[Marxism] Leila al-Shami: The assault on Aleppo

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Thu Feb 25 05:58:26 MST 2016

Leila Al Shami is co-author, along with Robin Yassin-Kassab, of 'Burning 
Country, the best book available on the Syrian revolution. This is an 
excellent interview with Leila about the mass-murderous Russian-led 
counterrevolutionary assault on the people of Aleppo. She takes a very 
balanced view, in my opinion, on the question of the PYD/YPG/Rojava, 
while clearly situating its current appalling role in the Russian 
genocidal war on the people of Aleppo in its expansionist, irredentist 
plan to "link" Kurdish cantons by conquering Arab territory.

The assault on Aleppo
February 25, 2016 by Leila Al Shami
The questions for this interview were written by the authors of Syria: 
The Stolen Revolution.

“We Will Not Leave The Trench Until The Night Is Gone” By the activists 
of Aleppo, photographed by Barry Abdulattif. Source: The Creative Memory 
of the Syrian Revolution

We are currently witnessing what looks like the crushing of anti-Assad 
rebellion forces. The Aleppo battle seems to be a turning point in Syria’s 
civil war before a general confrontation with ISIS occurs. In your 
opinion do rebel forces still shelter components of the revolutionary 
Syrian movement? Or are they nowadays reduced to sunni confessional 
militias, supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia?

Anti Assad rebels in north Aleppo are now facing a relentless assault by 
Russians from the air and an Iranian backed ground force comprised of 
various sectarian militias. This has transformed their struggle against 
a fascist regime into a national liberation struggle. The Russian Air 
Force has decimated civilian infrastructure in the province. The main 
rebel supply route from Turkey has been severed. The rebels are 
surrounded in the Azaz corridor by regime allied militias, Daesh and the 
Kurdish YPG.

If Aleppo is besieged up to 300,000 people will be cut off from the 
outside world. Tens of thousands have fled the city. As well as crushing 
the armed resistance the Assad regime and its imperial backers are 
carrying out a deliberate and systematic policy to depopulate the 
liberated areas of Syria.

When we talk of ‘liberated areas’ it’s more than just rhetoric. Under 
threat in Aleppo are the different local councils which ensure the 
governance of each area and have kept providing services to the local 
population in the absence of the state. We are talking about more than 
100 civil society organizations (the second largest concentration of 
active civil society groups anywhere in the country). These include some 
28 free media groups, women’s organizations and emergency and relief 
organizations such as the Civil Defense Force. It also includes 
educational organizations such as Kesh Malek which provides 
non-ideological education for children, often in people’s basements, to 
ensure school continues under bombardment. Under Assad’s totalitarian 
state, independent civil society was non-existent and no independent 
media sources existed. But in Free Aleppo democracy is being practiced 
as the people themselves self-organize and run their communities. This 
for me represents the original goals of the revolutionary movement.

The armed militias in the north Aleppo area include both the Free Army 
and Islamists. The Islamists represent the conservative culture of rural 
Aleppo. They are comprised primarily of Aleppo’s sons, brothers and 
fathers. They have strong local support and men and women have taken the 
streets in recent days calling for rebel unity to defend Free Aleppo 
from this fascist onslaught.

The rebels receive tepid support from the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 
Nothing until now has made a real difference on the ground such as 
providing the rebels with the anti-aircraft weapons they desperately 
need. This is changing with Turkey’s military intervention. But Turkey’s 
intervention is primarily designed to prevent the establishment of a 
Kurdish state along its border. It has not intervened solely to protect 
the Azaz corridor, but is shelling civilians and uprooting olive trees 
in Afrin. No state is intervening to defend the popular struggle but 
rather to defend its own interests and those of its elites.

What is the current situation in the eastern Ghouta and in the rebel 
controlled zones in the south?

The eastern Ghouta is also under relentless attack. Assad and Russian 
forces have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure such as 
schools, hospitals and market places. Over 160,000 people are trapped 
under regime siege in desperate conditions. Some authoritarian rebel 
groups have also been accused of stealing and hoarding food, 
contributing further to the people’s suffering. But despite these 
challenges the people of the Eastern Ghouta have practiced communal 
solidarity in the most creative and practical ways and kept life 
functioning. They’ve dug wells for water supply, set up solar power and 
recycled methane from waste to provide an alternative energy supply. 
They’ve operated makeshift hospitals and schools and grown food (often 
roof-top gardens) to fend off starvation. Since the beginning of this 
year two towns in the eastern Ghouta, Erbin and Zamalka, have held 
democratic elections for their local council.

The rebels in the south are under a lot of pressure at the moment and 
the regime, under cover of Russian airstrikes, has made strategic gains 
around Deraa. Most hospitals and clinics in east Deraa are now out of 
service due to bombardment. The Deraa provincial council reports that 
more than 80,000 people have fled their homes to seek refugee deeper in 
rebel-held territory or have moved towards the Jordanian border which is 
closed. The south of the country is held mainly by the Southern Front, a 
coalition of over 50 Free Army groups with a secular, democratic agenda 
which have largely refused to cooperate with extremist Islamist groups. 
The Southern Front receives support via Jordan which has been reducing 
assistance to the group in recent weeks, under US pressure, to get 
rebels to focus their fight on Daesh (even though there’s little Daesh 
presence in the south) rather than the regime.

How would you interpret YPG/PYD strategy? Do you think there will be a 
final armed confrontation between the Kurds and the Baathist regime, or 
do you think Russians, Iranians, Kurds and Baathists have a shared 
vision of the future of Syria? In other words, is there a general 
agreement on land and power sharing within the former borders?

