Since last week when Russia began bombing targets inside Syria, Western media has been overflowing with articles about the crimes of Russian imperialism in Syria. But, as Hamid Alizadeh explains, the idea put forward that “moderate” rebels are being bombed by ruthless Russians raises more questions than it answers.
Since last week when Russia began bombing targets inside Syria, Western media has been overflowing with articles about the crimes of Russian imperialism in Syria. But the idea put forward that “moderate” rebels are being bombed by ruthless Russians raises more questions than it answers.
Over the past week the anti-Russian mood in western media has reached fever pitch as major outlets have displayed their outrage at the atrocities carried out by Russian armed forces in Syria. The crocodile tears shed for civilian deaths could fill swimming pools of olympic proportions. In a bloody civil war which has cost more than 300,000 lives it seems only Russia has killed civilians. Would these ladies and gentlemen really have us believe that the thousands of US airstrikes over IS-held territory over the past year, have not killed any civilians, whereas the few dozen Russian strikes have led to disproportionate havoc?
The New York Times has been particularly outspoken against the Russian attacks. In an article on 30th September, the paper denounced Russian aerial attacks quoting an “activist” from northern Homs: “If these raids continue this way, Russia will kill a larger number of civilians that Bashar did in four years.”
However, only two days later, when the US Air Force carried out a 30 minute bombardment of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan, the same paper downplayed the horrific event saying that: “The civilian deaths in the Saturday airstrike, and the discrepancies in the accounts of what led to the bombing, were painful reminders of scores of earlier mistakes…” (our emphasis)
Furthermore the paper proudly mentioned that civilian deaths in Afghanistan are now 1% US-caused casualties. To the dismay of this respectable paper though, these civilian deaths have a “magnified significance in the eyes of many Afghans” merely “because it is the fault of a foreign power”. Apparently the Afghans cannot appreciate that the decade and a half-long ravaging of their country by the US is now causing fewer civilian deaths. One may ask whether that is because more civilians are now actively participating in the resistance or whether the US is merely letting other forces do the killing and murdering now as opposed to earlier? The hypocrisy is nauseating.
Only a week earlier Saudi airstrikes killed 130 people who attended a wedding near the town of Taiz in Yemen. Of course US officials were quick to point out that they did not pull the trigger, but they could not dodge the fact that they have been giving “targeting assistance” to Saudi forces in Yemen. Meanwhile the US, as well its Western and Middle Eastern allies, are all actively involved in the brutal siege of the country which has left millions of people starving. None of this is being covered by Western media.
In Syria itself, only a few months ago, when the US-supported “moderate” rebels had participated in taking the north-western Idlib governorate, their ally, Jabhat Al-Nusra, went on a forced conversion spree which ended in the massacre of dozens of Druze villagers who resisted. Needless to say that was not frontpage news on the New York Times either.
Of course neither Putin nor Assad care about civilian deaths. They are protecting their own interests in Syria, but civilians were dying by the tens of thousands long before Russia decided to intervene – many of those in the hands of Islamist forces built up and supported by the US and their allies.
Who is fighting who?
Another complaint of the Americans has been that Russia is not attacking IS. Again, the New York Times writes:
“But American officials said the attack was not directed at the Islamic State but at other opposition groups fighting against the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whom Mr. Putin has vowed to support. American officials said Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships had dropped bombs north of the central city of Homs, where there are few, if any, militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.”
Further, and as the only proof of its conclusions, the paper quoted a rebel commander:
“‘We are on the front lines with Bashar al-Assad’s army,’ said Mr. Saleh, whose group has recently posted videos of its fighters using sophisticated American-made TOW missiles to destroy government tanks. ‘We are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers away from where we are.’” – Syrian Rebels Say Russia Is Targeting Them Rather Than ISIS
But the question must be asked: if these are officially US-supported troops, why are they 100 kilometers from the nearest IS position? In fact all of the US supported troops which were allegedly bombed, were 100 kilometers or more from IS positions fronts. Most of these are part of Jaish al-Fateh, a coalition completely dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, two Al-Qaeda related groups – one of which is on the US terror list. These were the same groups who carried out the above-mentioned atrocities in the Druze areas of the Northern Idlib province.
According to US officials, the CIA has trained and equipped 3-5,000 troops embedded in this and similar alliances. This is far more than the 10 remaining US proxy troops who were trained in the “Train and Equip” programme to fight against IS. And what is most significant is that these troops are not fighting IS at all. In a map that the New York Times itself published on 2nd October, it is clear that the rebel-held areas have almost no connection fronts with the IS-controlled areas. They are only fighting the Assad regime and increasingly pushing towards its coastal heartland. Considering that Russia is trying to defend its allies and its interests in Syria from falling into the hands of Islamists, is it then so strange for them to clear the most immediate dangers first?
Moderate compared to what?
