Iraq and Syria: The struggle against the multi-sided counterrevolution

by Michael Karadjis

As a coalition of Sunni-based forces, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), took the major northern Iraqi city of Mosul and then most of the Sunni heartland in the north and west of Iraq, regional and western capitals went into crisis mode: the entire post-US occupation stabilisation had collapsed in a heap.

And the coalition leading this revolt consists of none other than the same forces which led the Iraqi resistance to US occupation throughout the middle years of the last decade. Yes, once again the arch-reactionary ISIS itself has revealed its brutality, with reported mass killing of captured soldiers, a crime against humanity; in the same way that monstrous acts, such as bombing work queues and Shiite mosques, were carried out during the anti-US resistance by al-Qaida in Iraq (ie, what became ISIS); horrific repression is partly to blame for breeding horrific reactions. In both cases however, this most violent and irrational element does not define the movement, still less explain its strength.

These events involve both Syria and Iraq, with their long, relatively open, border occupied on both sides by ISIS. The rise of ISIS can be connected to two momentous events: the American Guernica on Iraq 2003-2008, and the vast multi-sided Iraqi resistance to that invasion and occupation; and the vast popular revolution in Syria, and the Assad regime’s Guernica to suppress it over 2011-2014. In both cases, the victims have been overwhelmingly Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs – the vast Sunni majority in Syria, and the significant Sunni minority in Iraq.

It is in the context of this overwhelming disaster faced by the Sunni masses of Syria and Iraq, and mass resistance to it, that ISIS has been able to grow, representing the most extreme and most sectarian reaction to this dual blitzkrieg.

Iraq and Syria: the forces ranged against both regimes and ISIS

It is important to understand, however, that in neither Syria nor Iraq is ISIS the only opposition, among the disenfranchised Sunni masses, and the popular masses more generally, to the sectarian-based capitalist regimes in power. While the media focus has been about “regime(s) versus ISIS,” in reality, in both countries, there are three main forces in contention:

1. The Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki regimes. Both are sectarian-based regimes: the Assad regime is a “secular” totalitarian regime heavily based among the elite of the Alawite religious minority; the Maliki regime is a sectarian, semi-theocratic, Shiite regime closely aligned with both the former US occupier, that facilitated its rise to power, and with the Shiite theocracy in neighbouring Iran.

2. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the most extreme Sunni sectarian and theocratic movement in the region, which has set up its own semi-state over parts of Syria and Iraq. A descendant of al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS was disowned by al-Qaida last year for being unnecessarily and embarrassingly barbaric (though in fact the disagreement went back as far as 2005). It represents an “opposing counterrevolution,” formed partially from within the ranks of the uprisings.

3. In between, a vast opposition to the regimes which is also distinct from ISIS, in open war with it in Syria, and on and off at war with it in Iraq:

In Iraq, this consists of a range of “Sunni tribes” and other Sunni militias which have, over the last year or so, alternatively been fighting the regime alongside ISIS, or fighting against ISIS. This includes Sunni militia that were part of the Iraqi resistance to US occupation, whether pro-Saddam Baathist, Islamist or otherwise nationalist; and Sunni groups that were mobilised by the US and Saudi Arabia into the “Sawha” (Awakening) movement that helped defeat al-Qaida in 2007-8, but have since become disenchanted with the Shiite sectarian regime they had been drawn into propping up.

In Syria, this consists of all the armed manifestations of the Syrian revolution, from the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA, based heavily among the Sunni but not entirely, including some Alawite and Christian brigades and officers), moderate Islamist groups like the Mujahideen Army in the north and the al-Ajnad Union in the south, the Islamic Front, a loose coalition ranging from moderate to hard-line Islamists, and Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), the official wing of al-Qaida in Syria, which however is markedly less hard-line than ISIS since their split in May 2013. While a favourite western media discourse is “rebel in-fighting,” in reality this does not exist at all; rather, all these forces act in unison in their war against both the Assad regime and ISIS; it is the war of all of them against ISIS that wrongly gets labelled this way.

These two struggles are related but different. The Syrian struggle began as a multi—sect democratic uprising which however has tended to become more Sunni in composition largely due to the class realities in Syrian society; the Iraqi struggle is explicitly Sunni against an explicitly Shiite-sectarian regime, and evolved out of a nationalist resistance to US occupation. The more advanced sectors of the Syrian revolution still hope to win non-Sunni support for a rising against then regime, no matter how unlikely that may now be; by contrast, the Iraqi revolt only aims to liberate Sunni regions – the ISIS-led attempt to conquer Shiite-dominated Baghdad or any other Shiite region would by definition by a reactionary and sectarian action.

What accounts for strength of ISIS?

What then accounts for the particular strength of ISIS, given that most accounts do not credit ISIS with superior numbers of troops to other resistance movements (indeed in Syria at least ISIS is vastly outnumbered, perhaps 10 to 1, yet in the second half of 2013 had taken control over much rebel-held territory before being expelled in January 2014)?

One simple explanation is that the extraordinary level of barbarism of the Syrian regime, and of the previous US occupation of Iraq, alongside the growing sectarianism and brutality of the current Iraqi regime, will naturally produce an extremist and sectarian mirror within the opposition. This is certainly valid, yet does not entirely explain why the most brutal and extremist force appears so visibly powerful.

Another important factor is the simple fact that it controls regions of both countries that straddle their long border – when weakened on one side, it can retreat to the other side. When it builds up semi-state infrastructure when strong on one side, this can be used on the other side of the border. This gives ISIS simple practical strength.

Why ISIS just happens to control these regions would seem to be related to them being relatively economically backward, sparsely populated and partly “tribal” regions, in northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, where its unifying presence has brought a degree of security and some social services to otherwise forgotten regions. In contrast, the allied forces of the Syrian revolution, in one form or another, control liberated regions in the more developed and populous south, north-west and scattered parts of the centre, with their base among the peasantry and the urban poor in impoverished regional towns and ringed around major cities.

Importantly, however, these backward regions ISIS controls do have resources, including oil, which has greatly boosted ISIS funds, partly via oil deals with the Assad regime.

Then there is the question of funding. As the descendant of al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS has been the recipient of significant funding from sections of the Gulf bourgeoisie long sympathetic to al-Qaida. Not the Gulf regimes, as is often brandished about with no evidence (supporters of the Syrian and Iranian regimes tend to use “Saudi Arabia” as a form of demonology and thus falsely attribute Saudi support to whoever they dislike); on the contrary, al-Qaida views the Gulf regimes as arch-apostates and seeks their overthrow. However, the anti-regime Gulf bourgeoisie is very powerful – they oppose these narrow monarchical regimes which “lock out” the majority of the bourgeoisie from political power; the US backing of these regimes, and the regimes’ subservience to US imperialism, has produced a fierce anti-imperialism among this oppositional bourgeoisie, no matter how regressive the form it takes. In this sense, the question of why ISIS is particularly powerful is no more or less complicated than why al-Qaida became powerful enough to attack New York.

Then there’s the role of the Syrian and Iraqi Baath, in quite different ways. The Alawi-led, “secular” Syrian tyranny may appear to be an obvious enemy of ISIS’ theocratic semi-state; however, they have a common interest in crushing the Syrian revolution, which is a threat to both due to its liberatory message; and its forces also happen to control regions geographically in between Assad- and ISIS-controlled regions, so there is a practical aspect to Assad-ISIS collaboration. Speculation about this underhanded collaboration between the two centres of reaction in Syria is therefore widespread, the oil deals being only the most pragmatic part.

