Category Archives: The Syrian civil war

Great powers fighting over tattered Syria show that state power needs to be limited

Yesterday, 2-13-18, Democracy Now aired a segment entitled “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Worse: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar.” Here’s my edited version of the transcript:

“Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amid a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched in Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from which the drone was apparently launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. For more, we speak with Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent articles are titled ‘Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet’ and ‘It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.’ And we speak with Syrian-Canadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.

ELIZABETH THROSSELL (UN high commissioner for human rights spokesperson): This has been a week of soaring violence and bloodshed in Syria, with more than a thousand civilian casualties in six days. We’ve received reports that at least 277 civilians have been killed, 230 of them by airstrikes by the Syrian government and their allies. In addition, 812 people were injured.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in the last week alone.

ANNE BARNARD: Well, thank you so much, first of all, for being interested in this subject. It’s very important that it continues to be talked about. I haven’t been in Syria for a year. I’m constantly applying for visas, but the Syrian government is quite unpredictable and restrictive about when it grants visas to foreign journalists. And once you’re there, you can’t operate entirely freely anyway. We’ve covered recent events from here in Beirut through an extensive network of contacts on all sides inside Syria. Over the last seven years, these kinds of death tolls are happening all the time. Civilians and hospitals are under attack, and it’s very hard to get humanitarian aid access. The Syrian government’s attempts to take back rebel-held areas have been particularly characterized lately by an intensified bombing campaign that’s taken a heavy toll on civilians, who are already tired, malnourished, maybe displaced already several times. Some of them are stuck behind siege boundaries. So, it’s really been a tough week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, most of the media attention in the United States has been focused on the war against ISIS, and with the declaration that most of the ISIS enclaves had been defeated, the attention has largely dropped from the U.S. media. What’s happened since the so-called defeat of ISIS? How has the war in Syria transformed?

ANNE BARNARD: Yes, the U.S. focus has tended to be on ISIS within a framework of the so-called war on terror. But the war in Syria didn’t begin with ISIS and isn’t going to end with it. First of all, I think it’s probably a mistaken “mission accomplished” moment to claim that ISIS has actually been defeated, because many fighters have gone underground, and their ideology, of course, is continuing to assert itself. But since then, what the relative defeat of ISIS has unleashed is the ability of the Syrian government and its allies – Russia and Iran – to turn their attention fully back to fighting the rebels, who have already been on the run. And it’s very complicated, because there are different patches of areas around the country that aren’t connected to each other, that are controlled by different rebel groups, Islamist groups, some al Qaeda-linked groups. There are many wars within the war. And the rest of the world cares less about them than they cared about ISIS, because they saw ISIS as a threat to themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Saturday’s event marking the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s, also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. Can you talk about the significance of this?

ANNE BARNARD: Yes. This brings us to the second consequence of the end of the main part of the territorial fight against Islamic State. Many different international powers, as well as the Syrian government and some of its opponents within Syria, were all against each other, in a way, but united against the Islamic State. And they launched competing campaigns to defeat the Islamic State, racing one another to take its territory. Now that the Islamic State has been largely driven out of territory in Syria, these different combatants are finding that their conflicting interests are coming to the fore again. So, you see Turkey going against Syrian Kurdish groups supported by the US, and even confrontations between the US and Turkey. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria throughout the war, with relative impunity, but this is the first time that the Syrian government has managed to shoot down a jet. You also have Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran – which have differing views about how exactly the future of Syria should be laid out. So, we may be getting to a phase in the Syrian war where all the foreign interveners are turning it into an arena to fight each other, regardless of what Syrians want or the effect on Syrians. And, unfortunately, that could go on for a long time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, I wanted to ask you about the role of Hezbollah, because, it’s been widely involved in the fighting in Syria, and has undoubtedly grown stronger as a result. Could you talk about its role in the conflict, and the concerns of Israel over the growth of Hezbollah?

ANNE BARNARD: Hezbollah entered the war overtly as an expeditionary force in 2013. And that was a big surprise, because this is a group that was founded to fight Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, not to go and help put down uprisings in other countries. But nonetheless, because of their close alliance with Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah entered the war, first in areas that made sense, in a way, for it in a local sense – areas near the Lebanese border. But gradually their role expanded. They were a much more effective pound-for-pound force than the Syrian military, and they ended up helping out in battles across the country. The southern part of Syria is now the biggest issue, because Hezbollah is entrenching itself increasingly in areas bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So, that’s obviously of big concern to Israel. There is also, of course, an Iranian presence in Syria. That’s something Israel’s been trying to counter throughout the conflict, and I think we’re going to see more tensions around that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, you’re a Syrian-Canadian researcher. Talk about the situation in Syria, your country, as you see it.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: It’s absolutely tragic – a complete annihilation of the struggle for Syrian self-determination by various communities within the country. You’re seeing the complete devastation of a society. The healthcare system is gone. Half the population are either refugees or amputees. It’s absolutely devastating. What we’re witnessing in Syria is the failure of international mechanisms to hold states accountable. This has happened before in places like Iraq, Palestine, Congo, the Central African Republic, and in Myanmar now with the Rohingya. [And Yemen.] And it’s going to continue in various places, as long as states are allowed to do as they please. This can only end if populations and communities around the world start mobilizing and pressuring their governments to stop these types of actions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yazan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Western powers were originally calling for regime change to end the civil war, and now that’s dropped off the table for a lot of them. Could you talk about that?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: I’m not surprised it dropped off the table, because, let’s be honest, Western governments don’t really care about dictatorships. In fact, they’re quite a fan. They don’t care if Bashar stays or not, as long as he plays ball and fits into their interests. Should Bashar go? Yes, obviously. He’s a dictator. But it can’t happen through Western intervention or Western forms of regime change, because we’ve seen what happened in Libya and Iraq. So we need to do something else here. There needs to be an international mechanism to hold dictatorships accountable, whether they’re allies to the West or to Putin.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne Barnard, could you talk about whether the potential is increasing or decreasing for some kind of a conflict between the outside powers spreading beyond Syria?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, that’s certainly the danger. I mean, and just to build on what Yazan was saying, the reason that the international community, such as it is, hasn’t been able to come to any consensus is the deadlocked Security Council. So, we start from a situation in which Russia and the United States are completely deadlocked – they can’t agree on anything. And now they’re each backing a side in Syria that sees itself as fighting an existential battle. For Russia this is about restoring its great power status and countering the U.S. in a key area of the Middle East. Russia has interests with its port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Tartus on the western coast of Syria. And it’s clearly put more skin in the game than the US has. At the same time, the US has extended its commitment, perhaps indefinitely, in northeastern Syria, where most of Syria’s oil is. Now we’re hearing that last week US forces hit a pro-government force that may have included Russian contractors

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking January 17th at the Hoover Institution, calling Iran a ‘strategic threat’ to the United Sta,tes and using this alleged threat as justification for keeping U.S. troops in Syria.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking U.S. interests, our allies and personnel in the region. US disengagement from Syria would allow Iran to further strengthen its position there.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, if you can respond to the U.S. secretary of state?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: This concern by the US about Iran is typical, in terms of the warmongering mentality within the U.S. military-political establishment and their need to dominate the region. At the same time, Iran is a dictatorship and a problematic regime, just like every other regime in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Zionist regime, the Saudi regime, and others. We need to start creating mechanisms of accountability that force these regimes to accept the power of people and respect their rights of people beyond all.

