Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria

This very well researched report linked to below, by the Arab Reform Initiative, provides quite a thorough study on the explicitly secular part of the Syrian resistance. This itself belies claims that “there are no secular armed rebels groups” in Syria, that all are explicitly “Islamist” etc, a claim made by the New York Times some months ago in order to justify US imperialist policy of refusing to send even a few light arms to the rebels (indeed, of actively blocking their receipt of portable anti-aircraft guns). This clearly false assertion was repeated by a great many leftists, as usual not noticing that they were saying the same thing as those they thought they were criticising.

This also chimes in well with a recent report from Jane’s defense consultants which gave a break-down of the armed opposition, claiming some 30% were explicitly “secular” and/or “nationalist” (ie, generally called Free Syrian Army – FSA, and officially under the Supreme Military Council – SMC), and another 30% were “moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character”, ie the FSA-aligned soft Islamists grouped together as the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). As opposed to another 30,000 in the hard-line Salafist, but Syrian nationalist, Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and 10% in the two Al-Qaida groups who have a global agenda.

I write about this article and the meaning of this break-down at https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/report-on-relative-strength-of-armed-rebels-in-syria/

This report also notes that the moderate Islamist forces aligned with the FSA (ie, broadly meaning the SILF) could have been included in the report into “democratic” resistance groups, and warns not to confuse them with hard-line jihadists:

“It would have been justified to include other groups described as moderate or mainstream Islamists, who should be clearly distinguished from the extremist and Jihadi groups. They reflect the moderate Islam, which Syrians like to call social Islam traditionally prevalent among the Sunni community in Syria and therefore are part of the social fabric of the country. Some are known to be close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to a democratic and pluralistic agenda for post-Assad Syria. This is clearly stated in the political platform of the Muslim Brotherhood published in 2004 and re-confirmed in a document published in 2012. Several conservative religious leaders have also indicated their commitment to a political system that protects the rights of all minorities. Syrians from all communities and ideological backgrounds do not question the right of these figures to be part of the political transition and to play a role in the future political system.”

It is important to understand this, so as not to crudely divide everyone in the Syrian resistance into “secular” folk that us western leftists like, and everyone else that is in some form an “Islamist”. That is liberal imperialist thinking. We need to get away from those kinds of obsessions. Especially given the nature of the revolution as arising from the marginalised rural peasantry hit by Assad’s neoliberal reforms and the masses of urban poor, often first generation from the countryside, sectors more likely to be religious to some degree than the Syrian bourgeoisie and upper middle classes, the base of the “secular” bourgeois Baath regime.

The report clearly distinguishes the mainstream FSA-aligned “Islamist” groups from the hard-line jihadists, including Al Qaida:

“Extremist Jihadi groups pose a problem of a different kind. Most Syrians see them as alien to the social and political fabric of the country. They run wild and shut down civilian life, calling for establishing an Islamic theocracy more often than they mention the fall of Assad.”

Indeed, the soft-Islamist groups – notably Al-Farouq, Liwa al-Tawheed, Liwa al-Islam and Ahfad al Rasul – have been alongside the FSA in clashes with Al Qaida all over Syria in recent months (as has been widely reported).

However, the purpose of this report is explicitly to describe in detail the explicitly secular resistance, to counter the lazy description of the whole resistance as “Islamist”. This is thus a very valuable contribution for this reason.

Clip from report:

Recent developments, have encouraged a change of attitude among liberals and among non-politicized armed groups which are generally averse to the Islamists’ political agenda. In liberated areas such as al-Raqqa, al-Tabqa, Douma, the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib province, there has been a steadily growing trend over the last year of increasing resentment among those who want a liberal democratic Syria. In the name of protecting a sacred unity in face of the regime, liberal democratic armed groups have remained discreet about their resentment and largely powerless lacking the basic means to challenge the radical groups. Many of their leaders believed that the showdown with the extremists was inevitable but considered that the time had not come for opening this second front. They thought that this could only benefit Assad and that it should be postponed until after the fall of the regime. Instead, they sought dialogue and sought a modus vivendi with Islamist groups.
The change of attitude has been induced by several factors. First, the extremists of Jabhat al-Nosra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (both offshoots of al-Qaeda) began to impose strict rules and provocative measures which alienated large segments of the Syrian population thus showing what many saw as their “true (ugly) face”. Second, the earlier successes of the Jihadis have not been consolidated and have failed to tip the balance in favor of the anti-Assad resistance. Third, the opposition, both political and military, has come to believe that the motto of unity has become counterproductive, that it has been used by the Islamist forces and their patrons as a cover to dominate the political opposition and the resistance, and that it has frightened a large portion of the hesitant Syrians sitting on the fence, thus damaging the image of the revolution altogether. Lastly, the debates in the United States Congress, the British Parliament and the European Union on the dangers related to the delivery of sophisticated weapons to the opposition for fear that the arms might end in the hands of extremists has undoubtedly emboldened some groups to come out and state clearly where they want to belong. But their message is invariably the same: if the means are made available, we will be in a position to reverse the trend on the ground.
Liberated areas offer stark examples of the unwillingness of resistance groups and of the civilian population to provide cover for the abuses of the extremists. Section IV below provides examples from the field of the clashes that are multiplying between mainstream resistance groups and radical Jihadis. These cannot be equated with infighting within an already fractious armed opposition. Rather, they are attempts to rid the resistance of alien elements who worked their way into Syria and stand as an obstacle to unifying the ranks of the FSA. These efforts contribute to the goal of re-syrianizing the movement. FSA leaders (and hopefully their foreign patrons) now understand the damage caused by the willingness of some FSA units to work with Jabhat al-Nosra and realize that this cooperation made the West reluctant to provide military aid and gave Mr. Assad an opportunity to depict the entire opposition as driven by foreign-backed extremists…..
……… The consensus among groups had so far been to protect the unity of arms, and numerous examples exist of tensions resolved through peaceful means. However, the level of resentment against Jihadi groups by the civilian population and part of the FSA has grown to the point where it became clear to many that radical Jihadis had become a serious threat to the revolution. The Sacred Union that had prevented infighting within the armed opposition is not upheld at any price anymore. It should not be seen as further division within the uprising but rather as an attempt at re-gaining control of the resistance and its original objectives. Yet it does imply a painful recognition that the conflict has become a triangular struggle involving the regime, radical Jihadis and the democratic opposition…..

Syria: war threat, the US-Russia deal, and left delusions

For two and a half years, the Assad regime has waged a barbaric war against the Syrian populace, using long-range missiles, fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships, tanks, artillery, cluster bombs and almost certainly chemical weapons, not to forget the everyday machine gunning and torture, in a bid to crush the heroic uprising of Syria’s “wretched of the earth,” the peasants and urban poor, against his gangster-capitalist regime.

Some 110,000 have been killed, hundreds of thousands injured, and 7 million people, a third of the population, turned into refugees, including over 2 million who are overwhelming neighbouring countries, a refugee population resembling the Palestinian refugee population uprooted by the creation of the Zionist regime in Palestine. Half the country has been turned into moonscapes; indeed, if the US did attack, it may find it difficult to find any targets left. The medical system has been smashed to bits with the regime systematically targeting hospitals, ambulances and health infrastructure; thousands are probably on the road to death right now due to lack of medical equipment, water or electricity (see this report for example: https://www.facebook.com/JasminePagesForRevolution/posts/508219659270122).

The war waged by the regime has no other aim than to keep in power a narrow ruling clique that has ruled for 50 years. Despite some “left” fantasies, it has no progressive content whatsoever; the fact that some “leftists” could possibly even imagine this kind of war could have a “progressive aim”, despite such means, says a lot more about these leftists than about the war itself.

Terrified of popular revolution, throughout these 2.5 years, the US and especially Israel have happily watched the slaughter, and despite hypocritical whining about the regime, the US has made sure to not send a single gun or bullet to the armed opposition up till now.[1]

As Chomsky explains:

There are growing claims that the West intends to supply the opposition with arms. I believe this is quite misleading. The fact of the matter is, that were the United States and Israel interested in bringing down the Syrian regime there is a whole package of measures they could take before they came to the arms-supply option. All these other options remain available, including, for example, America encouraging Israel to mobilize its forces along the northern border, a move that would not produce any objections from the international community and which would compel the regime to withdraw its forces from a number of frontline positions and relieve the pressure on the opposition. But this has not happened, nor will it, so long as America and Israel remain unwilling to bring down Assad regime. They may not like the regime, but it is nevertheless a regime that is well practised in accommodating their demands and any unknown alternative might prove worse in this respect. Much better, then, to watch the Syrians fight and destroy each other (http://lb.boell.org/web/113-1317.html).

Nevertheless, as Assad’s regime is clearly a liability – its ultra-brutal repression is only creating more, and more radical, opposition, yet is unable to crush it and thus restore stability – the US has for some time now aimed for a ‘Yemeni solution’, whereby Assad himself and a few top henchmen are stripped of power but the core of the regime and the military-security state remains.

Throughout this time, the Syrian opposition – armed and unarmed – has been divided on the question of supporting an imaginary western intervention to get rid of the regime. However, evidence from the ground, from the less “political” if you like, tends to show that many average Syrians would gladly see a US attack if the US destroyed the “conventional” weapons of mass destruction that Assad has used against them for the last 2.5 years. Average people ducking ballistic missiles smashing into their apartment blocks and hospitals do not tend to spend a lot of time with geopolitics or political philosophy, as people in the west have the luxury of, but with how they can prevent their families getting massacred.

Naturally, the idea that the US, even if it did intervene, would surgically remove Assad’s advanced weapons just to help the revolution is a complete illusion, but that’s another matter.

In fact, the idea that the US has ever wanted to intervene at all, including in this current crisis, is, in my opinion, also largely a grand delusion of western left thinking.

Throughout these years, a significant part of the left has played a disgraceful role, only comparable to the same role many played over the Serbian genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s. In both cases, it has been something of a “Waterloo” for the left. In both cases, however, many principled leftists have opposed this so-called “anti-imperialist” party line, according to which we no longer have to be socialists, we no longer have to care about human solidarity, we no longer have to support the struggle of working people against murderous capitalist cliques elsewhere in the world, it only suffices to be “anti-imperialist” in the narrowest sense, even if it means supporting precisely these murderous capitalist cliques against their people.

Regarding the principled leftists who have opposed this line, this contribution has no argument with them. Thus just a disclaimer: if during this contribution I often refer in shorthand to “the left”, it is only meant to refer to “the part of the left who have become apologists for Assad, and/or those who see a plague on all your houses” – a formulation a little long to continually repeat.

Yet even for the principled left that support the Syrian uprising and have nothing but contempt for the regime, I believe there is still often confusion regarding both the actions and the motivations of imperialism in this war.

In early May, the US announced it had evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons. Several days of tough-sounding chatter followed, when ideas of how the US might intervene were discussed. The idea that the US might just start to think about having a discussion on whether or not it might be a good idea to think about sending some light weapons to some highly “vetted” groups of rebels, faced with this massive onslaught of heavy weaponry, was discussed.

The left went into a tailspin to denounce what they believed was the obviously immanent war. They denounced not just the fantasy suggestions of direct intervention; even the vague suggestion that the US may think about sending a few guns was denounced as a terrible escalation. The left asserted that both sides in Syria were bad, believing this kind of bland meaningless and classless talk to be very profound, just happening to not notice that this was also the opinion of all imperialist leaders, indeed the main reason they refused to send a gun to the rebels. The left indignantly asserted that if the US sent some arms to “moderate” rebels, they might get into the hands of Al-Qaida, again not noticing that the main argument continually put forward by US and other western leaders for not arming any “moderate” rebels was that these arms might reach Al Qaida.

These very moral leftists also often reminded the US ruling class that if any arms got to Al Qaida, that the latter might later turn them against the US. They warned against “blowback,” that wonderful masterpiece of outright imperialist liberalism, which managed to masquerade itself as leftist or even far leftist talk. Curious. In some cases, they would then quote an imperialist leader saying the same as they were, refuse to notice that he/she was saying the same as what they had been saying for 2 years, and rejoice that now “even” some ruling class figures are “beginning to understand” how bad the Islamic terrorists are. Even more curious.

They must have been (silently) horrified to find that within the very same week that began with this US semi-saber-rattling, US leaders announced they were meeting with Russian leaders to get the Geneva peace process started, as there was no possible solution to the Syrian conflict other than a negotiated, political solution. The left probably silently thought, “we could have told you that,” but instead preferred to insist that this was just a time-saver, and a cover, for Obama, that the US ruling class, despite all the evidence, “really” still wanted to attack Syria, for some reason best known to those making the claim.

Naturally, nothing at all came of all the talk of maybe thinking about perhaps considering sending a few arms to some vetted rebels if they were really good.

Then in early July came apparent confirmation that Assad had used chemical weapons. So then it all began again, the entire cycle, the entire circus. The only difference this time was that instead of a hundred “maybe think about its”, Obama declared that the USwould begin to send some arms to vetted groups of rebels. That really made the left mad. Even worse (for them) was that Britain and France engineered the collapse of the EU’s arms embargo against the Syrian rebels.

Once again lots of furious left rhetoric which, like last time, was in fundamental agreement with most imperialist assertions even while imagining them to be different; once again, within the same week of Obama’s announcement was his meeting with Putin at the G8 to launch the Geneva process and again all the declarations about diplomatic solution etc, including the joint G8 declaration, which also stressed that this political, diplomatic solution must preserve “the core” of the Baathist military-security state, and that both regime and rebels ought to turn their guns against Al Qaida, while no mention was made of Assad.

And then “the left” thought it was really bad that the main political and military leaderships of the Syrian opposition rejected this call for surrender.

And once again, despite this time Obama saying he would send arms, not a gun was ever sent to the rebels. And the day after the EU arms embargo was lifted, Britain announced it had only been kidding (ie, that they would make sure not to send any arms), and France announced that it would only send arms to vetted rebels if these good folk promised to use them to attack Al Qaida. Indeed, every statement from US leaders tended to suggest how unlikely any sending of arms, or any kind of intervention, would be, despite Obama’s initial statement. Once again, the left, again feeling cheated of their war, declared all this to be a ruse, while the US was allegedly forever still planning for war.

The “anti-war” (pro-peace? anti-imperialist? left-wing?) rhetoric of the US ruling class reached a crescendo in the very week before Assad’s massive chemical attack on August 21.

On August 13, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said that the potential overthrow of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is the largest threat to United States national security and may help al-Qaeda acquire chemical weapons (https://www.wsj.com/articles/cia-sees-syria-as-top-threat-1375837710). According to Morell, the Syrian government’s weapons “are going to be up for grabs and up for sale” if Assad is ousted. Unless the US has a plan of attack ready for that moment, munitions and warheads currently controlled by Assad could end up in the hands of just about anyone.

Syria is “probably the most important issue in the world today because of where it is currently heading,” Morell said, putting it ahead of Iran, core al-Qaeda, and North Korea in terms of US national security.

One would think that was clear enough: the overthrow of Assad is the problem (the worst in the world for the US), not the Assad regime; that the US saw a huge danger to imperialist interests in any new regime involving Sunni jihadists (though I believe that, while the US is honest about this, it is also using the bogey of Al Qaida to conceal its opposition to the victory of any and every stripe of the Syrian revolution, not only the reactionary jihadist minority).

Yet “the left” went out of their way to publish articles about Morell’s declaration, claiming it proved that “even” figures in the US ruling class are beginning to understand what the muddle-headed left “already knew” about the danger of Al-Qaida etc. They continued to insult everyone’s intelligence by declaring that “the US was on the same side as Al-Qaida” in Syria and other such bilge.

Then on August 19, just two days before the chemical attacks, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said that the Obama administration was opposed to “even limited” US military intervention in Syria as no side represented US interests (http://blogs.reuters.com/david-rohde/2013/08/22/a-moment-of-truth-in-damascus-and-washington):

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides… It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Dempsey wrote that while the US could destroy the Syrian regime’s air force, and change the military balance, “it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”

So, according to Dempsey, all sides are bad, none represent US interests, it is not a matter of a revolution versus a tyrannical regime, but “ethnic, religious and tribal” conflict etc. From the point of view of the kind of leftists I have been describing in this article, Dempsey must have become a full-blown left radical. They should have tried to recruit him to Information Clearing House, or Global Research, or Ramsey Clarke’s mob, whatever they’re currently called.

In fact, Dempsey was simply describing US imperialist interests, like Morrell, and like US leaders have continually described them for two years, for anyone that wanted to listen.

It isn’t that the US ruling class is not listening to these leftists, it is that these leftists refuse to notice that they are saying the same thing.

