Unsalvageable? Solidarity and the Problem of the Syrian Revolution

On 1st March, British online publication Salvage published an article entitled Syria and the Problem of left solidarity, written by academics Donya Alinejad and Saskia Baas, seeking to contrast the Western Left’s response to the Turkish invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria, with the response to the continued fighting between the government and rebels in eastern Ghouta. The authors state ‘The striking hypocrisy forces us to re-examine how our concept of international solidarity applies to the unarmed victims of this war.’ This article seeks to show that this characterisation relies on a number of false premises and mystifications.


Who are the western left?


The article starts with a description of what the authors see as the attitude of the Western Left towards Syria:


a significant part of the Western Left has eschewed all criticism of Syrian, Iranian, and Russian leadership in the name of resisting U.S. empire. This has drawn them into elaborate media campaigns to erase any signs of the revolution against Assad.


Whilst there is a grain of truth in this statement, the article then goes on to state:

We witness the concerning effects of this among Western Leftist activists, whose selective engagement with the crises in Syria result in almost exclusive expressions of solidarity with the Kurdish revolutionary movement.

The idea that the Western Leftists who eschew criticism of the Assad government are also the ones that are supporting the Kurdish revolutionary movement is patently absurd. For example, one prominent British support of the Assad government also calls the Kurdish revolutionary movement a ‘zionist plan’ and makes unsubstantiated accusations that Kurds have ethnically cleansed areas of Northern Syria of Arabs. There exists an underbelly of so called ‘anti-imperialists’ who’s support for the Assad government include slandering and smearing the Kurdish movement as Imperialist proxies wanting ‘balkanise’ the Syrian state. Clearly these are not the same people campaigning for an end to the invasion of Afrin. By linking these conspiracists with those genuine internationalists who support the revolution in Rojava the authors attempt to dismiss the longstanding concerns of the Kurdish movement and their allies about the nature of the current armed Syrian opposition.


A Third Force


The authors continue the article by seeking to tie the revolution with older moments of Kurdish resistance, for example, the protests in Qamishli in 2004 and 2005, in an attempt to raise the spectre of the long history of Ba’athist oppression against Kurds and link it to the oppression of the democratic protesters in 2011. Whilst  many - particularly younger Kurds - supported the protests in 2011 as an opportunity for democratic change, as the character of the armed Syrian opposition became clear, the Kurds opted for a third path.


We positioned ourselves as a third force” between the regime and the opposition, said Hisên: “Our declared goals within the Syrian rebellion were (1) to permit no attack on Syria from the outside, (2) to avoid armed struggle, (3) to find solutions through dialogue and ally with other opposition forces. But once we established ourselves, people started attacking us. They accused us of collaborating with the regime. It’s a lie—the regime had always oppressed the Kurds. Even as you and I are speaking today, there are still people in prison from the old days. We don’t collaborate with the regime … And most of the Syrian opposition was Islamist, and we couldn’t ally with them—a revolution can’t come from the mosque.
— - Hanife Hisên, a member of the TEV-DEM leadership (1)


The authors make it seem that these choices were part of a ruse by the Assad government to split the opposition to it. In reality, the kurdish movement was well aware of the reactionary nature of much of the armed opposition from the very beginning. Not to mention that as well as the FSA being supported by many reactionary gulf monarchies, it was also supported by Turkey, something which was unacceptable to many Kurds in Syria.


The young kurds who took part in the initial protests against the Assad government are also those who have been fighting and dying in the YPG and YPJ to defend the radical democratic Rojava revolution, first from the fascists of ISIS, and now from the Turkish army and assorted Jihadist and FSA units.