When it comes to Syria, Western media have used the term “moderate” as if it meant “democratic”. But then you wonder why they wouldn’t just use “democratic”. Because there are no democratic forces amongst those they refer to as moderates. One should only ask the question, moderate in relation to what? That is of course never answered because it exposes the fact that most of the groups supported by the US are themselves Islamist reactionaries of different types. They are only moderate in the sense that they are not zealous enough to refuse funds and arms from US imperialism in return for their “services”; that they can be “trusted” – or at least the US thinks they can – not to endanger US interests in the Middle East and that they do not publicly state any Islamist position. In fact they never publicly support any political position. The main role, however, that these “moderate” rebels play is to act as a bridge head to channel money and arms into the not-so-moderate rebels with whom they are allied.
In the northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces this symbiosis is clear. Here, the US-supported troops who are equipped by the anti tank rockets and supported financially as well as with intelligence are junior partners in the Jaish al-Fatah coalition which is completely dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra – the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda – and Ahrar al-Sham – which has been a sympathising Al Qaeda group.
The groups which are today officially supported by the US have no ideological differences. In fact 2013 Jabhat al-Nusra had a failed attempt at merging with the precursor to the Islamic State (which was then the Iraqi section of Al Qaeda). It has also been in a very close relationship with Ahrar al-Sham throughout the civil war. The two groups cooperate on a series of fronts and have come together several times to insert Sharia courts and uphold Sharia rule in the areas which they control jointly. There is absolutely no ideological difference between these groups and IS. The main issues which divide them are petty tactical and personal differences. Nevertheless, Western media somehow portray them as more moderate and “civilised” than IS.
The US-supported troops in this coalition are completely under the domination of these reactionary groups and, in fact, they are only allowed to exist by the Islamists because they supply their armies with intelligence and modern anti-tank weapons. So what are US-supported troops doing being embedded in a coalition controlled by these groups? A coalition which is only focussing on attacking Alawite areas of coastal Syria? And why is the Assad regime, or its allies, not supposed to defend themselves against them?
Of course the reality of US involvement in Syria is far more dirty than this. A glimpse into the relationship between western intelligence agencies and Al Qaeda organisations also exposed after a trial in June, in Britain. Here the case against a Swedish man accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation in Syria was dropped after “it became clear British intelligence had been arming the same rebel groups the defendant was charged with supporting.”
The Guardian reported that the case would have embarrassed because ”there was plenty of evidence the British state was itself providing “extensive support” to the armed Syrian opposition.” The paper went on to say: “That didn’t only include the “non-lethal assistance” boasted of by the government (including body armour and military vehicles), but training, logistical support and the secret supply of ‘arms on a massive scale’.” – Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq
Furthermore recently declassified documents from US intelligence agencies, written in August 2012, “predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a ‘Salafist principality’ in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.” The report goes on to state that, “this is exactly what the supporting [western and middle eastern] powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).” – Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq
Of course these facts are rarely used in the respectable western mass media and if they are, they are quickly swept to a side and quietly forgotten.
What are the Russians doing?
The hypocrisy of US imperialism and its journalist lackeys is nauseating to put it mildly. While they are quick to point the finger at big bad Russia, they provide cover for the most barbaric groups which have been fostered and nurtured by US imperialism and its allies.
Under the cover of the Syrian revolution, the US and its allies built up a sectarian divide which they used to crush the revolution from the inside and then to try to overthrow the Assad regime. Assad had no problems in allowing the revolution to become a sectarian Islamist movement, because it meant the strengthening of his base as many Syrians would rally behind him as the only defence against the barbarism of the Islamists. This proved to be correct in the parliamentary elections last year where there was mass participation. This does not mean that Assad became a popular hero, but that his regime was seen as the only one which could defend many from the Islamists. This has strengthened Assad massively.
Recently, however, the regime has been in serious trouble because in spite of huge technical advantages on the battlefield it has lost significant ground to the Islamists. This is credited to the incompetent, corrupt and totalitarian nature of the regime and its cadres in the state and military apparatus. The dissatisfaction with the military campaign has led to increasing defections which in turn has made Assad resort to more and more brutal ways of finding draft dodgers and deserters. This accelerated the decomposition of the army and the military campaign and was the main reason for Russia stepping up its operations in Syria.
Of course Putin is not a philanthropist – he has no sentimental relationship with Syria. He will kill and massacre as much as any other world leader if it serves his interests. He is moving in to defend his last remaining foothold in the Middle East from US encroachment. At the same time he sees an Islamist Syria, whether controlled by IS or any other Al Qaeda offshoot, as a threat which could destabilise parts of Russia itself.
But there are other reasons too. Putin wants to use Syria to rebuild its status as a world power. By moving in to do the dirty work of the West, he will also have be at the centre of the negotiation table once a settlement is to be agreed on. At the same time Russia is moving military equipment into Syria which has a reach far beyond Syria’s borders and into the Middle East. This allows for Russia to project its power on a far bigger scale than it is used to throughout the region.
At the end of the day, the ones who lose out are the Syrian people. An Associated Press report illustrated this. It talked about the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, sparring with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at the UN, over who should participate in the negotiations about the future of Syria. The Russians were suggesting to involve a larger group including European nations, while John Kerry was proposing the US, Russians, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. According to the news agency, “John Kerry preferred to keep the focus on countries that are directly involved.” Ironically, from all the constellations mentioned, no one thought of proposing one involving any Syrians.