AMY GOODMAN: Anne, what percentage of Lebanon is now Syrian refugees who have come over the border, not to mention Jordan and other places?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, Lebanon is a country of around 4 million people, and there are at least one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees here, more than a quarter of the population. So, Lebanon is bearing a huge brunt, and Turkey and Jordan also have large numbers of refugees. I like Yazan’s idea of creating a mechanism to hold the powers accountable, but look what happened when Syrian people and people in many other countries in the region tried to speak up and use people power to ask for more rights or reforms in their countries. Almost all of them were defeated by state power in one way or another. So, it’s really a puzzle. I wonder, Yazan, if you have any, you know, specific ideas about how things can go differently for ordinary people who want to make their voices heard. I mean, you know, we’ve seen a lot of idealistic people try, and, you know, you see the results.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: People have tried and are still trying, and we should continue. I mean, one of the most important things is international solidarities, right? Working between communities, whether it’s the Syrian community, working with communities in the United States, for example – let’s say the Black Lives Matter, because they are facing injustices and tyranny of the state. So I believe in creating ties like that. I believe in creating ties between the BDS movement in Palestine with other pro-rights movements in Bahrain or among the Rohingya. That’s the only way forward, because we’re dealing with an international problem of domination over our communities, wherever we are. What’s happening in Syria is a violent, physical manifestation of that. And it’s going to continue in other forms in other places, as long as states still have all the power.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually in Beirut, Lebanon, now in Kuwait, and Anne Barnard, the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.”

 

 

Understanding what’s happening in the Middle East

Are you having trouble understanding what’s happening in Syria and the Middle East? You’re not alone – it’s complicated. I found a good analysis in an interview Ashley Smith of the Internationalist Socialist Review, did with Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the University of London (published in the Review’s Winter 2016-17 issue). Achcar is the author of numerous books including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2006); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and, most recently, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016). Smith asked him about the left’s understanding of, and approach to, Islamic fundamentalism.

Smith: One of the key developments in the Middle East over the last three decades has been the rise of what commentators variously call political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism. Why do you argue that this political current is better called Islamic fundamentalism?

Achcar: The term one uses is related, of course, to assessment and political judgment, each term having different implications. People use the term “Islamism” to refer to political movements that regard Islam as their fundamental ideology and program. But the term has also been used in the past to refer to Islam itself, so it gets mixed up with Islam as a religion in the minds of most people who hear it. And because “Islamism” has become almost synonymous with terrorism, it leads people to confuse terrorism and Islam per se, feeding already widespread Islamophobic bigotry.

The term “Islamic fundamentalism,” has two advantages. The most important is that there is fundamentalism in all religions. The second is that the notion of fundamentalism helps in fine-tuning the distinction between different currents and groups that give Islam a central place in their ideological identity. While the goal of an “Islamic state” based on sharia is, to various degrees, common to all the groups in the category of Islamic fundamentalism, these groups pursue different strategies and tactics. Thus, there are moderate fundamentalists who have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others, like ISIS, resort to terrorism or state implementation by force. They’re all dogmatic and reactionary.

S: What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East? How and why did it arise as a political force?

A: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, born in the 1920s, was the first modern political organization based on an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. That was also the time when the theorization of the Islamic state, the core Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, took its modern shape, also in Egypt. There were, of course, earlier brands of fundamentalism and various sorts of puritan sects in the history of Islam like in other monotheistic religions, but the Brotherhood pioneered a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that was adapted to contemporary society in the form of a political movement.

The Brotherhood emerged at the conjunction of a number of events. The first was the proclamation of a secular Turkish republic and the abolition of the caliphate after the end of World War I. This came as a shock for those who rejected the separation of Islam and government. It was also contemporaneous with the foundation of the Saudi kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula, a state based on an Islamic fundamentalist premise, albeit one of an archaic tribal character.

Egypt at that time was ripe for revolution with an accumulation of social problems, terrible poverty in the countryside, a rotten monarchy, leaders despised or hated by the people, and British domination. The Egyptian left was weak, and the workers’ movement had come under repression in the 1920s. So you had a conjunction of factors, which enabled the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement capitalizing on popular discontent.

From a historical materialist perspective, Islamic fundamentalism is a striking illustration of what Marx and Engels identified in their Communist Manifesto as one of the ideological orientations among the traditional middle classes. A fraction of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and the small and middle peasantry suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism, which develops at their expense turning a big section of them into proletariat, compelling them to shift from a status of small producers or merchants into one of wage earners obliged to sell their labor power in order to make their living. A fraction of these petty propertied classes oppose capitalist development by wanting to “turn back the wheel of history.” Modern Islamic fundamentalism stems from a revolt against the consequences of capitalist development fostered by foreign domination, wanting to go back to a mythical Islamic golden age.

S: What’s the relationship of Islamic fundamentalism to imperialism? Is it in opposition to it or in collusion with it?

A: Both, I would say. The troops of Islamic fundamentalism are people reacting in a reactionary manner to the consequences of capitalism as well as to imperialist domination and imperialist wars. Faced with capitalism and imperialism, they could opt for a progressive struggle, aiming at replacing unregulated capitalism with a socially just egalitarian society. [That’s considered Western, however, and many, at least in Egypt and Syria, think it was tried – and failed – with the Middle Eastern “socialism” of Nasser and Baathism. Both of those efforts centered around dictatorships, however.]

Since it is a reactionary response, Islamic fundamentalism ended up being used by all sorts of reactionary forces, including imperialism itself. From the time it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood built a close connection with what was and still is the most reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on earth, the Saudi kingdom. They established this link because of the affinity between their own perspective and what’s usually called Wahhabism, the ideology of the tribal force that founded the Saudi kingdom.

The Muslim Brotherhood worked in close alliance with the Saudi kingdom from its foundation until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the first US war on Iraq. Till then, the Brotherhood was a major ally of the Saudi kingdom and of the United States, the kingdom’s overlord. Both used them in the fight against left-wing nationalism, particularly against Nasser in Egypt (1952–70), but also against the Communist movement and the Soviet Union’s influence in Muslim-majority countries. This unholy alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Islamic fundamentalist movements was reactionary through and through.

