"It's really distressing that the very people in Western societies who one would have expected to be the first to show solidarity with the Syrian people and their revolution from 2011; it's very often those sections of society that have just been relaying Russia and Assad's propaganda. I think we have to ask what is going on here. A lot of it is a West-centrism, in which people imagine everything that happens in the world is about us. If there's a problem in Syria, we don't need to ask Syrians about it, we don't need to study Syrian history and politics, and we don't need to look at the machinations of other imperialist states. We just need to focus on what our state is doing, and in fact we don't even do that. What we often do, is just assume our state is doing certain things.
So, from the very beginning, some people on the left assumed that the Syrian Revolution was just a régime change plot, dreamed up in Washington or Tel Aviv, or maybe in Saudi Arabia, and they started treating the thing as if it was that from the start. Which is shameful, really. It's actually racist I would argue, because it robs the agency of Syrian people. It says these people are just pawns in our arguments with our own government.
If you actually look at what happened, you'll see that in 2011, on some Fridays, there were millions of people on the streets, protesting for democracy, not for an Islamic state, but for democracy, freedom, and social justice, and against corruption and torture and oppressive policing, and all the rest of it. They didn't go out into the streets because the Americans or the Israelis told them to, or bribed them to. These are Syrians who don't like Israeli or American imperialism. They know more about it than people in the West do. They've suffered it. So they don't go out and do things because distant foreign governments they don't like tell them to do so. They certainly don't go out and risk their lives, knowing they are going to get shot at, that they may be arrested afterwards and tortured to death, because some foreign imperialist tells them to. They went out because they were immediately concerned.
And what happened then was the régime declared war on them, and out of this war came a whole series of other wars. Regional, international, sectarian, ethnic. All kind of different states jumped in. All of them, of course, because that's how states behave, for their own reasons in their own interests, not in the interests of the Syrian people. But the biggest imperialist input into this war has been Russian and Iranian. I said this to a Scottish lady here yesterday, and she said, "Is Russia imperialist?"
Now, if you're in the West, maybe the distinction between Russian imperialism and our imperialisms, seem very important. But if you're an Afghan, for example, your country has been occupied and destroyed, first by the Russians, and then by the Americans. If you're in Central Asia, or the Caucasus, or Eastern Europe for that matter, you know all about Russian occupations, imperialisms, and genocide.
So it is such a narrow-minded, myopic, self-absorbed, Western idea, that the only way we can respond to this enormous tragedy in Syria, is by making the same old points that we make every time our governments say anything. It's not actually just about us. And also, if we look at what our government has been doing, why do people get so upset at the three strikes the other day on three empty chemical weapons bases? But they didn't get upset, I didn't see any huge angry demonstrations all the rest of the time since 2014 when the United States has been bombing Syria. It's been bombing for years, and killing thousands of civilians, and destroying cities. But that's in the name of the War on Terror, so we don't actually notice.
Why would the United States drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when they already knew that the Japanese were considering surrender? There are lots of parallels we could look at. The actual strategic reason why Assad used chemical weapons this time was, as people who follow will know, in the last few months, he's been cleaning out, ethnically cleansing, or sectarian cleansing, the suburbs east of Damascus, the Eastern Ghouta. And one by one, the towns that were liberated, the revolutionary towns in those areas, were defeated, the signed surrender agreements; and the militias, and the activists, and their families, were bussed off to refugee camps in northern Syria. Many other people were detained by the régime. The town of Douma was the biggest thorn in his side, because he couldn't get the main militia there to surrender.
They were in surrender negotiations, and Jaish al-Islam, the militia there, said that they wanted their soldiers to stay in the area, to guard the local civilians from the régime, and they would become a kind of police force, and they would stop fighting. The régime and the Russians didn't accept this, and broke off negotiations, restarted bombing, and in the middle of the bombing came the chemical attack, which created such a panic among the civilians - this is the thing about chemical attacks, most people of course have been killed by other means - that under popular pressure, Jaish al-Islam said immediately, within a few hours, that they would surrender.
What this means is that Assad saved thousands of loyalist militiamen, his own ones. Because if he had had to fight his way into Douma, he would have lost thousands more men, and he's got very few of his own men left. Most of his men on the ground are now Iranian-backed transnational Shia jihadis.
