US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution

One of the largest sources of confusion on the conflict Syria are deceptive and lazy media reports which have routinely failed to distinguish between the actors in the conflict and explain the critical nuances in the situation on the ground. One news agency will publish a headline proclaiming “US support for rebels”, for example with arms-drops and aerial cover, when the article always subsequently reveals the “rebels” in question to be the Syrian Democratic Forces – a group which officially maintains a policy of “neutrality” towards the Assad regime and practically has always collaborated with its forces (notably in the recent fall of Aleppo, in which the SDF sided with the Assad regime against the FSA). Despite this fact dozens of other news agencies will recirculate the original misleading headline, with the SDF mistakenly labelled a “rebel faction” despite declaredly not being part of the Syrian rebellion.

Today, this false reporting comes to a head. For here are the constantly cited “US-backed “rebels”” giving up the city of Manbij to the Assad regime, to avoid it falling to the real “rebels” of the Free Syrian Army. The US-backed and counter-revolutionary so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” would rather the genocidal, dictatorial Assad take power than the democratic revolutionaries of the Arab Spring.

The “rebel” factions that the US has directly supported in Syria have always been those that do not fight Assad – in other words rebels that don’t rebel. The SDF position on Syria is identical to that of the US – a “third option” theoretically distinguishable from the regime but which ultimately involves indirect support to it. This “regime preservation by proxy” has been US policy in the conflict, helping it to avoid the criticisms which would otherwise arise from unmediated direct support – with other “proxy” US-backed allies of the regime include Iraqi army brigades (who currently form the biggest ground forces of the Assad regime) and the Egyptian al-Sisi regime.

