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Armchair War-Gaming Isn’t Helping Syrians

Posted on Oct 28, 2015

By Stanley Heller

    A Free Syrian Army soldier takes cover during fighting with the Syrian army. (Virginie Nguyen Hoang / AP)

The full-scale entry of Russia into the carnage in Syria has unfortunately befuddled a number of people on the left. Justifiably disgusted with the imperial adventures and genocides of the West, they take a twisted leap in logic and see Russian bombing as a way to move things forward. One hears talk of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now being the “lesser evil,” compared with Islamic State. The revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring are consigned to the recycle bin of history. It’s time to get realistic, we are told. The talk is of geopolitics and national interests and spheres of influence. As for the Syrian people themselves, we’re told their rebellion got hijacked years ago, so their voices no longer count.

Now it’s one thing to mock and insult efforts by Western imperial powers to install their proxy armies in Syria. That criticism is correct, and I dissected one mad idea for a Western alliance with a “reformed” al-Qaida here. But it’s quite another thing to write off the incredible efforts of thousands of Syrians struggling against murderous attacks by multiple enemies. Yet that’s what this geopolitical left advises us to do.

It simply dismisses the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in 2011 to protest the Assad mafia-family rule and the thousands who still actively demand human and political rights. In an Oct. 7 KPFA radio interview, Vijay Prashad—professor of international studies at Trinity College and frequent “Democracy Now!” guest—said, “The civic rebellion died off. Today, of course, remnants of that rebellion exist, they are in a state of great demoralization. … They exist, but they are no longer players in the struggle. I feel for their sense of outrage, but they are out of the game.”

Writing in The Independent, Robert Fisk says the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose amalgam of hundreds of groups that arose to defend demonstrations against Assad’s bloody repression, became “corrupted” and its members defected to the Islamists. He calls the FSA the “preposterous Free Syrian Army” and says there are no “good guys” in Syria. On Oct. 19, he bragged about the new power of Assad’s Russian-supercharged army.


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Stephen Cohen, a major writer for The Nation, goes further and warns that all the revolutions and mass uprisings of the Middle East are a danger. In early September, he did a radio interview entitled “Has Russia Been Right All Along About the ‘Arab Spring’?” (It was, believe it not, accompanied by early Soviet military music. Perhaps it wasn’t of his choosing, but the music is symptomatic of the sentimental delusion that identifies Putin Russia with a revolutionary Soviet Union.)

Cohen answers his own question, saying Russia indeed has been right all along. It “warned from the beginning that the Arab Spring with its toppling of governments would not lead to democracy, but would kick over ancient tombstones and release terrible forces, partly in the form of the very radical murderous Islamic type of movement.” He says, “Surely on the question of overthrowing Assad ... in these circumstances of this ISIS plague … Russia is right.” He thinks the U.S. should “embrace” Russian military help in Syria.

Then there’s Patrick Cockburn, the award-winning journalist for the U.K.’s Independent. From him we learn on Sept. 5 that Syria’s 4 million refugees mostly came from opposition areas that were “systematically bombarded by government aircraft and artillery, making them uninhabitable.” Nevertheless, he claims Syrians are terrified of Islamic State and that the British need to bomb those forces in open coordination with Assad ground troops. A month later, he writes a piece under the headline, “Let’s welcome Russia’s entry into this war.” He tells us that “the US-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world.” Russia, he says, is “at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions.” He says Assad and the proxy armies of the U.S., the Saudis and other local powers will be “forced into compromises by Washington and Moscow.”

This is all rather repulsive: leading lights of the left deciding that popular struggle is over (or, for Cohen, wrong in the first place) and now we should be prodding great powers to come to terms and force some compromise on the Syrians. This is not our job. Our duty is solidarity with the oppressed and the tortured.

The Revolutionary Syrians

Anyway, it’s not true that all that’s left in Syria is Islamists and Assad. Most obviously there is Rojava, the liberated area carved out by Syrian Kurds and allies in northern Syria. Who has not heard of the city of Kobani and its successful resistance to Islamic State attack? The defense was led by the People’s Defense Units, known as the YPG, a group close to the Marxist/anarchist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Yet it was not only Kurds who fought there. The not-so-“preposterous” Free Syrian Army units took part, too. Early in October, the YPG formed a bloc with Syriac and secular Free Syrian Army forces with a declared goal of liberating al-Raqqa, the Islamic State “capital.”

Then there is the Southern Front. I’m told by Syrians that it’s fighting for democracy and is opposed to any foreign intervention in Syria. The reputable Middle East Eye website had articles about the group here in June and here in September. After some success this year, the Southern Front had a big reversal. Still it fights on. Supposedly it gets weapons from Jordan and the U.S. For some, this makes the group tools of Western imperialism. Yet the YPG Kurds send GPS coordinates to U.S. Air Force officers, which the United States uses to bomb Islamic State. The U.S. also air-drops weapons to the YPG Kurds. But no one on the left criticizes the YPG as “tools.”

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