In 2017, about a year ago, when Assad used sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun, and Trump wanted to show he was a tough guy unlike Obama, so he went and bombed the airbase from where that attack had been launched. He cratered the airfield, and I think he destroyed one or two planes. But he called up Putin beforehand, a couple of hours before, and told him what he was going to bomb. Putin called Assad, and they moved their important stuff out of that base. And the same thing happened this time. The régime had several days, and it was actually for the Syrian people, or the revolutionary Syrian people in the areas being bombed every day by Assad and Russia, the few days running up to the strike were incredibly peaceful, because Assad was busy hiding his equipment and his planes, and he wasn't flying them and bombing people very much. So he had time to empty out the chemical sites, the three empty sites that were hit. This was a gesture.
About the Russian response, there are two things here. The first thing, we shouldn't believe Russian rhetoric. If we follow closely, we will see that a couple of months ago a group of pro-Assad forces attacked the Americans' Kurdish allies in Eastern Syria. The Americans responded by putting a plane in the air, and bombing all of the vehicles in this column that was approaching. They killed about 200 people, I reckon. And it later emerged, that dozens of those 200 were actually Russians. A mixture of mercenaries, their equivalent of Blackwater and so on, but also some Russian soldiers. Putin said not a word. It leaked out into the Russian media, but no issue was made of it. Because, of course, Putin knows that if it comes to a military escalation, he will immediately be humiliated, and American weaponry will be shown to be superior to his. He is not going to go into a big escalation with people who are stronger than him, for the sake of the point he is making in Syria.
The second thing is, more importantly, when people think there is about to be a superpower conflict over this, I don't think they realise that a more intelligent analysis of what's happening in Syria, suggests that it is international collaboration against the Syrian Revolution. It's not the case that the Russians are trying to keep Assad in, and the Americans are trying to get Assad out. If the Americans had wanted to get Assad out, in 2011-12-13, it would have been remarkably easy. They didn't want to. They chose not to. They have sometimes armed some Free Army groups, usually in the context of the war against ISIS. never in a serious way. And the Americans have always vetoed anyone else giving the Free Syrian Army the anti-aircraft weapons, which they really needed to stop the aerial campaign against their schools and hospitals and markets.
So the West hasn't helped the Syrian. It has sometimes, not often, been more or less on the same page. Obama, who did his nuclear deal with Iran, which I'm not against in itself; in order to get the deal with Iran, he allowed Iran to send tens of thousands of foreign Shia jihadist militiamen, to fight on the dictator's behalf in Syria, which is much more destabilising. So the idea that America and Russia are facing off over this, I think is very inaccurate.
When Putin came in, there was an independence movement in Chechnya. He absolutely destroyed Chechnya, and razed the capital city Grozny to the ground. Then strangled the government in Georgia. Then he went to Ukraine and took the Crimea. Whatever you think of the background there, and I'm sure there is historical resentment and problems; and the West, NATO and EU have some responsibility for the situation; nevertheless, he's gone to one place after the other after the other. And nothing's been done about it. There's a hot war in Europe. More people have died in Ukraine in the last few years than in Libya. Everybody ignores that for some reason. I don't quite understand why.
Robert Fisk says that he met a doctor, who speaks very good English. Which is necessary, because Fisk doesn't speak Arabic, although he pretends to but he can't, and you can see that from the fairly continuous mistranslations in his journalism. So he met a doctor. The doctor himself said he wasn't in Douma at the time of the attack. But he spoke very good English. And strangely he came up and introduced himself to Mr. Fisk, and started giving his theory, which was that a dust storm had caused the pictures we saw of people dying with white froth around their mouths, and tiny pupils, the kind of stuff that can only be caused by chemical weapons.
This part of Syria, the Ghouta, has been bombed continuously for five or six years, and it's strange that suddenly, for the first time ever, a combination of panic and dust creates a phenomenon in which dozens of people die with foam around their mouths. it's not a serious story, and people are leaping on it, because they want to believe this narrative.
Fisk has got form on this. He's done this before. In 2012, he went, embedded with the Syrian Army, to the site of an enormous massacre of civilians in Daraya, that had just been committed by the Syrian Army. Then he reported on it, and gave a story that it was the community that had done that to their own people. The local people complained about it, the Local Co-ordination Committees, the revolutionary bodies in that area, complained about it, and they were ignored in the Western media.
I ask again. Why is it that we, especially supposedly progressive people, put all of our faith in old white men, who don't speak the local language, who don't go anywhere in these countries without régime minders explaining everything to them, and introducing certain people to them? Why do we put all of our faith in this, and at the same time we totally ignore the reports that are coming from the ground, from Syrians? From leftist Syrians, and Islamic Syrians, and jihadist Syrians; and men, and women, and Christians, and Muslims. We ignore them all because they are brown people who can't be trusted, and lie, I presume.
