At few points in history do moments arise for utopic visions of society to be put into practice. The Paris Commune. The 1968 protests. Tahrir Square. Often, in the face of the more powerful and armed forces of authoritarianism, these experiments prove to be short-lived.
In Daraya, the beating heart of the Syrian revolution, the vision lasted for five years. A vision of peaceful co-existence and solidarity amongst different religious sects, a vision of non-violence in the face of brutes, a vision of democratic self-organisation within the impossible conditions of war and siege. A vision of democracy in an area long-chided for its supposed incapability for democracy.
Much has been written about Daraya’s democratic experience – a list of such writings can be found at the end of this statement – and how it served as an exemplary model of a democratic uprising ignored and often actively portrayed as non-existent by the Western world. This statement will not focus on what Daraya was and continues to be in the hearts of Syrians and those who stand in solidarity with them; rather it will focus on how one of the Syrian revolution’s most beautiful democratic models was brought to an end, and who helped to end it.
The fall of Daraya – where protesters once came out with roses to greet Assad’s army – to the forces of the fascist Assad regime, following a five-year long heroic resistance in the face of more than 7,000 barrel bombs, napalm, white phosphorus, posion gas, thermite, vacuum missiles and cluster bombs, will go down in the annals of history both for the length of its miraculous resistance in the face of such odds, and the betrayal which led to its fall.
The regime’s surrender terms included the forced displacement (“evacuation” according to the Assad regime and UN) of more than 7,000 Syrian civilian residents and families. In the aftermath of Daraya’s fall it has also emerged that the regime is resettling Iraqi Shia militiamen and families in their place— comprising a clear attempt at engineering a forced demographic change and continuing a policy of sectarian/ethnic cleansing pursued in other recaptured territories of Syria.
Whilst unequivocally condemning the starvation siege and carpet destruction of the city of Daraya by the fascist regime and Russian occupation forces, leaving behind a barren desert landscape of destruction and scenes identical to the last city which suffered a major “victory” by the regime – Homs; we should note nonetheless that this was not the only or even most important reason for Daraya’s fall and the defeat of its heroic resistance. The fall of Daraya must first and foremost be placed at the feet of the US-led coalition – and in particular the US government itself – whose sly and underhanded support of the regime these past five years is as obscene as the unabashed and overt Russian support for it.
The following are amongst the ways in which the US and some of its allies have supported the fall and ethnic cleansing of Daraya:
- The role of the US-led “Military Operations Command” (MOC) in preventing Southern Front factions from fighting the Regime
According to a 26th June statement by the Southern Front Daraya had been largely subject to a ceasefire (albeit with violations) since the agreement of a Cessation of Hostilities between the US and Russia on the 26th February 2016. However this truce reportedly ended on the 8th June, and in the next 20 days more than 560 barrel bombs would fall on Daraya (including 56 in the day before the 26th June statement). Residents noted that the escalation of aerial bombardment seemed to coincide with the entry of small amounts of aid (sufficient for only 1,000 people) on the 10th June; one local fighter called the aid “a curse… we wish it never happened”.
As a result, on the 11th July 2016 the besieged Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and civilians of Daraya issued an urgent call for the “general mobilisation” of the factions of the Southern Front, the dominant rebel coalition in South Syria. The call was co-signed by more than 225 opposition civil society figures and activists nationwide, encompassing journalists, doctors, lawyers, leaders of armed factions, human rights, media & women’s activists and members of local councils and Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). On the 18th July, 50 veteran community leaders added their voice to the call, amongst them heads of courts, professional syndicates & scholarship associations and local notables. Their calls fell on deaf ears.
