By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, March 24, 2018
The city of Afrin in the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin in northwest Syria has fallen to a Turkish invasion which commenced on January 20, 2018. The city (35,000 people pre-2011) fell after the Kurdish ‘YPG’ defense forces were being surrounded and decided to withdraw. The withdrawal was facilitated by the Syrian armed forces and its Russia allies.
Tens of thousands of civilians also staged an orderly evacuation of the city and surrounding region. Most of them are ending up in Aleppo region, to the south and east of Afrin (see map below).
At the same time, the control of Eastern Ghouta, an eastern suburb of the Syrian capital city Damascus, by foreign-backed right-wing militias is coming to a close as Syrian government forces re-assert sovereign control of the region.
Both events, one tragic the other welcome, shed light on the trajectory of formerly left-wing and antiwar currents in the West that have been supporting the attempts by imperialism and its proxies to violently overthrow the Syrian government.
Obscuring the imperialist regime-change drive in Syria
Large sections of this former Western left–Trotskyists, International Socialists, anarchists and social democrats–have been complicit in the imperialist war and regime-change drive in Syria. For them, an imperialist regime-change is preferable to a sovereign Syria led by its president, Bashar Al-Assad.
These leftists have claimed absurdly that no imperialist agenda to overthrow the Syrian government exists. Or they don’t care. They have falsely argued that a ‘popular revolution’ against the Syrian government is ongoing and has been ‘betrayed’ by Western powers who failed to support it, as though Western governments are in the business of supporting popular revolutions.
In reality, social and political protests against the policies of the Syrian government which broke out in 2011 died in their infancy. They were muscled aside by right-wing militias armed and financed from abroad. Many of the protests addressed genuine concerns. The Syrian government acknowledged this at the time and enacted reforms attempting to address some of the concerns. This, along with much else, is documented in the 2017 book by Professor Tim Anderson of the University of Sydney, The Dirty War On Syria: Washington, Regime Change and Resistance.
Leftists have instead accused a fictional ‘Russian imperialism’ of waging war against the Syrian people in order to prop up an alleged unpopular and dictatorial government, the one headed by President Al-Assad. Coupled with this is the claim that the United States has no determined plan to overthrow the Syrian government. The proponents of this scenario goes so far as to claim that the U.S. acutally supports the Syrian government against the anti-government militias. They lament the failure of the U.S. to provide even more funding and weapons to the militais. In this imagined scenario, all manner of crimes are attributed to the Russian government.
This falsification of the situation in Syria parallels the leftists’ earlier misrepresentations of the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, which overthrew the elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and the ‘Maidan’ coup in Ukraine in February 2014, which overthrew the elected president Viktor Yanukovych. Both coups led to extreme-right governments being foisted on each country. But this reality is denied or downplayed.
While the left-wing groups or currents mentioned are small in numbers (I leave aside the large social democratic parties in the West, many in government, which long ago abandoned any pretense of being antiwar), their misrepresentations of the situation in Syria are a considerable obstacle to building a genuine antiwar movement that could stop the slaughter and destruction taking place in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. They previously held positions of influence in the antiwar groups and coalitions opposing the 2003 war in Iraq and that influence still carries forward to some degree. But the antiwar movement that mobilized millions to oppose the Iraq war, and which mounted impressive protests once upon a time against the Afghanistan war, has sharply declined precisely due to the confusion and misleadership of many of its components at the time of the imperialist interventions into Libya (2011), Mali (2013) and the aforementioned Syria and Ukraine.
This left’s views coincide and are amplified by the relentless, toxic barrage of pro-war propaganda voiced by Western media over Syria and Ukraine. The two sets of views sound similar in their essentials. At the same time, a damaging left-wing culture of refraining from debating the left’s performance, good or bad, has arisen, ofttimes in the name of ‘non-sectarianism’.
The left’s complicity in imperialism’s war drive in Syria is now revealed all the more clearly by the tragic events in Afrin. Green Left Weekly writes in an article dated March 16: “With support from Russia and the United States, Turkey’s invasion is reportedly making strong gains in Afrin, in northern Syria, which is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from other parts of Syria…”
The newspaper followed that report with a truly convoluted article on March 23 arguing that Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is actually the fault of the Syrian government but is nonetheless a “victory” for Kurdish forces.
Writing in Socialist Worker.org five weeks ago, the Swiss Trotskyist Joseph Daher said, “Despite a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry expressing ‘concern’ and calling on the parties ‘to show mutual restraint’, Moscow, which controlled large parts of Syrian air space, gave Turkey the green light for this invasion and withdrew its armed forces from the areas targeted by Turkish forces…”
Similar arguments accusing Russia of ‘betrayal’ are made by The Guardian‘s Martin Chulov, writing on March 19. He wrote, “The YPG had called on Russia to defend them in Afrin. However, Moscow had refused, allowing Turkish jets into the airspace it controls over northern Syria to carry out attacks. Russia and the US had previously backed the YPG – for different reasons – but both sat out the clashes in a bid to protect their ties with Ankara.” No supporting evidence or context is provided for the anti-Russia accusations.
