Syria: Headlines for Baghouz. Silence for Al-Hol
At the end of March US President Donald Trump made a great song and dance about the ‘liberation’ of Baghouz, declared to be the last stronghold of Islamic State (IS). So eager was he to fend off critics of his avowed plan to withdraw from Syria, and come up with some kind of victory to sugar the bitter pill of US retreat, that Trump started braying about this supposedly decisive military achievement several days before it actually happened.
As US planes rained bombs on Baghouz and the ground war waged by the US-backed Kurdish militia of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) still hung in the balance, Trump waved maps under the noses of reporters showing the territorial decline of IS and declared IS fighters to be “losers and barely breathing”. On Wednesday 20 March he claimed that IS would be “gone by tonight”, and on Friday 22 March jumped the gun and declared outright victory, leaving the SDF to play PR catch-up on the Saturday.
The imperialist media, asleep on the job whenever it came to reporting the decisive progress of the Syrian Arab Army and allied liberation forces in the fight to eradicate jihadi terrorism (in all its guises, not IS alone), or reporting the disgraceful role played by imperialism and its lackeys in funding, arming and supporting jihadi gangs in the first place, woke up long enough to hail the ‘liberation’ of Baghouz, which for a moment grabbed the headlines and hogged the twittersphere. Theresa May dubbed the capture of Baghouz “a historic milestone”, similar plaudits gushed from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French President Emmanuel Macron, and the SDF itself organised a celebratory parade complete with a marching band.
No such media attention was paid to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Al-Hol, an SDF-controlled camp into which the population of Baghouz has effectively been decanted. People who streamed out of Baghouz to escape the fighting and get out from under IS control now find that they have exchanged their status as hostages of IS to a new status, that of hostages of an SDF that is helping to keep the imperialist foot jammed in the door. Nor does transplanting the population from Baghouz to Al-Hol even guarantee an end to the reign of terror exercised by IS, so chaotic has the mass evacuation been.
Al-Hol is running out of basic necessities: food, medicine. The camp was originally designed to accommodate a maximum of 20,000 people; it now houses over 74,000. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, visited Al-Hol and said he was “shocked” by the stories “of children and women dying in big numbers”. Maj. Gen. Kupchishin of the Russian Reconciliation Centre reported that between ten and twenty people die each day, including children, and the child death toll has reached 235.
The USAF is good at reducing towns to rubble and the Kurdish SDF is good at muddling up Arab hostages with jihadi hostage-takers, thereby stirring resentments from which new jihadis may spring up. Neither version of ‘liberation’ can by any stretch of the imagination be described as assisting in the uprooting of jihadi terrorism.
Not that Washington gives a damn about wiping out terrorism. On the contrary, its goal is not to eradicate jihadism, but rather to subordinate it to serve US interests. If these cannot be served by the subversion and overthrow of Syria’s legitimate leadership, then (the pipe dream runs) at least find a way to keep a toehold of influence in the country, whether by jihadi proxies or by the Kurdish rent-an-army.
The most notorious of the displacement camps controlled directly or indirectly by the US is Rukban, a sprawling mass of human misery trapped on the border between Syria and Jordan. This camp is just a few miles from the US military base in Al-Tanf. The ostensible justification for the army base was supposed to be fighting IS, but as IS has long since ceased to pose an organised military threat there, so the only enemy they face is the Syrian army itself. Yet when Trump revised his troop withdrawal plan in order to leave 400 of the original 2,000, 200 of these were specially earmarked for Al-Tanf. (The other 200 are supposed to beef up the SDF in the north – a bit late, since Turkey and Russia are already deploying joint patrols in that area.)
The situation in Rukban is similar to that in Al-Hol: shortages of food and medicine, overcrowding, insanitary conditions, chaos. Despite the fact that US is de facto in charge of the area in which the camp is situated, and has responded with hostility when Syria has chosen to exercise her own sovereignty there, it disclaims all responsibility for Rukban, preferring to leave it to anti-government jihadi groups like Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair or the FSA (Free Syrian Army) affiliate Jaish Usud al Sharqiya to police the camp, including the distribution of food and medical aid. One jihadi group, Maghawir al-Thawra (MAT), controls the territory immediately outside the camp. MAT is directly funded and trained by the US at its military base. The Jordanian government claims that Rukban has been infiltrated by about 4,000 militants, and US military leaders also believe IS has members in Rukban. Much as in Al-Hol, the US seems happy enough to leave Rukban to fester at arm’s length despite the humanitarian cost and the security implications.
In contrast Damascus and Moscow have been tireless in the task of organising resettlement projects, erecting temporary shelters for evacuees and simplifying procedures for the issue of identification papers, at each step of the way actively seeking to make this a multilateral coordination.
