I have a new hero: a 37-year-old Iraqi photojournalist with a boyishly handsome face and a gentle voice. Ghaith Abdul-ahad deserted from Saddam Hussein’s army and lived underground in Baghdad for 5 years. An architecture student, he was inspired to become a photojournalist after working as a translator for European and American journalists after the US invasion of his country in 2003. He learned English, he says, because he wanted to read a relatively unbiased history of the Middle East.
Ghaith has written articles for the Guardian and the Washington Post on the war in Iraq and done reporting from Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Libya. While in Libya, he was held by Qaddafi’s forces for two weeks. He filmed and narrated the “Frontline” program on the Syrian revolution I referred to in yesterday’s post.
This morning I listened to Ghaith on a recent “Fresh Air” podcast. He said the U.S. is giving just enough aid to the Syrian rebels so that the Assad regime can’t crush them, but not enough so that they can win. In other words, our government’s wanting to back the winning side in order to have as much control as possible over Syria’s future is prolonging the fighting there indefinitely, with 30,000 dead so far, most of them civilians. A force for good? I don’t think so.
The Syrian revolution is one of the most important events happening in the world today. Inspired by the same Arab Spring that sparked major changes in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s turned into a bloody, house-to-house civil war because of the unwillingness of dictator Bashar Assad to cede power to more popular elements.
Frontline recently aired a piece on what’s going on in Syria that you can watch online. But “The Future of the Syrian Revolution” by Lee Sustar, published on socialistworker.org 8-16, is even more helpful in understanding what’s involved. Here it is, somewhat edited for brevity:
The Future of the Syrian Revolution by Lee Sustar, Socialist Worker, 8-16-12
As the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad enters what could be a terminal crisis, imperialist forces are maneuvering to shape the outcome of the revolution. This has prompted some on the left to write off the resistance as tools of the U.S. and its allies. But a closer look at the Syrian struggle shows that popular revolutionary forces remain the leading force in the resistance – and they have the potential to shape post-Assad Syria.
The 17-month-old crisis in Syria entered a critical new phase when Assad’s military tried to provoke revolutionary fighters into a premature uprising in late July. By attacking rebel fighters with overwhelming force in the capital city of Damascus, the government apparently hoped to crush rebel forces before they could launch an insurrection. Yet despite suffering heavy losses and being massively outgunned, the rebels – loosely grouped under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – were not defeated.
Meanwhile, to take the pressure off fighters in Damascus, rebel fighters launched an uprising in Syria’s commercial and industrial hub of Aleppo. Assad was forced to deploy helicopters and fighter jets to that city, previously seen as a key bastion of support for the regime.
Syria’s security chiefs apparently calculated that by pounding civilian areas, they would turn the wider population against the rebels as tens of thousands of people fled both Damascus and Aleppo. Instead, however, the resistance seems only to have become more entrenched in those cities. Resistance forces in Aleppo even captured tanks, suggesting a new level of panic and desertion in the military.
By forcing the Syrian military to concentrate its forces on the country’s two key cities, the rebels have been able to assert control of entire towns and regions, and even to harass military supply lines. The urban warfare followed a bombing that killed four top Syrian security personnel, dramatically demonstrating that Assad’s inner circle is now vulnerable.
With Assad’s iron grip on Damascus and Aleppo now broken, the Syrian bourgeoisie – mostly Sunni Muslims – may finally be willing to desert the regime, as a wave of factory closures in Aleppo hammers them economically. This will compel Assad to try to further mobilize the regime’s traditional base of support among religious minorities, chiefly the Alawite sect of Islam that’s heavily represented in the upper reaches of the military and the security apparatus, but also Christians and Druze. (The Druze are a sect that split from Shia Islam in the 11th century, and the Alawites are a mystical Shia sect that formed in the 10th century.)
Imperialist intervention in Syria has led many on the international left to mistakenly write off Syrian revolutionary forces as having been hijacked by the U.S. and its regional proxies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It’s true that the U.S. has for months been sending guns and money to a select group of political fighters and grooming political operatives that it hopes will do the bidding of the U.S. and European powers. Leading elements of the expatriate Syrian National Council (SNC) have also attempted to make alliances with imperialism, calling for stepped-up intervention by Western powers, such as military action to establish safe havens for refugees on Syrian territory or the imposition of a no-fly zone to neutralize Assad’s air power.
