Sean’s Empire Report: Syria

A monthly column discussing American empire and foreign conflict, the policies we don’t vote on, and the officials we don’t elect. 

For this Column Editor Sean Edwards has partnered with artist Søren Wilde to create unique images. Søren interprets the writing into images that counter the sensationalization of foreign conflict in mainstream media and serve to highlight relationships otherwise obscured. Søren’s work can be found in galleries and on instagram @pyrex_systems. 


War in Syria. A nuanced situation with complex networks of allies and supporters attempting to control the situation for their own ends. Many groups actively fighting and powerful states raining hellfire from above; it sounds pretty familiar. Familiar, but not necessarily the same kind of wars we’ve been fighting since many of us were born. If you were born after 2001, the United States has been at war your entire life, a heartening stat. So if you’re feeling like the world is especially fucked up, and the current administration especially ghoulish, take comfort in the fact that it has always been this way. If anything, it’s marginally better now. At least on a numbers front.  

If you think COVID-19 is bad, which it unequivocally is, imagine living with American drones constantly circling willing and able to destroy everything you know and love. Some asshole in an air-conditioned base in Germany just has to steer the joy stick to the left and push a button and PRESTO! You’re fucked. Long gone are the days of camo clad psychopaths bumping Flight of the Valkyries swooping in with a helicopter. That ship sailed when the United States gave anti-aircraft weapons to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Wear a goddamn mask you dullards.

A quick overview of the Syrian story so far. 

In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father as president of Syria. Initially he was greeted as a welcome change who would liberalize Syria, but in the shadow of the Arab Spring 2011 began firing on protestors rallying for the release of political prisoners sparking violent uprisings and a civil war.

The Syrian military fractured, rebel groups came in from neighboring regions and a multi-faceted struggle to fill the power vacuum continues to ravage the country. 

The main actors are the Syrian Army, Assad’s forces fighting for government control. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a faction of former military personal and extremist militia groups fighting for religious fundamentalism in government. The Syrian Democrtatic Forces (SDF), a group looking for a secular and pluralistic democracy in Syria and de facto Kurdish control of Kurdish lands in Syria. It comprised the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and other pro-democratic groups. Turkish forces fighting to secure their borders at the detriment of the SDF and YPG specifically, and of course the United States, Russia and Iran all propping up different groups to their own ends. 

Iran is Assad’s number one ally, providing economic and military support to the regime while under harsh sanctions themselves. Iran’s interest in the region is in its geographic location. Syria serves as Iran’s link to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant Shia political party. Hezbollah provides Iran with weapons, highly trained militant fighters as well as training grounds for troops. A Syria sympathetic to Shia military and political goals is vital to Iran and Hezbollah both.

Russia is deeply involved in the fight as an early and outspoken ally of Assad. Russia has provided Assad with air power and ground troops that have let the Syrian army regain control of the majority of the country. Russia’s connection and support of Assad in international institutions as well as on the ground have to do with Russia’s access to the Mediterranean. Without the Tartus deep water port in Syria, Russia is cut off from the Mediterranean through all routes but Bosporus in Turkey, a NATO ally. Russia values the anonymity granted to them by the Black Sea port in the movement of their naval fleet and their nuclear subs. 

American involvement under Obama and subsequently Trump has been ineffective and callous. Airstrikes on ISIS and Pro-Assad military bases and weapons caches have been the main way the US has exerted its influence officially, but on the ground troops armed and trained by the United States fight each other routinely, specifically Turkish and Kurdish troops, adding to the chaos and body count.

The Kurds seek democratic control over their own region without the explicit establishment of a new state, but are being targeted by Turkish forces and brutal dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He sees Kurdistan as a threat to national security as they have explicit leftist values and beliefs that stand in stark contrast to his facism. 

America trained and armed the democratic forces, and the brutal dictator seeking to destroy them, to help eradicate ISIS. Arming all groups with whom you share an enemy might seem like a good idea, but historically it has not worked out. Just ask Al-Qaeda and The Taliban who gave them weapons and money in the 80s to fight communists.

 It was the United States.

The US has a strange habit of ending up getting shot at (or getting democratic forces shot at) with their own guns. The SDF have been barred from peace talks at the behest of Turkey, a NATO ally, via YPG connections to the PKK, The Kurdish Workers Party. The PKK are classified as a terror group by the US and the EU, leaving them without meaningful diplomatic options for peace. 

Now that the US is distancing itself from involvement, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG are left to fight fascism on their own after being severely hindered diplomatically. Trump openly says the PKK is worse than ISIS for seeking to establish a Kurdish homeland and protect Kurds from the fascist Turkish State. 

Turkey has launched Operation Peace Spring targeting ISIS and Kurdish forces. But with ISIS all but stripped of meaningful region control in the area, the Kurds and leftism in the region are the true targets.

In true Western fashion we made a lot of things worse for freedom-seeking rebels and made it far easier for the brutal fascists to reclaim control. It’s not much, but it’s honest work. 

America’s role as the self-proclaimed world police is a terrifying affair. People called for help, we showed up late and escalated the situation, shot some people and then left having heightened tension for those on the ground. Sounds pretty similar to our own domestic police state. I am currently writing this from Portland, Oregon in between clouds of tear gas and barrages of rubber bullets, so take if from me, the police state is a terrifying reality. So thankful we’re fighting the good fight for democracy and neoliberalism abroad! Hoorah!

To learn more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the Kurdish fight for freedom and anarchist revolution in Rojava check out resources listed below. Solidarity forever. 

Refugee Crisis: https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-crisis-facts

 Rojava: https://twitter.com/RojavaIC?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor