Bombed and besieged by their own government for going on six years, their hospitals targeted by cruise missiles and explosive-filled barrels while foreign extremists exploit the chaos and despair of a revolution crushed to occupy once liberated land—whenever it seems things can’t get any worse for the people of Syria that perception is invariably followed by a new horror, be it a child beheaded by rebels or the Syrian regime starving to death children in rebel-held towns.
But somehow, someway, the news from Syria invariably manages to get worse, for those not yet fatigued by the routine of atrocity.
“It’s the worst week we’ve ever tracked,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars, told The Daily Beast. He was referring to a threat that emerged nearly two years ago: U.S. airstrikes, aimed at the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, but exacting a deadly toll on those stuck between ostensibly religious and ostensibly secular extremists.
Ahmad Mohammad, a 24-year-old Syrian activist, described it as a “massacre”: On July 19, over 90 civilians in the northern Syria village of Tokhar, just outside the town Manbij, were killed by suspected U.S. airstrikes as a U.S.-backed coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is fighting to reclaim the area along the Turkish border from the Islamic State.
When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Mohammad said his goal was to spread “news of the revolution”; in 2016 his activism takes the form of “documenting abuses”—in this case, he sent along photos of women and children being buried in a mass grave, “human beings like all of us,” he said, whose only offense was living in a town occupied by terrorists from abroad.
In a statement, U.S. Central Command confirmed it carried out airstrikes in the area. “We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties in the area,” it said. “If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step.”
The CENTCOM-supported SDF, meanwhile, has dismissed reports of mass casualties in Manbij as “fabricated news” circulated by groups who “support terrorism,” according to a statement obtained by the Kurdish media network Rudaw.
Independent monitors and anti-ISIS activists on the ground, by contrast, insist that air support for the SDF has killed hundreds of innocents.
According to Airwars, the human beings dumped in that hole, along with corpses on streets and under rubble in and around Manbij that could not be afforded even a mass burial, bring the civilian death count from U.S.-led airstrikes in the area up to at least 190 since May 31.
Local activists claim the number is at least 368, and an activist with the Free Manbij Media Center told The Daily Beast the death toll on July 19 alone was “more than 150 people, mostly women and children” who were “killed while in their homes.”
The latest airstrikes have grabbed international headlines, but they are nothing new for Syrians. Since the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Syria, Airwars states there are credible reports of between 682 and 942 civilian deaths, meaning that nearly a third of what the military terms “collateral damage” has occurred in the last two months. It has gotten “so bad,” Woods said, “that we’re nearing Russian levels” (between 1,098 and 1,450 “likely” dead civilians since September 2015). The U.S. has thus far confirmed just 24 civilian deaths from its campaign in Syria. Like Russia, none of its partners—Australia, Bahrain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, among others—has admitted to any.
Loubna Mrie, a 24-year-old Syrian activist from Latakia, wishes the world had paid attention to what was happening in Manbij before U.S. airstrikes began raining down on it.
“I was there when the Free Syrian Army, back in January 2014, started their campaign against ISIS and ISIS was kicked out,” she told The Daily Beast. “The power of ISIS in that area today is because those people in 2014 were not able to get support.”
That rebels aligned with the FSA were fighting ISIS months before the U.S. began its bombing campaign, without the benefit of airstrikes and metric tons of airdropped weapons, is a fact often lost in much of the mainstream discourse on Syria. It’s also a peculiarity of the dominant discourse among the Western left that U.S. support for those FSA fighters appears to be more objectionable—and much more extensive than facts on the ground suggest—than the much greater support enjoyed today by the YPG and the SDF it effectively leads.
“The Americans did not really support the Free Syrian Army that much,” Mrie said. Working as a photographer for Reuters, “I used to be on the front-lines all the time and I have seen how the American support is really a joke. Their only serious support was for the YPG,” a group that has appealed to the global left with its talk of social revolution, anti-capitalism and commitment to gender equality.
The relatively muted response among committed anti-interventionists to actually existing U.S. intervention in Syria—over 4,600 airstrikes and counting—is striking, having something to do, perhaps, with the antiwar left having already declared victory years ago. In 2013, the left credited itself with staving off airstrikes against the government of Bashar al-Assad after his forces used chemical weapons, a stated “red line” for U.S. President Barack Obama. A popular talking point then as now was that any undermining of the Syrian regime would only aid amorphously defined extremists; if we’re going to bomb anyone, it should be them.
