Hard Truth: Aleppo Rebels weren’t defeated by Main Force but b/c they alienated Syrians

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Syria was in a better position to attain peace last spring, when a ceasefire had unexpected success. It would have been better if the rebels had been able to keep East Aleppo and the rest of their territory, and the regime had been forced to dicker with them in order to put the country back together again. Someday it might even have been possible for East Aleppo to elect representatives to the Syrian parliament who represented their point of view.

The fall of the East Aleppo pocket dooms such a negotiated outcome of the civil war. The regime of Bashar al-Assad will be emboldened, as it has pledged, to try to take back over all the territory militarily, and to re-institute its seedy one-party state replete with intensive domestic spying, arbitrary arrest and torture.

That said, the rebel forces in East Aleppo do bear some of the blame for their defeat. It seems a harsh thing to say at a time of heart-wrenching scenes of noncombatants waiting in the cold for an evacuation that only seems to come in fits and starts. But it is necessary for us to understand what is happening and not only to feel it. Because al-Assad is understandably hated in democratic societies, there is a tendency to see the reassertion of the regime there as purely an act of brutal force.

It is at least that, of course. Russian and Syrian aerial bombing of a dense urban area has killed noncombatants in ways that are likely war crimes.

But this brutality cannot explain what happened. Revolutions and civil wars don’t work that way, however. You can think of lots of movements that couldn’t be quelled by massive brute force, including that of the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 1970s. If we want to understand why Russian aerial bombardment was so effective, we have to take politics into account.

Syria is a very diverse society. Here are some guesstimates for its ethnic and sectarian make-up.

Alawite Shiites: 14%
Christians: 7%
Druze: 3%
Ismailis: 1%
Twelver Shiites: 0.5%
Kurds: 10%
Secular Sunni Arabs: 30%
Religious Sunni Arabs: 34.5%

The Syrian youth revolution of 2011 appealed to virtually all these groups except maybe the Alawite Shiites, who depend on the al-Assad regime for their prominent position and prosperity in Syrian society. The early Syrian revolutionaries talked about a democratic society in which all these groups would have representation. I met with Syrian revolutionaries in Istanbul in 2012 and they were praising all of these religious and ethnic groups for having members standing up to the regime, even Alawite villagers and movie stars.

But when the regime used heavy weaponry on the revolutionaries, the latter militarized their struggle. They weren’t able to get funding from democratic countries for their militias or for the purchase of weapons. Many turned to Turkey and the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, and these patrons wanted them to adopt a clear Muslim fundamentalist identity. Most Syrians are not Muslim fundamentalists. But that is the mindset of the Saudi elite.

Many of the fighters in the rebel opposition were Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate fundamentalist group in Syria which nevertheless does want to impose a medieval version of Islamic law on the whole country. But the best fighters and the best-funded fighters were Salafi Jihadis like Jaysh al-Islam, the Freemen of Syria, the Nusra Front, and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

It was the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front that in 2013 nearly succeeded in using Homs and Qusayr to cut off the southern capital of Damascus from re-supply via the northwestern Mediterranean port of Latakia. This plan by Salafi Jihadis was forestalled by the intervention of the Twelver Shiite Lebanese party-militia, Hizbullah on behalf of the regime.

It was a Nusra Front-led coalition that in spring of 2015 managed to take the city of Idlib and all of that province, and to begin an advance on Latakia to the west, with the same strategic goal in mind. Latakia is a heavily Alawite Shiite region, so for hard line Sunni fundamentalists to take it would have entailed massive massacres and ethnic cleansing. This plan by the Salafi Jihadis was forestalled by Russian intervention.

It is true that Russia has subjected the Sunni Arab rebels, many of them just Muslim Brotherhood, to intense aerial bombardment. But it has especially gone after al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front, now styling itself the Levantine Conquest Front).

Under the conditions of 2011, the other rebels would have rushed to the aid of a besieged anti-al-Assad group.

That did not happen during the past 3 years, for a simple reason. Most people in Syria don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood and they really, really dislike the Salafi Jihadis.

The ten percent of Syrians who are Kurds are largely post-Communist leftist feminists. They aren’t going to rush to the aid of fundamentalist Sunnis led by a group with al-Qaeda ties.

