The cease-fire that will increase war in Syria

September 20, 2016

Ashley Smith explains the conflicting and compatible interests of the international empires, the regional powers and the various forces inside Syria.

LAST WEEK, the two main imperialist powers looming behind the war in Syria, the U.S. and Russia, agreed to a so-called "cessation of hostilities."

The New York Times perhaps unintentionally captured the irony of the pact, reporting that the two powers agreed "on a new plan to reduce violence in the Syrian conflict that, if successful, could lead for the first time to joint military targeting by the two powers against Islamic jihadists in Syria."

In other words, the cease-fire is actually a plan to escalate war. As such, it will certainly not bring peace or security to Syria, much less any semblance of democracy for which opponents of the Syrian regime have been fighting for five long years.

The suffering will continue to be borne by the mass of ordinary people in Syria--especially civilians living under the rule of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate known up until recently as the Nusra Front.

The cease-fire has largely held up in the week after its implementation on September 12. But the U.S., which orchestrated the negotiations to reach the deal with Russia, may have doomed it last weekend with an air strike--which it claims was mistaken--on Syrian government forces that had been fighting ISIS. Earlier this week, Assad unilaterally declared the cease-fire to be over because of the American air strike and supposed violations by rebel forces.

A U.S. warplane flying over northern Iraq
A U.S. warplane flying over northern Iraq (Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

While the exact terms of the cease-fire weren't released, the basic outlines are clear.

The U.S. promised to pressure anti-government rebels to stop launching attacks against Bashar al-Assad's repressive regime--and to try to convince them to separate from JFS in areas where the Islamists are leading the armed resistance. For its part, Russia agreed to pressure Assad to stop bombing rebel targets, and to relax the siege carried out by government forces against Aleppo and other cities to allow the United Nations to provide humanitarian relief to their desperate populations.

Both powers promised that if the cease-fire held, they would set up a "Joint Implementation Center" to launch a coordinated war against ISIS and JFS. The Obama administration clearly hopes that this deal will be a step on the way to imposing some kind of settlement on Syria.

The warfare and repression in Syria have been horrific, and any decline that takes place is welcome. But the U.S.-Russia cease-fire, if it holds, will only set the stage for more war. And the hoped-for outcome of the agreement would establish a counterrevolutionary peace--which, at best, might allow breathing space for revolutionaries to regroup for a future uprising against the regime.

THE CEASE-fire deal actually triggered an escalation of the civil war in the run-up to its implementation on September 12.

The Assad regime intensified its siege of various cities and relentless bombing of civilian targets. The resistance counter-attacked against regime targets. Each aimed to shore up control over their areas of the country before the cease-fire went into effect.

Meanwhile, U.S. ally Turkey intervened with ground forces and warplanes directly in Syria. Its nominal aim was to combat ISIS, but Turkish forces actually attacked the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters organized by Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The Turkish government fears that the PYD, the sister party of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) inside Turkey which has been on the losing end of a decades-old civil war against the government, would establish a new independent Kurdish state--either declared or de facto--along its southern border. So the government ordered an invasion to head off such an enclave--and also to carve out territory where Arab Syrian refugees who have fled into Turkey could be returned.

And, of course, the cease-fire is explicitly designed to be an "increase-fire" in the war between ISIS on one side, and the combined forces of the U.S., Russia and Syria on the other. Thus, ISIS and JFS, excluded from any negotiations, continued their attacks on both regime and rebel targets alike.

It is unlikely--especially after the supposedly mistaken U.S. air strike on Syrian regime troops--that the cease-fire will hold, let alone lead to a political settlement and the semblance of peace. A similar cease-fire was struck last February and fell apart within a week.

During that brief cessation of violence, however, Syrian revolutionaries re-emerged on the streets to protest both the regime and JFS, then still called the Nusra Front and affiliated with al-Qaeda. That flickering of hope was drowned out by a renewed round of fighting that disrupted the cease-fire.

This time around, the sides are much more clearly divided between two counter-revolutionary poles--Assad's regime and its Islamic fundamentalist opposition--each backed by various international and regional sponsors. In that context, the space left for the genuine revolutionary forces has shrunk even further--which is why it is no surprise that there has not been another emergence of popular protest against either the regime or JFS.

Instead, Syria is much more clearly now a battleground between imperial and regional powers pursuing their interests, all of which are counter-revolutionary.

