Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2014

A short history of the Syrian revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

As Syrians commemorate the first anniversary of the chemical attacks, we the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the millions of Syrians who have been struggling for dignity and freedom since March 2011. We call on the people of the world to act in support of the revolution and its goals, demanding the immediate end of the violence and the end of the illegitimate Assad regime.

August 21st marks the frst anniversary of the chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. Several hundred people, including many children, died within minutes of the attacks. A few hours later, the Syrian regime launched a massive media campaign accusing the opposition of perpetrating the attacks. The regime and its allies knew they wouldn’t be able to win the heart and minds of people around the world but they could confuse them and tarnish the image of the revolution. That has been the regime’s strategy since the beginning of the uprising. Even renowned journalist Seymour Hersh became a victims of said strategy. He wrote a long article where he argued al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliated group, of being behind the attack. The intention of the terrorist organization, he explained, was to blame the regime and trigger Western intervention that would ultimately topple Assad. His argument was not only implausible but also illogical. Knowing it would be the target of any Western airstrikes, al-Nusra threatened to kill anyone showing support for intervention. In the following months, a number of independent organizations and experts showed that only the Syrian regime could have planned and executed the chemical attacks in al-Ghouta. Despite overwhelming evidence of the Syrian army’s role in the attacks, the regime was able to turn the table, reshuffe the cards, and even gain a certain respectability in international arenas, after agreeing to surrender its chemical arsenal. The unraveling of events and the debates surrounding the chemical attacks are paradigmatic of the Syrian tragedy and the regime’s ability to effectively manage its horrific war against Syrians.

Progressive intellectuals, concerned citizens, and humanists were shocked on August 21st but they felt powerless. Their neutrality, under the pretext that both sides are evil, and their silences and inactivity allowed the Syrian regime to isolate and besiege the Syrian revolution. As the revolution became increasingly invisible, the regime’s narrative became more hegemonic. Many progressive intellectuals dismissed the revolutionary struggle of several hundred thousands Syrians in a myriad different arenas, and portrayed the situation as a civil war between Shia and Sunnis, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or a violent conflict between global Jihadists and a regular army. As the revolution became unthinkable, the regime propaganda turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, in such a conjuncture the silence of progressive intellectuals became a license to kill Syrians.

The dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program was very good news for Israel and the West but a tragedy for most Syrians. It means a despotic regime could use all types of what is euphemistically referred to as conventional weapons against its population, as long as it cooperates with the West. Tens of thousands of Syrians were killed in a thousand different ways by conventional weapons after August 21, 2013. This new chapter in the Syrian conflict created confusion in the West and parts of the Arab World. In Syria however, people who endured the Assad family’s rule for more than forty years, are aware the root of the problem is dictatorship. This confusion affected many cultures and political groups. For example, in the weeks following August 21st, the anti-war movement in the US and Europe demonstrated against potential airstrikes that were to target Syria, but was silent about Assad’s siege of entire neighborhoods, and other atrocities. Syrians living in besieged areas were puzzled by these movements political alignment with the regime. How can anyone dismiss the siege of around 20,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk camp for more than a year and the starvation to death of 128 residents? While certain Western and Arab journalists argue that the main issue is the increasing number of al-Qaeda sympathizers in Northern Syria, many secular and pious inhabitants in Aleppo, Azaz, Anadan, and other cities in the North think about how to escape the terrifying death of explosive barrels dropped on them by Assad’s cruel war machine. Often times, pilots drop a second bomb on the same location, a few minutes later, to kill rescuers and cause more damage. While professionals in humanitarian assistance discuss useless strategies to compel Assad to distribute UN aid more fairly, poor families who never received assistance from the regime, leave their villages and seek better opportunities elsewhere. For some of them the journey ends in al-Zaatari camp in Jordan where the most unfortunate who can’t buy blankets will be powerless as they watch the freezing body of their child gesticulate before surrendering to a treacherous death. While self-described impartial observers argue the problem in Syria is not the regime’s monumental savagery but ISIS’s medieval barbarism, most Syrians know this is a false dichotomy and both forms of violence are cruel and should end. While progressive intellectuals explain in Manichean fashion, that neutrality in Syria’s turmoil is the preferred position because both sides of the conflict are war criminals, Syrian activists feel such a stance is based on false equivalence and a flawed logic. Their struggles cannot be equated to the regime’s collective punishment of entire cities or the killing of revolutionaries after long and painful hours of torture in a dark cell at the Palestine Branch of military intelligence.