The Saudis broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because the latter didn’t follow the kingdom in supporting the 1991 US onslaught on Iraq. That was because they found it difficult ideologically to condone a Western intervention against a Muslim country from the territory where Islam’s holy places are located. They also had to take into consideration the fact that their constituencies were very much opposed to that aggression, as was the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Arab countries. So, most regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the US onslaught, leading the Saudi kingdom to break with them. They therefore sought out and found another sponsor: the emirate of Qatar, which has been their chief supporter ever since. Qatar, of course, is another close ally of the United States in the region, hosting the forward headquarters of the US military Central Command (CENTCOM), the most important platform for US air wars from Syria to Afghanistan.

When the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt during the presidency of their member Mohamed Morsi, they earned the praise of Washington. Other more “radical” brands of Islamic fundamentalism have also collaborated in the past with the United States. Al-Qaeda, for example, originated in joining the US-Saudi-Pakistani-backed guerillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before turning into violent foes of the United States and the Saudi royal family after 1990, for a reason similar to that which led to the Brotherhood’s break with the kingdom.

S: Has the class character of Islamic fundamentalism changed with the development of these state sponsors? Is it still the case that it’s an expression of the petty bourgeoisie or has it become “bourgeoisified?”

A: First of all, Islamic fundamentalism is not restricted to one movement. It’s a broad spectrum of forces and groups, as I emphasized, from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists to totalitarian fanatics like ISIS. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional and global organization whose strategies and tactics vary from place to place. If we focus solely on Egypt, however, there has indeed been “bourgeoisification.” After Nasser repressed them, many of their members and leaders ended up in exile in the Saudi kingdom. Several of them became businessmen there and profited from the oil boom of the 1970s. The connection with the Saudi state and Gulf capital played an important role in developing a layer of “devout bourgeoisie” in Egypt – a section playing an increasingly important role inside the Brotherhood.

While this capitalist fraction grew considerably in importance within the Brotherhood, the bulk of its rank and file, its troops, remain among the petty bourgeoisie and poorer layers of society. The Brotherhood was never anti-capitalist anyway, beyond the general calling for social equity that you hear from even the most conservative parties. The Brotherhood talks about caring for the poor, in order to say that Islam provides the solution and that Islamic charity will alleviate poverty. All of this fits neatly with a neoliberal perspective that supports privatization of social care and its delegation to private charities. Unsurprisingly, when the Brotherhood came to power recently in Tunisia and Egypt, they continued the economic policies of the previous regimes. They adhered to IMF stipulations and did everything they could to please the capitalist class, including the old regime’s crony capitalists in both countries.

S: Why did Islamic fundamentalism become such a strong political trend in the Middle East? This is surprising given the rich history of secular nationalism and Communist organization in the region.

A: This is a very important issue. An impressionistic view prevails today, as a result of the media’s continuous reports on various strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, that religion, in general, and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, has always dominated politics in the region. But that isn’t true. Except for Egypt, left-leaning secular nationalists and Communists were prevalent in the Middle East during the 1940s, and things began to change in Egypt with the Nasser’s 1952 coup. His regime passed land reform, nationalized foreign properties, including the Suez Canal in 1956, and Egyptian private assets. The leftwing radicalization of these nationalists – with the towering figure of Nasser central to the process – made them tremendously popular, not only in Egypt but in the whole region and in all the Third World. That was because of their social reforms and their opposition to imperialism and Zionism, which echoed the aspirations of the masses. Early on, after a brief period of cooperation, they clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood and repressed them. From then on, the Brothers became the bitterest enemies of the nationalists, and the Saudis and Washington used them as a weapon against Nasser. They’d lost their appeal, however, having no solutions to offer to the real social problems of the masses, whereas the nationalists addressed these issues in part.

The turnaround came with Israel’s 1967 victory over Nasserist Egypt and Baathist Syria. Like Egypt, Syria had undergone a leftwing nationalist radicalization led by a group that Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1970 to 2000, would topple soon after. With the 1967 defeat, followed in 1970 by the crushing of the Palestinian guerillas in Jordan, Nasser’s death, and the overthrow of the leftwing faction of the Baath, radical Arab nationalism suffered a massive setback, which opened a space for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comeback.

Nasser’s successor, Sadat, reversed all the progressive policies of the Nasser era – agrarian, industrial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist. He released the Muslim Brotherhood from jail and opened the door for its members in exile to return, needing them as allies in his reactionary enterprise. They happily played that role, becoming the shock troops of an anti-left backlash. Sadat allowed them to rebuild their organization into a mass movement, provided they didn’t challenge his rule, and they maintained this relationship with his successor, Mubarak. In the context of a weak organized left, whose most visible section was involved in a similarly ambiguous relation with the regime, the Brotherhood filled a vacuum, attracting disgruntled sections of the population. With funds brought by the new capitalists in their ranks and provided by their Saudi sponsor, the Brotherhood managed grew spectacularly. With their newfound power came ambitions of playing more of a political role than the regime would allow, leading at times to periods of temporary repression.

History shows that when there is a progressive current with some credibility, it can counter fundamentalism. In the Middle East, the left faces Islamic fundamentalism as one of two main poles of reactionary politics, the regimes constituting the other. The progressive forces expressing the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising soon tumbled against the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions to the regimes on the other hand, both equally opposed to the aspirations of the revolutionary wave and, in some countries of the region, directly collaborating in thwarting its radicalization.

S: How should the left position itself in relation to Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting imperialism or Zionism? For example, how should the left approach Hamas and Hezbollah?

A: The left has developed a rich tradition that we should draw on in approaching this question. This consists in supporting just struggles against colonialism and imperialism, regardless of who is waging them, without turning this into uncritical support of those waging the struggles. For instance, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it made complete sense for any anti-imperialist to oppose the invasion, even though Ethiopia was ruled by the extremely reactionary regime of Haile Selassie, who wasn’t supported uncritically. The same approach should be followed today. Hamas and Hezbollah have been engaged in struggles against Israeli occupation and aggression, and we support them in this. But Hamas isn’t the only group fighting Israel; there are other groups on the Palestinian scene, and we need to determine within that range of anti-Zionist groups which are closer to our political perspective. The same goes for Lebanon.

Hamas grew at the expense of the Palestinian left. At the time of the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, the left was the leading force in the 1967-occupied territories. But its groups ended up directly or indirectly condoning Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to the US and Israel, opening the door to Hamas. Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine, which until then had been actually favored by the Israeli occupation as an antidote to the PLO.

