Why the Syrian rebels oppose U.S. air strikes

October 6, 2014

U.S. warplanes and drones are carrying out air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But though you likely wouldn't know it from the U.S. media coverage, the Pentagon is hitting other targets in Syria: Other Sunni Islamist groups, even though they have fought militarily against ISIS alongside the Free Syrian Army and other forces. This is the side that the U.S. government claims to support in the civil war with the murderous dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

In this article published at his Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis website in late September, Australian socialist Michael Karadjis argues that the air strikes prove the opposite is the case: The U.S. is siding with the Assad dictatorship against the popular uprising--even though both Washington and Damascus both deny this officially.

IN AN extraordinary development, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan have launched a joint air war, on Syrian territory, with the full support of the Syrian tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose any U.S. war in any circumstances; and in this case, a war that is targeting only the Sunni-sectarian ISIS, yet sparing the viciously anti-Sunni Assad regime--indeed collaborating with the regime, which is responsible for a hundred times more massacre and destruction than ISIS, with which it has long collaborated in any case--is likely to boost support for ISIS among a large section of the poverty-stricken, dispossessed Sunni majority.

However, ISIS is so reviled that it was just possible a very well-targeted war on ISIS may have won some hearts and minds. Certainly, even for those of us solidly antiwar, there should be no talk of "defending" ISIS, whatever that may mean. Likewise, if last year's proposed (in my view, imaginary) U.S. attack on the Assad regime had become reality, it would have been necessary to oppose the, war without giving a skerrick of "defense" to the genocidal regime that had just gassed hundreds of sleeping children to death with sarin.

A building destroyed by U.S. air strikes in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria, far from ISIS's base
A building destroyed by U.S. air strikes in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria, far from ISIS's base

The U.S. Launches a War on Jabhat al-Nusra

However, the U.S. is not only attacking ISIS--which the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the united rebel alliance has been at war with for the last year--but from the outset has also attacked Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN). Despite also being a sectarian organization which the FSA will have to deal with in the future in its own time, based on its own decision-making, JaN has, for the most part, been fighting on the side of the FSA and the other rebels against both the Assad regime and ISIS.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the U.S. has attacked Ahrar al-Sham (AaS) in Aleppo. AaS is what might be called the most "jihadist" wing of the Syrian rebels other than JaN. However, unlike JaN, it is not associated with al-Qaeda. AaS has been operationally allied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and, along with the FSA, has been at war with both the regime and with ISIS. U.S. officials seemed unconcerned by the possibility--as one explained, "We're characterizing our targets as Khorasan and [ISIS], but it's possible others were there. It is a toxic soup of terrorists."

In other words, the U.S. and its allies have taken advantage of the revulsion against the clerical-fascist ISIS barbarians to launch an attack on the Syrian revolution, on behalf of the secular-fascist Assad regime.

According to early reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, U.S. air strikes killed 50 Al-Nusra militants and eight civilians, including children, in northern Syria on September 23.

For the record, there is no ISIS presence whatsoever in northwestern province of Idlib. ISIS was driven out root and branch by the FSA's Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) in January, probably the most successful anti-ISIS operation carried out by any of the forces which, at one time or another, have fought ISIS, whether the Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army or the Kurdish forces.

Yet while ISIS is comprehensively absent, the U.S. Air Force launched a series of air strikes on the Kafr Dariyan region of Idlib, killing dozens of al-Nusra militants--the civilian death toll shot up considerably compared to the initial reports. (There is also video footage of this terror.) According to JaN, the group's weapons factory near Sarmada in rural Idlib--where it produces weapons to fight the regime and ISIS--was targeted by U.S. air strikes.

In particular, given the grave situation in Aleppo, where the revolutionary forces are being jointly besieged from the South and the Northeast by Assad and ISIS, the fact that the first U.S. attacks were on JaN inside Aleppo--where JaN is playing an important role in the epic defense of the rebel-held, working-class half of that city, alongside the FSA and other Islamist groups--is perhaps the most blatant attack on the revolution possible.

Perhaps once the revolutionary forces have been crushed in Aleppo, Assad and ISIS may fight: the former will then present the world with a fait accompli--it's my regime or ISIS--while the latter will present the impoverished, Assad-hating Sunni masses with precisely the opposite dilemma.

