Many media outlets would have you believe that the Assad regime’s fall is imminent. This is due to the latest opposition offensive in Idlib province whereby a coalition of rebel groups have captured Idlib city and then proceeded to capture the symbolic and strategic town of Jisr ash-Shughur. New life has apparently been breathed into the anti-ISIS, anti-Assad opposition due to increased coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
The fall of the Syrian regime is not imminent. Assad’s forces are stretched thin and he is probably weaker than ever before in relative terms. Yet, his “core” provinces of (central) Damascus, Homs, and Latakia are, at this point, not under threat. Assad keeps a presence of troops in regions he considers peripheral in the hopes that he will one day rule all of Syria again. In al-Hasakeh province, for example, largely controlled by the Kurdish PYD party at this point, his troops retain a small presence in the main urban centers of Qamishli and al-Hasakeh city. Idlib can be viewed in a similar vein. Many of its residents are fervent opponents of the Assad regime and enthusiastically joined the uprising. Its locals put up fierce fights in villages and towns across the province in order to expel Assad forces and were largely victorious. It is for this reason that Assad’s forces mainly holed up inside Idlib city.
Idlib province is important in that it is adjacent to strategically important areas (such as Latakia and Hamah). Indeed, the capture of Jisr ash-Shughur brings the opposition much closer to Latakia. But Idlib province is not itself of intrinsic strategic value to the regime. I do not believe that Syria is imminently or even inevitably headed for partition. But, if it were, hypothetically, Idlib would not be one of the provinces that the regime would fight for. An Assad statelet would be comprised of Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Latakia, and probably Hamah. If any of these places were under threat, that would be cause for the regime to sound the alarm. The capture of Idlib city and Jisr ash-Shughur can possibly be read as a step towards that, yet, we need not overstate it as a leap. It is a small step. Defeating the regime in one of the areas it considers peripheral is very different than defeating it in one of its core provinces.
However, whereas the capture of Idlib can be read as largely symbolic, this symbolism should not be written off. While it may not be the greatest threat to the regime, opposition control of Idlib—particularly the city—can have great strategic value if the opposition makes use of the opportunity to show that they can effectively and inclusively govern. Thus far, the opposition has largely failed at attempts at self-governance. This failure is in no small part due to the difficulty of political organizing under aerial bombardment. But political vacuums left by the regime have been filled either by the chaos of rule by competing militias, or the austere tyranny of ISIL. Thus, both tropes used by the regime to refer to the opposition—“armed gangs” and “Takfiri militants”—have largely become self-fulfilling prophecies. We should not underestimate the rhetorical and symbolic value this has for the regime and its effect on everyday Syrians’ views towards the rebellion.
Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the latest military operation in Idlib. The Islamist battalions were generally dominant in the battle. This obviously should be cause for concern. But more than this, militia rule in Idlib, no matter the political bent, would be a failure. Even the most secular of brigades can be chauvinistic and corrupt political rulers. The fear regarding political governance of opposition areas is not only the prospect of Islamicization, but also the prospect of rule-by-militias generally.
Perhaps the residents of Idlib will succeed in preventing this. The fact that many of the participants in the Idlibi battles are natives to Idlib, particularly members of Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller, local Idlibi groups, is a sign that Idlib may not inevitably be headed towards governance by militias. A spokesman for Ahrar told The Wall Street Journal that while cooperation with Nusra would continue, matters of governance “would be turned over to the city’s residents eventually.” While this does not sound very promising, this is an indication that there may be some pressure—from below as well as from outside—to hand over political control to civilian residents.
The prospects seem bleak given the nature of the groups involved and the persistence of aerial bombardment from Assad’s air force, but a civilian and locally governed Idlib would indeed be a strategic blow to the regime in terms of what the alternatives to its rule are. While it may be naive to think that civilian residents can wrestle political power away from battle-hardened militias, the embeddedness of some of the militants in local society suggests that it may not be as unlikely as it has been in other areas, as fighters may be more responsive to local concerns and demands.
Yesterday, at a panel on Syria in New York, amidst all the talk about military strategy, literature on civil wars, whether Assad would “really go” or not, Lisa Wedeen, author of the book on Hafez Asad’s cult of personality Ambiguities of Domination, said something that no one really asked about or questioned but, nevertheless, really resonated with me.
First, she implored people to stop treating ISIS and the Assad regime as separate phenomena. Their military-oriented fascism are actually manifestations from the same “ecology of cruelty,” she said. The latest Der Spiegel article on the origins and structure of the Islamic State lends much credence to such assessments.