Hezbollah emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it was the Communist Party and leftwing nationalist forces that initiated the resistance to the invasion, drawing on a tradition of struggle against repeated Israeli invasions. Hezbollah built itself at the expense of these forces, especially the Communist Party. The latter had a strong influence in Shia-majority regions in Lebanon and was therefore seen as a major competitor by Hezbollah, which went so far as to assassinate prominent Shia figures in the Party. Although it became the dominant force in a just fight – the struggle against the Israeli occupation – it isn’t progressive force. It achieved its status while repressing and squeezing out progressive forces waging that same struggle. It’s dependent on Iran, and has gone along with the neoliberal reconstruction of Lebanon.

Similarly, if the US or Israel launched an attack on Iran, we wouldn’t hesitate in supporting that country, even though its ruling regime is reactionary, repressive, and capitalist – an enemy of the social cause for which we fight. This is important to grasp because, in recent years, Iran and Hezbollah have come to the rescue of the counterrevolutionary regime in Syria, supplying it with key shock troops that have joined its onslaught on the popular democratic movement.

In the Middle East in general, tragically, we’ve seen progressive forces align themselves with Islamic fundamentalists against the regimes – as happened in the first stages of the uprising in many countries, and is still happening in the Syria – while other sections of the left lined up with the regimes against the Islamic fundamentalists. It’s crucial for progressives to assert a third revolutionary pole, equally opposed to both counterrevolutionary poles now dominating the scene, if they are, at some point, to embody again the aspirations that inspired the Arab Spring in 2011. Short of that, we’ll see more of the ongoing disaster with the region overwhelmed by the clash between the two counterrevolutionary poles. The best scenario in the short term is a coalition between the two reactionary poles, as happened in Tunisia where the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a governmental coalition with the old regime forces, or in Morocco where the king coopted the local equivalent into government. Washington and its European allies are very much pushing for this scenario almost everywhere in the region. Such reconciliation would be beneficial from a progressive perspective, because it would compel progressive forces to oppose both counterrevolutionary poles and facilitate their emergence as the alternative to both of them. The future of the left in the Middle East hangs on getting this orientation right.

 

 

The Syrian revolution, part 5: update

Approximately 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Bashar al-Assad regime began violently repressing peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011. Assad’s repression led to activists arming in self-defense and what’s been called a civil war, now joined by Islamist fighters from other countries. (Assad is an Alawite, a cultural group originally practicing a form of Shia Isam, as are many of his supporters, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.) As of March 2017, at least 700,000 Syrians were trapped in areas besieged by the regime, including 388,575 in eastern Ghouta, 15 kilometers east of Damascus; at least 4.9 million were living in hard-to-reach areas inside the country; and at least 6.3 million were internally displaced. According to the United Nations, the number of Syrians who’ve sought refuge outside the country passed 5 million in March of this year. As of December 2016, approximately 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, according to the CIA Factbook, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The population of Syria was estimated in July 2016 to be 17,185,170, 82.5% of which was living below the poverty line in 2014.

Eastern Ghouta, the area east of Damascus, is in one of four proposed de-escalation zones designated in a deal reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May. The accord specified four initial areas: Idlib in the northwest, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Syria. More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the four zones. The accord has yet to be fully implemented because of government violations of ceasefire agreements and disagreements on who will ensure security in the four areas (Turkey and Iran are hoping to increase their influence by means of this plan). A new meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana is expected during the last week of August, with rebels as well as representatives from Turkey and Iran attending, Russia has said.

Following a meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg in early July, a ceasefire agreement – since violated – was also declared in southwestern Syria, affecting the provinces of Suweida, Deraa, and Quneitra.

On 4-26-17, SocialistWorker.org Ashley Smith published an interview with Anand Gopal, a journalist who’s reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East war zones, in which he said, “The U.S. has been heavily involved in Syria for five years and has been bombing the country for three. It’s conducted nearly 8,000 air strikes against a variety of targets, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to members of the anti-Assad opposition, and many civilians have died as a result. Since the beginning, the U.S. has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests. The core American interests in Syria are: one, defeating ISIS and similar groups; and two, preserving the network of dictatorships and client regimes in the region, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. Popular revolutionary movements directly threaten this project, especially when they pose the possibility of overthrowing client regimes and replacing them with independent states. A successful revolution in Syria, especially one outside of American control, would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the U.S. doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused solely on fighting Assad. The Assad regime is now clearly winning the war, having retaken Aleppo and repelled rebel offensives in Homs and Damascus.

Ashley Smith: “It seems like Assad and his backers are succeeding in routing the last remnants of the Syrian revolution, leaving only the jihadist opposition in control of the last redoubt of Idlib. What are conditions like in Syria now after the fall of Aleppo?”

Anand Gopal: “The Syrian battlefield is extraordinarily complex, but as a simplification, you can say that the non-regime side of the equation consists of six forces. Starting with the strongest, politically and militarily, they are:

  • the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish group closely allied with the U.S.;
  • Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the descendant of al-Qaeda in Syria;
  • the northern Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied groups, which are backed by and in some cases effectively proxies of Turkey;
  • the Southern Front, consisting primarily of revolutionary-nationalist Free Syrian Army groups south of Damascus;
  • ISIS; and
  • civilian revolutionary activists.”

The first group mentioned by Gopal, the YPG (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, “People’s Protection Units”) is a mainly-Kurdish militia, the primary component of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces. It controls the area in yellow on the map above, also known as Rojava. Rojava has been praised by some on the left for having a government based on the ideas of American social anarchist Murray Bookchin and criticized by others as being authoritarian and overly influenced by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Regarded as an effective force in fighting ISIS in Syria, the YPG receives substantial air and armament support from the United States and some support from Russia.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” in Arabic), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is a Salafist jihadist militant group formed in January 2017, following violent clashes with Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups. It’s a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” formerly the al-Nusra Front) and several other Islamist groups, including foreigners and fighters from Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. Wikipedia says, “Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate, run by al-Qaeda.” Many of its members defected from Ahrar al-Sham, which has a Syrian leadership and “emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad.” A number of analysts and media outlets continue to refer to Tahrir al-Sham by its previous names: al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. (Al-Sham, or Greater Syria, refers to an historic area before Western colonialism, and today would include modern Syria, Lebanon, most of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and parts of southern Turkey.)

For those unfamiliar with the term “Salafism,” Wikipedia defines it as “an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century, advocating a return to the traditions of the ‘devout ancestors’ (the salaf). The Salafist doctrine can be summed up as taking a fundamentalist approach to Islam by emulating Muhammad and his earliest followers. Salafists reject religious innovation and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). The movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group: purists or quietists, who avoid politics; the second largest group: activists who get involved in politics; and the smallest group (a tiny minority): jihadists, those willing to use violence to try to create an Islamic state or caliphate. The majority of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – 46.87% of Qataris, 44.8% of Emiratis are Salafis, and they are a ‘dominant minority’ (22.9%) in Saudi Arabia.”

