This piece was originally published on In These Times on 18 December 2014
ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.
American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.”Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me,
On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society. On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.
Some Syrian activists question how committed the Kurds are to toppling the Syrian dictator. The Kurds, for their part, distrust Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition. These debates and dynamics are mostly unknown to American progressives.
Given that ISIS and the intervention against it directly impact the peoples of the region, it behooves us to know what they have to say about it. So when In These Times asked me to convene a roundtable discussion on the ISIS intervention, I saw it as an opportunity to bridge this gap—to explore some of these contending perspectives and stimulate a conversation between U.S. progressives and some of our Syrian and Kurdish counterparts.
Richard Falk has been one of the leading voices of peace and human rights over the last half century. He was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights and a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. His blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century, is a constant source of thought-provoking and self-reflective analysis. His essay in The Syria Dilemma, the book I co-edited with Nader Hashemi, is among the most thoughtful and challenging arguments about the Syrian tragedy I have read.
The Kurdish region of Rojava in northern Syria has been likened to the Zapatista autonomous territories of Chiapas and has inspired international solidarity efforts with its experiment in democratic autonomy . The anarchist writer and activist David Graeber has written a forceful plea to stand with the beleaguered Kurds as they fight for their lives. With Graeber’s help I reached out to Alan Semo, the UK representative of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to get his perspective on the ISIS intervention.
I also deemed it essential to include a Syrian opposition voice in the discussion. There has been and remainsdeep confusion about the Syrian conflict amongst many leftists. So I reached out to Rime Allaf, who serves on the board of directors of The Day After Project, an international working group of Syrians building toward a democratic transition in Syria. She is a former advisor to the president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and former Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.
There are few people I hold in higher regard than Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer, board member of Amnesty International USA, columnist for Al Jazeera America and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the author ofThe Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (forthcoming in February from Beacon Press). Rafia brings both an international human rights perspective and the painful knowledge of what U.S. military intervention, in the form of drone strikes, has wrought in her part of the world.
Richard, with only one or two exceptions (notably Kosovo), you have opposed U.S. military interventions for the past 50 years. As someone who has opposed those interventions as a champion of self-determination—especially self-determination for formerly colonized peoples—what do you make of the current U.S. intervention against ISIS? And specifically, the siege of Kobani and the Kurdish resistance against ISIS along the Turkish-Syrian border?
Richard: It’s a tough question. We need to contextualize this a bit further. In my view, there is no basis for the United States to play a constructive role in this region. Its role in Iraq and Syria—much less, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere in the region—figures into an overall strategy of dominating the region and supporting highly reactionary forces in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The notion that the United States can be a liberating actor by narrowing the focus to one specific battle site isn’t convincing to me. The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. And one needs a full-fledged diplomatic initiative, which I see lacking so long as Iran continues to be excluded from any effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. Like the drone attacks, the ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region.
Where do you stand on the intervention, Rafia?
Rafia: I oppose it. Look at what the U.S. has done in South Asia in the past ten years. As someone who has covered drone attack after drone attack in Pakistan, I can tell you that the dynamics are very similar. When the U.S. began its drone campaign in north and south Waziristan, where the Taliban were headquartered, there was a lot of support from Pashtun tribal leaders, similar in a way to the current situation between the Kurds and ISIS. The narrative was that the drone attacks were empowering the indigenous people of area who were facing incursions from the Taliban. It’s been beyond a miserable failure. The drone attacks have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Whenever you have communities that are displaced—and this is precisely what is happening in Syria and Iraq as a result of ISIS incursions and the airstrikes against ISIS—their social mechanisms, their political allegiances, their forms of governance all collapse. Once that happens, those populations are far, far more vulnerable to being recruited by groups like ISIS. Or they become disenchanted with any effort to rebuild or organize. The consequence of intervention is displacement. And the consequence of displacement is further civil war, which is what you have in Pakistan right now.
Syrian activists have expressed a range of views on the intervention against ISIS. Rime, how do you see it?
Rime: I very much share the ambivalence of Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Many of us in the Syrian opposition do. Everything that has happened in Syria was predictable—and indeed was predicted. The rise of these Islamist terror groups…before they became an organized entity calling itself ISIS, they were smaller groups fighting in various areas in Iraq but mostly in Syria, where they had free reign because the only forces fighting them during roughly their first year on the scene  were the Free Syrian Army. The FSA—the bulk of the Syrian armed opposition to the Assad regime—thus found itself fighting two very brutal forces, the Assad regime on one side and these Islamist groups on the other—and those two forces were not fighting each other. This is an essential point. It was inevitable that this would weaken the opposition and strengthen the regime. Because the Assad regime was not attacking this Islamist plague, it was to be expected that these terror groups would gain ground. They had help from al-Qaeda type groups in Iraq. Plus they had the advantage of their enemies [the FSA] being bombed relentlessly by the Syrian regime. So they gained strength.
