WITH AN ABRACADABRA AND HEY PRESTO, DATELINE LONDON BBC’S CURRENT AFFAIRS PROGRAM MAKES ROJAVA, THE YPG, THE YPJ, THE SDF AND THE SDC AND THEIR ALLIES DISAPPEAR INTO A VACUUM.
By Stephen Becker
Original post can be found on Leeds Friends of Rojava facebook page.
Dateline London has a strap line ‘Foreign correspondents based in London give an outsider’s view of events in the UK’ but recently the program asked outsiders to discuss Trump, Burma and Syria. It turned out to be a shoddy affair with none of the outsiders having any real idea of the concrete situation in the Middle East. It obscured more than it elucidated.
Simon Leys demonstrated that the BBC obviously did not run to an accurate briefing before he took to the air. After a piece where he referred to the situation in Burma as ‘bordering on genocide’, the anchor of Dateline London ‘turned to a subject which has dropped out of the headlines’, Syria and Iraq. Referring to this ‘important on-going story’ or ‘saga’, the temporally challenged Leys categorised the ‘fightback’ against the movement which calls itself the Islamic State as ‘going on for more than a year’.
He stated that the Governments of Iraq and Syria were both claiming to have wrested territory from ISIS, before turning to the studio guests to provide expert commentary. In his opening remarks, Leys had asked ‘How’s the fight really going?’.
Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese journalist, Vincent Magombe, Director of the African Journalists Network and Bronwen Maddox of the think-tank the Institute for Government, have no track record in reporting the Middle East. The fourth journo was Michael Goldfarb. He covered the Iraq War as an independent reporter in Iraqi Kurdistan. You would have thought he would have known a modicum about Syria or Iraq but he too demonstrated an incoherent and sketchy understanding of the current situation.
Leys indicated that ISIS is losing territory and the Governments of Syria and Iraq are reclaiming it. He turns to Malik. ‘Nesrine. Its a process you’ve been watching closely for many months now. How do we know whether its working and at what price is this war being waged?’
Ms Malik informed us among other things that ISIS had lost two big cities in Syria and Iraq. Mosul was one. ‘Raqqa is under siege at the moment’ she said, and with considerable but non-specific insight announced that there was to be an ‘upcoming huge battle in a town in Iraq’, the name of which she did not divulge.
She had two points to make. The first was that the end of the Daesh flagship capital meant ‘a vacuum is being created now that ISIS has gone’ ,
Shaun interjected to emphatically agree that ‘Vacuums are dangerous things’.
The second strange point was a bemusing non-sequitor that ‘most of these Hinterlands are so ungovernable that ISIS leaving a city or a town does not mean that pockets of them don’t exist’. She had spoken about atrocities that ISIS continued to inflict, despite the fact that they were facing defeat.
Nesrine Malik was unafraid of enunciating even sloppier statements. She then went back to a second second point. The new second point – really probably the third point – was that ‘There are now three parties. The US, America and Arab League sort of soldiers’ (sic) causing casualties.
Whilst accepting that she probably didn’t mean to confuse the US and Americans as separate entities, there really is no excuse for the reference to ‘Arab League sort of soldiers’. It was an excruciating moment.
A cursory examination of the role of the Arab League demonstrates its marginal importance and real impotence as an organisation, since it in fact has no military capacity.
The Arab League suspended Syrian membership in 2011 because of Assad’s killing of demonstrators, and its Peace initiatives floundered the same year. Its monitoring mission in Syria was described as a ‘farce’ and was suspended in 2012. The Egypt Summit in 2015 agreed in principle that the AL form a military force but to date that has not materialised. In March this year, the AL could do little more than lamely ‘urge Arab Governments to do more to resolve the conflict in Syria’.
So there never have been and are currently no Arab League forces in Syria because Arab League troops are only a figment in Ms Malik’s imagination and as an entity, were hesitantly plucked out of thin air, as she struggled to identify just who the chief fighting forces in Syria actually were.
It was just a straightforward exposure of ignorance. More rigour, and less blather please Ms Malik.
Later on in the program Bronwen Maddox agreed. ‘There is this vacuum’.
Shaun turns to Goldfarb . ‘This raises the question, Michael, what the strategy is?’