Another example of what’s talked about here is the famed “US only found 54 moderate rebels to fight ISIS”. Hundreds of outlets (mainstream and alternative) probably recirculated the original context-less source piece, in turn reaching millions of people. And in only a tiny minority will the crucial detail being missing: that there were only 54 signatories because the US stipulated that those who signed up sign a declaration to use their weapons only to fight ISIS, not Assad. This in turn provides the source material for “alternative media” outlets to repeat the upside-down narrative of a US conspiracy against the Assad regime.The result literally from just one misleading piece failing to add a line is millions of people understanding the issue upside down.
This isn’t unique to Syria either; for instance you’ll often find Zionists say “the Palestinians rejected the 1947 UN partition plan which would’ve given a peaceful solution to the Arabs and Israelis”. And whilst this is certainly true, as ever the critical small-print is missing: that the Palestinians rejected a plan which a) divided a country which shouldn’t have been divided and b) even in this division gave away more than half of the territory to a minority largely foreign population. For decades such myths were allowed to expand before being adequately challenged.
The reality is that every single faction the US has directly supported in the Syrian conflict have been brigades that have stopped fighting Assad. Whether its the SDF factions, the Mua’atasim Brigade or the New Syrian Army, all of these groups only got US support once they made clear they wouldn’t be fighting Assad. Some, like the NSA which operate on the Syrian-Iraqi border have even collaborated with the pro-Assad Iraqi government.
The reality is that US policy on Syria has always been “third party counter-revolution” – an option theoretically distinguishable from the regime but which ultimately involves indirect support to it. This “regime preservation by proxy” has helped the US to avoid the criticisms which would otherwise arise from unmediated direct support – with other “proxy” US-backed allies of the regime include Iraqi army brigades (who currently form the biggest ground forces of the Assad regime) and the Egyptian al-Sisi regime. The indirect support has also allowed the US to directly support the regime as well. By pursuing a “third path” the regime was eventually rehabilitated enough and by 2014 the US was bombing Assad’s enemies – “moderate” and extreme – alongside his airforce. If you look at areas like Manbij, you’ll find the best scientific example of the US-led counter-revolution in all of its glorious aspects: after initially falling to the local anti-Assad resistance, the US then allowed (and indirectly facilitated) ISIS’s growth and consuming of large parts of Syria with massive US weaponry taken from the Iraqi Army, and then for an entire year in which the rebels had a war with ISIS whilst not being only *not helped*, but actively *blockaded from help* by the US, including such areas like Manbij. When ISIS got big enough the US finally came in on its own terms with what everyone could consider a “justifiable” intervention as these people were simply unparalleled monsters (of course they very well were paralleled): and a city like Manbij was eventually transferred not to the locals, who were actually blockaded from Turkish-Saudi-Qatari support by US diktat, but a “third option” proxy like the YPG.
Thus as a result of US machinations a place like Manbij was effectively transferred first to ISIS, then the YPG, then back to the regime. Some people (including revolution supporters) think this is “conspiratorial”, and that the US could not have been this calculated. Yet to be honest how could so many who were actively following everything at the time have predicted so many of the things that happened years later? I remember for instance people noting with conviction that the US was not going to support the rebels against ISIS, despite this seemingly “not making sense”. Yet from a counter-revolutionary point of view it made perfect sense. It was simply brilliant strategising. This doesn’t preclude that the rebels (such as in place like Manbij) had faults, corruption etc. that allowed people like ISIS to exploit it and come in. Rebel disunity cannot be blamed solely on the US or the regime either, for all their machinations.
This “third party counter-revolution” happens to be the only way the US could have circumvented the rebellions and preserved the regime; the idiots on the “anti-war” movement and “left” really seem to think that the US was going to officially espouse a pro-dictatorship position against a declaredly democratic uprising in the 21st century for their convenience, coming out maybe to say “protesters bad, regime good”. That’s the level of their intellect, and understanding of how “imperialism works maan”. The US didn’t even do that with the regimes they had been arming for decades, like Egypt. And the reality is that in Egypt as in Syria, US policy has been “third party counter-revolution” – with the military in Egypt being the chosen (officially distinguishable from Mubarak) vehicles and the Syrian Army and its collaborators (SDF, Iraq, Egypt) doing the same in Syria.
There are three ironies here:
1) That the US has actually helped the regime it criticised *more* – that of Assad – more than it has the regime that it criticised less, that of Al-Sisi for example. This increased criticism for the purpose of public audiences allows the US to get away with its actual policies, since people won’t generally expect the US to support those that it ostensibly criticises. That the US has provided more support to Assad than that of Sisi (a statement which I can substantiate below if anyone wants) is of course expected as the revolution in Syria was armed and dangerous and the dangers of regime-collapse larger, compared to the largely peaceful revolutionary movement in Egypt and monopoly of violence that the regime there possessed.
2) That the side which has actually received the least material US support in the conflict are the Syrian rebels. The Kurdish YPG have received the most (via direct arming and aerial support), the regime have received the second most (via US-backed proxy forces, prominently the Iraqi military militias/PMU, intermittent aerial support & airstrikes against Assad’s enemies, and intelligence-sharing) and ISIS the third most (via stocks of US equipment seized from the Iraqi Army). Though to be clear re the latter, saying that ISIS has received “more material support” from the US than the rebels is a) not equivalent to saying that the US has directly or *actively armed* ISIS (rather it allowed a situation in which ISIS could metastasize to an appropriate size before finally intervening on its own terms) and b) is *not* equivalent to saying that the US has attacked the rebels more than ISIS – in other words, whilst US policy may have aided ISIS during its rise more than the rebels, it is undeniable that the US has also attacked ISIS more than the rebels (the order here of who the US has attacked the most would be 1) ISIS, 2) rebels, 3) regime and 4) Kurds).
3) That the superficial rhetoric-focused idiocy on US statements of “supporting democracy” has actually allowed US imperialism to *completely get away* with what its been doing in the past few years. You won’t find for instance alternative media really mention that the US has three military bases inside Syria – why? Because these military bases have been built in the (somehow anti-imperialist) “secular” YPG-held territory which (both left and right) love. You won’t find alternative media mention the US dropping depleted uranium in Syria – why? Because they were dropped in ISIS-held territory and the US is actually really “supporting ISIS against Assad”. You won’t find anyone mention that the US has probably killed hundreds of Syrian Arab Spring protesters in their exclusive bombing of areas which revolted in 2011 (be they ISIS-held Raqqa or rebel-held Idlib) in the name of the War on Terror – why? Because really the US used the Arab Spring as a conspiracy against the Syrian regime. You won’t find anyone note that the main US proxy in the entire last five years has been pro-Iran Iraqi militias – why? Because the US “really just wants to undermine Iran”. You won’t find any reports on protests in Syria against the US airforce intervening in 2014 – why? Because the protesters were people lifting the revolution flag – the ones who were supposedly “US proxies”. You won’t find alternative media mention brags by the US military that it has a score of 45,000 ISIS fighters dead against 0 US ones, a one-sided massacre if ever there was one (and one which the US, regardless of what ISIS is, does not have the moral authority to conduct) – why? Well because isn’t the US supporting ISIS?
The real struggle against what US imperialism has actually been doing in Syria, from basic political deceit of saying “Assad should go but not at the expense of his regime” (again, this is not deduced but declared in US policy statements) to the dropping of bombs, has thus been *given cover* by anti-war movements. Unlike in Iraq (popularly demanded) “regime-change” stood opposite to the War on Terror (as the regimes in question intelligently adopted the latter), and the anti-war movement made a massive error in thinking that the US was following the first route, rather than the second.
This in particular is the fucking massive tragedy of it all. I wish that these guys actually are reporting on nefarious US imperialism, but the biggest thing is that they’re doing the opposite – by their idiotic narratives they’re hiding it. By understanding the conflict upside down the anti-war movement has failed in every single plausible way.