Returning to Ashley Smith’s interview with Anand Gopal, the latter says that the current “weakness of the FSA and of what was once the mainstream democratic opposition in Syria is due to a number of factors. First and foremost is the sheer brutality of the Assad regime, which crushed any sign of democracy, freedom or dignity wherever it appeared. The U.S. and the regional powers also sought to manipulate these elements to serve their interests rather than the interests of Syrians. For example, when the regime was besieging Darayya [a suburb of Damascus], one of the iconic centers of the revolution, where ordinary people built a local council in the attempt to rule themselves democratically, FSA groups in the Southern Front wanted to save their comrades, but were blocked by Jordan, which did everything from stanching the weapons flow to closing the border to block ambulances. Today, fighters in the Southern Front are so frustrated with Jordan’s stranglehold that some talk about defecting to ISIS, which is actually fighting the regime. Similarly, in northern Syria, a longstanding FSA group lost its foreign funding when it insisted on focusing on fighting Assad. This eventually led it to join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for access to better resources and protection.”

As a socialist, Gopal also believes that the democratic revolutionary councils of 2011 should have confronted “class divisions in Syria” directly, perhaps “confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to meet their revenue needs. Instead, the councils and their armed protection – the FSA – sought outside funding from NGOs and foreign intelligence agencies, which inevitably introduced corruption and fragmentation, creating the space for Islamic fundamentalists to challenge their authority. It’s no coincidence that the three strongest state-building movements in Syria – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the YPG – relied very little on foreign funding. ISIS’s main source of revenue, for example, was confiscation, followed by taxation and oil.

Of course, it’s easy to make this critique in the abstract, and we should recognize the extremely difficult conditions that the rebel movement was operating under. To begin with, the sort of organized left that might have made class demands was very weak in Syria, in large part because of the legacy of Baathist rule, which co-opted or crushed any type of progressive alternative. Meanwhile, ISIS and Nusra could draw on the legacy of fundamentalist political organizing, and the YPG could draw on the longstanding organizational and ideological perspectives of its parent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey.”

Ashley Smith: “It seems likely that the U.S. and its highly contradictory alliance will defeat ISIS in the coming months. What will defeat look like, and will a military victory lead to any lasting political settlement in Iraq or Syria?”

AG: “The defeat of ISIS will look very different in Iraq and in Syria. In Iraq, the offensives will succeed in toppling ISIS, but will keep in place many of the same predatory phenomena that helped fuel ISIS’s rise in the first place. This includes a variety of [Shia-dominated government] militias that have committed grave human rights violations,” largely against Sunnis, “security forces responsible for torture and disappearance of individuals accused of ‘terrorism,’ and a wildly kleptocratic Iraqi state. We may not see an ISIS 2.0, but the country is likely to be unstable and prone to insurgency for a long time to come. In Syria, on the other hand, the main phenomenon that fueled the rise of ISIS was the brutality of the Assad regime. The YPG is the key anti-ISIS force, and in areas where it’s ejected ISIS, locals generally much prefer it to the regime, even in Arab-majority cities like Manbij. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which contains the YPG as its key component, will likely capture Raqqa by the end of this year. After that, the Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria known as Rojava, along with Arab-majority areas like Manbij and Raqqa, will probably make up a de facto independent region within the Syrian state.

It’s unlikely that the U.S. will continue to back the YPG after the fight against ISIS is over, because it’s hostile to some of the group’s left-wing ideals and because its alliances with Turkey and the Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan, both of whom are mortal enemies of the YPG, will come first. The U.S. is merely using the YPG for its own ends, and once it abandons them, there’s a possibility of a showdown between the regime and the YPG.

In the end, a combination of the brutality from the regime and cynical manipulation by outside powers means that the revolution is at its weakest point since it began in 2011. The revolution may be edging closer to total defeat, but among many Syrians inside the country and among the refugee diaspora, who tasted freedom and dignity for the first time in their lives, it will never be forgotten.”

An article on the World Socialist website titled “Trump Pulls Plug on CIA’s Syrian ‘Revolution’ by Bill Van Auken, 7-22-17, says that “Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian-aligned militias and, since September 2015, Russian air support, have driven the rebels out of every major urban center and into the rural areas of Idlib province, where they’ve been engaged in bitter internecine combat against each other…Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to carry out deadly airstrikes against Syrian targets, with the independent monitoring group Airwars reporting at least 415 civilians killed by US bombs and missiles last month alone. This estimate undoubtedly leaves many of the dead uncounted, and the numbers will rise dramatically with the siege of Raqqa.

According to Zvi Bar’el, in a 7-23-17 article for the main Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, “the steering of the diplomatic process has officially been transferred to Russia and Iran, while Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE are expected to keep funding their pet militias, pointlessly extending the fighting. The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war. Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s service in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily by fighting Assad. Others, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that funds them and coordinates their training and military activity. But not all of these militias obey orders or stick to the missions assigned them. Some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help. One is the al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups still fighting, but mainly among themselves.

American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones, and above all steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran. Turkey, once Assad’s bitterest opponent, made it clear months ago that it wouldn’t oppose his continued rule ‘during a transition period’ for which it specified no time limit. Aside from Saudi Arabia, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.

The most dangerous divergence among the major powers’ interests is the rising tension between Turkey and Washington, which hit new heights this week when the Turkish news agency Anadolu published a map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, replete with the number of American soldiers serving on each. This infuriated not only Washington but all NATO members, because never before has one NATO country revealed another’s military secrets. The reason for Turkey’s leak was its deep unhappiness over American aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey suspects the SDF’s Kurdish fighters of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Ankara defines as a terror group. It also fears that some of the American weaponry the SDF is using against ISIS in Raqqa will be given to Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey. Washington’s promise that the weapons have been counted and will be collected from the Kurds when the campaign is over hasn’t assuaged Turkey’s concerns, and rightly so. A lot of American weaponry made its way to terror groups after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington sees the Kurds as an effective and essential fighting force against the Islamic State, so it has no intention, at least for now, of halting aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The distinction Washington has drawn between Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, which merit aid, and non-Kurdish militias fighting Assad, which no longer do, could increase clashes between the Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting alongside Turkey to expand the Syrian territory under Turkey’s control. Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, defined the United States’ support for the Kurds as a ‘strategic mistake,’ arguing that Raqqa could be captured by Turkish and American forces. Turkish officials say Ankara offered to contribute tens of thousands of soldiers to such an effort, but Washington also wanted $80,000, which the Turks considered excessive. Moreover, they said, the United States didn’t have a serious plan of action. Now the concern is that Turkey’s expanding involvement in Idlib province and the expected clashes between its troops and local militias could force the United States, which wants to decamp once Raqqa is taken, to keep its own forces in the field to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian militias.

