As the war in Syria enters its apparent end phase, it’s obvious that this country has paid a grim price for U.S. imperialism’s attempt at regime change. By some estimates, over 500,000 Syrians, out of a total population of 17 million, have been killed in fighting since 2011, when armed conflict broke out. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded, many gravely.
Some 3 million Syrians have fled to Europe or live mainly in Turkey and Jordan in foreign exile. Other hundreds of thousands are “internally displaced,” forced to flee their homes because of violence and threats but remaining in Syria.
Syria’s economy has been devastated. Social relations between various communities have been disrupted and envenomed.
The major powers trying to replace Bashar al-Assad and his government — U.S. imperialism and its major European partners, Britain and France — have intervened mainly through proxies, while avoiding sending large numbers of troops. Sometimes, they even funneled money and arms through Qatar, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish regime from the start intervened to try to overthrow the Syrian government and always against Kurdish forces. Israel has bombed Syrian targets.
Washington made its largest troop intervention with Special Forces in the mainly Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. The U.S. has collaborated with Kurdish fighters, who have, on the one hand, been fighting Turkish repression and, on the other hand, fighting reactionary religious fighters of the ISIS type. The Turkish regime considers all Kurdish groups that are pro-independence as terrorists and linked to the Kurdish liberation movement inside the Turkish state.
Some of these proxy groups that retreated to Idlib have allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and others to al-Qaida. These are groups that Washington calls “terrorists,” although the U.S. provided arms to them before 2014 and still does to some. Some of these forces have grown out of local groups that opposed the Damascus government. These forces not only fought the Syrian government, but they also, from time to time, fought each other.
Turkey is the only country that has had significant land troops in the mix, mainly just across its southern border. However, the U.S., France and Britain, as well as Israel, often conducted airstrikes in support of the proxy force they were backing at the time and against the Damascus government.
China and Russia gave Syria essential political support in 2011 and 2012 by vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have provided a cover for a strong military intervention by the U.S. and European imperialist powers. Imperialist intervention could have allowed the jihadis opposed to Damascus — ISIS and al-Qaida — to gain the upper hand, much as happened in Libya in 2011.
The Syrian army managed to survive and keep control of the country through the most difficult days of the war. When Russia, Iran and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon began to assist the Syrians in 2015, the Bashar al-Assad government began recovering the territory it had lost to the reactionary groups.
As the Syrian army began to win back areas that had been under reactionary control in the cities of Aleppo and Homs, as well as the suburb of Damascus called East Ghouta and the southern border with Jordan, it would make agreements to limit casualties suffered by civilians and to both sides. A typical deal allowed the fighters who refused to surrender to Syrian control to leave and take their families on a one-way bus trip to Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria.
Astana agreement and military pressure on Idlib
A series of meetings among belligerents was first held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in 2017. The Astana goal was to de-escalate the struggle in Syria through exchanging prisoners and bodies, providing services like water and electricity, and reducing violence. These meetings were held between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government in the presence of observers from Turkey, Russia and Iran — the countries which guaranteed the process. There has been no participation of “Western Powers,” the term Al-Jazeera uses to refer to Washington and its European allies.
The opposition fighters still remaining are concentrated in Idlib. Most observers believe that the Syrian government, with aid from Russia and Iran, can regain control of Idlib. Once Damascus reconquers Idlib, most Syrians will be under the protection of the Syrian government.
A large area of eastern Syria, mainly desert but containing most of Syria’s known oil reserves, is under the control of Kurdish groups. Some 2,000 U.S. troops are also in that region.
In a special U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria held Sept. 7, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley fulminated about the “humanitarian crisis” that is threatening to engulf Idlib and “the atrocities committed by Assad.” The representative of the Russian federation said, “Western countries are preparing aggressive plans to prevent the last terrorist-held area from falling.” (U.N. news report for Sept. 7)
The U.S., Britain and France also threatened to intervene should Syria use chemical weapons against opposition forces in Idlib. Russian speakers warned of a possible “false-flag” operation to create a pretext for intervention.
This U.S. threat to Syria is the height of hypocrisy, especially given the chemical weapons the U.S. dropped in Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam war, euphemistically known as “defoliants.” They were designed to destroy the croplands and starve the people, as well as destroy the jungles covering troop movements, and are still producing horrible birth defects and genetic damage after 50 years.
According to Karin Leukefeld, a journalist for the progressive German daily newspaper Junge Welt, the day after the U.N. meeting, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Tehran in the framework of the Astana accords. She says the presidents felt “a decision should be taken on the extent of a military operation in Idlib and how civilians can be protected.”
She adds: “According to reports in the Arab media, a sophisticated military operation plan for Idlib has been drawn up. The aim is to separate troops ready to accept an agreement from al-Qaida-related forces. A humanitarian corridor for civilians wishing to leave the area has already been established. In the province, up to 100,000 armed troops face the decision of whether to accept an agreement with the government or to face military action.” (Junge Welt, Sept. 8)
Even the New York Times, in a major editorial on Sept. 9, recognized that Turkey, Russia and Iran have been trying to help Syria come to a political settlement for some time, to achieve a resolution to this conflict. However, the resolution proposed by these countries has been rejected, since it doesn’t conform to the interests of U.S. imperialism.
The 2011 imperialist provocation of Syria’s war has led to horrible suffering that remains, even as the end of shooting is in sight. Peace and reconstruction remain complicated and difficult tasks.