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Chris rejects Michael Probsting’s description of Idlib (actually
‘Greater Idlib, which includes northern Hama, southern and western
Aleppo, and part of northern Latakia) as "the last remaining liberated
area", because “the Turkish army has bases in Idlib, and much of the
province is controlled by groups which are Turkish proxies.”

Yet in his latest response, Chris rejects Michael’s description of
northeastern Syria as “occupied by the US,” because, according to
Chris, “If the presence of some foreign troops in an area amounts to
"occupation", then Idlib is occupied by Turkey (something that RKOB
has denied).” But Chris refers to “the Turkish occupation of Idlib.”

So I am confused. Either both Greater Idlib and Greater Rojava (ie,
including Raqqa etc) are occupied, or both are liberated, with “some
foreign troops.”

To clarify, I think we all agree that Afrin is under Turkish
occupation. As for the northern Aleppo border region between Azaz and
Jarablus via al-Bab, there is a kind of Turkish occupation, but one
which appears to be overwhelmingly, if often grudgingly, supported by
the local Arab and Turkmen population of that region.

But in Idlib we are only talking about a few Turkish observation
posts, which are there to prevent the rebels going on the offensive
against Assad, and in theory to prevent Assad from going on the
offensive against the rebels (which of course does not work). In no
sense is Idlib itself under “Turkish occupation.”

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to also describe Rojava as under US
occupation; as in Idlib and even northern Aleppo, the forces on the
ground (the SDF) run their show. But there are a lot more than “some
foreign troops.” According to this map
(https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DcR-QszW4AAe6hP.jpg), there are 11 US
military bases in SDF-controlled Greater Rojava (and one French base),
while of course there are zero US bases in any of the areas controlled
(or that were ever controlled) by the Syrian rebels, who many liked to
slander as “US proxies” (while usually giving a pass to the
YPG/SDF!!). There are known to be some 2000 US troops in Rojava.

Seems to me that makes Greater Rojava every bit as “occupied” as the
Azaz-Jarablus stretch is by Turkey; neither are fully occupied in the
Afrin sense; and both a lot more so than Greater Idlib, which is
indeed the only remaining fully free territory.

And when discussing “occupation”, we always need to keep in mind that
the part of Syria most fully under foreign imperialist and regional
reactionary occupation is the part controlled by the Assad regime,
which is so entirely dependent for its survival on Russian imperialism
and Iran that it is essentially a satrapy.

Separate to the question of “occupation” or otherwise, it is correct
to describe Greater Idlib as liberated territory. Revolution and
liberation are not concepts that can be measured simply by a
description of the political orientation of the armed groups present.
If the entire conflict were just between the Assad regime and various
“armed groups”, such groups would have been crushed years ago, given
their pathetic level of armament in the face of a massively armed
dictatorship with the full backing of a superpower and a major
regional power.

The armed groups, whether we are talking about the FSA, Islamists,
even HTS, and whatever degree some may be collaborating with Turkey or
even “proxified” or otherwise, do not determine the state of the
region. Countless articles, studies, research, for anybody interested
in reading (and a warning, this does require going beyond the Apoist
media outlets) have described the people’s movements, their continued
resistance, to HTS’s anti-democratic encroachments, and also to other
brigades often enough. Revolutionary councils, LCCs, civil
organisations etc that continue to act in
as-democratic-a-fashion-as-possible given the atmosphere of years of
Assad siege and bombardment, including free elections etc.

The presence of the armed groups is part of the defence of this little
piece of freedom the people have cut out from the horrific regime;
many are simply the neighbours and family members of civil
oppositionists and ordinary civilians; the groups are thus unable to
fully impose the level of repression some may want to (especially
HTS); yet at the same time, the long-term military presence does lead
to extensive violations, to many of these groups being only an
imperfect, at best, armed representation of the revolutionary masses.

I must say I’ve been stunned over the years when everyone wants to
know if there are any “left-wing” armed groups, as if that is the
measure of whether or not there is some kind of revolution, or at
least how strong the “secular” forces etc are. Certainly, politics is
important – the ultimate failure of the revolution has political as
well as military dimensions, of course – however, that does not
determine whether or not there is a revolutionary situation. The
masses in revolt for basic democratic rights is what is at the base of
all the armed groups, even, in a highly distorted way, among the rank
and file of HTS. That at least is the materialist way of looking at
the issue.