The International Socialist Review, published in the United States, expressed its longstanding view of Syria in a published interview in October 2017 with a Syrian writer and author. He argued: “It is an insult to Syrians to think of our revolution as an aspect of America’s supposed plan for regime change. I cannot find the words to express my indignation against this. If one can ascribe any plan to the Obama administration it was regime preservation, not regime change. The Americans vetoed any meaningful arming of the Free Syrian Army at every crucial juncture…”
He went on to claim that Russia and the United States “struck a chemical deal” with the Syrian government to permit the latter to use chemical weapons such as chlorine and sarin gas. No date or other evidence is offered. Unproven and outlandish claims of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government are, of course, a standing component of the propaganda accompanying the U.S./Saudi/Israeli regime-change drive in Syria.
A similar interview in the same publicatoin six months earlier argued, “Although the U.S. doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below.” Sounding the lament that the United States has not provided enough support to those seeking the overthrow of Syria’s government, the interviewee went on, “This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused on fighting Assad and not only ISIS.” (An analysis of the Obama regime’s true record in Syria and why is a topic for another day.)
The Counterfire left-wing group in Britain avoids the association of other leftists with the overthrow of the Srian government. But in an analysis by a leading member on March 23, it leaves its followers in the dark concerning the situation in Syria. She writes: “The involvement in endless wars only leads to more such involvement, and helps to exacerbate inter-state rivalry. This is particularly true over the Syrian war where a plethora of states are intervening, all of them reluctant to give ground or see an end to the war for fear of giving their competitors an advantage.” And further: “There is every sign that we will face worse conflict across the Middle East. Already the battle lines are drawn up in Syria, with Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah on one side and Saudi Arabia, the U.S., UK and Israel on the other.”
Apparently, there are no issues of violations of Syrian national sovereignty or sowing of imperialist regime-change violence, mayhem and chaos to explain why the Syrian government is in the crosshairs of imperialism and why Russia has chosen to defend it. No, it’s all a jumble in which everyone and everything is to blame. How can an antiwar strategy be forged amidst such confusion?
What the leftists and their erstwhile colleagues in Western media are falsifying and covering up is the following.
The Kurdish PYD party in Syria, a sister party of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, has allied itself with the U.S. military for the past several years, boasting that this alliance is sealed and assured by the effectiveness of its military force the YPG in the war against ISIS. But the U.S./NATO-led side of the fight against ISIS has simultaneously served to advance illegal NATO (U.S. and Turkish) interventions into Syria and northern Iraq. The U.S./NATO-waged war has produced utter devastation for the people of Mosul, Iraq and it has heavily damaged the Syrian cities of Deir ez-Zour (central Syria) and Kobane (northern Syria) as well as countless towns and villages in the country.
U.S./NATO/Saudi Arabia backing of right-wing militias in Syria has devastated key Syrian towns and cities not directly attacked by the U.S./Turkey, notably Aleppo and Homs as well as the historic site of Palmyra.
Always unspoken by Western media is that the rise of ISIS itself is a consequence of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 and other Middle East interventions by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Russian proposals to Syria
For the past year and a half, Russia has urged the Syrian government to modify the country’s constitution in order, among other proposals, to grant autonomous, national rights to the Syrian Kurdish population (some two million of the Syrian population of 18 million). There is much evidence that the Russian proposal is given serious attention in the halls of power in Damascus. The proposal has been a factor in the quiet military cooperation or non-aggression between Kurdish and Syrian government forces during the past several years. But formally, the Kurds have given little attention in public to Russia’s initiative. In the West, meanwhile, mainstream media as well as our aforementioned left have kept a deliberate silence, being too clouded by their anti-Russia prejudices to understand the Russian proposal or give it any treatment and reporting.
As Turkey was preparing in January 2018 for its invasion of the Afrin region (where Kurds constitute a majority of the population), the Syrian and Russian governments proposed to the Kurds that they accept a re-assertion of sovereign control over the territory by the Syrian government. This would dovetail with ongoing constitutional talks and, most importantly, would stave off the planned Turkish intervention, including with Russia’s all-important air force and naval protection. But the Kurdish leadership rejected the proposal. It opted instead on a reckless gamble that the Kurds might resist the Turkish intervention on their own.
How much of the Kurdish gamble was predicated on a belief that the U.S. would somehow, some way, stay the hand of Turkey? Or that the Russian government would foolishly enter into conflict with NATO-member Turkey in order to protect a Kurdish political entity declaring its loyalty to an alliance with the U.S.? We can only guess.
Middle East writer Elijah Magnier explains in an article on March 20, “The Syrian Kurds wanted to believe – like the Iraqi Kurds [in 2017] – that the international community would play a positive role to protect Afrin, and therefore they wouldn’t be let down.”