Australia’s Tory prime minister elect, Tony Abbott, normally a US-stooge if ever there was one, recently came out with doubts about US action in Syria because Syria is not a matter of “goodies v baddies,” but of “baddies v baddies.” The left should have been thrilled that Abbott had adopted their very left-wing view that both a capitalist state with massive quantities of conventional weapons of mass destruction that it uses on an enormous scale, and a terrorized population, a population fighting to end a dictatorship and being slaughtered like sheep, are all equally bad due to the relatively small number of crimes that sections of the rebels (mainly, though not exclusively, the Al Qaida reactionaries) also commit within this hellish conflict.

This is a left, presumably, that has never read Lenin on Ireland in 1916, nor ever read any accounts of the Algerian war of independence.

A “left-wing” view, did I say? On the contrary, Abbott was being entirely consistent and loyal to his class, unlike the left.

So then came the horrific chemical attacks on August 21, on East Ghoutta, part of the vast swathe of working class outer Damascus fiercely loyal to the revolution, a region where Assad had not been able to crush the uprising despite massive use of his “conventional” missiles, aircraft, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery. And an area that he continued to attack with all these means for 5 days after the chemical attacks, while holding up a UN team wanting to get in and investigate.

And much of the left wants to believe it may have been a bunch of FSA people, who were unknowingly transferring some containers of sarin from Saudi Arabian contacts in Jordan to Al Qaida, not knowing what it was, who then had an “accident” in a tunnel, tripped over and spilt the sarin. And apparently this not only killed everyone in the tunnel (except some who apparently survived to tell the tale), but also people scattered over 12 villages in the region (though separated by some areas that somehow weren’t affected). When that Japanese fruitcake released sarin in a subway in Japan years ago, 13 people were killed, all in the subway. This time, the left wants to believe the sarin wickedly spread out of the tunnel and killed hundreds of people over an area far and wide.

Of course while the story sounds stupid enough already, for anyone who actually knows anything, the idea of Saudi Arabia providing chemical weapons to Al-Qaida, their arch enemy whose reason for existence is the overthrow of those they consider the Saudi apostates, is completely stupid; the creators of conspiracist tales ought to do their homework better.

And in the meantime, since I began writing this, the whole stupid story has been exposed as a fraud (see among others this apology to its readers even from the red-brown, conspiracist antiwar.com http://antiwar.com/blog/2013/09/20/retraction-and-apology-to-our-readers-for-mint-press-article-on-syria-gas-attack/, and further this interesting stuff: http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2013/september/yahya-ababneh-exposed.htm#sthash.nFcwkPNT.dpbs).

But I digress. So, since Obama had declared a year earlier that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be a “red-line” for the US, and several smaller instances had been ignored, the perpetration of such a massive attack could not be ignored. Obama, Cameron and Hollande drew up plans for a military strike on Syria, as imperialist “credibility” is at stake. Assad kill 100,000 people with “conventional” weapons, flatten whole cities, turn the country into a moonscape, create 7 million refugees? Fine. But cross an imperialist-declared red-line and kill 400-1400 people? Not fine.

Imperialist “credibility” is the issue, not any fundamental problem with the regime or even its repression.

Besides, unlike all the “conventional” weapons of mass destruction, non-conventional ones (nuclear, chemical, biological etc) should only be in the hands of the imperialist powers themselves (including little ones like Israel), that’s where a “red-line” is necessary, to show who is ultimately boss.

In other words, Obama and co don’t really give a fig about Syrian people getting killed by Syrian chemical weapons, but they do care that, in the case of some future confrontation between a non-imperialist state (such as Syria after a revolution ousts Assad) and imperialism, the small state is able to equalize the amount of terror that the imperialist state possesses.

That it is more of a concern about who might get these chemicals if Assad falls, rather than about Assad having them, was made abundantly clear in the Morrell quote above (and again, for “Al-Qaida”, read “any Syrian revolutionaries”). It is also abundantly clear from almost every statement coming from US, and especially Israeli, leaders over the last two years:

Israel’s overall stance was explained by Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, who stressed the “only scenario” for Israeli military action in Syria would be to “prevent the delivering of arms, chemical weapons and other kinds of weapons into the hands of terrorists” (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57582025/syrian-rebels-to-get-1st-direct-u.s-support-as-$8m-in-medical-supplies-rations-set-for-delivery/). As Netanyahu explained, he considered the Syrian rebel groups among “the worst Islamist radicals in the world (http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-wary-quiet-on-syrian-front-may-soon-end).

As Defense Ministry strategist Amos Gilad explained following Israel’s May attack on rockets in Damascus bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, while “Israel has long made clear it is prepared to resort to force to prevent advanced Syrian weapons reaching Hezbollah or jihadi rebels,” it was not interested in attacking Syria’s chemical weapons because “the good news is that this is under full control (of the
Syrian government)” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/04/us-syria-crisis-chemical-israel-idUSBRE94309720130504).

At least, they were firmly under Syrian regime control at the time. But as every US and Israeli leader and strategist explains, like Morrell, if Assad falls, then there is danger. And it is possible that Israel’s relatively hawkish-sounding view during the latest crisis, compared to the previous two years, may also be due to concerns that it may not necessarily have been the regime itself that decided on the chemical attack, but perhaps a rogue military faction within the regime, indicating the possible loosening of the regime’s control (see http://solidarity-us.org/current/node/4000#comment-3578 for this suggestion), though this is only speculation.

So, therefore, we can say that, yes, Obama and other imperialist leaders do have real reasons, of imperialist “credibility,” and of preventing either a revolutionary or and Islamist Syria from inheriting these weapons, to want to go to war.

But that’s why, from the start, Obama insisted the action would be “limited” in nature, would have as its aim the punishment of the regime so that it knows not to do it again, and would definitely not aim at changing the regime or even changing the relative strength of regime and opposition on the ground; it would in no way signify any intervention into the war. At least that’s what Obama said in every statement, regardless of what the left think they heard him say.

However, these very conditions listed by Obama also indicate that the US ruling class has real reasons for not wanting to go to war in Syria at all.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Obama took the historic decision to take a pending war to Congress before beginning hostilities, rather than later while already in the thick of a war (when Congress is more likely to give approval to “support our troops”). US presidents have enormous war-making powers, and don’t need to go to Congress first; unless I’ve got it wrong, the last time a US president took it to Congress first was in … 1941.

And it soon became obvious that there was no way the bulk of US imperialist representatives seated in Congress were going to vote for war; if Obama took it to Congress, he would face a huge defeat, from both Republicans and Democrats.

Obama didn’t want the embarrassment of defeat in the imperialist Congress; however, neither did he really want his stupid “punishment” strikes for US credibility, because he was as aware as any of us are that not only would they achieve nothing, but they would risk even further escalating the situation, to no good effect for anyone.

Just then, Russia came to his rescue. How about we ensure that Assad hands over his chemical weapons? We (US and Russia) can collaborate on this via the UN. Then the Assad regime agreed. Then the US agreed. A few days of negotiating guidelines with a little tough talk, and finally a formal US-Russia deal. Just like the US-Russia meetings that ended the left’s war party in early May, and again in early July, except that this time the stakes were much higher and the end result much more significant.

A gain to all involved; Russia, which has been arming Assad to the teeth for two years, can say its “diplomatic” approach averted a disastrous US attack (and the left can tail along and call arming a near-genocidal 2-year war and slaughter a “diplomatic means”); the US can claim it was its ‘credible threat of force” which forced Russia’s hand and gives the resolution teeth; and Assad can go on using his massive arsenal of “conventional” weapons of mass destruction to crush the populace, knowing now where the red line really is.

Having the war now stolen from them yet again, when this time they were so sure it was happening, so we could do some “anti-war” work and ignore the fact that most of Syria is already a moonscape after 2 years of war, the left now has to warn that for the US, this is all just time-saving, just a ruse, that imperialism still “really” still wants a war, really wants to intervene in Syria, is still preparing for it etc. Sounds familiar.

And even more, the left want to believe that Obama’s “back-down” from war was due to pressure from … the anti-war movement!

Apparently, the largest anti-war movement in history, right across the globe, could not prevent the US invasion of Iraq, but when a few hundred pro-war, oops, I mean “anti-war”, demonstrators show up to a rally carrying photos of the guy who has waged war on Syria for 30 months, well that really stopped Obama in his tracks.

Much as I don’t want to criticise the principled leftists who condemn Assad but opposed the US war threat out of principle (I was one of them; I spoke at such a rally, making sure to declare my “resolute” support for the Syrian revolution while doing so), nevertheless I can’t help thinking that many of us also sound deluded when we repeat these sound-good mantras.

Is it just possible that, forced into a “credibility-saving” war threat that was clearly at odds with what it was saying loud and clear just the day before (no even small intervention because no-one represents our interests), that the historic act of referring a war to Congress where defeat was certain, that the immediate grabbing the bull by its horns when the Russian offer was made, that these acts demonstrate the fact that, as in the preceding 30 months, the US did not want a war on Syria, did not want to intervene in any way?

The US, no matter how much of a war mongering state it is, does not intervene everywhere in the world where there is conflict. To believe, against all the evidence, that the US “really” wants to intervene but just, one would have to explain why.

There are of course some possible reasons, as alluded to above. As explained, nothing whatever to do with Assad being a “progressive” or even a “thorn in the side” of the US. This is all complete nonsense. But rather, to put an end to the incessant instability (no matter how much the US and Israel benefit from people they don’t like all killing each other for a while, it is hardly the end game); to ensure they have an influence on the outcome; to steer that outcome against either genuine democratic revolution or jihadi take-over; and above all to ensure that Assad’s weapons of mass destruction are not captured either by pro-Assad Hezbollah or anti-Assad Sunni jihadists as the regime collapses.

Against such imperatives however are more fundamental facts: Dempsey wasn’t kidding when he said no-one in Syria represented US interests; he was simply voicing the obvious class interests of the US ruling class. And any form of intervention, from rapid, small-scale “punishment strikes” to full-scale regime change, immediately poses the question of what happens next and who takes power.

Of course, the first option does not necessarily pose it; a chastened Assad remains in power. But the danger of even a small scale attack leading to uncontrollable repercussions, of things spinning out of control, is something much more obvious to the US ruling class than it is to the leftists who made a point of warning the US government about it.

The second option (the so-called “Libyan solution”), of course, has never been on the cards, even remotely; however, if things did spin out of control, as a result of the first option, it could become inevitable. And of course then there is the problem that there is no-one to put into power that the US likes. Of course, there are some ex-Baathist officers being assembled by the US and the Saudis in Jordan that they could try to ferry to power; but, firstly, a small bunch of people cannot control a country just because the US puts them there; they would need a base among the real FSA on the ground. And as every single report has shown, the exile political and military leaderships simply have no authority on the ground – they do not control the armed revolutionary populace.

Such regime change, therefore, would be reactionary on many levels; being brought to power that way would be the surest way to fully hijack such a bunch of exile leaders, strip them of whatever revolutionary authority they may have claimed; yet while that may sound good to the US, their lack of control would mean it was useless without the full-scale power of the US military remaining behind to back it up.

Meanwhile, it would also be reactionary in relation to the section of the Damascus and Aleppo urban populations that still block with the regime, as well as the Alawite minority. While these urban sectors are very much the middle and upper classes (Syria is fundamentally a class war), not all these comfortable middle class sectors should be seen as the enemy, but rather as people unconvinced due to many of the well-known political short-falls, to put it mildly, of sections of the opposition leaderships, and more so with the rise of the jihadist fringe. As such, the task remains ultimately political, and forcible overthrow by a foreign power is not a good way to convince people politically.

But leftists needn’t worry: it remains the strategy that has been the furthest from imperialist thinking all along.

Those leftists and liberals prepared to give critical support to a US intervention tend to imagine a scenario intermediate between small punishment strikes and full-scale regime change. The US either will, they think, or else “should”, launch clinical strikes that will meticulously knock out Assad’s massive air power and other command and control facilities which give his regime such overwhelming superiority over the armed opposition, destroy the chemical weapons, and make sure to avoid bombing civilians or civilian infrastructure. Therefore, evening up the battlefield will allow the opposition to fight on a level playing field without fear of Assad’s aerial slaughter and give them a chance of either winning outright, or at least forcing Assad to the negotiating table with the opposition having stronger bargaining power.

What the pro-war left would need to figure with would be why they think the US would act so completely against its own class interests, especially when it has never been known to have done so before.

And what the anti-war left needs to figure with is that, given that reality, why do they imagine the US is hell-bent on making war and intervening, no matter how much it conflicts with available evidence?

The US is not a peaceful power. For some 5 years now, the US has been engaged in a terrible war all over the Middle East, launching murderous drone attacks on civilians over a wide arc from Pakistan, through Yemen, to Somalia, killing many thousands of people, including hundreds of children. There has been no declaration of war, not once has anyone suggested taking it to Congress. Why does the left imagine the attitude to Syria has been so different (with the exception that the US may be considering drone attacks against Al Qaida in Syria as well)?

All that said, what attitude should leftists take to the US-Russia deal to disarm Syria of chemical weapons?

On the one hand, if it prevents a catastrophic US attack, it is welcome. And if it helps disarm a regime that has massacred 100,000 people and destroyed its country of an extremely lethal weapon, the so much the better. And, while little sympathy should be felt for the Russian government that has poured heavy weapons into Assad’s murder machine for 30 months, if the deal suggests that to Russia, its “place in the world” is ultimately more important than its relations with some tyrant, then in the circumstances that’s not such a bad thing either (same goes for the new Iranian government’s overtures).

On the other hand, for those opposed to the proposed US attack because we oppose imperialist intervention in general, how much less of an intervention is it now that significant numbers (hundreds? more?) UN troops will be all over Syria “ensuring compliance”? Instead of US cruise missiles, will it mean US and Russian troops, along with others, crawling over the country? Hard to know before details appear. Will it turn into the Iraqi situation of the 1990s?

Will a Syria disarmed of chemicals – something I see no problem with as such – then stand more naked before a chemical and nuclear armed Israel? Or, alternatively will Syrian compliance with destruction of its chemical weapons now put renewed global pressure on Israel to do the same?

Above all, for Syrian people, is this simply Assad gaining a mini-victory: his gamble with the red-line has at least clarified how far he can go; clarifying that all the conventional weapons of mass destruction he has been using for 30 months are no problem to the world, so now that’s clear, under cover of being “good” and complying, which will take a long time, he can get on with the job of waging his near-genocidal war against the Syrian people, just without chemicals.

None of this can be answered with any certainty. The left should be able to simply understand that, from where we stand, this outcome is better than a US strike, while still recognizing that it has its own serious problems.

The revolutionary forces in Syria simply had no say, and have no say; they can hardly be blamed for not welcoming it with open arms. If in the best case scenario, this leads to some kind of ceasefire, the revolutionary forces would need to use such a situation to rebuild the mass movement that has been battered down by Assad’s war; this is something necessary in any case, given the impossibility of outright military victory, the need to convince other sectors of the population, and the need for some recovery for the Syrian people from such a terrible catastrophe.

However, despite some “left” equalizing of the oppressor and oppressed, it has never been up to the poorly armed resistance, which originally took up arms following 8 months of Assad’s slaughter of their peaceful protest, to guarantee a ceasefire; it is not their fault that there is not one. It is scandalous that some of the left blame them for receiving a trickle of arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or even for receiving some US arms in the future, perhaps – this, they think, is ‘escalation”, and can be blamed for continuing the war.

To again quote Chomsky, regarding the initial arming of the revolution:

“I don’t think the Syrians made a choice. It happened in the wake of the Assad regime’s repressive response. Syrians could either have surrendered or taken up arms. To blame them is akin to saying that the Vietnamese made a mistake responding by force when their US-backed government started committing massacres. Sure, the Vietnamese made a choice to arm themselves, but the alternative was accept still more massacres. It’s not a serious critique” (http://lb.boell.org/web/113-1317.html).

Let’s just clarify: a ceasefire would be an excellent thing; it is the massively armed regime which pulverizes its whole country that is the block to one; getting a few small arms for self-defense does not hold off a ceasefire, unless those leftists pushing this view mean total surrender, the “peace of the grave”; and indeed, it may precisely be via getting better weapons that the resistance may be in some position to force Assad to the negotiating table, whereas with absolute military superiority, he has little incentive.

So, therefore, if the US-Russia chemical deal does not lead to a ceasefire, and Assad just continues the killing, it is simply back to square one; no-ne should have had any illusions the US was about to help the revolution.

Palace coup?