And the fact is that the fundamentalist rebels have repeatedly denounced and threatened the leftist Kurds. (It is these fundamentalists that Western politicians often call “moderates.”)

The supposedly moderate Freemen of Syria put al-Qaeda in charge of the Druze villages of Idlib in 2015. Druze are an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism and are deeply hated by al-Qaeda. They were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam and nevertheless some of them were killed or their property confiscated by the Nusra Front.

So as the Syrian opposition ratcheted farther and farther to the Sunni religious right, and as the most effective fighters came to be drawn from that sector, they lost the good will and support of most Syrians.

The secular-minded Sunni Arab majority didn’t want to be ruled by people imitating the Saudi Wahhabis. The Christians didn’t want that. The Druze didn’t want it. The Kurds didn’t want it. The Alawites certainly didn’t want it.

So you get 70% of the people in the country who, having been given the unpalatable choice between the Baath regime of al-Assad and being ruled by Salafi Jihadis, reluctantly chose al-Assad.

That is why the Aleppo pocket fell. There had been 250,000 Sunni Arabs of a more religious mindset and from a working class background living there under rebel control since 2012. But next door in West Aleppo, which our television stations won’t talk about, were 800,000 to a million people who much preferred to be under the rule of the regime. This numerous and relatively well off population took occasional mortar fire from the slums of East Aleppo. They weren’t in the least interested in saving the rebels from the Russians or the Iraqi Shiite militias or from the regime itself.

The Kurdish forces likewise didn’t rush to the defense of the Sunni Arab fighters in the East Aleppo pocket.

By militarizing the revolution and by moving ideologically to the religious far right, the rebel fighters deprived themselves of support among most Syrians.

When the Russians offered to let the rebels leave East Aleppo if they would cut themselves off from al-Qaeda (which was 1/4 of the fighters there), the response of the rebels was to form a united front with al-Qaeda so as to ensure that the Russians couldn’t divide the opposition.

Bzzt. Wrong answer.

The Western politicians and television reporters never mention the al-Qaeda dimension of the rebel forces. They never mention Idlib or what happened to its minorities.

Most rebels in Syria are not terrorists or al-Qaeda. They were protesters against a brutal authoritarian regime. Some of them are Muslim Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood in that period was hoping for a parliamentary democracy in Syria. Some are actually Sufi mystics. Others are just conventionally religious Sunnis.

But they sometimes formed battlefield alliances of convenience with al-Qaeda or with Salafi jihadis, and as time went on they showed less and less no interest in human and civil rights for women and minorities.

Syria is much more diverse a country than it might seem from cold social statistics. Hard line Salafis never had any chance of attracting enough support to take over the whole country, and even just very conservative Sunnis did not, either. The strategic thinkers in Ankara and Riyadh completely misread the situation.

That is why the East Aleppo pocket is falling to the regime. Not because aerial bombardment or brute force work magic in and of themselves. But because the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood were unable to cumulate resources from other groups and attract broad support.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Switzerland: De Mistura requests al-Nusra to leave east Aleppo through ‘safe passage’

Posted in Featured,Syria | 36 Responses | Print |

36 Responses

  1. Having just read this mind numbing article about the many religious factions involved in the Syrian conflict I am more firmly convinced than ever Obama was correct to stay the hell out of that quagmire.

    I agree the photos released of a child in an ambulance stirs our anger and emotions, but only those Gucci wearing chickenhawk neocons, who still think we were victorious in Iraq and who mistakenly believe our troop are some type of comic book super heroes with invincible powers, could ever think our involvement is such a maze would do anything more than create thousands of flag draped coffins and a loss of billions of dollars.

    Let Assad be. Take a lesson from Iraq, Lebanon and Libya and follow the creed of doctors…First do no harm.

    • Except Obama didn’t stay our of that quagmire. He managed to minimize our involvement there, and thank Dog he didn’t fall for the phony chemical attack that was supposed to draw him into it, but the neocons in control of the State Department, CIA, and Pentagon have involved us deeply, as has Israel and Saudi Arabia. They are not our friends. And the cease fire last spring was sabotaged by Ashton Carter sending air force planes to bomb Syrian Army troops.

