Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary meeting on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Anand Gopal

Last night I attended a meeting on “From Syria to Palestine: The Fight for Justice” in Brooklyn that was extraordinary on a number of levels. To start with, it was attended by at least 80 people, standing room only. It was also marked by a high degree of unity with groups focused on Syria or Palestine endorsing the event alongside those on the left like the ISO and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. Finally, there was a talk by Anand Gopal on the people of Saraqib, a town that epitomizes the 7 year resistance to Assad. My impression is that Stanley Heller of the Connecticut-based Promoting Enduring Peace played a major role in pulling this together. For this, we are in his debt.

Since the chairperson, a Palestinian woman who did a great job of keeping things in order and whose name I unfortunately did not record, instructed the audience that recording the talks was strictly forbidden for security reasons, I will try to summarize the proceedings since they should be of great interest to those of us who are in solidarity with the Syrian people.

Before the first speaker, Emerson College professor Yasser Munif, arose to took the mike, I sat next to him and told him that it was a shame that meetings like this were not being held in 2011. Almost as if to be answering me, when he took the mike he pointed out that Syria is going to be a long, epochal struggle and that until the conditions that created the uprising are overcome, it will continue. Although he was as eloquent as usual, he spent no longer than about 5 minutes making his presentation.

He was followed by Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American like Munif, who works for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. As such, she was the ideal person to speak about the connections between the slaughter taking place on the border between Gaza and Israel and the destruction of Yarmouk, a home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees when the war started. She insisted that unless you understood how Netanyahu, al-Sisis and Assad were motivated by the same hatred of the Palestinians, you’ll never understand the dynamics of the struggle in the Middle East.

The final speaker was Anand Gopal, who is as gifted as a speaker as he is a writer. I have known Anand as a cyber-friend since 2012 but this was the first opportunity to meet him in person.

With telling photos and video clips, he described the resistance to Assad in Saraqib, a place he has traveled to a number of times since 2012. In addition to his reporting on Syria, Anand is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living” that consists of profiles of a broad cross-section of the Afghan people, including a former Taliban fighter. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 and deservedly so.

In contrast to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who have never spent time in a place like Saraqib, Anand was determined to find out what made such people begin protesting in 2011 and to endure horrible onslaughts from the regime ever since. This was not something easily done since unlike Fisk and Cockburn, he could not get a visa to travel to Syria. So instead, he used to go to Turkey and get rides to the border with Syria to gain access to the Idlib region where many of the small and medium sized farming cities and towns rose up. Once he arrived at the border, he’d climb beneath a chain-link fence and follow a trail of white stones that led to Saraqib. Those stones had been painted by activists in Saraqib to make sure that he would not step on a landmine.

Saraqib is a town of about 35,000 people. When news of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt reached this farming community in the boondocks, people began protesting every Friday. Like other ordinary citizens becoming active politically for the first time, their demands were rudimentary: democracy and the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Before 2011, Saraqib did not have a single newspaper but afterwards at least 5 newspapers took off, as well as a radio station. They were used to exchange ideas in a kind of grass roots democracy that not only threatened Assad but every dictator in the region. That is why someone like General al-Sisi is an ally of both Assad and Netanyahu against the Syrian and Palestinian masses.

When the protests came under attack from Assad’s snipers, local activists had an intense debate over whether to arm themselves or not. Many had bad memories of the murderous assault on Hama in 1982 that left at least 20,000 dead over less than a month. But when the sniper attacks escalated, they were left with no other choice except to form six brigades led by six of the key activists in Saraqib, including people who had argued against armed self-defense.

The regime went after Saraqib with a fury, sending in tanks that destroyed many homes. Anand reports that the Baathist troops went from door to door, killing anybody who had not fled to safety. Many were set on fire, including a man whose charred corpse was shown in one of Anand’s photos.

Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the town managed to run its own affairs. Like other such towns and cities, a local council was formed that took care of what might sound like mundane affairs, such as garbage collection and the distribution of bread that was a staple of the Syrian diet and made in a state-controlled bakery. Once the town was liberated, the workers at the bakery continued running it in close coordination with the local council.