That is why the defense of Aleppo now is all-important. And at precisely this moment, dozens of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been slaughtered by U.S. bombers, right there in Aleppo. According to a JaN Twitter report, "U.S. air strikes (with the help of Qatar, KSA, Jordan, UAE) hit positions of Jabhat al-Nusra in rural Muhandiseen Aleppo," and scores of fighters were martyred in Jabhat al-Nusra headquarters in Urm al-Sogra, Aleppo.

Oddly, U.S. warplanes have also bombed positions in Jabal Sha'er in the Homs countryside, killing some Bedouins. It is unclear what the intended targets were.

Senior JaN leader Muhsin al Fadhli was martyred by the U.S. bombing, as was Abū Yusuf at-Turkī, JaN's top sniper trainer.

The Assad regime must be very pleased with having acquired for itself a new air force.

Some Background

These developments are remarkable not for the fact they happened--this was basically my exact prognosis in June, based on a class analysis: that a U.S. attack "on ISIS" in Syria would become an attack on the revolution, via the devise of attacking JaN--but rather in their sheer brazenness and rapidity.

Despite the jihadist JaN leadership, much of its ranks are decent revolutionaries, often former FSA cadre, just going where the money and arms are. Despite some its recent provocations--caused by the impact of ISIS's victory in Mosul on the more jihadist parts of the JaN ranks), it still mostly fights the regime and ISIS.

Attacking JaN is a way of attacking the revolution, just as the U.S. has been trying to turn the FSA into a Sawha--the tribal groups that the U.S. enlisted in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda--against JaN (not only against ISIS) since 2012. The FSA has always rejected this imperialist "advice." According to FSA Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, speaking last year, if the U.S. "helps us so that we kill each other, then we don't want their help."

Then we had the recent United Nations resolution against ISIS that just happened to also be against JaN as well, nicely slipped in by Obama.

The Assad Regime Hails the U.S. Attacks

Furthermore, all this is in the context of the open collaboration between the U.S. (and its Saudi, UAE, etc., allies) and the Assad regime, which the U.S. informed of the attacks, with which the U.S. is sharing intelligence, and which has expressed strong support for the U.S. attacks on its own country.

Ali Haidar, Syria's minister for national reconciliation, told Reuters: "As for the raids in Syria, I say that what has happened so far is proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations and not targeting civilians."

The U.S. strikes have, of course, killed some dozens of civilians, but that is hardly a concern of a regime that has killed so many tens of thousands of civilians, as a grand underestimate.

Meanwhile, the pro-government news network Damascus Now hailed the strikes as a historic moment, which has left "happiness etched on the faces of the majority of Syrians, because they found international support towards eradicating a cancer which has been rooted in the diseased Syrian body." The regime's Al-Watan newspaper declared, "The U.S. coalition and the Syrian Arab Army are on the same front against terrorism."

Mass Revulsion Against U.S. strikes

Revulsion has erupted right across Syria. In mass demonstrations throughout Aleppo, Idlib and Homs, demonstrators chanted, "We are all Nusra" and "Jabhat al-Nusra came to support us when the world abandoned us."

Now, as stated above, I certainly don't love Jabhat al-Nusra. But these chants mean the people identify with those getting bombed by Assad's newly acquired air force. For those who want to emphasize the reactionary nature of the Nusra leadership--which I would distinguish from its ranks--this development underlines the fact that creating counterrevolution works in differing ways: One way is to directly attack a militia like JaN, which at this point is on the side of the revolutionary forces; another is to put extra pressure on the more pro-Western elements within the FSA to take the U.S. side against JaN, thus weakening and splitting their forces on the ground; and a third way is precisely allowing JaN to denounce anyone who doesn't support it now as a U.S. agent, thus strengthening Nusra, the most jihadist pole, within the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS front.

Though this is by no means straightforward. The "We are all Nusra" chants may simply be identifying with those under U.S. attack rather than expressing political support for JaN. Thus, these demonstrations could equally be seen as a new, clearer anti-imperialist grounding of the revolution. It may take some time to work through what this means.

But worse is the fact that by allowing its attack on ISIS, which everyone hates, to become an attack on Jabhat al-Nusra, and a collaboration with the regime, which all rebel forces and most of the impoverished, dispossessed Sunni masses see as their main enemy, the attacks have also led to a surge in support for ISIS in some quarters. To see mass demonstrations in support not only of JaN, but also of ISIS, in areas as far west as Homs and Idlib underlines the multiple ways in which imperialist attack promotes counterrevolution. A mass demonstration supporting ISIS even occurred in Kafranbel in Idlib, the very heart and soul of the revolution!