  2. As long as one overlooks the central role of the CIA in fomenting this war (in collaboration with KSA) by raising a Mercenary army of mostly non-Syrians in 2010, positioning them in groups peaceful protestors in 2011, and having them fire from those crowds toward Syrian security forces,
    it will be hard to understand what happened, and why.
    Ignoring that genesis also makes it hard to figure out what the Obama Administration had in mind.

    • Source, please. Reporting at the time and thereafter indicated that the original protesters were a result of the Arab Spring which was spreading throughout the region. Since Professor Cole has written a book on the Arab Spring, perhaps he can enlighten us. Early armed resistance was aided considerably by deserters from the Syrian Army. I believe that sometimes even whole units up to platoon or company sizes went over to the rebel side for a while. Where do you get your information?

        • I found a number of errors in this piece and some internal contradictions. I would call it interesting, but not persuasive. As to the point of origin, I heard a talk by a Syrian expert who knew Assad well, having interviewed him on several occasions and written extensively on Assad and Syria who was of the opinion that the Syrian security forces were almost exclusively responsible for the outbreak of violence. He thought they may have acted without Assad’s direction and then Assad decided to back them rather than to admit his failure to control his own forces.

      • 1. Syria has been on the list of countries to overthrow since as early as 2001 at least, confirmed also in 2006 as per diplomatic cables, leaked by private Manning via Wikileaks;
        2. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has started to install Al-Qaeda cells as early as 2004 at least.
        3. The war has started on March 18, 2011, when 7 (SEVEN) policemen versus 4 (FOUR) “peaceful protesters” were killed.

        • “Syria has been on the list of countries to overthrow…..leaked by [P]rivate Manning via WikiLeaks.”

          Thank you for pointing this out.

          The U.S. State Department covertly funneled millions of dollars in funding since at least 2006 to the Syrian opposition, using such non-profit NGOs as the Los Angeles-based Democracy Council – while at the same time seeking rapprochement with the Baathist regime in Damascus.

          Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, had been seeking support from world leaders and coming to Virginia at one point for that purpose.

          Some links:

          link to cbsnews.com

          link to theguardian.com

        • US funding and support for the Syria rebels has been minor and insignificant.

          Obama reversed the regime change agenda of Bush and opened a US embassy in Damascus. This idea that the US was much involved in Syria post 2011 is a conspiracy theory.

      • “I heard a talk by a Syrian expert who knew Assad well, having interviewed him on several occasions and written extensively on Assad and Syria who was of the opinion that the Syrian security forces were almost exclusively responsible for the outbreak of violence. ”

        You have to keep in mind that those people are literally on pay roll by Qatar and other “regime change” sponsors, so their claims about Assad’s role not only do not have evidence behind them, but also clearly motivated.

      • link to gowans.wordpress.com

        There’s plenty of citations there of “reporting at the time” that directly contradict any peaceful and pro-democratic genesis of the conflict. This was a repeat of the 1982 Hama “uprising” — jihadists incited right from the start by third parties to violently attack the government.

  3. Hogwash
    The regime promised reforms in 2001 and when people came out wondering what it would be they were put in prison.
    The regime responded to protests with extreme brutality and used sectarian tactics to this day to paint all of the rebels as hard core fundamentalists
    The regime had exhausted all its power in 2013 when Assad declared that he did not have enough troops to defend all areas prompting a massive intervention by Iran, HA, and now Russia.
    The relentless and criminal scorched earth policy and the massive human rights abuses are glaring and this attempt to blame the victim is despicable to say the least.
    As for the statistics of the composition of Syrians it is laughable for at the end of the day 60-70% are Sunnis and they are massively disenfranchised
    I lived in Syria and I know that no positions in any area go to Sunnis: as a professor at Damascus University 11/12 fellowship positions were given to non Sunnis in my department and the 12th position was given to a Palestinian insuring that no Sunnis get higher education and that was the policy since the 80’s.

    The reality is that the Left has lost its moral compass when it comes to Syria.

    • “The regime had exhausted all of its power in 2013……”

      Thank you for this astute observation.

