Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but popular revolution
This piece is cross-posted from New Left Project.
Just as the Assad regime in Syria approaches what appears to be its terminal decomposition, prominent figures on the Anglophone left are hurrying to defend it – or at least to oppose its opponents. The anti-anti-dictatorship crowd includes not only sub-Ickean conspiracists such as Michael Chossudovsky but also people one would have expected to know better, such as Tariq Ali, George Galloway and John Rees. Some of the arguments are expressed in more inflamatory style than others – such as Galloway’s claim that the Syrian uprising is a ‘massive international conspiracy’ – but they follow a similar line. This is that: the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavour of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-US (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. This externally funded rebellion represents an extension of the US imperial project launched after the 9/11 attacks, embracing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories of Syrian government atrocities in the Western media are the counterparts of the lies circulated in 2002-3 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and therefore must be discredited. The only solution to be hoped for is a negotiated peace (a prospect also raised by parts of the Syrian opposition) leaving some remnant of the Ba’ath regime in place, thereby denying the US and its co-conspirators the prize of a pliant regime on Israel’s front-line and a significant weakening of the Iranian position. These arguments are not made solely by Anglophone commentators: outside of Egypt’s revolutionary currents , they are extremely common on the Arab left. One need only glance at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar to find the Arab revolutions damned tout court as examples of “Political Sunnism.”
Is any of this true? The situation in Syria is both extremely violent and extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it. Nonetheless, information is available if one is ready to consult people within Syria or those who have reported from there recently – a step rarely taken by those proposing the anti-anti-Assad argument. Let us take the claims in turn.
‘Massive international conspiracy’?
The charges laid by, amongst others, Charles Glass and Patrick Seale, are that the Free Syrian Army is trained, funded and armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (leading to an increase in Islamist influence within its ranks) as the co-conspirators of the USA and Turkey. These arms and funds, it is claimed, are flowing largely through the contact points established between FSA-held territory and the Turkish border in the north. It is this weaponry that accounts for the recent boldness of the rebels, and the likely demise of the current regime will be a victory for the suppliers of this ordinance and not the Syrian people.
There are elements of truth to this story. It is no secret that the US, and its more vociferous junior imperial partner, wants rid of Assad and in this aim they are joined by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the GCC more generally. The Saudis and Qataris are providing money, and in some cases materiel, to those bits of the FSA of which they approve. Nor is it any revelation that Western (and Turkish) agencies are attempting to broker the flow of these resources into the country and thereby exercise influence over the revolutionary situation. In any revolution, anywhere, now or in the future, outside powers will try to do this. Where this line of argument goes very wrong is in claiming that the Syrian revolution, as a result of these attempts, now consists of ‘sundry’ elements working for Western intelligence agencies and abetting the recolonisation of the country.
First, the weaponry and funding in question is not very much, and not for everyone. One can spot images of FSA anti-aircraft guns or cannon but very rarely. These are also most likely to have been taken with defectors of the defeat of a regime garrison. The regime’s advantage in airpower and ground armour is overwhelming: the FSA’s resources bear no comparison. One would expect a massive international conspiracy worth its salt to furnish its fifth column with some serious anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Such munitions are not evident. Most of the FSA’s light arms seem to come from the Syrian army itself, through defection or purchase with money from Syrian exile businessmen in the Gulf. Here is an example of FSA members having taken Rastan in July, disabling at least two armoured vehicles visible in the video.
The regime armour appears to have been hit improvised bombs, as described in other reports. The fighters have kalashnikovs and body armour but no heavy weaponry and certainly no mortars or rocket batteries. An example of the motivations and desires of FSA fighters is given in this video
Defecting out of horror at the regime’s repression, these men seem desperate for weaponry and support from outside. The provision of such support, especially were it to entail Western air superiority, would indeed endanger the autonomy of the revolution – but the fact they are asking for it indicates that the conspiracy is perhaps not so massive or effective after all. If you were comprehensively funding and arming a rebel force to topple your well-armed enemy, would you leave its fighters to rely on the goodwill of local villagers for food?