At the very least, the Assad regime’s past collaboration of with Iraqi jihadists is well-established. Initially after 9/11, the Assad regime collaborated with the CIA in “renditioning” and torturing “terror” suspects for the US as part of the US ‘war on terror” from 2001 to 2003. However, when the crazed Bush regime refused to reciprocate, by the mid-2000s Assad was encouraging Syrian jihadists to go to Iraq to help (or help undermine) the Iraqi resistance, partly to get them off his back in Syria, while placing obstacles in the path of the more crazed wing of US neocons who fantasised about taking their “success” in Iraq into Syria ( This policy was later reversed again after 2007 and Syria returned to the US “rendition” program between 2008 and 2011 after Obama came to power and US-Syrian relations improved. At this point, prominent Syrian jihadist and former key link to al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu al-Qaqaa, “was shot dead in mysterious circumstances” and “his funeral was attended by members of the Syrian parliament along with thousands of Islamists” (ibid).

However, after the outbreak of revolution in 2011, Assad again changed course, this time not related to Iraq however. The regime released hundreds of jihadists just as it was arresting thousands of democratic oppositionists – a clear ploy to undercut the democratic revolution and “sectarianise” the struggle. The fact that the Assad regime, and ISIS in Syria, hardly fight each other, but both fight the rebel coalition, is well-established: the regime can bomb schools, market-places, hospitals, refugee camps, entire cities to rubble; but ISIS headquarters in Raqqa stood proudly untouched by regime warplanes right up to a few days ago, looking like this: The governor of Iraq’s Ninevah province, Ethyl Najafi, even claimed the Syrian regime had helped ISIS take over Mosul (

The role of the Iraqi Baath is different; unlike its Syrian counterpart, it is on the same “Sunni” side of the “sectarian” divide. Some of ISIS’s (ie, al-Qaida in Iraq’s) initial core came from the “Islamification” of some of Saddam Hussein’s former military officer corps during the resistance to US occupation; three of six top ISIS leaders were such “converts” ( This layer of former Baathists brought with them arms, skills, intelligence etc, a formidable backbone to the new jihadist group. Importantly however, this should be distinguished from the Baathist influence among some of the non-ISIS Sunni forces fighting today in Iraq, which have collaborated with ISIS to defeat Maliki but are already coming into conflict with it.

A Sunni uprising against a sectarian regime

It has become increasingly clear that the initial reports of an ISIS takeover of Mosul and the north were far too simplistic, though ISIS may be taking the lead role in places. It is now clear that the other Sunni-based militia throughout the region had had a gutful of Maliki’s sectarian repression and decided to temporarily throw their lot in with ISIS to drive the “Iraqi army,” which they viewed as an occupation army, out of the Sunni majority regions. While the purpose of this article is not to detail this, this reality has been widely exposed; crucial background on Maliki’s sectarian repression and Sunni resistance can be found here for example: Indeed, regarding Mosul in particular, it is a stunning fact that the Maliki regime placed a known Shiite torturer and war criminal, General Mahdi Al Gharawi, in charge of this largest of Sunni cities; his actions were so brutal that even the US occupation regime and the Iraqi courts themselves had tried to prosecute him last decade

Other Sunni-based movements involved in the uprising alongside ISIS include the Sufi-Baathist Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN), which includes many former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army; a variety of other Islamist or nationalist militias, including the Muslim Scholars Association/1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army (apparently MB-connected), the Rashidin Army, the Iraqi Hamas, the Mujahidin Shura Council, and the al-Qaeda-originated Ansar al-Islam; various Sunni tribal councils, including those such as the Anbar Tribal Council which had been part of the US-backed “Sawha” movement but have since become disaffected due to Maliki’s sectarian rule; and new groups emerging from the protest movement of the last year or so who have taken up arms to defend their movement against the regime’s repression. Some of these forces have formed various shifting coalitions.

On the one hand, many who initially fled Mosul have returned, and have expressed a preference for even ISIS over the Maliki regime ( Many claimed their initial flight was due to fear of being bombed by the regime, as it had previously copied the US occupiers by again bombing Falluja. In contrast to its barbarity in Syria, where ISIS is in many ways seen as a foreign invasion, some reports suggested that ISIS in Iraq, where it has a real local base, was acting in a more mild way towards its Sunni constituents (; in any case, as its current drive against the regime depends on preserving, at least for the moment, its support among Sunni and its alliance with non-ISIS forces, it is likely to temper its repression for the moment. On the other hand, the breathtaking barbarity shown in the apparent mass slaughter of regime soldiers indicates that ISIS is still ISIS, and those forces in a temporary bloc with ISIS will have to confront it quite soon to avoid simply falling into a sectarian quagmire.

This dual process led to understandable speculation about the rapid collapse of Maliki’s “Iraqi Army” in Mosul. The relative openness of the Assad-ISIS collaboration, the concurrent ability of Assad, Maliki and Iran to use the bogey of ISIS to demonise all opposition to the two sectarian regimes, and the continual refrain of US and other western leaders for years that they couldn’t send even a bullet to the Syrian liberation struggle because such arms might get into the hands of al-Qaida, and the growing US chorus for military action against al-Qaida in Syria, led to an understandable conspiracy theory: Maliki had ordered his army to run away and leave Mosul to the tender mercies of ISIS, in order to goad the US into launching air strikes “against ISIS” in Iraq and Syria, ie, against the Sunni-based uprisings as a whole. Scot Lucas more or less implies this here:

While not every conspiracy theory is always false, it appears most likely that reality was far more simple: the part of Maliki’s armed forces that were sectarian-based knew it would be pointless putting up any fight against the united Sunni insurgency in the overwhelmingly Sunni regions in the north; and to the extent that conscripts were Sunni, they downed arms and joined their brothers and sisters.

This temporary Sunni coalition is unlikely to last; tensions have been there from the start, and as ISIS tries to impose its medievalist theocratic repression on its current supporters, these tensions are bound to spread. Former General Muzhir al Qaisi, from “the General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries” – apparently one of the coalitions – which entered Mosul alongside ISIS, told the BBC’s Jim Muir that they were bigger than ISIS, and that, moreover, he considered ISIS to be “barbarians” ( Violent clashes have already broken out in some regions in the north between ISIS and the Baathist Naqshbandis (, while in other areas, local Sunni forces liberated themselves from Maliki regime occupation without ISIS and have declared they will fight off anyone from outside, including ISIS, trying to take over.

US-Iranian intervention?