In the case of the Kurds, key regime figures have said they will not 
accept Kurdish autonomy in the north. Concessions given to the PYD by 
the regime so far should be seen as tactical. But it now looks as if the 
PYD has turned to Russia as its protector. And for Russia an alliance 
with the PYD is a useful tool in its fight against Turkey. The PYD has 
at times entered into strategic alliances with the regime, but the YPG 
has also fought the regime. It’s alliances are solely pragmatic in 
maintaining control over the north. If Arab resistance forces are 
neutralized, it’s possible that Assad will turn his attention to 
destroying Kurdish autonomy. Whether Russia and the US (allied with the 
YPG) allow this to happen remains to be seen.

The Russians, Iranians and the regime realize that Assad will be unable 
to reassert his control over large parts of the country which he has 
already lost. It’s possible there will be a partition of Syria and the 
imposition of mini states along sectarian lines. In areas which the 
regime and its allies hope to control, we are witnessing the ethnic 
cleansing of Sunni (oppositional) communities and their repopulation 
with communities loyal to the regime and its allies. When the regime 
took over Homs, the land registry was destroyed and Alawites moved into 
vacant Sunni homes. The assault on Zabadani and crippling siege on 
Madaya by the regime and Hizbullah are designed to force Sunni 
inhabitants to leave the area. It’s feared that Lebanese and Iraqi Shia 
militia members and their families will be resettled there. Iran and 
Hizbullah’s involvement is to maintain the strategic link from Iran to 
Lebanon which runs through Damascus (and Baghdad) and is fueled by 
sectarianism. As for Russia, deals have already been made to hand over 
Syria’s energy sector to Russian companies. Both Iran and Russia see 
Syria as a key battle ground in their geo-political struggles with Saudi 
Arabia and the West respectively.

Do you perceive the unification of Rojava’s canton (Afrin, Kobane, 
Jazira), its political and social system, and the creation of Syrian 
Democratic Forces (multi-ethnic and multi-confessional – YPG ruled) as a 
democratic alternative to the regime Reconquista?

It’s not a ‘democratic’ alternative but it’s an alternative. The 
Self-Administration is monopolized by the PYD. Those Kurds that oppose 
the PYD have been silenced, imprisoned, tortured and assassinated. The 
PYD has now moved beyond the idea of democratic confederalism (democracy 
without the state) – an idea which I strongly support – towards attempts 
to carve out a new state through linking the cantons. This includes its 
expansionist turn to take over Arab majority areas under cover of 
Russian airstrikes. The Syrian Democratic Forces aren’t an alternative 
to the regime. Dominated by the YPG and including some minor Arab 
forces, they were established to gain the support of the US led 
coalition in the fight against Daesh only.

Kurds have suffered decades of systematic oppression at the hands of 
Arabist (and Turkish nationalist) regimes and their struggle for 
self-determination should be supported. Inspiring examples of 
self-organization and direct democracy have occurred on the community 
level through the communes established in towns and villages across 
Rojava. Kurdish youth are filled with libertarian spirit and all Syrians 
can learn from the ideas which are spreading across the north. My main 
fears are that this will be undone in the end by PYD authoritarianism 
and that Arab-Kurdish ethnic conflict will break out. If ethnic conflict 
breaks out it will be a result of three factors: the attempt of the 
Syrian regime to destroy any Arab-Kurdish alliance which emerged during 
the revolution; the failure of Arab opposition leaders to stand fully 
behind the Kurdish struggle for self-determination; and the actions of 
the PYD and extremist Islamist militias. All Syrians will loose in such 
a scenario.

Do you consider the Rojava cantons a safe place for Syrian political and 
revolutionary opponents to shelter? Or is exile still the only way to 
escape dictatorship?

Because of the current practices of the PYD the Rojava cantons aren’t a 
safe place for political and revolutionary groups operating 
independently of the PYD.

Afrin has welcomed some families fleeing Aleppo. But it’s unlikely the 
cantons will allow large numbers of Arabs to seek safety on their 
territory incase they upset the demographic balance. The countries 
surrounding Syria have closed their borders except in exceptional cases. 
Many people simply do not have the option of leaving and do not have any 
place to go.

Do you think the US and Russia agree on focusing the war on ISIS and 
that occidental powers are abandoning the opposition forces to Bashar 
and finally isolating Erdogan?

In terms of the regime the Russian and US positions were never very 
different – no one wanted to see it dismantled. It was about Assadism 
with Assad (Russian position) or Assadism without Assad (the US 
position). What’s changed is that now neither are calling for Assad to 

In terms of fighting Daesh – rhetorically they both agree that this is 
their main focus. But as we have seen, very few of the airstrikes 
carried out by Russia have been on Daesh, but rather on the resistance 
militias fighting the regime and Daesh too. It must not be forgotten 
that the Free Army which is now being decimated and the (former) Islamic 
Front have been the most effective force on the ground at fighting 
Daesh – pushing them out of large parts of northern and eastern Syria in 
2014 – before Daesh came back in force with the heavy weaponry it seized 
in Iraq and US support was given to the Syrian Democratic Forces. It 
appears the US has abandoned the rebels, even though it never truly 
supported them beyond applying pressure to force Assad to the 
negotiation table – a strategy which failed. The results of this will 
only be the strengthening of Daesh and other extremist groups like the 
Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra.  The US has not been responsive to 
Turkish concerns and proposals in Syria (such as arming the Free Army 
and establishing a safe zone) it has been more accommodating to Iran 
than its traditional allies – Turkey and Saudi. Alliances are currently 
interwoven among opposing interests and in flux 

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