The Southern Front is the major rebel coalition in South Syria, part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and possessing up to 35,000 revolutionary fighters. Since 2013 the Southern Front had been receiving limited support, mainly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via the “Military Operations Command” (MOC) room in Jordan, subject to the restrictions decided by US and Jordanian officials. Jordan – which continues to recognise the Syrian regime’s legitimacy – has opposed further regime losses in South Syria, a policy synonymous with that of the US government. As has recently been revealed Jordan has long been stealing weaponry purchased by Saudi Arabia meant for the Syrian rebels, and has repeatedly closed down rebel supply routes, leading to counter-threats against the Jordanian monarchy by revolutionary brigades in Dara’a (South Syria). The isolated and besieged local rebel faction fighting in Daraya, the “Islam Martyrs’ Brigade”, was also a member of the Southern Front.
In the last few months the MOC demanded a total freeze on battles against the regime in South Syria, threatening that rebels would be cut off from support if they continued to fight Assad. With the acquiescence of corrupt rebel commanders in the Southern front who offered the memory of the Summer of 2013 – when thousands of rebel lives were wasted during an offensive on Damascus, after ammunition supply lines were cut off by the Jordan MOC – as an excuse for inaction, Daraya’s call for help fell on deaf ears.
- The role of US-backed Iraqi militias in the capture and ethnic cleansing of Daraya
The intervention of Iraqi Shia militias in Syria has been well-established since 2013. In Iraq the Shia militias have been supported by the United States, either directly as an ally in the fight against the Iraqi insurgency (which broke out in 2012 and which ISIS has come to play a prominent role in) or indirectly through the US-backed central government in Baghdad. The abuses of many of these militias have been well-documented since the aftermath of the fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq; however in the past few years their abuses have reached a new scale as part of the US-Iranian “War on ISIS”, destroying tens of thousands of homes in areas retaken from ISIS and expelling hundreds of thousands of Sunni Iraqi citizens.
It is estimated that there are more than 30 Iraqi Shia militias fighting in Syria, notably including such brigades as Abul Fadl al-Abbas, Harakat al-Nujaba’a, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Liwa al-Imam Hussein, Asa’aib Ahl al-Haq, and Faylaq Badr. Together these Shia militias are estimated to number between 20-000 to 30,000 fighters, making them the single largest fighting component in the motley of loyalist forces fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. They have surpassed in importance the role of both the regime’s regular army (the so-called “Syrian Arab Army”/SAA) as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah; indeed, their prominent role in the fighting and marginalisation of Syrian loyalists has led to internal criticisms from Assad’s own camp, criticisms which Assad subsequently rebuffed when stating “Syria is not just for Syrians or those who hold Syrian citizenship, but it is for those who defend it.”
In Daraya, as in other places in Syria, it was Iraqi militias (not Hezbollah or the Syrian Army) that took the lead role in fighting the local resistance  The regime’s troops stationed on the Daraya frontline had been trying to capture the town for five years, yet they were left exhausted and failed to capture the town by themselves.
Since the fall of Daraya footage has emerged of Iraqi Shia militias celebrating their holy victory on the ruins of the city, whilst reports have also confirmed that the Assad regime plans to resettle 300 Iraqi Shia families into the city, replacing some of the local families comprising 8,000 Syrian civilians forcibly expelled as part of the regime’s surrender terms. This represents a clear policy of sectarian/ethnic cleansing by the fascist regime and an attempted re-engineering of the area’s demographic character, as pursued in other recaptured areas in Syria (notably the province of Homs) whilst also fulfilling the role of “rewarding” the efforts of the Iraqi Shia militias and offering further incentive for Iraqi Shia militiamen to come to Syria.
The entry of the Iraqi Shia militias into the conflict since 2013 on the side of the Assad regime has effectively been veiled from public knowledge by the US administration, despite their overwhelmingly important role as a main player in the conflict. These militias have been seen fighting in Syria with US-made tanks and weaponry. The Shia militias believe their fighting in Syria to be a holy war and a continuation of the first civil war in Islam, which broke out after the death of the Prophet Muhammad more than 1400 years ago.
