This piece is a longer version of an article published in The New Arab.
As Raqqa gets destroyed (and Mosul before it) Stop the War Coalition is nowhere to be heard – leaving Syria solidarity protesters to demonstrate in front of US embassies alone.
For years, the Stop the War Coalition’s leadership has justified either the group’s silence or routinely-promoted Assad apologisms as justified by the Syrian regime supposedly being subjected to a ‘US plot’ to overthrow it.
Most recently, much outrage was raised at the famous missile-strike on a Syrian regime airfield following the chemical attack on the Syrian village of Khan Shaykhoun in April. Stop the War mobilised an ‘emergency protest’ against ‘Donald Trump’s decision to launch attacks against Syrian targets’ and any UK participation in it – even though this UK intervention had been taking place for three years already, with the UK having dropped eleven times more bombs in the first 12 months of its intervention than during the busiest year of the occupations in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
It was also done despite the fact that UK officials voiced support for the airstrike whilst specifically praising its limited nature, and despite statements by the UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon declaring that the US strike was “not a declaration of war against the Assad regime” and laying out explicitly that the UK would not “take military action against Syria” (with ‘Syria’ here of course being equatable with the Assad regime, as the UK has never withdrawn legal recognition from the regime or conferred it onto the Syrian Interim Government). Similarly, US officials also repeated that the action was not a ‘declaration of war’ against the regime and that there was ‘no change’ in the US policy established under Trump (of relinquishing the already half-hearted so-called ‘demand’ for Assad to ‘step down’), besides ‘deterring’ further chemical attacks. Indeed, since this time the US has been providing aircover to Iranian-backed foreign militias on Syrian territory (as has been the case for years in Iraq). In other words, the US has been supporting foreign occupation forces on Syrian territory.
Indeed, a week before the much-heralded strike on a regime airfield – often described in both mainstream and alternative coverage as ‘Trump’s strike on Syria’ (again, with ‘Syria’ interchangeable with the ‘Syrian regime’ and not with Syrian territory; Trump had of course already launched more than 1,000 airstrikes by that point in Syria alone, killing 1,000 civilians in the month of March alone) – the US had committed a massacre in the province of Aleppo, whereby up to 50 worshippers were killed in an airstrike on a mosque in a rebel-held (not ISIS-held) town in Aleppo, and in Raqqa, where at least 33 civilians were killed in an airstrike on a school housing refugees. Stop the War Coalition would not call for any protests against such repeated massacres – which indeed barely made the coverage of its media outlets, certainly relative to the outrage by the strike on the Assad regime airfield (a strike that the US indirectly warned the regime of in advance via Russia and which did not even put the largely-evacuated airfield out of service, with airstrikes resuming the next day). Whilst Syria solidarity groups in Ireland and the UK repeatedly protested the US blitzkriegs at the US embassy, Stop the War Coalition would not join such protests.
As we will see from the comparative coverage in STW’s outlets, it is not an exaggeration to state that the regime’s damaged tarmac provoked more protest than the civilians killed in US-led Coalition strikes in non-regime-held territories. This disparity was strongly noted at the time by observers and Syrian solidarity activists.
Indeed in the six months since the ‘airfield strike’, and with it becoming clear that the risk of ‘regime-change’ had subsided (vindicating not the Stop the War Coalition – who had spent the past three years of the US intervention claiming that it was ‘backdoor regime change’ – but those who viewed the US intervention in Syria as a form of regime-preservation), Stop the War Coalition again went into relative hibernation on the subject of Syria. This is despite the fact that the past few months have witnessed the most intense US-led bombardment of the war.
Here, there has not been a single emergency demonstration called against the intensive campaign of bombardment in Raqqa (or before that Mosul) or the US-led blitzkriegs of the past few months across Syria and Iraq more generally. Similarly, not a single statement written specific to the Raqqa bombing campaign (or the increasingly-murderous Coalition campaign more generally) has been written up during this period, by contrast to three statements devoted specifically to the aftermath of the Trump airfield strike and warning against further attacks on Assad.
Indeed, between December 2015 (during the UK parliamentary vote on Syrian airstrikes) and April 2017 (the strike on the regime airfield) Stop the War did not organise a single protest on Syria, and similarly in the period since the airfield strike there has not been a single protest despite the killing of up to 2,000 Syrian civilians in this period according to the monitoring group, Airwars (including almost 800 Syrian civilians within the single month of August 2017, entailing such massacres as 100 civilians being killed by the Coalition in Raqqa in 48 hours). Instead, a protest was organised against ‘the threat of nuclear war’ with North Korea.
An examination of Stop the War’s media output during the period since the ‘airfield strike’ (April 2017) demonstrates this lopsided reality. Stop the War’s website content on Syria during this period features five calls for national and local demonstrations against Trump’s airfield strike , whilst there have been two statements on the Trump airstrike (one by STW and one by Jeremy Corbyn), a further statement obfuscating the Assad regime’s responsibility for the Sarin attack (later confirmed by the UN – as often demanded by STW – without this confirmation being covered by STW), another citing and condemning media reports of Theresa May allegedly seeking authorisation for action against the Assad regime (an event which never took place, with reports today instead that British diplomats are seeking to obtain immunity for Assad from prosecution), and finally most recently a statement opposing Trump’s potential departure from the Iran deal.
Meanwhile, the website has featured four articles condemning the strike on the regime airfield , three articles warning of UK attacks on the regime , five articles complaining of how the US is actually targeting the ‘real prize’ of Iran in Syria (the same Iran whose proxies the US has been providing military support to in Iraq for the past few years, including Iraqi military brigades which have used their Western support to fight for Assad in Syria) , one article on the ‘illegality’ of the UK flying drones in Syria without permission from the Assad regime (a spurious allegation as this permission has been knowingly implicit for years), two articles linking the London Bridge attacks to the FSA , two more referencing Qatari and Saudi backing of ‘extremist rebels’  and finally two pieces condemning an incident in the border region of Al-Tanf of the US bombing a rogue foreign militia (which disobeyed both Russian and US orders to withdraw from the area) .
The last event was declared by Stop the War Coalition’s National Officer, Chris Nineham as an ‘act of war against Syria’ and ‘bombing a foreign country’ – in other words the airstrike against a foreign militia which was invading Syrian territory (and which the local tribes of Deir al-Zor in the area declared was a ‘force of occupation’ that they were fighting) was declared by Nineham as ‘a foreign country’ (by virtue of its alliance with the Syrian regime).
Ironically, the real story is that the US has actually supported such foreign militias on Syrian territory (again without coverage by Stop the War Coalition, as this contradicts the long-propagated pro-Iran narrative that the US is ‘actually’ attempting to undermine it in Syria), including in Palmyra and Deir al-Zor. Indeed during the very same episode at Al-Tanf, the US would in fact authorise a regime airstrike against a local rebel group within a designated ‘Safe Zone’ area, after the group independently attacked the rogue pro-Assad militia in question (the US would also itself threaten direct airstrikes against a local rebel group which was expelled from the Pentagon’s anti-ISIS programme, again after attacking the foreign militias in the area).
In total, there have been twenty-five pieces citing either the Trump strike on the regime airfield, warning of or disparaging ‘regime-change’ (the call of “The People demand the downfall of the regime” made in 2011 is, of course, irrelevant) and/or ‘exposing’ a secret Western attempt to undermine Iran (as well as four pieces linking the rebels with ‘Islamic extremism’) against twelve pieces citing the rising civilian toll of the actual (not hypothetical) intensified Coalition bombardments in Syria in the past six months . Meanwhile, a search of the group’s Facebook feed during this period will find no mention of Syria outside of the Trump airfield strike, whilst a Twitter search produces three references of civilian casualties from the US-led Coalition campaign against twelve references to the Trump strike and/or warning of ‘regime-change’ against Assad.
Conversely to this lopsided coverage, there has been approximately 6,000 US-led Coalition airstrikes on ‘Syria’ during the period concerned (according to the monitoring group Airwars), with all of these excepting five (this itself a wartime high – encompassing the much-publicised strike on the regime airfield, the downing of a regime jet in defence of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and three strikes against the rogue militia at al-Tanf) taking place outside of regime-held territory.