Michael was not sure if there was a strategy. At the military level he noted that there is the ‘degradation of ISIS’ and ‘at the other end we have…of what we used to call the chaos of the great powers. Russia’s involved. America’s involved. Turkey which is a NATO ally. This week it was announced they are buying Russian high-tech computers and military equipment. So whose…Where is the organisation at the top. No organisation at the top and at the bottom, there are people, who are, I mean the fighting goes on there as before, except that ISIS is being pushed out and it’s just bleeding away into other places and can as Nesrine mentioned it can jump on any pilgrimage site in the Shia heart of Iraq, if it wants to, but can it rule anything, can it make inroads anywhere, can it send forth, they’re claiming this idiot bombing yesterday in London…’ and at that point Shaun Leys excitedly jumps in to continue a point about ISIS claiming responsibility for bombings which is then echoed by Maddox.
Nobody seemed to have noticed that Michael was blathering and had just gone off-piste. Left for another 30 seconds, he would have been analysing pension plans.
Maddox having joined in with the off-piste party went back to the problem of ‘the vacuum’, and whether the Shia crescent from Iran to Lebanon will be established. She says that ‘there’s a bit more space for that kind of thing’ (my emphasis). Does ‘that kind of thing’ inspire confidence and imply any erudition?
Vincent Magombe, having pointed out the mess following the invasion of Iraq and Libya asks, ‘Have you heard anybody, whether the UN, America or Britain or others, talking about what they’re planning for Syria for after? After mentioning the invasion of Iraq as the cause of the chaos in the region, Vincent wants to know what the post ISIS plan is.
Malik comes back with, ‘The problems with a country like Iraq and Syria is that Kurds, Shiites, Sunni, Pershmarga and all these disparate groups, and in Syria as well…with all the different tribes, ethnicities and minorities, Alawites etc, have all been pushed under the surface by long standing dictators and that’s how we got into the situation in the first place. We didn’t get into this situation because America invaded Iraq. We got in this situation because Saddam Hussein has inflicted an artificial uniformity on Iraq for decades as Bashar Assad is doing now’.
Buried inside is an exoneration of the US. However, the point of a suppressed polyethnicity is valid.
And they continue in this fashion until Vincent says, ‘the bottom line is about democracy’…’and if the foundation are to do with the lack of democracy…look at the Russians. While I condemn the West in their approaches…The Russians as well. Let’s have this Syrian man. He has to be there. But he’s not a democrat. In the first place that’s why his people were trying to agitate for some rights. So unless we try and ask these people…we won’t get that answer. It’s a mess’.
And so, the concluding ‘it’s a mess’, not only applies to the situation in Syria and Iraq, it also summed up the studio conversation. Other points were made by the four experts but the short transcripts indicate the incoherence of thought, the knight’s move thinking, the pitiful state of analysis and dreary arguments, bluffing and hazy evasiveness. All of these pointing to lack of grasp of the subject at hand.
The most obvious and glaring omission made in the program was the complete failure to mention the establishment of the Federation of Northern Syria formerly known as Rojava, the fight by the forces of the YPG and YPJ against the Caliphate, and the establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Democratic Council. These political and military organisation, have combined all the ethnic minorities of the region in a remarkable and tenacious fight against ISIS, whilst creating Confederal stateless grass roots democracies throughout eastern Syria.
The participants in Deadline London either through ignorance or deliberate omission, magicked this momentous political movement into the vacuum.
It is to be acknowledged that the current conflict in the Middle East is complex and thus it was shameful for the BBC not to have assembled real experts, of which there are a considerable number. Commentator who have an in-depth understanding of what actually is going on in Iraq and Syria. Instead they assembled people with a wafer-thin comprehension.
Before going back to ‘the vacuum’, it is perhaps looking at some of the more illustrious statements made by the panel and add some brief comments.