Belief in a massive international conspiracy, rather than a popular revolution, also forestalls understanding of why Assad’s forces are doing so badly. The Syrian army numbers about 300,000 and it is an actual army, not a group of men in the woods. Yet it cannot be used, because most of the soldiers are unreliable. The core shock troops – their loyalty solidified by sectarian or clan identity- can be sent to dispatch the FSA forces, but governing the subdued areas is almost impossible, as the regular troops are likely either to defect or simply not to do their duty. This form of rebellion should also be counted part of a revolutionary process that has been going on since March 2011. The defection of Manaf Tlass and Riad Hijab and the bomb attack killing several high-ranking security officers indicates that the rot has set in even at the core of the regime.
Morphed into civil war?
Yet, are these not simply maneouvres in a civil war, the form into which the Syrian revolution has now ‘morphed’ ? Denunciations of the ‘militarization’ of the Syrian revolution, and calls simply to stop the violence, come long and hard from certain quarters of the Western left. And indeed, the economic power of the working class (at best only scantily visible in the Syrian revolution) provides a firmer basis for revolutionary strategy than solely armed contest with the state. There is no doubt that what Syria is now undergoing is a civil war, albeit one in which the dynamics of a revolutionary process are still present. Nor is the military strategy of the FSA uncontested within the ranks of the opposition themselves. However, absent in the jeremiads against the Syrian revolutionaries for their resort to arms is any understanding of the origins of this development. The revolution was inspired by and followed the model of Tunisia and Egypt. Even the initial slogan of ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’, daubed on a wall in Dera’a, consciously emulated Tunisia. Every such unarmed protest was suppressed with the uttermost violence. The Free Syrian Army was formed out of armed detachments protecting demonstrations, only really beginning in earnest last summer. The Syrian regime has been ‘militarized’ for decades. If it persists in some form, the solution favoured by some on the left, the Syrian people will continue to suffer its violence. They are not to be condemned for fighting back.
Nor is the revolution over in the form of demonstrations, strikes, and popular self-management. This is a crucial factor in considering the role of foreign intervention: arms and funds are entering Syria from outside but this remains within a context of surprisingly robust popular mobilizations. One must remember the tens of thousands have been killed by the regime, many more arrested and tortured, demonstrations are attacked with live fire, residential districts shelled, and all this for a year and a half. It would be no surprise if Syrian revolutionists disappeared completely from the streets. They have not: indeed, the increased military victories over the regime go in tandem with the appearance of mass opposition in Aleppo and Damascus. To take a few examples from the recent offensives in those cities:
A demonstration in Rukn Al-Din, Damascus, on the 19th of July.
And on the 20th, also in Damascus. You will note the ‘militarization’ of the situation at 4:36 when regime snipers open fire.
Here are demonstrations from Aleppo, from a Kurdish district a few days later – when watching the scenes of fighting from that city, it is worth remembering that this is what the Assad forces are fighting to destroy.
Here is a round-up of the demonstrations in Aleppo on the 29th of June.
The armed attacks on the infrastructure of the security state are also being carried out with popular participation, as shown in this recording of the storming of a Political Security office in the village of Al-Tal.
There have been several attempts at igniting general strikes to the Assad regime, in the hope of repeating the contribution of the Egyptian and Tunisian labour movements to dispatching the dictators in those countries. So far, these attempts have not succeeded, partially because of the deep imbrication of the Communist parties and official union organisation and partially because of the extent of repression. However, strike days have been observed in several cities on several occasions – here is film of a strike of mini bus drivers in the outskirts of Damascus on the 8th of June
The Turkish-based Syrian National Council is rightly considered by the anti-anti-Assad campists to be a pro-intervention outfit greatly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari sponsors. However, this body seems neither representative nor respected on the ground. Illuminating dispatches from the towns of Saraqeb and Taftanaz reveal elements of popular power in areas liberated from the Assad regime. The Local Co-ordinating Committees, composed of activists directing demonstrations, have in some cases merged with local committees formed to take over state functions. Thus in Taftanaz, Anand Gopal writes of how
To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.
the committee’s nine members are each tasked with a different role – there’s a media liaison, finance officer, military liaison, political officer, revolutionary courts representative, services coordinator, medical services, donations officer, and demonstrations coordinator. They are rotating, elected posts of three months’ duration. “There is no leader in the group,” said “al-Sayed,” one of the nine representatives who requested anonymity. “We want to get rid of this idea.”