Both the US and Iran have threatened intervention to shore up Maliki’s tottering regime and beat back the Sunni uprising, under the guise of defeating ISIS terror. Iran has already sent in units of the Qods Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guards, under its veteran commander Qassem Suleimani; there are reports of up to 500 of these militia in Iraq, and even possibly of 1500 paramilitary Basij militiamen arriving ( Meanwhile, the US has moved the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its air wing, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Truxton towards the Gulf, while on June 20 Obama announced that 300 “special forces members” would be sent to Iraq to “train and advise the Iraqi security forces” (on top of 160 troops which are already in Iraq, including 50 marines and more than 100 soldiers) and threatened “targeted” air strikes against the Sunni militia (
Despite their poor relations with one another, both the US and Iran have expressed the view that they need to cooperate against a common foe here. Last week, Obama said Iran can play a constructive role in Iraq (, and US and Iranian officials met on the sidelines of nuclear talks to discuss Iraq. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani likewise said that Iran would “not rule out” working with the US on Iraq, while his deputy, Hamid Aboutalebi, said “Iran and the US are the only countries who can manage the Iraq crisis” (

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian even went so far as to claim the US “lacks serious will for confronting terrorism in Iraq and the region” due to the US “delay” in fighting terrorism and Obama’s remarks which only promised hundreds of advisors rather than immediate air strikes (

In reality, this is not as new as it sounds, certainly not in Iraq and not even in Syria. From late last year, more and more US leaders and former leaders began deluging the media with hints that Assad remaining was preferable to the alternative, and that Iran could play a positive role in Syria – in both cases focusing on the threat posed by the Sunni jihadists (I documented some of this process, and the geopolitical turn in US policy it entailed, here:

Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has also expressed solidarity with Maliki and offered to jointly fight ISIS. Then on June 15, the Syrian regime launched its most major strikes on ISIS in Syria for many months, if not ever, the regime even destroying ISIS headquarters in Hasakah. As if they didn’t know it was there before. Clearly, for Assad, it is time to try to cash in; ISIS has been a useful ally against the Syrian revolution, but as with Maliki and Iran, Assad also sees the value in using the horror at ISIS’s brutality to encourage the US’ geopolitical turn to continue, to hopefully again accepting Assad as a partner in the “war in terror” – as all local counterrevolutionary forces use ISIS as the bogeyman to taint the popular insurgency in both countries.

Assad has also spoken of what he sees as a shift in US policy, claiming “the United States and the West have started to send signs of change. Terrorism is now on their soil,” and therefore “current and former US officials are trying to get in touch with us, but they do not dare to because of the powerful lobbies that are pressuring them” ( Assad even praised the US for being “more rational than the French” regarding Syria (, a clear note of thanks for the US towering betrayal of those it claims to support.

A US “war on ISIS”: a war on the Sunni uprising

The complication is that ISIS is itself a counterrevolutionary force; in theory, if the US struck very narrowly at ISIS itself, it could boost the non-ISIS forces among the resistance in both countries. And indeed, given that the Syrian rebel alliance of the FSA and Islamist rebels that has been the only force in the region actually fighting ISIS, it might be expected that the US may decide to finally, after 3.5 years, begin providing some serious weapons to the Syrian rebels to help them defeat ISIS. Yet this appears the furthest thing from the aims of US leaders in both countries.

This is very obvious in the case of Iraq. The US has provided the Maliki regime millions of dollars worth of heavy military equipment, including Humvees (armoured vehicles), tanks, helicopters and so on. Rather than try to build bridges with the Sunni population, the regime has used its weaponry to further alienate them by launching a brutal counterinsurgency, which led directly to their current bloc with ISIS. In this context, what does the prospect of US intervention “against ISIS” in Iraq mean in practice? To examine this, it will be useful to look back at the US invasion and the rise of al-Qaida in the resistance.

Many analysts have claimed the US deliberately stoked sectarianism in Iraq after its 2003 invasion in order to divide and rule. However, while divide and rule is certainly a well-tested imperialist device, this analysis is too simplistic. It depends on the tactical needs of the moment. Sectarian division, after all, was hardly absent in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which was based narrowly around a small section of the Sunni minority; the tyrannical regime had carried out large scale massacres of Shia, especially after the mass Shia uprising in 1991.
It is true, of course, that this sectarian division was not so strong on the ground, and that indeed, many tribes were mixed Sunni and Shia; there was nothing of the kind of sectarian warfare that characterised the period after the US invasion had destroyed the social fabric of the country.

However, the US relied precisely on the hatred the Shia majority felt for the regime as a factor that would ease its invasion to depose Hussein, and this cannot be ignored when analysing what happened next. Was it necessary for the US to stoke even more sectarianism after its invasion? Soon after the invasion, the mass resistance to US occupation centred among the Sunni population, partly because it had been a Sunni-led regime evicted from power by an imperialist invasion, and if the Hussein regime had had any base left, it would only have been among the Sunni minority. Arguably, therefore, the immediate US interest would have been to win over a section of the Sunni, and therefore to discourage sectarianism among its Shiite partners in the occupation regime.

But things went horribly wrong. First, occupation tends to create new enemies; so if the Shiite ruling bourgeois stooges were working with the occupation, happy to step in as the US evicted Hussein’s regime, the Shiite masses, especially in the slims of Sadr City in Baghdad, felt the brunt of occupiers’ everyday repression. The rise of the anti-imperialist Mahdi Army, led by Al-Sadr, represented this new popular resistance.

Second, the US occupation carried out a radical change of plan. For 12 years, the CIA and other US strategists had stressed the need to maintain the core of the Baathist regime, without Saddam and his immediate circle, as an imperialist imposed regime would still need the actually existing state apparatus of the Iraqi capitalist class to re-impose and re-stabilise capitalist rule. Yet in 2004, the US colonial proconsul ruling Iraq, Paul Bremmer, dissolved the Baathist police and armed forces and carried out a radical “de-Baathification” of the entire state apparatus.

It is hard to determine whether this was caused by a deliberate ploy to stoke further sectarianism; or by the neoconservative regime running the US getting caught up in its own “spread democracy” part of its rhetoric to the detriment of realist-based imperialist interests; or was simply due to inevitable class alignments, which then had unintended consequences.

I would argue that it was not the first of these. It is true that the de-Baathification program drove mostly Sunni out of work and onto the streets, thus intensifying Sunni opposition; and as it was a Shiite-dominated regime that carried it out, this would have boosted anti-Shia sectarianism among the Sunni. In fact, the first post-invasion job of current leader Maliki was assistant to the director of the de-Baathification program!

However, the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces hit both Sunni and Shia working class Iraqis, thus massively boosting support for the anti-occupation Mahdi Army. As US forces imposed a Guernica-style terror on the Sunni city Falluja, al-Sadr led the Shiite poor of Badr City out on the streets in anti-sectarian solidarity with the Sunni, a stunningly opposite approach to the main pro-Iranian faction then backing the US-imposed regime, the Badr Brigades, and a challenge the occupiers were least expecting.

But whether these moves were only about crazed and unrealistic neoconservatives running amock is unclear, though it may be part of the picture. While the CIA line was theoretically perfect from a class point of view, there was a major practical problem: the simple size of the Shia majority (50-60%) compared to the Sunni minority around which the regime was based (25-30%). Those behind Bremmer’s move may have made a very logical calculation, despite the risks involved in the massive instability it would temporarily lead to: capitalist class rule would never be re-stabilised unless the capitalist class from the majority Shia population get to rule; the regime and state apparatus left over from Hussein’s eviction was far too narrow and narrowly Sunni to ever be useful.

Whatever the cause, facing the threat of a non-sectarian joint Sunni-Shia anti-occupation movement, it now may well have suited US interests to stoke sectarianism, to ensure Sunni and Shia focused on killing each other rather than targeting the occupiers. While the idea that the US would have deliberately encouraged al-Qaida in Iraq for this purpose is most likely a conspiracy theory as baseless as most, it could be said that, just temporarily, al-Qaida’s criminal sectarian attacks on Shiite mosques and holy places played directly into the hands of the US occupation regime and the most sectarian wing of the Shia elite. The US responded in like manner, arming the most bloodthirsty sectarian forces among the Shia to go after the Sunni, massacre them just as al-Qaida was doing to Shia, and ethnically cleanse them from significant regions, including most of Baghdad. While doing this, the US cracked down on the Mahdi Army. However, after some time the sectarian atmosphere also neutralised the Mahdi Army as a threat as it too got drawn into the mutual slaughter.