The authors talk of how ‘Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences.’ In doing so, they fail to recognise the crucial Arab component of the SDF, who have joined with the Kurdish militias primarily to fight against ISIS. On the 46th day of the Turkish army’s invasion of Afrin, Jaysh al-Thuwar (the Army of Revolutionaries), a syrian opposition group fighting as part of the SDF, as well as groups Jabhat al-Akra, Lîwa Şemis El-Şemal El-Demokratî and Idlib Military Council, pledged to join those fighting in Afrin. In their statement they say they are going to Afrin due to the international community's silence over Erdoğan’s crimes there, and also state that:

Afrin is the foundation of a democratic and free Syria, and a symbol of peoples’ co-existence. Turkey is attacking Afrin and perpetrating massacres here with unreasonable excuses today.

We should not, as the authors wish, see a split the Syrian Revolution from the Rojava Revolution down ethnic lines. Instead, we should see the Rojava Revolution, through it’s democratic confederalist ideology, marries together the Kurdish national liberation struggle with the radical democratic demands of the initial protests against the Assad government. To claim the Assad government ‘pacified’ the Kurdish movement with overtures towards them, particularly as it’s military pulled out of Kurdish areas to operate in the west of the country, leaving them open to attack by ISIS and other Jihadist forces, should be rejected as absurd. A cursory reading of the history of Rojava proves this to be entirely false, and simply serves as a rhetorical device to drive a wedge between what they believe the principles of the attempted democratic revolution in Syria and those of Rojava. In their essence, none exist. In the practice of many of the groups who claim to represent that revolution, and the practices of the PYD/YPG/YPJ/SDF, a huge gulf exists, filled with the blood of innocents.


An Ongoing Revolution?


The article sees the fighting in Ghouta as a continuation of the Revolution which began in 2011, yet does not make any mention of the groups actually involved in fighting against the Assad government there. The four main groups in Ghouta are Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), the Al-Rahman Legion, Ahrar al-Sham (recently merged with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement to form the Syrian Liberation Front), and Tahrir al-Sham. It should be noted that all but the Al-Rahman Legion describe themselves as salafist/Jihadist groups (with al-Rahman describing itself as ‘Political Islamist’, and does not seek to turn Syria into an Islamic State. Tahrir al-Sham is the descendant of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. All of these groups have been accused of various human rights abuses such as firing on protestors, using human shields, extrajudicial executions, and even chemical attacks. Most of them have been engaged in fierce fighting with each other over the last several years.


The authors also fails to delve into the complexities of the situation in Ghouta. Russia and the Government have opened up a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow civilians to escape the bloodshed in Ghouta. Whilst many may be skeptical of this move (which has been criticised by the UN and international aid agencies as not being a viable escape route for civilians), it should also be noted that two civilians have also been shot by sniper fire by rebel groups trying to leave the city of Douma in eastern Ghouta. In a recent article (published after the Salvage piece), the head of the UN agency for refugees in Damascus, Sajjid Malik, who has been allowed to enter Ghouta underscores that ‘combatants on both sides are responsible for the horrific situation for civilians in eastern Ghouta’. The situation in Ghouta is undeniably horrific, and civilian casualties are absolutely unacceptable. One has to ask what solidarity activists are able to productively give in this situation? And what’s more, how this is linked with the Syrian Revolution, currently misrepresented in Ghouta by groups executing civilians trying to escape? I would argue, that the only meaningful solidarity which may be provided to those suffering is to pressure our governments to engage in efforts to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, whatever this may be. This must be joined with a broad anti-war effort which seeks to stop western governments engagement in and support of the Saudi war on Yemen, and the tacit support of the Turkish invasion and attempted occupation of Afrin. This solution is not proposed, and indeed, not able to be proposed under the terms in which the authors present the situation.


The authors acknowledge in passing the ‘fragmentation’ of the various armed factions in the Syrian Opposition. The article they site in support of this states:


Of the moderate opposition groups, only the Kurdish forces articulate a clear ideological position and have a systematic approach to recruitment, political mobilization, and discipline within their ranks. They have also developed functioning governance structures in the areas under their control. They complement donor support by generating income through taxation and oil production. Their advanced organizational development is largely due to their long history of underground activism in Syria prior to the revolution. Their links to the highly experienced PKK have also provided access to organizational principles for developing a liberation movement. Finally, they have a long ideological tradition on which to build.