There is one “solution” the US has long planned for Syria. Given the mess Assad has made, the impossibility of him crushing either the revolution or the jihadists, the US has long preferred the “Yemeni solution”, that of a palace coup from within the regime, or an agreed cosmetic change within the regime that removes Assad and his closest henchmen but retains the core of the regime, and especially the military-security apparatus, to maintain Assad’s Syrian ruling class in power to be able to deal with threats to class power. That represents US ruling class interests.

Is there something in the offing now, a further plan being hatched up behind closed doors by the US and Russia, which, despite outward appearances, have ultimately had a fundamentally similar position on Syria?

As al-Monitor reports (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/syria-general-defects-russian-solution-plan.html?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=8), speculation abounds about the escape, or trip abroad, of high-ranking Syrian Alawite officer, Gen. Ali
Habib, following the chemical attacks, which perhaps have provided the opportunity, as the aftermath forced Assad to turn even more completely to Moscow. According to the report, rumours have it that his departure was made in agreement with Moscow.

On Habib himself, the Monitor reports:
“He served as chief of staff from 2004 to 2009, and then assumed the position of defense minister until his retirement on Aug. 8, 2011 following the eruption of the Syrian crisis. If the news is confirmed, Habib will be the most prominent officer to leave the country. This is especially significant given that he is an Alawite from the town of al-Mandara, in
Safita, on the Syrian coast. The Americans and Saudis know Habib very well, since he led the Syrian military units that participated alongside NATO in the war of liberation of Kuwait, after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. A commander of Saudi forces in that war, Khaled bin Sultan, highly praises Habib in his memoir Desert Warrior.”

In many respects, the perfect candidate.

Would that require a US war? Perhaps not. Perhaps even limited strikes would put that in jeopardy. But does the current crisis situation, and its apparent resolution via high-level mediation between the US and Russia, facilitate the atmosphere for such a solution? Undoubtedly, yes.

Would that at least bring about a ceasefire, that the revolutionary forces could exploit? Perhaps. Hopefully. Quite possibly not. No guarantee at all. Just Assadism with Assad? Probably. But a temporary respite, perhaps.

Would it solve the problems that led to the revolt of the Syrian sansculottes, for which they have paid in rivers of blood? No. The revolution, in one form or another, will most certainly continue, the people having sacrificed too much, freed themselves from fear, and with too much at stake, for the revolution to go away.

[1] As I write, there are indications that the first few guns may have arrived; but the numbers and kind so insignificant, and the wait till now so long, that it changes nothing in this contribution.

Report on relative strength of armed rebels in Syria

Report on relative strength of armed rebels in Syria

September 24, 2013 (partially updated January 25, 2014)

The September 15 Telegraph had an article summarising a very interesting report from IHS-Janes on the relative strengths of different parts of the Syrian armed opposition (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10311007/Syria-nearly-half-rebel-fighters-are-jihadists-or-hardline-Islamists-says-IHS-Janes-report.html). As a report from the defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, it is probably reasonably accurate, but as expected, the Telegraph translation of it was less so.
Of course, the purpose for the Telegraph was to show how terrible the Syrian opposition is, because so many of them are dreaded “Islamists” of some stripe or another. As the article says, this report allegedly confirms what US and other western leaders have been saying about Syria forever, ie, that they hate the Syrian opposition, because so many of them are people the US doesn’t like, and this is the reason used forever for never sending them a single rifle.

The amusing thing, of course, is that much of the left used the report in the exact same way, to show how bad the opposition is, as there are so many “Islamists.” Amusingly, however, the left will claim that this is a different view to that of western leaders who agree with them.

Many will even more amusingly claim the Telegraph is finally admitting “the truth” that only the Islamophobic “left” knew along, perhaps that imperialists are finally seeing the light, and will mumble liberal stuff about “blowback” etc.

But let’s look at the Jane’s report at face value. Basically it says that the most hardened, outright counterrevolutionary section of the armed revolt – the Al-Qaida linked groups – account for about 10,000 troops, or 10% of the armed opposition. Then there are some 15,000-20,000 other “hard-line” Salafist groups (the Telegraph erroneously put the figure at 30,000), another 30,000-39,000 “moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character”, leaving therefore some 30,000-35,000 in outright democratic-secular formations, if the total figure for armed resistance fighters is correct at around 100,000.
The Telegraph puts its own special spin on the final figure, claiming it means “only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups”, a “stark assessment.”

So, 30-35,000 secular rebels, out of 100,000 are “only a small minority,” not a rather large one? And when we add a similar number of “moderates belonging to groups with an Islamic character”, meaning two thirds to three quarters of the armed rebels are not “hard-line” Islamists, this is “stark”, is it?
Perhaps from the point of view of imperialism, for whom all of those vaguely Islamist moderates would still be considered enemies of imperialist interests (would even “moderate Islamists” be as dedicated to protecting the Israeli annexation of the Golan as Assad has been? Would they likely make war on the Palestinians as often as Assad did?); but also, since for the US “moderate” doesn’t just mean secular, but rather pro-imperialist, the fact of 30% secular fighters also gives no clue one way or another whether they are prepared to serve imperialist interests. Why would any of these secular rebels, steeped in Syrian and Arab nationalist traditions, and heroically fighting for freedom, feel any more likely than the Islamists to betray the Palestinians or the Golan? As chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, stated on August 19, no-one in Syria represents US interests.

While some on the left may unrealistically believe that anything less than a vast majority of secular fighters means a hopeless situation, nevertheless the finding that over 30 percent of rebels are secular and at least two thirds are not “hard-line” Salafist/jihadist, is a vast improvement on the stark New York Times article from April, that the Islamophobic left quoted so widely back then, that laughably claimed “nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/middleeast/islamist-rebels-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&)ps).

And of course, it also depends on what is meant by the 30,000 “hard-line” Islamist rebels who share much of the ideology of Al Qaida without its global aims. While these leaderships are indeed hard-line, the evidence of many fighters slipping between groups, because some have better arms supplies (first the jihadists, due to the open Iraqi border with Al Qaida in Iraq, and oil deals with Assad, have the best arms and supplies, next other Islamists have more supplies from the Gulf than the secular rebels have), but with no real commitment to their ideology, is quite abundant. Indeed, this is also true in reverse, in a sense, of the Islamist groups in the category of “moderates belonging to groups with an Islamic character” – while this well defines the memberships and overall goals of the fighters, some of the leaderships may at times appear as “hard-line” as the groups classed that way. Below I will explain my understanding of the difference.

Indeed, we need to better understand what it means in many cases to be an “Islamist” in Syria and not judge everything by how often a fighter yells “Allah Akbar” (like how an angry western radical might yell “Jesus Christ!”). A great many “Islamists” on the ground are not necessarily “Islamists” in a political sense at all, but they adopt some of the religious phraseology of their culture in their struggle. In particular, given the fundamental class divide that characterises the Syrian revolution, the base of the revolution is the peasantry, devastated by Assad Junior’s neoliberal reforms, and the urban poor, first generation from the countryside with extensive links to country cousins; and in “secular” bourgeois nationalist Syria, like “secular” Egypt”, “secular’ Turkey, “secular” Iran in 1979, “secular” Palestine – the “secularism” only ever went as far as the bourgeois limitations of the process could take it, and remains a largely middle and upper class phenomenon. Thus it is not surprising that peasants and urban poor, when they began organising political and then military formations, often adopted religious names, to the vast horror of all kinds of crusading “left” exponents of “secular” chauvinism in the distant West.

Summary of strength of the armed components of the struggle

Below is my summary of what I understand about the relative sizes of these various parts of the secular and Islamist resistance groups, based on the Janes report but also on a variety of other sources (these were the existing formations before the formation of the Islamic Front in November 2003 out of some of these groups – while this does change some things, basically much of the outline still applies, with the new Front essentially a combination of major components of the SILF and the SIF fronts discussed here. See brief updates through this section and at the end):

1. The more or less secular armed struggle, that is the militias throughout Syria generally known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and which are theoretically loyal to the Supreme Military Command (SMC), the main exile-based military leadership body, based in Turkey and Jordan, and led by former Baathist officers who defected. Overwhelmingly, the FSA on the ground is simply the armed local people, and the soldiers who defected and refused to fire on the crowds. It is secular in as much as its goals are entirely secular and democratic, but naturally in composition it will reflect the norm of Syrian society, thus including everyone from atheists to the highly religious. Its loyalty to the SMC however is only nominal; in reality, the SMC has very little or no control over their operations. Estimates of its strength vary; IHS Janes study gives it over 30 percent of the armed opposition (or about 31,000 fighters, see good summary at http://www.businessinsider.com.au/graphic-the-most-accurate-breakdown-of-the-syrian-rebels-2013-9, and Charles Litser’s summary at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/09/syrias_insurgency_beyond_good_guys_and_bad_guys#.Ui6lwS-cszh.twitter); another study by Ken Sofer and Juliana Shafroth of the Center for American Progress claimed 50,000 fighters, out of a total figure of 120-130,000 fighters (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/05/14/63221/the-structure-and-organization-of-the-syrian-opposition); Aron Lund quoted SMC chief, General Salim Idriss, claiming to command 80,000 troops, but this included 35-40,000 in the SILF (see next section), meaning about 40-45,000 for the FSA out of some 120,000 armed fighters (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/freedom-fighters-cannibals-the-truth-about-syrias-rebels-8662618.html). Based on the numbers for explicitly secular fighters provided by a rather through report by the Arab Reform Initiative (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/Protecting%20the%20Syrian%20Resistance.pdf), a rough calculation of some 35,000 or more can be made, but this study unaccountably omitted the largest known secular fighting force in the FSA, the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, which is generally thought to have some 7-12,000 troops in Idlib (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/01/rebels_with_a_cause_but_not_much_consensus?page=full&wp_login_redirect=0), meaning a possible 45,000 FSA fighters if they are included.

However, as Nader Atassi explains, it is very difficult to definitely establish numbers of the real FSA on the ground: “Many Syrian villages and towns have civil defense militias, composed of locals from the neighbourhood, to fend off Assad forces, yet we don’t hear about them, because they are not trans-regional, we hear about Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, because they have the resources to be trans-regional, to travel around from place to place, whereas one militia, composed of 20 people from your neighbourhood, defending it, are never heard of” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxCICHpiL7A2). Therefore, even these numbers showing the secular FSA to be a significant minority may be understated.

(Shortly after the November 2013 formation of the Islamic Front (see below), the Syrian Revolutionaries Front was formed by some largely secular FSA militias in the northwest of the country (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910), including the Syrian Martyrs Brigade and sections of the formerly SILF-aligned Farouk Brigades, while 106 civil and armed secular opposition groups formed the Union of Free Syrians around the same time, http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/for-a-civil-secular-state-100-groups-unite-in-the-union-of-free-syrians/. These are just two of the criss-crossing formations formed n the ground by secular FSA groups, mostly based in the north and west; meanwhile, in the south, from Deraa up to the Damascus suburbs, secular FSA forces generally dominate the struggle and Islamism is a minority current).

2. The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a large group of powerful militias which, in religious terms, stand between the secular FSA and the radical Salafists. While the Muslim Brotherhood is not much on the ground (as opposed to its role in the exile leadership), nevertheless these groups (the largest being the Farouk Brigade in Homs, Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo, Liwa al-Islam in Damascus, and Suqor al-Sham in Idlib) fill that kind of space, ie, they believe, like the Brotherhood (or the AKP), that they can slowly bring about more religious laws, a more “Islamist” regime, via bourgeois democracy or at least via persuasion and discussion, not by force. Their minimal program promises to protect minorities. The SILF lashed out at Al-Nusra when it declared its links to Al-Qaida, declaring “The relentless pursuit of power should not be one of our goals … We don’t need imported charters or a new understanding of the nation’s religion” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/world/middleeast/syrian-rebels-break-with-radical-group.html?_r=0). While vaguely grouped together as the SILF, they are also officially loyal to the SMC, and have representatives within it; indeed, these groups have often been lead players in FSA clashes with Al Qaida.

According to the Jane’s report, the SILF has some 39,000 fighters (though Charles Lister, from Jane’s is not sure whether one of the groups, Suquor al-Sham and its 8-9000 fighters, might be too hard-line for inclusion here, despite its formal adherence to SILF; and the leader of another group, Liwa al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, recently launched a blistering anti-Shia and anti-Alawi speech which was uncharacteristic of the group’s declarations in general, and certainly at odds with their actions). Most other reports tend to roughly agree on this size for the SILF, and the breakdown is usually given as around 14,000 (previously up to 20,000) for the Farouk Brigades, anywhere from 3500 to 10,000 for Liwa al-Tawhid, 8-9,000 for Suquor al-Sham and an unknown number of thousands for Liwa al-Islam). Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar (via its Muslim Brotherhood allies) are thought to have armed some of these groups (indeed, the paper-thin “Islamisation” of the initially secular-FSA Farouk Brigades is generally thought to have been a question of funding, Liwa al-Tawhid has apparently had some Qatari or MB funding, Liwa al-Islam has apparent Saudi connections), but there is no evidence of any specific external loyalty of these fiercely independent groups and even these funding claims are vague.

While the rhetoric of some leaders (eg Alloush) may at times compare to that of more “hard-line” groups such as the SIF below, two things stand out about these groups: first, none have been involved in any known or documented attacks on minorities (indeed, Liwa al-Tawhid explicitly protects Christians in Aleppo http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Sep-21/232025-christian-hostel-in-aleppo-has-own-view-of-jihadist-rebels.ashx#axzz2gfb4z1J2), or on secular FSA forces, with whom they cooperate closely; and secondly, unlike both the SIF groups (eg Ahrar al-Sham) and the Al-Qaida connected groups, which are dedicated jihadist cadre groups with chapters spread across the country, all these major SILF groups are clearly attached to one region, demonstrating that their “Islamism” has a rather “organic” connection to the socially-conservative sectors of the rebellion (especially peasants) in their regions, and as such are more likely to be distorted vehicles of the masses democratic aspirations compared to the dedicated cadre groups.

2A. Ahfad al Rasul is an independent nation-wide front that is also loyal to the SMC and is ideologically very close to the SILF and the “soft-Islamist” viewpoint, and has also been an important player in clashes with Al-Qaida. It has allegedly been funded by both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but does not show any obvious signs of specific loyalty to outside forces, and has a strong reputation as a genuine anti-regime fighting group, and has been a special target of the jihadist groups, especially ISIS. It is estimated to have 10-15,000 members.

2B. Commission of the Revolution’s Shields (CSR), is the semi-official militia wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly consisting of some 43 fighting units, but with altogether at most a few thousand fighters, with a very moderate Islamist program, loyal to the SMC and fighting alongside the FSA. Overwhelmingly, however, the Brotherhood is an exile-based political organisation, powerful in the Syrian National Congress wing of the Syrian Coalition, and its fighting strength on the ground is much smaller (http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/05/07/struggling-to-adapt-muslim-brotherhood-in-new-syria/g2qm#).

These three formations – the SILF, Ahfad al-Rasul and the CSR – may be considered Jane’s “moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character,” or are probably best referred to as mainstream Islamists.

2B. The Authenticity and Development Front (Jabhat Alassalah Wa Attanmyyah) is a smallish front (though claiming some 30 battalions or brigades, with no clear information on what this means in terms of size). It is a front of “non-political Salafists”, meaning they advocate a hard “Islamist” policy in the social field but have no claims to clerical rule in politics. This seems to fit well with the Saudi view, which maintains puitanical religious repression at home with the understanding from the Wahabbi order that the church is kept out of political rule, and thus is highly suspicious of revolutionary Islamist movements. Not surprisingly, the literature has it as a bonafide Saudi front. It seems to be a coalition the Saudis have consciously packed together, from split-offs from various SILF or SIF groups, defector officers, “quietist” Salafis and pro-Saudi tribal chiefs (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency). Its small size is perhaps indicative of the difficulties Saudi Arabia faces in balancing these two aspects. It is politically loyal to the SMC, which is official Saudi policy.

Thus, the combined number of fighters in one way or another connected to the SMC, and covering secular and mainstream Islamist fighters, is according to differing estimates anywhere between 62,000-100,000, ie, anywhere from 60-80 percent of the armed opposition, depending again on the estimated total size of armed opposition.