Revealed: Stop the War Coalition routinely host supporters of Western intervention
The relationship of Stop the War Coalition and Syria solidarity activists has long been strained, with the latter long accusing the former of serving as ‘War on Terror- and Assad-apologists’, whilst the former accuse the latter of ‘supporting Western intervention’ and being indistinguishable from supporters of a ‘new Iraq’. This conflict has sometimes been reported in the media, as when MP Diane Abbot hosted a meeting in 2015 in which Syrian and Arab activists were prevented from speaking, or when Jeremy Corbyn was ‘heckled’ during the Stop the War’s annual conference last December. Yet to take the latter case for instance, at the very same conference in question Stop the War Coalition actually fielded three proponents of Western intervention on their platforms:
– Dr Alan Shemo, a representative of the Western-backed Kurdish PYD (the political arm of the YPG) – an organisation which has given the US several military bases on Syrian territory (with some estimates putting the number as much as seven), fought alongside US Special Forces, has repeatedly flown the American flag in territories captured from ISIS, and of course has been calling in US airstrikes since 2014 (including threatening Arab villagers with them if they did not evacuate). The YPG has repeatedly denied reports of Coalition massacres as ‘exaggerated’ or ‘ISIS apologism’, and invited the US to stay in Syria ‘for decades’. Indeed, Stop the War’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) praised Rojava as “genuine examples of radical democracy and efforts of establishing an egalitarian, ecological and democratic society” – seemingly unaware of this ‘imperialist’ backing.
– Michelle Allison, a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), a group which supports anti-ISIS Western airstrikes. Allison has repeatedly called for Western arming of the YPG, whilst asking for Western governments to block regional support to the rebels. Allison also repeated the racialist (always polemical, never empirical) trope that there were no ‘moderate’ rebels.
– Diane Abbot MP, who called Western airstrikes supporting the post-occupation sectarian Iraqi government “legal” and “if part of a broader strategy, of course right”.
Nor was this the first time that Stop the War have given a platform to Western interventionists:
– The Conservative MP Crispin Blunt was invited to speak on a Stop the War panel in the House of Commons in November 2015. Blunt’s voting record included voting for the Iraq War in 2003 (though later changed his mind) and voting to continue to support the Afghanistan war in 2010. His initial disagreement with the government motion (the basis of his invitation to the StWC panel) for intervening in Syria had to do with logistics, not principle: he argued that the scope of the proposed airstrikes was not wide enough for excluding Jabhat al-Nusra and other Syrian Islamist rebel groups that could be later designated as ‘terrorist’, and declared a distrust of David Cameron’s claim that the UK would be supporting 70,000 rebels against ISIS (a hypothetical commitment to support which of course never materialised) believing that any intervention should seek the cooperation of the Syrian (regime) Army. Blunt would argue for Western intervention against ISIS from this very ‘Stop the War’ platform.
This would take place at the same meeting where Stop the War prevented Syrian and Arab activists from speaking (with the exception of one who was eventually cut off – none of her compatriots were then permitted) – including calling parliamentary police to ‘talk to’ one.
A month after the Stop the War meeting, Blunt would change his mind and vote for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. In other words, Stop the War offered a platform to an MP with a “pro-war” record who would – as they would put it – “vote to bomb” the country of the silenced activists a month later. This is a scandal which is still covered up by the Stop the War Coalition.
– George Galloway, who supported current Western airstrikes in Iraq and argued that he would support them too in Syria if they came with the main purpose of backing the Assad regime’s ground forces (UK and US airforces had in fact already provided limited low-key aerial support for the Assad regime, including ground forces).
Galloway was confronted on his advocating of “Western imperialism” to intervene in support of Assad during a film premiere in Brighton, and admitted the charge, stating that “he wanted to see every member of ISIS and al-Qaeda on the ground killed” and that ISIS was the “biggest threat since the Second World War”.
– Wijdan Derki, a PYD/YPG supporter who again used a StWC platform in Birmingham to argue for Western airstrikes against ISIS.
– Erdelan Baran, again from the KNK. One of the plethora who used the Stop the War platform provided to chastise the Syrian Arab revolutionary forces as ‘extremists’ indistinguishable from ISIS.
Indeed, at this meeting Stop the War’s leadership (including Convenor Lindsey German) would be lambasted by Arab audience members for ignoring the campaign of the US-led International Coalition which involved US coordination with Assad as well as bombing of mainstream (“moderate”) Syrian rebel groups. One Syrian activist from Manbij in North Syria present in the audience declared to the panel: “You know what’s going on now in Manbij city? Assad’s bombing us in the daytime, and the Coalition – the Americans – are bombing us in the night-time … there is cooperation between Assad and the West”. This has been a consistent refrain from Syrians on the ground, who have been for years reporting that they have been subject to joint and simultaneous bombardments by the US-led Coalition and the Syrian Airforce .
The Syrian activist made it clear that he was against all intervention in his country, whether Western, Russian or Iranian. Another Egyptian activist present (who began by stating that he was being shot at by the “Western-backed” Al-Sisi regime the year beforehand, to preempt any accusation of “supporting Western imperialism”) argued that Stop the War had covered up US bombing of Syrian rebels in 2014 and civilian deaths which arose from them, as these realities were “inconvenient to their narrative” (of regime-change). He also accused Stop the War of failing to understand US policy in the conflict, which was regime-preservation – with or without Assad personally at the helm of the regime – and whereby the US wants the Assadist regime and state to come out on top (German interrupted at this point, scoffing “it doesn’t!”). Both activists were criticising Stop the War not for opposing Western intervention, but for actively ignoring and misrepresenting it.
Stop the War’s convenor, Lindsey German, would respond by stating “there is nothing in their [US] actions that shows that they are in any way supporting the Assad regime… whether you like it or not that is the truth”. German would also declare to the activists that “if you are a Syrian, if you are an Egyptian, you are entitled to your own politics, but you don’t have the right to come here and say that we shouldn’t oppose our imperialism”. Considering that the activists were in fact telling the Stop the War leadership that they were not opposing their own imperialism, this was a form of Orwellian response. In a sense it was indicative: Syrians under the joint bombs of the US and Assad were effectively told by Western ‘anti-imperialist’ experts in Stop the War’s leadership: “you don’t know what you’re talking about”. A few months later, after having to wait for an explicitly laid-out statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Ms German would write that the US was no longer ‘seeking regime-change in Syria’ – not long after scoffing at Arab activists telling her the same thing.
Ironically, such statements attesting US ‘opposition to Assad’ were arguably more defensive of Assad than Assad himself, who himself declared that whilst Western governments criticised his regime publicly, they privately engaged in intelligence and security coordination with it. Indeed, whilst the US-led intervention in 2014 was described by STW leaders as part of a backdoor ‘regime-change plot’ – and warning in its policy brief against the 2015 UK intervention that intervening would lead to the establishment of ‘No-Fly Zones’ and was thus really aimed at the Assad regime, not ISIS – the regime itself by contrast would welcome the US intervention repeatedly, after spending much effort attempting to convince Western governments that it was their ‘natural ally’ in their “War on Terror”.
The UK has coordinated intelligence with the regime, stripped the passports of British Muslims who have joined non-extremist, mainstream opposition groups, and has even seized the passport of Syrian refugee-activist “at the behest of the Syrian government”. Meanwhile, a prominent US Muslim and supporter of the Arab Spring who went to fight for the FSA (and opposed al-Qaeda and ISIS) was prosecuted by the US, threatened with the death penalty and kept in solitary confinement before being finally released (he later overdosed on drugs) – a stark contrast to the treatment of Western citizens who have gone to fight for the Syrian Kurds.
In total, the US-led Coalition has carried out more than 14,000 airstrikes on Syrian territory. Barring five incidents (all in the past year), these bombs have for all intents and purposes (more than 99%) exclusively targeted territories not controlled by the Syrian regime. The areas on which both US and Russian bombs fell – areas such as Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Manbij as well as (ISIS-free) Idlib – also happened to be the epicentres of the revolt against the regime in 2011 (regardless of whether the territories later came under the occupation of ISIS, which captured these territories after significantly outgunning – not outnumbering – local FSA brigades with tonnes of heavy military stocks seized from the Iraqi Army). The US bombs which have fell (for all intents and purposes) exclusively in anti-regime areas are estimated to have killed more than 4,000 Syrian civilians – these will undoubtedly include those who came out on the streets against Assad in 2011.