She then juxtaposed this to the uprising at its outset, where, she said, many Syrians cultivated “novel forms of togetherness.” The initial movement, its protests, its chants, its coordination committees, were no doubt revolutionary in method and in form.
But this romantic juxtaposition has always led to problems for me. Were we naive to think civilian coordination committees could win out against these ruthless authoritarians? Could such forms of collective action actually defeat tyrants with expert knowledge in torture and an endless supply of jail cells?
Yes, Wedeen suggested. We were naive to think that. Our present situation is a testament to that. But, she concluded, ‘without those attempts at collective action, nothing would ever get undone.’
For advocates of social change, a naive outlook can be devastating. Realistically assessing your situation and position relative to the powers that be is necessary for any social movement that wants to win and have a chance at making changes on more than a simply discursive level. However, there is only one attribute that guarantees that social change will never occur and that the status quo will forever be perpetuated—defeatism.
700 people are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week off the Libyan coast.
Some things to keep in mind:
1) It is because of Fortress Europe that migrants attempt this perilous journey. If Europe opened its borders to migrants, no migrant would have to take this enormous personal risk and not one person would drown in the Mediterranean. If you think asking Europe to open its borders to refugees is unreasonable, I say to you that at least 1500 people at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea in 2015 alone is much more unreasonable.
2) It is because of global structural inequality perpetuated by the ruling classes that migrants feel that their only chance at making a decent living is by moving to Europe.
3) It is because of local authoritarian regimes that many migrants find the conditions of their home country unbearable and would rather risk death for the chance of having a better life than live another moment in oppression, war, or destitution.
Posting what was originally a twitter rant here, in a less ephemeral medium:
For Stalinist left, it is not enough that Assad destroyed all progressive elements of Syrian uprising, they want to say that they never existed at all. They want to rewrite the history of the uprising and claim that it was always sectarian civil war, and that any progressive elements sided with Assad. As things went on progressives were sidelined, marginalized, imprisoned, tortured, killed. And then they said: “See! They never existed.”
All we have left is that history and the memory of those who fought for something better, and that is something those revisionists won’t take away from us. People like Omar Aziz , like Hassan Hassan. People like Abdel Aziz al-Khayer, and Jihad Asad Mohammad (both still in prison). People like Razan Zaitouneh and the Douma 4, kidnapped by the Islamist reactionaries. These people may not be part of the civil war now, but we won’t forget the hope they inspired, even if it has extinguished for now.
That’s why ending the war should be the number 1 priority, not only as an end in itself, but as a means to rebuilding that social movement. The civil war has to end before these movements can even start to rebuild. That is, assuming that when the war ends, Syrian society won’t be damaged beyond repair. And it very well might be.
Hassan Hassan: https://tahriricn.wordpress.com/…/syria-the-life-and-work-…/
Abdel Aziz al-Khayer: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/13004
Jihad Asad Mohammad: https://budourhassan.wordpress.com/…/freedom-for-jihad-and…/
Razan Zaitouneh: http://free-syrian-voices.org/razan-zaitouneh/
In theory, I am with the Rojava autonomy project, although I think the evidence is not there yet over what that project looks like in practice. I get the sense that there is some tension between the old guard, still clinging to the authoritarian tendencies of the old PKK, and the newer generation, trying to implement a radically democratic politics. But in any case, Rojava and the Kurdish militias deserve all the solidarity they can get against the gangs of Baghdadi, and in the implementation of their political project, which is certainly more progressive than anything else we’ve seen in the region lately.
But when I think about this, I also think about all the others who have been fighting ISIS who weren’t able to implement any political vision. They didn’t have the same space to operate: the Syrian Army largely withdrew from Rojava in 2012 (in a “we’ll deal with you later” move). This gave the PYD the opportunity to fill a political vacuum. So now, when they repel ISIS, they do so with a coherent political vision. But there are hundreds of other Syrians who have died fighting ISIS who didn’t have an implemented political project. They didn’t have one because they didn’t have that space Rojava had, they had to deal with barrel bombs from the sky and ISIS on the ground. It’s not because they are apolitical: it is power that didn’t let them build a new politics, and we should not penalize them for that. They are just as deserving of solidarity, even if they don’t have a radical political project.
With the recent events targeting Yazidis in Iraq, much attention has been paid to the Kurds as they battle with the forces of the Islamic State. Yet, too often commentators lump Kurdish political actors into one unified group, when they are actually a coalition of several groups, many of whom were at odds until recently. Indeed, before the events in Sinjar (called Shingal in Kurdish), Kurdish political groups seemed to be hopelessly divided. But now they appear to be fighting as a united front in the face of the Islamic State’s threat against Yazidis. The follow is a brief guide to Kurdish political factions currently fighting the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan.