Creating confusion is part of Assad’s brutal war against Syrians but it is always combined with other strategies. To kill the revolution, the Syrian regime pursued four strategies: 1) militarization of the revolts through a six-months long campaign of violent repression of peaceful protests 2) islamization of the uprising by targeting secular groups and empowering Jihadists, 3) sectarianization of the conflict through the recruitment of an increasing number of Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan, coupled with the targeting of Sunnis cities and villages, and 4) internationalization of the war by inviting Iran, China, and Russia to play a central role in the conflict and consequently inciting the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to use Syria as a battleground against these forces.

Since the first week of the protests the Syrian regime launched a massive campaign of repression by kidnapping and torturing intellectuals and peaceful activists. The goal was to delegitimize the uprising by arresting or killing the most experienced grassroots activists. During this initial period, the regime killed between 6,000 and 7,000 protesters. Assad was sending a clear message: either the end of the protests or military confrontation. While the frst option was preferred, the regime didn’t mind the militarization of the revolt since it felt only a minority would fight, and the uprising would quickly lose legitimacy, and would therefore be easily crushed. It is in this context that revolutionaries started forming the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The initial role of the FSA was to defend protests in certain neighborhood. It gradually evolved into a regular army whose aim was to liberate and protect various areas. It was a vicious cycle since the violence of the regime and the cruelty of its intelligence apparatuses pushed for increased militarization of the revolt.

Second, in parallel to its campaign of incarceration, torture, and assassination of journalists, human right activists, and protesters, the regime released more than a thousand jihadists from the notorious Sednaya prison, many of whom became leaders in the largest factions of the Islamic Front, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These groups gradually isolated and weakened the already decentralized and heterogenous FSA. Activists working with the revolutionary councils, journalists, and the FSA fighters found themselves fighting on two front: the regime and ISIS. ISIS rarely fought the regime and focused instead on taking over areas already liberated by the revolutionaries in Northern Syria. It was arresting, torturing, and publicly executing activists and innocent civilians. While Jihadists were fighting and suffocating secular struggles, the Assad regime played the terrorism card very effectively, claiming the vast majority of its opponents belong to al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Domestically, the regime used this narrative to scare secular groups and religious minorities and effectively neutralize them. Internationally, the regime’s effort to tarnish the image of the revolution and present it as a sectarian war was also successful. It didn’t matter that the FSA was actually fighting ISIS, while the regime hardly ever targeted its headquarters in the liberated North. In January 2014, the entire opposition declared war to the terrorist group, which cost the lives of 8000 to 9000 fighters so far. The regime’s official position about fighting terrorism didn’t deter it from buying oil from al-Nusra Front in Mayadin, an eastern city close to the Iraqi borders. Despite these facts and the regime’s reluctance to fight ISIS, Assad was increasingly seen in the West as the only effective barrage against Jihadists, while the revolutionaries were depicted as extremists or affiliated to al-Qaeda. Assad’s media war reinforced al-Qaeda Manichean narrative, according to which Syria is the first line of defense of Islamic values and the Mecca of global jihadism. Saudi Arabia and Qatar played a central role in backing the most reactionary Jihadist groups and in facilitating their journey to Syria.

Third, Assad ordered his militias to massacre Sunnis civilians in Darayya, Baniyas, and Houla, to provoke a Sunni reaction and interpellate sectarian impulses on both sides. It wasn’t long before al-Nusra and ISIS jumped on the opportunity to turn the revolution into a sectarian confict by killing Shiite civilians in Aqrab and Hatla. Once again the revolutionaries were caught in-between unable to stop an infernal spiral towards sectarianism. Iran, the regime’s main ally understood that the only way to maintain its hegemony in the region was to impose a sectarian logic to the confict. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar played the exact same role from the other side. Iran provided weapons and logistical assistance early on, while the Hezbollah sent fighters initially covertly, and overtly since May 2013. Iran claims the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is fighting extremists in Syria and protecting Shiite holy sites, an argument it is now using in Iraq. Despite the support of Iran and Hezbollah, Assad was unable to stop the revolutionaries’ advances in several regions in 2012-13. The regime sought the support of Nuri al-Maliki, Iran’s protege in Iraq, who responded promptly by sending more than 10,000 Shia fghters. These takfri death squads, whose violence is only matched by Al-Nusra and ISIS, fght under the banners of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Their sectarian rampage is well documented in places such an-Nabek, Homs, and Damascus.