3. The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), a coalition of hard-line Salafists, or “national-jihadists,” completely dominated by the nation-wide cadre-based militia Ahrar al-Sham, who are fighting for an Islamic state, but unlike al-Qaida, their goals are entirely Syrian. They are completely outside the SMC, but tactically collaborate on the ground with FSA and SILF in operations against the regime, while also cooperating with Al-Nusra at this operational level. They actively denounce Al-Nusra’s ties to Al Qaida and global jihad, and even more ISIS’s role as an Iraqi-based front. While Salafists, they see the fight with the regime as paramount, and for the most part seem little implicated in any ‘theocratic’ repression in liberated zones; their “national” character, in a sense, tames their theocratic impulse in as much as it conflicts with Syrian society, and unlike Al-Qaida, they claim to only want to impose their reactionary vision after Assad is defeated, rather than now during the struggle. There have, however, been some unfortunate cases of such cooperation with al-Nusra or ISIS, most notoriously in Ahrar al-Sham’s mid-2013 collaboration with ISIS repression in Raqqa (where ISIS bombed Afhfad al-Rasoul and other FSA groups out of the city), which later backfired against it when ISIS began to viciously attack them more recently; and Ahrar al-Sham even took part in the ISIS and al-Nusra attack on Alawites in Latakia in August, though it denies any role in killing civilians (indeed, the HRC report into the events suggested the overwhelming majority of the gratuitous killing was carried out by ISIS and its small Chechen-led satellite militia, even al-Nusra coming off relatively lightly).

Jane’s report estimates the SIF has 15-20,000 fighters, while the other reports noted above give their strength as anywhere between 13,000 and 25,000 (the initial report on Jane’s report by the Telegraph claimed this tendency had some 30-35,000 fighters; it seems the Telegraph either made up the figure out of thin air, or added together the maximum alleged figures for the SIF with those of the two Al-Qaida groups). While some reports have claimed past Saudi support to Ahrar al-Sham (perhaps an attempt to find a “national” Salafist group as a wedge between the soft-line, Qatari backed Brotherhood on one side and the global-jihadist groups on the other), if true such a policy seems to have been dropped long ago, given Ahrar’s close coordination on the ground with Jabhat a-Nusra and its well-known support from certain anti-monarchial Kuwaiti clerics (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency).

Update: The formation of the Islamic Front in November 2013 by seven Islamist militias (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/syria-analysis-significant-insurgent-formation-islamic-front/) cannot be fully discussed here; see later blog articles. However, it is worth noting that the IF essentially joined together the three largest sections of the SILF (except the Farouk Brigades) with Ahrar al-Sham from the SIF, thereby dissolving these two former alliances into one. Some aspects of this suggest a radicalisation of the SILF groups while other aspects suggest a moderation of Ahrar al-Sham.

4. The two Al-Qaida linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that is, the “Salafist/jihadis” who have a global agenda. Most foreign jihadis join these groups. Like the SIF, they are nation-wide cadre-based jihadists. They likewise aim for a theocracy, but are more hard-line in practice than the SIF, and in particular are explicitly sectarian, promising oppression to Alawites and Shiites (though Christians and Jews are allegedly to be respected, as long as they don’t expect to take part in Sunni Islamic state power). However, there is an important difference in practice; al-Nusra is largely Syrian, despite its global agenda, while ISIS is heavily Iraqi and foreign – while al-Nusra had plenty of Iraqi members and foreign recruits, nearly all went with ISIS when they split in April 2013. Al-Nusra has been overshadowed by ISIS in recent months, and most of the gruesome sectarian attacks on Alawi and Shia, which increased in the second half of 2013, are the handiwork of ISIS, which represents a counterrevolutionary mirror of the regime.

Al-Nusra has certainly also engaged in attacks on minorities, such as the massacre of 60 Shia in Halita in the east in June 2013; and while completely overshadowed by the bloodthirsty role in ISIS in the attack on the Latakia Alawites in August, al-Nusra’s role was hardly innocent either, and to even take part in such an attack demonstrates sectarian thinking even if there had been no victims. Al-Nusra’s own sectarian foray into the historic Christian town of Maaloula later in the year apparently did not result in massacres or attacks on churches (http://www.syrianobserver.com/News/News/Maaloula+Churches+Safe+Says+Nun), and while this may indicate a growing divergence with ISIS in practice, for a known jihadist group to even enter such a town further demonstrates a deeply sectarian view of the struggle (al-Nusra’s move was criticised not only by local non-Islamist FSA groups but even by Ahrar al-Sham: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24148322). In practice, it stands between ISIS and other Islamists in the degree of theocratic repression or active sectarianism it dishes out; but to generalise, in the second half of 2013, its split with ISIS, its growing Syrianisation, a number of defeats by the regular FSA on the one hand and by ISIS on the other, and even the colonisation of some al-Nusra branches by former FSA cadres (due to resource issues, particularly in Raqqa), have tended to somewhat soften its penchant for “Islamic” repression, and by and large it focuses on fighting the regime.

ISIS has gone the other way, and by late 2013 was so associated with theocratic repression, murder and torture of FSA and mainstream Islamist fighters and civil resistance cadres, and gratuitous murder of minorities – while barely fighting the regime and vice versa – that it had alienated the entire spectrum of anti-Assad opposition, including al-Nusra. This was the background to the combined offensive of all other rebel groups to try to defeat ISIS in early 2014. ISIS should not be regarded as part of the movement in any form, but rather as the alternative pole of counterrevolution, and much evidence suggests a great deal more coordination between the regime and ISIS than meets the eye.

The estimates of their combined strength range from around 5000 to some 12,000 fighters (the higher figure according to Lister from Jane’s). Claims of Saudi support to such organisations by many western leftists, despite what may seem logical due to their shared “Wahabbi” philosophy, are in fact absurd and not supported by a shred of evidence; Al-Qaida sees the House of Saud as arch-apostates and its original raison-de’tre was precisely its overthrow. By all accounts, the Saudis measure their hostility to parts of the Syrian rebellion on the basis of closeness or distance from the Al-Qaida groups just as much as does the US.

To sum up, the following are the range of estimates of the size of various parts of the armed resistance:
a. FSA (ie, secular, directly loyal to SMC): 30-50,000
b. SILF (moderate-Islamist, indirectly loyal to SMC): 37-40,000
c. Ahfad al Rasul (moderate-Islamist, loyal to SMC): 10-15,000
d. CSR (moderate-Islamist, loyal to SMC, Muslim Brotherhood-linked): perhaps a few thousand
e. Authenticity and Development Front (“non-political” Salafist, loyal to SMC and to Saudis): perhaps a few thousand
f. SIF (hard-line “national” Salafist, not loyal to SMC): 13,000-25,000
f. Al-Qaida-connected (global-jihadist, hostile to SMC): 5000-12,000.

Total: 95,000 – 145,000

Comment on ‘secular’ and “Islamist’ division

Thus whether we take the lowest or highest estimates, the secular fighters account for about a third of the total fighting force, and the hard-line national and global Salafists for somewhere between one fifth and one quarter. Thus claims of “no secular fighters”, or of all the resistance between “jihadis”, are entirely fictional. However, the meaning of the large middle bloc of “mainstream-Islamists,” the nature and causes of religious naming in Syria, and the flexibility of membership between various groups, all need to be discussed, from a materialist point of view, but require a separate article.

As leftists, we do not support Islamism, even its moderate varieties, politically; we are opposed to an “Islamic state.” “Islamic fundamentalism” is a non-working class ideology. While this “Islamism” reflects the traditionalism of the peasantry and urban poor, excluded from the “secular” project Baath bourgeois-nationalist project, it also reflects that these layers lack their own leadership after decades of viciously repressive rule, and are led by the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie and smaller bourgeois layers also excluded by the Baathist mega—capitalist elite. While fighting together against the regime, it would of course be wise for the FSA and other secular and democratic fighters and activists to watch their backs.

However, while it is important to know that some 60 percent of the rebels are either secular or “moderates in groups with an Islamic character,” and thus the whole rebellion has not become a giant jihadist plot, at the same time, leftists in the West need to get off the “secular” bandwagon of insisting that peasants and urban poor over in Syria trying to overthrow a monstrously brutal dictatorship have to first get a western-left, or western-liberal, or western-right, star of approval for their “secularism.” The momentum of the struggle against a regime that jails and tortures tens of thousands while dropping barrel bombs on cities, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks, strafing the country with MiG warplanes and helicopter gunships and besieging and starving countless population centres, is a democratic momentum and it is the original aims of the revolution which most are fighting for, including most within the Islamist formations, other than the most extreme. Leftists in the West should be concerned, but we cannot define their struggle, and dictate their necessary alliances, based on our conceptions and prejudices; and emphasising this grand ‘secularism” too much, at this stage of the struggle, would essentially exclude large sections of the urban and ruling poor.

By the same token, however, in a country where there are large non-Sunni minority populations (Alawi, Shia, Christians, Druze), if this “Islamism” is too Sunni-specific and sectarian, it will inevitably exclude these minorities from the struggle. And to the extent that Sunni extremist forces are involved, particularly the al-Qaida-linked groups, it encourage these minorities to stick with the regime as their best defense. A complete domination of the struggle by extreme Sunni sectarians would abolish the revolution and leave two anti-democratic formations facing each other. The revolutionary offensive against ISIS rule in January 2014 (see below) makes this outcome much less likely.

Nonetheless, much of the damage may have been done, and supporters of the revolution, while not at all neutral in the military struggle, may have to recognise that there is no ultimate military “solution” in these circumstances (any more than there is a diplomatic “solution” of the type they are attempting to stitch up at Geneva II); there is only a revolutionary solution, and military struggle is only one tactic within an ongoing revolutionary process, and ultimately subject to politics, including this major political weakness. Therefore I agree with the view of Darth Nader that the revolutionary forces should take advantage of any ceasefire, in the case it were possible to force the regime to agree to one, to re-ignite the mass civil struggle, even if this were the result of the corrupt and regime-saving process of Geneva II (http://darthnader.net/2014/01/22/how-geneva-2-can-help-syrians).

Update: The uprising against ISIS in January 2014: How this impacts on our analysis

While this piece was originally written in September 2013 and many changes have taken place, the fundamentals here remain the same as far as can see. On the one hand, there has undoubtedly been a further drift towards “Islamisation”, a further strengthening of Islamist elements versus secular elements, at least on paper. While this has tended to go towards the “centre (ie, the new Islamic Front) rather than the jihadist extremes, the program of the Islamic Front itself is arguably more radical than that of its largely former SILF components. It explicitly calls for an Islamic state, namely “establishing the state in which justice and development will prevail under Islam’s umbrella and Sharia’s dominion,” but on the other hand it stresses that “it does not consider itself as the national alternative” but rather a fighting force, in collaboration with others, to bring down the regime, and while it officially contrasts “democracy” with the rule of “God,” it immediately stresses that “this does not mean we want arbitrary and authoritarian regime, but national matters cannot be rectified except by consultation in principle and application” (http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/full-english-text-of-the-islamic-fronts-founding-declaration). What this highly contradictory formulations mean kin practice will be determined more by the momentum of the struggle than by the formulations themselves.
And this is where there is some hope, because on the other hand, the offensive launched in early 2014 against ISIS’s increasing imposition of a vicious theocratic dictatorship over large parts of Syria – an offensive launched jointly by the FSA, the Islamic Front, a new moderate Islamist formation called the Army of Mujahideen (less radical than IF) and by Jabhat al-Nusra – is a new upsurge of the revolution. Despite the role of the IF and even al-Nusra in this operation, it is false to see this as just a turf war between rival Islamists in which some just happen to be less vicious than others. Rather, this offensive was a response to a grass-roots upsurge against ISIS rule at the beginning of 2014, and this mobilisation against theocratic repression will make it much harder for any of the Islamist groups currently siding with the people to turn around an impose similar repression.

A very good specific example of this was the fact that in the northeastern city of Raqqa, a region where jihadist-leaning forces are more dominant than elsewhere (given its proximity to Iraq’s Anbar province), it was Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, rather than secular FSA, that liberated two churches from ISIS and removed the black flags that ISIS had flown from their spires. As Robin Yassin-Kassab explains, “this was because al-Nusra in Raqqa is manned by ex-Free Syrian Army fighters” (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/rise-fall-isil-syria-201411572925799732.html). Yes, precisely: and this is the point.

Yet at the time that the FSA’s 11th Division in Raqqa “defected” to al-Nusra last September, it was generally interpreted as further evidence of this growing “Islamisation” of the struggle and the gradual collapse of the FSA. What this latest incident reveals is that this defection may be just as easily interpreted as an FSA “colonisation” of al-Nusra. The numbers further suggest that – according to an FSA commander in Raqqa at the time, the FSA had over 1000 fighters and al-Nusra only a few hundred, and were confronted by a murderous ISIS force of 400. ISIS was far more powerful due its money and arms, of course; as the FSA commander noted, “we have not received any support since the beginning of the revolution. Obama and Cameron are liars. If they had arms this never would have happened” (http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/09/raqqas-fsa-brigades-join-jabhat-al-nusra). Yet even then, if both confronted by ISIS, why did the more powerful-in-numbers FSA dissolve into the smaller al-Nusra rather than vice-versa? And it seems the answer would be the same as for the reason ISIS was more powerful than both: massively more Gulf money and arms will flow to something labelled “al-Nusra” than to something labelled FSA.

If an FSA-colonised “al-Nusra” can liberate Christian churches from ISIS, this needs to be borne in mind when assessing the role of the Islamic Front, which appease a paragion of moderation compared to a-Nusra generally.

What’s the war about?

The article below by David Finkel must be one of the most clear-headed
analyses of the current semi-war-drive I’ve seen in the left media.

One thing I’d add is that, if as he suggests the chemical attack was
“carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by Assad”,
thus revealing “signs of weakening of the regime’s command and control
over chemical weapons,” then this also helps explain Israel’s
contradictory role in this. As he correctly notes, Israel prefers Assad
to the alternatives, and to the extent it sometimes sabre-rattles over
the US not enforcing “red-lines,” it is precisely the issue of example
it has in mind, with regard to the Iran nuclear issue.

But this time, unlike pretty much the whole of the last 2 years, Israel
has appeared relatively hawkish, compared to previous behaviour. Given
that Israeli leaders have stated countless times, with abundant clarity,
that their greatest fear is not Assad controlling chemical weapons, but
rather the danger that the fall of Assad could result in these weapons
falling into the hands of “terrorists”, meaning either Hezbollah but
even more ominously the anti-Assad Sunni Jihadists, the idea that the
regime’s control may be fraying would indeed be a significant problem
for Israel, that would require noone other than the US to try to fix
(and must absolutely not be left to Saudi-backed elite FSA units based
in Jordan).

On the other hand, there is also enormous apprehension about the lack of
any clear US strategy, and this has led to a sharp difference between a
relatively dovish Israel and much more hawkish US Israeli lobby (again
revealing the limits of “lobby theory”), as this article indicates:

What’s the War About?



by David Finkel


September 11, 2013

This article is adapted from comments on the Solidarity e-mail list. It
was written before Obama’s speech on 9/10/13.

Against fierce public and political opposition, Team Obama is going
all-out for a Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force
(AUMF) to bomb Syria. The term they’re using is “flood the zone,” but it’s
looking more like a “Hail Mary pass.” So what is this about? Several
things. First, Obama’s credibility and, by extension, that of the U.S.
imperial dictat, is at stake (more on this later).

Second, there’s an element of stupidity and bungling. Presidential
stupidity is never a fundamental cause of imperial adventures and
debacles, but it’s a factor. Stupidity was a factor in 1979 when Jimmy
Carter, apparently on his own, allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the
USA; it was a factor way back when JFK took the CIA’s bait to invade
Cuba (Bay of Pigs, 1961); it was a factor when George W. Bush dissolved
the Iraqi army in 2003, bringing about state collapse and sectarian
mayhem there.

Bungling is a factor now around responding to the chemical weapons
attack, particularly the U.S. refusal to recognize what should be
obvious: (i) that Russia, not the U.S. or some scrawny COW (“Coalition
of the Willing”), is the real key to stopping the Syrian regime from
using forbidden weapons, and (ii) that Moscow is understandably enraged
by having been suckered on Libya. Cruise missiles and B-52 bombers will
not deter the Syrian regime, but Russia can tell Assad that it will pull
the plug if chemical weapons are used again, making his regime a
liability rather than an asset for Moscow.

The Russian government, of course, is acting overwhelmingly in Russia’s
state interests. Russian intelligence must have already known what
German intelligence has reported, that the chemical weapons attack was
apparently carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by
Assad. This doesn’t absolve the regime and its leadership from criminal
responsibility, but the point here is that any signs of weakening of the
regime’s command and control over chemical weapons must be freaky-scary
for the Russians, as it should be for everyone.

