Mark Boothroyd is a founder member of the Syria Solidarity Movement.
The call for a NFZ by Syrian revolutionaries and activists is completely understandable, with both historical precedent and recent implementation (Libya). The Assad regime has maintained itself in the face of country wide revolution and armed insurrection through its airpower, and it is this unrestrained use of airpower which is responsible for the mass killing and devastation of rebel-held towns and cities. The barrel bombs and airstrikes are one of the main causes of the mass displacement internally of 12 million people, and refugee exodus of 4.5 million from the country. Just in 2015 so far there have been over 6,500 documented barrel bombings across Syria, and Aleppo has the dubious honour of being the most bombed city since World War 2. Almost any measure to curtail this one-sided air war would be welcome.
Yet the demand for a NFZ is a dangerous illusion which relies on the goodwill of the state actors who are partly responsible for the bleak state the Syrian revolution finds itself in. As proposed by the White Helmets and currently supported by the Syria Solidarity Movement, the demand is that the governments of Britain, France and the US act in accordance with UN Resolutions 2139 and 2209 and implement a NFZ to stop the barrel bombing and chemical weapon attacks and provide a safe zone for civilians, refugees and aid workers.
While this demand would be supportable if those countries were honest and pure in their intentions towards Syria, they are not. They are imperialist powers whose history of interference and reactionary policy in the region goes back to the Sykes-Picot agreement and before.
Their actual intentions can be gauged by their actions towards the Syrian revolution so far, and particularly their actions in the last few months as the demand for a NFZ has been raised in earnest by the White Helmets and other campaign groups.
Throughout the entire course of the Syrian revolution these countries have refused to give the armed opposition anti-aircraft weapons to protect themselves and civilian areas against air attack. A number of spurious reasons have been given for this, none of which stand up to much scrutiny.
The argument was raised that the weapons might fall into the wrong hands (meaning Da’esh or Al-Nusra), yet far more weapons have been taken by Da’esh from the Iraqi army—armed and funded by the US—than have ever been taken from Syrian armed opposition groups. And it was the refusal by the US, Britain and France to arm the nationalist and secular opposition forces loosely organised in the Free Syrian Army, which lead to these groups becoming marginalised due to lack of weapons and resources, leading eventually to what little arms and fighters they had being taken or absorbed by better funded and armed Islamic rebel groups.
The argument that the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapons, and so intervention is not required is irrelevant to the case for a NFZ, as the argument and UN resolutions are about measures to protect civilians from air attacks. What the decision by Britain and the US not to intervene in September 2013 did do, was give the Assad regime a green light to increase its attacks by conventional means, safe in the knowledge the Western powers would not intervene. It did just that, subjecting Aleppo to months of daily barrel bombings in 2014.
“the Coalition has not just been ignoring Assad military installations, but actively providing air support for them”
The situation has become an appalling dark joke since the US began operations against Da’esh in Syria in August 2014, then formed the Coalition (Combined Joint Task Force) in October 2014 to begin airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against Da’esh. Coalition airplanes have been sharing airspace with Syrian jets and helicoptors for the last 8 months, yet no action has been taken to stop their attacks.
Not a single Assad military installation has been bombed by the Coalition during this time, while the Coalition bombings of Syrian cities have killed over 2,000 Syrian civilians. While ostensibly just providing air support for Kurdish fighters in the YPG in and around Kobane, the Coalition has also been bombing Da’esh installations and troops in Deir Ezzour, where the fighting is only between Da’esh and Syrian Arab Army. So the Coalition has not just been ignoring Assad military installations, but actively providing air support for them. This points to open collaboration with the regime.
In contrast, the Coalition has attacked the armed rebel groups, bombing several Al-Nusra bases, labelling them part of the “Khorasan” group, an entity the US essentially fabricated for PR purposes to disguise the fact they were bombing armed opposition groups. Just last week on May 20th, The town of Kafranbel, a beacon of hope to revolutionary Syrians with a functioning civil administration and continually inspiring weekly protests, was bombed by US planes in an attack on a nearby Al-Nusra base.
