Noam Chomsky's recent criticism of US withdrawal from Kurdish-held territory in Syria poses a strange contradiction: Why have so many on the left accused Syrian Arab rebels of being US proxies, while either supporting or remaining silent on the far more consistent US support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) against ISIS?
Given the widespread misinformation about Syria, a basic rundown of the facts about US involvement is necessary. What follows is a very brief outline of well-established facts about the war.
The dominant narrative on the left holds that US involvement in Syria is an attempt at "regime change." As highlighted by Michael Karadjis' Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, this is in contradiction with the statements of US officials:
In 2016, declaring that the US was "not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria," Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict "fundamentally very similarly."
In March 2017, Trump's UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was "no longer" focused on removing Assad "the way the previous administration was."
The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that "The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we've made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept."
In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that Assad's future is Russia's issue, and he essentially called the regime allies: "We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another…"
Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad's horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib in April 2017, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad's military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from "regime change," the US desired a "change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular." [Note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime.]
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a "political solution," but now the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual "free election" under Assad: "The United States believes that free and transparent elections…will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership."
[Trump’s special envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey] made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that "will change the nature and the behavior of the Syrian government… this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities."
However, it's not enough to take officials at their word. Do these claims contradict the actual practice of US intervention? Well, no.
The USA has continuously attacked ISIS-held territory since 2014, killing thousands of civilians. Meanwhile, two direct actions against Assad – an airfield bombing in 2017, and a chemical weapons factory bombing in 2018—killed no civilans, and both sought to warn the regime against chemical weapons attacks, rather than remove it from power. These two actions prompted widespread protests in the Anglosphere, while continuous US attacks on ISIS-held territory elicited only silence, or in some cases support. (See the open letter calling on the US to "Defend Rojava," signed by David Harvey, David Graeber and Noam Chomsky among others). If the US sought to remove Assad from power, why not bomb Damascus? Why focus almost entirely on ISIS-held territory?
Crucially, the war began not with US involvement, but as part of an independent popular regional rebellion (against both US-backed dictatorships and "anti-imperialist" ones), that was militarily attacked by Assad. In August 2012, Obama famously stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a "red line" that if crossed would invite direct US intervention. Yet in 2013, the Obama administration backed down from a threatened bombing campaign after Assad's use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta killed 1,400 people.
Although the US offered some assistance to the Syrian rebels, this was limited. The Assad regime was able to rain death on the rebels from the sky, while rebels were limited to ground forces, so to beat Assad they would have needed aerial support or anti-aircraft weaponry. Yet the US specifically blocked Saudi Arabia from providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons, and the US did not implement a No Fly Zone. While the reasons for this are murky, they may include the fact that US policy was an ad hoc response to a volatile situation, that many rebels were anti-Zionist and hard to control, and/or the "realist" policy of the Obama administration. Obama infamously mocked the rebels as "farmers or dentists" and said training them would take a lot of time and resources, revealing a lukewarm attitude to the situation.
Finally, in 2014, ISIS intervention in the Syrian war triggered expanded US involvement. Contrary to narratives which reduce the Syrian revolution to ISIS, the group first formed in Iraq, recruited internationally, and opportunistically intervened in the Syrian war as an occupying force—three years into the conflict. In September 2014, Congress approved a $500 million expansion of funding for US involvement, focused on equipping rebels to fight ISIS. A number of rebels left the training program after it specifically placed a condition on trainees that they only fight ISIS and not Assad's forces. This led to the US swivel towards supporting the Kurdish forces, which increasingly reached a detente with Assad against their common enemy ISIS. The US also began bombing ISIS-held territory. In July 2017, Trump ceased arming Syrian rebels.
US forces would not directly intervene against Assad until 2017, after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. At this point Trump warned Assad and Putin of the attack, allowing them to evacuate the targeted airfield. This was a symbolic action, at most a warning against further chemical weapons attacks. Again, if the intention was to take out Assad, the US could have rained death on Damascus rather than Raqqa.
In sum, US policy in Syria since at least 2015 has focused primarily on fighting ISIS, while remaining complicit with Assad. This is not a defense of US policy; complicity with Assad is a bad thing. Trump's recent claim that "Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work" is a logical extension of this policy.
As for why so many leftists falsely characterize the intervention as a "regime change" effort, a few factors seem salient:
Reducing a complex situation to an easily understandable one.
Relatedly, failing to catch up with a shift in geopolitics whereby the Trump and Putin administrations increasingly converge around reactionary politics.
Most fundamentally, solidarity with states rather than people; Assad is imagined to have "sovereignty" despite obviously fake elections, while the Syrian people are secondary.
Those who still identify with the left must catch up with reality; we risk irrelevance at best, and siding with reaction at worst.
This story appeared Jan. 11 in Fightback, New Zealand.
Photo of US base at al-Tanf via EA Worldview
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Reprinted by CounterVortex, Jan. 18, 2019