A year later the U.S. did just that, launching airstrikes against anti-regime extremists but not those loyal to the Assad dictatorship. And when the U.S. bombs finally began falling, the silence was deafening: groups that had ramped up efforts to keep U.S. hands off Syria remained comfortably demobilized, while Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard became a liberal star and regular feature on the campaign trail with Sen. Bernie Sanders based precisely on her opposition to regime change in Syria, explicitly coupled with a call for the U.S. and Russia to bomb the country some more.
Opposition to one form of U.S. intervention in Syria—regime change—need not mean support for another: de facto regime preservation. Or vice versa, of course. It is worth wondering, however, why more than token arming of those fighting ISIS in 2014 is imperialism worthy of the utmost outrage, while many of those ostensibly committed to non-intervention at all costs have had hardly a thing to say about two years of dropping bombs on towns ISIS took from the FSA, or the arming of a coalition, the SDF, that activists in Manbij told The Daily Beast they do not see as liberators, despite their shared opposition to ISIS.
When I posed this question to Mrie, the activist who was in Manbij before the U.S. began bombing it to save it—why the fuss about one intervention but not the other?—she was blunt.
“First of all, I hate the left in America because they are so stupid when it comes to Syria,” she said. “And I’m not surprised they aren’t saying anything,” exceptions to the rule aside. Able to speak with moral clarity when Israel bombs Palestinians, perceived U.S. support for toppling the Syrian government leads to moral confusion when the latter bombs Palestinians in Syria. Likewise, defending Russia’s bombing of Syria on the grounds that some in the State Department have said bad things about a rival’s air campaign, under the reasoning that the opposite of what a U.S. imperialist says is anti-imperialism, doesn’t lend itself to principled opposition when that U.S. imperialist does the same thing for the same stated reasons.
And that about sums up the pitfalls of a pseudo-oppositional stance on Syria, from the left—that is, a position informed by what one perceives the U.S. government’s stance to be, bolstered by talking points about another country honed during the Bush administration. It ignores the pleas for solidarity from progressive forces that are often erased from existence for ease of argument. “My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all,” Yassin Al Haz Saleh, a leftist Syrian dissident who spent 16 years in a regime prison, said in an interview last year. “Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of debate.”
The intellectual laziness of some on the left (and many on the right) has led to the mechanical repetition of a tidy narrative of regime change, and a New Cold War with Russia, that frees the soap-boxer from having to learn or acknowledge any incongruent details, like cold warriors working together to bomb the country in coordination with its dictatorship. It’s a narrative that sees a U.S. anti-tank missile in the hands of some militias but doesn’t recognize as the work of empire a five-year CIA embargo on anyone providing a Syrian the means to counter the regime’s air supremacy with anti-aircraft weapons, or notice that U.S. intervention began as an effort to “keep control of the flow of weapons” already headed into the country, leading to “Western-backed” forces rationing bullets.
More distressingly, treating Syria not as its own country but as Iraq 2.0 has led to the erasure of the millions of Syrians who demanded the downfall of their government, peacefully, and continue to dream of a democratic state amid almost unfathomable levels of state and non-state terrorism. Solidarity with oppressed peoples is too often exchanged for solidarity with those oppressing them, should those oppressors have the good fortune of not being upstanding members of NATO, taking us to a place where murdering doctors causes outrage or complacency depending on the manufacturer of the ordinance that killed them. Internationalism has been replaced by American narcissism and an inverted nationalism that’s deadly ironic, given that the misreading of U.S. intentions has led anti-imperialists to embrace multiple forms of imperialism, including that practiced by the enemy at home. Their is the anti-imperialism of fools.
That the left has largely stuck with its rhetoric from 2013, if not 2003, has led it to miss the fact that its arguments are largely shared by those shaping policy, with Washington’s foreign policy elites seeing the downfall of Syria’s regime as the gravest threat to U.S. interests in the region. But it also may be the case that the dominant strain of the Western left is uncomfortable with having won a debate—if only because it effectively aligned with the views of the dominant brand of imperialism in the modern day United States—and, unaccustomed to winning, those used to an adversarial stance toward power simply have nothing useful left to say.