The writer goes on, “Russia and Damascus understood from the contacts between Afrin and al-Hasaka [headquarters of the Kurdish autonomous region in northeastern Syria] that the YPG leaders preferred to abandon Afrin to Turkey rather than deliver it to Damascus.” And further, “It is possible that the Kurds of Syria believe that losing an enclave [Afrin] is worth it if exchanged with a state and new land in north-east Syria. However, the Kurdish plans never seem to succeed…” 
In a March 20 interview on the Sputnik International radio program ‘Loud And Clear’, the former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, makes similarly critical comments about the strategic decisions of the Kurdish leadership (or listen here at the 30′ mark).
Kurdish motivations aside, it is illusory to believe that the U.S. or Turkey would tolerate the existence of a socially-progressive Kurdish ‘Rojava’ in northeastern Syria or Afrin in the northwest. In northern Iraq, the U.S. subordinate government in Baghdad has reached a political agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government that sees the KRG retain a certain measure of autonomous power (March 22 report in New York Times). But the Syrian Kurd autonomous governments in Syria are much more radical than the KRG and cannot expect favored U.S. treatment unless their radical programs are jettisoned.
The end result in Afrin has been a cruel setback for the Kurds. It is also a blow to Syrians as a whole because they now have a NATO country (Turkey) occupying a much larger zone in north-central/ northwestern Syria. As well, Syrians are now threatened with a Turkish intervention into the Kurdish region along the Syria-Turkey border east of the Euphrates River.
Notwithstanding the disastrous setback in Afrin, PYD leader Saleh Muslim has assured, “The struggle will continue, and the Kurdish people will keep defending themselves against the genocide planned on them.” In an address reported on ANF News, the Kurdish leader announced that YPG forces would now enter into a ‘guerrilla war’ in Turkish-occupied territory.
But who would wage such a war? The YPG has withdrawn its armed forces from Afrin (with the assistance, no less, of the Syrian and Russian militaries). And from where does the PYD draw the right and authority to threaten such a war on Syrian territory? A years-old guerilla war in the heavily urban, Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey has seen crushing blows delivered by a ruthless Turkish military.
Syria accuses Turkey of war crimes in its Afrin intervention and has called on it to “immediately withdraw”. According to Al-Monitor, the demand is contained in two letters the Foreign Ministry sent to the United Nations. “Turkey’s behavior and attacks not only threaten citizens and the unity of Syria’s land and people — they also prolong the war in Syria,” the ministry said.
Rather than face up to the situation in Syria in all its complexities and give at least some acknowledgement to the principle and importance of Syrian sovereignty, many if not most Western leftists have opted to slander Russia with ‘betrayal’ while blissfully ignoring their own complicity in the Afrin debacle. The real betrayal in Afrin is the one committed by U.S. imperialism. It postures duplicitously as a defender of the Kurdish people and uses that to attack Syrian sovereignty.
Related to the left’s misrepresentations of the situation in Syria are its hopes and expectations for a Kurdish autonomous state in northeastern Syria. The left-wing governance of Rojava, as Kurds name the region, has, indeed, seen impressive social policies with respect to women’s rights and other social and economic rights. The claims that the PYD-led government of Rojava would conduct an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the ethnic Arab populations under its governance have proven false. But to imagine that NATO powers such as the United States and Turkey will stand by and permit the existence of a socially radical Rojava experiment, and that the region could resist the pressures to undermine and overthrow it, is naïve.
The leftists have turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the Syrian people over the past five years. Killings of Syrians by the so-called ‘rebels’, such as the grisly rocket attack on a market in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta on March 20 that killed nearly 50 civilians, do not register. Their refusal to acknowledge the regime-change war in Syria should be called out and denounced. The blind eye towards imperialism’s destructive path in the Middle East is the sign of a Western left in sharp decline. There can be no rebirth without frank acknowledgement and discussion.
For some time now, I have written and described the decline of the Western Marxism that emerged from WW2. Much of it has evolved into a ‘right-wing socialism’. Much of anarchist political thought and organizing has followed a similar right-wing drift.
In the present case of Syria, it would be most informative to obtain accurate assessments of the recent military campaign of the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta. How extensive were the casualties among the non-combatants and what care was taken to avoid them? To what extent were non-combatant residents being held hostage by the right-wing militias? 
What can be expected of the Syrian government as it succeeds in retaking control of large sections of the country from the militias? How legitimate are the complaints by many Syrians of growing economic inequities and limited political democracy? What assistance can an international solidarity movement provide in helping Syrians to rebuild their country and make it a more equitable society?
The political environment in the West regarding Syria is so toxic that that we cannot expect reliable information or informed analysis of the road forward in rebuilding Syria. All the more important and needed, then, are left-wing and antiwar voices that can provide meaningful solidarity with the Syrian people as they fend off imperialist intervention and undertake the extraordinarily difficult tasks of reconstruction.March 21 report on Eastern Ghouta by independent journalist Eva Bartlett.