Syria, Iraq and the movement of refugees

Friday 9th October 2015

21 September 2015
A research paper by Christine Buchholz (Die Linke member of parliament) and Frank Renken
Translated by Ben Windsor

In recent days three related questions have been sharply posed. Die Linke must find answers to them:

i) The principal cause of the mass exodus of refugees to Europe is the war in Syria and Iraq. How can the wars in the Near and Middle East be stopped?

ii) The aerial bombardment by the US-led forces in Iraq and Syria have lasted one year but there is no end in sight. What is our position in regards to the “war on terror” of the great powers against Islamic State?

iii) The German government is part of the US-led forces. It wants to extend its military engagement in Iraq while simultaneously engaging in diplomatic initiatives. What role is Germany playing in the wars in the Near and Middle East?

1) Bombing won’t stop the exodus of refugees

This year, in the period up to mid-September, approximately 380,000 people have sought asylum in Europe. Hundreds of thousands more have not yet registered their claim for asylum or are still on the way to West and North Europe. About half of them come from Syria.

The governments in France and Russia are exploiting this situation to intervene militarily in Syria. They claim that participation in a war against Islamic State will help to combat the causes of the mass flight of refugees. In fact, Islamic State is not the main cause of the current exodus of refugees from Syria to Europe.

The flight along the route through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans began after the Islamic State in northern Syria was pushed back.

Islamic State no longer controls any border crossings to Turkey, not since the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) conquered Tell Abyad in summer and was able to push far into the south.

The last significant advance of the Islamic State in Syria was in May, towards Palmyra—that is to say in an area which is very sparsely inhabited.

In the past, Islamic State has triggered two big flights of refugees—both in Iraq.

In 2014 Yazidis fled from the murderous Islamic State gangs to the Sinjar Mountains. This advance was beaten back by Kurdish fighters from the YPG and the PKK, although they themselves were then bombed by the Turkish army.

Another mass exodus took place after the victory of the Islamic State in Ramadi in May 2015. Tens of thousands of locals sought to flee to the capital Baghdad but were prevented from doing so by the Iraqi regime.

The refugees were forced to camp along the roadside for weeks in scorching heat. The behaviour of the Iraqi government, which is bound to both Iran and the West, provoked no audible criticism from the German government.

2) The lack of hope in the refugee camps must be ended

The immediate cause of the exodus to Europe is the hopelessness that is widely felt in the refugee camps within Syria and its neighbouring lands.

There are currently around 12 million Syrian refugees, of whom about five million are stuck in the countries bordering Syria.
They had originally hoped that they would be able to return to Syria quickly. But the protracted war has no end in sight—so hundreds of thousands have been driven further afield.

Many have decided to flee to Europe so as to allow their children to have an education. According to Unicef, around 9,000 schools in Syria have already been destroyed.

The lack of basic healthcare and the wretchedness of the living conditions are also key factors in driving refugees out of the camps. UNHCR is terribly underfunded for the job in hand.

Of the $8 billion dollars of emergency aid promised by the so-called international community for the region’s refugees less than a third has been delivered.

Things are so bad that the food rations in the camps may be cut by half.

The EU countries that are the desired destination of many of the refugees have effectively promoted the exodus as they have not paid the UNCHR the money they owe it.

If the billions of dollars that the US military and others have poured into the wars in the Middle East was instead given to institutions like the UNHCR, a great deal of suffering would have been alleviated.

It is remarkable that the rich Gulf states receive so little criticism in the West for their role in these events. They have financed armed groups in the Syrian civil war, deliberately channelling it in an increasingly sectarian direction—while refusing to take in refugees who flee the flames they stoke.

3) Assad’s regime is part of the problem, not part of the solution

The refugee camps in Syria aren’t located in the areas of the country controlled by the regime, but rather in the liberated areas—or abroad.

That means people are fleeing the troops of the regime in greater numbers than they are fleeing anyone else.

