An edited version of this article was first published at the New Arab.
Because the Iran Iraq war was followed by an endless succession of conflicts, we forget its foundational horror. Killing at least a million, burning entire cities, and propelling identity politics towards its current fascistic heights, it was the region’s equivalent of World War One.
Iraq started the war. Exploiting Iran’s mid-revolution weakness, Iraqi forces invaded, seeking to annex Khuzestan province. Had Saddam Hussein been a leader interested in safeguarding civil and national rights, Iranian oppression of Khuzestan’s Ahwazi Arabs might have provided justication. But Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed Iraq’s Arabs just as much, and his prime concern was the province’s oil wealth. His brutal aggression included raining poisonous gas on Iranian cities.
No-one can fault the Iranians for the passion of their response. Gulf, Western and Soviet support for Iraq’s war understandably exacerbated the Iranian sense of victimhood which persists, and clouds so many minds, until today. After a certain point, however, the Iranian war lost its defensive character. Khomeini rejected a 1982 truce offer from a chastened Saddam, determined to fight on until Iran occupied the Shia holy cities of southern Iraq. This never happened, but war conditions helped Khomeini neutralise Iran’s revolutionary energies and firmly establish his own rule. The war dragged on for another six years.
Trench warfare followed the same grim routine as it had at Flanders and the Somme. Every day hundreds of boys surged from their defenses and were cut down by enemy fire. Some accuse the Iranian regime of distributing plastic ‘keys to paradise’ for the conscripts to wear around their necks. It seems more likely that a prayer book entitled “Keys to Paradise” was handed out. Whatever the truth, the Iranian leadership’s attitude to these men’s lives was as callous as that of the aristocratic British officers who sent wave after wave of working class men ‘over the top’ to their deaths.
Last week, allies of the Assad regime recaptured Aleppo’s Artillery College and reimposed the siege on the liberated section of the city. Ferocious Russian aerial bombardment was key to the turnaround. But so too was cannon fodder organised by Iran. Whenever the Russian planes relaxed, dozens of militiamen rushed towards the Artillery College. When they arrived they were torn to bits by rebel artillery. This happened every day for a month.
Assad – or the Iranians – lost up to a thousand men, just on this front. But ‘spent’ seems a better word than ‘lost’. They seem to have an inexhaustible supply of this currency.
The cannon fodder composes Shias from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq. The Afghans are often illegal immigrants in Iran, and fight in return for Iranian citizenship, or to avoid imprisonment. Some fight to support poverty-stricken families. Many others fight because their religious passions or political fears have been manipulated. They believe they are defending shrines and crushing Sunni jihadism. Of course the opposite is true. Their presence in a Sunni-majority country, their participation in a slaughter of Sunni Arabs, fans hatred of Shia and provides an enormous boost to Sunni jihadism.
Assad controlled less than a fifth of Syria before Russia’s massive intervention. For years his army, hollowed out by defections, desertions, and high casualty rates, has been incapable of winning a battle on its own. The regime lost Aleppo’s Artillery College in the first place because it was defended by released criminals, rounded-up deserters, and boys press-ganged at checkpoints.
Today the regime’s most effective troops are sectarian and mafia forces more loyal to local warlords than to the regime itself. These are outnumbered by thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards added to tens of thousands of Iranian proxy militia. Often Syrian conscripts are commanded by Iranian officers. Sometimes (if they disobey orders, or retreat) they are executed by Iranian officers. And regime officers who resist Iranian dominance are sometimes removed or assassinated.
By now, the ‘state’ and its ‘national sovereignty’ are little more than fictions mouthed by those who desire the country’s continued subjugation.
“Syria is not for those who hold its passport or reside in it,” said Assad in July 2015. “Syria is for those who defend it.” In this way he justifies handing the country over – economically and geographically as well as politically and militarily – to murderous foreign interests.
Here Assad echoes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said, “Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.” By “all Muslims” Baghdadi means that infinitesimally tiny minority which pledges allegiance to him and his totalitarian ‘Islamic State’.
Like Baghdadi, Assad aims to rid the country of the Syrian majority which opposes him. This is why half the population is displaced, six million of them abroad. Recently the Damascus suburb Daraya (and now its neighbour Muadamiyeh) submitted after four years of starvation siege and continuous bombardment. The fighters and residents were expelled. Pictures followed of troops carrying looted furniture out of town and Iraqi militiamen performing their prayers in the ruins. Now come reports of 300 Iraqi Shia families being moved in.
Wa’er, the sole surviving ‘liberated’ area of Homs city, is likely to submit soon. So long as the Free Army’s Southern Front – pressured by the US and Jordan – continues its relative inaction, Iran and Russia will continue to consolidate in south and central Syria. This means more sectarian cleansing, perhaps an eventual partition.
Some oppositionists hold that the rebellion’s only option in these dire circumstances is to fight steadily southward from its northern base, but it doesn’t seem at all feasible that Idlibi Islamists will ever conquer Damascus. The people of the south must liberate the south. It is essential, therefore, that the Southern Front be revived, even if this means harvesting American enmity. More than that, the elite, the grassroots, and the armed oppositions must do more to adress the fears of key Syrian constituencies.
The rebel operation to liberate the Artillery College was named after Ibrahim al-Yusuf of the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed wing, who in 1979 infiltrated the college, separated Alawi from Sunni cadets, and killed the Alawis. After years of the most brutal sectarian oppression this open identification with a sectarian killer is perhaps inevitable, yet it obviously alienates Alawis and others, many of whom may hate the regime.
The current situation resembles a foreign occupation much more than a domestic repression. Despite the undeniably deep divisions between Syrians, this is no longer a civil war but a war of national liberation. The only way to prosecute it successfully is to attempt to bridge the gaps between the various constituents of the nation.
However difficult it is, necessary moves towards rebel military unity must be mirrored by Islamist and jihadist moves towards a truly national discourse. Success is prefigured in the recent message to Syrian Alawis delivered by a Free Army commander on the Hama front: “We have no hostility to you but only to the regime. Anyone who helps us or remains in his home or raises a white flag will be safe. The safety of women and children and old men is assured. We aren’t the opposition, don’t fool yourselves. The ‘opposition’ competes for seats in parliament. No, we are the revolution… and in this country it will either be the revolution or the regime.”