Let’s be very clear that for the longest time, the Syrian opposition was not asking for a “boots on the ground”-style intervention, or even for a bombing campaign led by the U.S. What was being requested early on was the establishment of humanitarian corridors with the help of a “no-fly-zone” and/or weapons for the FSA to defend liberated areas from the relentless barrel bombing campaign of the regime. Since none of this happened, it was to be expected that these Islamist groups have been able to gain so much ground and find themselves with a weakened opponent in the FSA. Now the Assad regime doesn’t even need to worry about ISIS because it’s got the U.S. fighting [ISIS].
Alan, where does the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which you represent, stand on the U.S. intervention against ISIS? The PYD has opposed external military intervention in the Syrian conflict, but hasn’t the Kurdish struggle against ISIS benefited from the coalition airstrikes?
Alan: I think the American-led international intervention against ISIS has been efficient. The Americans realized that the expansion of ISIS is serious and threatens the region—it has to be stopped and eliminated. The U.S. has been relying on air strikes alone, and they know they need troops on the ground. The forces on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and now in Kobani, in northern Syria, are Kurdish troops. They have been defending themselves very efficiently against ISIS, which is a real threat to the region. So I think eliminating this threat is the right step, both for the Syrian people and for regional security and stability.
Rime: From January roughly until the summer, what happened is that ISIS was allowed to spread its terror throughout the Jazira region of Syria without any intervention of any kind from outside Syria—or within Syria. The only people fighting them were the Free Syrian Army—alone, without ammunition. So I agree with Alan that the intervention is proving useful, but only up to a point. It is proving useful in a very limited area, and—this is critical—it is not tackling the origin of this plague, which is the Assad regime.
Alan: Now, Kurdish forces are working together with some sections of the Free Syrian Army and other forces in northern Syria.
The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based organization, has recently put forward aproposal to end the Syrian conflict that includes the creation of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority that would implement local ceasefire agreements and serve as an interim governing authority. The report also suggests that once a deal has been struck, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition could focus their energies on fighting ISIS. What do you make of this idea?
Rime: It’s an absolutely obscene proposition because it takes the position that anything is better than ISIS, whereas most Syrians view ISIS and the Assad regime as being on an equal level of savagery. Many Syrians will tell you the Assad regime is actually worse than ISIS and has killed far more people.
To consider ending the war, which is what all of us want, without considering what’s at the root of this entire monstrosity—which is the Assad regime itself—is unacceptable. To propose that in order to end ISIS we have no choice but to work with Assad is not a solution at all.
Alan: At the end of the day, we have to end Syria’s war. To end the war requires a solution on three levels: the internal balance on the ground inside Syria; the regional circumstances; and the international level. I believe the will of the Syrian people has been hijacked by regional powers and by global powers—America and Russia. But the Syrian people have to determine their own destiny. The Syrian opposition has to be united. And they have to have a clear vision of how they can end this war. I do not agree with Rime’s statement that you have to fight the regime before fighting ISIS.
Rime: I did not say that. I said that you can’t just get rid of ISIS. You cannot just get rid of Assad. You have to get rid of both.
Alan: The Syrian people are defending themselves. They are fighting against ISIS. The people of Kobani have been protecting themselves for two months with their limited resources.
Rime: But the coalition’s airstrikes are helping them. For three years Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians and yet no help has come from anybody. But now you have the coalition bombing ISIS, which helps the Kurds in Kobani to defend themselves.
Richard, what do you think of the idea of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority?
Richard: I think that a proposal of this sort is somewhat suspect given both how it originated and what it’s proposing, because it’s really a plea to, in effect, enlarge the anti-ISIS military coalition. I agree with what Rafia said earlier, that bombing only contributes to destabilizing the whole underlying reality. And we still have to address why Iran hasn’t been brought into the process as a major political actor that needs to participate in any kind of diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis.
I think there are desirable elements [in the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue proposal], such as trying to respect the ceasefire, but it overlooks the complexities and contradictions that have emerged in the Syrian conflict. To try to solve the problems of the Middle East from above is very unlikely to have constructive effects.
Finally, there’s an absence of political imagination. The American approach has become so militarized over such a long period of time that it’s just about incapable of thinking outside of the military box. It therefore keeps reinventing a military solution to essentially political problems—and is undeterred by a record of failure because it’s the only way it knows how to project its power. The U.S. is so addicted to hard-power ways of behaving in the world. It has very little credibility in my view—even when you narrow the focus and it looks like it’s better to help those beleaguered in Kobani than to ignore them. That’s why I say it’s a tragic predicament: Every alternative is repugnant under these conditions. I’ve always felt that when all alternatives are repugnant the one point of moral clarity is, don’t add to the killing. And, echoing what Rafia said, don’t add to the displacement, which is subverting any possibility of benevolent political reconstruction.