we must expose and oppose the actions of all of the imperialist powers and their regional allies engaged in this conflict, first and foremost our own.

Our support must go instead to Syrian socialist and democratic forces, many driven into exile in Europe or neighbouring countries, helping and encouraging them to rebuild a working class political organisation that can prepare the rebirth of the Syrian revolution.

This article originally appeared in print in Red Flag issue 9. An updated version of this article was subsequently published online here.

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