This reminded me of a discussion taking place on FB between me and a number of FB friends who likened the formation of food co-ops, etc. in the USA as a form of incipient dual power. This is an idea that has some currency on the left, especially as part of nominally Marxist theories advanced by Richard Wolff, Peter Marcuse, Eric Olin Wright, et al. In my view, dual power arises in a revolutionary situation when an armed working class, farmers and small proprietors have assumed the social and economic leadership of a city or town after the old order has been sent packing. This occurred during the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, the Spanish Civil War and even in Syria despite the absence of a socialist leadership. In order for such people to live, they need water, food, medical care, and policing against counter-revolution. You cannot suck the institutions of dual power out of your thumb. They are linked to revolutionary struggles and have nothing to do with blueprints for a socialist future.

Into this liberated but chaotic community, the Islamists finally made their entry in early 2013, four of whose leaders Anand interviewed. Their most senior organizer was a man who had devoted himself to teaching prisoners like himself to reject both democracy and socialism. There was not much in the way of socialism in Saraqib but there was plenty of democracy.

The Islamists very quickly became a counter-force to those in Saraqib who had zero interest in a caliphate. The only way they gained a foothold was through their organizational cohesion that had been developing for decades. Unlike the locals, these were men who were organized as the Muslim Brotherhood or even as al-Qaeda. They had the inside track to arms and money from wealthy private citizens in Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey. As such, they were a powerful seductive force even if the people of Saraqib valued their new-found freedoms.

Eventually, al-Nusra (the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria) became the most powerful Islamist group in the region. When someone made the idiotic comment during the Q&A that the USA funded al-Nusra, Anand explained that they consciously rejected foreign assistance since that would make them dependent on sources that could easily change their mind. Like ISIS, they relied on taxation to finance their operations.

In one of the more dramatic video clips shown by Anand, we see two groups in the middle of a street arrayed against each other, one chanting in favor of a non-sectarian state and the other calling for a caliphate. Eventually, al-Nusra tired of those in the town unwilling to bow down before them and surrounded the house of the FSA commander in order to arrest him. When word went out about what was going on, a march on the house to defend the commander began only to be dispersed by al-Nusra’s machine gun fire. This too is revealed in a video clip shown by Anand that gives the lie to the Assad versus al-Qaeda version of what has been taking place over the past seven years.

In his concluding remarks, Anand stressed the tripartite political division in Syria that is denied by Max Blumenthal, Vanessa Beeley, et al. You have 1) Assad; 2) the Islamists and 3) the people. Our job is to find ways to solidarize with the people that includes reviving an antiwar movement based on the need to concentrate on who is responsible for most of the killing: the regime and the foreign entities intervening against the people. Stopping the violence has always allowed civil society to emerge and thus reconstitute itself as the legitimate voice of a people with the same goals they have had for the past 7 years: to live in freedom and dignity, enjoying the country’s wealth on an egalitarian basis.

During the Q&A, someone asked what we can do concretely to help the Syrian people. Someone in the audience replied that this meant opening the door to Syrian refugees, most of whom were like the people of Saraqib. When Donald Trump cut off support for the Syrian rebels, which was being dispensed with an eyedropper under Obama, and then of the White Helmets, he demonstrated his affinity with all of the tyrants in power in the Middle East.

I am not sure what will happen next with the Syrian Solidarity Movement but this meeting was an auspicious first step.




  1. Louis,

    I applaud your guts, tenacity, and intellect in following all this evidence of human nature gone “wrong”, both in your political analysis and your culture perspectives. Like you, I am a child of the 60’s, having graduated from Antioch College in 1965. I think Leon Botstein even visited once and gave a talk, when he was all of 26 or so. Quite an amazing run he’s had.

    I’m attaching a poem that appeared the morning of the 2010 Haifa bombing during the Intifada. It didn’t happen until later in the day, but that morning this poem sat me down and I took it down almost exactly as you will see it here.

    With respect and regards,

    Gabriel Heilig

    Founder Action Resumes Pentagon

    [Oh yes, that—during the Vietnam years I was a draft resister and conscientious objector. DoD clearly lost my records, because they chose me from dozens of resume firms across the country to open the only executive resume service ever given a lease to do business in the Pentagon. Fascinating, for 14 years. I have many friends from that time.]

    Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.

    Desk: 240-247-0055 Email: gabe@ideadesign-dc.com


    Comment by gabeheilig — May 22, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

  2. Nice, I shall have to look up Anand Gopal. Has he visited civilian areas that are supposedly pro-Assad I wonder? Just for balance… Otherwise we’re stuck with Beeley and Bartlett for that.

