March 2020 Saraqib, Syria (AP)
A member of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front raises a flag in the town of Saraqeb on Feb. 27. Syrian government and Russian troops recovered the town five days later. (Ghaith Alsayed / AP)

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

This month marks the beginning of the tenth year of conflict in Syria. The anniversary coincides with a ceasefire signed on March 5 by the leaders of Russia and Turkey to calm the fighting in the northern province of Idlib. Since the signing, a few of the over 900,000 civilians who fled toward the Turkish border have returned to their homes to collect their belongings. In many cases, they are finding mere ruins.

The impulse for the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad took place in February 2011, when protests broke out in Damascus following the beating of a teenage boy by police. That helped to unleash an outpouring of grievances against the regime, many of them by small farmers who had been impoverished and displaced by drought and the regime’s inept response to their plight. A Day of Rage was called for March 15. Protests were held in many towns and cities; several were attacked by police.

The conflict escalated in the southern city of Deraa, where on March 6, 15 boys, all under the age of 15, had been arrested and tortured on charges of painting political slogans on walls. On March 18, when several thousand filled the streets in front of the Omari Mosque to demand that the boys be released, they were met with water cannons and live ammunition. Four people were killed.

As protest demonstrations spread throughout the country, Assad and his allies offered a few concessions to the protesters but spurned the demands for deep reform. Instead, on March 30, 2011, Assad gave a speech in which he denounced the protests as acts of “sedition” that had been incited by conspirators from abroad.

Simultaneously, the regime sought to portray the conflict as a sectarian one—primarily hatched by radicalized Sunnis to overthrow the secular Syrian government. Thus, on April 18, 2011, the Interior Ministry announced that the country faced “an armed insurrection under the motto of jihad to set up a Salafist state.” The government provided no evidence to back up its assertion. However, after the regime released close to 1500 radical Islamists from prison that summer, many of those ex-prisoners went on to found jihadist fighting groups—as the Syrian authorities probably expected (and hoped) they would.

Fairly early in the conflict, foreign governments like those of Qatar and Saudi Arabia entered the fray, with offerings of funds, training camps, and even weapons to rebel groups; each country favored different factions among the Islamist militias. The United States also intervened, as early as 2012, by funneling arms to selected “moderate” rebel forces and helping to train them, but such aid was limited and sporadic, and had a minor role in affecting the course of the war.

Within a couple of years, better-armed Islamist militias, including some that were jihadist in orientation, had succeeded in displacing a number of the local self-defense bodies (many loosely affiliated with the “Free Syrian Army”). The Islamists also increasingly dominated many of the grassroots governments that had sprung up in the liberated portions of Syria. By the end of 2013, the reactionary al-Nusra militia and the even more brutal Islamic State had begun to take center stage in the war. However, the popular struggle against the regime continued, on both a social basis and militarily.

Until the last half of 2015, the territory held by Assad’s demoralized Syrian Arab Army had been reduced primarily to a narrow strip of the country in the west. It took the entry of Iranian forces (led by Qassem Soleimani) and associated militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah in early 2013, and then Russian forces in September 2015, to begin to turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor—most decisively with the capture of eastern Aleppo in late 2016. The bombing by Russian planes and Syrian helicopters was relentless, contributing greatly to the over 500,000 civilian casualties.

As Assad and his international allies bombed, cannonaded, blockaded, and starved the towns and cities, gradually taking more and more territory, over 11 million people (out of a population of 21 million in 2011) were uprooted from their homes. Over 5 million sought refuge in Turkey (3.7 million), Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. Another 6 million were displaced but remained in Syria. As refugees flooded into Idlib province, the last large area to remain in rebel hands (outside of Kurdish-governed territory), its population doubled over the course of the war to 3 million.

Assad’s campaign to seize Idlib

In the spring of 2018, the Assad regime and the Russians touched off a campaign to capture Idlib, with sporadic bombing of towns in the eastern portion of the province. Turkey, which supports so-called “Free Syrian Army (FSA)” units in the border region, entered discussions with Russia to see if their governments might be able to obtain mutual concessions—and thus stave off a bloodbath in the region. Vladimir Putin’s broader goal was to move Turkey toward cultivating closer economic and political relations with Russia.

In September 2018, the Russian and Turkish leaders, Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meeting in Sochi, on the Black Sea, arrived at a pact that established a demilitarized zone that would separate the Assad forces from territory held by opponents. However, the talks produced only a momentary delay in fighting, while the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda, refused to abide by any cease-fire. Accordingly, the Assadist assault on Idlib resumed on a greater scale in 2019, and escalated in ferocity until this past February.

By the end of February 2020, regime forces had taken virtually the entire eastern half of Idlib province, plus a large part of the area between Idlib and the city of Aleppo. Over 400 civilians were reportedly killed in the government’s drive.

In undertaking the offensive, the pro-Assad forces repeated their earlier pattern of bombing civilian houses, schools, and hospitals. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, reporting on March 2, such tactics constituted the “crime of intentionally terrorizing the population” in order to force civilians to flee. A correspondent for The New York Times (March 17, 2020) reported that towns and villages in the region he had visited to the south of Idlib city were largely deserted.