Significantly, al-Qaida outside of Iraq could see the disaster that al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was causing. Al-Qaida head Ayman al- Zawahiri warned that the focus must be kept on defeating the US, and argued against targeting Shiite holy places and non-combatants, and against the grisly hostage killings ( Zarqawi rejected this advice, and this difference, going back to 2005, is important in understanding the differences today between ISIS, the extremely sectarian and brutal descendant of al-Qaida in Iraq, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, the official wing of al-Qaida. Some might view it as odd that the actual al-Qaida is significantly more moderate in its behaviour than the dissident ISIS but the logic is simple: Zarqawi then and ISIS now aim to build a “state” of Iraq and the Levant; their main enemy are the opposing sects, mostly Shia, that are necessarily not part of their state-building project. Al-Qaida (including al-Nusra in Syria) is by contrast still more focused on the big picture and so has a dimmer view of counterproductive sectarian bloodletting which plays into the hands of the enemy.

While Assad’s aims in facilitating the entry of Syrian jihadists into Iraq after 2003 can be explained as a mixture of keeping them off his back in Syria, and bogging down the US enough to discourage the nuttier wing of the neo-con fanatics who wanted to take their great “success” of regime change into Syria, it seems logical that the Syrian regime would have had the same use of a rise of sectarianism in Iraq at this juncture. After all, a narrow Alawi regime ruling over a vast disenchanted Sunni majority might have also seen the prospect of a joint non-sectarian Sunni-Shia struggle in Iraq as an existential threat at home.

But after a couple of years of sectarian slaughter had caused enough damage, the imperative to win a section of the Sunni away from al-Qaida in order to re-stabilise an Iraqi capitalist regime returned. In 2007, the US and Saudi Arabia, exploiting the exasperation increasingly felt by the Sunni with al-Qaida’s excessive violence, armed Sunni tribes in Anbar province into the “Sawha” (Awakening) movement, which helped defeat al-Qaida throughout most of the region, and brought a new section of Sunni leadership into supporting the Shiite-led regime. It probably helped that around this time, the Syrian regime also returned to the policy of “renditioning” jihadists for the US “war on terror.”

As has been widely reported, the current Sunni uprising, and the fact that the bulk of the Sunni population is currently in league with al-Qaida’s successor, ISIS, is due to the Maliki regime’s betrayal of the promises made to the Sawha Sunnis, their intensified exclusion from power, and the brutal repression unleashed against those who attempted to protest this situation. As such, one might say that Maliki has also let down the US master in this regard. Certainly, there have been rumblings from US leaders and media about the need for Maliki to be more “inclusive” and so on.

Ultimately, however, imperialism has what exists on the ground. In Iraq, the Shia are the majority. Therefore, it will be the Shia bourgeoisie that will rule. And capitalist politics is sectarian, nationalist, exclusivist, chauvinist – anything other than “non-exclusive” – a proletarian concept – almost by definition. And therefore, whatever complaints the US might make, if the US launches air strikes “against ISIS,” in the *current context* – before the rest of the Sunni coalition turns against ISIS of its own accord – these will be strikes against the Iraqi Sunni uprising as a whole, that will bolster Maliki’s sectarian regime and its entire sectarian dynamic – if only because the US does not have an alternative ruling class regime to work through.

If US were to take “war on ISIS” into Syria …

But is this likely to be different in Syria, where there is no Iraq-style coalition with ISIS, but on the contrary, a magnificent resistance of all anti-Assad resistance forces against ISIS? In other words, with the US threatening possible intervention to stop ISIS, are we likely to see the US finally, after 3.5 years, come through with some serious military aid to the FSA to help it fight ISIS in Syria?

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the US has refused to provide arms to the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), using the excuse that such arms might find their way to various Islamists or jihadists, especially the al-Qaida-linked forces such as ISIS.

Yet the irony is that while the US has still to provide a bullet to the FSA (other than a few weapons to one single, small, newly formed militia earlier this year), it is precisely the FSA and their Islamist rebel allies that have been the only force in the region actually fighting ISIS. The FSA and ISIS declared war on each other in August last year, and have been constantly at war since; then beginning in January this year, the rebel alliance of FSA/Mujahideen Army/ Islamic Front/Jabhat al-Nusra have been waging a sustained war to drive ISIS out of as much of the liberated territory as they can.

To understand why this is not likely to lead to any change in US policy towards the FSA, we need to look at a bit of background on US policy towards the FSA and the Syrian jihadists.

For the last year and a half, the major US aim of US policy has been to try to bludgeon a small section of “vetted” FSA into turning themselves into a “Sawha” (Awakening) movement to fight al-Qaida in Syria (named after the movement the US and Saudi Arabia armed to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007-8), mainly Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN, now the official wing of al-Qaida, since a-Qaida disowned ISIS); overwhelmingly, the main condition on which the US has offered to perhaps send a few guns to some select FSA units has always been that whoever receives them must be willing to launch a full frontal war on the jihadist forces.

From the first time FSA fighters were told by US agents that if they wanted arms they would need to turn them against Jabhat al-Nusra, back in late 2012, it was clear the US wanted the FSA to take on al-Nusra now, before defeating Assad – regardless of the blood-drenched division that would cause between two opponents of such a powerful and bloody dictatorship (and of course confusion, blood and division among the mainstream Islamist elements in between). When the FSA members said that unity against Assad’s more powerful forces was paramount at present, the US officer replied “We’d prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army.” (

It is difficult to conceive of this as anything other than a plan for mutual destruction; as usual, it is a question of class: whether the media claims US and Syrian “like” each other or not, there is nothing worse from the imperialist point of view than a revolution led by workers and peasants overthrowing an entrenched capitalist regime. The US would like a face-saving modification and rearrangement of the regime (the ‘Yemeni solution’, similar to the CIA’s original plan for Iraq), but that is an entirely different thing. In fact the aim of that is precisely to calm down the revolutionary fever. Short of that, the US wants it extinguished, and mutual suicide appears a good method.

Likewise, the communique from the G8 meeting last June called for a transitional authority (consisting of elements of regime and opposition) which would “preserve or restore” the Syrian state apparatus, stressing that “this includes the military forces and security services”, and called on both the regime and opposition forces to “destroy and expel from Syria all organisations and individuals affiliated to al Qaida and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism.” And on June 23, French president Francois Hollande demanded Syrian rebels expel “extremist” groups from areas they control as a condition for getting any French arms (

The FSA has always rejected this imperialist “advice.” According to FSA Colonel Akaidi, a military defector then heading the Aleppo military council, the US wants to turn the FSA “into the Sahwa,” but “if they [the US] help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help” (

However, for its own reasons, the FSA spent much of the first half of 2013 clashing with JaN, as it took up the fight to defend the Syrian masses against JaN’s sporadic attempts to impose a new “Islamist” dictatorship, or to defend itself from JaN attacks. As such, the FSA was simply defending its own agenda, not that of the US. The FSA fought with its own aims, when it chose, the way it chose. And once it had imposed several defeats on JaN; and JaN even went so far as to offer some apologies; and once all the most violently reactionary elements, and nearly all the foreign, non-Syrian, elements of JaN split and formed ISIS mid-2013, there were no further clashes between JaN and the FSA that I am aware of; both focused on fighting the regime, alongside other Islamist fighters in between.
And while still undoubtedly a sectarian organisation that the FSA and other Syrian revolutionaries will have to deal with in the future, JaN markedly moderated its behaviour, feeling the pressure of its own Syrian base; indeed, JaN includes a significant base of former secular FSA fighters who only switched to JaN because it had better weapons.