The biggest camps were set up in the summer of 2012 after the Syrian army began systematic aerial bombardment of the cities and towns it had lost control of.

This bombardment continues today and it is responsible for a large share of the estimated 250,000 lives lost in the civil war.
In addition, the Syrian regime and its allies cut off food and water to places like Jarmuk (a Palestinian camp) for months. As soon as it became possible, the inhabitants left these areas. As a result many of the contested neighbourhoods have become ghost towns.

Since the great wave of protests in 2011 the Assad regime has sought to split the opposition.

Already in the autumn of 2011, the regime was freeing prisoners who would later go on to form jihadi groups.

Even Islamic State, who have been intervening in the Syrian civil war since 2013, were not and are not actively targeted by Assad’s regime.

On the contrary, the targets of Assad’s barrel-bombs, dropped by his air force with abandon, are chiefly residential areas in Aleppo and the outskirts of Damascus.

That is to say, areas where the Islamic State could never get a foothold, or were expelled. Instead the bombs hit homes, markets, mosques, schools and hospitals. Among the victims are countless civilians.

Despite the intervention of foreign powers in the conflict, the war in Syria is a real civil war. It can’t be resolved over the heads of the population by the superpowers.

The Assad regime has dragged Syria into the abyss. A viable solution which involves his regime is unthinkable.

A solution imposed from outside, that stabilises the regime, would only lead to further resistance—but also to more acts of terror against the powers imposing it.

4) The US-led military intervention only exacerbates the misery

For the past year the US have added their aerial bombardments to those of the Assad regime. These bombs only serve to exacerbate the exodus as, with each explosion, people are killed and infrastructure is destroyed.

And when actual (or perceived) Islamic State positions in the city of Rakka are attacked civilians are also hit. But very little is said about these civilian victims.

Immediately after the bombing campaign began the US air force hit a granary in Manbij. After an aerial attack on 30 April 2015 on the village of Bir Hamli just south of Kobane a Pentagon official conceded that two civilians had been killed. However, a human rights group counted 64.

That is just one of the few cases reported in the US press. In the German media the question of possible civilian casualties is not even posed.

The idea that the jihadi groups can be broken by attacks from the air is not only contradicted by the experience of the last year in Syria and Iraq. It is also disproved by everything we saw during the war in Afghanistan. After the official withdrawal of western troops the Taliban are now stronger than ever—but life for the majority of the population has not improved, and even elementary democratic rights have not been secured.

In the wake of the US air war, other countries are threatening to carry out targeted assassinations. The British government has already murdered two men of British origin in Syria with a drone attack.

5) Islamic State profits from western intervention

The military intervention of the US government has failed, even by its own measures.

After the beginning of the air attacks on Syria in 2014 both of the US-funded groups in the Idlib province were politically isolated and then militarily annihilated by rival jihadi militias.

The first 60 “moderate” fighters to graduate from the US-funded $500 million training scheme were crushed by the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra-Front, soon after they crossed the Syrian border in July.

The Islamic State itself is a product of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US occupiers and their British allies abducted and tortured opponents. They established a political system along sectarian and ethnic lines. The corrupt Shia elite around president Maliki systematically marginalised Sunnis and strengthened their own rule with methods that are not inferior to Saddam’s old regime.

In this climate the forerunner of Islamic State, Al-Qaida in Iraq, was able to frame the war against the occupier as a war against all Shia.

The Islamic State is only superficially a religious organisation. It is a haven for many ex-officers of Saddam’s regime, which was ostensibly secular. What holds the Islamic State together is a hatred of all non-Sunnis, especially the Shia.

Today Baghdad is a city in which high walls separate the Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods.

The US-led bombing campaign against Islamic State, which is now one year old, and in which Germany participates, nurtures this politics of partition and hatred.

The bombing campaign sustains the Iraqi regime of Haidar al-Abadi, who only holds on to power through the deployment of Shia militias. These militias are supported and controlled by Iran.