Both the “imperial credibility” and “stupidity” factors have a common
root. It’s an assumption going back decades (elaborated as the “Carter
doctrine” but earlier too) that U.S. military might is the key to the
“stability” of the Middle East. (Israel fits into this equation,
obviously.) But while the U.S. is of course the overwhelming military
power, its capability to control and determine events is decreasing. The
decline of U.S. power was greatly accelerated, qualitatively so, by the
Iraq disaster. But the instinct remains to “prove our resolve,” which in
turn contributes to the tendency to bungling and stupidity.

Another element is the U.S. political gridlock and the administration’s
indecisiveness, even policy incoherence, on Syria, which gives McCain
and the neocons the opening to insert their own agenda to which Obama
has made himself hostage. That agenda remains as it has been under
Bush-Cheney, to push toward confrontation with Iran. If this results in
the destruction of Obama’s presidency, that’s an added benefit from
their point of view. And Israel is lining up with the neocons on going
after Iran-the Israeli goal is not to overthrow Assad (whom they prefer
to the existing alternatives) in Syria but to take down Iran, ultimately
by force. This has not been the Obama administration’s strategic goal,
at least in the short term.

The contradiction facing Team Obama now, which makes it all the harder
to convince the public or ram through the AUMF, is on the one hand that
a strictly “limited” strike will be strategically ineffectual and only
reinforce the (correct) perception of declining U.S. hegemony. On the
other hand, a massive strike that changes the balance of forces in the
Syrian conflict might (i) strengthen the fundamentalist and al-Qaeda
types, (ii) enrage the Russians to the point where they don’t give Assad
the ultimatum to enforce the no-chemical-weapons ban; (iii) push the new
Iranian government away from bargaining and even toward a rush for
nuclear weapons.

It is fashionable among the pro-bombing punditry to ascribe the
opposition of the U.S. public to “war-weary isolationism.” This is
patronizing and one-sided at best. Yes, there is war-weariness after the
Iraq debacle and the Afghan quagmire, but there is also genuine horror
over the chemical weapons attack (yes, the Syrian military did it) and a
feeling that “something needs to be done.” And indeed, something needs
to be done, but Team Obama can’t coherently explain what it intends to
accomplish because it doesn’t even know. And the continuing slow-motion
social catastrophe in America and the budget gridlock certainly
contributes to the mood of rejection.

This is not a war that the ruling class is particularly enthused over
either. Imperial prestige does matter, and there is the potential for
Congressional disapproval to cripple a presidency, there really isn’t a
clearly identifiable U.S. “national security” stake here–not oil, not a
terrorist threat, not even a threat to Israel. If anything, bombing
Syria could push Iran in a more dangerous direction and create the
small, but not trivial possibility of setting off a regional catastrophe
by miscalculation or accident

Stupid story about rebels spilling sarin in tunnels exposed as fraud

The whole story was breathtakingly stupid from the start. It said that
Saudi Arabia had slipped some chemical weapons over the Jordanian border
to the FSA, who did not know what they were, and sent them on a mission
to deliver them to Al Qaida. But on the way, the clumsy FSA folk tripped
over in a tunnel (perhaps after a drunken party) and spilled the sarin,
thus causing the massive deaths from chemical weapons on August 21.

Even though the sarin attack in the Japanese subway a couple of decades
ago killed 13 people, all inside the subway, in this accident the sarin
managed to escape the tunnel, and managed to kill hundreds, perhaps over
a thousand, people scattered across 8 different villages, with spaces in
between where people were not killed.

Never mind that Saudi Arabia and Al Qaida are arch enemies, as Al Qaida’s
reason for existence is the overthrow of the “apostate” Saudi monarchy –
yeh, right, the Saudis are going to supply them, not with a few small
arms just to be a pest, but with chemical weapons. People writing
bullshit conspiracy theories should at least do their homework. And
sending the FSA on a special mission to bring stuff to Al Qaida, when
the FSA and Al Qaida have been clashing all over Syria, including in
this very region in the south and the outskirts of Damascus. Right.

The story seems to have been invented because it seemed to fill the
holes in other conspiracy theories that aimed to absolve the Syrian
regime of blame (imagine thinking that a regime as nice as that one
would do such a terrible thing?). You see, if you wanted to claim the
FSA carried out a black ops, you had the problem that while the FSA
fighters were on the front lines, it was their families that killed back
at home. So you had to make it so they didn’t know what they were doing,
but the bumbling idiots were still to balme anyway (imagine trusting
anyone who trips over with sarin to run a country). But if you wanted to
blame Al Qaida, you had the problem that if such an organisation, that
has little regard for human life, had such quantities of Chemical
weapons, or any, then why hadn’t they been throwing it around Syria, at
regime troops, or the FSA, or the Kurds? So you had to bring in a
foreign supplier.

Now the story has been exposed as a fraud, with even the
arch-conspiracist red-brown Buchaninite antiwar.com apologising to its
readers for running such bilge. If even they admit it is BS, that’s when
you know it is.

Retraction and Apology to Our Readers for Mint Press Article on Syria
Gas Attack


Eric Garris, September 20, 2013

On August 31, Antiwar.com reprinted an article from Mint Press News:
“Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack.”
We originally linked to it, but then reprinted on our site at the
request of Mint Press because traffic on their site was crashing their
server. The validity of the story was primarily based on the fact that
the supposed co-author (Dale Gavlak) is a reporter for Associated Press.

Many other articles have been written which refer to the information
contained in the Mint Press piece, including ones appearing on

Dale Gavlak has issued a statement saying she did not co-author the
article and denies that she traveled to Syria or contributed to the
article in any way. Here is his statement:

Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published
on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels.
Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel,
they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not
the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint
Press News piece. To date, Mint Press News has refused to act
professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual
authorship and sources for this story.

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or
do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not
based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based
on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to
attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.

The staff of Antiwar.com sincerely and deeply apologizes for being a
part of spreading this article. We also apologize to Dale Gavlak.


More on the story:




And since then, the actual writer himself has also been exposed as a

Yahya Ababneh exposed

Syria “rebel chemicals” story may have come from Russian source


New questions have arisen about Yahya Ababneh, the alleged author of an
article claiming that the chemical deaths in Damascus last month were
caused by rebel fighters mishandling weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia.

The story, originally published by an American website, Mint Press News,
has since been cited by Russian officials (and others) to cast doubt on
the findings of the UN weapons inspectors in Syria.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak – an
established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the
Associated Press – and Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian.

In a dramatic twist last Friday, Gavlak issued a statement denying that
she was an “author” or “reporter” for the article. “Yahya Ababneh is the
sole reporter and author,” she said. However, she followed this up
yesterday with an email to the Brown Moses blog conceding that she had
helped Ababneh to “write up” the story, that she had sent it to Mint
Press herself once it was completed, and that she had vouched for
Ababneh’s journalistic credentials.

According to Ababneh’s profile on LinkedIn, the professional networking
website, he has carried out journalistic assignments “in Jordan, Syria,
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera,
al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications”.

So far, though, no evidence has emerged to support this claim and
internet searches in English and Arabic for articles that carry his
byline have drawn a blank.

To add to this mystery, Ababneh’s profile was deleted from LinkedIn
yesterday, though a cached copy can be found here.

One thing that doesn’t show up in the cache is the endorsements given to
Ababneh by other LinkedIn users. On the deleted page, he had received
endorsements for his skills from two people – Ghazal Omid of the Iran
Future organisation and Sufian Ababneh, a legal adviser at the Jordanian
embassy in London. Among other things, Sufian Ababneh had endorsed him
for his skills as an actor.

* * *

Let’s now turn to a column written by Peter Hitchens for the Mail on
Sunday on 26 August, which a reader pointed out to me in an email.
There’s no need to read the column – just scroll down through the
comments thread.

Here we find a comment posted at 9.31pm on August 28 in the name of Yan
Barakat. Note the timing, because Dale Gavlak says she didn’t send the
“Saudi chemicals” story to Mint Press until August 29.

This means there is no way Yan Barakat could have read the article on
Mint Press’s website – and yet Barakat’s comments bear some interesting
resemblances to the story allegedly written by Ababneh.

“Who used the chemical weapons?” Barakat asks. He continues:

“The answer is neither the Syrian regime, nor the rebels. This is the
game of Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief. He gave these
weapons to the rebels via tunnels but they did not have enough
information about them. Almost all of the rebels handling the weapons
were killed because they used them incorrectly.

“Many people inside the village were really angry with Jabhat Al Nazrah
[sic] (an Al Qaeda associate in Syria).”

Barakat then adds some information that wasn’t included in the Mint
Press story which has done so much to excite Russian officials:

“Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became
friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the
rebels who used the weapons.”

So who is Yan Barakat? Clicking on his name in the Mail on Sunday
comments thread leads to his Facebook page where there is a photo of

Like Yahya Ababneh, Yan Barakat appears to be a Jordanian freelance
journalist. There was an article published under his name in the
Jerusalem Post.

* * *

Let’s now turn to another website – this time a blog in Spanish about
Cuba. Here we find another blogger getting excited about Ababneh’s
weapons story.

The interesting part of this is that it includes a link to Ababneh’s
now-deleted profile on LinkedIn – together with a photograph which bears
a striking resemblance to that of Yan Barakat.


Just out of interest, this Yahya Ababneh/Yan Barakat character’s article
in Jerusalem Post just happens to reveal him to be one of that small
band of dedicated “Zionist Arabs”:


No surprise at all that this is who comes to Assad’s rescue

Palestinians and the Syrian uprising

The article below on Palestinians in the Syrian uprising is important not because I think it is necessary for Palestinians to “take a side” as such – I think the Palestinians have their own problems, have had plenty of bad experience with other Arab states, and thus have to tread carefully, with a studied policy of neutrality being in their best interests – but because it demonstrates the social reasons why in reality Palestinians have become involved one way or another in the revolt against the tyranny. Of course, as I explain elsewhere, Assad’s regime has always been anti-Palestinian, so it was hardly surprising that Hamas came out in support fo the Syrian people’s uprising; in any case, it was too obvious to Hamas that what the regime was doing to Syrian people fightinbg for freedom resembled very closely what the Zionist regime regularly does to them in Gaza. Solidarity still exists in the world. (And no, I don;t think it is just because Hamas and the Palestinians in general are Sunni; its long-term alliance with Hezbollah, and its standing of a Christian candidate in the 2006 elections, belie that as the major factor). But the simple fact of the matter is that the degree of integration of Palestinians into Syrian society, so that family and friends and workmates are people both inside and outside of the camps, mean that the struggles of the local Syrian populatin become their struggles as well.


According to one activist, the uprising marks “the first time we feel
Syrian.this intifada is about the whole of Syria, as this country is
holding both Syrians and Palestinians.” Of course, isolated interviews
with politically active refugees are not sufficient to capture the
prevailing sentiment of the Syrian refugee population as a whole. Still,
interviews such as these, along with Palestinians’ extensively
documented involvement in the uprising on the side of the opposition,
provide a compelling ethnographic account of the affective dimension of
their integration into pre-conflict Syrian society. The early legal
integration of the PRS and the concomitant rise in their socio-economic
fortunes in the proceeding years allowed certain elements of the refugee
population to identify with the domestic aspirations of their Syrian
neighbors, despite their official status as refugees and the pull of a
competing Palestinian national identity.

(Dis)integration: Palestinian Refugees in the Syrian Civil War


by Matthew Coogan

[9 December 2012. Palestinian refugee who fled from Dera’a to Jordan
with his family. In front of his grocery shop in Hiteen Refugee Camp.
Photo by Noura Erakat]

One of the most potent discourses used to describe events in Syria has
been that of social disintegration or fragmentation. The diverse
tapestry of ethnic, religious, and national identities that
characterized Syrian society is unraveling into sectarian strife and
will be difficult to reconstitute in a post-conflict environment. Of
course, such a discourse should not elide more complex and nuanced forms
of social identification and association and reduce the conflict to a
war between irreconcilable factions. Nevertheless, the conflict has
produced unique consequences for various social groups in Syria related
to their particular social, economic and political positions in
pre-conflict Syrian society. Such is the case for the approximately five
hundred thousand Palestinian refugees in Syria (PRS).

Up until 2011, the Palestinian refugees of Syria (PRS) enjoyed the
highest level of socio-economic integration of any Palestinian refugee
community outside of Jordan. They had achieved a high level of
performance on a range of socio-economic indicators, including favorable
living conditions and expansive opportunities in the domestic job
market. Moreover, the early legal integration of the PRS, in combination
with the regime’s attempted cooptation of the Palestinian nationalist
movement, afforded the PRS a distinct social and political role in
Syria, in addition to their relative economic success.

However the violence that has engulfed Syria since the advent of the
Arab Uprisings has dramatically altered the position of the country’s
Palestinians and demonstrates their acute vulnerability. Like most
Syrians, the PRS have found much of their social and economic gains
reversed as a result of the conflict. However, their status as refugees
will present unique challenges for the Palestinian refugees in Syria
that will undermine their position and re-integration in a post-conflict
Syria. The broad national conditions that once facilitated their robust
socio-economic integration into Syrian society have all but evaporated.
The deterioration of the Syria economy and the increasingly polarized
social and political climate will likely preclude the possibility that
the PRS will be reintegrated into Syrian society at pre-conflict levels.

The Legal and Socio-Economic Status of Palestinian Refugees

Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948,
approximately eight-hundred thousand Palestinians were forced to flee
historic Palestine and seek refuge in neighboring Arab countries. These
host states each adopted a distinctive set of policies relating to their
refugee communities, resulting in disparate legal statuses and levels of
socio-economic integration for Palestinian refugees in their various
countries of residence. The starkest contrast was between Jordan and
Lebanon. Beginning in 1949, the Jordanian government began issuing full
citizenship to all Palestinians resident in its territories, resulting
in a high level of refugee integration into the domestic and regional
job market and Palestinians’ active participation in the Jordanian
political arena. In contrast, in Lebanon, Palestinians were regarded as
foreigners and barred from participation in numerous sectors of the
economy, denied social services available to Lebanese citizens, and
excluded from the political process. Scholars have observed that these
legal barriers were deliberately instituted to “[prevent] the
socioeconomic absorption of the Palestinian refugees, lest any major
improvements in their living conditions ‘lead to resettling the
Palestinian refugees and their eventual assimilation.'”

The case of Syria represents a middle ground between the full legal
protections afforded by Jordan and the near-total marginalization in
Lebanon. While the PRS were never issued full citizenship, the Syrian
government undertook numerous measures shortly after the arrival of the
refugee population to facilitate its legal and socio-economic
integration. These measures, in combination with favorable economic and
demographic conditions in Syria at the time, laid the foundation for a
high degree of refugee socio-economic integration into Syrian society
over the long term.

Palestinian Legal and Socio-Economic Integration in Syria

Following the events of 1948, an estimated ninety to one-hundred
thousand Palestinian refugees arrived in Syria. There they received
significantly better treatment than their compatriots who fled to other
Middle Eastern countries. In January of 1949, the Syrian Government
established the Palestine Arab Refugee Institution (PARI), a state organ
responsible for administering refugee affairs, including emergency
relief, employment assistance, and processing external contributions for
refugees. [1] Following the establishment of this relief apparatus, the
government began to expand numerous civil rights to its newly arrived
constituency, culminating in the issuance of Law no. 260 in 1956, which

“Palestinians residing in Syria.are to be considered as originally
Syrian in all things covered by the law and legally valid regulations
connected with the right to employment, commerce, and national service,
while preserving their original nationality.”

This unusually hospitable reception of Palestinian refugees may be
attributable to the favorable economic conditions prevalent in Syria at
the time. The total number of Palestinians arriving in Syria in 1948
constituted only a minute percentage of the country’s total population
and thus did not represent a substantial threat to its socio-economic
balance. To the contrary, the Syrian economy was able to easily
accommodate the vast majority of refugees. Most were peasant farmers who
were able to find work in Syrian agriculture, while an educated minority
found work in specialized fields such as teaching and nursing. [1]

A number of social factors also converged to further incorporate
Palestinian refugees into Syrian society, which in turn “discourage[d]
the emergence of strong indigenous institutional expressions of a
separate Palestinian national identity.” [1]To begin, some of the
strongest transnational mechanisms for organizing the Palestinian
diaspora, namely Palestinian trade unions, were significantly
marginalized in Syria due to the high degree of economic integration and
legal parity of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians were not only
employed across all sectors of the economy, but were permitted full
membership in Syrian trade unions, where they participated not only as
general members but as high ranking officials, including presidents and
vice presidents of high profile union branches. While Palestinian trade
unions did come to Syria in the 1960’s, the prominence of Syrian unions
connected to the ruling Ba’ath party, and Palestinian workers’
successful integration into them, rendered their activities marginal and
their influence minimal.