This means that the reality in Syria is that both the US and Russia have directly killed scores of Arab Spring protesters who went out in the streets in 2011. That this reality is so little-known and covered by alternative and anti-war movements points to the serious problem posited by their fundamental misunderstanding of the conflict. And contrary to portraying the regime as a ‘victim’ of Western imperialism, the regime in fact welcomed the intervention of the US repeatedly as well as that of Russia (after years of efforts trying to be accepted as a Western ‘War on Terror’ ally) – making the pro-regime Western propagandists (of the types of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Vanessa Beeley) arguably more pro-regime than the regime itself.
Similarly, another unknown fact is that no government in history has deployed an airforce inside its territory for as prolonged and continuous a campaign (2012 – today) as the Assad regime. Not only has the US blockaded the provision of anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels (whether by Qatar, Saudi Arabia or private donors) over the past five years – encompassing an quiet, low-level seizure of shipments – but it has actively joined in the same airspace as this record-breaking regime to jointly bombard Syrian territories. This of course requires a nominal level of intelligence-coordination in order to avoid operational conflict (as admitted by Assad), but has also involved directly supplying the regime with intelligence for its own military campaigns,(again, the subject of Assad’s bragging), joint bombardment missions by the US and Syrian airforces, and even support for pro-regime ground forces advancing against ISIS (including foreign militias), especially in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor. 14,000 airstrikes later, Stop the War’s leadership are still proclaiming that the US is really in Syria to get rid of Assad and support the Syrian uprising (or “regime-change”, as they call it).
To Stop the War it would appear that an exception is allowed for the YPG to seek Western help, presumably as they are facing the gravest threat in Syria (against any empirical basis suggesting this). Thus, there is no criticism for the role of the US-allied YPG in leveling Raqqa to the ground (and similarly for the role of Iran’s militias in levelling Mosul before it). In the former, this is due to the familiar and culturally-comforting image presented by the YPG for the Western ‘anti-imperialist’ audience, often portrayed in glowing terms as ‘left-wing’ and uniquely ‘secular’ in a rare environment (with secular here in the context of the Middle East really meaning having a limited public expression of Islam) – unlike the unrelatable rebel with their unhidden and disconcerting political expressions shaped by Islam (the debate here, it should be noted is not whether it is wrong to have an ideological affinity with secular forces, but to highlight the discrepancy). Of course, the fact that an Islamic influence in the rebels’ politics is indistinguishable from the situation that exists with the likes of Hamas – or that Israel has promoted itself for decades precisely in the name of its ‘secularism’ in an ‘Islamic neighbourhood’ – seems to be lost.
Stop the War’s leadership have spent years refusing to platform or debate Syrian solidarity activists – claiming that they ‘refuse to give a platform to supporters of Western intervention’ (of course, blanket-labelling Syrian revolutionary supporters as all supportive of a No-Fly Zone, which is not the case – the Syria Solidarity Campaign for example opposes all foreign intervention in the conflict). Yet they have offered to publicly debate the likes of Hilary Benn and Boris Johnson, who are obvious ‘supporters of Western intervention’. Perhaps therefore, STW’s leadership and the likes of German, Nineham and co. would be brave enough to accept a debate with their Arab Spring critics.
Because it appears that in Syria, Stop the War have come to oppose the Syrian revolution, not Western intervention. US support of the Assad regime has thus, accordingly, been marginalised.
How STW’s analytical contradictions have led to marginalising actual US interventions in Syria
Stop the War have constantly labelled their opponents to be “pro-war” and pro-Western intervention. The reality is not only that they have actively hosted Western interventionists – seemingly believing that Western intervention ceases to be “imperialistic” if it comes in support of Iran or left-wing Kurdish guerrillas – but they have also long ignored repeated instances of “Western intervention” in Syria which contradicted Stop the War’s (false) propagated narrative of “Western regime-change” (the following is not an exhaustive list):
- Whilst constantly equating the foreign-imposed Iraq invasion and premeditated mass-killings of Iraq’s citizens with the grassroots Syrian revolt, Stop the War have had nothing to say about the dozens of Western-backed Iraqi military brigades (known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Units/PMU) which are part of the Iraqi regime installed in 2003 by the US, and which fight in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. The PMUs are officially part of the Iraqi military; their forces are estimated to number between 20,000-30,000 fighters, have been backed against ISIS by the US and its allies in Iraq and are salaried by the Iraqi government. They form the crucial core of Assad’s forces in Syria (outnumbering any other single group, including Hezbollah), not least in the province of Aleppo. What this means, in other words, is that the regime the US installed in 2003 under the guise of ‘bringing democracy’ to the region is today playing a key role in burying the genuine, domestic demand for democracy which broke out in Syria in 2011.Meanwhile other ‘anti-imperialist’ Western allies such as the Egyptian regime of al-Sisi also militarily backs the Assad regime, whilst the Lebanese government (which Hezbollah is a member of) and army has been collaborating with the Syrian regime for years, as well as undertaking joint military operations (including with US Special Forces support) with Hezbollah against Sunni insurgents, ‘covering its rear’ inside Lebanon against domestic rivals, and facilitating Hezbollah’s invasion of Syria for years, allowing the passage of its fighters through their checkpoints. Indeed, the US has used the Lebanese Army as a conduit for security and intelligence collaboration with Hezbollah (indeed, relations improved to the extent that the US warned Hezbollah of an attack in Beirut by its rivals). The Lebanese Army has also been a direct security collaborator with the Assad regime (returning Syrian refugees to its hands) and has designated the FSA as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Other US allies such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Oman and the West Bank Palestinian Authority (Fatah) offer political and diplomatic support to the regime, whilst the UAE and Jordan have designated most revolutionary forces as ‘terrorist’ groups and along with Bahrain (and according to its President, Israel) supported Russia’s intervention to boot.
- Stop the War have had little to say about the sheer scale of humanitarian tragedies reported from the US bombing in support of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as continuously and ceaselessly relayed for years by Syrians on the ground in these areas (see below). The humanitarian realities left behind by the plethora of military campaigns of the US-led Coalition in various Syrian towns and cities have gone extremely underreported by the platforms of STWC, despite dozens of reports and statements from the ground in Syria by civil society bodies and local councils laying out in detail the tragedies in areas under Coalition bombardment. Few if any of these would be relayed, translated or generally brought to the attention of Western anti-war audiences.Instead, the majority of STW’s energies went into continuing to warn of a never arriving ‘regime change’ plot by the US, demonising the rebels (who were in fact getting intermittently bombed by the US and whose territories were getting swallowed by the US backed YPG/SDF) and ignoring the actual US intervention concurrently happening on the ground.
- Whilst condemning the FSA since its inception and misrepresenting it as a ‘US proxy’ (largely by virtue of the expected declarations of Western support for the Arab Spring in Syria), STW have noticeably failed to monitor the actual formation of what far more accurately qualifies as a ‘US proxy’ in the conflict: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the Kurdish YPG. The YPG/SDF is a supposed ‘third way’ between the rebels and the regime. On its formation (the SDF makes no mention of the Assad regime in its political programme), an FSA spokesman declared that the “goals of the SDF did not coalesce with those of the FSA or the revolution”. Despite this, the YPG/SDF has routinely been lazily labelled as ‘Syrian rebels’ by general media coverage; thus, commonly recirculated articles (for instance citing something like ‘US airdrops to rebels’) would be referring to the SDF: the non-rebelling ‘rebels’ that the US actually back.The spokesman of the SDF has declared that the SDF is ‘neutral’ towards Assad, and adding that the regime was ‘welcome’ to liberate territories from ‘terrorists’. The YPG/SDF has long been a collaborator of the Assad regime, including reportedly fighting alongside it during the recent fall of Aleppo (where the YPG flag was raised alongside the regime’s). Indeed, the “US backed SDF” has returned territories taken from ISIS under US aircover to the regime, as in the countryside of Manbij (where FSA forces attacked the SDF). This has led Syrian revolutionaries to mock the SDF’s ‘democratic’ credentials, declaring ‘those who collaborate with Assad, will never be democratic”. Furthermore, the main Arab faction of the SDF – Jaish al-Sanadeed – is a declaredly pro-Assad force.
An FSA fighter taking down the flag of the ‘US-backed’ SDFBy contrast to what you would expect of a ‘proxy’, the anti-Assad rebels (which the likes of StWC have long portrayed as ‘US proxies’, often by virtue of them being pro-democracy) have routinely refused to follow US instruction in Syria: opposing its military intervention in 2014 and declaring it “a violation of Syrian sovereignty”, refusing to accept US conditions (generally involving dropping the fight against Assad) in exchange for receiving “support”, consistently highlighting massacres of civilians by the US airforce, opposed the ground intervention of US Special Forces and ultimately for years being subject to (largely-marginalised and unreported) intermittent US bombardment.