(Further comments from Facebook post):
Marcus Halaby For the record, my own suspicion is that the USA was certainly tempted to allow Assad to fall in early 2012 (with half-believed assurances from the Saudis that their ex-officer caste proteges in the FSA would act to “preserve stability” and “prevent chaos” etc) but that firstly, they were never willing to do a Libya to assist this process and secondly, they were quite open from the outset about preferring a “Yemeni-style transition” to preserve Assad’s state machine.

The “temptation” was of depriving Russia of its naval base at Tartous, or conversely of having a Lebanese March 14-style regime in Syria that would pull away from Iran and Hizbullah (although this latter temptation became redundant with the Iran nuclear deal). But the Americans were never willing to pay the price of revolutionary “chaos” for this, especially once the “chaos” in Libya began to convince them that “regime change” there had been a mistake.

That all changed when Obama’s bluff was called in August 2013 – and again with the expansion of IS in Iraq in mid-2014 (with Ukraine in the meantime giving Clinton’s adventurism a far more promising point of pressure on Putin than Syria had ever been).

So I would date the “third party counter-revolution” policy from mid-2014. Before that, it had been a policy of half-hearted support for the “counter-revolution within the revolution”, on condition that the USA wouldn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting and wouldn’t have to risk a direct confrontation with Russia.

For their part I think the Russians felt betrayed enough in Libya that they weren’t willing to take any risks in Syria – and that the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions on Russia that followed it increased Russia’s paranoia, however obvious it might have been that Obama was angling for an “anti-terrorist” partnership with Russia and Iran in Syria and Iraq.

I don’t think that Putin regarded Obama as being an especially reliable “partner” in this sense, for the reasons above and given that the USA’s historic regional allies continued to provide some (however limited) practical assistance to the anti-Assad forces, even if the USA didn’t.

And in any case, Putin seems ideologically and strategically far more inclined towards “partnerships” with semi-colonial regional players like Iran and Turkey than with Russian imperialism’s most immediate global imperialist rival, something that I suspect that Trump’s search for a detente with Russia will founder on.

So yes, just as the “anti-war” movements tried to oppose the “regime change” that wasn’t happening instead of the “war on terror” that was happening, they also based themselves on a concrete strategic assessment that was only half-true before 2013/14, and increasingly fantastic afterwards.