Palestinian refugees also benefited from expansive social services
provided to them by the government, on par with services provided to
Syrian citizens. The Syrian regime established nurseries and
kindergartens to ease the burden on Palestinian women who often worked
outside the home. Most Palestinian children were educated in government
secondary schools. Although such services were not administered directly
at refugee camps, they were readily accessible to most Palestinians, the
majority of whom were able to move outside of the camps as their
economic and social fortunes climbed. This early legal and economic
integration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees formed the basis for further
socio-economic advances in the proceeding decades, and established the
refugee community as a legitimate, productive component of Syrian

Continued Integration and Socio-Economic Success

The advances made by Palestinian refugees in these early decades
continued and compounded into the twenty-first century. In 2001, the
Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies undertook a
comprehensive analysis of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees
in Syria. Fafo’s project examined a range of socio-economic indicators
and found that Palestinian refugees in Syria shared virtually identical
living conditions with their Syrian counterparts and substantially
better living conditions than refugees in other Middle Eastern
countries. Indeed, it determined that the socio-economic status of
Palestinian refugees was determined in greater part by domestic factors
that also affected Syrian citizens, rather than their status as

“Since the majority of refugees reside in urban centers, their
socio-economic and other characteristics are extensively shared with
other urban populations. The poorest and most underprivileged
Palestinian refugees are predominately found in rural settings, where
they tend to share the living conditions of Syrian nationals living in
similar surroundings.”

The study found that although the average annual income of Palestinian
refugees was significantly lower than the average Syrian annual income,
refugees in Syria had the greatest average annual income of all
Palestinian refugee populations when adjusted for purchasing power
parity. Moreover, the study found that Palestinian refugee participation
in the labor force to be on par with general labor force participation,
and that such participation was higher than that of any other refugee
population in other Middle Eastern countries. Other indicators of
refugee integration include the fact that the vast majority of
Palestinian refugees requiring medical care consult private or
government facilities as opposed to UNRWA clinics. Also, the pass rate
of refugee children on state educational exams is actually higher than
the national average.

Palestinians in the Syrian Uprising

Such was the status of Palestinian refugees in Syria at the advent of
the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in early 2011.
From the beginning, Syria’s Palestinian community was a principal, if
involuntary, actor in the unfolding drama of the uprising. In the early
stages of the conflict, the Palestinian community at large attempted to
maintain neutrality, in line with a longstanding tradition of avoiding
entanglement in domestic political disputes. So potent was their initial
desire to remain uninvolved in the conflict that Palestinian protestors
torched the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine- General Command, the Regime’s closest allied Palestinian
faction, when it sided with the government and undermined the call for

However, as time went on, ordinary Palestinians found themselves
increasingly involved as the regime attempted to scapegoat their
community as a foreign interlocutor. The proximity of Palestinian
refugee camps to the sites of initial protest in Dara’a and Latakia led
regime officials to accuse Palestinians of instigating the violence in
an attempt to downplay “indigenous” Syrian support for, and
participation in, the protests. Moreover, as the Regime assault on
Syrian dissidents intensified, many Palestinians felt compelled to aid
them. This was the case among refugees in the Dara’a refugee camp who
elected to host a field hospital in the camp for Syrians requiring
medical attention.

This level of involvement marks a break with past traditions of
Palestinian political activity in Syria. Before the uprising, such
activity was largely restricted to matters directly connected to
Palestinian liberation and the right of return. Historically,
Palestinians did not engage in Syria’s domestic politics. A report from
Al Jazeera’s research arm reveals a surprising motivations for this
shift among at least some Palestinian refugees: feelings of Syrian
political identity and obligation.

According to one activist, the uprising marks “the first time we feel
Syrian.this intifada is about the whole of Syria, as this country is
holding both Syrians and Palestinians.” Of course, isolated interviews
with politically active refugees are not sufficient to capture the
prevailing sentiment of the Syrian refugee population as a whole. Still,
interviews such as these, along with Palestinians’ extensively
documented involvement in the uprising on the side of the opposition,
provide a compelling ethnographic account of the affective dimension of
their integration into pre-conflict Syrian society. The early legal
integration of the PRS and the concomitant rise in their socio-economic
fortunes in the proceeding years allowed certain elements of the refugee
population to identify with the domestic aspirations of their Syrian
neighbors, despite their official status as refugees and the pull of a
competing Palestinian national identity.


However, the Syrian civil war has resulted in a rapid and expansive
deterioration in the material conditions of Palestinian refugees in
Syria, as it has for broad swaths of the country’s population.
Significantly however, the refugee community faces an additional threat
in a post-conflict environment that Syrian nationals do not: the
possibility of being unable to reintegrate into society at pre-conflict
levels. As Laurie Brand theorized in her study of Palestinians in Syria,
it was the Syrian economy’s capacity to absorb Palestinian refugees
without causing undue dislocations for the country’s citizens that
facilitated much of their early integration. Relatedly, she notes that
in times of poor economic performance, Syrian nationals would accuse
Palestinians of having taken Syrian jobs, and predicts that further
economic distress could accelerate this trend.

According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, by the end of 2012,
Syrian economic losses are presumed to have eclipsed forty-eight billion
USD. This represents an economic loss equal to 81.7 percent of the
country’s 2010 GDP. For the same period, the economy is estimated to
have shed 1.5 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has surged from
10.6 percent to 34.9 percent. Such a development is ominous for the
Palestinian refugee population, which will not only find it more
difficult to obtain work in a post-conflict environment, but also faces
the possibility of discrimination and ostracism as a result of the
economic collapse. The Assad regime’s initial attempts to portray the
refugee community as a foreign instigator already indicate the
possibilities of further marginalization in a post-conflict society.

Compounding the refugees’ economic difficulties, Syria has experienced
massive inflation since the war’s inception, with a bevy of basic food
and clothing items having increased in price from 50-70 percent, while
gas and electricity prices have nearly doubled. Fafo’s report attributed
much of Syria’s refugee’s economic advantage to the relatively low price
of consumer goods in Syria, in contrast to other refugee host countries,
a condition that has now all but vanished.

Moreover, as conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate, the PRS are
increasingly dependent on international aid, particularly from the
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the
Near East (UNRWA). The total proportion of Palestinian refugees in Syria
in need of humanitarian aid has skyrocketed. While only six percent of
refugees received aid in the form of direct goods before the uprising,
UNRWA estimated that in April of 2013 more than four-hundred thousand
refugees, more than eighty percent of the total population, require such
assistance. [2] To date, the Agency has distributed food and non-food
items to over 143,000 refugees in Syria, and is about to conclude a cash
distribution plan to provide six-thousand Syrian pounds to 420,000
refugees by the end of August. UNRWA also notes that 235,000 PRS have
become displaced, although it has been able to accommodate only about
7,300 in UNRWA shelters within Syria. Thus the Palsetinian refugees of
Syria have become reliant on the largesse of international donors to
maintain a substantially reduced standard of living, a striking contrast
to their previous economic independence and success.


The Syrian civil war has been a political and humanitarian disaster for
all of Syria’s disparate communities and confessions. The country is
currently divided between rebel-held territory and areas where the
government maintains authority, with broad swaths in between subject to
violent battles for control. Sectarian tensions have flared, and the
presence of foreign elements backing particular constituencies has
further entrenched already potent divisions in Syrian society.
Undoubtedly, reestablishing a politically and socially integrated polity
in a post-Assad era will prove an extraordinarily difficult task.
However, owing to the economic, social, and political factors described
above, the reintegration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees presents an
even more challenging dilemma. The collapse of the Syrian economy has
eliminated much of the economic advantage that Palestinians enjoyed in
comparison to other host countries, and the economy may not be able to
accommodate the proportion of refugees it did after their 1948 arrival.
And as past periods of economic decline have demonstrated, competition
from Palestinians for jobs may again result in social tension. Moreover,
the PRS are in a uniquely vulnerable position as refugees, unable to
participate in the electoral process and thus more effectively demand
official remedies to help restore their previous socio-economic
position. Regrettably, this civil war has transformed the case of
Palestinian refugees in Syria from one of the issue’s more positive
incarnations into one of its most tragic

On tall tales of rebels tripping and spilling sarin in tunnels and Saudis supplying their nemesis

Readers may be aware of the story that did the conspiracist rounds last
week, according to which the FSA rebels were in a tunnel, on a mission
unwittingly carrying chemical weapons, not knowing what they were, from
the Saudis at the Jordanian border, to Al-Nusra, when they had a little
much to drink, fell over, and spilled the chemcals.

There are many holes in this story, but I just want to focus on one that
hasn’t been written about much.

The need to make up this story is obvious: the main problem with the
claim of the FSA carrying out the chemical attack was that the chemical
weapons killed their families back home while they were on the front
lines; the main problem with Al Qaida doing it was, if they have
chemicals, and little regard for human life, then funny how they haven’t
been using them liberally in the war. So the need to bring in an outside
power to supply it to Al Qaida, and the need for the FSA to not know it
was all happening (but give them the blame anyway).

The fact that Al-Qaida’s reason for existence is to overthrow the Saudi
monarchy, who they see as arch-infidels, apparently has no bearing on
people continually making such statements, and in particular on people
trying to concoct some alibi for Assad.

Saudi Arabia and Al Qaida have almost identical extremist salafist
ideologies, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they hate each others
guts like poison. Syria is nothing if not complicated, but I wish people
could at least get that right in order to not embarass themselves.

So, for several months now, Saudi Arabia has been involved in trying to
build a “national Syrian army” from Baathist defector military officers
in Jordan. The project is backed by the US, with the difference that to
date, the Saudis have actually tried to get arms to the regular FSA
inside Syria in the south (and in the last couple of months have been
more successful), in order for this puppet force building in Jordan to
try to gain some credibility, whereas the US has tried its utmost to
block any weapons at all getting across to the FSA if it can, and bugger
the need for cred, the US only intends its tools to come to power either
in a palace coup, or, if the US does attack, from the top.

Three important points about this development.

First, much of the FSA on the ground in Syria, and most of the
Islamists, are deeply suspicious of this initiative, which they
understand as an attempt to steal their efforts from above;
nevertheless, in the south the FSA has a working arrangement with it, to
the extent that some weapons can get past the US obstacles.

Second, as ex-Baathist officers, this outfit, backed by the Saudi
theocracy, is entirely secular, just like the Mubarakist military the
Saudis just heavily backed to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Whether moderate Islamists like the Brotherhood (much softer than the
Saudis) or extremist salafists like Al-Qaida (similar or harder than the
Saudis), one thing the Saudis hate is Islamic revolutionaries, who would
like to replace the Saudi monarchy with a clerical-influenced republic
(the Brotherhood) or a direct clerical dictatorship (Al Qaida)

Third, it has been widely discussed that part of the aim of this army,
apart from allegedly overthrowing Assad, will be to fight Al-Qaida in
Syria, like the Sunni Anbar brigades the US eventually got going in Iraq

Oh yes, Saudi Arabia wanted to supply Al-Qaida with chemical weapons. A
dead giveaway that the story was just stupid

Syrian revolution: Class against class basis of uprising

Published in Alford, J & Wilson, A (2016) Khiyana: Daesh, The Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, Unkant Publishers, London.

Countless articles have described the social background to the Syrian revolution, and a good bibliography would be a useful tool to be put together at some stage. Below this brief introduction is a fairly straightforward one, but the fundamental facts are well-known. The early Baath Party governments of the 1960s built a base among the peasantry via land reforms and rural subsidy programs, and many Baath political and military leaders had their origins in rural areas, eclipsing the traditional urban-based bourgeoisie. At that stage the main Muslim Brotherhood opposition tended to represent the opposition of the Sunni urban bourgeoisie. However, as a new more powerful capitalist class consolidated itself through the state apparatus – the typical process of Nasserite/Baathist/Kemalist development – the rural dwellers again got left behind.

But it was not until this new elite, under Bashar Assad after 2000, launched neo-liberal “reforms” that the new divide widened into an abyss. These reforms transformed the countryside, leaving it prey to a new class of big capitalist landowners, connected to the regime, driving large numbers of peasants into landlessness, while the abolition of subsidies and freeing of prices and similar measures further hammered the peasantry and also the growing urban poor – themselves first and second generations from the impoverished countryside, with family and other links to rural Syria – who formed great new shanty-suburban rings around Damascus and Aleppo.

While, as elsewhere in the Arab Spring, the first sparks of revolt in early 2011 occurred in urban areas, in Syria these tended to be the smaller towns and cities located in impoverished regional areas, large rural towns essentially, from Daraa in the south to Idlib in the north; the movement in Damascus and Aleppo at this early stage did not look as magnificent as in Cairo and Tunis. From these rural towns the revolt spread like wildfire to the now vigorously anti-Baath countryside. Eventually, the revolution did come to the two big cities, by mid-2012, and the divide between regime-control and opposition-control in both cities is virtually a lesson in sociology: the suburbs dominated by the urban poor are controlled by the revolution, the more established middle and upper class suburbs are under the regime.

Indeed, as virtually all analyses tell you, innocently enough, one of the sections of the population that has remained tied to the regime, apart from much of the Alawite and Christian minority population, is the Sunni “business classes” in Damascus and Aleppo. Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, and in its different way, Libya, the Syrian capitalist class, a creature of the Baath, has remained tied solidly to the regime (indeed, this has to be understood as part of imperialism’s problem all along – where is the section of the ruling class to replace a discredited Assad with?).

Of course it is not only the capitalist class – much of the secular, comfortable, established Sunni and Christian middle classes in these two cities remain tied to regime, if often grudgingly, or at least neutral, due to the clear political limitations of much of the opposition leadership: a movement based among the overwhelmingly Sunni peasantry and urban poor, which has taken up arms, and which is overall more traditional and religious in outlook than the older established elites, may indeed look frightening to many. Of course, this “religiosity” is also what many in the western left are obsessed with, often in a way indistinguishable from the Islamophobic right; yet while there clearly are seriously reactionary jihadist formations in Syria, overall, the moderate Islamist rebel groups (or indeed even the adoption of religious names by some politically-secular FSA brigades), simply reflect the greater religiosity of the urban and rural poor, ie, those sectors left out of the bourgeois “secular” Baath project, especially after 2000.

Thus, a revolution that for many is nothing but a “sectarian” clash is in reality the sharpest class against class clash in the Arab Spring, thus its extraordinary tenacity and ferocity; its sectarian element is, at base, an overlay of this. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t gone further than this, and cannot go even further and become purely and simply a sectarian war (which is manifestly not the case yet); but even if that did eventuate, it wouldn’t cancel out the social origins of this phenomenon.

Interestingly, the Syrian revolution can be seen as the mirror image, in class/sectarian terms, of the Bahrain uprising, while understanding obviously how different the two societies are: there the state is controlled by a royal elite from the Sunni minority, which rules over an impoverished Shiite majority, the urban and rural poor, whose uprising was partially led by Shia clerics and was overwhelmingly more religious in outlook than the regime and the established classes which stood behind it; the regime and its Saudi and Gulf backers were able to slander the uprising as an Iranian 5th column. Whereas in Syria, the state in dominated by a political and military elite from the Alawite minority (even if it rules for a mixed Alawite-Sunni capitalist class), which rules over a vast Sunni majority of the rural and urban poor, whose revolt is slandered by the regime as a Saudi/Gulf 5th column. But enough from me.  Here first is a brief clip from the article that underlines the point I am making here, and below it the article itself:

(clip) The revolution in Syria, in contrast to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, was at its base a peasants’ revolt, a protest by the Sunni periphery against what was perceived as the Baath regime’s turning its back on the country’s rural population … … And so, from the time the revolution broke out in March 2011 in the city of Dar’a,
the rebellion spread like wildfire to all the rural areas and the periphery, including the northern part of the state, the Jazira region, and later, the agricultural towns of Homs and Hama … … Another source of regime strength lies in the fact that while turmoil has come to the suburbs and the slums of Aleppo and Damascus, the revolution has not ignited among urban Syrians, including the Sunni bourgeoisie of the big cities … … Part of the reluctance stems from the economic benefits the urban bourgeoisie enjoy, especially during recent years thanks to the regime’s economic policies. Some have to do with the bourgeoisie’s age-old resentments, reservations, and aversion toward the
periphery and the rural regions and their inhabitants … … Since most opposition activists come from rural areas, most incursions into the big cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, have been carried out by insurgents from nearby rural regions. They penetrate the big cities mostly through the slum neighborhoods and suburbs, which are often inhabited by recent migrants from the periphery and rural areas. These migrants generally maintain connections with relatives back home, and it is from there that the armed bands come. But because the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo have refrained from joining the insurgents,[14] the Syrian opposition has been denied victory photos such as those from Cairo’s Tahrir Square …

Can Assads Syria Survive Revolution?
by Eyal Zisser
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2013, pp. 65-71 (view PDF)


The outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 surprised many people. Until that time, it seemed that the 40-year reign of the Assad dynasty, at first under its founder, Hafiz, and then under his son and heir, Bashar, had succeeded in turning Syria into a strong and stable state with governmental institutions, military, and security forces.
Even social and economic systems appeared quite sturdy and effective.

