[Marxism] US withdrawal from Syria and myths of "regime change"

mkaradjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Fri Dec 21 00:28:02 MST 2018

John: “this removal [of US troops] is a nod towards Erdogan, which means
pulling the rug out from under guess who... the PYD, who depend on US
forces to remain in power.”

Yes, it’s a nod towards Erdogan, and also towards Assad, and of course
towards the big ally of both, Trump’s friends in Russia, who of course
praised Trump’s decision

John points out rightly that “nowhere in the editorial is "removing Assad"
mentioned as a goal.”

Of course not, and of course it never has been a US goal. I suppose it is
no coincidence that Trump’s order to withdraw comes a few days after his
special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, declared that while the US wants to
see a regime in Damascus that is “fundamentally different,” nevertheless,
“it's not regime change” the US is seeking, “we're not trying to get rid of

However, I say “I suppose” because it is not as if this is the first time
the US declared it was not trying to get rid of Assad or carry out regime
change. Those statements have been going on for years (especially under
Trump, but also before). Of course, even before US leaders began declaring
this openly, “removing Assad” was never the US policy at any time, that was
only the figment of feverish alt-left and far-right imaginations, but let’s
just focus on the open declarations, because the interesting thing is that,
on every such occasion, the media pumped out the same discourse of
“surprise” and “policy reversal” and “no longer” (!) focused on regime
change (I wonder how many times you can “no longer” be doing something
you’re already “no longer” doing?).

-          In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime
change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry
added that the US and Russia see the conflict "fundamentally very similarly

-          In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, declared
that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad
<http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN1712QL> “*the way the previous
administration was*.”

-          The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary,
noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq,
and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of
ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad,
there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

-          In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified
that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS
that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue
and he essentially called the regime allies: “We call upon all parties,
including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces,
and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid
conflict with one another

-          Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base
after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib,
US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no
concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again
the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the
aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change
in *the nature of the Assad regime*
and its *behavior* in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the
regime, a change in the nature of the *Assad* regime].

-          Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January
<https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/01/277493.htm> 2018 focused
on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now the US
no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition
phase as under early Obama, *or even at its end* as under late Obama;
rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad:
“The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will
result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This
process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and
the establishment of new leadership.”

-          Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, Jeffrey
had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the
House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was
committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the
behaviour of the Syrian government
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMKnct4uxGU> … *this is not regime change,
this is not related to personalities*.”

*Should I stay or should I go? Dispute within the US ruling class*

Note that the arrival mid-year of Jeffrey was widely heralded as a
“toughening up” of the Trump regime’s stance on Assad. In reality, it was
only ever really about Iran; and was in full accord with the Israeli and
now Gulf-state view of separating Assad from Iran by relying more on
Assad’s other key ally, Russia.

And as we see, it is not only the idiosyncratic Trump, but the
rational-sounding Jeffrey, that pushes this Russia line. When it comes to
the change in “behaviour”, Jeffrey’s overwhelming stress was on the removal
of all “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which he assessed threaten “our
friends in the region, principally Israel.” In contrast, Jeffrey states
that “although our objectives and Russia’s are not aligned, we seek common
ground with Russia
in order to resolve the conflict in Syria” and called on Russia to “join
efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria to
remove all Iranian-commanded forces from the country.”

Indeed, the most vociferous anti-Iranian voice, National Security
Advisor Bolton,
has always opposed removing Assad
believing this would lead to “al-Qaida” taking power. Hence the stance of
those in the Pentagon and security apparatus opposed to withdrawal are not
opposed because they want to stay to “topple Assad”, a completely laughable
idea that none of them have *ever* suggested; rather, they want to stay as
a block to Iranian influence.

Much of the commentary is declaring Trump some kind of traitor to US
interests by selling out to both Iran and Russia in withdrawing. In my
opinion, this is mistaken on both counts. Then there is also the view that
he is selling out the US’ Kurdish allies, the YPG/SDF, whereas the
“remainers” want to remain loyal. In my opinion, the “remainers” (as I
understand, Bolton and Pompeo are in this camp) care no more about Kurds or
anyone else than does Trump; but they want to make their deal with
Russia/Assad first: ensuring Iranian-led/pro-Iranian forces are expelled
from Syria, in exchange for the US allowing Assad to reconquer northeast
Syria. A “Kurds for Iran” deal, similar to the US-Israel “rebels for Iran”
deal with Assad in the south. As Jeffrey states, this deal includes Russia;
the US has simply *never at any stage of the conflict* aimed at removing
Russia from its leading position in Syria.