      Near the end of 2013, the Baathist regime in Damascus was on the verge of collapse due to the following situations:

      (A) first and foremost, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was on the verge of severing the Latakia-to-Damascus supply line that was needed for the regime to survive;

      (B) the Syrian government’s financial reserves had been depleted from 30 billion USD to only one billion;

      (C) several top Syrian Arab Army commanders had defected to rebel forces;

      (D) the Syrian National Coalition was receiving the diplomatic recognition of virtually all Western powers and secured the allegiance of the FSA;

      (E) the FSA, led by General Salim Idris, was receiving substantial arms and non-lethal supplies from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. intelligence community;

      (F) the FSA had enjoyed broad support among the Syrian exile community in the U.S. and millions in funds were being raised for non-lethal aid to the FSA by not only exiles, but also political conservatives in the U.S. – Sen. John McCain voiced support for rebels and met some inside Syria.

      What went wrong:

      (1) the U.S. cut off aid, resulting in mass defections of FSA brigades and individual fighters to the Islamic Front and other extremist elements;

      (2) ISIS and the al-Nusra Front became the most prominent anti-Assad paramilitary forces in Syria – and spent most of their time fighting each other and other rebel groups instead of the Syrian Arab Army;

      (3) the Geneva II conference – heavily promoted by the Obama administration – was a disaster, Iran was excluded and the Islamic Front considered attendees to be traitors;

      (4) the Islamic Front at the Ankara Conference eschewed Western assistance – choosing Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states as their financial sponsors.

      The ensuing proliferation of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support to the Baathist regime in Damascus helped save it from collapse.

      Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died since that time and millions displaced.

      “The reality is that the Left has lost its moral compass when it comes to Syria.”


      The Obama administration is responsible for a serious and profound foreign policy failure in Syria to the point a Congressional investigation should be initiated. His own former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has been one of the most staunchest critics of the administration’s policies toward Syria following his resignation from the U.S. State Department.

      • What went wrong?

        There never was an organized Moderate opposition group in Syria worth supporting. Groups should prove they can organize and become popular with the locals BEFORE we decide to help them.

        Proponents of arming the rebels overlook two major problems with that policy:

        A) there’s no guarantee that the groups we arm will effectively use the weapons and win on the battlefield

        B) there’s a good chance that the weapons will end up in the wrong hands

        In the case of Syria, both of those worst case scenarios played out in real life. On a larger scale in Iraq, their incompetent Army let millions of dollars worth of arms fall into the hands of ISIS.

        At some point, Americans must accept that our ability to control events in foreign countries is severely limited and not every political problem can be solved with weapons proliferation and/or airstrikes.

      • Arming, aiding and abetting militant (and largely imported) forces in order to overthrow a sovereign government amounts to a direct breach of the UN Charter. There was no “pro-democratic uprising” in Syria, nor is the current war a “civil war”. The government of Syria still has popular support, as it had in 2011, and the fighting factions are proxies for third parties: NATO countries supporting US “regime change” policy aimed at consolidating its control over the Middle East, and GCC countries who follow their own interests, and aid NATO e.g. by channeling funds and arms which it might be a bit difficult to get stamped by military budget committees in our “democracies”.

        “What went wrong” is that allegedly democratic countries allegedly so attached to their values engaged in breaching the UN charter in a dirty, illegal war accompanied by massive propaganda effort to topple the government of a sovereign country. Not for oil of course, like before in Iraq. For gas this time, and political influence.

  4. It doesn’t help make a difference now but it’s clear that Obama should have more forcefully engaged with the Saudis to try and dissuade them from exploiting the Syrian uprising as a pretext for furthering their Salafi agenda. On the whole, I think it was fine for Obama to conduct a more cautious foreign policy toward the Mideast given the Iraq disaster. But here’s one case where he might have been able to help shape a better outcome for the Syrian people had he put things for sharply and more directly to the Saudis. Might they have still gone their own way? Perhaps but given Riyadh’s nervousness about Iran, they still need our support.

    A lot of Syrians died. A lot more will probably die – or get tortured – as Al Assad strengthens his grip on the country. Sad to see it but Syria is destined for a grim future.