Yet a year and a half of bloody fighting between the regime and the rebels has undermined most of the achievements of the Assad dynasty and turned Syria into a failing state on the verge of disintegration. Most state institutions have ceased to function. The bonds that united the various religious and ethnic communities, tribes, and regions-that took many long years of hard work to forge-are rapidly unraveling. In
addition, Syria has become a kind of punching bag with foreign actors, both regional and international, intervening freely in the country’s internal affairs.

How did the revolt spread so quickly to all parts of Syria, striking such deep roots among wide segments of the Syrian society? How has the Assad regime managed, for the time being and in contrast to other Arab regimes rocked by the recent upheavals, to survive the lethal challenges facing it? And how has it been able to maintain its cohesion and
strength to the point where many observers do not preclude the possibility of its ultimate survival?

The Outbreak of the Syrian Revolution

The revolution in Syria, in contrast to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, was at its base a peasants’ revolt, a protest by the Sunni periphery against what was perceived as the Baath regime’s turning its back on the country’s rural population. Only later did the rebellion take on additional dimensions with jihadists joining the struggle
because of the regime’s “heretical” Alawite nature and because of its alliance with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. In the name of jihad, thousands of volunteers have streamed into Syria from all over the Arab and Muslim world[1] though jihadist slogans probably did little to arouse Syrians to join the ranks of the revolution.

Revenge was another dimension that developed with time, stemming from the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the waves of protest. It is clear that the regime’s brutality served to expand the circle of participants in the revolution. Many who joined were motivated specifically by the desire to take revenge for the spilled blood of their family members and relatives or for the destruction of their home villages and towns by the regime’s forces.[2]

Bombed-out buildings in Aleppo, October 3, 2012, show the devastation perpetrated on civilians. The Assad regime’s brutal response to the revolt has only widened the circle of rebellion. Many who have joined the fighting are motivated by the desire to take revenge for the spilled blood of their relatives or the destruction of their homes and communities.

Paradoxically, in the past, the Sunni rural population had been one of the regime’s foremost mainstays. It was one of the main partners in Syria’s ruling coalition of minorities and the periphery, led by members of the Alawite community, who were in turn headed by the Assad dynasty. This coalition served as the basis for the Baath revolution of March 1963, and later as the basis of support for the “Corrective Movement” and for Hafiz al-Assad’s seizure of power in November 1970.

With the passage of time and especially from the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed as if the Syrian regime had ceased reflecting Syrian society. The regime even seemed to have turned its back on the rural areas and the periphery. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts the state had ever known with the damage felt most intensely in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria and in the south, especially in the Hawran region and its central city of Dar’a.

These regions were also adversely affected by the government’s new economic policies, which aimed at changing the character of the Syrian economy from a socialist orientation into a “social market economy.” The aim of these policies, led by Vice Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, was to open Syria to the world economy, encourage foreign investment, and promote activity in the domestic private sector so as to ensure economic
growth and enable the regime to cope with its domestic and economic challenges: rapid growth of the population, backward infrastructure and lack of advanced industry, over-reliance on agriculture, etc. The new policy was backed by Bashar al-Assad, who seemed to have underestimated the importance of the Baath party’s socialist ideology as well as its institutions and networking, mainly in the periphery. One conclusion to be drawn from the negative reactions to this policy in the periphery was that while the Syrian regime did indeed manage to preserve its image of strength and solidity during the first decade of the 2000s, its support base was considerably narrowed. It lost the broad popular support that it had enjoyed among the Sunni population in the rural areas and the periphery after it turned its back on them.[3]

And so, from the time the revolution broke out in March 2011 in the city of Dar’a, the rebellion spread like wildfire to all the rural areas and the periphery, including the northern part of the state, the Jazira region, and later, the agricultural towns of Homs and Hama. The revolution reached the large cities, Damascus and Aleppo, only at a much later stage.

The Tlas Family and the Town of Rastan

An illustration of this turmoil can be found in the story of the Tlas family from the small town of Rastan. Headed by Mustafa Tlas, the family was one of the pillars of the Baath regime, a living example of the close alliance between the regime and the Sunni periphery on the one hand, and between the Sunni and the Alawite officers led by the Assad dynasty on the other.

Rastan itself is the third largest town in the Homs district and numbers about 40,000 inhabitants according to a 2004 census. It is located on the main road between Aleppo and Damascus, on the segment between the towns of Homs and Hama, about 20 kilometers from Homs and 22 kilometers from Hama. Rastan’s residents earn their livings from agriculture and light industry, notably the rock quarries for which the town is known.[4]

The town has two main clans, the Hamdan, the larger and stronger of the two, and the Firzat. The Tlas family belongs to the Hamdan clan. One of the family’s members, Abdel Qadr Tlas, served as the mukhtar (administrative head) of Rastan from the end of the Ottoman period into the French Mandate period. As a young man, Mustafa Tlas, Abdel Qadr’s son, became the ally and right hand man of Hafiz al-Assad. The two met at the Homs Military Academy, during the officers’ course in which they were enrolled after joining the Syrian army in November 1952. They were roommates during the course, and their paths never parted thereafter. They advanced in rank together and, in November 1970, seized power in Damascus with Hafiz leading and Mustafa helping him. At that time, Tlas was serving as commander in chief of the army and was quickly appointed minister of defense, a post he held until his retirement in 2004.

Tlas was in office during the brutal suppression of the Islamist revolt against the Baath regime in 1976-82, which peaked with the massacre of the citizens of Hama in February 1982. His last task was, in essence, to help Assad’s son Bashar grow into his father’s big shoes.[5]

Tlas also established an economic empire. One of its showcases was a publishing house. He used this firm as a vehicle for publishing, in addition to works of other authors, his own “scholarly” writings, memoirs, and even poetry. Tlas married Lamya Jabiri, a member of the Aleppine aristocracy, and the couple had four children: two daughters-Nahid, who married a Saudi businessman and moved with him to Paris, and Sarya-and two sons-Firas, who became a successful businessman in Damascus, and Manaf, who chose a military career. Manaf was known as a close friend of Bashar al-Assad and served as a brigade commander in the Republican Guard Division, an elite unit formed to protect the regime.[6]

Rastan and the Start of the Revolt

In addition to being home to the Tlas family, Rastan also serves as a faithful reflection of the Sunni periphery. It is not surprising that when the Syrian revolution broke out, the town became one of the revolt’s focal points. As early as the beginning of April 2011, the town square statue of Hafiz al-Assad was reportedly smashed to pieces as demonstrators shouted with joy.[7] This was a symbolic act clearly expressing the town’s disengagement from the Baath regime and from the Assad dynasty. However, Rastan is too strategically located to be given up. Since it is on a main road linking northern and southern Syria and close to the towns of Homs and Hama, it became a major scene of bloody battles between the regime’s army and the insurgents, in which scores of the town’s residents were killed.

The protest movement in Rastan did not bypass the Tlas family. The members of the family who were officers and soldiers, like many of their friends and colleagues, could not ignore the pressure of the unfolding events or the fate suffered by their relatives, neighbors, and home town.

The first Tlas family member to join the revolt was Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who announced his desertion from the regular Syrian army as early as June 2011. He has subsequently served as commander of the Faruq battalion associated with the Free Syrian Army, which operates in the region of Homs. As time passed, Abd al-Razzaq has become one of the closely watched symbols of the revolution. Thus, for example, innumerable interpretations were given to the fact that he has begun to grow a beard though this action did not necessarily stem from religious motives. His image was not damaged even after rumors were spread about his involvement in a sex scandal though he was apparently removed from his position as battalion commander.[8] Additional members of the Tlas family followed him into the revolution until finally, in the summer of 2012, the reverberations reached the home of Mustafa Tlas. This was quite late in the game and only after it began to seem as if the days of the Assad regime were numbered.

During the first months of 2012, Mustafa Tlas, suffering from health problems, moved to Paris to be near his daughter Nihad. His son Firas soon followed and established contacts with opposition figures and began participating in resistance events abroad.[9] At the beginning of July 2012, Manaf announced his defection from the ranks of the regime. In an interview with al-Arabiya news network, he explained, “I do not see myself as a senior figure in the ranks of the regime but rather as one of the sons of the Syrian Arab army who opposes barbarism and murder of innocents and the corrupt government … I hope for the establishment of a united Syria and for its rebuilding as a state that does not believe in or promote revenge, discrimination, or selfishness.”[10] Immediately after Manaf’s defection, several opposition figures began to mention him as a possible leader of Syria after Bashar’s hoped-for fall. Other opposition figures, however, came out firmly against the idea.[11]

The steps taken by those members of the Tlas family serve as a graphic example of what was happening all over Syria during the past year and a half. They are good indicators of how people who had been strong supporters of the Assad regime turned their backs on it when they felt that it had betrayed them or no longer served their interests.

The Survival of the Regime

Every coin and almost every story has two sides, and so it is with the story of Syria. One side of the story has to do with the fact that the insurgents’ uprising spread quickly and struck deep roots. The other side of the story has to do with the regime and the undeniable fact that it has so far been able to survive. One explanation for this focuses on
the built-in weaknesses of the opposition,[12] which is a faithful reflection of the Syrian society: Both opposition and society suffer from divisions and fragmentation based upon ethnic, religious, regional, socioeconomic, and other differences. Another explanation focuses on the international community’s lack of will or ability to intervene in Syria. A third explanation highlights the sources of the regime’s strengths, calling attention to the fact that the regime survives, not only because of its opponents’ weaknesses, but also because of the reserves of power at its disposal.

One source of the regime’s strength lies in the support it receives from the members of the minority communities, who serve as its social bases. These include the Alawites (12 percent of the population), the Druze (5 percent), and most of the Christians (13 percent). The Kurds (10 percent), including those who live in the regions bordering Turkey and Iraq, have for the most part, not turned against the government either. Many Kurds have exploited the revolution to throw off government control and advance the cause of partial Kurdish independence. Nevertheless, the Syrian Kurds as a whole have refrained from joining the ranks of the opposition or coming out openly against the Assad regime.

Another source of regime strength lies in the fact that while turmoil has come to the suburbs and the slums of Aleppo and Damascus, the revolution has not ignited among urban Syrians, including the Sunni bourgeoisie of the big cities. Most big city residents have chosen to remain on the sidelines and not support the protests, fearing that this
leap would result in political instability, as happened in Iraq or Lebanon, at immense costs.

Part of the reluctance stems from the economic benefits the urban bourgeoisie enjoy, especially during recent years thanks to the regime’s economic policies. Some have to do with the bourgeoisie’s age-old resentments, reservations, and aversion toward the periphery and the rural regions and their inhabitants. The numbers of urban dwellers are considerable. Some 55.7 percent of Syrians live in cities. Around 8 million (out of the total population of 23 million) live in the country’s three large cities: Aleppo-2.98 million; Damascus-2.52 million; and Homs-1.27 million. Most of the Christians live in these three cities.[13]

Since most opposition activists come from rural areas, most incursions into the big cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, have been carried out by insurgents from nearby rural regions. They penetrate the big cities mostly through the slum neighborhoods and suburbs, which are often inhabited by recent migrants from the periphery and rural areas. These migrants generally maintain connections with relatives back home, and it is from there that the armed bands come. But because the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo have refrained from joining the insurgents,[14] the Syrian opposition has been denied victory photos such as those from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which made it clear that the die had been cast in Egypt and that the youth were on the revolution’s side. In Syria, for the time being, the youth in the big cities prefer to remain shut up in their homes.

Another source of the regime’s strength lies in the loyalty of its institutions, in particular, the army, the security apparatuses, the state bureaucracy, and the Baath party apparatuses. Indeed, in many cases, using the party’s networks, the regime was able to recruit and mobilize local families in various areas, including Sunni neighborhoods, which have become local militias fighting for the regime. These include members of the Sunni community in particular with the emphasis on the Sunni periphery.

Loyalists in Rastan

Returning to Rastan, it is clearly not a big city but of the rebel periphery. But it is also undisputable that many of its residents remain loyal to the regime. In the Tlas family, some have joined the ranks of the rebels, but others maintain neutrality, and still others continue to work for the government. Thus, Talal Tlas serves as Syria’s deputy minister of defense and Ahmad Tlas serves as the commander of the First Corps, the most important military unit in southern Syria.[15] And the various branches of the Tlas family continue to live together in Rastan; battles in the town take place between rebels and army forces that come from outside in order to attack.[16]

Beside these two senior Tlas members, there are others still serving loyally as army officers, perhaps because they consider this to be in their best personal interest and a good way to advance their careers. Their position is quite different from that of the younger officers, like Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who has his whole future before him. Joining
the ranks of the revolution promises him a brilliant future should it succeed. In any case, as a young officer, he did not have nearly as many vested interests to leave behind and potentially lose. The situation of the senior and middle level officers is much different. They could lose everything, all their achievements, their ranks, pensions, possibilities
for further advancement, and other benefits and privileges. Joining the revolution means sacrifice for a vague future full of unknowns. The revolutionary future holds out the promise of great rewards for the youth, but not necessarily for the symbols of the old regime.

It is clear that as long as the members of the Tlas family and people like them give the regime their support, it will be able to survive. Only about 10 percent of the army’s manpower has defected. The other 90 percent, both soldiers and officers, the great majority of whom come from the Sunni periphery, continues to stand united around the regime, giving it the breathing space it so desperately needs.


The story of the Tlas family and their town, Rastan, attests to the complexity of the Syrian picture. The regime is losing blood daily; little by little support for it diminishes. Since the eruption of the revolution, the trend has clearly been in one direction only.
Nevertheless, the regime retains reserves of support that enable it to survive. A dramatic shift in the situation, such as Bashar’s assassination or an unexpected intervention by the international community, could give the insurgents the push they need and bring about
a major change in the course of the conflict. But the example of the Tlas family and Rastan suggests that the struggle for Syria will still take a long time to unfold.

Eyal Zisser is dean of the faculty of humanities and the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.

[1] The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2012; Al-Monitor, online news, Oct. 18, 2012.
[2] Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Stanford: Stanford University, 2012), pp. 69-156.
[3] Eyal Zisser, “The Renewal of the ‘Struggle for Syria’: The Rise and Fall of the Ba’th Party,” Sharqiya, Fall 2011, pp. 21-9; Hanna Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry: The Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables and Their Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 131-75. For economic data, “Syria-Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, Apr. 2011.
[4] The Annual Report for 2004, Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus; “Syria: Mining,” Encyclopedia of the Nations, accessed Dec. 7, 2012.
[5] Mustafa Tlas, Mira’t Hayati (Damascus: Dar Tlas lil-Nashr, 1995), vol. 1, pp. 240-310; Sami Moubayed, Steel and Silk, Men and Women Who Shaped Syria, 1900-2000 Seattle: Cune Press, 2006), pp. 89, 255.
[6] Al-Hayat (London), July 12, 2012; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 14, 2012.
[7] Asharq al-Awsat (London), Apr. 7, 2011; al-Arabiya TV (Dubai), Apr. 6, 7, 2011.
[8] Reuters, June 6, 7, 2011; al-Jazeera TV, June 6, 2011; BBC Radio in Arabic, Feb. 12, 2012; Aron Lund, “Holy Warriors: A Field Guide to Syria’s Jihadi Groups,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 15, 2012.
[9] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), June 28, 2012; al-Jazeera TV, July 1, 2012.
[10] Reuters, July 14, 2012; al-Arabiya TV, July 24, 2012.
[11] Al-Hayat, July 19, 24, 2012.
[12] See, for example, BBC News, Nov. 12, 2012; Itamar Rabinovich, “The Anarchy Factor in Syria,” The Straits Times (Singapore), May 3, 2012.
[13] “General Census,” Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, accessed Dec. 21, 2012.
[14] Reuters, July 18, 19, 2012; al-Hayat, Aug. 23, 2012.
[15] Syrian TV-24, Aug. 1, 2012.
[16] “Al-Markaz al-I’lami fi Rastan,” YouTube.com, July 22, 25, 2012

The question of arming the rebels

This article was originally published by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD) as part of its Roundtable on the Syrian Crisis in July 2013, at cpdweb.org/news/Syria-Karadjis.shtml. The other articles as part of this Roundtable can be accessed at cpdweb.org/news/Syria-intro.shtml.