The inability of the Coalition to act in a progressive manner is shown by their unwillingness to even meet the most simple demands to protect civilians. The Syria Campaign has been campaigning for months for the Coalition to release radar data to Syria Civil Defence organisations to allow them to develop an early warning system to alert civilians to when bombings may occur. This hasn’t happened, condemning more civilians to die from bombings which the Coalition are aware are about to happen.
Finally, Obama has made the US stance clear; in a press conference in early May he made the comment that “chlorine, itself historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon”. This statement is appalling for its banality and its hideous intent. The regime has been carrying out chlorine attacks day and night in Idlib province since the fall of Idlib city to the rebels in March. These attacks have killed dozens of people, redoubling calls for implementation of UN resolution 2139 and 2209. Yet Obama’s remarks are yet another green light for Assad to continue with his attacks, signalling as they do US intent to continue not intervening on this issue, despite the discovery of traces of Sarin at another Assad military installation.
Why highlight the US and Coaliation actions in this way? Because they show the true intent of these governments. Despite the regime’s utterly reactionary role in Syria, murdering hundreds of thousands, mass torture, starvation and rape, the strategy of these states has been to take no action to weaken or destabilise the regime, or aid the rebels enough to topple it. These states are motivated by their interests in the region; mainly ensuring stability for Israel and not allowing the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people to become a reality.
“calls for a NFZ at best look like naivety, and at worst look like active collusion with the powers which are complicit in reducing Syria to its present state”
In this respect calling for a NFZ is fruitless. The states asked to will never implement it as it would lead to a strengthening of the opposition and eventual toppling of the regime. It is counterproductive as it creates the illusion that these governments would act in a way to support Syrians, when the sum total of their actions so far have been aimed at prolonging the conflict to the detriment of the Syrian people. The Syria Campaign has highlighted how further attacks happen when the West fails to act, but hasn’t drawn the conclusion that the West is not going to act, despite our pleas.
It is dangerous as being linked to calls for a NFZ will have a detrimental effect on the civil opposition within Syria. The civil opposition are involved in a political, and sometimes violent military struggle against hardline political Islamic groups and armed rebel groups who have maintained a consistent opposition to western imperialist intervention in Syria.
With the imperialist powers treacherous role in Syria well known to any Syrian who has participated in the revolution, calls for a NFZ at best look like naivety, and at worst look like active collusion with the powers which are complicit in reducing Syria to its present state. They tie the civil opposition to a strategy dependent on the whims of the imperialist powers, and lose them vital political credibility in the eyes of Syrians and other opposition groups.
The lack of belief in a NFZ by Syrian revolutionaries and protestors can be seen in how calls for it, once widespread on Syrian revolution demonstrations in 2012 and 2013 have now largely been dropped, and replaced with open criticism of the US, the Coalition, and the supposed “Friends of Syria” who have abandoned the Syrian people.
This political credibility and active support from the Syrian people is vital for the civil opposition to be able to come to the fore in the resistance to Assad, and play a role in forging a post-Assad settlement which is democratic and just, and not dominated by anti-democratic forces. It should not be frittered away with political strategy that places the fate of the Syrian revolution in the hands of outside forces, especially not those like Britain, France and the US.
There is no simple solution to the terrible situation Syrians find themselves in. History has placed them, their revolution and their country in a terrible position where they are forced to fight all the imperialist powers simultaneously, while receiving little or no aid from the supposedly progressive and anti-imperialist movements around the world.
Civil opposition groups should stop calling for a NFZ and redouble efforts to make links with global civil society movements which can provide the Syrian opposition with the aid and support it needs to defeat the regime and build a democratic Syria for all Syrians. This is the only strategy which will maintain the independence and credibility of revolutionary activists, civil opposition groups, solidarity campaigns, and help secure the support they need to overcome the dire situation they have been forced into.