  5. Excellent Juan. I have sent it to all my friends and posted it on Facebook. Everyone should read this article NPR editorialized this morning yet again about the evil Assad regime. They never talk about the sectarian alternative that is deeply unpopular in Syria especially among minority populations.

  6. Even if the the different radical Islamist groups hadn’t alienated so many, it is still pretty hard to defeat an established government when you are not unified. According to reporting here and elsewhere, at times the different rebel groups fought between themselves. Additionally, when the rebels were holding their own, the lack of unity would have made negotiating a settlement difficult since the different groups had different aims. One of the things we can learn from the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, is that when you have chaos or divided opposition, a committed and unified group, even when in the minority, can often win the day.

  7. I heard Dennis Kucinich speak on the Nation magazine cruise a few days ago. He said that the Syrian civil war was “a Saudi project,” with Turkey playing a role as well. And of course the US could not leave bad enough alone.

  8. ” … its seedy one-party state replete with intensive domestic spying, arbitrary arrest and torture”

    Let’s not forget the USA’s ‘WOT’ (CIA) sent captives to Assad for interrogation because the Arab regimes could really torture (Egypt is where you sent them to simply vanish), prior to deciding Assad was a bad guy. And what triggered that switch in perception? It wasn’t the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ It was a proposed pipeline from Qatar favored by NATO but opposed by the Russians and Assad is a loyal Russian ally. Syria was in the NATO nations gun-sights as early as 2009. The ‘spring’ was merely an excuse to act. If Assad had approved the pipeline, chances are Syria would have no problems with western aligned regimes arming Salafis.

  9. I went to a great conference on the so-called Arab Spring in early 2012, and Syria was seen as a country with the biggest potential for a disaster like what happened. This is the best analysis of what went on I’ve read to date. As an aside, the NYT front page the last few years – maybe since they boosted the Iraq War before it happened – has read like a Likud newsletter.

  10. Cole: “… in West Aleppo … 800,000 to a million people … took occasional mortar fire from the slums of East Aleppo.”

    This random rocket and mortar fire killed over 1,000 civilians in West Aleppo this year alone. Many, many more were wounded.

    IMHO, indiscriminate shelling of the civilian majority may have had some bearing on the loss of support for the rebels.

  11. in reply to moi… Aleppo had 3 million people before 2011.. West currently holds 1.5 to 2 million.. E.alleppo had 100K .. What happened to the over a million who used to live there? And why did those 100K go over to the government side instead of running off to “rebel” side? Only 10K decided they wanted to go live with the “rebels”. This is the same in every area under “rebel” control. Think.. It is not hard to figure this out. Why would people who are supposedly harassed and brutalized go over to the very same people harassing and punishing them.

  12. I can see much logic in this analysis. But, as Prof. Cole states, “when the regime used heavy weaponry on the revolutionaries, the latter militarized their struggle. They weren’t able to get funding from democratic countries for their militias or for the purchase of weapons. Many turned to Turkey and the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia.”

    So, I’m left with the conclusion that the rebels had no alternative but to “militarize” their struggle against the murderous Assad regime. And when western countries, and particularly the Obama administration, cut off aid, that made it all but certain that the rebels would turn to more questionable allies and patrons.

    What I remember seeing was a movement that began as non-violent street demonstrations but were forced into a militarized struggle by a regime that thought nothing of using the most brutal measures against peaceful protesters. There still seems a case to be made that the Obama administration abandoned what might have become a moderate and democratic movement in its haste to “stay out of Middle East wars.”

