antiwar / International

Fall of Assad could see break-up of Syria


Fall of Assad could see break-up of Syria

source:  Weekly Worker UK

Intercommunal conflict could change the shape of the borders throughout the region, argues Esen Uslu

The scheme hatched to undermine the Assad regime in Syria is about to bring about the undesired consequence of a total collapse of the“territorial integrity” of Syria. The former up to now had been intertwined with the latter.

Turkey, and behind it the USA, European Union and Nato, has been advising Bashar al-Assad to leave the scene gracefully so as to allow a controlled passage to ‘democracy’, while at the same time the imperialist powers have been organising the opposition forces, arming and financing them with the help of their allies in the Gulf. Considering what happened in the countries along the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Assad regime chose not to go, but instead decided to fight on to the bitter end.

In its quest to hold onto power Assad stepped up his brutal repressionof the opposition. Iran, Russia and China have done their best to bolster the regime, as it attempts to win the civil war at any cost. However, its mainstays – the armed forces and other critical parts of the repressive state – are gradually disintegrating. Not only because they have lost some of their top brass in an explosion in Damascus, but because the trickle of top soldiers and officials seeking refuge abroad has gradually become a mass exodus.

According to recent newspaper reports in Turkey, there are 26 generals and 400 officers of the Syrian armed forces in Turkey among the nearly 50,000 refugees. Just a couple of days ago the chief of police in Latakia defected, together with a number of his officers. Similar defections have taken place across the Jordanian and Lebanese borders, where nearly a quarter million Syrians have sought refuge.

While it is gradually losing important parts of its repressive apparatus, the Assad regime is still quite capable of hanging on, and meting out severe punishment to the armed groups of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella organisation that is striving to unify the opposition.

So long as its Free Syrian Army remains in its present state – that is, unable to unify and control all local and ‘international’ armed groups, which are facing far better equipped, trained and disciplined troops fighting within a unified command structure – the only option for the SNC is to demand and pray for international intervention. Meanwhile, the regime and its international backers have other clever plans up their sleeves, including playing ‘divide and rule’ with Syria’s sizable minorities.

By doing so it also reminds the world of the country’s fault lines and of its own position as the unifying force. To emphasise its indispensability it warns of the unforeseeable and most probably disastrous consequences of a total collapse of the state apparatus, which would open the way to a long-drawn-out war between the various communities.

Indeed, the religious and ethnic groups that make up the population of Syria have been constantly checking their backs. While they oppose the Assad regime, they are also afraid of the other opposition forces. Religious communities of Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Alawis still bear the scars of past internecine wars and massacres that have taken place repeatedly since the late 19th century.

They are also quite wary of external ‘liberating forces’ – since the end of World War I such ‘liberators’ have several times carved up the land, reunited it and carved it up again. So, while SNC is looking for outside help, most of the population is not. Although the various population groups want to see the back of the Assad regime, they do not want to surrender their armed capabilities to the SNC, since they regard those independent armed capabilities as their only real guarantee in case of a civil war.

Kurdish control

Traditionally the opposition to the repressive central regime in Syria has started in the Druze mountains in the southernmost corner of the country, passed through Homs, and gone on to Aleppo and Syrian Kurdistan. This time a similar pattern has been followed. The uprising started at Daraa in mid-March 2011, and the siege of that city ended in massive oppression in late May. One year later, an uprising in Homs and other cities along the route to Turkey flared up and now the battle for Aleppo is being fought.

However, in Syrian Kurdistan Assad’s armed forces have remained in their barracks while the police and entire civilian administration have been transferred to the local Kurdish forces. Practically the whole of Syrian Kurdistan, including all the main towns along the Turkish border, are now being run by local Kurdish councils. Considering the fact that Syria has refused even to accept the citizenship of Kurds living in these territories since the 1960s, this is quite startling.