Trump, by contrast, is jumping ahead, yes Russia, Assad and Erdogan can
gobble up the northeast, relying on an understanding he has with Russia
(and with Israel and Saudi Arabia) that Russia’s own rivalry with Iran in
Syria will lead to a Russian wall against Iranian influence; as a more
solidified Assad regime is in less and less need of the destabilising
Iranian-backed rabble. And to the extent that Russia isn’t strong enough to
do this alone, Israel has threatened to up its strikes on pro-Iranian
forces in Syria; the current visit of Russian senators to Israel to discuss
the “joint struggle against terrorism
seems part of this same process.

Of course there is also the issue of whether or not ISIS has been defeated,
as Trump says. Much commentary says this is not so, yet in reality the
US-SDF alliance has driven ISIS almost entirely out of Syria, other than a
tiny remaining pocket. Trump always said the only reason to be in Syria was
to defeat ISIS, and on this he is largely correct; moreover, there is no
other legal mandate for the US to be in Syria. In announcing withdrawal,
Trump tweeted that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of
ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.” While some may interpret this in
conspiracist terms, that he wants to bog them down in the fight against
ISIS, Russia’s welcome of the announcement indicates this is the wrong
interpretation; what Trump means is that Assad now has the go-ahead to
seize the remainder of Deir Ezzor region from the SDF in order to for him
to complete the “fight against ISIS” there, ie, to consolidate his
victorious counterrevolution over Syria.

*Proxification and Betrayal *

There is little doubt that the SDF is being betrayed by Trump, and would
eventually have been by the “remainers” as well. One possibility however is
of the SDF following the same path; after all, the basis of the US-SDF
alliance against ISIS was that both the US and the SDF had a neutral policy
towards the other war in Syria, between the Assad regime and the rebels. If
the US can accommodate Assad, so can the SDF. However, there is a major
difference of power here. While the SDF leadership has made moves in this
direction, they are likely to get little; Assad is powerful now having
largely defeated the opposition; therefore, his regime has no reason to
concede anything. Assad may temporarily agree to a deal with the SDF to
stave off Turkey (Assad is less enamoured of Erdogan than his Russian and
Iranian allies are), but the conditions will likely be such a complete
reduction in autonomy to figleaf status that the SDF could not agree
without liquidating its cause.

Both the SDF and the Kurdish populations must be defended against any
pending Erdogan/Assad assault. Supporters of the SDF project need to reckon
with the historic betrayals of the SDF leadership, which cut the Kurdish
populations off from the rest of the revolutionary process, and at times
directly attacked the revolution in collaboration with Assad and Russia,
especially during the SDF’s Russian-airforce-backed attack on the rebels in
the Arab-majority northern Aleppo/Tal Rifaat region in early 2016, and its
subsequent aid to Assad’s final assault on rebel-held Aleppo.

These short-sighted (to put it mildy!) policies have led to the isolation
of the SDF, and the Kurdish people, in their hour of need. For example,
many of the rebel troops that took part in Turkey’s bloody invasion of
Kurdish Afrin (Operation ‘Olive Branch’) early this year were former
residents of the Tal Rifaat region who had been uprooted in the SDF’s own
Russian-backed version of ‘Olive Branch’ two years earlier.

This has now been extended to rebel promises of participation in the
threatened Turkish invasion of the northeast. While there may be some
regions of Arab majority that may welcome an FSA entry – something that
cannot be determined merely by ethnic composition, but only *if *we see
attempted uprisings against Rojava authorities), overwhelmingly this
invasion is likely to be resisted, turning whichever rebel groups take part
into an army of occupation, like in Afrin. This is especially the case if
Turkey and any rebel allies invade the actual Kurdish-majority regions.

The fact that the SDF has done the same makes no difference; years of
bloody counterrevolution by an overwhelmingly military dominant regime,
backed by massive foreign intervention and otherwise international
indifference, has partially proxified both the main Arab and Kurdish
leaderships. It may often have seemed like they had “no choice,” and it is
very difficult to criticise from afar. Really, who can blame the rebels for
their alliance with Turkey when Turkey almost alone in the world was
willing to provide some support to the people facing genocide, along with
accommodating 3.7 million Syrian refugees, by far the biggest population in
the world? Who can blame the SDF for allying with the US against such a
monstrous enemy as ISIS, especially when faced with extinction in Kobane?

