Syria’s revolutionary resilience

September 20, 2012

Yusef Khalil examines the latest developments for the Syrian revolution.

AUGUST WAS the deadliest month yet for the Syrian Revolution, with more than 1,600 deaths just in the final week of the month. In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus known for its commitment to nonviolence, government forces massacred 400 people, prompting an international outcry.

But regime apologists continued their shameful practice of parroting the lies of the Syrian government. Casting doubt on the revolutionaries' description of events, some reporters, including seasoned correspondent Robert Fisk, wrongfully blamed the Free Syrian Army for the killing in Daraya. This follows the Houla massacre earlier this year, when rebel forces were accused of murdering more than 100 people, mostly women and children. It has since been confirmed that the Houla massacre was the work of the regime.

Yet this has not stopped the Syrian people from moving forward in their fight against the decades-old Assad dictatorship. The Syrian Revolution, an integral part of the Arab revolutions sweeping the region, hasn't been defeated despite the enormous local, regional, and international forces arrayed against it.

Aleppo residents carry a wounded child away from the site of government bombing
Aleppo residents carry a wounded child away from the site of government bombing (Goran Tomasevic)

FOR ALL the talk about foreign flow of weapons and support for the revolutionaries, nothing of any substance has made it to the fighters in Syria. Most arms are acquired on the black market and smuggled into Syria with no official backing.

The regional conditions are not favorable to an increase in quantity and quality of state-supplied weapons, which would require operations in neighboring countries. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq cannot host such operations without risking their own internal destabilization and getting dragged into a regional war. As a result, only light weapons are making their way into Syria.

As for direct intervention by the U.S., Syrian Marxist Salamah Kailah explained that the Syrian revolution is happening in a new world. This is not the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the U.S. as the greatest hegemonic world power. It is not pre-2008, when the U.S. adopted former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's theory of a revolution in military affairs, "which emphasized America's ability to wage two big wars and several smaller wars at the same time."

The U.S. is in a period of deep structural economic crisis, Kailah wrote, which has led to a "significant decrease in the Department of Defense budget, and in the number of American forces, including the Marines." The U.S. "can only wage one war (and it is now stuck in Afghanistan)." Therefore, Washington will not intervene militarily at this moment because it is not prepared to deal with a potential regional war.

Western powers have furthermore declared that they will not provide arms to the revolutionaries. Whatever little is trickling in is mostly logistical and non-lethal support to select groups, and even the extent of that aid is disputed. In fact, the U.S. is blocking any transfer of heavy weapons by any party.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was categorical about it, stating recently: "Things are very clear: on the question of supplying weapons, the answer is no. France does not supply and will not supply the Syrian opposition with weapons." Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are only sending light weapons or funds to groups who pledge allegiance to those countries.

The scale of foreign intervention currently in Syria is in the other direction--heavily weighed towards Russian and Iranian military and logistical support for the Assad regime. The problem of foreign intervention in Syria is not due to Syrian revolutionary fighters who accept weapons from the outside in order to protect themselves and engage the regime's forces.

But regardless of the debates for or against intervention in Syria, it's obvious that Western powers are moved by questions of self-interest, not by lobbying efforts--especially when it comes to war.

If the U.S. changes its calculation and decides to intervene directly, it will not need United Nations approval or an invitation from the Syrian opposition. Those of us in the West who support the Syrian revolution--and those of us in Syria who are active in the Syrian Revolution--cannot dictate to the U.S. the terms of its involvement, and cannot control it or its regional consequences once it is unleashed.

The point of saying this is not to place conditions on the Syrian Revolution, but because we want the revolution to succeed, and because we, along with the Syrian revolutionary left, see the strategy of betting on foreign intervention as a danger that threatens the revolution. The power of the Syrian people themselves has proved to be greater than all the empty talk of support coming from the world governments.

Furthermore, repeated promises of foreign support and arms shipments have put revolutionaries in potentially compromising situations.

For example, in the battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city, the revolutionaries have heroically stood up to the regime's relentless bombing campaign, including the use of air strikes to destroy neighborhoods. But they are desperately outgunned. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "Several opposition fighters complained that they had been led to believe at the outset of the attack on Aleppo that arms deliveries would arrive regularly from neighboring Turkey, but that the anticipated shipments never materialized."

THIS BRINGS up another debate within the revolutionary movement about the wisdom of the resistance holding ground in civilian neighborhoods, with the associated regime attacks, civilian casualties and destruction, versus guerrilla hit-and-run tactics against regime positions.

But one thing is certain: the strategy of armed resistance was forced on the revolutionaries.

The risk was that the armed resistance would operate without a political strategy that ties it to the Local Coordinating Committees--which are the neighborhood-based groups that organize the street protests. There was a fear (shared by this writer) that the resistance would focus exclusively on attacking regime forces and leave no place for mass participation in the revolution. The approach would allow the regime to set a trap for the revolution and defeat it militarily.

Nevertheless, the resilience of the Syrian people proved stronger than the dictatorship's military might. Opposition groups continued to protest, march and strike, and the revolution continued to develop and challenge the regime in new ways. Without this popular support, the outnumbered and under-armed groups in the Free Syrian Army (FSA)--itself a loosely connected group of different fighters--simply could not have survived.

As the Lebanese author and activist Gilbert Achcar argues:

I have already said that the main strategic dilemma of the Syrian revolution is to succeed in combining the peaceful mass movement with the armed struggle. It is not conceivable, faced with a regime of the nature of the Syrian regime, that the peaceful struggle can continue infinitely. That would be equivalent to advocating that peaceful demonstrators continue to get slaughtered like sheep, day after day.