Neither has the invasion of the Iraqi militias of Syria earned them or their backers any repercussions; indeed military and financial American support for both the Iraqi government and its militias have actually increased since their intervention in Syria – during this time the US has reportedly given $1.2 billion in military aid to the Assad-allied Iraqi regime. Despite the presence of US forces in the vicinity, the militias travel freely from Baghdad airport to Damascus and indeed Syrian ministers themselves – despite theoretically being subject to US sanctions– move freely in the opposite direction as well.
It is important to note that since the start of its direct military intervention in 2014 the US has exclusively targeted anti-Assad forces (including mainstream anti-ISIS rebel brigades not delineated as terrorist groups). However it has never targeted, not even once or “by mistake”* (as has repeatedly been the bad luck of rebel factions ) these foreign occupying militias, adding more substance to Syrian claims that US policy in Syria is that of “regime-preservation” and the staving off of its collapse, particularly with the severe manpower depletion of the Assad regime’s regular army (especially from 2014 onwards)  – a policy in which these militias (as well as other transnational Shia militias, notably from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon) have “filled” a crucial role.
The regime that the United States brought to power in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is today a crucial diplomatic and military backer of the Assad regime. It surely constitutes one of the most morose ironies in history that Syrians who revolted in 2011 as part of the Arab movement for genuine democracy and freedom are today being killed by the very regime which the United States put in place in Iraq under those pretexts. This irony has not escaped Syrians. Not only did the US invasion in 2003 result in the destruction of Iraq, it is today helping Assad to destroy Syria.
Daraya within wider Western and American policy
What has happened in Daraya is but part of the policies that Western powers – as ultimately defined by the dictates of the US – have pursued towards Syria, a policy which can be described as appeasement in the exact meaning of the word: that of the Western policy towards the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco during the 1930s. It has consisted not simply of the failure to intervene militarily against the regime but of a systematic five-year long policy of propping up the regime through a patchwork of policies, preventing its collapse and making sure a prolonged “equilibrium” between the forces on the ground exists and is constantly maintained. Most crucially as part of this policy is the proactive blind eye that the US-led coalition has shown to the entry of tens of foreign Shia militias fighting for Assad, coming not least from US-allied states such as Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These sectarian militias now constitute the bulk of Assad’s forces and their entry was crucial to simultaneously “balance the field” and stop the collapse of the Syrian regime and the manpower-depleted Syrian Army. This policy has ultimately prolonged the fascist regime’s survival and consequently the conflict (see our previous statement and event description dated 17th July 2016 for more details of such policies ).
Describing the Syrian regime as “fascist” is not to use emotive or exaggerative language – the regime fits the archetypal fascist model using every recognised definition. It had defined itself on its formation under Hafez al-Assad – who represented the right-wing of the military Ba’ath party – as a “nationalist-socialist” regime, and was (and remains) founded on the corporatist fusion between private business and capital with the state. The regime was constructed on the amalgamation of the private and public spheres and the complete subjugation of civil society to the state, with everything from trade unions to women’s organisations coming under the auspices of the state (which in turn was centred on the cult of personality built around the figure of Hafez Al-Assad and later his son). It constructed a highly militarised totalitarian society – using for decades the excuse of a war with Israel (when in reality a state of war had not existed with Israel since a ceasefire in 1974) – whereby every citizen was ultimately subject to the permission of one military agency or another to conduct the most basic of personal affairs, and whereby the Assadist state employed hundreds of thousands of informers to spy on their fellow citizens, creating for decades a state of fear unparalleled under any other regime in the region. The lengths that the regime has gone to safeguard its rule when challenged in 2011, carpet bombing entire of “its own” cities to the ground, was unfortunately predicted by many as the inevitable projection of its underlying nature.
The Syrian civil war has often drawn comparisons with Spain for the dynamic of international fighters joining the conflict, when the much more poignant similarity lies in the shared uncontested and prolonged use of aerial power by the fascist forces, along with the simultaneous blockading by Western powers of the necessary defensive weaponry required by the anti-fascist forces (whilst rhetorically “condemning” the fascist ones). Indeed, the Assad regime has now surpassed the record held by General Franco of a government’s deployment of an airforce within its own borders: Spain’s Guernicas have been surpassed by Syria’s Aleppos and Darayas. The former (Aleppo) has been subjected to more aerial bombardment than any city since the Second World War.