  13. Juan,
    I find it amazing to read that you have discovered the “hard truth” about Syria and feel so confident of your facts that you can explain, almost justify, the destruction of East Aleppo and the expulsion of its population. First of all the prelude to the fall of east Aleppo was not a “likely” war crime. If you know International Humanitarian Law, the concerted and systematic destruction of the medical structure and the necessities for the survival of the civilian population is not just a war crime but a crime against humanity. To say rebels “bear some of the blame for their defeat” is beside the point when we’re talking about a city that was besieged, starved and bombarded for the past six months.
    Some elements of your analysis are flat wrong, and others are weakened by the omission of critical facts. How can you say East Aleppo fell because the population chose to go to the regime? What would you do if you lived in East Aleppo and your choice was death or escape? And saying that the Russians were “especially” going after Nusra, from everything we know, has no basis. The Russians were besieging, starving and bombarding a civilian population, using the pretext it was going after Nusra. Accepting their pretext is a breathtaking assumption.
    Maybe one of the most baffling things you write is your description of “the Kurds’ as “largely post-communist leftist feminists.” Are you referring to the PKK command of Rojava, which was installed by the Assad regime and is allied to it, or to the Kurdish population, upon whom PKK rule was imposed? Of course the Kurdish fighters didn’t rush to the defense of the Sunni Arab fighters; indeed YPG forces in Sheikh Maksud helped impose the siege in the first place last July. Are you not aware of their relationship with the Assad regime?
    The other thing that I notice you left out altogether is a description of who the regime forces are in Aleppo; you say rather opaquely that regime forces won. Turkish media today ran photos showing Qasim Suleiman strolling through Aleppo, marking Iran’s latest victory. Surely you must be aware that the ground forces which took east Aleppo are not Syrians but Shiite militias under Iranian command.
    So there’s another way to look at the situation of Arab rebel forces: they are besieged by Iran-directed ground troops, the Russia air force, ISIS fighting that all too often fight in parallel with the regime (see my three part series in Daily Beast earlier this month on Assad’s relationship with ISIS) and what’s left of regime forces. Meanwhile despite all these foreign interventions, the vetted rebel forces have been held to old levels of support by the Obama White House. It seems to me the fact that the moderate rebels are still out there when they’re fighting on a minimum of three fronts shows that they think their cause is worth dying for. And we should never underestimate any force that’s so motivated. Regards Roy

  14. “The ten percent of Syrians who are Kurds are largely post-Communist leftist feminists.”

    The “good” rebels by any same definition, but for reasons of geopolitics and placating “allies” whose values are vastly different from our own, at best we offer them hands off support, and mostly just leave them to fend for themselves against far better equipped and funded enemies. What a god danged disgrace.

    You want a secular, pluralist, democratic state in the Middle East? Start with the Kurds.

    But good luck getting the American elite, regardless of party, to do anything tangible in that respect.

  15. This is a thoughtful analysis, but I have some disagreements regarding terminology as well as long-term tendencies that form a ;long line of continuity no matter which wing of the business party occupies the West Wing in the U.S. (i.e. Democrats and Republicans).

    First, the name “Viet Cong” is pejorative. It was a term of propaganda invented to confuse the American public from understanding that the majority of the fighting by U.S. soldiers (and our allies) was against Vietnamese who were from the South of Vietnam and not Northern Vietnam. The phony Gulf of Tonkin “incident” is one glaring example that the Vietnamese had multiple armies whose dominant objective was to regain independence from the Chinese, then the French and finally the Americans.

    Second, the U.S. has never embraced social movements which topple leaders for fear that the wrong people will come to power, those who insist on national control over the resources within their borders.

    President Clinton and his National Security staff were alarmed with Father Aristide, in a house-to-house “social Gospel inspired movement, won the 1991-1992 elections in Haiti and therefore, immediately sponsored a coup against Father Aristide who merely wanted to raise wages to $1/hour and make life more bearable after the brutally despotic role of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

    Third, consider the 1978-1979 Iranian Revolution which toppled the Shah of Iran. Progressives and the secular working-class, middle class and a significant number of elites made common cause with the religious reactionary right but rampant infighting among the former allowed for the ascendancy of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

    The U.S. could have prevented the Iranian Revolution but unconditional support for the Shah and his brutal internal intelligence agency (SAVAK) went too far, as was the case when the West German police allowed the “Shah’s men” to bludgeon the peaceful demonstration outside the German Opera House in West Berlin in 1967 and even participated (as well as the East German Stasi or secret police).

    Just as in the case of Vietnam after U.S. forces evacuated in 1975 and Vietnam was prevented from receiving any support from the World Bank and UN agencies, the U.S. imposed harsh economic sanctions against Iran by the Reagan White House which are still largely in place today even though the Obama team held successful negotiations with Iran that President-Elect Trump’s team will likely try to undermine.