The Reactions of the FSA and Other Rebels

In any case, it is the reactions from the FSA and other rebels which are most remarkable.

One of the first statements condemning the U.S. attacks came from Harakat al-Hazm, a 7,000-strong secular FSA militia operating mostly in Hama:

The international coalition launched the first military strikes in Syria in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo, Homs and Al-Hasakah, leaving 11 civilians martyred in Idlib and five in Homs, in addition to a number of members of Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The air strikes which took place amount to an attack on national sovereignty and work to undermine the Syrian revolution. The international community's continued disregard for the revolutionary forces' calls for the unconditional arming of the FSA is nothing but a harbinger of failure and ruin, which will extend to the entire region.

We of Harakat al-Hazm confirm our full commitment to the principles of the revolution and that our actions are beholden only to the priorities of revolutionary work and the requirements of national interest, not to the dictates of the international coalition. We also emphasize that the latter's continuation of singular decision-making, in an effort to win international public opinion, will not succeed in uprooting extremism, but encourages its growth. The only way to establish peace in the region comes through the realization of the aspirations of the Syrian people and by Syrians.

The sole beneficiary of foreign interference in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of any real strategy to topple it. The regime will spare no effort to target civilians in its attempt to rehabilitate itself internationally.

Mercy for the martyrs, healing for the wounded, freedom for the detained, long live Syria and its people.

One of the extraordinary things about this statement is that, after all the years of "leftists" falsely asserting that the U.S. was arming the FSA, Hazm is precisely one of the very few FSA units that did receive a handful of U.S. anti-tank weapons beginning in April 2014. It was never very many, but Hazm could possibly have expected more if it played ball. This magnificent declaration indicates that while the U.S. might be able to buy some dozens of puppets here and there, it is very difficult to buy an army of 7,000 fighters to be puppets.

Meanwhile, Jaish al-Mujahideen, a markedly soft Islamist coalition that was set up last December and which then played a major role, alongside the FSA and important components of the Islamic Front (of which it is not a member) in driving ISIS out of Aleppo in January, also condemned the U.S. attacks and said their aim was to put down the rebellion.

Abu Ratib, head of the Sufi-led Al-Haq Brigade, part of the Islamic Front, termed the intervention "a total war against Muslims." Suqour al-Sham, the main Islamic Front unit in Idlib, condemned the air strikes and said they "will breed more extremism and terrorism." The Army of Islam, the Islamic Front unit in Damascus, which drove ISIS out of the Damascus region several months ago, also condemned the strikes. The secularist FSA Forqat 13 issued a statement condemning U.S.-led air strikes as "aimed at weakening the revolution" in Syria.

Then, in a joint statement, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (the major secular FSA coalition in the northwest, which singlehandedly drove ISIS out of Idlib in January), Jaish al-Mujahideen, Al Zinki, Hazm and others condemned the U.S. air strikes, declaring "you help Bashar."

While we haven't yet accessed statements from every group, it is clear all the major groups have declared themselves solidly against the U.S. air war.

In similar vein, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Zuhair Salem declared, "A new killer joins the band of the Syrian people killers. The war on Daesh is an American pretext to continue the war on the Syrian revolution. We won't wait for long to watch how the American war is eating revolutionary forces. We condemn the American crime of the aggression on Syrian territories."

Earlier, a statement by the Syrian Islamic Council, close to the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected intervention in Syria by Western countries and their allies in the region. It condemned "the silence of the international community, governments and organizations, at the daily massacres against the Syrians, with all kinds of internationally proscribed weapons, by the Assad regime"--describing the U.S. move against ISIS in this context as a double standard. The Brotherhood itself rejected any collaboration with the U.S. attack on ISIS unless the first bomb lands "on Assad's head."

Finally, the founder and former leader of the FSA, Col. Riad al-Asaad, who still has significant influence, declared, "The Coalition kills the remaining children that the Syrian regime couldn't kill." Earlier, he had already declared that the FSA will not collaborate with the U.S. in the war against ISIS, claiming the U.S. is working to destroy the FSA and noting that since 2011, the Americans promised aid that never materialized, and meanwhile worked to split the rebels and to help Assad.