However one difference which did not occur in Spain has been the exploitation by Western powers of the absence of any formal delineation of the Assad regime as “fascist” (i.e. by contrast to the unabashed proclamations of the likes of Franco and Hitler) to add their own airplanes to join the Assadist fleet. That this is happening in the 21st century is an event of such momentous implications that it cannot be overstated. The US and British governments are sharing airspace and intelligence with Assad’s regime; joint airstrikes are reported to have been conducted with the regime since 2014, and in some cases both American and British airstrikes have come in active support of Assadist ground troops.
The constant pronouncements of “we believe Assad must go” concurrent with the intermittent “but we are not seeking the collapse of the regime and don’t want to see his army militarily defeated” has unfortunately deceived many within Western public opinion about the true nature of the US intervention in the Syrian war, and hidden from Western citizens the horrific nature of this policy which has been crucial in prolonging the Syrian war. Indeed whilst the main anti-ISIS coordination with ground forces has come with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – who do not fight Assad – and instances of coordination with regime troops have been limited, there have nonetheless been more reported examples of anti-ISIS coordination with regime forces than there has been with Syrian rebels.
This policy of regime preservation – not “regime-change” – has been clearly and repeatedly laid out in statements by US officials. The US policy of drawing a fictitious delineation between the Syrian regime and its apparatuses and the figurehood of Assad “himself” (as US Secretary John Kerry was once careful to specify) is an insult to the intelligence of the Syrian people. Demands for the retention of the Syrian Army and the rebels surrendering their fight against it, whilst simultaneously proclaiming to be pursuing an “anti-Assad” policy has long stopped washing with them, and they understand full well that messages which declare that “Assad is bad but his army is good” is further proof that US policy in Syria has been one of regime-preservation, opposition to the demands of the revolution. and lip-service stemming from an unfortunate commitment made during the Arab Spring’s breakout in 2011 and the pressuring euphoria surrounding it.
We ask for the British government to distance itself from the US policy, and note that the US does not share the challenges that Europe and the UK do as a result of the continuation of the Syrian conflict and Assad’s continued genocidal survival in power. We ask them not to fall into the trap of accepting that Assad’s survival is “necessary”, in the false belief that his destruction of the rebellion would stop the war and “stabilise” the situation; noting that the destabilisation caused so far by every Assadist victory and every instance of mass expulsion of civilians from areas conquered by his militias will be nothing compared to the destabilisation unleashed by the defeat of the rebellion in this war. And we remind them that there is no “Syrian Army” that they can rely on, but a collection of mainly foreign sectarian loyalist militias who are alien to the land and will be evicted by the Syrian people sooner or later.
Yet whilst stating this we also declare that we will no longer accept any policy of equivocation. We will no longer accept statements appeasing the Syrian people concurrent with policies appeasing the Assad regime. If the Western powers present in Syria do not get out of the way of Assad’s removal they will sooner or later be viewed as an occupier similar to the regime, Russia and the sectarian militias. The Syrian people have lost trust in the Western powers and now demand their departure from the arena, after understanding full well following the experience of five years that Western intervention has served to preserve a genocidal regime and not to bring it down as was their cry in 2011.
To be clear and to remove any pretence of a movement on the ground which can be self-servingly cited to confer legitimacy on the British or American intervention – as was the example of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s symbolic nod to the “70,000 moderate forces” (which include the Southern Front factions which have been told by British officials not to fight Assad) – or the fictitious Pentagon “Train and Equip Programme” which came as an adjunct to the 2014 US intervention (and which again demanded recruits to sign a declaration not to fight the regime, leading to its collapse for the low number of recruits ) – the presence of Western powers in conjunction with Assad is not welcome in Syria, not welcome by Syrian revolutionary forces, not welcome by civil society organisations and not welcome by the hundreds of democratically-elected local councils. If Western powers seek to continue their five-year policy of regime-preservation equivocation we declare to them that today that time has passed, we will no longer be toyed with, and that if this is their chosen route they are now better served coming out explicitly in favour of Assad.