This is by stark contrast to the examples set by the YPG/SDF, who as mentioned have welcomed the US staying in Syria ‘for decades’, allowed the construction of US military bases, fought alongside US Special Forces, ordered US airstrikes and routinely deny crimes by the US airforce – including the infamous US massacre committed in July 2016 in Manbij (the coordinates for the attack according to the Coalition were provided by the YPG/SDF). Indeed, after the massacre in question the Syrian political opposition (i.e. the largely-exiled Syrian National Coalition or SNC – itself a body largely alienated from the grassroots revolutionary forces) called for the cessation of Coalition airstrikes, only for the demand to be condemned as ‘supporting ISIS’ by the STW-backed YPG. The YPG has also been accused of expelling Arabs from villages recaptured from ISIS (with Rojava officials themselves describing mass expulsion as traditional ‘tribal’ punishment justifiable against families with ISIS members).
US envoy Brett McGurk being honoured by the ‘anti imperialist’ YPG, who are praised, offered platforms and never criticised by Stop the War Coalition.
The fact that these things are so poorly known amongst “anti-establishment” circles is precisely due to the misrepresentation of what is happening in Syria by groups such as Stop the War, deflecting “accusations of “Western proxies” onto anti-Assad revolutionaries instead of what is actually the only force on the ground in Syria that can accurately qualify as a “US proxy” – their favoured ideological “rebels” (who have largely kept out of the actual rebellion), the YPG .
- Stop the War have had nothing to say about the repeated US bombing of mainstream anti-Assad revolutionary forces, which in the first twelve months of the Coalition campaign had killed up to 200 anti-ISIS rebels (as well as the execution of 45,000 or so ISIS members from the air, against one Coalition casualty – likely constituting one of the most assymetrical wars in history).(For a list of examples of the Coalition bombing mainstream rebels (excluding Al-Nusra), see footnote )https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYgqLLzZmxo&feature=youtu.be
- Stop the War have had nothing to say about the US role in supporting the Assad regime’s capture of Aleppo, attacking rebels and infrastructure in rebel areas under the name of “fighting Al-Nusra” (which possessed an estimated 150 out of 7,000 fighters in the city, the rest overwhelmingly belonging to dozens of FSA groups). This has been barely (if at all) covered in Western media despite being well-covered in Arab media, and being the subject of protests by revolutionaries in Aleppo before its fall.https://twitter.com/HalabTodayTV/status/760656520572960768
- Stop the War have had nothing to say about clashes between the rebels and US Special Forces embedded with the YPG/SDF. These have happened repeatedly, and most recently included an incident of FSA forces exchanging fire with US Special forces embedded with the YPG/SDF. Nor was this the first example of conflict; months before the incident another FSA brigade kicked out US Special Forces from a town in the countryside of Aleppo. Within a few hours of the incident, reports emerged that an FSA group in the area was bombed by the Coalition, purportedly ‘by mistake’ (a claim disparaged at the time by Syrian activists, who noted the unlikely coincidental timing of the ‘accident’).A look at the following post helps to understand the FSA ire at the US Special forces, a far cry from the reality-detached perceptions of the narratives of Stop the War Coalition which portray the FSA as ‘US allies’.https://www.facebook.com/SyriaSolidarityCampaign/posts/341956786147512Indeed, in a somewhat surreal and indicative example of the uncomfortable contradictions faced by STW, Stop the War would actually put more focus in their media coverage on Turkey’s invasion of Syria (i.e. drawing the connection to ‘Western imperialism’ by highlighting Turkey as a ‘NATO ally’) than the actual US invasion of Syria including by US Special Forces (i.e. the intervention of actual Western imperialism) alongside the forces of the YPG. Condemnations of Turkey’s invasion of Syria would be accordingly couched in terms of ‘anti imperialism’ – i.e. highlighting Turkey being a ‘Western ally’ – whilst the actual US support for the YPG is seldom mentioned.Indeed, the YPG/SDF would often raise both the US and Russian flags to deter attacks from Turkish-allied FSA brigades. And indeed, far from a ‘proxy war’ between the US and Russia, both US and Russian military forces would deploy in Manbij to protect the YPG/SDF from the FSA.
In other words, the likes of Stop the War would in fact actively attack the forces resisting US imperialism in this context, the rebels, whilst exonerating those who were advancing under US aircover and whom the rebels were in conflict with, the (left-wing) YPG. This is one example of the sort of convoluted results which have come out of the group’s immense analytical contradictions, which in turn have been caused by the group’s general inability to grasp the nuances and vital ‘small prints’ of the realities of the conflict in Syria. This is a difficulty which would have been ameliorated if they had built connections with Syrian activists familiar with the complexities and nuances of the conflict.
Stop the War’s lack of coverage of the humanitarian realities in areas under Coalition bombardment
Indeed activists have for a while accused Stop the War Coalition of inexplicably ignoring their complaints against crimes by the Americans and the so-called “International Coalition”, long before Russia’s entry into the war. Stop the War have largely refrained from covering and detailing the realities of the US intervention. There has been a very noticeable lack of campaigning, coverage and reporting of the local realities of areas under attack. Articles telling the stories of whole families killed as “collateral damage” in US airstrikes, posts showing the images of intentionally destroyed civilian infrastructure by US airstrikes or statements by local councils and committees in areas under US bombs have been barely seen or shared from such platforms; instead a look at the output of Stop the War and associated outlets shows that most energy (even) until today has been spent on warning of the dangers of a fictitious “regime-change” in Syria – whilst the US has been simultaneously bombing Syria jointly with Assad since 2014 – and pressuring Western countries to blockade (the already-restricted) support by regional allies to the rebels. Meanwhile actual intervention concurrently taking place in direct coordination with the regime has gone completely under the radar.
Thus the anti-war movement’s efforts led by StWC’s current leadership in opposing the current ‘anti-Islamist’ War on Terror intervention launched by the US in Syria since 2014 has been nothing compared to the prolonged effort spent to ward off a non-existent threat of anti-Assad “US intervention”. That the realities (not abstract, theoretical pieces) of the long-warned-of “American intervention” went largely unexplored when it finally came was inexplicable to many Syrian and Arab activists.
Whilst Stop the War have been extremely quiet in campaigning against real foreign intervention in Syria – with a striking absence of all the usual coverage and attention to reporting local realities of areas under “US bombardment” (coverage which is a necessary pre-requisite of any anti-intervention campaign) – revolutionary activists in Syria and their solidarity networks abroad have long launched extensive campaigns not just against Russian and regime massacres and military campaigns, but also against those of the US. Manbij Is Being Slaughtered Silently, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and Deir al-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently are all examples of such campaigns focussing on the crimes of the US-led Coalition (as well as those of ISIS, the regime and the YPG/SDF, the main combatants in these areas).
Let us thus take the example of Manbij. Here, a plethora of statements were released by the revolutionary council of the city (exiled by ISIS to the rebel-controlled countryside) warning of the disastrous humanitarian situation under the joint US-YPG attack. These warnings would not make any coverage, until the well-reported massacre of 80 civilians in May, which was the only event in Manbij throughout the three month US-SDF military assault and siege on the city and its countryside that made headlines. This is but one example of dozens of reporting from the ground which has not been relayed onto anti-war audiences. Stop the War – who are supposed to be the party expected by anti-war audiences in the West to dig the realities of far-away places suffering imperialism and transmitting them to Western audiences – simply covered the massacre at the same time as “mainstream” media reports. In Syria, Stop the War was reduced not to reporting from the ground and being ahead a step, but from the politicised and/or shallow reports of Western and Russian media. Stop the War did not hear of or cover any of the suffering that had happened before that – despite being well-reported in pleas from Syrians of those areas. Their outreach would be ignored.
By contrast the UK-based Syria Solidarity Campaign – composed primarily of Syrian activists – provided English translations for Western audiences of statements and pleas for help from the locals and civil society organisations of Manbij, as well as reports detailing the chilling revelations of the scale of the humanitarian disaster in areas under US-led coalition attack. Yet the SSC did not of course have the reach of STW. Again, Stop the War never covered or recirculated these.