Finally, the Syrian regime prospered under advantageous regional and international contexts codified by a common interest to end the momentum of the Arab revolts. The group of countries who unabashedly call themselves “the friends of Syria” have crucified the Syrian revolution a thousand time. This group includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, France, and the United States, some of which are as totalitarian as the Syrian regime, and yet they claim to support a revolution for freedom and dignity. In reality, these countries have their divergent agendas, but what they had in common is hatred toward the Syrian regime and fear from a successful revolution that would have lasting impact on their respective societies, and more generally on the world order. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, funded the most fundamentalist groups and sought their allegiance because of their destructive impact on the terrain. By strengthening various Salafist and Wahhabi groups, they created rivalry, but perhaps more importantly, they prepared the terrain to destroy nationalist and progressive struggles. After initially supporting the Syrian regime for several months in 2011, Saudi Arabia felt it would gain more by pushing for militarization and jihadist holy wars, thereby sending a clear message to the populations of the Arabian Gulf about the high cost of starting a revolt there. In the past three years, Saudi Arabia showed, on multiple occasions, that it can repress violently any populations with aspiration for freedom as it did in Bahrain or Qatif in Saudi Arabia. It also built a tripartite alliance with like-minded regimes, Egypt and Algeria, and openly declared its intensions to suppress the Tunisian and Yemeni revolutions after temporarily crushing the Egyptian revolution. The government of Erdogan played a more subtle role in undermining the revolution. While it welcomed many refugees for pragmatic reasons, it was more interested in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood than helping Syrians establish an authentic democracy. Finally, the United States and Europe were more worried about scoring points against Iran, the security of Israel, and regional stability to maintain a smooth flow of oil, than any real democracy in Syria or the Arab World. The Syrian stalemate was actually not a bad option for the West and Israel since it involved an open war between al-Qaeda and its offshoots on the one hand, and Hezbollah and Iran on the other, all of whom are despised by the West.

Despite the complexity of the Syrian situation and the large number of players involved in the conflict, what is taking place in Syria is quite simple: people rose up to overthrow a tyrant. The past three years have shown that ruling elites in the West and the Arab World have done everything to crush the Syrian Revolution. They have done so either through a complicit silence, a well orchestrated campaign that tarnished the image of the revolution, the funding of the most reactionary factions, or barring refugees from reaching Europe or the US. No government was genuinely willing to help Syrians in their struggle. While some Syrians believed their salvation would come from the West, the vast majority had no such illusion as the slogans and songs of the revolution had amply shown. The banners created by activists in Kafranbel are indicative of such popular mood. One of the banners they were holding in 2011 read, “Down with the regime, down with the opposition, down with the Arab and Islamic nation all together. Down with the security council, down with the world. Down with everything!”

The first anniversary of the chemical attacks is an occasion to reaffirm the importance of the revolution not only for Syrians but for the entire Arab World. The Syrians’ struggle against dictatorship, global jihadism, and western imperialism should not be viewed as local or even regional. It is part of an insurrectionary moment where the world has become the battlefield. The new development in Iraq, among other developments, have shown that the fate of the Syrian revolution will have tremendous implication on the new world order. The struggle of Syrians for dignity, freedom, and self determination cannot therefore be delinked from the Palestinian historic rebellion against Zionism, Egyptian women struggles against military despotism and sexual harassment, the Bahraini courageous uprising against totalitarianism, the Kurdish battles for justice, and the Zapatista and other indigenous populations’ resistance against racism and neoliberalism. Failure to stop the counter­revolutionary wave in Syria will have tremendous repercussions on the revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, or Bahrain. A successful revolution in Syria however would unleash long-repressed revolutionary aspirations in the Arab world and beyond.

Signatories

  • The Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution
  • Syrian Revolution Bases of Support
  • MENA Solidarity Network-US

4 Comments »

  1. So, Friends of Syria support reactionary parts of the opposition because they don’t want to spread the revolution in their respective countries. When Russia and Iran support Assad, it’s because they want to score points in their isolation to the “West”. And, when Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua support Assad, it’s because?

    Comment by Daniel de França — July 24, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

  2. These latin American countries support Assad because of their anti-imperialist position to the US, in my opinion is a tragedy mostly of ignorance.

    Comment by Jorge — July 24, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

  3. This sentence is unintentionally hilarious: “Despite the complexity of the Syrian situation and the large number of players involved in the conflict, what is taking place in Syria is quite simple: people rose up to overthrow a tyrant.” “Quite simple” indeed.

    Comment by marco — July 25, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

  4. The shorter version of this statement – soon to be issued with an impressive list of signatures – is primarily an appeal for action on the anniversary of the Ghouta chemical attack, and in that spirit is to be welcomed and supported.

    This text however seems to claim to be something more but it doesn’t live up to its promise: .it has multiple inaccuracies and substitutes dogma for analysis (what “reactionary groups” has the US been supporting? are ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front really indistinguishable, despite the intense combat between the first and the latter two?) I am fully in favour of solidarity with the struggle against the Asad regime, but it needs to be underpinned by sobre and accurate analysis. .

    Comment by magpie68 — July 28, 2014 @ 12:52 pm


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