Revolution in Syria and Turkey: mutual betrayal?

One of the greatest tragedies on the global stage now is that revolutions are going on in both Syria and Turkey—and they are being pitted against each other in the Great Game. First we look at Syria, where the partial "ceasefire" in place for over a month is finally breaking down. The critical event seems to have been the April 18 bombing of a marketplace in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Noaman by regime warplanes, killing dozens. The town is controlled by Nusra Front, which was not included in the "ceasefire," but the victims of the bombardment were overwhelmingly civilians. The town's residents had no love of Nusra, and civil resistance activists had repeatedly taken to the streets there over the past month to oppose the jihadist militia and the Bashar Assad regime alike. (NYT, April 19) In the aftermath of the market bombing, the Jaysh al-Nasr, on the of main FSA-aligned militias, announced the opening of a new "battle" against regime forces. (Reuters, April 18)

Civil resistance protests are continuing—but now they have taken up slogans and rhetoric explicitly in opposition to the recent declaration of regional autonomy by the Syrian Kurds. On April 17, hundreds took to the streets of the southern city of Suweida to commemorate Syria's Independence Day and call for the toppling of Assad. But slogans stressed the unity of the Syrian state and rejected any attempt at partition or sectarian mini-states. (, April 17) The threat of a Great Power partition of Syria appears to be real, as is the threat of a sectarian balkanization. But the autonomy declared by the Kurds in their territory of Rojava is explicitly multi-ethnic, secular and anti-sectarian—yet it appeared to be (in large part, at least) the target of the protesters' ire. 

The Syrian civil opposition has for years used social media to reach consensus on a new slogan each Friday. They have overwhelmingly been against the regime—demanding democracy and the ouster of Assad. For the first time on April 1, they adopted one clearly aimed at the Kurds: "NO FOR FEDERATION!"

This comes just as Ankara is pressing Washington on an operational plan against ISIS that excludes Rojava's People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised this in his Washington meeting with President Obama earlier this month. The US is expected to adopt a compromise plan that leaves the YPG in the anti-ISIS alliance but reduces its visibility to appease Ankara. (Al Monitor, April 8) To an extent, this was the imperative behind creation of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), led by the YPG but also including secular Arab militias.

Amid the new fighting are confused at the northeastern border town of Qamishli, which lies within the autonomous Rojava canton of Cezire (also rendered Jazira). The Kuridsh news agency ANHA reported that the fighting has pitted the YPG's Asayish security force against the pro-Assad National Defense Force, a paramilitary extension of the regime's army. The report said that "mercenaries of the Syrian Baathist regime…attacked a patrol of the [Kurdish] traffic police, [forcing] the Asayesh to intervene directly." (Now, Lebanon, April 20) 

Al-Masdar News, with a clear pro-Russian slant, also reported the Qamishli clashes, and was clearly rooting for the paramilitaries—which is good evidence that Russian efforts to groom the YPG as a proxy force have broken down. It's a curious irony that both the Russian-backed Damascus regime and the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces have much invested in portraying the Rojava Kurds as collaborating with Assad. The Qamishli fighting should put paid to that calumny.

Meanwhile, on the Turkish side of the border that divides Kurdistan, counter-insurgency efforts against a Kurdish insurrection are ongoing—punctuated by periodic bombing attacks on security forces by the Kurdish PKK rebels. In several towns, a curfew has been in place for weeks, and PKK partisans have dug trenches and erected barricades to keep government forces at bay. (BBC News, April 2; Al Jazeera, March 31)

In another example of the global convergence between issues of class justice and those of urban ecology and control of space, the counter-insurgency campaign in Turkey's east appears integrated into gentrification schemes and clearing of poor districts. The Turkish government last month hastily passed legislation allowing the "urgent expropriation" of properties to permit military operations in the Sur district of the eastern city of Diyarbakir. Adding another ethnic dimension to the campaign, at least one Armenian church is among the expropriated properties. (Al Monitor, April 10) This is especially ominous as Turkish officials have repeatedly invoked the World War I-era genocidal campaign against the Armenians as a warning to the Kurds.

Erdogan is definitively closing the door on any return to a ceasefire with the PKK, vowing to "root the terrorist organization [sic] out of Turkey and the region… If you are looking for a resolution, here is the resolution. When we root out the terror organization, without its smallest trace remaining, from these territories, then we will have put the resolution into practice." (Hurriyet Daily News, April 19)

The cruel irony is that both those twin war criminals Erdogan and Assad (supposedly bitter enemies) have sought to play the Kurds and Arabs off against each other in a divide-and-rule strategy. This manipulation of the Kurdish factor is the wedge pitting the revolutions in Syria and Turkey against each other—to the benefit of both strongmen.

A final ominous note: Reuters reports that the Air Force has deployed B-52 bombers to Qatar to join operations against ISIS—the first time they have been based in the Middle East since the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Apart from the irony that Qatar is itself backing the most reactionary Islamist factions in Syria, the deployment of this grim machinery portends a more indiscriminate and brutal US aerial campaign in Syria and Iraq.

In the face of this, unity among the revolutionary forces—against Assad, ISIS and imperial designs alike—is more critical than ever. And now it seems further away than ever. We recall our prediction that the "peace deal" announced by the Great Powers last year could actually signal an escalation.

  1. Assad’s sham elections blocked in Rojava

    In addition to "co-existence" agreements with remnant pro-regime elements in places such as Qamishli now breaking down, autonomous authorities in Rojava did not allow the regime's parliamentary elections to be carried out in their territory. "Since the autonomous administration was declared by the Kurds and other minorities, the majority Kurdish areas are out of Assad’s control, and they are administrated by the components of the region," said Idris Nassan, a former official in the Kobane canton administration. (ARA)

    The Shi'ite sectarian AhlulBayt News Agency states that "Syrian People’s Assembly elections for selecting 250 members from over 3,500 candidates from across all Syrian provinces" were held April 13. But this is obviously false: Assad only controls some 20% of the country, and the elections were not carried out in the areas of FSA, Kurdish, Nusra or ISIS control. Furthermore, as in the 2014 sham elections that rubber-stamped Assad's own rule as president, true opposition figures barred from running.

  2. Rojava leader: We’ll fight Assad for a secular state

    The co-leader of Rojava's Democratic Union Party (PYD), Saleh Muslim, said that the YPG is ready to fight the Syrian regime if the aim is to establish a secular state.

    In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Oka, Muslim said that the YPG "are ready to fight Assad under a secular, democratic and civilian umbrella," adding that "Assad is falling no matter how long it takes, and the era of the Baath [Party] is gone, never to return. But we do not want to establish a so-called caliphate and inaugurate the terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as president of Syria."

    "We are not willing to fight Assad so that Syria falls into the hands of jihadis, who have destroyed everything and turned it into a bloodbath," Muslim added.

    Regarding speculation of PYD agreements with the Syrian regime, Muslim said: "There has never been a tacit agreement with the Assad regime. He’s the one who has arrested our people, and thrown them in prison up to today." (Syrian Observer, April 20)

  3. Kurds, Assad regime agree to indefinite truce in Qamishlo

    Kurdish fighters and Syrian government representatives agreed on April 22 to an indefinite ceasefire after three days of clashes in the northeastern city of Qamishlo, AFP reports. So it looks like the co-existence agreement is back on…