The question of arming the rebels

By Michael Karadjis

The general outline of what initially occurred in Syria is largely agreed upon, even by those who subsequently turned hostile to the revolution: a peaceful mass movement for democracy began in cities and towns across Syria in early 2011 against the dictatorship of President Assad II, and the regime met these protests with ruthless state violence.

It is also largely agreed that this situation continued for some eight months, protesters baring their chests to Assad’s machine guns, tanks and heavy artillery, alongside targeted torture and killings of key activists.

When the masses could no longer bear this situation, they began taking up arms in self-defence, while rank and file soldiers and officers refused to fire on their brothers and sisters, and defected (a good description of this process can be read here. Out of these defected troops and armed citizens arose the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Once arms are taken up, however, those holding a vastly different view of what is occurring in Syria begin to raise their heads and to gain a greater influence over leftist opinion. This view states that, whatever the initial situation, the armed struggle has now degenerated into a foreign (imperialist and Gulf-state) orchestrated brutal insurgency aimed at destroying Syria, led by reactionary Islamist elements, including Al-Qaida.

They point to some of the more obviously terroristic actions, such as bombings that targeted civilians in Damascus, as evidence that it has become a war against the Syrian people, as well as a Sunni sectarian war against minorities, and a fundamentalist war against secularism, rather than a war by the Syrian people against the regime.

Even many who have always opposed the Assad regime and well-knew how phony its alleged “anti-imperialist” credentials were turned either to a tactical defence of the regime as a “shield” against something worse, or to a “plague on both your houses” view—both sides are reactionary, both commit atrocities against the people.

What it misses is the fundamental difference on the ground, regardless of geopolitical struggles among regional powers: the Syrian revolution, the democratic revolt against the dictatorship, is still the fundamental fact.

Countless reports from liberated towns about the nature of this democratic process, under attack from the dictatorship, for example in Taftanaz, Saraqeb, Qusayr, the Damascus suburb Duma and elsewhere, are examples which deal with the real world difficulties of revolutionary democratic governance from below, but nevertheless reveal some semblance of popular structures that deserve defending against the dictatorship and its tanks, Scuds and torture chambers, and which do not show evidence of imposition of sharia law or sectarian cleansing of minorities

However, armed conflict, whatever its origins, does have the potential to corrupt a movement, whether via revenge war-crimes, an over-reliance on military means, the enhancement of existing sectarian dynamics, the boost it may give to irrational ideologies (e.g. jihadism), and the avenues it gives to foreign interference.

Such negatives cannot negate a democratic revolution as such, unless we live in a dream world (see “Syria or elsewhere there are no pure revolutions just revolutions”for this point. Indeed, massive regime violence is likely to have its reflection, to some extent, among the anti-regime forces. However, if they reach a certain level and are combined, the conflict could simply become a civil war between two equally undemocratic forces.

While all these factors exist at serious levels and should not be underestimated, it would be extremely premature to make this conclusion.

The formal leaderships of the Syrian opposition, based in exile, have little or no control over the grassroots political and military opposition inside Syria. On the positive side, this means they will not be very effective tools as the US tries to hijack the movement via these leaderships; but the negative side of this is that wayward elements that commit war crimes are also difficult to control and punish. Nevertheless, it is important that the rebel leaderships have continually and vigorously condemned all such violations, for example their condemnation of the well-publicised bite at the heart of a dead regime soldier by a rebel enraged at the soldier’s videos of his rape and murder of a mother and her daughters. The code of conduct, drawn up by the main grassroots leadership, the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), and signed by dozens of FSA battalions, shows the lengths to which revolutionary forces have gone to try to rein in such activity.

There is however clearly a minority of truly reactionary forces which do threaten an anti-democratic religious dictatorship. The recent murder of a 15-year old in Aleppo for “blasphemy” is an example of this. This murder was vigorously condemned by the opposition Syrian Coalition, which called for punishment of the killers and described it as a “crime against humanity”. While clearly growing stronger, there is no evidence that this trend has come to dominate the movement.

Throwing the whole Syrian uprising into the “jihadi” camp undermines the very forces within the revolution that confront this reactionary trend on a daily basis (see for examples of popular demonstrations, slogans, declarations etc. against these currents and their actions here, here, here, here, here and elsewhere). The recent assassination of an FSA leader by Al-Qaida in Syria, and the FSA’s declaration that this meant “war” with these forces, further highlights this situation).

In a nutshell, the situation on the side of the revolution is still fluid, there is still struggle, the reactionary forces by no means dominate. In this context, their right to access arms from abroad should hardly be in question, confronted as they are by such a powerfully armed state machine, which bombs its own towns and cities with scud missiles, fighter planes and helicopters and the whole array of state power, reducing much of Syria to moonscapes (see for example Syria Witness). Even more so considering that most arms flowing into Syria are in fact Russian and Iranian arms further bolstering the regime.

However, since the countries furnishing some arms to the rebels at present (reactionary Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar), and the countries likely to provide any arms in future (the US or other imperialist states), have reactionary agendas, it may be argued that they will inevitably bend the Syrian revolutionary struggle to their ends if the Syrians accept their arms.

These states’ agendas are primarily to hijack the revolution and/or divert it along a path that better serves their interests than democratic revolution. Some in the Gulf prefer pushing reactionary Sunni jihadism and sectarianism; in contrast, the US tends to see these hard Islamist elements as a worse alternative to Assad, and aims to control a section of the exile leadership and push it into a deal with elements of the Assad regime, especially its security apparatus, to create a so-called “Yemeni solution”. In fact, to get them to prove their worth, the US is pushing mainstream rebels to prematurely launch war on the jihadists.

But not many movements in the real world, confronted by massive state violence, have much choice about who to get arms from, even though they come with a price. Merely receiving arms from someone has never been the final determinant of the nature of the movement on the ground, whether it was secular Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s getting arms from Iran, Iraqi Kurds in the 1970s from the CIA and the Shah of Iran, Ho Chi Minh negotiating for US support in 1945 or the Irish uprising in 1916 getting support from Germany. What is fundamental is the actual nature of the movement on the ground and degree to which it continues to represent the legitimate aspirations of the masses for democratic change.

Ironically, it is the extreme reluctance of Western states to provide arms to the Syrian opposition that has allowed the Gulf states to provide arms to reactionary Islamist forces. Islamist fighters are better armed than mainstream secular rebels; reports show some FSA rebels crossing over to Al-Nusra for this reason. Despite much talk about arms going to Syrian rebels, most reports show them starved for arms, and those arms that do reach them are light arms, little threat to the massive heavy military equipment Assad is throwing at them.

The US uses the strength of these Islamist forces as its key argument for refusing to arm the rebels, claiming any arms it sends to “friendly” rebels may end up with radical Islamists. This is then countered by the argument that it must start sending some arms to vetted rebels precisely in order to bolster the non-Islamist rebels. Yet in reality we still see hardly any US arms getting to the rebels. Indeed, the main US intervention has been stationing CIA units in Turkey and Jordan to prevent weapons from the Gulf reaching the rebels), especially weapons that would actually be useful, such as anti-aircraft weapons. (See here and here.)

The reason for this is that the US is not only concerned with radical Islamists; it is also aware that the exile FSA leaders that it has relations with have almost no control over the revolutionary forces inside Syria.

Thus while the left worries that Western arms will allow imperialism to hijack the movement, the US has refused to arm the rebels for over two years because it believes it cannot successfully hijack it. Ironically, while Syrian revolutionaries are continually confronting the reactionary Islamists, as shown above, when the US tried to prematurely push them against these forces, the same Syrians came out into the streets to denounce US interference for trying to split the anti-Assad forces; they’ll confront the Islamists on their own terms, but won’t let the US tell them what to do.

Nonetheless, despite Syrian rebels having the right to get whatever weapons they need, there may be legitimate questions about the effectiveness of receiving extra arms. Given the sheer horror of continuing war for all, and the regime’s enormous military superiority, extra arms may make little real difference to the actual battle, but instead may merely prolong the fighting, or even escalate it, as it will in turn encourage Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to supply even more weapons and fighters to the regime.

It is true that more arms in themselves will not win the revolution. In the big cities, Damascus and Aleppo, military stalemate has long ago been reached, with significant sections of the middle class sticking to the regime against the largely rural-based insurgency which has only won over the poorer areas of the cities; while important minorities, particularly most Alawites, Assad’s own sect, and many Christians, have stuck to the regime. War crimes, undemocratic actions and the rise of the Sunni jihadist section of the movement have led these sectors to grudgingly stick with the regime or at least remain neutral. They will need to be politically won over, and the important problems with the parts of the rebel leadership and ranks currently prevent this.

It is therefore in the interests of most Syrians, and particularly of the revolution, for some kind of ceasefire to allow a breathing space for the mass civil movement to revive. Pouring in the kinds of advanced weapons that would allow the rebels to take Damascus and Aleppo whole, despite popular reluctance, would be no democratic solution (and still less would a “Libyan solution” of achieving this via imperialist bombing). However, it is important to remember that no one, least of all the imperialist powers, is proposing anything like this.

It is somewhat ironic that the receipt of limited numbers of small arms by the rebels is put forward as a cause of prolonging the war, rather than the massive use of heavy weaponry by the regime. The logical conclusion of this argument is that they should allow themselves to be crushed and achieve the “peace of the grave”. Even if the rebels got the main weapons they demand, but which the US blocks—portable anti-aircraft guns—this would only allow the rebels to defend themselves and their mass base more effectively; these are not offensive weapons that would allow them to march on Damascus.

What such weapons might allow, however, is for supporters of the revolution to gain more confidence, win back supporters pessimistic about confronting the regime, and actually put pressure on the regime to come to some kind of ceasefire; it is the regime’s overwhelming military superiority that allows it to push its military solution.

Given the enormous military superiority the regime already holds, it is difficult to see how even more Russian and Iranian arms to the regime would make that much difference, and the lack of Western arms has not held them back in any case.

Socialists have no business demanding our imperialist governments send arms or do anything in particular, as we know their agendas; but neither should we protest if they do send some arms (as opposed to more direct intervention which we must strongly resist). In fact, by demanding a complete US exit from the region, the CIA operatives currently preventing better arms from getting to the rebels would be out of a job.

It should be stressed, however, that a change in imperialist strategy is not out of the question, if Western leaders decide the situation continuing as at present is simply too destabilising. While unlikely, if the US and other imperialist powers decide to desperately throw themselves in with an array of no-fly zones, aerial bombings and so on, the current situation would become even more catastrophic, both inside Syria and regionally. While it is clearly not the Israeli strategy—Israel has continually made it clear it sees Assad, who has kept the peace on the occupied Golan border for 40 years and continually made war on the Palestinians, as the lesser evil to any of the Syrian rebel forces—Israel would likely move to take advantage of such a conflagration to carry out its own aggression against Iran, or even to forcibly expel a new wave of Palestinians.

Opposing imperialism should not mean being apologists for Assad’s butchery. But it is important to remember that opposing this butchery should in no circumstances mean losing our critical faculties and forgetting the kind of Armageddon a real imperialist war would entail.


Campaign for Peace and Democracy: Roundtable on Syria

Roundtable on Syria

Victims of the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack.

August 29, 2013 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Below is a statement introducing an online symposium on Syria organised by the US Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD). Participants expressed a variety of views regarding what is going on in Syria, but four of the seven – Michael Karadjis, Assaf Kfoury, Salameh Kaileh and Joseph Dahler – were in agreement that the situation in Syria remains fundamentally a people’s revolution against a repressive capitalist dictatorship.

These contributions were written before the dramatic events over the last week, notably the chemical weapon attacks on the Syrian-rebel controlled, working-class East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, and the ensuing threat of US and NATO bombardment of Syria. Nevertheless, even at that time, all participants were opposed to all forms of direct imperialist intervention in Syria, while different views were expressed about the issue of the anti-Assad forces being able to receive arms from outside Syria.

While these discussions, therefore, cannot take into account the detail of the latest moves, they represent valuable contributions to understanding the background to the current crisis. Given the anti-intervention view expressed by all – none of who gave any support whatsoever to the brutal Assad regime – it goes without saying that the common view among participants now is opposition to the impending imperialist attack, while not changing the pro-revolution view among those participants who expressed clear support for it.

We also publish Michael Karadjis’ contribution to the discussion below the CPD’s introduction.

* * *

Roundtable on the Syrian crisis

August 28, 2013 — Campaign for Peace and Democracy — In June 2013 the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s co-directors issued a personal statement on the Syrian revolution. At that time, we invited contributions to an online symposium, hoping to stimulate a vigorous debate over the issues raised by our statement. What follows are several pieces that in various ways oppose, support or supplement our position on Syria.

The symposium contributions were written before a large-scale poison gas attack with many casualties in the rebel-controlled Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21, 2013. Likewise, they were all written before Washington’s deployment of military forces to the region and its virtual announcement that military action is forthcoming.

Whether or not it is definitively proven that the chemical weapons attack was carried out by the Syrian government (which in our view is very likely the case), we – along with all of the symposium participants – strongly oppose military intervention by the United States and its allies, for reasons explained in our symposium response. It’s clear that whatever military measures the Obama administration may now adopt in Syria stem from a concern to rescue US “credibility” as a global hegemonic power, not a genuine concern to defend the victims of Assad’s brutality, a concern of which it has given little previous indication in the case of Syria or anywhere else. On the contrary, Washington continues to support and supply weapons to repressive governments in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the world.

The first contribution, from Molly Nolan, characterises the Syrian conflict as a civil war rather than a revolution, and argues against any of the forces, including secular democratic forces in the field, receiving arms. Instead, Nolan maintains that the only solution is negotiations between the Assad regime and its opponents, with no pressure for regime change from the Obama administration, and urges progressives not to take sides in the conflict.

Michael Karadjis (also below), on the other hand, maintains that the Syrian conflict remains, fundamentally, a democratic revolt against dictatorship. While acknowledging the reactionary Islamist threat, he points to strong democratic resistance at the grassroots and argues that the Islamists are not yet in control. However, while defending the right of Syrian revolutionaries to obtain arms, he believes that the ongoing militarisation of the conflict favors both Assad and the Islamists; therefore he thinks a ceasefire would be in the best interest of the revolution, allowing a revival of the mass movement that initiated the revolt against the regime.

David McReynolds highlights the ruinous history of US “humanitarian intervention,” citing the devastating wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Nolan, McReynolds regards the fighting in Syria as a civil war, with Assad retaining significant popular support – though he rejects the idea that Assad and his regime are “socialists under assault”. McReynolds is against all military aid to the rebels and calls for the US to work with Russia to bring the warring parties to a peace conference.

Assaf Kfoury supports the Syrian revolution, but he thinks that any weapons from outside are more than likely to come with US influence and interference attached, and that they will induce Russia, Iran and possibly China to increase the supply of weaponry to Assad. Kfoury, like Karadjis, looks to an internationally supervised ceasefire and the coming Geneva-2 conference to bring at least a temporary respite to the violence.

Michael Eisenscher sends us the statement of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), along with additional commentary, calling on US Congress and the administration to send humanitarian aid rather than arms to Syria and to promote a political solution. Eisenscher also includes a link to a petition that USLAW signed along with other peace groups that opposes military intervention and opposes arming the rebels or creating a no-fly zone. It calls on the US to focus on increasing humanitarian assistance through the UN and building active multilateral diplomacy with all involved parties for an immediate ceasefire without preconditions, a full arms embargo, and negotiations to end Syria’s civil war.

Salameh Kaileh favours the revolutionaries receiving weapons where they can, and argues that all the outside powers, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have refused to arm the revolution in a way that would actually enable it to win. Instead, he says, they favour what they call a “political solution” that would consign Syria to Russia’s sphere of influence.

Finally, we publish an interview “Imperialism, Sectarianism and Syria’s Revolution” with Joseph Daher, a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. Daher supports the Syrian revolution while arguing that reactionary forces like Jabhat al Nusra are being well funded by some Gulf countries in order to transform the revolution into a sectarian war. Unlike many Western leftists, Daher insists that the Syrian conflict is not a proxy war and that Assad and the countries supporting him are not anti-imperialist. Instead he calls for solidarity with the revolutionary and democratic popular committees and organisations.

The symposium concludes with a response from the CPD co-directors, “No to US war on Syria! No to Assad! Yes to a democratic Syrian revolution!”