This lack of coverage of the actual realities of the US intervention in Syria, in exchange for theories of ‘regime change’ (whilst the US and Syrian airforces have been busy together bombing Syria in conjunction since 2014) or war propaganda which demonise rescue workers as ‘US proxies’ has been a large problem within alternative left wing platforms. To use a symbol of how convoluted and opposite to reality such theories often are, we can take the aforementioned demonisation of the White Helmets as ‘Western backed’. And then we can take the reality of White Helmets rescuing people not only from the rubble of regime and Syrian airstrikes, but also from those of the US-led Coalition (see footnote 11).
There were probably two reasons for this disconnectivity.
- The fact that the areas which have been bombarded by the US-led coalition have been for all practical purposes exclusively those which had revolted against the regime (before being taken from the rebels by the far-heavier armed ISIS) meant that Stop the War – who had effectively boycotted Syrian revolutionaries and had no networks with activists on the ground – was ignorant as to the realities of the US campaign. It would be the revolutionaries and activists, not the regime (which seldom reports on airstrikes by the Coalition or their casualties) who were the sources of the overwhelming bulk of reports on the realities of the US-led intervention.The reason for this is that the main sources of these reports happened to be local councils and civil bodies which were pro-revolution and continued to operate in the environs of these areas (with most local councils, political committees and other civil bodies having been expelled by ISIS; by contrast there are seldom any reports of the Coalition’s abuses from ground monitors of the Assad regime).
- To a lesser extent perhaps, the fact that the ground forces which had been attacking Manbij were the STW-supported (and universally popular in the West, amongst both right and left) Kurdish YPG. It seemingly mattered not that the YPG was the main “US proxy” in the conflict, for they were “left-wing”. By contrast complaints about what was happening to civilians under ISIS control are nullified for otherwise risking to appear as “ISIS apologism”. Indeed some alternative ‘left-wing’ pro-Assad outlets have actually accused Syria solidarity groups of “supporting ISIS” for highlighting the humanitarian tragedy being committed by the US-led coalition in areas under US bombardment. Others have more recently published articles celebrating coordination between the US-backed SDF and the regime, showing how little they actually believed in the “US-regime change” theory they had spent years propagating.
As for the wider lack of coverage given to reporting the events of the “anti-ISIS” Western intervention, there are also a few theories for this:
- That STW have internalised the War on Terror propaganda of the Assad regime to such an extent that reading (for example) US boasts of “killing 45,000” ISIS members without challenge from the air moves them little, certainly compared to the killing of “secular” regime soldiers. This is because there is a unanimous agreement (between right and left, establishment and anti-establishment) that ISIS is the most demonic evil existent in the world today (“since World War Two”, necessitating both Western and Russian intervention, according to Stop the War stalwart George Galloway) and a tacit (if undeclared) acceptance that Western powers are “not as bad”. The reality is the United States has killed far more civilians over the past decades than ISIS (and indeed, potentially killed more civilians than ISIS during the campaign against ISIS) – which incidentally in the opinion of this author is a fascist organisation (in case that has to be made clear) – and yet the fact is also that few today have the courage to say something like that.Indeed, if it is stated that members of anti-ISIS, moderate ‘Islamically’-identifying (i.e. with public political expressions linked to Islam) rebel brigades were also targeted and killed by the US-led coalition, this would be brushed off as “insignificant” or “no different” from the pre-existent targeting of ISIS (as they were in a sense also ‘just Islamists’ like them). Regardless of the fact that ISIS has never presented itself to be a force of the Syrian revolution – indeed arguing that the revolution’s project was an apostate one – whilst many anti-ISIS ‘Islamists’ (in itself often an arbitrary and alien term especially used in Western lexicons, as many “Islamists” simply believe that Islam is political, a position held by most Muslims around the world) have always presented themselves as revolutionaries, all anti-Assad revolutionaries inspired by Islamic precepts in their politics would be seen as inherently ‘the same’ as ISIS (or ‘ISIS-lite’).
- The contradictions posed by the reality of the US military intervention when it came in 2014 and which acted to preserve – not “change” – the regime (and doing so both before and after Russia’s intervention), and the ongoing collaboration with the regime since that date (paying put to the notion that the campaign against ISIS and other Islamist groups would be ‘regime-change by the back door’). The low-level campaign of airstrikes by the US airforce against anti-ISIS “moderate” rebel factions for example – which are estimated to have killed up to 200 rebels – were not covered by Stop the War coalition, as such events posed an inconvenient contradiction to the ‘regime-change’ narrative promoted for years by Stop the War.
Incidentally this was indirectly alluded to once by Lindsey German following a John Kerry statement in late 2015 in which US policy was explicitly laid out as “not regime change” (the statement simply reaffirmed long-standing actual and previously declared US policy, but Lindsey German had come across it for the first time), when German declared that the Americans seemed to have “given up on regime change”. She however tempered any positive in her statement by boasting “we were right to tell [anti-STW] Syrians not to trust the Americans”. This was an audacious boast indeed, as it took place a mere few months after scoffing at an identical statement by an Arab activist when he declared that US policy was not “regime-change” but “regime-preservation” – whether with Assad nominally at the head of the regime or not (with indeed even this likely being flexible, as has since been correctly proven). At the time German called the person who said this “idiotic” and declared “there is nothing in their actions to show that they are in any way supporting the Assad regime”.
- That Stop the War Coalition understand the popular mood, and understand that opposing anti-ISIS intervention would never have the same prospect of garnering British public support as building campaigns opposing further “regime-change”. Thus they have simply prioritised opposing “regime-change” intervention over opposing “War on Terror” intervention, knowing that if they were to do the latter with the same vigour as the former (without being seen to be offering a solution to the British public beyond “let them sort it out”, regardless of even if this is the right approach) they would lose much of the credibility they gained with the public as during the Iraq war, and that therefore they must prioritise the interventions they seek to oppose.There is also of course a much stronger antipathy toward ISIS within STW itself which is additionally influenced by pressure from “leftist” pro-YPG groups, than there is toward the Syrian regime for example. It may not be inconceivable either that rhetoric aside, a slightly fearful recognition that ISIS is indeed “scary” (note here that there are never arguments made that “we are being lied to about ISIS”, as is the case with the regime) might also have an influence on how they approach (or don’t) the details of the US intervention.
- The propagated notion and suspicion held and propagated by many within the movement that the “West is not really fighting extremism in Syria” if not that “the West is supporting Islamist extremism in Syria”. The logical consequence of what follows is a lack of recognition of the tens of thousands of airstrikes (and accompanied destruction) launched by Western warplanes on the towns and cities held by ISIS (and other groups arbitrarily deemed to be “extremist”) entailing a denial and lack of coverage of the casualties and suffering caused by “the West”. The result consequently is not only not “anti-Western imperialism”, but propagation of narratives which are actively distracting from Western imperialism’s actual policies. The reality is that the only extremism the West is supporting in Syria is the regime’s “secular” (that is, not justified in the name of Islam) genocide.
Indeed, during the fall of Aleppo, headlines were made when a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn responded to criticisms of Stop the War for not protesting in front of the Russian embassy by calling on people to also feel free to protest outside the US embassy. Luckily enough this had already been done, and not by Stop the War Coalition, but by Syrian revolutionaries and their solidarity supporters:
The reality is that it is Syrian revolutionaries who have been constantly awake to the interventions of “imperialism”, both Russian and American. The reality is that whilst Syrian revolutionaries and their networks abroad have always exposed the realities of Western intervention and opposed the crimes of both US and Russian imperialism. The reality are in the below pictures:
[Embed: Video of protests in Syria against the US intervention]
Stop the War have done little in terms of covering Syria’s realities beyond theoretical buzzwords and conflation of a popular uprising with a foreign invasion (Iraq), and have thus ended up – ironically – neither mobilising against US imperialism nor Russian imperialism.
Indeed during the fall of Aleppo, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornburry, an MP who voted for airstrikes in Iraq in 2014 and before that repeatedly against an investigation into the Iraq War, suggested that the solution to Aleppo was the evacuation of 1,000 “Jihadist” fighters which she said “successfully” ended the tragedy of Homs. Homs was the heart of the Syrian revolution, whose population in 14 districts of the city were forcibly evacuated alongside the fighters and continue to be prevented from returning today. Ethnic cleansing. Homs was the city which was levelled to the ground by the Assad regime’s airforce and tanks during four years of siege. The solution she spoke of, of course, was its surrender to the Assad regime. The “progressive” answer she spoke of – though she may not have known it – was the ethnic cleansing of Aleppo.