But the US has no interest in seeing a Syria united and free, though it is clear enough that is what the vast majority of the population want. In February the UN released a survey which indicated that nine out of ten of Rukban’s population wanted to return to their homes in Syria. Yet when the US was invited to an international meeting in March to plan how this could in practice be achieved, it not only spurned the invitation but took active steps to impede others from attending. The same happened with a subsequent meeting on 2 April, when the Russian military called upon commanders of US troops stationed at Al-Tanf to come to the Jleb checkpoint to plan concrete measures to disband the camp. Participants in the meetings included representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, as well as the elders of tribes stuck in the camp against their will. These latter pledged their support for the evacuation plan.
Unlike the chaotic evacuation of the Baghouz population to the Al-Hol camp, the Syrian plan for evacuating Rukban is designed to safeguard the welfare of the innocent whilst dealing justly with the minority that pose a continuing threat. The head of Syria’s national security explained that under the plan, “Women, children and the elderly will be allowed to return to their homes immediately after their identity and nationality is confirmed and their status is determined. They will be taken to locations which they will choose themselves.” He went on to say that men who are willing to leave Rukban will be taken to the nearby facility for displaced persons to determine their status, with the checks likely to take between ten and twenty days. He concluded that all are welcome to enter government-controlled areas, with the sole proviso that they hand over their weapons (‘Rukban tribal leaders say they trust Russia, Syria’, TASS, 3 April 2019).
Every new bombastic and contradictory declaration tweeted from the Oval Office reveals yet more clearly the growing isolation and weakness of US imperialism and the fundamental instability and disunity obtaining in imperialist ruling circles. All the stale breath expended on declaring America First has only served to draw attention to the scale of America’s declining influence on the world stage. All the hype around December’s announcement of the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, only to fizzle out like a damp squib by February, merely drew further unwelcome attention to how much Trump himself remains a prisoner of his own deep state.
His most recent diplomatic sally, “recognizing” Israeli sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights (illegally annexed and occupied by Israel) in open contempt for previous UN resolutions 242 and 497 has already backfired spectacularly, with Washington’s declaration denounced by the UN Security Council by 14 to 1. This outrageous flouting of international law, together with the earlier ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, has really kicked a hornets’ nest. Even Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait criticised the decision, along with US allies from Canada to Australia.
Whilst by tacit agreement the ‘great and the good’ of the imperialist world had conspired to keep the issue of the Golan on the back burner, a diplomatic question which might be negotiated at some yet to be determined point in the future, Trump’s shock announcement abruptly pulled the rug out from under this cosy gentlemen’s agreement, turning the spotlight directly on Israel’s illegal annexation of part of Syria and obliging shamefaced imperialist statesmen to stammer out some mumbled criticism of Israel and the US. This difficulty for imperialism is lamented in an article on the Bloomberg website.
“President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights this week was lauded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it’s also drawing unwanted global attention to Israel’s control over the territory. Trump’s reversal of decades of US policy, which viewed Israel’s control of the Golan as an ‘occupation’ to be sorted out in broader peace negotiations, prompted the United Nations Security Council to schedule a meeting… about the president’s action. Like his decisions to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and cut off funding to a UN agency aiding Palestinians, Trump’s declaration prompted rebukes from allies and foes alike at a time when administration officials say they want to go forward with plans to offer a new Mideast peace plan. In a joint statement, European members of the Security Council said on Tuesday that the decision raised concerns of the ‘broader consequences of recognizing illegal annexation and also about the broader regional consequences.’ While there is little the Security Council can do to reverse Trump’s decision, the move puts the international community in the awkward position of defending Syria’s claims to the land, even though the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is widely reviled for his conduct in the nation’s eight-year civil war. ‘Trump has chosen to create a controversy over an issue that wasn’t at all on the international agenda,’ Daniel Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, said in an interview. ‘The status quo, in which Israel controlled the Golan Heights, served Israel and America’s interest‘” (David Wainer, ‘Trump’s Golan recognition puts scrutiny on forgotten occupation, Bloomberg, 27 March 2019).
One vote at the UNSC in itself changes nothing, and this resolution will doubtless join all the other resolutions gathering dust on a high shelf. But by drawing the world’s attention to (a) the illegal annexation of part of Syria, (b) the complicity of the ‘international community’ in letting this criminal occupation continue undisturbed, (c) the growing isolation and weakness of the US on the world stage and (d) the sharpening splits within the imperialist camp itself, Trump’s flatfooted intervention helps dig the hole in which imperialism finds itself still deeper. We can only advise him to keep digging.
The ‘awkward position’ in which the ‘international community’ finds itself (having to square its hypocritical posture as champion of international law with its support for an eight year war of subversion against Syria’s lawful government) will indeed help to make the imperialist warmongers ever more ‘widely reviled’ by the world’s oppressed masses, thereby swelling the anti-imperialist ranks.
Victory to the Syrian President, Government, Army and People!