We repeat many of our calls to the British government that we asked of the US government, including:
1) The immediate end to all demands for the cessation of fighting by the FSA’s Southern Front.
2) The withdrawal of American and British intelligence officials from the Amman-based MOC and their replacement by officials from regional anti-Assad allies.
3) The cessation of British support to regional states including those that continue to support the Assad regime, such as the Assad-allied Iraqi government, Egyptian government, Pakistani government, Afghani government and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese state. The transnational border-crossing sectarian militias must evacuate Syrian territory immediately and British pressure be brought to that effect.
4) The immediate end to efforts to interfere, restrict and limit the supplies of weaponry to the revolutionary Syrian people needed for their self-defence – including the immediate lifting of the ban on the supply of anti-aircraft missiles by regional allies.
4) The withdrawal of British special advisors based on Syrian territory, and
5) The end of the one-sided British military intervention in the conflict.
The US, Britain, Jordan are behind the fall of Daraya, as are all local and regional actors which acquiesced to this treachery. It is those who have long chided the Arab and Islamic world for its “incapacity” for democracy, for its tolerance of authoritarianism, for the pliant and seemingly coercion-favouring nature of its numbers that played a key role in the ending of one of the most potent organic experiences of democracy in the Arab world: history will remember this.
*This statement was written on the 12th of September but was uploaded later on the website. At the time of writing the US had not targeted the regime’s sectarian militias throughout the conflict: on the 17th September however the US admitted to targeting regime forces in Deir al-Zor by mistake for the first time. On the same day the US had also reportedly targeted a rebel faction near the town of Al-Rai in Aleppo, with the reports emerging hours after protests by FSA rebels against the presence of US special forces in the area . Though the airstrike against the regime got widespread media coverage, the airstrike on the rebel faction – as has been the case with the tens of examples in the past – did not. The US has yet to comment on the rebel airstrike in Al-Rai.
Incidents of friendly fire by the US have been reported against the YPG/SDF , Iraqi government  and indeed in some cases such as in Afghanistan against US troops themselves . Russia has also bombed regime forces and the YPG/SDF in the past by mistake . The greatest number of incidents reported as “friendly fire” in Syria (not including intentional targeting) by far however have come by Syrian rebels, most recently killing 7 members of the anti-ISIS FSA Mu’atasim Brigade in June . In the aftermath of the Deir al-Zor airstrike the US subsequently offered an apology and compensation to the Assad regime, something it has never done for the far more numerous civilians and rebels that it has killed since the start of its direct intervention.”
For more on Daraya’s astounding democratic experiment in the face of impossible odds, please see:
- The Tragedy of Daraya: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/Comment/2016/8/27/The-Tragedy-of-Daraya
- Mourning the Syrian that might have been: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/16/mourning-the-syria-that-might-have-been/
- Painting the Democratic Uprising in Daraya: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/painting-democratic-uprising-63328359
- Messages from Daraya Council: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_9wXQpmHaciQW9qWDJJOWNvemM/view
- Daraya, the town that shames the world: https://diary.thesyriacampaign.org/daraya-the-town-that-shames-the-world/
- Daraya: http://newpol.org/content/daraya
 “West cooperating secretly with Damascus against militants: Assad” – http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKCN0ZG28G
 “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change, as it is known, in Syria… What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future of Syria.” – http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-kerry-in-russia-in-effort-to-keep-syria-talks-on-course-1450183175
“Russia and Iran should not be so stubborn here that they tie this whole thing up simply because of one person” – http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/255245-kerry-syrias-assad-needs-to-go-off-into-the-sunset