Their “liberation” of areas from Islamic State has led in turn to ethnic cleansing by these Shia militias, who carry out looting, arson and the beheading of Sunni peasants.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported extensively on these crimes but the German media remain silent about them.

The continuation of the so-called War on Terror foments terrorism and strengthens those forces on both sides which incite blind hatred against other faiths.

5) Russia is no partner for peace

The politics of the Russian government is every bit as cynical as that of Washington. Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad, who have run Syria like a family business since 1970, have traditionally had close relations with Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not change this. Before the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 the Syrian regime agreed an arms deal with Moscow, for a total of around 3 billion euros—a deal that will go ahead regardless of the continuing civil war. The bill will be paid by the Syrian people.

The Russian state has a marine base in Syria, at Tartus. After the Syrian regime lost territory in the north west this year, near to Tartus, Putin decided to bring into the country not only additional military equipment but also Russian soldiers.

This is a military intervention, which will bring just as little peace as that led by the US. It is aimed at the stabilisation of the Assad regime. The immediate military opponent of the Russian troops in the North West is not Islamic State, which is concentrated much further to the East.

According to press reports in late September Putin intends to propose a major “anti-terror alliance” before the UN General Assembly. The world-powers in the UN Security Council and the regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would join forces against the IS fighters.

Even the former inspector general of the Bundeswehr, Harald Kujat, spoke in favour of an alliance with Russia. The argument is that this is the only way to end the Syrian civil war.

But we have been here before. In 1991 Iraq was on the receiving end of a similar alliance of the great powers. A military intervention was voted on at the UN, with the backing of almost every power in the world—against Saddam’s Hussain’s regime in Iraq.

This approach offered, and offers, no hope of success—neither for peace nor for democracy or social justice in the region.

If today it should also come to a joint intervention of world and regional super powers in Syria, it may very well result in a “solution” that partitions the country—perhaps with a zone controlled by the Assad regime in the south and west, a Turkish dominated zone in the north, and the remaining parts of the east in the hands of Islamic State.

The open intervention of rival great powers would generalise the war and cost many innocent lives.

It would be a solution that would leave no political space for democratic movements. It would also be tantamount to the liquidation of Kurdish autonomy.

6) Germany must withdraw its support from the “War on Terror”

The German government supports the US-led intervention. It has supplied tonnes of weapons to the corrupt Kurdish regional government in Iraq and to its armed forces, the Peshmerga.

Now the defence minister Ursula von der Leyen is talking about increasing support to the central government in Baghdad itself. It has already supplied the regime there with old military equipment from the GDR.

To justify this she has spoken in several interviews about the “success” of the fight against IS. She fails to mention that it was not the Peshmerga who saved the Yazidis but the PKK and its allies—who are (now as then) banned in Germany.

She also neglects to mention that after the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul in 2014. It fled in panic a second time in the face of the enemy—in Ramadi, in the spring of 2015. She is silent about the racist and deeply corrupt character of the regime in Baghdad.

She also denies contact with the vice-premier of the Kurdish regional government, Qubad Talabani, after the Hamburg prosecutor had initiated proceedings against him.

The German government aims to use the conflict in the Middle East to ensure that it benefits as an arms exporter, that its capacity for military interventions is increased and that it develops a leading role through diplomatic initiatives.
These things do not stand in opposition to each other. Rather, they serve a long-term endeavour—to manoeuvre into the slipstream of the US and attain a global prestige.

Roderich Kiesewetter, chairman of the CDU parliamentary group on foreign affairs, underlined this in the following words: “We will only get political results when we speak the language of the region—that is to say military means alongside diplomatic initiatives.”

Kiesewetter demanded the deployment of German Tornado aircraft. That is nothing other than a demand for an active participation in the US-led aerial bombardment.

It is the task of the left to oppose the arguments of von der Leyen, Steinmeier, Kujat and Kiesewetter.

We must increase the pressure for a withdrawal of Germany from the war. This would contribute to an international de-escalation—and also reduce the risk of attacks in Germany.