In contrast, the whole of the second half of 2013 was an open war between the FSA and ISIS, as the FSA, representing the Syrian masses, took up the fight to defend the masses in liberated zones as ISIS tried to replace Assad’s secular-sectarian-fascist state with an Islamo-fascist state. And in January 2014, the Islamic Front and even JaN itself joined the FSA in this full-frontal war on ISIS.

While western imperialist observers, and most leftists, tend to put JaN and ISIS together into the same “al-Qaida” box, it is very important to understand the very crucial distinction that all Syrian revolutionaries make between the two. One may find it distasteful, but in the context of fight to the death against the sensational brutality of both the Assad and ISIS regimes, few Syrian revolutionaries will be in the mood to pay much attention to western sensibilities.

Yet despite this war on ISIS, the US has still refused to arm the FSA. One might assume that the FSA was doing what US imperialism had been telling them to do since late 2012, ie, fight al-Qaida. Even though the FSA is fighting with their own agenda and not that of the US, one might assume that imperialism should have been happy that it just happened to coincide with their interests, regardless of intent.

However, this was not good enough for the US.

First, US imperialism has made it clear all along that fighting ISIS is not enough – the US sees JaN as just as bad,* if not worse, than ISIS* in terms of US interests, precisely because JaN actually seems to be interested, in its own regressive way, in fighting the Assad regime, Israel and US imperialism, whereas ISIS’ rhetoric about all this means little more than capturing already liberated zones and imposing theocratic repression against Syrians – both Assad and the US can live with that as long as it is restricted to the far north and east of Syria (and, until recently, remote northern regions of Iraq). But as JaN is currently on side, the FSA and all the rest of the Syrian rebel alliance are resolutely opposed to this US diktat and to splitting the anti-Assad (and anti-ISIS) resistance.

The US attitude to this joint rebel war on ISIS was summarised by Ben Hubbard in the New York Times, who wrote in in January that “neither of the two sides in the rebel fighting presents a particularly attractive face to Western policy makers … Further complicating the rebel landscape is the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, which has also declared allegiance to Al Qaeda but whose fighters have fought alongside other rebel groups against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in recent days” (

Clarifying the US stand further, in late January, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee that Jabhat al-Nusra “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland (ie, on the US),” and claimed that some 26,000 of Syria’s rebels were jihadist extremists ( Similarly, CIA director John Brennan claimed that JaN aimed “to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad.” Around the same time, an Israeli intelligence official put the number at 30,000 and claimed that after toppling Assad “or strengthening their foothold in Syria they are going to move and deflect their effort and attack Israel” ( Quoting such absurd numbers revealed that the US and Israel were not only talking about ISIS; in fact they were not even only talking about ISIS and JaN, but other non-al-Qaida groups as well.

The second reason that fighting ISIS is not good enough for the US is that it is all very well if the FSA fights ISIS, but the US has apparently offered to give some fighters some guns as long as they *only* use them to fight ISIS and *do not use them to fight Assad,* according to some rebels to whom this offer was made (who apparently are a split-off from the northwestern FSA coalition, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, SRF):

It appears that the SRF itself may also have been offered arms if it took up the fight against JaN as well as ISIS, because here is their commander rejecting this US diktat: “I am not fighting against al-Qa’ida… it’s not our problem” ( By “al-Qaida” he clearly means JaN, because it was precisely the SRF that has led the attack on ISIS since January. Clearly, this was not good enough for the US. Incidentally, this is a totally secular commander and totally secular coalition – rejecting an imperialist diktat to fight al-Nusra jihadists, but who has led the war on the worse ISIS jihadists. Yet the kind of “leftist” who believes facts are irrelevant to analysis will no doubt call him a “US-backed jihadist.”

Even US hawks who advocate US intervention in Syria, such as John McCain, reveal their real aims often enough. Last year, McCain called for an “international force” to enter Syria to secure stocks of chemical weapons because “these chemical weapons … cannot fall into the hands of the jihadists” ( His colleague in advocacy of hawkish intervention, Lindsey Graham, favours direct US drone strikes into Syria targeting the jihadists (; not surprisingly, Graham has also come out in favour of drone strikes in Iraq in the current crisis.

What all this means seems clear enough: if the US were to launch strikes “against ISIS,” and if such strikes spread from Iraq into Syria, it is highly likely that the US would also attack JaN, despite the JaN’s prominent role in the war on ISIS, especially in Deir-Azor in the east. And whatever one may think of JaN, at the present conjuncture, an attack on JaN would be a massive attack on the strength of the anti-Assad *and anti-ISIS* resistance in Syria and would be a tremendous boost to the regime.

Furious Syrian rebel assault on ISIS does not gain US support

In recent weeks leading up to the seizure of Mosul, the Syrian rebel alliance has been engaged in furious battle attempting to keep hold of the east Syrian city Deir-Azour against a sustained ISIS siege. While they fought ISIS, Assad helped ISIS by terror bombing the city (, in effect, a joint siege; and after ISIS murdered 3 FSA commanders in Deir-Azour last week, regime warplanes bombed the mourning tent on June 21, killing 16 people ( And in comparison with the fight put up by the Syrian rebels, Maliki’s troops in Iraq just ran away from ISIS.

And here is the crowning irony of the US line that “arms to the Syrian rebels might end up in al-Qaida hands” – somehow the same logic was not applied to the sectarian Iraqi regime, which was loaded with US arms, and so as the Iraqi army ran away from Mosul, a whole lot of heavy weaponry actually did fall into the hands of ISIS! And now ISIS is taking that weaponry back into Syria to continue its war against the Syrian revolution (

Even more sensationally, precisely now that this heroic resistance to ISIS in Deir-Azour might be expected to be utilised by the US for its own reasons, the US has moved even further away from taking such a course. On June 22, while visiting Assad’s fellow recently-“elected” dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, US Secretary of State John Kerry, announced he was “discouraging Arab nations from sending financial support to even moderate opposition Sunni groups in Syria” because such aid “could be used to help the growing insurgency in Iraq.” Kerry said he planned to deliver the same message to leaders of other Arab states in the following days (

Very difficult for the FSA to win. If it fights together with al-Nusra against the Assad regime, any arms it receives might reach al-Nusra jihadists. If it fights against ISIS, any arms it receives might reach ISIS jihadists. It would require an extraordinary imagination to not see that US imperialism would prefer the FSA and the Syrian uprising to disappear from the face of the Earth.