Moderate groups fighting under the umbrella of the FSA have struggled to develop a political agenda that goes beyond rejection of the regime. Their predominantly Sunni constituency has become divided with the proliferation of extremist groups. Although the FSA is still relatively strong in the south of Syria, its units elsewhere generally lack the resources and the organizational capacity to compete with the extremists. With limited opportunities for self-financing, they rely on donor support, which has been unpredictable and barely sufficient for military survival, let alone expansion or the development of political and administrative institutions. Cooperation with Western donors further places restrictions on the formation of coalitions and the participation in operations rooms.


Dispute the acknowledgement that ‘Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences.’ the authors use lofty phrases about doing ‘justice to history’ and argue that ‘This means acknowledging the shared origins and destinies of Syria’s multiple revolutions. Not least because the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria will not be guaranteed by any precarious, war-time alignment, but is inherently tied up in the dynamics of the Syrian people’s revolution.’ This entire section does nothing but gloss over the actual dynamics of the armed uprising against the Assad government in order to portray the disparate extremist factions operating in Ghouta, who have committed and are committing their own well documented war crimes against the people of Syria, as somehow representing a Syrian people's revolution or ‘anti-dictatorial popular movements’.  We should be in doubt of any ‘popular’ movement which required $1 billion a year in CIA funding and access to training camps in Israeli occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. This funding was curtailed by 20% in 2015 due to fears that ‘that ISIS, al-Nusra and some of the other radical Islamic factions are the best positioned to capi­tal­ize on the chaos that might accompany a rapid decline of the regime’.


Even if it is not the authors explicit intention to direct people’s support towards such brutal and oppressive groups, the lack of clarity and the deliberate fudging of the events, and erasure of the politics of the groups participating in the armed uprising in Ghouta has this affect.


The split between much of the opposition and the Kurdish movement is portrayed as the result of ‘Authoritarian divide and rule tactics’, rather than a well documented political and ideological split from the very beginning of the armed conflict.


What of Idlib?


The authors state that ‘The situation in Afrin is urgent, but in Idlib and Ghouta it has been urgent for years’ and that against a ‘crude anti-imperialism’, the piece seems to be arguing that those of us in solidarity with the Turkish attack on Afrin should also be in solidarity with those in Idlib. If this is the case, we must assume includes rebel groups, as no distinction is made between civilians and armed combattants. To do so, we would have to ignore the FSA and other resistance groups, who Erdoğan call the ‘National Army’ involved in the attacks in Afrin from idlib. Well documented killings of civilians and looting by these groups showing that they are little more than mercinary gangs. The fascist Erdoğan government has stated its intent to ethnically cleanse Afrin of its Kurdish population, replacing them with Syrians displaced by the war and kept in Turkey due to a deal struck between the Turkish government the European Union. Idlib itself has been under Turkish control since 2017 as part of a “de-escalation agreement” signed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This has caused a certain amount of consternation between jihadist factions working with Turkey, and those who aren't, with the promise of more violence to come. If the authors claim to care about the lives of civilians in Idlib, and propose that the ‘Western Left’ give political support to those there, why do they not mention the political nature of the groups involved there? Or even once mention that this area of syria is under the control of a foreign army, which is using it as a base to conduct operations into Afrin? They do not mention this, because they seek to blur the truth around the political situation, to try and draw an equivalence between the situation - between a mass political and military resistance to an invasion, and those who are perpetrating that invasion. It promotes a dead apolitical humanitarianism which asks us to care about ‘civilian lives’ whilst ignoring the political consequences of the proposed action we take in support. Of course, our solidarity should go ‘beyond which armed faction to support’, but completely ignoring the politics of the factions involved in the civil war goes beyond ‘incidental ignorance and laziness’ it is dishonest, depoliticising, and dangerous.


The authors seek to draw a similarity between the events in Aleppo 2 years ago, and the events in Ghouta now. If we are to do this, we must also remember the complexities of the situation there. In 2012, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, spoke to a rebel commander who argued that:


Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want.