Without wanting to engage in self-promotion, I attempted to grapple
with these issues in my article Ghouta: Key Issues behind the
apocalypse: Armed and Civil Uprising, Class and Islam. The same can be
applied to Idlib. There are countless excellent articles out there,
for anyone who wants to read beyond the “Assad versus jihadis”
simpleton universe, maybe I could compile a reading list.

Now, all that said, what of the armed groups. I find on this question
I disagree somewhat with both Chris and Michael. Both appear to
consider the bulk of non-HTS rebel formations in the northwest as
irredeemable “Turkish proxies”. I’ll return to this.

They disagree on HTS: Chris considers it to be a reactionary
anti-democratic group whose politics are at odds with the 2011
revolution; I agree with this description in general, but with the
nuance I already spoke of above; for Chris, this labelling appears to
justify the idea that the heroic YPG should consider traversing Syria
from east to west, which would mean passing through Assad territory,
in order to attack Idlib it liberate it from both HTS and from the
“Turkish proxies” (and only regrets that this is not feasible at
present); in fact, while Chris denies that the YPG is considering
doing this together with Assad, what he writes suggests that would be
merely a tactical question! Get this Chris (and Nick): if the YPG ever
did carry out such an abomination, then Louis Bander analogy would be
entirely justified.

In contrast, Michael sees HTS as supportable not only against Assad
(with which I agree) but also against the “Turkish proxies”, which are
essentially just creatures of the Astana sell-out. What’s more, he
says that due to their different relations with US imperialism (the
YPG tightly allied with it, HTS an enemy which has been bombed for
years by it), that the YPG must be considered a reactionary force in
comparison with the YPG.

While having opposite views on HTS, both therefore think that the
defeat of the “Turkish proxies” by either HTS or YPG would be a
justifiable thing, despite whatever tactical considerations there may

Like both comrades, I vigorously condemned the Turkish invasion of
Afrin, and especially the participation in it by numerous rebel
brigades from northern Aleppo. In general, I have no objection to
using the term Turkish proxies for those brigades who directly took
part. However, once again I would draw comrades’ attention to the
nature of rebel brigade activity in Syria, and to materialist
realities. And this applies both to HTS and to the Turkish aligned
groups. It is also important to remember that not every FSA/rebel
group in the region did participate in the Afrin operation; for
example, the large FSA front in Idlib, Jaysh al-Issa, had no presence
in northern Aleppo; and also, by the way, has been anti-Astana, has
maintained the fight against Assad, and at times it was only HTS and
FSA Jaysh al-Issa – ideological opposites – on the front lines against
Assad while Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham stood on the sidelines,
over the last year or so.

 Chris says “The "Turkish-backed militants" are proxy groups which
were used as auxiliaries in Turkey's invasion of Afrin - groups such
as Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham.”

Here is the problem. Not only are there different FSA groups in
northern Aleppo and in Idlib; but even those in Idlib who are part of
a “franchise” brigade whose north Aleppo chapter did take part, such
as those Chris mentions here, cannot be classified as “proxies” in the
same way. There is a highly localised reality to the Syrian horror;
when a person chooses to join Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib, that person does
not fill out a form pledging full ideological agreement, let alone
agreement with the political choices made by Ahrar in another
province; rather, the factors include access to arms, access to some
funds to help feed a family, who happens to be powerful in the
locality, traditional family connections etc. When you are bombed
every day and the threat of a regime returning which used to kidnap,
torture and disappear your children hovers over, you do not decide who
to join based on agreement with the invasion of Afrin in another
province or on agreement with jihadist ideologies.

Again – all this applies equally to “jihadist” HTS and “Turkish proxy”
Ahrar al-Sham and also to “pure as snow” (not) FSA groups.

