Critique of Patrick Cockburn’s ‘Whose side is Turkey on?’

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army

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By Michael Karadjis

October 31, 2014 -- Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- The November 6 London Review of Books has published Patrick Cockburn’s latest article (, ‘Whose side is Turkey On?’. Now, as I support the struggle of the Syrian Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed militia, the YPG, against ISIS’ genocidal siege, I have no interest in defending Turkey’s shabby role in this, even if I think both the US and Turkey, in their current difference on this issue are both being totally cynical in their different ways. So this critique will not deal with these issues.

Unfortunately, the angle from which Cockburn criticises Turkey is full of the same contradictions that significant parts of the left espouse, basked in an overall hostility to the Syrian revolution. Valid criticism of Turkey’s sabotage of the defence of Kobani [also referred to as Kobane] – connected to Turkey’s own oppression of its Kurdish minority – is mixed in with criticism of Turkey for allegedly wanting to help overthrow the Syrian tyranny of Bashar Assad. As if there were something wrong with wanting the overthrow of a tyrant who has burnt his whole country, sending 1.5 million Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Indeed, the fact that Turkey plays an otherwise positive role (for its own reasons, which I can’t go into here) in allowing Syrian resistance fighters to cross the border is labelled “facilitating ISIS”, as if the Syrian rebellion has anything to do with ISIS, its vicious enemy. Don’t get me wrong – Turkey may well be facilitating ISIS around the Kurdish regions of the north-east for specifically anti-Kurdish reasons, but that simply has nothing to with its rightful facilitation of the anti-Assad rebellion elsewhere.

Unless one held the view that only the Syrian Kurds had the right to resist massacre, torture, ethnic cleansing and so on. After all, the Syrian rebellion, based largely among the vast impoverished Sunni Arab majority, has faced a regime that makes ISIS’ tyranny appear amateurish in comparison, and considering how barbaric ISIS is, this is a big claim, yet one that is simply empirically true.

Indeed, and I digress a little here – not understanding that it is the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Arab populations that have been bombed to pieces, ethnically cleansed, dispossessed physically, politically and in every other way, by both the US invasion of Iraq and the Assad regime’s burning of its whole country to keep a narrow mega-plutocracy in power, is one of the keys tosome on the left’s misunderstanding of many of these issues. It is the Sunni Arab populations of both countries that have suffered a decade-long apocalypse, not, overall, the Shia, Alawites or Kurds.

Who arms 'jihadis'?

Referring to the “coalition” that the US has built to confront ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Cockburn writes:

When the bombing of Syria began in September, Obama announced with pride that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey were all joining the US as military partners against Isis. But, as the Americans knew, these were all Sunni states which had played a central role in fostering the jihadis in Syria and Iraq.

Ah, no, they didn’t actually. And just because Cockburn continues to make that assertion, always evidence-free, doesn’t make a non-fact a fact. Actually, only less than 5 per cent of ISIS funds came from outside donations at all, and of that, what came from the Gulf certainly didn’t come from the regimes (

This was a political problem for the US, as Joe Biden revealed to the embarrassment of the administration in a talk at Harvard on 2 October. He said that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had promoted "a proxy Sunni-Shia war"in Syria and 'poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaida and the extremist element of jihadis coming from other parts of the world’"

Biden is here expressing the view of US imperialism which has been hostile to the Syrian revolution from Day 1 and hence sought to slander it is a “Sunni jihadist terrorist” war in the same way as does “the left”, except the latter believe they are saying something different from the former. Beats me why. And so while the US has generally used diplomatic means to try to curb Arab support for the uprising, or mild co-option (almost entirely unsuccessful since the US never offered more than the odd bone) of sections of its leadership (mostly the exile-based sections), Biden is the kind of guy who, like many others, lashes out with his honest opinion.