ISIS is indeed losing ground and its military capacity is being degraded. In 2014, Daesh exploded across Iraq and Syria thanks to the disintegration of the Iraqi Army before a tiny handful of ISIS fighters. Assad aided this by releasing imprisoned Salafists from his gaols. The Caliphate spread quickly into northern Syria and reached the Turkish border before meeting their match in the Kurdish population of Rojava. The forces of Rojava, made up of Kurds and other ethnic minorities and with support of US air power began the fightback three years ago. Not ‘just over a year ago’. The major force in the fight against ISIS were the militias of the YPG and YPJ of Rojava. They clawed back territory from the Caliphate whilst Assad was crushing the democratic uprising against his sectarian and despotic rule. And then the forces of the SDF were responsible for chasing ISIS and displace them from Taqba and now Raqqa and Deir ez Zor provinces. And this was done despite the assistance of Turkey for Daesh. Only of late has Assad aided by the Iranian PMU militias, Hezbollah and Russian firepower been able to make advances against Daesh and in doing so is re-establishing his dictatorship over the Syrian people.
When Michael Goldfarb was asked the nonsensical question of what the strategy was, he might have asked Shaun, ‘Whose strategy?’. This would have made more sense than his answer.
There are in fact numerous strategies in play depending on the protagonist. The problem is that the strategies are at once conflicting and sometimes tactically contingent and are placed within a complex geopolitics.
To name but a few of the strategies.
America wants an end to ISIS whose spread was a result of its stratospheric and catastrophic failure in invading Iraq. Assad wants the whole of Syria back. Russia’s support of Syria seeks to halt the erosion of its geopolitical influence. Turkey wants to continue its genocidal policy towards the Kurds and says it will not tolerate the continued existence of Rojava. The Gulf states want Assad out. The KRG which is in the pocket of Turkey seeks an independent state. Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the US oppose a Kurdish secession from Iraq while Russia remains silent on the issue. The Syrian Kurds and the Syrian National Council seek a non-separatist Confederal solution.
And to answer Vincent’s ‘Have you heard anybody, whether the UN, America or Britain or others, talking about what they’re planning for Syria for after? It was not apparent if he knew about the peace initiatives.
There have been initiatives from the Great Powers to broker a peace. As the various forces battle on the ground, the Geneva and Astana Peace Initiatives are proving to be ineffective. Virtually every player in the Syrian Civil War political and ideological spectrum, whether they have set foot in the country or not have been invited. The Rojavan Kurds, however, have not been asked to either and the SNC, though invited, will not take a seat if the PYD/Northern Democratic Federation is excluded. Rojava and the SDC/SDF have never been afforded political recognition by the US despite their military collaboration and the gigantic sacrifice of the Kurds and their allies. Thus there is a political impasse.
The conflicting strategies, the peace initiative quagmired and no obvious timescale to the complete eradication of Daesh makes for post ISIS planning impossible for most of the sides.
An Endgame of sorts might be approaching in Syria. The Russian/Assad bloc has found second wind. The American/SDF forces who are close to defeating ISIS have taken Raqqa. The two sides now face one another across the Euphrates river. There have already been clashes and warnings issued on either side. The emboldened Assad regime has recently announced its intention to spread its military campaign to include the encircled regime-held enclave in Al-Hassakah. This is a confounding factor. The truth of the stated threat will only be known if it really does materialise in October. It would represent the first regime action to threaten Rojava. It would bring Russia and the US into direct conflict and could force a negotiation.
A prediction is doubly difficult because of the rapidly changing situation and unexpected turns in events. There are players also who have yet to play their hand. There are recently developing events that have yet to unfold.
Finally, the question of the ‘vacuum’ needs to be examined.
The protagonists brought up the question of democracy, colonial legacy, ungovernability but out of ignorance or omission could not see the elephant in the room – the unspeakable truth of the success and promise of Democratic Federalism in Syria.
Following the First World War, the imperialistic division of territory between Britain and France, sanctified by the Sykes-Picott Agreement, the adjustments enshrined in the Cairo Conference and Treaty of Lausanne, created the modern Middle East. Artificially lumping peoples together into multi-ethnic states ruled by despotic central authorities, accepting genocidal policy and suppressing diversity, expunging the language and culture of minorities to established a bleak norm. These mores were accepted by the post-colonial regimes and formed the basis of racist homogenising policies, discriminatory behaviour and cycles of resistance and repression.