Even in a poll commissioned by the Dohar Debates (funded by the resolutely anti-Assad Qatar monarchy) published at the beginning of January 2012 at the start of the conflict, that 55% of Syrians wanted the Assad government to stay, with the primary reason being fear about the future of the country.


To lay the blame for such bloodshed entirely at the door of the Assad government (which does bare a heavy responsibility), is undermined by the willingness of the rebels to pursue a war without the support of the people. We should not attempt to cleanse the rebel factions by associating them with the revolution, when they have pursued a bloody and terrible war, largely against the wishes of the populace, and against the ideals of the revolution.


We should also seek to understand the reasons many Syrian civilians prefer the regime to the bloody sectarian nature of many of the rebels. Events like the bombing of the Buses containing mostly Shia families evacuated from Foua and Kefraya, where 126 people were killed (including at least 60 children), or the beheading of a 12 year old boy by the Al-Zenki movement, a group currently fighting in Ghouta, and who was vetted and funded by the US government, show why many Syrians particularly those of a minority religious/ethnic background, who though not enamoured with the government, continue to support it.


Whilst claiming the need to amplify the voices of Syrian Leftists and Intellectuals, the authors link to a collection of resources curated by British activist Mark Boothroyd on British political group RS21’s website. The article contains recommendations for where activists can gain information on the conflict. This information is presented entirely uncritically and apolitically, and includes references to the White Helmets, who’s funding relationships with western governments and relationships with extremist groups were the subject of a recent expose by journalist Max Blumenthal. White Helmets members even participated in an execution undertaken by Al-Nusra against an unknown man in civilian clothes. The expose prompted a statement from the group, confirming the did dispose of the body after the execution, but condemned the act in itself. Other people listed on the page include Kyle Orton, who has described the YPG/YPJ as ‘Terrorists’, and attempted to get internationalist volunteers imprisoned on their return to their homes countries.


Another person cited on this page is Robin Yassin-Kassab, who supports the occupation of Idlib, and the Turkish invasion of Afrin.


Today Turkish troops are engaged alongside Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in the (almost comically named) Operation Olive Branch - an assault on the PYD in the Afrin region.

The “official” Syrian opposition supports the action, and it’s easy to see why. In the course of the war that Assad provoked, foreign states have carved the country into zones of influence. Russia and Iran sponsor the regime; the Americans (and sometimes Russians) sponsor the PYD. In this context, it’s natural for the rebels to exploit Turkish power to link their surviving territories in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, and to liberate the Arab towns (Tel Rifaat, etc) occupied under Russian bombs.

But the opposition’s support for Turkey’s operation should go that far and no further. Specifically, it should not support Turkey’s occupation of the Kurdish-majority Afrin canton itself.


Whilst Yassan-Kassab appears to cut short of calling for the support of the occupation of Afrin itself, He explicitly supports and apologises for the invasion, when there is evidence of mass abuses by FSA/Jihadist gangs, and the stated desire for the ethnic cleansing of Afrin by the Turkish government  (see above), the calls for ‘Kurdish self determination’ seem rather hollow. Yassan-Kassab also praised the Lakattia offensive undertaken by the Al-Nusra front in 2014, specifically thanked Erdoğan and Turkey “for the supply lines” that facilitated it.



These are just two examples from the list, and the point is in no way to tar every resource on the list with the same brush. The point is that the authors present this list as a way to gain insight into the minds of Syrian leftists and academics, but the list itself presents this material without any political explanation, and includes voices such as Orton and Yassan-Kassab without comment. If the ‘Western Left’ is practicing ‘selective solidarity’ with regards to Idlib and Ghouta, then what are we to call these so called experts on the revolution? They do not simply ignore the plight of the people of Afrin, they denigrate the resistance and actively support those who are causing the devastating situation!


Readers of this resource page are invited to read the ‘truth’ about the conflict. The truth many people on this list provide attacks the revolution in Rojava, and serves to provide authenticity to the facade of the continuation of a genuine revolution in places like Idlib.