It is only in the imagination of those leftists who don’t view things through the angle of class that Biden is being truthful in his description of the entire revolution as nothing but a bunch of jihadis or that all the arms the Gulf sent to the uprising leadership ended up in the hands of “al-Qaida” etc. – in fact, this is just US code for the entire revolution, from the most democratic and secular through the mildly Islamist through the harder Islamist through jihadist sections. But slandering it all as “al-Qaida” (like “the left” does) sounds better propaganda.

By pretending that it would like to support the secular or “moderate” rebels, those the media continually calls “western-backed rebels”, while for years explaining that it could give them nothing because anything it might give them would go to the jihadists, the US was just using code for its hostility to the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), while offering the pretence that of course it “would like to” back democratic, secular forces if it could.

The “left” then gets it all wrong and criticises the US not for the pretence, but because the left has fallen for the pretence, and then goes on to explain to US imperialism what the latter already agrees with “the left” on – that there can be no such thing as a Syrian “moderate”, if you give a gun to an Arab “moderate” he will inevitably give it to a jihadist, because such oriental folk are not to be trusted.

To repeat – the Gulf monarchies – especially Saudi Arabia and UAE – never armed Nusra (let alone ISIS). Sections of the Gulf oppositional bourgeoisie did arm Nusra (I doubt even they armed ISIS) and these were precisely the sections who, like al Qaeda, see the Gulf monarchies as apostates who they aim to overthrow just as surely as they aim to overthrow non-Sunni or secular regimes.

Who is excluded from the anti-ISIS coalition?

Cockburn continues:

He (Biden) admitted that the moderate Syrian rebels, supposedly central to US policy in Syria, were a negligible military force.

1. No, the FSA was never central to US policy. Actually, they were central only in as much as the US wanted them destroyed. In recent weeks this has come right out in the open – the US has never trusted the FSA, it is not coordinating with the FSA in its bombing (in fact it is coordinating with Assad, sometimes very closely, and not only against ISIS), it does not see the FSA as having anything to do with its anti-ISIS strategy or coalitions, its money to train “moderates” in exile over the next two years or so does not mean the FSA but rather the US will build its own force from scratch, this puppet force will only fight ISIS and not the regime, and even then only to hold territory rather than take it, etc etc. One only has to know how to read:,,,

2. “Negligible”. Again, by using the word “admitted”, Cockburn is falling for US propaganda while imagining himself to be criticising it. This of course is precisely the view recently expressed by dozens of top US and UK imperialist officials, military and intelligence leaders, former and current diplomats, CIA heads and countless others, to justify an accommodation with Assad. Before explaining why this is nonsense, let’s just put this together with another of Cockburn’s lines:

Excluded from this bizarre coalition were almost all those actually fighting Isis, including Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds and the Shia militias in Iraq.

So let’s look at who Cockburn says are “actually fighting ISIS” in light of this claim about the “negligible” FSA.

1. Iran. Really? OK, yes, since the US began fighting ISIS in Iraq several months ago, Iran entered Iraq as a US ally. This alliance is growing daily, now described as “detente”. The coordination with Iran is open – no-one even tries to deny it any more (unlike the laughable denials about coordination with Assad). Whether Iran has been terribly effective against ISIS or not is hard to say since most actual fighting in Iraq has been done by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, or Iraqi Kurds, not the few hundred Iranian “Revolutionary” Guard themselves, and has been done under the cover of US bombs. But this close coordination and growing alliance itself belies Cockburn’s claim that Iran is being “excluded” by the US from the anti-ISIS fight.

2. The Syrian Army. Poor Cockburn. He oughtto do the research first. It is well known among virtually all close Syria watchers that the Assad regime and ISIS didn’t fight each other for pretty much an entire year (that is, most of ISIS’ time in Syria) but both instead focused on fighting the FSA and other Syrian rebel groups, indeed often even jointly besieging towns and cities, such as with Deir Ezzor in mid-2014 after ISIS’ spectacular conquest of Mosul, and the last few months in Aleppo.