ON ONE side of the conflict stands Assad and his international allies, Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

After the Syrian Revolution erupted in early 2011, following and further advancing the model of the other popular and democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, Assad and his regime responded with barbaric violence and repression.

This counterrevolution was carried out through three mechanisms. One, the regime unleashed its full military might on nonviolent protests, going so far as to drop chemical weapons on civilians and bomb hospitals. Two, Assad released jihadist terrorists from jail to cultivate a Sunni sectarian fifth column within the revolution, which allowed the regime to posture as the defender of the Alawite and other religious minorities. Third, the government granted relative autonomy to the Kurds in the northern region of the country known as Rojava, where the PYD would come to predominate--this was another divide-and-conquer tactic to try to forestall unity between Kurds and Arabs.

But Assad's counterrevolution would most likely have failed without the intervention of its imperial and regional supporters.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah saved the Assad regime from collapse. Together, they have provided it with the air power and trained ground troops needed to reverse military victories achieved by the revolutionary militias organized in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Faced with savage violence mobilized first by the regime and later by its international supporters, the Syrian revolutionaries who rose up to demand democracy and justice in 2011 had no choice but to take up arms in self-defense. But they lacked the resources of their own to sustain a military campaign against the state.

Regional rivals to Syria like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar intervened, but to advance their own interests, not the aims of the revolution. Thus, they backed various Islamic fundamentalist militias. That combined with Assad's release of sectarian jihadists spurred the formation of a counter-revolutionary wing of the opposition to Assad--most obviously, al-Qaeda's Nusra Front, whose aspirations were not liberation, but imposition of a new sectarian autocracy.

THOUGH SOME who claim to speak for the anti-imperialist left in the U.S. and other Western countries believe otherwise, the U.S. has not pursued regime change in Syria--and the course of events over the past several years prove it.

The Obama administration instead advocated an orderly transition--one that might get rid of Assad and incorporate some loyal oppositionists from among the larger ranks of the rebels, but that above all would preserve the existing state.

Even then, Obama has been hesitant to press this policy out of fear of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East. Thus, whenever the Assad regime crossed supposed "red lines," like its continuing use of chemical weapons, the U.S. preferred to cut deals with Russia rather than take any action that might topple Assad, but also threaten a wider upheaval.

The U.S. has also refused to supply the FSA with weapons it pleaded for to defend itself against regime air strikes.

The U.S. didn't want a victorious revolution from below, but a rebellion just strong enough to be used as a bargaining chip to convince Assad to agree to an orderly transition--and whether it included him or not was open to negotiation. The vacuum among the armed resistance left as a result of U.S. policy was filled by the better-funded Islamic fundamentalist militias, especially JFS.

After the emergence of ISIS--which was itself a product of the disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq--the U.S. has abandoned most of its talk even of an orderly transition.

In this new circumstance, the U.S. now leans on the Syrian rebels to fight not the regime, but ISIS as their prime target. That's why it backs the PYD's Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

The U.S. sees the Kurds as a powerful proxy force in fighting ISIS. But it certainly doesn't support their struggle for autonomy and independence from the governments in Turkey, Syria and more that have long oppressed them--any more than Washington wanted the pro-democracy aims of the Syrian Revolution to be achieved.

WITH U.S. policy in a shambles, Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry hoped to stabilize the metastasizing crisis in Syria by cutting a deal with Washington's imperial competitor Russia.

Kerry and his boss hope to organize a joint war on JFS and ISIS as a precursor to some kind of counterrevolutionary peace. The cease-fire has made official what has been a de facto pact of collaboration between the U.S., Russia and Assad.

In what can only be called a political Freudian slip, John Kerry may have exposed the shift away from even orderly transition to explicit collaboration with Assad and possible acceptance of his continued rule.

At a news conference before the U.S.-Russia agreement was to be implemented, Kerry announced that "Assad is not supposed to be bombing the opposition, because there is a cease-fire. Now he is target Nusra. But that will be on strikes that are agreed upon with Russia and the United States in order to go after them."

The State Department quickly corrected Kerry with a statement claiming that the U.S. would not collaborate with Assad by approving his military strikes. But in reality, the U.S., Russia and Assad find themselves, as the dictator always wanted, united in yet another phase of the never-ending "war on terror."