Thornburry, the “imperialist intervention” supporter, was labelled “very sensible” by Stop the War Deputy Chair, Chris Nineham. The reality is that “intervention” had long stopped mattering for Stop the War – the priority now was “regime-preservation”, contradictorily even if this entailed Western intervention for it, such has been the capital invested into the “regime-change” narrative in Syria. Blunt, Thornburry and others would be happily cited regardless of their voting records if they stood against anti-Assad “regime change”.
Stop the War and Labour mouthpieces also accused Syrian revolutionaries and solidarity activists of distracting from “American crimes” by speaking of Russian ones. When asked to condemn Russia, Stop the War and Labour officials instead blurted out unspecified mentions of the US-led intervention – which has come exclusively against “anti-Assad” forces, both moderate and extreme, who according to the StWC narrative the United States of course actually “supports”.
The statements are an Orwellian upturning of reality onto its head. The first campaigns against the US-led intervention in Syria and the first campaigns exposing and monitoring its crimes were by Syrian revolutionaries and their activists. The reality is that those who Stop the War slander as “pro-West” – the Syrian anti-Assad revolutionaries and solidarity activists – have opposed the intervention of “the West” in their country long before they had a clue of what it consisted of (and indeed, arguably still don’t). And incidentally, they also opposed ISIS long before their “establishments” or StWC’s leadership knew much about it.
Anti-Coalition campaigning from Syrian Revolution Network
Friday of “Terrorism is not fought by allying with terrorists” – 29/08/2014
Friday of “Civilians don’t need International Killers” – 26/09/2014
Friday of “Defeating Daesh is not by the killing of civilians” – 22/07/2016
2013-14 Anti-ISIS campaigns from Syrian Revolution Network
Friday of “Liberating Raqqa from the Baghdadi Gang” – 25/04/2014
Friday of “ISIS is the poisonous dagger in Iraq and Syria” –
Friday of “ISIS seeks to destroy Islam” – 21/11/2014
Alternative patriotism and Reverse nationalism
Amongst the most intellectually-dishonest claims repeated in recent times on Syria is the notion that Russia is being “demonised” in Syria amidst an environment of “Russophobia” and “hysteria” which could lead to a “world war”. This is a cheap way of hiding the Russian sympathies which exist within the upper echelons of Stop the War. Perhaps the most enraging, heartless and insensitive nature of such statements however are the selfish, nationalistic concern they portray. “We” do not want war with Russia. “We” are worried about what escalating tensions with Russia will mean “for us” – all regardless of the realities of the worthless, far away “others” that are actually suffering under a declared war by Russia. These did not matter.
This tendency is further proof of a dangerous isolationist trend visible within left-wing circles: a “critical” yet no-less narcissistic form of Western-centrism. In taking the core unit here to be Western agency and the marginalisation of the periphery (the “Other”), this was a lopsided form of Orientalism. Another problem is that this tendency tends to lend itself to a reactionary methodology: reactionary in the literal sense of being uncritically, superficially and susceptively reactive. ‘Diplomatic’ and rhetorical Western support for “democratic transformation” in the Middle East is hastily cited to condemn the democratic movements themselves as the conspiracy, rather than engaging in a deeper and perhaps more tedious analysis which firstly explains why such diplomatic and rhetorical support may be unavoidable, and secondly actually examines the extent of the genuineness of this Western “support”. However reactionary politics tends to be reactionary for the reason of the simple, effortless narratives they offer, and this is why they tend to be the domain of the Right (and why Assad-apologist narratives on Syria can be often found to be repeated verbatim by both the far-right and parts of the left).
This “alternative patriotism” contradictorily ends up not even countering true Western imperialism, whereby imperialist policy has had to evolve to become less brazen and hide under rhetorical commitments and facades (though with the election of Trump this may be reversed) – but instead it is more interested in occupying a position of easy, posturative counter-conformity, whereby the latest politician statement is taken as the key unit of analysis to pose “in counter” to. This leaves the “alternative patriot” easy pretty to the fact that statements do not make imperialist policy, or necessarily divulge them. Thus in the example given above Lindsey German ignored a Syrian stating that his town was under joint bombardment by the US and Assad, to cite as her evidence “an interview” in which a US official criticised Assad.
Of course the reality is that this is not a genuine principle, but a pragmatic one aimed at getting the support of the wider public. If “world war” was the concern, by the same logic Stop the War should not support the Cuban revolution, or the Soviet-backed Palestinians during the Cold War, for “raising the temperature with the West”. Assuming today that (in an alternative world) Russia was an ally of the Palestinians, would Stop the War have demonised Palestinian calling for a No-Fly Zone in Gaza to be enforced against Western ally Israel? Would Stop the War have said “Hands off Hitler” during the Second World War, as this would also lead to “world war”? (To be clear here, this is not to praise Western imperialism in the Second World War either, which was concurrently colonising and oppressing large parts of the world). If they would indeed have done these things, than it would have been the definition of cowardice and a relinquishing of moral and human responsibilities.
Imperialisms compete as well as collaborate, and often have shared interests. Russia declares officially that its intervention in Syria is one against the Arab Spring revolutions which broke out in 2011, whilst the US simply takes an undeclared counter-revolutionary role. This is why regional Western allies across the board – the likes of Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Iraq and Libya’s General Haftar – are rushing to seek an extra layer of dual counter-revolutionary protection by Russia as well (contrary to those who declare a ‘return’ today to the Cold War, this dual ‘cross-camp’ US-Russian support would not have been possible then). These are the type of core contradictions which help explain why Israel was for a long time supported by parts of the Western left, as well as being supported – like the YPG today, it is interesting to note – simultaneously by both the US and Russia (indeed to add one more eerie historical repetition, with Israel also identifying then as ‘left wing’ to boot).
Because of Stop the War’s fundamental failure to distinguish between the US Arab Spring policy of “orderly transitions” – essentially a policy of “regime preservation with facelifts”, whereby the head of the regime is urged to leave power to another regime member as the best way of preserving state institutions intact from collapse (as occurred in Egypt and Yemen), and the wholly different notion of “regime-change”, one of the biggest ironies has been that imperialists and (this brand of) “anti-imperialists” have in fact possessed identical positions and policy prescriptions on Syria, with the latter simply not knowing it:
- Whilst official US policy has always been opposing “regime-change” and the victory of the armed revolution, this has been identical to the position of Stop the War. The US has since 2011 ensured this policy via limitations on the provision of qualitative weaponry to the Syrian opposition by regional allies (this has involved the routine seizure of arms shipments at the Syrian border as well as political pressure). This policy proscription urging a blockade of Arab states arming the rebellion is identical to that of the US. Indeed, Stop the War policy documents urging a blockade of arms to the rebels took place at the same time as US statements urging the same thing.
- The US has from the start of the armed insurgency (since 2012) placed doubts surrounding the “moderatism” of the rebellion (it was the US that introduced the much disparaged “moderate” term into the lexicon), using this to justify blockading qualitative support to the armed opposition and ultimately maintaining the Assad regime in power. The US vice president declared in 2014 that “there was no moderate middle”. This position was identical to that of Stop the War.
- Whilst US policy in Syria has been crucial (arguably more so than Russia) in changing the emphasis in narratives on the conflict from that being of a popular insurgency against a dictatorial regime to a renewed “War on Terror”, this has in fact what StWC have been arguing and implicitly advocating should be the case since 2012. Again, Stop the War’s leadership took a leading role in exaggerating the role of “Islamic extremists” in Syria since 2012 –with this, again unbeknownst to them, taking place at the same time as US statements.
- Stop the War’s main demand on Syria has been a “political solution” which “drops the demand for regime change as a pre-requisite” – code for relinquishing the ‘precondition’ for Assad to step down. As it happens, the US has long accepted a “transitional” role for Assad, and indeed also stated that Assad should be able to run for future elections in 2017 – the position StWC effectively espouse.
 “The politics don’t matter to the people here, all we see is one type of death – it comes from the sky, whether the Americans are dropping the bombs or Assad, it makes no difference. They are both murdering us. What do you expect any sane person to think here? One day American airplanes and the next Bashar’s, how do they not crash or shoot each other? It is simple, they call each other and say today is my turn to kill the people of Raqqa, please don’t bother me, it will be yours tomorrow.”