During the course of the Damascus Spring in 2011, Kurdish region of Northern Syria, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) embarked upon a Third Way. The Assad regime, was opposed by a popular grass roots democratic movement throughout the country, and central government had lost credibility and was just clinging to power.
The conventional description of a political vacuum refers to the loss of centralised political and state power within a geographical area. Implied within this definition is the idea that it is a bad thing, and there are indeed many negative historical examples.
Within the context of Syria, however, the power vacuum allowed the flourishing of a sensational democratic movement throughout the country. Assad was out and in came widespread political debate in local councils, citizens initiatives, a flourishing independent press, radio stations, artistic expression, women’s movements and resistance to the repression of the Ba’ath Party. So this vacuum allowed a progressive democratic movement to explode. The response to the fledgling democracy was brutality. In response to the Assad-regime’s repression there followed the phases of militarisation of the conflict, the arming of the Salafists, the spread of ISIS, the entry of the world and regional ‘players’. And, tragically, the crushing of a huge progressive movement that had flourished within the vacuum.
The Kurdish Third Way envisaged a different solution. They did not side with either the current regime or an opposition which waived democratic and liberationist principles. The PYD envisioned a decentralised federal structure for Syria and put forward the guiding principle of Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy as a strategy.
Once again, exploiting the vacuum, left by the retreat of the Ba’athists, the people of Rojava built a polyethnic, direct grassroots democracy which championed women’s rights and respected people’s of all creeds. The popular militias of the People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units launched a formidable counter-offensive against the invasion of Daesh and have been the most effective and successful combatants against it.
Rojava declared its de facto autonomy in 2012. It is not officially recognized as a political entity by the government of Syria or any international state or organization. Not even the United States. Within the Syrian opposition, there are attitudes ranging from suspicion to out-and-out hostility up to and including military attacks on its territory.
Nesrine Malik clearly asserted that in the wake of the defeat of ISIS there is nothing to replace it in these ‘ungovernable’ areas. She klaxoned her ignorance and there were no correctives from anyone else in the studio.
Rojava had spectacular local successes. Rojava had clearly proved that Kurds, Arabs Syriac-Assyrian, Armenians, Circassians, Chechen and Turkmen can co-habit. It has made plain that religions can be respected without sectarianism. It is showing that ordinary people can administer their lives without resort to a dirigist state. And the revolutionary process has demonstrated the leading role that women have taken in forging this new polity.
From the original three Cantons of Jazira, Kobane and Afrin, there has been a gradual accretion of Confederal Democracy throughout northern and eastern Syria. The Manbij and Shabba regions have joined the Rojava experiment, as have the Yazidis.
As the Syrian Democratic Forces chased ISIS from its territories, the Caliphate was replaced by local self-governing communities facilitated by the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).
The SDC has been in active discussion and dialogue for years with sympathetic political organisation, community and tribal leaders, women’s organisation, youth groups and the population of villages and town. The SDC political initiatives and the promulgation of the principles of autonomy and confederalism has been successful in bringing rationality and peace to the region formerly under the control of the Salifist Caliphate.
Weeks and months of work went into shaping the post-Isis administration in various towns and localities to ensure everyone was on board. As an example, discussions have been taking place over the future complexion of Raqqa for the past nine months now. Malik was oblivious to this monumental work.
Everywhere the SDF has routed ISIS, there has been the immediate seamless implementation of self-governing civil administrations. The ungovernable are governing themselves. The vacuum is non-existent and in the wake of ISIS has come a flask full to the brim of Democratic Confederalism. It was unfortunate that none of the experts had even a rudimentary grasp of this process.
Being invited onto a current affairs program to just wing it and showing no evidence of even having boned up on the subject is a poor do. The BBC obviously thought it was acceptable to ask these amateurs to the table instead of real experts with real knowledge. Why did we have to suffer a stumbling wafer thin comprehension of the legacy of historical events, current events and an adolescent understanding of the actualities on the ground? Why didn’t Shaun Ley do some background? Why was the role of the forces of Rojava and the SDF studiously ignored?
The bottom line is that you have to agree with the panel that there was a vacuum. But it was not in Syria. The vacuum was actually in the Dateline Studio. It’s unfortunate that we have to suffer ‘this sort of thing’