These are not isolated organisations – the committees elect delegates to regional bodies, which then constitute the Syrian Revolutionary General Command.
The committees are not to be mistaken for Soviets. Like their (now largely defunct) counterparts in the earlier phases of the Tunisia and Egyptian revolutions, they reflect local hierarchies, connections, jealousies and rivalries.
However, in a society in the throes of revolutionary upheaval (to which the anti-anti Assadites blind themselves) class conflict is laid bare and questions of the reconstitution of social order invariably raised. Thus, in the town of Binnish near Taftanaz, Gopal reports how farmers and consumers agreed food prices through the mechanism of their council on the grounds that “we have to give to each as he needs.” The account continues:
It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.
Similar dynamics seem to have emerged in Aleppo, where according to a report in the Guardian:
the wealthy…[view]the rebels as a sort of unwelcome peasant army. “If I were to generalise I would say the middle class and upper class don’t want the rebels. They want everything to be how it was so they can trade and go to coffee shops,” one English-speaking resident, who lives in a regime area, said via Skype
Certain of the local committees, it seems, have even taken up Gramsci’s strictures on the role of the revolutionary press, printing their own newspaper (Revolutionary Words) featuring reports from the literal front-lines, and articles on revolutionary history- in the words of one of its editors: “This is not an intellectual’s revolution…This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”
A “sectarian gang”?
The presence of these local committees, and their character, should not be taken as an argument that the Syrian workers’ republic is nigh. Rather they indicate that the dynamics in Syria are those – complicated, bloody, messy- of an actual revolutionary process and not simply an extrusion of armed gangs operating at the behest of external enemies. One of the commonest arguments being put about is precisely that claim, accompanied by the assertion that to the extent the uprising enjoys any support, this is on the basis of a violent sectarianism that renders the revolutionaries as bad (if not worse than) the regime. This fact, it is alleged, is being concealed by a complicit and war-hungry Western media.
The uprising, exactly because it is a popular one, carries with it many of the prejudices and discursive ticks of the provincial, most often Sunni, centres in which it has found its base. Arabic-speaking readers will have noticed the prevalence of religious slogans (“God is great”, ‘We obey you o God”, “the Friday of Confidence in the Victory of God” and so forth) in the videos I have posted above. Some of these may reflect ideological commitment: more likely, as Anand Gopal writes , these slogans are “typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post–Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.” It seems very odd that people who accepted, for example the legitimacy of Hizbullah’s struggle against Israel to demand that the Syrian revolutionaries abjure such language. George Galloway’s statement that a “jihadist, extremist, Islamist” current is waiting to take over in Syria seems an especially quick turnaround and a very sloppy use of language. There are, it seems, groups operating under the Al-Qa’ida franchise in Eastern Syria where the border with Iraq allows for a reverse version of the guerrilla smuggling practiced against the US occupation. However, evidence that these are a predominant force within the variegated groups fighting under the banner of the FSA has yet to be presented.
If Talibanization is far from hanging over Syria, the rural, orthopractic communities in which the revolution has been strongest up until have nonetheless maintained their pre-revolutionary practices of gender hierarchy. The local committees described above seem largely dominated by men. Yet, as in the case of class struggle, a revolutionary process cannot but spur practices of self-emancipation that once experienced are difficult to un-learn. As well as participation in demonstrations, women have joined the Free Syrian Army, including the formation of the ‘Hawla Bint Al-Azwar’ battalion shown below.
If the influence of armed Takfiris is exaggerated, the danger of sectarian carnage is a real one. The longer the regime clings on, pulling everyone else down with it, the greater this danger becomes. A year and a half of continuous conflict has undoubtedly led to an increase in sectarian polarisation – although, as the International Crisis Group points out, it is perhaps surprising that this has not reached an even worse level. The committees described above operate in Sunni areas and some of their members show a hostility to the local Shi’a village . There are credible reports of the execution of shabiha prisoners and suspected collaborators, including the mass killing of members of the pro-regime Berri clan in Aleppo. But, were the revolution simply a communal civil war, then the Sunni Arabs (by far the preponderant community) would have won it by now. There are also Alawites who have identified with the revolution – they have a website documenting their participation. There is a struggle going on within the revolutionary side to assert unity against sectarianism – witness, for example, the code of conduct drawn up by the LCC and signed by the commanders of 29 FSA brigades, pledging to “refrain from any behavior or practice that would undermine the principles of our revolution: the principles of freedom, citizenship, and dignity…[and] respect human rights in accordance with our legal principles, our tolerant religious principles, and the international laws governing human rights.”