“We are seeing coalition warplanes hit targets during the day in Raqqa province and then Syrian warplanes follow-up with more indiscriminate strikes at night,” a commander with the Free Syrian Army told The Daily Beast. “This is not a coincidence—to argue that it is stretches credulity””
“[The U.S.] bombed Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, parts of Homs and Aleppo. But [their] airplanes fly over our city along with the regime air force, which means that they and the regime are coordinating. They say they don’t want to coordinate with the Assad regime, but [U.S.] planes are flying with the regime’s in the same air space” http://www.worldcrunch.com/54d9089fd29b53f0e879ecc81cd99d34/world-affairs/no-the-progressive-syrian-opposition-is-not-dead/protests-raed-fares-activism-assad/c1s17292/#.VEzWuxYxg1J
“The American and Syrian warplanes are flying in the same airspace,” he expounds incredulously. “There has to be some communication for them to avoid each other!”
 US “backed” White Helmets working in the aftermath of US airstrikes (this list is not exhaustive: Youtube has removed many videos).
The realities of what is happening in Syria and Iraq are hardly known to Western audiences. In the latter case in particular, very little is known about the nature of the Iraqi regime that was installed after the US-led invasion in 2003. In this 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documented an epidemic of sexual violence in Iraqi prisons against women detainees. The stories are similar to the more well-covered cases of sexual violence by the Assad regime (www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/syria-has-a-massive-rape-crisis/274583/2/).
It was the issue of women prisoners that was amongst the most prominent sparks for the Iraqi Spring protests of 2012. Sexual violence against women in a conservative society such as Iraq inflamed anger against the government, an anger which quickly transformed into an armed insurgency in 2014 after the government tried to crack down on the protests. Unfortunately, one of the insurgent groups was ISIS, and when it became clear that the US-led Coalition would re-intervene in Iraq in 2014 in order to prop up the government (following the capture of Mosul by an insurgent coalition, of which ISIS was only a part), Iraqi rebel groups decided to retreat instead of face the inevitable prospect of US bombing, leaving ISIS to dominate the armed insurgency.
Instead of dealing with the original source of the problem, Western powers decided instead to prop up the Iraqi regime under the guise of “fighting ISIS”, as was the case in Syria. The crimes of ISIS have been used to to make Western publics forget about the (often far-greater) abuses of regional regimes against which popular uprisings broke out – in Iraq, Syria and Egypt – and all because these regimes had a history of allying with Western interests. Today, all of these regimes are allied in their joint counter-insurgencies (with Egypt and Iraq both providing military support to Assad in Syria for example) and all commit the same type of crimes in their dungeons.
With the recent capture of Mosul by the same Western-backed Iraqi government which committed the crimes documented in this report, it is unclear whether we will see a return to the widespread sexual abuse of Iraqi women from anti-government areas. What is undoubtedly clear, however, is that Western publics must pressure their governments to end their support of the extremist, authoritarian government in Iraq – which commits heinous crimes against its own people as well as against the people of neighbouring countries like Syria. We in the West have a moral responsibility in this regard, for it is our governments which brought this draconian regime to power in 2003, instead of the “democracy” they promised.
– Warning: This report contains content that some readers may find distressing.
In the past year or so, much has been made of the Assad regime’s victories in different areas of Syria. From Aleppo to Daraya and most recently the besieged Homs suburb of Al-Waer, the regime recaptured bastions of Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades across the country. Whilst the Assad regime’s victories have often been put under the label of the “Syrian Army” in general media coverage, the reality of who exactly constitutes that army is generally very different.
Whilst the dominant role of pro-regime foreign militias has been relatively underplayed in general media coverage (especially when compared to the attention given to foreign fighters travelling to Syria to fight for groups such as ISIS), what in particular has been little covered is the role of Iraqi state-backed brigades in the fighting: sectarian Iraqi Shia brigades known collectively as part of the “Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMUs) or al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Hashd for short). Possessing a sectarian-doctrinal loyalty to the Iranian theocracy, the PMUs receive simultaneous Western and Iranian military backing in the fight against ISIS and other Sunni insurgents inside Iraq. However like ISIS their fighting is not limited just to the borders of Iraq; they are a transnational force who believe in fighting for Iran’s cross-border “Islamic nation”.
Similarly, in stark contrast to the substantial attention devoted in official Western statements to “ISIS’ trampling of national borders”, little has been made of the same process taking place by the PMUs and indeed other pro-Iran groups such as Hezbollah (the latter has also come to experience a relative rapprochement with the United States in the post-Arab Spring era with US officials poignantly declaring that they do not view Hezbollah as a threat, and with the Lebanese Army serving as a security and intelligence conduit between the two sides in the greater fight against Sunni jihadism; indeed there have even been reports of direct coordination against Jabhat al-Nusra).
Numbering somewhere in the region of 20,000+ fighters spread across a dozen core constituent groups (details of the individual PMU factions can be found here in Englishand Arabic), the PMUs fighting in Syria are the single largest component within the pro-Iran coalition fighting for the Assad regime in Syria – twice outnumbering Hezbollah. They view their fighting in Syria as part of an ideological “holy war” – albeit a Shia rather than Sunni one – and have been accused of war crimes inside Syria as well as Iraq. The sectarian nature of their Syrian intervention is reflected in the areas that the PMU groups profess to be fighting in, with the bulk of their fighting concentrated not in the known ISIS strongholds of Raqqa, al-Hasakah or Deir al-Zor but mainly in West Syria and the far-away, anti-ISIS popular bastions of the mainstream Sunni rebel forces (mainly local Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front battalions) in Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Rural Damascus and Dara’a. In many such crucial battles, as in the regime’s attempts to regain control of Damascus’ besieged suburbs and Aleppo, the Iraqi brigades played a dominant front-line role. Not all PMU groups have however joined in the fighting in Syria, with the Saraya al-Salam (”Peace Companies”) of the influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr notably refusing to do so.
In both Syria and Iraq sectarian PMU groups have been accused of carrying out sectarian cleansing in Sunni areas (often under US air-cover); including emptying villages from their inhabitants, razing their homes to the ground, and partaking in extreme brutality and torture against their opponents. Inside Iraq the militias receive direct military support(including aerial cover) from the US and its allies as well as salaries, machinery and armsprovided by the Western-backed Iraqi government (whilst the US has also taken part in training select PMU groups). The PMUs have arguably played the most decisive role in the Assad regime’s victories in the past year, surpassing the much more media-reported role of Hezbollah. It was their increased presence that was decisive in capturing rebel-held strongholds (which Hezbollah and the Syrian Army for years proved uncapable of), most prominently East Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of Daraya. Though not as extensive, there have also been reports of regular Iraqi security personnel belonging toSWAT teams, Special Operation Forces (SOF) and ‘Rapid Response Units‘ fighting alongside the PMUs in Syria.
The years-long Western backing of Iraqi brigades who fight for Assad in Syria has received scant to little coverage in mainstream Western media, despite both their decisive role in support of Assad and the reality of their Western backing being well-reported by Syrian groups and activists. Ironically, much of ‘alternative’ media and anti-war platforms have also similarly largely ignored their critical intervention inside Syria, perhaps viewing it as an uncomfortable, complex contradiction to a long-propagated and comfortable (yet false and simplistic) ‘regime-change’ narrative.
Meanwhile, in much mainstream media coverage from the frontlines of Mosul, it would be common to find BBC and Sky News journalists declaring that they were “embedded with the Iraqi Army” whilst the flags of a PMU faction could be seen clearly flying in the background. Yet whilst this form of coverage (of presenting sect-based militias to Western audiences as a ‘national’ – i.e. non-sectarian – regular army) can be deceiving, the PMU groups nonetheless have indeed been the backbone of the Iraqi state’s forces and long constituted the closest Iraq had to an effective ‘army’. There is thus a combined ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ media failure on much of reporting regarding Syria.
Whilst having previously qualified as a ‘substate militia’ – albeit one still operating with official state sanction – as of November 2016 the ‘militias’ finally and officially became legally integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces. Their fighters are thus salaried members of the Iraqi military under the command of the Iraqi Commander in Chief, the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Thus the Iraqi PMUs are in fact no longer ‘militias’ (indeed, some PMU leaders insist on no longer being called this), but in fact Iraqi military brigades.
What this means, in other words, is that the Iraqi military is occupying Syria.