Obama clarifies: No to revolution led by farmers and workers

And the reasons for this were given by none other than the chief executive officer of US imperialism on almost the same day Kerry made his remarks. Replying to a question from Norah O’Donnell on ‘CBS This Morning’, about whether arming the “moderate forces” (presumably meaning the secular FSA revolutionaries) would have prevented the rise of ISIS, Obama claimed that despite having allegedly “spent a lot of time trying to work with a moderate opposition in Syria,” there was no chance that sending them arms would have helped, because

“when you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.”

Now, we can note that the “lot of time” never included a bullet; and the fact that the FSA were not up against the jihadists until long after the revolution had started and after Assad had already slaughtered tens of thousands; and the fact that the farmers and “dentists” were joined by lots of other workers and above all by tens of thousands of deserters from the Syrian Arab Army who did indeed have military experience; some good refutations of Obama’s logic here and here

But aside from all this, I just want to note that Obama has done us a great favour.

Here we see, in plain black and white, the hostility of the head of US imperialism to the very idea of a revolution led by mere farmers and workers against a regime of mega-capitalists. Imagine if arming workers and peasants did help them overthrow an oligarchy. Imagine how the example might spread. Imagine the horror of the US ruling class at the very thought. Obama just told us in plain English.

The rise of ISIS is of course an enormous threat to this workers’ and farmers’ uprising in Syria, and the just struggle in Iraq which it is temporarily attached to, due to the intense sectarian division it fosters between Arab working people of differing religious sect. Much has been said about ISIS abolishing the borders established by imperialism at Sykes-Pilot. This of course is a good thing, but only if done on the basis of unity of the Arabic working peoples as they abolish these imposed borders. ISIS by contrast abolishes those borders while setting up new ones, across sect lines. This indicates the fact that ISIS’s anti-Shia “radicalism” is in fact a fundamentally conservative state-building project which is less threatening to imperialism and local ruling classes than the mainstream al-Qaida’s continuing focus on imperialism and the local reactionary regimes, and certainly less than genuine popular revolution.

For the popular revolutionary wave to progress it will need to decisively defeat ISIS and its project for sectarian division. While sectarianism has grown as a negative factor in the Syrian struggle as a whole, the momentum of the united rebel fight against ISIS’ extreme theocratism and sectarianism is a positive on in this regard; while in Iraq the Sunni will need to feel secure enough from Maliki’s repression before throwing off the yolk of ISIS.

However, if ISIS brutality provides the cover for imperialism to intervene, the effect will only be counterrevolutionary – by also hitting at JaN in Syria and thereby weakening the Syrian revolutionary forces, and by solidifying Iraqi Sunni behind ISIS and entrenching the sectarian divide.

Reluctant critique of leading Australian academic on Syria

This is a wonderful article by Andrea Glioti, and should be distributed widely. At the same time, I say this a little sadly, as I want to give some information about Dr Tim Anderson who Glioti criticises here. The word “reluctant” in my title refers to my own reluctance, clearly not to Glioti’s.

In 1978, Tim was arrested by the Australian police along with 2 colleagues from the Ananda Marga Indian leftist-oriented religious sect, and framed up for allegedly planning to bomb the house of a National Front (fascist) leader. The police agent who was allegedly with them in the car when he alleged they were planning this action also claimed the three boasted about bombing the Hilton Hotel during the meeting of Commonwealth heads of Government in Sydney earlier in 1978. The three spent 7 years in prison on the first charge before being pardoned in 1985, and then Tim was arrested again for the Hilton bombing following the testimony of a prison informer, before being acquitted in 1991. This followed years of campaigning by the Campaign Exposing the Frame-up of Tim Anderson (CEFTA). Here is some information on the issue and campaign:

Tim thus represented this important struggle against police frame-ups and the power of the deep state, and is quite a symbol in that way. Since his release, he has been a tireless campaigner around many issues, and is prominent in Cuba Solidarity.

Tim coordinates a course at Sydney University in the Political economy department called “Human Rights in Development” which I had the privilege to teach for two semesters. I can speak glowingly of this course, which he ahs designed, as perhaps the best course of know of in Sydney tertiary institutions. It is a thorough expose of imperialism in the field of international “development”. I also helped some Cambodian activists get in contact with Tim with the aim of one of them coming to Australia to study in his course.

There is nothing in his course which would tell one either way that someone teaching it would end up on the side of the Syrian issue that I have, or that Tim has. In a sense, this can come back to the differing meanings of “anti-imperialism” that is currently a topic of debate on the GreenLeft discussion list, and of course throughout the left more generally. Thinking back I can perhaps remember Tim giving slightly more emphasis to the role of a somewhat strong state in a developing capitalist country to allow it some measure of independent development relative to imperialism, compared to the emphasis I would put; I would tend to emphasise the power of the working class and people’s movements much more. While certain aspects of state functioning are indeed preferable to lack of any, when the power of the capitalist state comes into conflict with that of the people’s movement, I have no doubt which I support, and no doubt which side of the equation is more important in terms of real independence from imperialism.

However, when the question is put abstractly, there is simply nothing in such statements (about relative importance of the state) to tell what view one might adopt in concrete circumstances, such as in Syria now, and in some senses one may even be able to agree somewhat abstractly. For example, is the Cambodian capitalist state weak or strong? It is weak when it gives everything to the IMF and WTO that they demand, and when it couldn’t bust corruption if corruption were a balloon at a kids’ party; it is strong when it shoots striking garment workers dead. For example, Tim was long very involved in the struggle of the East Timorese people against Suharto’s Indonesian military dictatorship, and remains strongly attached to East Timor now. It would never occur to me that Tim would abstractly prefer Suharto’s “strong” state to the “weaker” states that have succeeded his rule. So it would be difficult for me to suggest that Tim’s current view on Syria necessarily flows from anything we were teaching in his course.

While many on the left have ended up with something of a “plague on both your houses” view on Syria, or at least something approaching it, it is somewhat unfortunate personally that two colleagues who have worked on the same wonderfully anti-imperialist course that is Tim’s proud creation have ended up on diametrically opposed sides of the spectrum on this issue. If either of us was in the wishy-washy camp it may be easier. But at the end of the day, we advocate what we believe. However aghast I may be over the support given by Tim and so many other leftists to a fascist regime which has turned the whole of Syria into a moonscape just to keep a narrow clique of mega-capitalists in power, I find it difficult to not maintain my respect for Tim as a person, given the history.

Yet going beyond advocating a point of view, and actually going to visit Assad and be photographed for the world’s media shaking hands with him while he was furiously barrel-bombing Aleppo last December, does make things more difficult. And the fact that Tim entered the spotlight under a frame-up by the Australian police, yet now supports a regime whose police and military repression make the Shah of Iran a mere authoritarian and make Mubarak a raving democrat, seems a case of cognitive dissonance if ever there was one.

That is why, with all due respect which I maintain for Tim, I am publishing this article by Andrea on my blog and will distribute widely, in the interests of frank and comradely discussion.