These commitments are frequently couched in a discursive culture that confuses those who see ‘Islam’ as a monolithic project, rather than as a political vernacular. For example, this video shows the formation of the ‘People’s resistance unit’ in Damascus. The screen is filled with masked, armed men, standing around a Qu’ran and swearing obedience to God almighty.
But what is the content of their oath? It is ‘ to protect and defend’ the ‘people’ who ‘will determine their desired government’, and to ‘reject and prevent revenge from occurring outside of our brigade’s control’ and to act ‘without any discrimination among the civilians, regardless of their ethnicity, sect, or religious or political belief’.
A similar scene is found in this video, showing the formation of the ‘United Syrian Military Coast Brigade’ in Latakia, the Alawite heartland.
As in the previous video, the declaration begins with a Qur’anic verse, and the room is full of beards, guns and martyr’s headbands. They pledge to ‘build a nation of mutual love, justice and peace’ and to follow international human rights law ‘without regard to ethnicity or religion.’ Both videos feature long lists of the brigades declaring their adherence to these pledges.
It is impossible to tell how far this commitments will be followed: what they indicate, however, is a battle within the revolutionary side to preserve national and cross-sectarian unity within a very violent and chaotic situation. There is no such concern on the side of the regime, and to treat the two as equal in this matter is a grave error. Even more so when, as in the case of the Houla massacre, Western leftists replicate the regime narrative that the revolutionaries are the ones doing the slaughtering, in order to discredit the regime. In May of this year, scores of people were killed in their homes in the region of Houla north of Homs, after an FSA attack on an army checkpoint. The survivors maintained that the perpetrators were pro-regime elements, either soldiers or shabiha. The regime claimed that in fact the FSA had carried out the killings and then pinned the blame on the government. A German journalist from the Frankfurter Allemeine Zeitung published a similar story, based on anonymous sources claiming that the families were Shi’a killed because they refused to join the opposition. The local co-ordinating committee stated in response that the victims were Sunni families (as one of the surviving family members confirmed, also stating that he believed the killers to be shabiha) and that no German journalist had contacted them or visited the area. The UN investigation into the matter concluded that pro-government forces were responsible. And, yet this incident continues to be cited by the anti-anti-Assad left as if it were Alastair Campbell’s fake dossier justifying the war in Iraq.
What if the improbable and distasteful tale of revolutionaries slaughtering children to make Assad look bad were actually true? It is surely false, but even so, Assad needs no help to make him look bad. The bombing of the town of Azaz on the 15th of August, killing tens of people was surely carried out by the regime, unless we believe the FSA has obtained fighter jets and is using them to bomb its own supporters in order to make Assad look bad. In which case we may as well go the whole hog: let’s believe that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US have conspired to install a decades-long reign of cruelty and dictatorship in Syria, torturing, imprisoning and killing, amassing huge wealth at the expense of workers and peasants, and imposing neoliberal policies on the impoverished masses, all to make the Ba’ath party look bad. Or, if we accept that all these things are not a conspiracy, is such a regime a basis for a sustainable pole of anti-imperialist resistance?
Thankfully for the Syrian revolution, there is at least a small group of leftists internal to the struggle. The Syrian Revolutionary Left publish, when the extremely difficult conditions permit, a newspaper entitled The Frontline. This organ campaigns against, sectarianism and foreign intervention and for Permanent Revolution. The Arabic original of their programme is here. I have translated part of it here. It states as the main task of the current “to build an active revolutionary left able to mobilise the toiling and suffering people, and all those who aspire to freedom, dignity and social justice, on the basis of a progressive programme confronting the social and economic programmes of other political forces.” Their putative comrades in the West should take some time to investigate and support such currents before declaring their revolution the work of massive conspiracies.