    By the way, regarding the ‘idiotic comment’: It’s the kind of thing that happens when the media doesn’t do its job. ‘Revelations’ end up looking like guilty secrets, and fuel for conspiracy theory. There can be little doubt that weapons supplied by the US to rebels have ended up with Al-Nusra – in fact the US has put ‘an extraordinary amount of arms in’ according to John Kerry not so long ago, though that bit didn’t get much coverage in the mainstream: https://www.reddit.com/r/arabs/comments/5ns1s9/us_watched_isis_rise_in_syria_and_hoped_to_use_it/?st=jhiati1p&sh=88b1a438

    The US has stopped, of course. Meanwhile, politicians and media continue their dance of the veils, so people continue to imagine agendas and conspiracies. What else are they supposed to think?

    Comment by Tom — May 22, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

  3. Has he visited civilian areas that are supposedly pro-Assad I wonder?

    As I said, he can’t get a visa to go to Syria. He had to sneak in through the border. Arriving by plane into Damascus is impossible without a visa. As for American arms ending up in the hands of ISIS or al-Nusra, they steal them.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2018 @ 12:40 am

  4. Honestly though, what is the point of any of these isolated academic meetings? Are professors going to strike against war? Are they going to form an international brigade? Do they have any influence over workers at all? Soldiers in Syria?

    This is like a literal talking shop. Is this just a hobby?

    Comment by Rebase — May 23, 2018 @ 7:50 am

  5. “As for American arms ending up in the hands of ISIS or al-Nusra, they steal them. ” Hmm. But in that leaked Kerry discussion I seem to remember some equivocation over the aims and sympathies of the rebels vs the extremists. It’s hard to imagine a bit of ‘stealing’ being enough to completely deter the ‘extraordinary’ support. And not to mention a well supported force should be able to defend itself against stealing.

    Comment by Tom — May 23, 2018 @ 8:33 am

  6. This is like a literal talking shop. Is this just a hobby?

    You dumb fuck. In order to build a movement, you have to educate them. You are probably 16 years old and have no idea of recent American history but they used to have these things called teach-ins when the Vietnam war began.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2018 @ 11:29 am

  7. It’s hard to imagine a bit of ‘stealing’ being enough to completely deter the ‘extraordinary’ support. And not to mention a well supported force should be able to defend itself against stealing.

    I guess I should have spelled that out. I was talking about the weapons being stolen in Iraq.

    But what really puts the cork in the barrel of the smoking gun is the all-important question of whether ISIS ever needed support from Saudi Arabia to begin with. It is common knowledge that the group seized weapons from those left behind by fleeing Iraqi soldiers as Amnesty International reported in December 2015. I invite you to read the entire report but if you don’t have the time or inclination, this snapshot should give you an idea of how ISIS armed itself with obviously no help from Saudi Arabia that sought nothing less than a wall of separation to keep the jihadists out.


    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2018 @ 11:34 am

  8. OK, I read your snapshot, and I understand what you’re getting at now. But it doesn’t address anything I said about the Kerry leak. Can you explain that? Otherwise I can’t help retain a bit of sympathy for the guy with the idiotic comment.

    Also, I would point out that war, and the advancement of political interests in general, doesn’t necessarily run along clean lines of friend or foe. Often, it seems, practical interests dictate that you (perhaps even clandestinely) support the enemy of your enemy, until they have outlived their purpose or the situation changes, and the time comes to pull the rug. Or is that just more conspiracy theory?

    Comment by Tom — May 23, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

  9. Both things can be true. The USA put a lot of arms into Syrian rebel hands (except the one that could have ended the war 5 years ago at least–MANPAD’s.) And some of those weapons ended up in the hands of ISIS or al-Nusra. One of the things I learned from Anand’s talk is that Islamist groups had a lot more experience as fighters than the FSA did. Obama was basically correct when he mocked the rebels as “pharmacists and dentists”. Naturally, Assad wanted to militarize the conflict in order to gain the upper hand. Even though it opened Syria up to Islamist militias, he gained the reputation as leading a “war on terrorism”.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

  10. On Tue, May 22, 2018, 3:30 PM Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist wrote:

    > louisproyect posted: ” Anand Gopal Last night I attended a meeting on > “From Syria to Palestine: The Fight for Justice” in Brooklyn that was > extraordinary on a number of levels. To start with, it was attended by at > least 80 people, standing room only. It was also marked by a ” >