First, a note about the word peshmerga. Peshmerga is Kurdish for “those who confront death.” Historically Kurds used the term to refer to any of their armed fighters. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq institutionalized the term by naming their official army Peshmerga. Thus, today, it is mostly used to refer to those official forces of the KRG, as distinguished from, for example, fighters of the PKK or the YPG (although some purists would say that technically they should all be referred to as peshmerga).
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the fighting forces are split between two factions who together govern the KRG in a coalition:
KDP: Alternatively referred to by its Kurdish acronym the PDK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is a party in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. It has the most seats in the current Kurdish parliament and is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG. Fighters loyal to the KDP fight under the Peshmerga banner. The KDP advocates full-independence of the KRG and has good relations with Turkey and the United States.
PUK: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the main rival party of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan, although they govern the KRG with the KDP in a two-party coalition today. Led by Jalal Talabani (who until recently was President of Iraq), they are slightly to the left of the KDP. Because they are an official party in the Kurdistan Regional Government, their fighters are also referred to as peshmerga, however, their media outlets have been attempting to distinguish their fighters from KDP peshmerga.
(Note: there are other big parties in the KRG, such as the opposition Gorran party, but these two parties seem to be the only ones with fighters.)
Kurdish factions based outside of Iraq that are currently fighting in Iraq:
PKK: PKK is the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is based in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Led by Abdullah Ocalan (often referred to as “Apo”), who is currently imprisoned by Turkey, they are a non-state guerilla fighting force. Their ideology differs from the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan: they come from Marxist-Leninist foundations, although recently their ideology has tended towards autonomy and what they call “democratic confederalism,” an idea that stresses self-governance of local autonomous communities. This is in strict contrast to the Iraqi Kurdish factions, particularly the KDP, which aim to establish a centralized state for the Kurdish nation (or for a part of the Kurdish nation). Due to their attacks in Turkey, the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
The PKK is reportedly participating in the attacks against the Islamic State and rescue efforts of Yazidis in Sinjar, although their forces are often confused with the YPG, due to their similar ideologies and use of symbols.
PYD: PYD is the Kurdish acronym for The Democratic Union Party, one of the main Syrian Kurdish political parties and the only one with a significant fighting force. They are based in Syrian Kurdistan, what Kurds refer to as “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan). Views on the relations between the PKK and the PYD vary. Some claim the PYD is only ‘influenced by’ Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology. Others say that the PYD is simply the Syrian faction of the PKK.
The PYD’s semi-official armed wing is the People’s Protection Units (YPG is their Kurdish acronym). After the withdrawal of the Syrian army from much of Rojava in 2012, the PYD has basically filled the void as the dominant political player in the area, declaring Kurdish-majority areas in Syria to be divided up into three self-governing autonomous cantons. The YPG has been fighting the Islamic State with varying success since 2013, mostly in towns and villages around the province of al-Hassakeh (but also in some places in Raqqah and Aleppo provinces).
There has been much tension between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish parties in the last few months. The PYD’s calls for Kurdish unity in the face of IS attacks against them went mostly unheeded by their counterparts in Iraq. The atmosphere was even more polarized by KRG-aligned Kurdish parties in Syria accusing the PYD of monopolizing power. Nevertheless, the YPG is participating in the attacks and rescue efforts in Sinjar. Although some are simply referring to them as the PKK, it does appear that the YPG is making a distinct effort on its own.
Deep within the valleys of cognitive dissonance, propaganda, and group think, a group of people sincerely believe that all this destruction can be blamed on those few hundred fighters that were left holed up in Old Homs. “Terrible destruction, well yes that’s the armed gangs’ fault.” Really? How? Did the armed gangs do this with all the planes and tanks they have? Has anyone even attempted to explain such a thing? No, they haven’t. Instead they victim-blame, “It’s their fault, they knew the regime would react like this.” That statist logic that it is the citizens’ responsibility to make sure not to provoke the brutality of the state, lest they be blamed for it. Instead they talk about the joy of the few hundred people who were able to return to Old Homs. Return to Old Homs? What Old Homs? Where is it? Is that it? These swathes of empty land and destroyed buildings? How can even memories survive such destruction? Buildings, streets, people, memories, these are things that make a place a place. Old Homs has none of the above anymore. What Old Homs? Is that it? Because I don’t recognize it.