Michael Karadjis

Dr Tim ‘Asad’ Anderson: the abuse of academia to spread out propaganda

Posted on May 23, 2014 by Andrea Glioti

Part I
My name is Andrea Glioti, I’m the journalist who intervened at Dr. Tim Anderson’s talk at Sydney UNI “Why I went to Syria” on March 6 (2014), an event promoting a blatant apology of the Syrian regime under the pretext of “counter-information”. A professor of political economy, Tim Anderson ( has been part of a delegation led by the Wikileaks Party and the Asadist activist group “Hands Off Syria”, which paid its homage to the Syrian regime during a visit of solidarity in December 2013. This is a response to some of the absurdities I heard about the Syrian conflict and, apart from the single case of Anderson, it addresses several points continuously raised by the so-called “anti-imperialist left”. It would be actually fair to rename this ideological stubbornness on Syria as a Stalinist-Soviet approach, if we were between the 1950s the 1960s, Anderson and his likes would be probably denying the Hungarian and Czech revolts ever took place. If we were in the Spanish Civil War, they would probably defend the Soviet decision to crush the anarchists. As long as a government sits in the anti-American camp (no matter the hypocrisy of Syrian foreign policies in this regard), it doesn’t really matter if it tortures leftists in its own prisons. Dr Anderson and his likes claim to hold the truth on what’s going on in Syria, this truth could be sum up in a Western-backed plot denying any sort of agency to the Syrians who took the streets in 2011. In their eyes, they’re only puppets, they would have never risen up after more 40 years of authoritarianism , they needed the Zionist-Salafi-American trust to give them a green light.

I’m an Arabic speaking Middle Eastern politics graduate, who has been covering Syria from inside the country for 10 months between 2011 and 2013 and I spent the rest of the time between Turkey and Lebanon, mainly in the border regions, where most of the Syrian refugees are located. I’ve worked with a wide range of media including “corporate” and “leftist” magazines (The New Internationalist, the German TAZ, the Swiss-German WOZ fall in the second category), being a freelancer, therefore I don’t even fit into the category of mainstream corporate media. Having said this, the sources Dr Anderson relied upon during his presentation could hardly be considered “independent” sources of information, despite his efforts to present them as such: Russia Today, in the words of Putin, reflects the views of the Kremlin, just like the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reflects the views of the pro-Syrian (regime) 8 March coalition. Among the sources quoted there was also Mother Agnès de la Croix, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun closely related to the Asad regime ( and the French far-right ( Anderson’s talk was covered by the Iranian Press TV: if the station’s anti-US biases were combined with a minimum degree of professionalism, then my intervention wouldn’t have been censored, after I raised several critical points Anderson intentionally ignored.

Notwithstanding the political biases of Western and Gulf media [the focus on Syria in contrast with how Bahrain has been overlooked and the role played by certain American media in advocating war on Iraq in 2003, despite the lack of any evidence on its chemical arsenal, just to quote two examples], the solution is not to take at face value the version of events provided by pro-Syrian regime sources to come up with a credible alternative narrative. Journalism is about verifying facts, a strong ground-driven knowledge of the context you’re talking about, a reliable network of local contacts and, ideally, some fluency in the local language (Arabic): all these aspects were totally absent in Dr Anderson’s conference.

While retaining the right to be skeptical about the Western media’s coverage of Syria, everyone should bear in mind that the main reason of the conflicting news reports coming from this country is the restrictive context journalists are forced to operate in: while based in Damascus in 2011, I had to pretend being a student to avoid being monitored 24/h by security forces, my Brazilian colleague Germano Assad has been detained in confinement for five days under the only accusation of being a journalist. I have been denied access to Syria in 2012 and told I was not welcome there anymore on the grounds of the interviews I conducted with local political dissidents. I’m sure this was the reason, because of the content of the questions posed to my colleague Assad under interrogation. This is just an idea of what you have to endure as a Western journalist, if you’re not there on an official parade organized through government press visas. It goes without saying that Syrian journalists “enjoy” a much worse treatment: one of my personal acquaintances had to leave Syria recently, after having been tortured and put on trial for “working without a license” and “spreading lies”. Let us not forget WHY it is so difficult to work in Syria and inform about the ongoing events.

Going back to Anderson’s talk, first of all, you don’t claim to show support for one “nation”, if you only sat for pastries with Asad, that’s not showing solidarity with the “Syrian people”, that’s an official delegation voicing its support for a Government.

During my stay in Syria I had the chance to walk around without any escort, both in Damascus in 2011 and in the province of Hasakah in 2013: this clearly makes the difference from an official visit to Damascus (actually, to a certain extent, it makes the difference even in comparison to some other journalists, who have only been escorted into Syria by rebel brigades). As a matter of fact, Anderson didn’t meet with anyone from the opposition, neither from the armed factions nor from the civil peaceful movements (and there are lots of peaceful activists still active in Syria…

There was a lot of talk on US imperialism and Zionism: could Anderson provide any actual evidence that the US have been willing to overthrow Asad? All the red lines have been crossed (including the use of chemical weapons), three years have passed and I haven’t seen any intervention. If they really wanted, they could have done it much earlier. This picture of Asad as a staunch anti-American also stands in contradiction with the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus in 2010, marked by the appointment of ambassador Robert Ford. The position of the US on the Syrian events has been largely stumbling, due also to the fact that they didn’t receive any green light from the Israelis. Did Anderson bother to listen to Rami Makhluf- Bashar al-Asad’s cousin and one of the most influential business figures in Syria- when the revolt started in 2011? He said clearly that the Israeli security was dependent on the permanence of the Asad regime.

If you brand the Asad regime as an anti-Zionist vanguard, then you probably disregard some historical facts: no offensive was launched against Israel since the October war in 1973; Hafez al-Asad’s Syria was willing to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis in 2000, on condition of the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a renewed access to the Sea of Galilee, hence a pragmatic approach concerned about national sovereignty rather than the Palestinian cause; Palestinians were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese Christian militias in cooperation with Syrian troops in the massacre of Tel Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war; the PLO has been at odds with the Syrian regime for a long time, since the latter was not willing to jeopardize its national interests for the sake of the Palestinian cause (See what the socialists have to say about this I would also suggest Anderson and his likes read more on the so-called Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria during the Lebanese civil war, a deal brokered by Kissinger to share regions of influence (

The Israeli officials maintained an extremely low profile position on Syria during the events and why on earth should they have pushed for the removal of Asad, if he kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for forty years? They look more worried about a new unknown diverse galaxy of rebel groups controlling the border, whereas they know exactly what to expect from Asad. Have a look at what Noam Chomsky had to say about the Israeli stance on Syria ( Is he too part of the corporate media?): he clearly points at the fact that, if the Israelis wanted to support the opposition, they could have just opened another front on the Golan. Such a move would have weakened the Syrian army by opening a new front in the South: a much less costly option to support the armed opposition than an open scale offensive on Damascus. But nothing like this happened and Anderson still define it as a regime from the “Resistance” axis.

Until now, the Syrian regime is enforcing a devastating siege on the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, because part of its inhabitants joined the rows of the opposition. I have been collecting evidence of the first anti-regime demonstrations in Yarmuk on my blog since June 2011 (in Italian, when Palestinian protesters were shot at for chanting against the exploitation of the Naksa day at the hands of Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC: in that case, the demonstrators voiced their indignation, after several residents of the camp were literally “thrown” in front of the Israeli rifles at the border in order to divert the attention from the Syrian uprising. Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian activist from Yarmuk, was killed under torture in the Syrian prisons in September 2013: he took part in the Naksa march and was outspoken about the way the Syrian regime had exploited the fervor of the Palestinian youth, despite having been himself wounded by the Israelis at the border (

I personally know several Palestinian leftist dissidents unknown to the media who had to leave Syria or ended up in its jails, but I cannot name them, as it might affect their upcoming trials or their return to Syria in the future. One of the most famous ones, Salameh Kaileh, a marxist Palestinian (, had to flee to Jordan after having been arrested and detained in 2012. Was he an Islamist too? Perhaps a Zionist?
Has Anderson ever read how the Palestinian anarchist Budour Hassan has totally debunked the claims of those who portrait Damascus as a champion of the Palestinian cause ( What about the experience of Omar ‘Aziz, a Syrian anarchist who returned to his country upon the outbreak of the uprising to help organizing the first local revolutionary committees in Barzeh, which are considered “some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization” ( He died because of a heart attack in February 2013, after having been detained for three months in the Adra prison. During his talk, Anderson mentioned a visit to Adra, blaming the “radical Islamists” for the constant shelling, but I doubt he ever asked about whom is detained in the local prison, didn’t he?