Actually, the Syrian regime only began to change policy in mid-2014 and began bombing ISIS in Raqqa in the north-west (from where ISIS had expelled the FSA) at the time the US began bombing ISIS in Iraq – in other words, just like “anti-imperialist” Iran, so likewise, the “resistant” Assad regime only began to bomb ISIS as a quasi-US ally. For a year, the grand ISIS headquarters in Raqqa had been untouched even though Assad had bombed everything else in the country to bits. And since that time, the Assad regime’s score sheet has been several bakeries in Raqqa, along with scores of civilians, but when ISIS moved against the regime’s remaining air base in the north-west, regime “resistance” was a spectacular failure, and ISIS slaughtered several hundred poor Syrian regime cannon fodder following its victory.

3. The Shia militias of Iraq. I’m glad he didn’t say the US- and Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite regime, which ran away from Mosul with its tail between its legs. As for the Shia militias, Cockburn is referring to the Shiite sectarian death squads that are slaughtering and ethnically cleansing Sunni everywhere they go in Iraq, and are frankly no different at all from ISIS, even the penchant for beheadings is not much different. There’s been plenty in the media. They absolutely should be excluded, because they fight the Sunni people, not just ISIS, but as they are auxiliaries of the US-backed and armed Iraqi army, just how they are “excluded” by the US is anybody’s guess.

4. The Syrian Kurds. Yes, the YPG has valiantly fought ISIS, including in the initial phase in Iraq. But however you look at it, what the Kurds are good at doing is defending majority-Kurdish regions from ISIS. ISIS’ base is among Sunni Arabs in both countries, so neither Shiite nor Kurdish forces can do much outside their own areas (except when Shiite sectarian death squads do to Sunnis what ISIS does to Shia). Are they being “excluded”? Well, initially they were in the sense that the US has long called the PYD/YPG’s Turkish-Kurdish partner, the PKK, “terrorist” and refused to cooperate with it in deference to Turkey, preferring to work with the right-wing and corrupt Iraqi Kurdish leadership.

However, like it or not “anti-imperialists”, the US engaged in its most intensive bombing of one spot anywhere in the Mideast region since Tora Bora in 2001 during its bombing of ISIS to defend Kobani, bombings which it carried out in direct coordination with the PYD/YPG, while also dropping arms directly to the YPG. We need to deal with facts, not our fantasies about where the PKK or anyone else sits within some “anti-imperialist” geopolitical schema – and these facts make the idea that the Syrian Kurds remain “excluded” absurd.

To clarify, the Kurds receipt of US weapons and benefiting from US bombing of ISIS is not a criticism of the PYD/YPG from the kind of rubbish “anti-imperialist” view that I oppose; under genocidal siege they can get help from wherever possible in the circumstances. However, it is a criticism of precisely this “anti-imperialist” logic as uninformed leftists have applied it to the FSA and Syrian rebellion over the last three years, so it is high time for leftist “anti-imperialists” to work through their contradictions – sorry, it is consistency or nothing.

5. I’m glad Cockburn was smart enough to not add Hezbollah to his list, as others sometimes do in similar silly lists of who they imagine to be “really” fighting ISIS, for example Tariq Ali in his recent interview with Cockburn. Hezbollah has spent a great deal of time in western Syria fighting for the Syrian tyranny against the FSA and other mainstream rebels'; ISIS has mostly been in the northeast. Thus Hezbollah has barely fought ISIS at all. Actually Hezbollah and ISIS mostly fight against the same people, almost never against each other.

So who has effectively fought ISIS?

OK, so apart from the Kurds within the Kurdish regions, who actually has successfully fought ISIS?

Oh, that’s right, that would be the “negligible” FSA and allied Syrian rebels. Which kind of makes a mockery of the continual discourse about them being “negligible”, “ineffective”, “disunited” etc. etc., and therefore of no use against ISIS. Perhaps this chatter is aimed precisely at covering the fact that the last people US imperialism would ever want to actually support (as opposed to occasionally give some supportive words to) would be forces leading a popular revolution against a capitalist tyranny.