    Comment by eoin.k — May 23, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

  11. Fine report about the meeting. To expand on a few points 1) In 2017 Saraqib had its first actual election since 1954. Assad or Russian planes shot at people in voting lines. Nusra (al-Qaeda) attacked shortly thereafter and you see some of the result in the video above. However the people of Saraqib eventually drove out al-Qaeda from the town. It exists to this day as a virtual island surrounded by al-Qaeda types and undergoing bombardment from Assad forces. In February it underwent an Assadist chemical attack. The OPCW determined some bombs were filled with chlorine. Other bombs filled with a mix of sarin and other chemicals 2) Anand said we should stop considering Syrian refugees as pitiful people and realize they are the revolution. They were the people who turned out in the hundreds of thousands to protest Assad and only fled when there was no hope. As for things to do, organize around trying to embarrass the Trump gang into “unfreezing” money the U.S. sends to the White Helmets. We have a petition to that effect here: http://www.pepeace.org/petition-restore-or-increase-funds-to-the-white-helmets-of-syria It should be an easy things to organize around. People in the U.S. have heard of the White Helmets. Even the corporate press has been sympathetic. Finally, these are the groups and celebrities that co-sponsored the event. I mention it to show there is a good group of the Left which “gets it” on Syria. Sponsors: Promoting Enduring Peace, International Socialist Organization, Global Campaign in Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, Muslim Peace Fellowship and Community of Living Traditions, New Politics, Bill Fletcher, Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum, Howie Hawkins, Green Party, Wendy Pearlman, author, Molly Crabapple, artist, author, Rabyaah Althaibani, Yemeni-American activist, Revive the Peace Movement network, War Resisters League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Middle East Crisis Committee (CT), Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, Palestine Solidarity Alliance of Hunter College, Syria Solidarity New York City, Dylan Connor, singer, song-writer, Action Corps NYC, Peace Action Manhattan, David Finkel, editor, Against the Current

    Comment by Stanley Heller — May 23, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

  12. Many thanks for posting this report, Louis. Some may dismiss it as a bunch of academics getting together, out of which nothing positive will materialize. Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t know unless you act. Such is politics. I am grateful that it has happened. What’s the saying, “It’s always darkest before dawn”?

    Question for anybody who may know: Stanley Heller (and thank you Sir for your efforts) says that one of the sponsors was Green Party. Has there been a change at the leadership of the Green Party?

    I may be remembering wrong, but I’m sure Jill Stein and David Cobb had pretty noxious positions on Syria and their relationship with Putin. Has that changed, or have Stein and Cobb been removed from national leadership positions? (Please forgive my ignorance if the answer has already been established; I honestly don’t know, and am surprised.) Or, was this a local NY GP branch sponsoring?

    Comment by Reza — May 24, 2018 @ 12:59 am

  13. It wasn’t the Green Party as an organization, just Howie Hawkins–who is a major leader. Howie is a lurker on Marxmail and in keeping with this he posted to the list today about the teacher’s union in Hawaii endorsing her opponent in the DP primary because they considered her support for Assad in violation of their values as educators.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 24, 2018 @ 1:29 am

  14. Fabulous news. I would love to know more and begin a similar process in Seattle. I am not opposed to Islamist forces though.
    Richard Wood, 58richwood@gmail.com

    Comment by Rich Wood — May 24, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

  15. @Tom et al rearmsto Nusra:There are documented cases ofarms supplied to US vetted groups being captured by Nusra. B ut anysuggestiontthat theUSwas deliberately armingthem* is”idiotic*” The first USbombing raids inSyria were carried out againstalleged Nusra targets and the reasons for theseweapons losses wasthat th US insisted onpittingthegroupsit patronised against Nusra.

    Comment by Tettodoro — May 25, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

  16. reAcademics andSolidarity Some of you mayremember the important role that the Commitee ofConcerned Asian Scholars played in the Anti Vietnam War movement

    Comment by Tettodoro — May 25, 2018 @ 12:34 pm

  17. Last I checked, the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars did not campaign to keep the bombing of Cambodia secret. Imagine, if in 1970, the movement decided to “explain” why the bombing of Cambodia was “necessary” to “protect” the people of Vietnam from… “Stalinists” like Ho Chi Minh and General Giap and the dread National Liberation Front of Vietnam.

    You have spent years promoting this Saudi proxy war, and pretending CIA contras are some “revolution.”

    Go join your Salafi/CIA “revolution” — first class ticket to Idlib just in time for the clean up. 😉

    Comment by Among the Tugs — September 4, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

  18. Ooh, Salafis. Them there Islamofascists. Kill them all with their beards and their fanaticism. Just like Christopher Hitchens told us, god rest his soul.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 4, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

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