Back then the Syrian government decided to create a 300km by 20km area dubbed the ‘Arab cordon’ along the border with Turkey. Kurds were forcibly removed, and Bedouins from the south were brought in to settle in the area. Kurdish place names were replaced with Arabic ones, but the Kurdish presence could not be wiped out. The plan was to remove 140,000 of them to the southern deserts, but when the Kurds refused to accept this, they were stripped of their property rights and citizenship. Today there are more than 300,000 Kurds living in the region as stateless persons.

Faced with the 2011 crisis, the Syrian government relented and granted citizenship rights to those Kurds who were ready to pass through rigorous tests. To date only a very small number of Kurds have registered their applications and obtained their ID documents.

Since then there have been many uprisings and defeats, the formation of many parties and their demise, creating a fractured and mostly illegalised political landscape. The quickened pace of recent events has helped repair the structure of Syrian Kurdish groups, and attempts to form a unified front organisation came to fruition. A meeting of the various parties called by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, was held in Erbil in the first half of July. It agreed to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC) and its armed Popular Defence Forces.

It seems that the meeting managed to paper over longstanding divisions between the PYD (Party of Democratic Union), which has maintained close relationship with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) of Turkey, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has managed to unify 15 lesser parties of Syrian Kurdistan.

The main stumbling block was the plebeian and radical character of the PYD, while the lesser parties that came together in the KNC were offshoots of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, with their various reformist ideas. Furthermore only the PYD had a viable paramilitary force – some of its cadres had been trained in Iraq and had gained first-hand experience, having taken part in the guerrilla campaigns of the PKK in Turkey.

The PYD has been open in its opposition to the Syrian National Council, but the KNC has maintained an uneasy connection with it. In an SNC meeting held in July in Cairo under the auspices of the EU, the Kurdish observers ended up in a fist fight with nationalist delegates before storming out. The SNC was acting on its remit to “maintain the territorial integrity and unity” of Syria, and in practice this meant that Kurdish rights could not be recognised and their demands not met.

The threat of an imminent collapse of the Assad regime, and its replacement by one endorsed by the SNC, hastened the formation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, triggering the takeover of Syrian Kurdistan. The Assad regime has not yet attempted to regain control, since its priority is complete victory in the battle for Aleppo. Moreover, the establishment of a Kurdish-controlled zone along the Turkish border represents a slap in the face to the Turkish government, which has been very active in providing support to the SNC.

Turkey cannot intervene without upsetting its long-cultivated links with Iraqi Kurdistan. Those links are quite important for Turkey in forestalling a Kurdish uprising within its borders. The Turkish government has abandoned its policy of attempting a negotiated settlement in northern Kurdistan within the context of the new constitution by granting some of the long demanded rights of the Kurds in return for an end to the guerrilla war. Instead it is pursuing a two-pronged policy of winning the guerrilla war waged by the PKK within Turkey through its far greater firepower, and forcing the closure of PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan through the good offices of Barzani.

In return Iraqi Kurdistan has been offered a new pipeline to carry Kurdish oil to the terminal at the Mediterranean Sea, among other economic incentives. Although this policy left the Iraqi government at odds with Turkey in the short run, Ankara believes that the benefits of this course of action are overwhelming in the long term.

While Barzani could never have refused such an approach out of hand, developments in Syria have now brought about an opportunity not to be missed. To date the approach has been successful, but there are still possible pitfalls along the way.

The Syrian regime is not surrendering, and may be able to do enough to crack the SNC and trigger communal strife among the opposition. In such a case, the breathing space gained by the regime might be enough for it to renew its attack on Syrian Kurdistan.

The KSC is vehemently against allowing Free Syrian Army forces to enter the zone it has established under its control, and has no intention of taking part in any joint action with it against the Assad regime. The transfer of power to the KSC has provided it with the opportunity to implement the democratic autonomy programme of the PYD. However, the general situation is not conducive to peaceful and democratic development. The organisations are already quarrelling amongst themselves, since the PYD insists on using its flag and banners in every office it occupies, ignoring the agreement to recognise KSC-approved Kurdish symbols. However, no-one wants to jeopardise everything that has so far been gained.