Israel must now adapt its strategic paradigm to a situation in which Russia has become a dominant player in Syria in particular and the Mideast in general, while the Americans are heading back across the ocean.”

Don’t forget to look under Realities/Syria in the top menu bar or side menu for maps, a glossary, a timeline, the historical background of the conflict, more information on the Kurdish area of Rojava, and most importantly — ways you can help. Under Books, you’ll also find a bibliography and more complete quotes from Syrians from We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled.

 

The Syrian revolution, part 4

More Voices from We Crossed A Bridge

 In the first post in this series on the Syrian revolution and civil war, I interwove quotes from Syrian refugees with history and analysis. Here are some more of these poignant and informative quotes from We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman (2017):

Terrorism

Abu Firas, a fighter from rural Idlib, told Bridge interviewers, “For every action there is a reaction. When the regime is killing in this way, people become what we call jihadists and you call terrorists. I swear to God that I have nothing but respect for you regardless of your ethnicity, religion, or nationality. But when my sister is arrested and they rape her, I have no problem entering any place in the world with a car strapped with explosives. Because no country in the world is paying attention to me. Not a single one is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights I should have as a human being.”

Jalal, a photographer from Aleppo, had similar thoughts. “The regime has turned us into monsters so it can justify killing us. Syrian society has been shattered – bring any family together today, and you’ll find four or five empty chairs. I once photographed a barrel bomb that killed three kids as their father sobbed, ‘I left them for an hour to look for a safer place to live. I came back and they were gone.’ I have four kids, and the whole purpose of my life is to guarantee their future. So I imagine this man who loses his kids and completely understand if he turns into a monster.”

Yousef, a former student from rural Hasakh told interviewers, “I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when ISIS showed up. Syria’s oil is located in our eastern part of the country, and ISIS recognized how valuable it is. They took over our village and then moved to take Deir al-Zor, which has the largest oil reserves. Regime planes backed them up. They bombed the rebels and people, not ISIS. There were many men and women ready to fight ISIS, and we could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons – no one supported us. Instead, the U.S.-led coalition started bombing us. Two months ago, 27 people in my village were killed that way, waiting in line for bread. It’s airstrikes that have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and ISIS doesn’t have planes.”

Adam, age 29, a media organizer from Latakia: “We opened a Pandora’s box – we had this innocent, childlike desire to see what was inside it. We thought we’d get a present, and what we got was all the evil in the world. I completely understand why someone would join ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Assad regime or the Kurdish groups – you’re in dire need of a narrative that can justify this futility, this suffering. Otherwise, it’s too painful. I think I’m too old to dream now.”

Islamic fundamentalism

Khalil, a defected officer from Deir ez-Zor, told interviewers he was “working with the FSA [Free Syrian Army] when the Nusra Front emerged. In June 2012, I went to talk to them. I said, ‘This is a popular revolution, why don’t you use the revolution’s flag?’ They said, ‘That’s the flag of the infidels. We’re raising the flag of the Prophet.’ I said, ‘Bashar let you go so he could say he’s fighting terrorism.’ They replied, ‘God willed that this should be done.’

We each went forward with our work separately. We in the FSA would attack a regime position, force the regime to withdraw, and move on to the next regime position. Nusra would come along behind us and take control of the point we’d just liberated. We were focused on fighting the regime while Nusra was looking to occupy territory. Most of Nusra’s fighters were foreigners – Saudis, Qataris, and Tunisians. The FSA had more men, but received little aid. We could afford to give fighters only a one-time payment. Nusra gave its fighters monthly salaries and top-quality weapons. It also distributed bread to people to try to win their support. People took it because they were hungry, but the first opportunity they had to go out and protest against Nusra, they did. Then ISIS emerged. It also paid people to join its ranks, and had plenty of weapons, and ammunition. Raqqa became the ISIS headquarters. There was no battle; the regime just handed it to them and left.

We’re against Assad because he’s a dictator, and we won’t accept another dictator in his place. What gives them the right to say something is blasphemy? ISIS killed a German doctor working in a field hospital, saying he was an infidel. This man had come from abroad to treat injured people. If that’s infidel, let’s all be infidels.”

Husayn, playwright (Aleppo): “We created the first movement against Islamization after Islamic groups killed a 14-year-old who used to sell coffee on the streets. Three Islamists – an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Syrian – wanted to take coffee and pay the boy later. He told them, ‘Even if the Prophet Mohammed came, I wouldn’t give it to him on credit.’ The Islamists considered that blasphemy and killed the boy. It was around that time that ISIS arrived in Aleppo. They started kidnapping journalists and activists. There were few of us left by then, but we organized a sit-in in front of ISIS headquarters. After an ISIS car followed us home and blocked our taxi, we began working in secret. When I could only oppose ISIS by living in a neighborhood protected by a violent warlord, I decided to leave Syria. I no longer had a purpose for staying.”

Life as a refugee

Safa, a mother from Homs, is in Lebanon, where “life is terrible – a neighborhood of shacks, lack of hygiene, germs making the kids sick. The roof leaks, and the tap water is so polluted you can’t even use it to wash vegetables.

Lebanese won’t work for less than $20 a day, so bosses fire them and hire Syrians for $10, which leads to tension between poor Syrians and poor Lebanese. The UN used to provide $30 per person. Then they announced that they ran out of funding. One woman had little children and they kept telling her to wait in line to apply for help. It was such a humiliation – they’d leave her to wait for hours in the sun, saying ‘tomorrow,’ or ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Finally, she poured fuel on herself and set herself on fire – right there, outside the UN building.

There’s nothing to protect us – no state, no government, no law, no human rights. Animals have more rights than we do.”

Bushra, a mother from al-Tel says that “kids today don’t think about going to school in order to get a job someday – they think about getting a job in the hope that someday they’ll be able to go to school. Or they think about living in a real house. One day I took my young daughter with me to a women’s center, and after living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and floors. She said, ‘Take a photo of me next to the wall!’”

Abdel-Aziz, a teacher from rural Daraa: “The Zaatari camp in Jordan is a dead area. They found a place in the desert where not even a tree or an animal can live, and they put the Syrian people there. The other day we saw a butterfly in the camp. Everyone got so excited, we were shouting at each other to come and look at it. It must have really lost its way if it wound up here.”