The UN commission’s paper specifically condemned Russia for bombing civilian targets, mentioning an airstrike on a marketplace last July, which killed at least 43 people, and an attack on a refugee camp in August, which killed at least 20. The commission stated that in both airstrikes, “the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas.”

The UN commission also said that its investigators had observed war crimes by Syrian rebels allied with Turkey during the 2019 invasion of Kurdish areas, and that al-Qaeda-linked militias had caused civilian casualties with rocket attacks on areas held by the Syrian government.

Turkey responded to the Syrian regime’s offensive in February by sending an additional 12,000 troops into Idlib while mobilizing its allied Syrian rebel forces against regime targets. Erdogan pledged to expel Syrian government troops from the area. On Feb. 27, the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (part of the FSA) re-captured the town of Saraqeb, at the key junction of the M5 and M4 highways. But just five days later, Assad’s troops were able to get around Turkish tanks and artillery, and to expel the rebels. Russian troops were then brought in to occupy the town.

In the meantime, on Feb. 27, at least 34 soldiers from Turkey who had been posted to an area south of Idlib city were killed in a Russian airstrike. Turkey immediately responded with drone and artillery attacks on Syrian Army positions.

This escalation hastened Russia’s and Turkey’s presidents to seek an accord that could lessen the chances of another direct military confrontation. The March 5 pact by Putin and Erdogan did reduce hostilities in the region to a trickle, but as yet there is no indication as to what degree or how long Assad will respect the Russian-Turkish cease-fire, which his government was left out of.

Assad sees the capture of Idlib as essential for the project of restoring trade routes between Aleppo, formerly the commercial capital of Syria, and the rest of the country. He has vowed to keep the M5 highway opened, which links Aleppo with Damascus and runs along the eastern border of the province. The east-west M4 highway, which bisects Idlib and connects the M5 with the Mediterranean coast and the southern lip of Turkey, is similarly important.

But the job of reconstructing Syria will be difficult even if Assad manages to restore all the territory under central government control—a monstrous task in itself with half the population uprooted. Cronyism and profiteering are further obstacles, and have in fact been aided by legislation such as Law 48, which allows private contractors to share with state entities in construction projects.

Syria was facing a severe economic crisis well before the recession that has hit the rest of the world following the coronavirus outbreak. Trade throughout much of the country, including Damascus, has been paralyzed. During the past year, the value of the Syrian pound was reduced by almost half to 1000 to the dollar. The UN estimates that the country needs more than $250 billion in aid to begin to get on its feet. And longer-term problems such as drought and environmental devastation must be dealt with.

No U.S. sanctions against Syria! End all U.S. intervention!

In the meantime, the Trump administration and Congress are considering a range of sanctions against Syria. The sanctions program was authorized following testimony before the U.S. Senate of a former Syrian military photographer who goes by the pseudonym Caesar. Caesar was responsible for smuggling out of Syria some 53,000 photographs of corpses of inmates within Syrian prisons. Many of the bodies were horribly bruised and mutilated. Investigators matched some of the gruesome photos to known people who had been arrested by Syrian authorities on political charges and never seen again. The photographs are a graphic record of the systematic torture and murder that goes on in Assad’s prisons.

Caesar and others have been urging Congress to implement the act that it passed in December, the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” which authorizes the Trump administration to brief Congress on the “operation requirements of military and non-military means to enhance the protection of civilians inside Syria, especially civilians who are in besieged areas.” The deadline for Congress to respond with what it deems to be appropriate measures, such as economic sanctions against Syria, is in June.

We must reject all U.S. economic sanctions. Sanctions would only end up hurting the civilian population, which is already suffering terribly in Syria. The Syrian people require more aid, not less.

Of course, the threat of “military means” in the congressional resolution is particularly chilling. The United States, which has been a fierce belligerent in the Syrian war in order to further its own imperialist interests, has no right to continue its intervention into the region—military or otherwise. There is bitter irony in the fact that the U.S. government, having caused thousands of civilian casualties through its bombing of Raqqa and other cities, is now crying over the plight of civilians in Idlib.

It is likewise astounding that Congress members appear shocked over Caesar’s evidence of torture in Assad’s prisons. Is that not pure hypocrisy? Following the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. officials routinely “rendered” captured Islamic fighters into Assad’s prison system, with the firm understanding that they would undergo unspeakable tortures that the American interrogators would rather not have had on their own records. Surely, the members of Congress were aware of that arrangement.

The antiwar movement in the United States must continue to expose the duplicity of the U.S. government toward Syria and to demand: U.S. hands off! No sanctions! Withdraw all U.S. troops!

At the same time, working people and their allies in every country must continue to offer solidarity with the beleaguered people of Syria, demanding that Europe and the U.S. open their borders to the refugees—along with full screening for coronavirus and other diseases, quality health care, and schooling and employment opportunities.

For the displaced and jobless people inside Syria, we should demand that international authorities augment their aid programs in order to provide them with fully sufficient food, medicine, and permanent housing. Moreover, the Assad regime must open its border stations so that the Syrian people who require such aid, including those in Idlib, can receive it without hindrance and without fear. Finally, the Syrian government’s offensive against Idlib must end, allowing its civilian population to try to reconstruct their shattered towns and their lives.