All I’d add is that a large part of the Syrian opposition shared their illusions from the opposite direction, imagining that the USA had any intention (or any real objective interest) in supporting their cause, and falling into increasingly pathetic pleading the more that this vain hope failed to materialise.

But yes, it’s ironic that Western policy benefited the Assad dictatorship that they criticised more than the Sisi dictatorship that they didn’t. Just like British policy in Palestine benefited the Haganah far more than the Arab states (Britain’s nominal proteges) or indeed the Palestinians.

And just like Western policy in Bosnia aided the Serbs (who unlike Assad they did at least bomb on a few occasions) far more than it benefited the Bosnians (who were forced to accept the permanent ethnic division of their country), with Croatia playing the role of the YPG to the Sarajevo government’s FSA.

Omar Sabbour Where I’d differ (including from what I used to hold) is that I don’t think the US ever had a policy of regime-change – partially or otherwise – including in 2011-12. Indeed if you look at US policy during this formative period it was the most anti-arming of the rebellion than in any period of the conflict, with the US officially condemning the militarisation of the rebellion and practically maintaining an effective embargo on external supplies to the rebels (which even led to tensions with Saudi at one point, when the US seized supplies meant for the FSA Southern Front).
Whilst I used to also say that ideally the US would like a more pliable ally than Assad to weaken ties with Russia and Iran etc., I found that Assad was actually completely heading into that direction before 2011; Wikileaks will show that he was willing to cut ties with Hamas and even Hezbollah in exchange for normalised ties with the US and Israel, and Iran was even destabilising him by 2010 for fear of losing him. There was simply no need to replace him. Of course if you go back you’ll find much deeper links between the West and the Assads, certainly amongst the oldest ties between the West and any republican dynasty in the region, from the time of the pro-French grandfather to the US-admired father to the British-adored son, here of course you’ll find that the regime used to have potentially the best ties with the West that you could ever expect a country still occupied by Israel to have, collaborating with the US and Israel throughout the Lebanese civil war against the PLO, then the Gulf war, then War on Terror etc.. Barring Jordan (which lost the West Bank, which wasn’t really part of it) the regime offered quite possibly the least resistance to Israel from any of the countries occupied in 1967 – less than Lebanon, less than Egypt (despite having 3 more decades after we sold out) and less than the Palestinians. The timing of the rebellion – perhaps months or a year away from a treaty with Israel – actually saved him, I came across a report recently where it stated that before the uprising the Israelis were worried that a peace treaty with Assad wouldn’t work for fear that the population wouldn’t accept it.

Re the FSA, I have no doubt that the US wanted to infiltrate the movement and some of its officers, and without a doubt along with other regional states they probably succeeded (just look at the Southern Front). However why i think that doesn’t constitute them actually considering putting them in power is because it was clear to anyone who could open a Youtube video right from the start to see what the FSA consisted of – this was not a regular professional substitute regime army (a la Haftar for Qadaffi, Hadi for Saleh or Sisi for Mubarak) but essentially a grassroots popular-militia force that was (ironically) far closer to the ideals of the Ba’ath (resistance to Israel, regional unity, and originating from the socio-economically neglected provinces and regions that were once the Ba’ath’s heartland vs the urban centres which became regime strongholds, etc.) than the regime’s version of the Ba’ath which was diluted to the minimum level possible that could sustain legitimising rhetoric (thus condemning US invasion of Iraq in line with popular opinion, whilst later collaborating with the Americans against the Syrians it allowed to be sent to fight there; allowing limited support to Hezbollah whilst negotiating with Israel, practically recognise it in public and condemning all internal calls for opening a front with the Golan as “treachery”, etc.). In that vein it would become clear that whilst the Syrian opposition was, like the Lebanese one, Sunni, it was by no means a 14th March replicate and was probably far closer to Hezbollah than it was to the former. Nor were the FSA brigades ever under the effective command of defected soldiers, who became a numerical minority vis a vis armed civilians as time passed on. The US never took away legal recognition of the regime, in other words it supported the regime keeping its UN seat at the UN despite the opposition’s transitional government trying to get US recognition.

