The Syrian revolution and its critics
The movie Syriana is named after US neo-conservative plans to redivide the Middle East in order to better control its natural resources. It is not an accident that Syria is now the centre of attention for both the Arab revolutions and imperialist blood suckers as the future of the country is fought out in the city of Aleppo and beyond.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), an ad hoc fighting force composed of a myriad of people and political tendencies, are united in one thing – they want to get rid of Assad and his regime. What comes afterwards is probably a hotly debated subject in the rebel camp, just as the possible outcomes of the revolution in 17th century Britain was debated by soldiers at Putney.
Reports from the areas under Free Syrian Army control are naturally mixed, but one particularly inspiring report concerns the establishment of democratically organised committees where the Syrian regime has lost control.
One report, published in Harpers magazine describes as ex-regime soldier who has gone over to the rebels;
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.”
The revolution carries all the features one would expect from a democratic uprising of the people:
“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 article is behind a paywall, but a long excert can be found at Louis Proyects blog)
Just as in Libya the relationship between these freedom fighters and their nominal leaderships like the Syrian National Council, currently ensconced in Turkey, or the various ex regime ambassadors and generals who have changed sides, is a complex one. Even more complex is the attitude of most of the FSA to Western intervention. Some no doubt are in favour of it, purely on pragmatic grounds, as many Libyans were, because the Syrian army’s firepower is considerable and they feel they need some support. Without a strong progressive socialist country anywhere to help them out, it is inevitable that politicians in Washington and London would try and manipulate the uprising in their own interests.
Just as in Libya, a debate has broken out over whether the left should support the revolution or not, and if so, to what degree. The mad Stalinist position of victory to Assad – because he is supposedly some kind of anti-imperialist – should be rejected from the beginning. If the revolutionary left wants to associate itself with tyrants and dictators then it is not a revolutionary left that the majority of people want to be part of! The revolutionary left needs to reclaim the idea of democracy and not let the western powers be the only ones to associate themselves with it. After all our democracy is a genuine democracy of the masses, not business elites and their political hangers on.
Others have a more nuanced position. While they are opposed to imperialism and Assad, they are dubious about the Free Syrian Army because it has a number of pro interventionists apparently leading it. As such we can only offer conditional support to the revolution. Conditional support in this case means protesting against any intervention by British imperialism and avoiding blanket slogans like “victory to the FSA!” While any attempts to create a more nuanced position should be welcome, we have to consider what is actually going on in Syria itself.
In Aleppo currently there is a huge battle raging. As with the battle of Misrata in Libya, it is expected to decide the future of the revolution. Defeat here will likely see Asad remain in power for the foreseeable future, while a victory for the FSA will open the road to Damascus, numbering the regimes existence to days or weeks. What does conditional support look like from this perspective? Do we have to carry out a survey of the FSA fighters, asking them to fill out a questionnaire where they rate their support for a western intervention on a scale of 1 to 10? The reality is that even if the majority of the fighters in Aleppo are pro-intervention they still deserve support, even if it is simply to open a dialogue with them about why intervention would be bad for the revolution.
If the left abstains or begins to condition is support for a genuine mass popular uprising then we are on a slippery slope to erecting a brick wall between ourselves and the revolutionaries. If Syrians in Britain called a protest outside the Syrian embassy over the massacres that have been carried out by the regime then the left should be there – not absenting themselves from it. If a number of Syrians are there calling for British soldiers to go in then we can have the debate about why that would not help, with the long list of historical examples where foreign intervention has caused a disastrous outcomes for the people of that country.
But I think the left should also be more intelligent about what we mean by opposing western intervention. Certainly a no fly zone and ‘boots on the ground’ (i.e direct military intervention) is something that we cannot support, because it would only strengthen the immediate and direct control of imperialists over the Middle East. Even if most Syrian revolutionaries were making the case for such a thing, the left has a responsibility to point to the dangers inherent in any popular revolutionary movement being replaced by proxy by foreign troops. Whilst it might secure the downfall of the regime more easily, it would cease to be a revolution in any meaningful way, and simply become “regime change”, on a par with Iraq or Afghanistan.
But the Syrian fighters need to get guns and ammunition from somewhere, in this case it will probably come from western sources. It is true, of course, that those who pay the piper call the tune, and the West would only offer the weapons to the FSA if they thought they could get something out of it. But this should not prevent the rebels from arming themselves and using it to end the Assad regime – after all, the political struggle over the future of the country is irrelevant if they are crushed at this stage. When a popular movement for democracy is transformed into a civil war the question of who has the most guns and the most fighters is essential. Whilst the question of victory in a revolutionary war is always 9/10ths political, that remaining fraction is the concentrated question of the application of force
For its part, the left needs to politically support those elements of the revolution which are most consistently anti-imperialist and pro-democratic, making whatever connections are possible with Syrians who don’t want to live under a regime run by Assad or run by Washington.