A Well Worn Argument


Much of the articles argument mirrors an article from October 2014 entitled ‘The struggle for Kobane: An example of selective solidarity’ by Lina Al Shami (another activist mentioned in Boothroyd’s resource page). Shami spends a great deal of time time documenting some of the Rojava Revolution’s achievements, including its struggle against ISIS, and the participation of Arab groups in this struggle, even calling the experiments in direct democracy ‘a beacon of light in what’s fast becoming a region of darkness’. However, this leads into warning that ‘Anti-authoritarians should not romanticise the PYD’ before a much cited quote by ‘Kurdish-Anarchist’ Shiar Neyo about the ‘Amuda Massacre’ where the PYD, it is alleged, fired on civilians.

It is important to note that the original source for this claim is a press statement from the US State Department, published on 1st July 2013, referring to several days of clashes which presumably took place before that date (i.e. June), and was rigorously denied by the PYD, who claim it was a response to an ambush by members of Jabhat Al-Nusra, where 4 fighters and 2 civilians died. This rebuttal is not mentioned by many of the people who chose to share Neyo’s words uncritically, including many pro syrian revolution revolution blogs, and the Anarchist Federation of Great Britain.


What links Al Shami and the author’s articles together is an insistence of describing the armed uprising as ‘anti-authoritarian’, but singularly failing to discuss the politics of any of the groups involved. Whilst they do this, they paint an incorrect and politically suspect picture of the YPG/J and the PYD, and the historical process of the revolution in Rojava.


On what basis is this for the broader, political solidarity called for by the authors? There is none, unless solidarity is build on a foundation of a dubiously defined ‘anti-authoritarianism’, ignores the well documented politics, ideology, and war crimes of the principal military actors, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the politics of the Kurdish movement at a time when they are under bombardment by the Turkish state and rebel groups.


A Political Humanitarianism?


Whilst seeking to avoid ‘apolitical humanitarianism’, the authors do not only offer no concrete political actions for people to engage in, they mystify the politics of the situations with pleas for support for civilians. Civilians in Idlib, Ghouta, Afrin, and everywhere else in Syria are not benefited by western activists calling for solutions which they barely understand. They may be benefited by active political engagement with the history of the civil war, and the events as they happen, rather than being seduced by the comforting myth that an anti-authoritarian opposition to Assad exists that represents the spirit of the protests of 2011.

The authors final paragraph, argues that we must “stop approaching Syria in the way a colonial power approaches its subject’s civil war, calculating which intervention(s) of force to back and then vehemently spreading the chosen party’s war propaganda.” This is is gross mischaracterisation, arguing that their opponents see the Syria as one giant Risk board, rather than have come to know the struggles in Syrian Kurdistan through a spirit of internationalism and freedom. This is even more misguided, when the US, actual imperialist power, has released a statement condemning Russia’s actions in Ghouta, whilst not raising any complaint to Turkey’s actions in Afrin - even though they have supported the YPG/J against ISIS since 2014.


The article ends with a plea to ‘the radical internationalist idea that we inhabit the same world as all those who struggle for a dignified human existence.’ The world the authors wish us to inhabit is one mystified to the extent that butchers become revolutionaries, oppression becomes dignity, and the crimes of the present are wiped clean by the valiance of the past. As internationalists, we must do better.


One political act of solidarity that ordinary people can take part in in support of those suffering in Syria is to take part in the boycott of the Turkish Republic proposed by the KCK. The longer the Turkish army remains in Syria, propping up reactionary factions, and using it as a base to attack Afrin, the longer all Syrians suffer.


As the Turkish Army/Jihadist gangs move closer and closer to Arfin city, actively showing our solidarity with the people under threat there is more important than ever. Please follow the local solidarity groups in your country for information on demos and actions you can take to help prevent further bloodshed.

- John Lazarus

For the UK: Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign -


For the US: American Kurdish Association, North American Kurdish Alliance


1. Knapp et al, Revolution in Rojava. Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, (London 2016), p. 50.

2. Ibid.