Re a few other things you said: I think for sure it is correct to say that the US policy included half-hearted support for the “counter-revolution within the revolution”, I 100% agree. The US put its hands in all the baskets, and literally could be argued to have helped and undermined in one way or the other all four sides of the civil war – the rebels, the regime, the Kurds and ISIS. Indeed, perhaps it is the most demonically genius reality that the precise nature of the US “politically” supporting the opposition allowed it to control what the opposition got – in short infiltrating the opposition like a trojan horse to undermine it from within – whilst the precise opposite of the US politically *not* supporting the regime perversely allowed it to have a complete hands-off policy on what the regime received via its US-backed friends, like Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, since there was no expectation for the US to be “involved” with the arming of the regime. If the US had taken a declaredly pro-Assad position from the start, (besides being politically stupid and unnecessary) there would both be massive attention and focus drawn to how the US was seizing weapons shipments at the Jordanian and Turkish borders and subsequently massive backlash against it. Instead, official US support of the opposition meant that reports that the US was actually trying to control what went to the rebels would be perversely headlined as “CIA said to be steering arms to the rebels” instead of the reality of them actually trying to steer the arms *away*. What’s that phrase, war is peace, ignorance is strength? Again, the US distancing itself from the regime allowed it to support the regime more than any other thing. You have to admit it is devilishly genius.

I don’t think however that contradicts that the US policy was also “third party counter-revolution”, though maybe this terminology is not perfect for the period between 2011-13 as at that time US allies like Iraq and indirectly Lebanon were not really supporting Assad as much and the US support for Assad by its blockading of weaponry etc. was, if anything, direct not “by proxy”. I’ve tried to note that above and make it clear that whilst counter-revolution by proxy was definitely an aspect of US policy, this did not preclude the US also directly supporting Assad, whether via arms embargoes, airstrikes against his enemies (both moderate and extreme), intelligence-sharing or other measures.

I also think that you are correct in the political opposition’s embarassing and redundant pleading for help from the Americans and their refusal (until very late) to expose US policy, though I should note that the political opposition’s attitudes was not identical to that of civil and armed revolutionaries on the ground and the biggest campaigns against actual US intervention in the conflict generally came from those. I’ve definitely been often frustrated by the repetitive broken record of some Syrians who’ve completely failed to understand the full dimensions of how cynical and calculated US policy was until very late (if ever), with them often being reluctant to even verbalise US policy as being pro-Assad until much later, if ever (generally thinking of it as “incoherent” or “weak”), whilst still talking of US “inaction” or still asking for the US to end its “non-intervention”, narratives which have actively misrepresented what is happening – as you say, like the anti-war movement – when they should have instead been talking of US *action* actively taking place in favour of the regime and asking specifically for the US to do the opposite of “intervention”, and that is to actually *stop intervening* and allow the rebels to get what they need from external sources. This ultimately all has to do with the details and knowledge of them, for instance knowledge that it wasn’t the US that was providing the arms, but it was the US that was controlling what was going in (it all crystalised in my head for instance maybe in the last year, that it was actually active US intervention – not Russian or Iranian – which was the most crucial element in the rebels not winning this conflict). Yet ultimately this was not the issue just with Syrians – indeed I’m sure many of our pro-revolution Western friends would repeat the same sort of stuff here of US “inaction”, “incoherence” and opposing labeling US policy as “pro-Assad”, even whilst refusing to call it “pro-rebellion”. And I think if you take a survey of activists and pro-revolution Syrians by 2013 (and I’ve seen such interviews at the time), most were EXTREMELY cynical about the US and most would’ve recognised it as a problem and said that “it needed to stay out”.


2 thoughts on “US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution

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