The Turkish authorities, after their initial kneejerk reaction towards the transfer of power in Syrian Kurdistan, have recently seemed to adopt a more measured approach. However, the army has been mobilised and more and more forces are being deployed along the Syrian Kurdistan borders.

The Turkish government has declared that if the level of autonomy enjoyed by a Syrian Kurdistan is settled by a broad consensus in a future Syrian parliament it would not raise any objection. However, it says it will never allow Syrian Kurdistan territory to be used as a“terrorist base” like the Qandil mountains in Iraq.

Clashes in Turkey

Guerrilla activity has suddenly increased in the Hakkâri province of Turkey. A major guerrilla offensive centred on the Kurdish town of Şemdinli , but it was met by a fierce counteroffensive on the part of the Turkish armed forces. Despite the use of heavy artillery as well as aerial bombardment against targets on the Goman mountains along the border, the guerrillas managed to infiltrate the town. They destroyed a bridge connecting it with towns and villages in the border region. Numerous armoured units and airborne troops were deployed under the protection of helicopter gunships, and a costly battle has been going on.

The region has been declared a prohibited zone and no mainstream media news is coming out of it. Many villages have been depopulated, their inhabitants forced to leave. The authorities have not allowed MPs to visit the area and are refusing to provide information about their operations until they have been completed. Requests by local authorities to be allowed to go into the prohibited zone to extinguish forest and scrub fires caused by the bombardment have been flatly denied. There are only unreliable estimates of casualties.

Unexpectedly the guerrillas have stood their ground. But that is a very costly way to conduct a guerrilla war. Perhaps a desire to relieve the pressure on Syrian Kurdistan has played a role in the adoption of the tactic. This stand may also be intended to demonstrate to world public opinion that, despite the positive developments in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, the Turkish government is still not ready to accept Kurdish rights, and is prepared to use all manner of brutal measures to subdue the guerrilla war.

Whether such a tactic would bring Turkey back to the negotiating table is doubtful. However, the Kurdish forces seem to be committed to pursuing it until the winter lull.

Meanwhile along the western part of Syria, border crossings have been taken over by the forces loyal to the SNC, and the principal towns along the road to Aleppo have fallen under their control. The refugee camps are now run by Sunni Islam forces with no strong loyalty to the SNC or any other body.

The Alawite community living on both sides of the border are increasingly harassed by those Sunni Islam forces. Many clashes have taken place in camps. In one case Turkish police officers were taken hostage during negotiations. Eventually the incident was brought to an end by the action of gendarmerie forces.

Several trucks owned by Turkish Alawite long-distance haulage companies have been stopped and burnt by the Islamist armed groups, which have used centuries-old bigotry to mobilise the Sunni population against the Alawite communities in Syria. Consequently, border crossings have now been closed to local traffic. Attacks in Turkey against the Alawites are on the rise, and in Hatay province Alawite youth are talking about arming themselves to protect the community.

Iran, the major supporter of Alawites in Syria, and consequently the Assad regime to a degree are quite alarmed. As Yassamine Mather so eloquently explained in last week’s issue, US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strengthened the hand of Iran (‘Islamists gaining ground’, July 26). Today the question in many minds is this: is the US-led coalition ready to reverse that trend by allowing the takeover of Syria by Sunni Islamists? Such a decision would inevitably provoke a break-up of the country – the unexpected outcome of the war, with unforeseeable consequences.

One thing is sure: an intercommunal war would irrevocably change the shape of the borders imposed by imperialism in the 20th century, from the shores of Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. That would affect Israel, Turkey and Iran as well as Kurdistan as a whole.

That is why communists must develop a new programme for the whole region: a programme for democracy and popular power that avoids the trap of nationalism. It is time to discuss such ideas and take the first steps along that road

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