It is a classic dilemma in popular revolutions against tyrannical regimes that do not hesitate to kill. Under such conditions, it becomes necessary to create an armed wing of the revolution to protect the peaceful movement, and wage guerrilla warfare against the forces of the regime and its murderous militias (the "shabbiha").

Furthermore, due to the organic link between the military and the ruling family, Achcar writes, "In countries like Libya or Syria, one cannot bet on the abandonment of the tyrant by elite military units. The peaceful overthrow of the regime in countries such as these is impossible."

Some observers have mistakenly linked the armed struggle with religious sectarianism. This is not true. The Islamist armed groups that are trying to take advantage of the situation exist on the fringe of the revolutionary movement.

Yet it is not surprising that the regime is painting the whole revolution as the work of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. The government's aim was to prevent the revolt from spreading to areas dominated by religious and ethnic minorities and to isolate the resistance among Sunni Muslims, while also garnering international support (or at least acquiescence) for the brutal crackdown.

While the groups and brigades grouped loosely under the FSA have Islamic names that borrow from the area's rich history (and are sometimes designed to attract sources of material support), they are not driven by sectarianism. Actual sectarianism is fueled by the regime's deliberate massacres aimed at provoking such a response from the revolutionaries. This is amplified by Gulf states selectively supporting groups with a shared ideology, which deflects any homegrown anger against their own dictatorial system.

The problem we face, however, is that the regime's continued use of sectarian death squads and its attempts to implicate other minorities in its atrocities are in fact creating a fertile ground for sectarianism to take root in Syria--even among the opposition. This is a major challenge for the revolutionary forces.

ALTHOUGH THERE is nothing automatic about overcoming such challenges, the FSA and the revolutionary formations in Syria are correcting, adapting and learning how to work together.

Many armed groups inside the FSA have explicitly rejected sectarianism. The July edition of Frontline, a revolutionary leftist newspaper from Syria, gives the example of the military council in Deir el-Zour, which issued rules to the FSA fighters, including:

-- It is forbidden to set up checkpoints and inconvenience people.

It is forbidden to kill regime informants, but if you catch one, you can beat them and then deliver them to their family.

It is forbidden to interfere with or attack Alawites in Deir Ezzour.

Members of the FSA must pay for anything received from the people either by paying cash, or working: harvest the fields, build [or help rebuild], etc.

In addition, in early August, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) published a Code of Conduct for military operations, which included a pledge by fighters "not to exercise reprisals on the basis of ethnicity, sect, religion or any other basis."

In September, fearing that foreign groups may take advantage of the Syrian situation to push their own agendas, the head of the FSA Military Council asked all foreign fighters to leave the country. "We don't want Syria to turn into an area for settling scores or proxy wars," he said, "We have enough experienced men to win the battle, but are lacking quality weapons which would help expedite the results."

While the resistance fighters have captured headlines, there has been a proliferation of grassroots councils, some of them more democratic than others, which organize everything from protests to civil disobedience to flash mobs. In some places, they even function as local governments in the absence of the regime, taking up basic functions, such as garbage collection, civil defense, armed defense, evacuations, food and medicine distribution, and more.

These functions of self-government vary according to location. In some cases, the tasks are carried out by committees that coordinate in the same council. Elsewhere, these efforts are more fragmented. Sometimes, the councils operate only on the scale of a small neighborhood. Other councils operate in a more structured manner on the scale of larger districts and cities.

For example, several FSA groups may affiliate with a military council, which is then part of a larger revolutionary council, which also includes the Local Coordinating Committees and other groups. Sometimes, the memberships between the different groups are distinct, and other times, they overlap.

As Jamie Allinson put it, "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."

MANY PEOPLE, including the revolutionary left in Syria, are calling to increase these grassroots organizations and make them more democratic. They are calling for the formation of popular brigades to protect neighborhoods and public institutions.

Everybody is discussing what to do when the regime falls. What are the immediate tasks of the revolutionary government? Dismantling the security regime? Forming a constituent assembly with free elections based on proportional representation to draft a revolutionary secular constitution?

The grassroots councils should play a main role in a free Syria. They are the legitimate representatives of the Syrian revolution. They are not only critical for the current fight against the regime, but they are also the hope for the future. The stronger and more participatory they are, the harder it will be for anybody to force unjust laws and conditions on the Syrian people, regardless of who takes "official" power in Damascus.

Moreover, the threat of Western cooptation or fear of Islamists coming to power needs to be understood in the current context of region-wide popular uprisings against dictatorships. Syrians will not accept another dictator, backed by either East or West. Syria also faces a deep economic crises that the Islamist parties cannot solve. The problem is not simply a matter of regime authoritarianism and corruption that needs to be cleaned up. The conditions that the majority of Syrians are rebelling against are due to fundamental problems with neoliberal economic policies.

It will be up to these committees organized on a local regional, and provincial level to meet these challenges and take on the tasks of fulfilling the potential of the revolution and the historic aspirations of the Syrian people.

These aspirations include, but are not limited to: freedom to speak our minds, practice our different religions, languages and cultural traditions, live in a truly secular society, have free elections for accountable representatives, and finally recognize the full rights of the Kurdish population including their right to self-determination.

Further, a revolutionary democratic Syria should press to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, support a free Palestine, reject economic policies and systems that concentrate wealth at the top of society and adopt economic policies and systems which serve the interests of the majority of Syrians--workers, peasants, students and youths. To that end, Syrians need the right to form independent unions and organizations of the working class to strengthen that struggle and carry it forward. The list goes on and on.

This is a very tall order. Some of it is controversial, much of it in direct conflict with Washington's and Moscow's interests. But this perspective can only be discussed, debated and resolved in the course of a continued revolutionary struggle and a decisive victory over the dictatorship.

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