Rightly, the remnants of the Syrian Revolution have reacted with horror at this situation. "Among the Syrians, the latest plan was greeted with wariness, particularly from armed opposition groups and their supporters, who, broadly speaking, have come to believe that the United States has lost interest in ousting Mr. Assad, and is willing to see them wiped out," the New York Times reported.

WHETHER THE cease-fire will hold after the U.S. air strike on Assad's troops is an open question, but even setting that aside, there are simply too many conflicts between imperial empires, regional powers and various players in Syria for the agreement to be a stable one.

To begin with, the U.S. state bureaucracy is split, with the State Department supporting an alliance with Russia, while the Defense Secretary and Pentagon brass oppose one because of the multiple conflicts between American and Russian imperialism over everything from Ukraine to hacking of the Democratic National Committee's e-mail server.

Russia and Assad may break up the cease-fire for their own reasons. Russia has continued to bomb JFS targets in civilian areas, risking the end of the agreement. One rebel official stated, "The truce, as we have warned and we told the State Department, will not hold out. It is not possible for the party [Russia] that wages war against a people to strive to achieve a truce, as it is also not possible for it to be a sponsor of this agreement while it bombs night and day."

Meanwhile, the Assad regime has blocked the shipment of humanitarian aid to Aleppo and other cities. And in a clear provocation to the resistance, Assad toured the former rebel stronghold of Daraya. His forces had unleashed such a brutal siege and blitzkrieg that they compelled the city's population to surrender and abandon their city.

While parading through the destroyed city, Assad declared, "The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists, and restore security." Many Syrians fear that Assad's actual aim is the ethnic cleansing of formerly Sunni areas and their repopulation with Alawite and other minority populations, thereby deepening the sectarian cleavages in Syria.

For their part, various rebel militias have come out opposing the cease-fire as a capitulation to the Assad regime and Russia.

Many of the remaining rebel forces may also balk at the American injunction to separate their forces from JFS, on which they have come to depend in the face of Assad's and Russia's unrelenting war. As Dawood Mahmudi, a senior rebel official based in east Aleppo, told the Guardian.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are among us, that is true. They are here because no one else is. They have kept the city open and have reopened it when it was besieged. Where were Russia and the U.S. then? I'll tell you where: The U.S. was nowhere, and Russia was bombing us. And now they say, "Trust us."

Turkey's incursion into Syria may further inflame a multi-sided conflict--not only in Syria, but among military and political forces representing various Kurdish factions in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

In a sign of the utter incoherence of American strategy, the Pentagon has embedded American Special Forces troops among the Turkish invasion force...that is fighting Kurdish forces, in which the U.S. also has Special Forces embedded.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen how Saudi Arabia and Qatar will respond to any rapprochement between the U.S., Russia and Assad--which would leave them on the same side as their bitter regional rival Iran. But Saudi Arabia seems preoccupied with the catastrophe it has caused in Yemen, and Qatar is a tiny state unlikely to challenge a turn in U.S. policy.

EVEN IF the cease-fire holds and the U.S. is able to consummate a military pact with Putin for the war on ISIS, this will not bring peace, but an escalation of the "war on terror" in Syria that has caused carnage and mayhem there and across the Middle East. Syria and the region will endure further atrocities as a result of what Gilbert Achcar has called a clash of barbarisms between U.S. imperialism and its reactionary jihadist opponents.

Meanwhile, ordinary people--the backbone of the revolution, in Syria as in other uprisings of the Arab Spring--will get caught in the crossfire.

Thus, if the U.S. and its various allies and antagonists do agree to some kind of peace at some point in the future, it will be a counter-revolutionary one. It might retain Assad; it might set up some kind of orderly transition that deposes Assad, but retains the core of his state; or it might partition Syria between different religious sects and ethnicities. The last scenario would be the worst outcome of all because it would guarantee mass ethnic cleansing and further civil war fueled by regional powers.

Syria and the entire Middle East face a protracted crisis for which the various imperial powers and local regimes have no solution. The only hope amid this horror is the recovery in the coming years and decades of a revolutionary left that can pose an alternative to both the regimes, their counter-revolutionary opponents and the imperialist powers in Washington and Moscow.

As part of this process, the international left must call for opening the borders and letting in the refugees; break with the bankrupt politics of supporting one imperial power against another, and instead call for all imperial and regional powers to get out of the country; and build solidarity with a left in Syria and the Middle East that fights for national and social liberation from below.

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