Asaad claimed that the real target of the strikes would not be ISIS, but rather "the Syrian revolution will be eliminated under this pretext." He also called on moderate rebels to make efforts for more unity to revive the Syrian revolution after having been hijacked by radical Islamist groups and West-backed agendas. "We are looking for rebel commanders who share us the national concern."

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), a grassroots network that coordinates civil disobedience and other nonviolent campaigns, was a little more ambivalent, but has been documenting the civilian and other deaths from U.S. air strikes. The LCC declared that "an end to the Islamic State needs to happen concurrently with an end to the equal terrorist threat represented by Bashar al-Assad's regime," and noted that it continued to consider "Assad's regime the foremost enemy of the Syrian people and assuring that extremism and terrorism were the products of the regime's crimes."

The LCC also emphasized the following:

1. Assad's regime bears sole responsibility for this violation of the Syrian state's sovereignty, since it was the first to do that by bringing sectarian death militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

2. Assad's regime and ISIS are alike when it comes to terrorism and crimes violating the Syrian people's dignity and lives.

3. The necessity of coordinating with the political and military forces of the Syrian revolution so they can regain control of the positions conquered by ISIS, as well as helping these forces with their continuous battles against Assad's regime, until it is toppled.

4. Taking all precautions that these air strikes do not give any form of political or military benefits to Assad's regime.

5. Taking extra care for the civilians' lives and their properties in the targeted areas.

6. The United Nations must take its responsibility towards civilians by immediately responding to their basic humanitarian needs.

7. The Syrians' salvation from ISIS should be synchronized with their liberty of the tyrant Assad's regime and its terrorism against them.

The only more or less clear support for intervention came from the pro-West and pro-Gulf leadership of the exile-based Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its associated Supreme Military Command--supposedly of the FSA, but in reality largely representing itself. The SMC declared support to "all earnest national forces and free international forces" who are trying to "fight terrorism," but stressed that this should start with "the Assad gangs and Shabiha" and "ending with their new creation, i.e., ISIS" ().

The only other apparent support for the U.S. coalition's actions came from, somewhat understandably, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). PYD leader Salih Muslim Muhammad declared that the U.S. attacks were a positive step in the fight against ISIS.

Considering ISIS's current genocidal attacks on Syrian Kurds around Kobane, which have driven some 150,000 Kurds across the Turkish border--Turkey already holds 1.5 million Syrian refugees--the PYD's position is understandable.

It is unclear at this point, however, how much the U.S. has targeted the ISIS units carrying out the siege of Kobane. At the outset, at least, the U.S. seems to have been too busy bombing ISIS in Raqqa (from which most ISIS militants had already been evacuated) and non-ISIS targets over in western Syria, to simply bomb the advancing front line of ISIS around Kobane. Similarly, the Assad regime, while good at bombing bakeries in Raqqa and killing dozens of civilians, also couldn't seem to target the ISIS siege.

Where Does This Leave the U.S. Sawha Plans?

This rather solid opposition to the U.S. air campaign from the bulk of the FSA and its allies on the ground raises serious issues regarding the U.S. intention to arm and train a small puppet segment of the FSA as a Sawha to fight ISIS, and presumably JaN, but not the regime. It seems likely there will be relatively few takers.

Of course, many may officially agree in order to get the arms, and then hope to do as they please and direct their energies at the regime. But the current united stand against the U.S. shows not only that the FSA are not puppets, but has rubbed this fact in the U.S.'s face. Hazm seems to have performed this trick earlier this year to get some U.S. anti-tank weapons--now it releases the most solidly anti-imperialist declaration.

It is worthwhile looking at the full text of the resolution of the U.S. Congress to provide "training, equipment, supplies and sustainment" for some 5,000 "vetted" rebels. Anyone in doubt that the aim is for these rebels to fight ISIS but not the regime only needs to read the opening, which states the purpose is firstly, for "defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition"; secondly, "protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria"; and thirdly, in the only part that refers to the regime, "promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria."

In other words, smash ISIS (and Jabhat al-Nusra) and negotiate with the regime.

More interesting is the section on what "vetted" means:

The term "appropriately vetted" means, with respect to elements of the Syrian opposition and other Syrian groups and individuals, at a minimum, assessments of such elements, groups, and individuals for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the Government of Syria, and groups associated with the Government of Iran. Such groups include, but are not limited to, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, other al-Qaeda related groups, and Hezbollah.