In July 2013, ISIS assassinated a prominent FSA leader, following months of low-level conflict, and the FSA declared “war” on ISIS. The following month, ISIS declared a campaign to “eradicate filth”, namely, the FSA. The problem between July and December was where the other non-FSA rebels (mostly Islamists of one stripe or another) would stand if the FSA’s war on ISIS moved from ongoing/sporadic to all-out attack, and how such fighting would play out given the absolutely greater degree of killing power possessed by the regime.

However, as ISIS continued to encroach on liberated Syria in late 2013 and impose a vicious new dictatorship, the rest of the revolutionary leaderships could see their revolution was being strangled. On January 3, the weekly Friday protests, co-ordinated nationally by the civil resistance (yes, it still exists), declared their theme to be that ISIS are foreign criminals that have nothing to do with their revolution.

The very next day – underlining continual coordination, whatever the weaknesses, between the civil and military resistance – the FSA, a new mildly Islamist-leaning coalition in Aleppo (Jaish Mujahideen) and the main militias of the Islamic Front launched a nation wide, coordinated attack on ISIS.

In north-west Syria, one of the revolution’s heartlands (Idlib and Hama), the new coalition of FSA brigades, the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), consisting of some 25,000 troops, played the major role in driving ISIS, root and branch, out of that entire region. In Aleppo, the FSA (including SRF) fought alongside Jaish Mujahideen and the Islamic Front and expelled ISIS from at region as well. Further east, the FSA and IF were joined by Nusra in expelling ISIS from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, that is, pretty much right out of Syria considering ISIS negligible presence on the southern front, which is heavily dominated by tens of thousands of FSA troops (and more recently Nusra), and in Damascus, by the FSA and IF. Only in Raqqa did ISIS put all its energy into making a comeback and re-took the city as their capital, but failed to re-take Deir Ezzor.

After ISIS spectacular victory in Mosul in June 2014, it was re-energised with tons of advanced US weapons it had seized from the Iraq army, and its victory there had a magnetic effect on jihadists who previously were less committed. From June, ISIS launched a new attack on FSA/IF/Nusra-held Deir Ezzor, and the city put up an epic resistance. The Assad regime aided ISIS by bombing the city. The rebels, completely surrounded, called for arms drops, announcing they could not hold out forever. The US, like in the last three years, made sure nothing like that occurred. ISIS seized the town and the rebels fled, but local Sunni tribes who had opposed ISIS rose up in rebellion, which was crushed by ISIS who then murdered 700 tribal opponents. An ongoing resistance in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor regions by local Sunni, the "White Shroud" rebellion, kills ISIS scum in small-scale hits. The revolution is ongoing, taking many forms.

More recently, ISIS did appear around Damascus. The united rebel forces expelled them root and branch. Despite being expelled from Homs, ISIS has made a comeback in eastern Homs province. The city itself, of course, surrendered to the regime earlier this year – if you take a look at footage of Homs, you can understand that there are only so many Hiroshimas that a population can withstand.

Let’s be absolutely clear – the entire discourse about a “negligible” FSA that is “ineffective” against ISIS is bogus, and is propounded for a reason. Only a fool would deny the serious problems – political, material, coordination-wise etc. – that do exist for the FSA and the revolution’s leadership more generally. There is no reason to romanticise – actually I’m not aware of any supporter of the revolution who does.

However, only someone who has simply ignored this real history would deny that the only forces in the entire region that have actually pushed back ISIS from a very significant amount of territory – much of Syria in fact – and crucially, pushed ISIS out of Sunni Arab regions, has been the FSA and its rebel allies, not anyone on Cockburn’s list.

Discussion is welcome. But please argue against this conclusion with facts and evidence. Those who know my writing know that every claim I have made here can be backed up, but just to not slow myself down I’m sending out this one without my usual massive quantity of references which can be seen in all my other articles on this site.