That is why I disagree with Michael’s and RCIT’s view of the HTS v
other rebels conflict in Idlib. On one hand, I agree that the brigades
that have a closer relationship with Turkey – especially Ahrar – have
been sucked into the Astana process, and HTS is correct in rejecting
it. However, not every conflict on the ground can be squeezed into
that issue, no matter how important. This would be the correct stand
if there were a Turkey-inspired attack on HTS positions by the
Turkish-backed rebels as part of the Astana agreement, under Russian
pressure, to force a surrender, and did not correspond to any other
issues on the ground.

However, the reality is much more complex. Seems to me the rebel
brigades will aim to hold onto Idlib, no matter what decisions are
made over their heads, because the people of Idlib are their brothers
and sisters. I’m not sure how they can be fully utilised to force a
full surrender. In any case, the conflict early last year was actually
initiated by HTS. HTS has long had a hegemonic attitude to other
groups, long before the Astana process; and it has also long been
responsible for the largest amount of (and worst) rebel violations and
repression. There ahs been constant resistance to HTS from the
revolutionary councils and civil organisations, which has nothing to
do with the Astana process.

Now, during the last conflict earlier this year, people drove HTS out
of 30-40 towns; there were many cases of people rising up to evict HTS
as the other rebels (led by Ahrar) approached. I know that in some
cases there was the opposite too though. And other cases where people
in towns demonstrated for both sides to stop the fighting, to unite
against the regime; and other cases where town councils demanded that
both groups of fighters do as they please to each other but neither
were wanted inside the town borders.

We also need to be careful to not use the same methods as the bogus
“anti-imperialist” left when analysing issues such as who is “most
reactionary.” I think Michael’s statement that the PYD is more
reactionary than HTS due to their different relations with US
imperialism borders on this same methodology; “anti-imperialism”
considers regimes like that of Assad or Khameini to be “less
reactionary” than those of the Gulf or Egypt due to allegedly being
“anti-imperialist” etc (not that that makes sense, with the Egyptian
regime fully backing Assad, and of course with the US/Iran-backed
Iraqi regime, the “anti-imps” are in a real quandry). No, the measure
must remain their actions in relation to the masses, and, with all my
criticisms of PYD policy, the fact that it is far more progressive on
the ground than HTS is simply undeniable reality; night and day.

However, that “on the ground” depends a lot on where – is it where the
YPG/SDF has a natural base (above all Kurdish regions) or not. Where
they are conquering and expelling people, those uprooted are unlikely
to go around exclaiming how brilliant their policy is regarding
women’s emancipation or local council democracy.

Thus, here’s the thing: if the rebel groups that took part in the
Afrin operation alongside Turkey are forever irredeemable “proxies” as
a result, even their chapters in other provinces, then we must also
consider the PYD/YPG to be irredeemable “proxies” since they did
exactly the same in revers 2 years earlier, when the Afrin YPG
attacked Arab-majority, rebel-controlled Tal Rifaat and northern
Aleppo region with the direct support of the imperialist and murderous
Russian airforce. They seized this region and expelled the population.
*Many of the rank and file cadres* who took part in the invasion of
Afrin were refugees from that YPG operation, and they saw their
participation either as revenge or as taking back. Of course they were
deluded -the really odd thing is that while Kurdish Afrin is now under
the control of Turkish-backed Arab rebel brigades, the Tal Rifaat
region is still under YPG control!!

Neither the YPG, nor the FSA, nor Islamists, whether Turkish-backed or
not, nor HTS, are angels nor demons, none are fully free from
significant foreign influence – that is the Syrian reality – and none
a full “proxies.”

I’ll leave off with this article to help comrades think about why
people join certain brigades. Supporters of the revolution have often
had a schematic division in their minds between the “purest” – the
civil, unarmed, rebellion – through the armed but democratic/secular
(officially) FSA, through Islamists and finally onto jihadists
(Nusra/HTS). Many understood that sometimes people who should be in
the FSA ended up in an Islamist brigade or even Nusra/HTS due to
material reasons. But those who emphasised purity could say well that
is the armed rebels, so of course they also commit violations etc.
This article pulls down these barriers even further: it is the story
of how many *civil activists* in Idlib – unarmed, democratic, secular,
“modern”, whatever buzzword you want – have been joining armed groups
*including HTS* since Trump cut off all funding to the civil society
groups. Hard reality trumps romanticism:

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