Western governments have of course been fully aware for years that the same PMU brigades who they support inside Iraq also fight across the border for Assad in Syria, yet they have for years kept this quiet and relied on the lack of coverage of the issue in Western media (as with so many other aspects of Syria, a lack of coverage not helped by the ‘complexity’ of the issue). Indeed, the US and UK arguably allowed and facilitated the capture of the revolutionary, democratically-governed town of Daraya in an offensive led by Iraqi brigades in August 2016 – blocking Saudi and Qatari military supplies to the rebels via the Jordanian border whilst taking no action against the thousands of Iraqi state fighters entering Syria to fight for Assad. The ‘evacuated’ or ‘transferred’ (to use the regime’s terminologies) residents of Daraya joined the growing list of towns which have been recaptured from the regime and allegedly “cleansed” of their original inhabitants.
Whilst the PMUs have always been state-backed – meaning that the distinction between ‘state-sanctioned militia’ and ‘official military brigade’ can be a fine one – clarifying the nuances in the terminology is nonetheless an important endeavour. For terminology plays a large part in the confusion – and for Western power-holders, obfuscation – of the decisive role of the PMU brigades inside Syria. Within the dominant existing lexicon the PMUs are commonly referred to as ‘Iraqi Shia’ or ‘Iranian proxy’ militias, yet more accurate definitions (especially since the PMUs’ legal integration into the Iraqi military) would clearly underline the statist nature of these groups, whether that entails labeling them specifically as ‘Iraqi military PMUs’ or simply as ‘Iraqi military brigades’.
Furthermore, acknowledging these forces as official state actors opens up a series of legal questions. Indeed, it should be remembered that the US began its destruction of Iraq in 1991 after it invaded ‘sovereign’ Kuwait, yet today it is effectively supporting the ‘sovereign’ troops of its regional ally occupying Syrian territory.
There are two crucial factors that have provided Western governments with the necessary deniability of this pro-Assad role in Syria (though they have been seldom interrogated on the matter). The first is the claim that the groups are militias, i.e. with the implication of being “out-of-control” non-state actors on which Western governments could exercise no leverage. Yet this is patently mistaken: as well as indirect Western arms provisions via the Iraqi government, warplanes of the US-led coalition have also directly provided vital aerial cover to PMU brigades (including such Assad-supporting groups as Iraqi Hezbollah, the League of the Righteous/Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and the Badr organisation) in military operations against ISIS in Iraq.
Indeed, the PMU brigades can be commonly found in Iraq driving US Humveys and APCs provided by the Iraqi government, and have even been documented fighting for Assad inside Syria in US tanks and Humveys. Meanwhile the flight of Iraqi PMU fighters from Baghdad to Damascus takes place directly under the eyes of US military personnel and officials present in the country (for symbolic value, a US military base surrounds and protects the same Baghdad airport which serves as Assad’s Iraqi conduit). The US could easily condition military support to the Iraqi government to the “verifiable closure of the country’s airspace… to pro-Assad convoys” – and has been advised to do so since 2013 – but chooses not to.
The second factor is the relegation of the Iraqi nature of these groups to simply being ‘Iranian proxies’. Indeed, commonly used terms by many anti-Assad Syrians for the pro-Assad PMUs include ‘sectarian militias’, ‘Iraqi Shia militias’, ‘Iranian-backed militias’ or even simply ‘Iranian militias’. Yet this is ultimately a simplification; for whilst the invading PMUs are indeed ideologically-sectarian groups supported by Iran, this does not preclude them from being simultaneously backed by Western governments. That the Iraqi state has become largely a sectarian Iranian proxy does not negate the existence of that state or the backing that it receives from Western powers, and ultimately the PMUs form a crucial part of the Iraqi state apparatus alongside their simultaneous role as an Iranian foreign proxy. Furthermore, such descriptions of the PMUs as more or less ‘Iranian’ provide deniability to Western governments, since it can be claimed that Iran – unlike Iraq – is not a main beneficiary of Western military support. The legal commander-in-chief of the PMUs is the Iraqi Prime Minister, not an Iranian general.
Whilst US support for the PMUs has largely been centred in Iraq, the notion that the PMU brigades cease being ‘Western-backed’ once they cross the border into Syria is, of course, fanciful. Nonetheless it is noteworthy that the US has on limited occasion provided aerial support to the PMUs inside Syria, namely in Palmyra (along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the PMU’s Imam Ali Brigades [AR]]) and possibly – though indeterminately – as part of pro-regime forces in Hasakah and Deir al-Zor. In other words, the United States has provided military support to foreign militias on Syrian territory.
Indeed, according to many anti-Assad detractors of US policy, the United States had the clear capacity to condition its critical military support to the Iraqi government – without which Baghdad would have likely come under siege by ISIS in 2014 – on the understanding that it was contingent on the non-intervention of Iraqi state-backed brigades in the Syrian conflict. Accordingly, if the United States truly cared about the Assad regime’s criminality – or was obsessed with “regime-change”, the severely inaccurate mischaracterisation of US policy which Western commentators such as Robert Fisk have spent years promoting (simultaneously obfuscating a plethora of inconvenient facts, such as the Assad regime in 2014 welcoming the military intervention by the same US government supposedly conspiring against it – and correctly declaring it as “aligned”) its extensive military support to Iraq would have been suspended long ago when it was clear that the PMUs were fighting for Assad in Syria. Instead, the significant and game-changing level of involvement of Iraqi brigades in the Syrian conflict since 2015 has actually taken place concurrent with the US increasing its military support to Iraq during this period. That Western governments have for years ignored the intervention of Iraq in Syria whilst increasing support to its armed forces is due at best to their lack of interest in the regime’s crimes, and at worst (according to many of the detractors) a policy of active calculation.
Indeed, the capability of Iraqi PMU brigades to flock into Syria is directly a result of the heavy US-led intervention against ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. It is within this context – the retreat of ISIS as the thousands of US-led Coalition bombings took their toll – that sectarian Iraqi groups proliferated into Syria. The number of Iraqi fighters entering Syria increased pointedly, with an estimated 2013 level of between 800–2,000 Iraqi fighters multiplying to at least 20,000 by 2016. Thus the US-led support for Iraqi state forces against their enemies inside Iraq undoubtedly facilitated the entry of many of these same forces into Syria.
The recent capture of Mosul opens the possibility that far more Iraqi PMU brigades will intervene in Syria, perhaps even with “official” backing (likely encompassing significantly-escalated and coordinated support). With recent news that the CIA has ended its “vetted arms” program to Syrian rebels (a misunderstood role which contrary to popular media portrayal was centred on controlling, restricting and vetoing existing arms inflows from regional states – and by extension the scope of rebel mlitary campaigns – to ensure that the regime was not pressured to a point of collapse), the possible US return to a “choking” policy of rebel supplies (potentially encompassing much tighter border policing) in conjunction with an escalated involvement by the Iraqi government in Syria may bode ill for the Syrian revolutionaries, unless regional rebel allies finally challenge US diktat and bypass “Uncle Sam’s” regime-preserving red lines. Contrary to the disparagingof the Syrian revolutionary forces as either non-existent, weak or ‘extremists’ (rhetoric which is noticeably fashionable today amongst proclaimed ‘anti-establishment’ circles, yet which far from being ‘alternative’ is in fact identical to long-established polemic by US officials and reports by Tony Blair’s think-tank), the US subversion of the Syrian revolutionaries was because – unlike others such as the Kurdish YPG – they were “not ready to back US interests”.
What this years-long effective Western support (be it directed or acquiesced-to) for the Assad regime by way of the Iraqi military means is that the 2003 invasion of Iraq – ostensibly committed in the name of “democracy” – has in fact brought to power forces that are today crucial in helping the Assad regime bury the genuine, grassroots demand for democracy of 2011. Neither is this merely a retrospective truth, for the US and UK governments continue to support Iraq despite being fully aware of its invasion of Syria, making a mockery of ‘official’ condemnations of the Assad regime.
Thus far from the useful populist fanfare of a ‘Western conspiracy’ to overthrow him – the empty trope repeated by every previously Western-collaborating Arab Spring dictator (and there is evidence that Assad himself does not fully believe it) – Assad’s real secret winning ingredient? The past and present US-led interventions in Iraq.
Part Two discusses the question as to what extent the United States simply turned a blind eye to the role of foreign militias in Syria, or whether this constituted part of a more calculated policy. It also discusses the Trump administration’s recent actions which have involved some foreign pro-Assad groups in Syria, and which have opened questions as to whether the Trump administration is shifting away from its predecessor’s policy.