Now of course, the references to Shia groups associated with Iran, Hezbollah, etc. are just fluff, since this is a resolution on "vetting" members of the Syrian opposition. Hezbollah works for the regime, so it is irrelevant to this resolution.

But if "vetting" is to check if any "elements, groups and individuals" have any "associations" not only with ISIS, but also with Jabhat al-Nusra, and even Ahrar al-Sham, then the resolution effectively wipes out 90 percent, if not more, of the FSA and of the Syrian opposition as a whole--since they all actively cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground against both the regime and ISIS, and even more so with Ahrar al-Sham, whose leadership was just wiped out by a regime or ISIS bombing.

By ruling out any "group" that has had any "association" with JaN and even with AaS, the US ensures its Sawha operation will remain with a very small group--perhaps the proposed 5,000, out of some 60,000 FSA fighters alone, will not be reached. This was always the intention anyway.

So people should not confuse this with "training the FSA," and they should not confuse the U.S. of the terms "vetted" and "moderate" with "secular" and "non-Islamist" as a whole. These few thousand will be secular and non-Islamist, but they will also be the most subservient--basically those who agree to fight only ISIS and leave the war on the regime until the future: the exact opposite of the priorities of the 95 percent who won't be trained for Sawha.

Former U.S. ambassador Robert Ford explained this more clearly than usual recently: "One prominent American observer says it is folly to think that we can aid the moderate armed fighters to topple Assad. But toppling wasn't our goal before and shouldn't be now."

Certainly, extra arms can help the opposition "put pressure" on Assad to form a "new" expanded government, like just happened in Iraq, writes Ford. Its first aim would be to expel ISIS from Syria, so therefore "as we boost aid to the moderate armed rebels, we must condition that help on their reaching out to disaffected regime supporters and developing with them a common political stance for a new, negotiated national unity government, with or without Assad." (my emphasis)

In other words, while Obama long ago called on Assad to "step down" (this is the sole basis on which leftists imagine Obama called for "regime change") in order to preserve his regime and state in a "Yemeni solution," Ford is here making clear that if it could be negotiated, a "national unity government" would be fine even with Assad.

But Who Can Replace ISIS? Assad Can't.

However, the U.S. knows that it cannot simply be Assad's airforce. The U.S. aim now seems to be to further eviscerate the revolution, in a number of different ways as explained.

However, the question of who will replace ISIS on the ground if the U.S. really wants to wipe it out--let alone if it also wants to wipe out Jabhat al-Nusra--remains. Quite simply, in neither Syria nor in Iraq can ISIS be replaced by non-Sunni forces, still less by murderously anti-Sunni regimes. Some kind of Sunni forces will be necessary, just as the U.S. needed to arm the Iraqi Sunni tribes in their "Sawha" against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-08.

The Kurds have been valiant fighters against ISIS, but in defending their own Kurdish turf. Only Sunni Arabs can replace ISIS on the ground among the Sunni base that they now control.

The act of replacing the discredited Shiite chauvinist Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq was necessary façade. Yet Maliki has been replaced by another member of his own party, only slightly less sectarian, with the hope that this may win over some Sunnis. So far, there has been little success. And fighting ISIS with Shiite sectarian militias simply consolidates Sunnis behind ISIS, including those who previously fought it.

What hope is there then in Syria, where the Assad regime has been far more murderous than Maliki, wiping entire Sunni towns and cities off the map and sending millions into exile?

While the US now acts as Assad's air force to help smash the revolution, a stabilization of the situation will eventually require the long-term U.S. aim of doing some deal that encourages Assad and a narrow circle around him to "step down" in order to save the Baathist regime and its military-security apparatus--and to "widen" it by allowing in some select conservative opponents. This is the so-called "Yemeni solution." The difficulty, though, is that the Assad ruling family and mega-capitalist clique is so much more completely associated with the state than a mere Saleh or Mubarak ever was.

Is an attempt to crush the revolution for the regime a prelude to a plan with regime insiders and international factors to gently push Assad aside when it's over, to gain a modicum of Sunni support to replace ISIS on the ground? Like everything else, this remains to be seen, but it is one of the possibilities--as is the possibility that the crushing of the revolution simply means the current regime becomes the "factor of stability" in the region.

First published at the Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis website.

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