Today a commenter on my blog demanded to know “the particularities of the rebel forces, [and] the classes they represent” in Syria as if I were on the witness stand in a criminal trial. Now this guy was not half as bad as some of the trolls who show up from time to time calling me a member of the Israel lobby or the next Christopher Hitchens, etc. You know the type, the kind of person whose whites of his or her eyes can be seen as they walk toward you on the sidewalk from sixty feet away. For the conspiracist left, the Syrian rebels are the latest version of UNITA in Angola or the Nicaraguan contras. How do they know this? Well, Turkey is providing aid to them and Hillary Clinton went to Turkey. That’s all you really need to know. This, of course, is the leftist version of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”.
Fortunately, there’s an article in the latest Harper’s by Anand Gopal titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that sheds some light on the living humanity that has risen up against the Baathist dictatorship. The article is behind a paywall but this longish excerpt should be sufficient to motivate you to get the magazine and read it in full.
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Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”
During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”
Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”
All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.
In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”
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.
“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria.
The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)
Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.
The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington’s main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. “Who are they?” Omar asked me. “What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don’t know the situation inside Syria.”
I asked Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of “supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground.”