7) Iraq and Syria: resistance from below remains the key

Syria and Iraq were, like many other countries of the Arabic speaking world, caught up in a revolutionary wave in 2011.

In a land such as Syria, in which state surveillance penetrated every nook and cranny of society, millions of people nevertheless rose up—and filled the streets with demonstrations each Friday evening in almost every town and city.

The regime responded with brutal violence, deploying tanks and snipers. This drove thousands of soldiers to desert. From this mass desertion local armed groups emerged, which came together under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, around the country a network of local coordinating committees was set up that pushed the movement forward. Countless groups and free media outlets affiliated to them.

In 2012 the grip of the Assad regime crumbled in many cities. In place of the old state power, communal council structures were created in many places.

The Assad regime also collapsed in the Kurdish areas. Here the PKK-linked PYD rapidly gained influence.

Despite the US occupation, which lasted until the end of 2011, Iraq also saw a mass movement of a similar character to that in Syria—demanding democratisation, social improvements and an end to corruption.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis participated in sit-ins and blockades of American bases. Demonstrators threw their shoes at low-flying helicopters.

In Mosul in the summer of 2011 there was even a general strike. Just as in Syria they demanded the overthrow of the regime.
After then Iraqi prime minister Maliki met Syrian business people to discuss joint work, the Iraqi movement responded in September 2011 with actions in solidarity with the Syrian revolution.

By acting together with sectarian forces the rulers in Iraq and Syria were able to drive back the revolutionary movement.

Today the population of both countries are suffering a bloody civil war that has destroyed entire cities and communities, and that has forced millions of people to flee.

However, there are still people and actions in both countries to whom Die Linke can relate politically.

In the summer of 2015, in the shadow of the civil war, a mass movement developed in Basra that touched all the big towns in the area controlled by the central government—including Baghdad.

The demands of the movement were at first focussed on the incapability of the regime to provide electricity and other basic needs, but also against the murderous repressions meted out to activists.

But the demands then generalised. As the movement brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets, it directed its ire at the entire corrupt regime of the new president, Haidar al-Abadi.

In Syria, on the weekend after the start of the US bombing in September 2014, there were demonstrations in Aleppo and other cities against the bombing—and against Islamic State.

In al-Suwayda, a Druze city south of Damascus that is still today a relatively quiet place, crowds repeatedly demonstrated—against the corrupt authorities and the regular power cuts. The protests culminated in the felling of a statue of Hafiz al-Assad, father of the current president.

In addition to the liberation of the Kurdish region and the Arab areas in the north and around the capital city, the Syrian revolution has also spawned a variety of tendencies and organisations that continue their work in the country and the diaspora.

The repression carried out by the regime and the intervention of regional powers (above all the Gulf states and Iran) have stifled the revolutionary movement.

Nonetheless, it is the forces at the bottom of society, and not the top, that a left-wing politics must orientate on.
Ultimately it is only a revival of the democratic mass movements in the region that can offer a way towards peace and social justice.


There are no easy solutions to tackle the problems in the Middle East. But we can formulate some basic points that can guide the policies of the Left:

i) Refugees

The refugees’ escape routes must be legalised. This is the only way that the illegal activity of the smugglers can be stopped. Massive funds must be made available to support the UNHCR in its work.

ii) The air war

Germany must withdraw from the supposed “anti-terror coalition” and cease its support for the regime in Baghdad. The silence over the role of this regime must be broken, as must the silence about the victims of the aerial bombardment.

iii) Kurdistan

The German government must exert pressure on Turkey to stop the bombing of Kurdish targets. Any support of the Turkish government through arms sales or cooperation with their military, secret services and police, must cease. The ban on the PKK must be lifted.

iv) Weapons exports

Germany must halt all deliveries of weapons to the region in conflict. It must cease all joint work with the military and police of the rich Gulf states, and it must speak out over the bombing and occupation of Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.