But is it really the case that one of the most inspiring, self-organized revolutionary movements in recent decades has degenerated into a pliable tool of the West? Are we looking at a repeat of Libya, where NATO air strikes played the decisive role in turning the tide in the civil war? Are ultra-sectarian Islamist forces –backed by the Saudis and Qataris–becoming a dominant force?
The answer to all these questions is no. While imperialist forces are angling to install a post-Assad leadership to their liking – preferably a military strongman – the revolutionary movement has continued to develop in response to the struggle in Syria itself. There are well-documented divisions within the SNC and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and criticisms of both from grassroots Syrian revolutionary forces on the ground in the Local Coordinating Councils (LCCs). The latter have organized heroic mass resistance for more than a year and half despite the most savage repression – mass arrests, torture, artillery attacks on civilian areas, massacres, and, now, aerial bombardment.
The U.S. has so far refused to give heavy weapons to the FSA, using Turkey to keep a lid on arms flows to the rebels. Fighters can obtain AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, but not anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons (the recent downing of a Syrian fighter jet was apparently a lucky hit from heavy machine gun fire).
The question of Syria’s long oppressed Kurdish minority is a big problem for the imperialists. Turkey, which also has a large Kurdish minority, has banned Kurdish parties from participating in SNC meetings within its borders. (The SNC has had a terrible position on Kurdish self-determination, insisting on the Arab character of Syria.)
In the hopes of peeling off Kurdish support for the revolution, Assad granted citizenship to the 250,000 of Syrian Kurds who had previously been considered stateless. As the armed resistance mounted, Assad pulled Syrian armed forces out of Kurdish areas and allowed the PYD – the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) – to act as the de facto regional power. This move threatened Turkey, which feared that Syria would become a base for renewed Kurdish armed resistance led by the PKK. A crisis was averted when Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, intervened to create a political deal between the PYD and other parties, making himself a broker for Syria’s Kurds in relation both to Turkey and a post-Assad Syrian government.
The U.S. prefers to keep Syria intact and to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan that could destabilize the Kurdish region in NATO ally Turkey. It’s had to bide its time, because even a “limited” intervention, such as the creation of a no-fly zone, would require a massive bombardment of Syrian anti-aircraft positions in densely populated areas. Imperialist forces have so far carefully calibrated their support for the rebels to foster a prolonged, low-grade guerilla war to grind down the regime. The U.S. hopes to encourage the Syrian military brass to mount a coup against Assad, which could then be dressed up as a civilian transitional government fronted by the most pro-Western elements of the SNC.
By attempting to keep as much of the Syrian state intact as possible, the U.S. and its allies want to preempt popular, democratic revolutionary councils like the LCCs. The U.S. doesn’t want an accountable Syrian government that reflects the opinion of the majority of the population, since this would almost certainly create a crisis on the border of the U.S.’s key ally, Israel.
Assad tried to provoke sectarian violence between Muslims and his own Alawites and Christians by massacring Muslim civilians, but so far sectarian violence hasn’t taken place on a large scale, and the support of religious minorities for the regime is cracking. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze Lebanese politician who is seen as the leader of his co-religionists in Syria, came out against Assad months ago.
Imperialists worry about the potential for jihadist and al-Qaeda forces to get a foothold in Syria, as they did in Iraq. The U.S. decision to rely on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to run guns and money to rebel forces has created an opening for those elements. There are jihadist and sectarian elements in the field that reportedly are attracting young fighters because of their superior discipline and armaments.
To sum up, rather than unleashing a Libyan-style intervention, the U.S. and its allies have waited for the revolution to weaken the regime enough to force out Assad without becoming strong enough to carry out a democratic transformation of Syrian society.
Members of the LCCs have been frustrated by their lack of political control over FSA militias, though some LCCs coexist with armed fighters, and in some areas, where the Syrian state has essentially withdrawn, LCCs administer towns devastated by attacks and dole out food and charity.
After more than a year of mass civil resistance against repression, the armed struggle has taken center stage. If the rebels win, it won’t be because they’ve achieved superior military firepower, but because the social base of the regime collapses. Even if Assad retains the loyalty of most members of religious minorities, he will fall if the popular support for the revolution compels the Syrian bourgeoisie to abandon him. Long tied to the regime through patronage from state-owned enterprises and, more recently, benefits from market-type reforms, Syrian capitalists are being forced to choose between a state that can no longer protect their interests and a working class, poor, and peasant uprising that threatens their wealth and power.
Imperialist forces will do their best to contain that movement from below. But in the end, class conflicts, as well as the armed resistance, will play the decisive role in the outcome of the Syrian revolution.