    The dilemma for the U.S. is that foreign policy elites want to prevent Iran from becoming a regional power (an impossibility given its size, geography and expanding ties with Russia and China. (The U.S. “pivot” to East Asia is equally ludicrous since China is already a regional and global power as it dominates economic development in Southeast Asia, expands deeper into Sub-Sahara Africa, etc.).

    Fourth, the U.S. never supported the “Arab Spring” because again, the wrong people could transform policies that are more beneficial to them.

    It’s instructive to consider how the U.S. responded to the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and how nearly all of Latin America is gaining its independence from Euro-American dominance in 500 years, something which is alarming to the foreign policy elites and that is why the U.S. justifies covert military action through Colombia under the pretext of cocaine eradication.

    Fifth, as for the use of the term “moderates” in official statements by each successive POTUS, it is indisputably a term taken out of CIA playbook since it refers to extremists, people “we can do business with.”

    But as Prof. Cole has argued persuasively, the sheer complexity of Syria’s ethno-religious groups and the fact that this is a proxy war being waged by largely the Saudi’s, ensures that the rebels will enter 2017 without the support of most of Syria’s population.

    Lastly, Obama and his team had no chance in Syria because of a foreign policy that supports Israel, Saudi Arabia/Gulf states and the Iraqi Kurds but yet allows Turkey to commit atrocities against the 20-25 million Kurds trying to survive under Turkish authority.

    And to make matters even more disastrous, “containing” Iran remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. The net effect is the violent destabilization of West Asia (Afghanistan to Western Pakistan), the Middle East and North Africa as more failed states come into existence.

    Consider Libya. Libya has always served a gateway to Europe via the Mediterranean and its collapse is largely responsible for the refugee crisis that has been a boon for reactionary (neo-fascist?) parties masquerading as populist-nationalist bulwarks against contamination from Muslims/Arabs (they always conflate these two very different social categories); and dark-skinned refugees in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Greece.

    If we are honest, Iran needs to become a partner in helping resolve the bloodbaths that are starting to convulse Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and even Tunisia.

    Otherwise, we can expect decades of violence to ensue in the same morally despicable ways that occurred when the U.S. supported the Khmer Rouge after they were defeated by Vietnam in 1979 who liberated “Kampuchea” in response to several vicious and unprovoked attacks against Vietnam.

  16. Professor Cole, what do you base your comments regarding limited US funding in Syria post 2011? U am curious given acknowledgement even in MSM. If billions in funding and Wikileaks documentation of interference before 2011.

  17. While I agree we must not forget that rebels undermined their own revolutionary project through their exclusionary rhetoric and ideology, I wonder if you’ve failed to treat the fence-sitters to the war with the same critical rigor. Alienation is a two-way street, and bourgeois indifference over the government’s ferocious crackdown in the early period no doubt fueled the rebel’s retreat into extremism.

    You’ve accused the Syrian rebels of adopting Sunni theocratic values as though they weren’t pushed into them by the government-sponsored massacres in Daraya, Banias, Bayda, Houla, Jabl al-Zawyeh, etc, which all featured sectarian undertones. You’ve also elided the sectarianization of the country’s patronage networks throughout the Assad years, and the preferential treatment shown to predominantly-minority centers in the early years of the war.

    About the West/East Aleppo division, of course a secular society is going to resist fundamentalist rule, but the city’s bourgeoisie is as guilty of alienating the revolutionary classes as the rebels are guilty of alienating the bourgeoisie. Going back to the first year of the war, where were the urban capitalist classes (disproportionately minorities, and disproportionately concentrated in Aleppo and Damascus) when the government suppressed the demonstrations in Homs, Hama, and the Syrian countryside? There’s no such thing as a sideline in domestic politics – much less a revolution.

    As for the Viet Cong comparison, they had Chinese and Soviet support. It helps to have a superpower to back you.

    • The Viet Cong didn’t win because of foreign help. They won because they were viewed by most Vietnamese as nationalists fighting for the cause of the nation. After the war it was revealed that many ARVN officers were double agents. The rebels don’t have that broad acceptance in Syria.

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