In one sense, you can say the revolution never dies. Because it is a set of ideas. And because so many millions of people have burned all their bridges, and it is impossible to turn back to 2011, before their family members were killed, before they were tortured or raped, before they were expelled from their homes. It s not going away, that wherever there are Syrians, you will find people committed to the revolution.
Having said that, inside Syria, now entering the eighth year of this disaster, the revolutionary civic society is very much on the defensive. The revolution has lost much of its urban strongholds. Over a year ago, when Aleppo fell, everybody in the West, progressive people, alternative media and the mainstream media, were all coming out with this narrative that jihadists are holding Aleppo, and Assad and the Russians are taking it back. It was a reversal of reality. Inside Aleppo, probably 1 or 2% of the fighters were al-Qaeda linked. Most of them were Free Army or moderate Islamist militias.
More to the point, inside Aleppo, inside the Ghouta, inside all these areas, as well as the rebel militias, who are very often authoritarian and criminal and opportunistic and indisciplined, although they killed far, far, fewer civilians than Assad's side; as well as the rebel forces, you've got democratic local councils, self-organised councils. You had women's centres. You had Free newspapers. You had underground schools, all kinds of civic organisation, revolutionary debate. And that needs urban areas inside Syria in which to survive. And when they drove the revolution out of Aleppo, out of the western Damascus suburbs, out of the eastern Damascus suburbs, out of Homs years ago, this is what they are really targetting.
So the rebellion against Assad, and the possibility of democracy and freedom and social justice and self-determination for Syrians, seems to be further away than it has ever been . It's an absolutely desperate situation. And Assad with superpower help, remember before the Russians began bombing, he only controlled about a fifth of the territory of the country. Now he's got over half it. So yes, with superpower help, he's kept his throne. However, while his throne exists, the Syrian state doesn't really exist any more. The country has been split into Russian and Iranian zones, an American zone, and a Turkish zone. These different powers, and I think an Israeli-Iranian war in Syria is very likely at some point quite soon, we have a Kurdish-Turkish war in Syria now, the War on Terror is being pursued in Syria. Large parts of eastern Syria are now occupied by Iranian organised foreign Shia jihadists, which almost guarantees that ISIS is going to come back in force at some point before too long.
So Assad is no longer in danger, at least for now, but the war, or the wars, are by no means over. And certainly the refugee flow is not over. remember, half the Syrian population is displaced from their homes, and every day more people are leaving the country because it is impossible for them to live there.
Assad's run out of his own fighting men. His own Syrian Arab Army doesn't really exist any more. There are a couple of brigades that are staffed by people from Assad's sect, the Alawi sect. There are sectarian militias, and then there are Iranian ground forces. And Russian bombers in the sky. So the Iranian ground forces have been absolutely essential to Assad getting control back, and driving out rebellious populations.
The Israelis have sat and watched the Iranians build up. It hasn't bothered them to see the Iranians crushing the Syrian Revolution. It hasn't bothered them to see Shia miltiamen settling in areas that have been cleansed of Sunni Muslims. Because that just means in the decades to come, Muslims will be fighting each other rather than fighting anybody else.
But now that the opposition seems to have been crushed, that the revolution seems to have any hope at all of actually taking power, Israel's understandably getting very worried. Suddenly at its border, its most important enemy has military bases all around it. We've already seen some rounds between Iranians and Israelis inside Syria. I would expect that there would be more of this, If the Israelis think a new balance of power is being forged in the region, they will want to get in there and upset it in their interests.
I also think it's quite likely in the future that Israel will probably move into a strip, a buffer zone, in southern Syria. In order to have an effect on what goes on on the ground, and a security zone there. i don't think they'll try to colonise it with settlers, I don't they would be so stupid. I expect they will try and get some proxy militias working for them in that area as a buffer against Iran.
It's a bit hard for Syrians to take lessons on anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism from so=called Western progressives who will tell us that of course the Syrians will be traitors if they don't support Iran in that war. But Syrians, or the vast majority of Syrians, are perfectly well aware that if this was a war in order to liberate Palestine, in order to restore Palestinian rights and self-determination, they would accept making sacrifices. They know perfectly well that the Palestinian-Israel conflict is an excuse for the Iranian ruling class, very unpopular at home now, to expand its regional territorial control over key parts of the Arab world. Which in itself is a huge generator of Sunni extremism as a backlash.