Disappointment and hopelessness

Sham, who was part of a Red Crescent emergency response team in Douma, says regime soldiers sometimes took injured people out of their ambulance. They also shot three friends from another team. She and her husband Munir fled the country after he was released from prison on condition of leaving immediately. “Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We check the news every second to see who’s been killed and who’s still alive. Believe me, if the world had helped us from the beginning, we never would have reached this point. If I died this second, I wouldn’t care, because I’ve reached a point in my life where I hate everything. I’m disgusted by humanity. We’re basically the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”

Kareem, the doctor from Homs, wonders “why the world has so little sympathy for people dying in Syria. It’s as if the blood that circulates in our veins is of lesser value. Syria is just a chessboard for great powers to settle their accounts. Our family is scattered. My parents and one of my brothers are in Qatar, another brother is in Egypt, and another is trying to get to get to Germany. My son spent the first years of his life in Homs stuck inside because of the curfew and the bombing. He had no contact with anyone but his parents and grandparents. He was two years old when he saw another child for the first time. He went up to him and touched his eyes, because he thought he was a doll.”

Imad, a former student from Salamiyah, says the media have “tied the revolution to terrorism. If a Syrian asking for asylum says he was with the revolution, European authorities ask if he interacted with terrorists. You feel like you’re being accused of something. It’s easier just to say that you’re running from war, and in this way the truth of the revolution gets buried. And that alone is a crime against everything that’s happened.”

Concluding Thoughts

Ghayth, a former student from Aleppo, says, “We worked so hard for the revolution, and it was so innocent. Then it turned into a war, and everyone got involved in stealing it. Good leaders were assassinated, and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] was reduced to a matter of funding. We would prefer to stay in our country. If you don’t want refugees, help us make peace in Syria.”

Husayn, a playwright from Aleppo, asks, “If everyone who participated in the dream of a free Syria leaves or gets killed, who’s going to build Syria later? I have hope that there are still people inside the country who’ll want to build it. Half of those living under regime control don’t support the regime. But the conflict doesn’t belong to us anymore. Syria has become an arena to settle scores, and there’s a lack of agreement about what we need for the future. I know some people fighting the regime want to control my life. But we can argue about that later – first we need to bring down the regime…We’ve accepted the fact that we need to make our dreams smaller if that’s what it takes to keep dreaming.”

You’ll see the final post in this series, an update on the situation in Syria, tomorrow, though I’m sure I’ll write more on this subject in the future…Remember to check out the series resources under “Realities/Syria” in the top menu bar or along the right hand side under “Pages/Realities/Syria;” there’s a timeline, a glossary, maps, and more, including more complete notes on We Crossed a Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Syrian revolution, part 3

My last two posts have covered the Syrian revolution and civil war in general, based on my notes from Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. This one, the third in a multi-post series, focuses in on the ongoing war in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. This is the area visited by exiled Syrian writer Samar Yazbek three times in 2012 and 2013 and searingly described in her book The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (2015). Yazbek spent most of her time on these visits in the town of Saraqeb, interviewing nonviolent activists and rebel fighters and commanders, and working with local women to set up workshops and projects that could support them financially.

The regime first attacked Saraqeb on March 24, 2012, as part of an attempt to suppress/control the entire region. According to a local commander Yazbek interviewed on her first visit in August of that year, “They set fire to 70 houses in Jarjanaz and 100 in Saraqeb. The tanks came in and plowed into buildings, and when they left, Saraqeb was a heap of rubble. The next day they were patrolling the streets, shooting and arresting people. A plane with machine guns circled, and an armored personnel carrier launched continuous showers of bullets in every direction.” The women of Saraqeb told Yazbek that regime troops also broke into homes and stole or destroyed people’s possessions.

Yazbek says “jihadist battalions only began appearing a few months after my arrival, but after each massacre their numbers increased. Most of the fighters were still determined to avoid the sectarian war the regime was trying to incite. They wanted a civil state in which freedom was the only sect. Funding and supplies represented a major problem, however, and the new Islamist groups, funded by certain states, were well equipped.”

By the time of Tazbek’s second visit to the area in February 2013, “many of the young people I’d met on my last visit had died. Saraqeb looked lifeless and deserted, and for the first time I saw amongst the graffiti sentences glorifying the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham [militant Islamist groups]. Ahrar al-Sham was so entrenched in the social fabric that they owned a bakery, which was a source of funding for them as well as a means of control over people. The Nusra Front held sway over the sharia court and its judges and clerics.”

Visiting the women of the town, Yazbek met the daughter of a displaced family. “She held a hand above my head, and asked, ‘Do you swear by God that you’ll tell the world what I have to say?’ I did, and she said, ‘Write about the village of Amenas, the place where I was born.’ She then read from her diary about the regime kidnapping and killing villagers there a month earlier. ‘It was the shabiha who did it, driving cars with “Free Army” written on them. Before they left, they uprooted trees, destroyed everything they could, and took pictures of the corpses and the destruction. Then they published the pictures online, saying it was the Free Army that had done it. We left a few days later after hearing that Amenas would be bombed. Every night we slept somewhere new, anyplace we could escape the shells and the missiles. We reached Saraqeb on the 15th of February…

What hurts the most is the broken look in my dad’s eyes, the look of humiliation, and the expressions of gratitude he repeats to everyone who offers us food. We used to live comfortably and had everything we needed, and now we’re living on charity and handouts. My older brothers have gone, and my younger brothers and sisters are frightened. I should have been in university today.’ She stopped reading, grabbing my hand. ‘If we die now, the world will know our story, won’t they?’

‘Yes,’ I answered. If I were writing a novel, this girl would be one of my heroines. I’d describe her flame-colored hair, the look in her eyes, and the way her little brothers and sisters tried to hug her and lure her away from me. She wrapped her arms around them, holding them as lovingly as the adopted baby sparrows tucked inside her cardigan.”

Another day, Yazbek was driven around by Abu Waheed, one of the rebel commanders, who told her, “‘Ma’am, we want justice for our people, but we don’t want other countries interfering in our affairs. We’d be better off if they left us to face Bashar alone. Their interference only works in his favor. So many of our fighters and peaceful activists have been killed or arrested.’ I nodded, my eyes fixed on the road and my ears full of the sound of bursting shells. ‘But we’ll keep fighting. We have no choice – we either fight or die…I hear what they talk about in their planes. They want to kill every single one of us! Can you believe that a government and a state could bomb its own people? I’ll never understand this as long as I live!’”

In July 2013, Yazbek crossed the border for the third time at the Atma refugee camp. She “saw long columns of women and children coming the other way, some of them wounded. In the camp I saw deep poverty: emaciated bodies, threadbare clothing, and children playing barefoot under the blazing sun. All the women were veiled. I asked one woman if it was true that young girls were being married off to old men, and she confirmed that it happened all the time.

In Saraqeb Ahrar al-Sham, which had become the de facto judicial authority, had begun forcing women to wear face veils. They planned to establish an Islamic caliphate, bringing over foreign clerics to act as advisers and ministers. One of the women complained that her children weren’t getting a proper education with only a Saudi mujahid [Islamist fighter] coming around to help kids memorize the Quran.