However, the hard reality is that the resulting division between the Arab
and Kurdish populations outside Assadist control is the death-knell of
both, leading them into further dependence on, and the threat of
abandonment by, foreign interests, to the benefit only of the regime.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Putin and Assad will give Erdogan the
go-ahead to attack the SDF in northeastern Syria without some quid pro quo
in the northwest, ie rebel-controlled Greater Idlib. Probably not all of it
just yet – neither Turkey nor the West can agree to a total Assadist
reconquest that would send hundreds of thousands more refugees across
borders – but possibly allowing Assad to gobble up enough of southern Idlib
to ensure control of the main thoroughfares between Aleppo and Latakia,
which would mean wiping out some key revolutionary centres. It would be the
ultimate irony to watch rebel (or ex-rebel) troops attacking the SDF in the
northeast as part of a Turkish operation while Assad and Russia further
slice into the last part of free Syria in the northwest.

*The bankruptcy of “anti-imperialism”*

It is somewhat surreal to watch countless “anti-imperialists” denounce
Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurds to Turkey (they tend to not be so loud
about the betrayal to Assad). Throughout the last 8 years, the Manichean
version of “anti-imperialism” spouted by an alt-left and far-right
convergence has given support to a reactionary genocidal tyrant destroying
his entire country to squash a popular uprising on the false altar of
opposing “US-backed regime change” and the like. The fact that there was
never any US “regime-change” operation was irrelevant, as were most facts;
while the Kurdish-led SDF has received over 4 years of US air power at
their service, which has killed thousands of civilians, the Syrian rebels
never received any such support (indeed, they have often enough been bombed
by US warplanes); while the SDF was blessed with the support of thousands
of US troops (who are now being withdrawn), there was never a single US
troop in support of the rebels; while there are a dozen or so US bases in
SDF-controlled Rojava there are none in any rebel-controlled zone; while
the US ensured key Kurdish centres such as Kobane did not fall, no
rebel-held centre, whether overrun by Assad or even by ISIS, ever received
such defence. Yet for most “anti-imperialists”, the rebels were still the
“US proxies” while the SDF were brave “anti-imperialist” fighters, a
reversal of reality originating in the YPG’s connection to the PKK in
Turkey, and its ancient anti-imperialist history from another era.

What to say then when the US withdraws? Praise the end of “imperialist
intervention”? Or protest the betrayal of the Kurds? How ironic that it is
often (of course, not always), the same people in this quandary. They
wanted to be “anti-imperialist” as long as it meant scabbing on the Syrian
people’s uprising and supporting the most tyrannical dictatorship of the 21
st century; every tiny hint of shabby US support to the rebels was
denounced as evidence of “regime change”. Yet once it became clear that the
US saw its key ally in Syria as the SDF, they mostly went silent; four
years of massive US bombing of ISIS (and also of Nusra and sometimes even
the rebels), killing anywhere between 4800 and 13,500 civilians
<https://airwars.org/conflict/coalition-in-iraq-and-syria/>, has largely
been met with embarrassed silence, while the abstract trope of “opposing US
intervention” is still kept in the cupboard in case it needs to be dusted
off, to protest the odd US strike on some Assad empty airbase, that kills
nobody at all, when Assad indulges in chemical warfare.

In recent weeks and months, US air-borne terror has been increasing. In
mid-December, US airstrikes hit a mosque in Syria
<https://twitter.com/ramahkudaimi/status/1074321158462431237>, killing 17
people. The response? Deafening silence. Between US terror from the skies
and the a monstrous regime like that of ISIS, it is better to admit there
is an ethical dilemma, rather than be so certain you are “against
intervention”, especially when for the most part you are actually not
against it at all. And you ought to also be consistent in relation to the
imaginary, never-existing “threat” of US intervention against Assad, whose
regime has killed about 100 times more people than ISIS could ever manage,
and admit that the main role of this particular version of
“anti-imperialism” – the anti-solidarity version – over the last 8 years
has been that of scabbery on the Syrian people.

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