On July 20th, regime planes dropped seventeen barrel bombs on Saraqeb, killing and injuring many people, since all of the barrels landed on civilian homes and the marketplace. At the edge of town, I spoke with Ahmed, a 29-year-old fighter. ‘I’ll never stop fighting Bashar al-Assad,’ he said, ‘for the sake of friends killed in front of my eyes. The revolution has been infiltrated, and we’re surrounded by enemies. This is madness and we’re marked for death, but should we die without defending ourselves?’”

A few days later, masked armed intruders – not Syrian – invaded the media center and kidnapped Polish journalist Martin Soder. “It was clear that the operation was intended to intimidate secular, civilian activists, since many similar incidents followed. Abductions of foreign journalists were also increasing, either for ransom or to prevent them from publishing the truth about what was going on. A member of the town’s sharia court who was with the Nusra Front said he intended to uproot all the secularists in the country.”

Yazbek interviewed the wives of some rebel fighters living with their children in an abandoned poultry barn to be near their husbands. One said, “‘We’re dying slowly here, like animals that have been tied to a tree and left to starve to death. Our relatives who stayed behind have died in the bombing. I’m going to get pregnant every nine months, so we don’t become extinct. Our children will regain our rights. We want them to be educated and to fight so we can return to our homes. We won’t ever kneel to Bashar al-Assad.’ The tears fell silently down my face as she looked at me. As we left, I asked one of my companions, fighter Abu Khaled, if they were safe there on their own. ‘Allah is our protector,’ he replied.”

Next, Yazbek spoke with some fighters on the front line near the completely destroyed and abandoned town of Haish, which had once a population of 25,000. One of them told her, “‘Everyone you see now is from Haish; we haven’t left our town…I see this as a Sunni-Shite war now. It wasn’t like that at the start, but the Iranian Shiites started interfering and fighting against us – them and Hezbollah. We can hear them speaking Farsi on the radio.’

Anas, age 25, said, ‘We started going out on peaceful protests in Haish, never broaching the subject of religion, but the regime are infidels the way they treat us.”

Abu Khaled intervened, saying, ‘These young men are all from poor working families. The regime destroyed their homes, killed their families, and made the survivors homeless. As you can see, they have some feelings of sectarian persecution.’

Abu Waheed wanted to leave, but the Haish Commandos were wound up, feeling completely deserted and keen to tell me their problems. The town did seem to have been forgotten, as if it existed outside space and time, and they, with their young, angry faces, seeming like the living dead. They told me how their friends were dying, one by one. ‘Tell the world, ma’am,’ one of them said, ‘that we’re dying alone and that the Alawites killed us, and that the day will come when they’ll be killed. We’ll return the harm in kind.’

‘My family are Alawites,’ I said quickly as I got into the car, and they followed, apologizing. Anas leaned into the car, his eyes glistening with tears. ‘I swear, ma’am, we’d protect you with our souls. You’re a daughter of this country.’”

Yazbek also interviewed Abu Ahmed, a leader in the Ahrar al-Sham movement. “Blond, with a long bushy beard, he was 38 years old, came originally from a village near Maarat al-Numan, and had never been interested in the civil society movement. He said he joined the military effort ‘to bring down the infidel regime of Bashar al-Assad and to replace it with God’s law in this country. ‘I was one of the founders of this group, and now I’m the Emir of Maarat al-Numan with a battalion of a thousand jihadist brothers.’ Abu Ahmed explained that an emir has a political as well as a military role, but that the latter is more important. He added, ‘We have non-Syrian jihadis who are loyal to us. We also have many Syrians from the Muslim Brotherhood who emigrated and whose children grew up in exile. Overall, 98% of us are Syrians.’ Politically, Abu Ahmed wanted an Islamic emirate ruled by an unelected shura council, ‘with laws to protect the sects and non-Muslims. It will be unlawful for women to go out unveiled, and Alawites and Kurds will have to leave.’ As for ISIS, ‘the brothers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are here in Maarat. They’ve joined us in the fighting and a large proportion of them are immigrants who wish to fight the Alawites.’

‘How do you imagine the situation after Bashar falls?’

‘There will be major conflicts – wars between factions. With God Almighty’s permission, I will be a martyr.’

‘Do you want an Islamic state, meaning a complete collapse for Syria?’

‘No, we’re just raising the banner of Islam. Syria will stay as it is, but Islamic. The Alawites will leave.’

‘They number more than two million people. And what about the Christians and the other sects?’

‘They can leave Syria, convert to Islam, or pay jizya, the tax for non-Muslims.’

‘And anyone who doesn’t leave?’

‘They’ll meet their fate.’

‘Murder?’

‘That’s their just reward.’

‘And the Druze and the Ismailites?’

‘If they return to Islam, they’re welcome, and if they don’t, they’ll be judged as infidels.’

‘But this doesn’t differ from the evil of Assad.’

‘Leave matters of war to the men, sister.’”

Yazbek next interviewed Abu Hassan, an emir of the Nusra Front, who said, “Compared to the others, I’m a moderate, miss! The takfiris who slaughter and whip people have infiltrated some of our groups. I want an Islamic religion that embraces the world through missionary work.’ Abu Hassan agreed with Abu Ahmed about having a shura council instead of a parliament, about non-Muslims paying the jizya tax, and about Alawites ‘not having a place with us. This is a Sunni-Alawite war, and it will last at least a decade. I’m against killing. Islam is a religion of tolerance and there is no compulsion in religion, but moderate voices like mine won’t be heeded if the situation carries on like this – and I think it will.’”

Yazbek concludes her book this way: “Our dreams of revolution had been hijacked. The powerful countries of the world now battled in our space. Who was financing ISIS and the Nusra Front? Who was assassinating the commanders of the Free Army? Who was killing the journalists and the nonviolent activists? What was causing this abduction of the revolution, this transformation of it into a religious war?”

In an epilogue, she writes, “A year has passed since my final exit from Syria, where surely the sheer scale of the mass exodus of my people will go down in history. Saraqeb has been bombed with barrel and cluster bombs every single day since I left it, while the world watches. What’s happening is nothing new in the history of humanity, but now it’s unfurling in public view, the blood spilling before our eyes and onto our hands. In four years a peaceful popular revolution against a murderous dictator, turned armed mutiny against army and state, has been hijacked by Islamists, making Syrians puppets in a proxy war. The world is obsessed with the ‘Islamic State,’ while Assad’s planes continue to hurl bombs down on civilians in the provinces of Idlib, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

Most of the men I know from Idlib have refused to leave, all repeating the same mantra: ‘We’ll never leave; we’ll die here. This is our land.’ These are some of the protagonists in one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. They went to their revolution full of dreams of freedom and justice, and paid heavily in blood.”