A comparison with Afghanistan and its pre-Taliban empowerment of rural classes was made in the introduction and Anderson repeatedly labeled the Syrian regime a “socially inclusive” Government. This means he didn’t even bother to check the map of the areas controlled by the opposition: basically a wide portion of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. Why? Because the uprising was more popular among the rural outcasts, namely those who have been impoverished by Bashar al-Asad’s shift towards neoliberalism and those who have been always marginalized under the Ba’th, like the Kurds living in the Northern countryside (See another Syrian socialist perspective on the “inclusiveness” of the regime’s economic policies Although it wouldn’t be objective to argue that the social gap in Syria was as wide as the Egyptian one, for example, the Syrian case is remote from “social inclusiveness”, it looks more like an economy controlled by a gang of affiliates and tycoons like Rami Makhluf, who are the antithesis of social justice.

Anderson depicted the uprising in Aleppo as led by religious fundamentalists, but he didn’t mention at all that a vast segment of the urban classes who sided with the regime are actually part of the Syrian bourgeoisie, epitomized by Aleppo’s traders. Did the so-called “anti-imperialist left” embrace a moral struggle to defend the urban upper classes against peasants, on the basis of the length of the beards of some of these peasants, who are homogeneously branded as “Islamists”? In July 2011, I visited a group of metalworkers in their workshop in Qadam (Southern Damascus), they were all taking part to the protests, one of them was a Syrian in his twenties with a degree in computer science he was never able to use: his father passed away and he had to seal shawarma machines to cover the expenses of his young brother living with him. This young graduate was also a hip hop singer from the group Refugees of Rap and we recorded a track together called “The Age of Silence” (Zaman as-Samt) (, which deals with the drive behind the protests. Is the “anti-imperialist left” supposed to empathize with the demands of this kind of marginalized urban youth or to side with the ruling classes?

Was the regime “socially inclusive” towards 2 to 4 million Kurds, who are mostly secular minded? Not at all. In 2013, I’ve spent five months in the province of Hasakah, a region affected by chronic poverty, despite its natural resources. The history written by the Ba’th is made up of racist Arab settlement policies confiscating wide shares of Kurdish lands in Hasakah (the so-called al-Hizam al-Arabi, the Arab Belt policy). The regime has also abided by a census conducted in 1962, who stripped off the Syrian citizenship thousands of Syrian Kurds. Even though the Kurdish regions are rich of oil, all the refineries were built in Homs and Banyas to impede the economic empowerment of rural peripheries.

During Anderson’s talk, I heard him praising “elections” and “pluralism” under the Ba’th and I confront this with the story of one of my close acquaintances in Hasakah, whose nails have been removed under torture on the grounds of its affiliation to the Yekiti Kurdi Parti. Is this the pluralism he’s talking about? Or is this pluralism about the Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the secretary general of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), that Anderson mentioned in the ridiculous attempt to provide evidence that other political forces are tolerated inside the Ba’thist government? Is Anderson aware that from 2005 until 2012, despite the dissident history of Antoun Saadeh’s party, its Damascene branch has been part of the National Progressive Front established by the Ba’th to create an umbrella of loyal parties behind the facade of pluralism? Is he aware that Ali Haidar has recently endorsed the candidacy of Bashar al-Asad for the upcoming presidential elections? I personally know some SSNP members, who quit the party, after they realized to which extent it had become involved in the recruitment of pro-government militias (shabbiha) in 2011.

As I said during my intervention at the talk, I attended several demonstrations both in Damascus and in the suburbs of the capital in 2011: I heard no sectarian slogans, saw children and women taking part to the uprising and witnessed live fire opened on demonstrators by security forces. Peaceful protesters were even beaten up in front of my eyes as soon as July 2011 in the Old City (in Italian, in the center of Damascus. My colleague Germano Assad has been prevented by government supporters from filming this demonstration, he had to escape after they started shouting at him: “This is not Syria!”. This is just an example of the state of denial some regime supporters live in, when it comes to recognizing the occurrence of peaceful protests: one of the attendants of Anderson’s talk, a Syrian who claimed to have lived in the Old City, insisted he never saw any protest in that part of Damascus. The aim is to deny protests ever took place, then to deny massacres occurred (as this was what Anderson’s conference was all about): it reminds me of the attitude of Holocaust’s deniers, or that of those Lebanese Phalangists who assert their party never slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. No matter the extent of evidence and accounts you gather, they will keep denying. In the end, their angle of view is identical to the one adopted by the Syrian State television: I remember very well the cameramen of al-Ikhbariyya filming the empty streets of Barzeh (Damascus) patrolled by security forces, while they were perfectly aware that a demonstration was going on a few blocks away.

I used to know personally one of the peaceful protesters who were chased by regime supporters in that occasion in the Old City: he died in 2013, after taking up weapons to fight the regime in Aleppo. Should we consider him as a terrorist as well? On which moral ground are we denying protesters the right to take up arms? One of the points raised during Anderson’s talk was that protesters were indeed armed since the beginning of the revolt. This was definitely the case in some regions, like Idlib, where demonstrators from Jisr ash-Shughur took up weapons to defend themselves as early as June 2011: I wrote about it and I criticized the way some Western media denied the presence of armed elements (, but I don’t understand why Syrians should be condemned for having resorted to violence against a brutal security apparatus.

Part II

The main argument used by Anderson to advocate support for the Syrian regime was the stereotypical juxtaposition between an allegedly secular government and a radical Islamist opposition. When I stressed the genuine roots of the Syrian uprising, the only answer Anderson could provide was: “Well, I don’t deny there have been mistakes committed by the police (what a nice euphemism for forty years of “mistakes”), but could you name one secular/non Islamist brigade in the opposition?” The premise of such response is that, as long as they’re Islamists, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Islamists have been on the Middle Eastern “stage” for almost one century, they’re still there despite what happened in Hama, but Anderson (and numerous other Islamophobic “analysts”) still perceive them as a cancer implanted by Western agendas to be uprooted with violence. I wonder whether Anderson has ever argued the same about Hamas and Hezbollah on their resistance against Israel, weren’t they to be condemned on the grounds of being Islamist forces? If the West was to keep looking at Hezbollah through the lens of its original plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the abductions of foreign civilians carried out in the ’80s by the party’s first embryos, no one would have imagined to see the Shi’a militia accepting its current role in the Lebanese electoral system. The same goes for the recent prospects for US negotiations with the Talibans in Afghanistan, which were completely unforeseeable after 9-11. Then, why are we to rule out the possibility that some of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria today might change their position and accept to engage in parliamentarian politics later on?

What about the Iraqi resistance under American occupation? Has Anderson paid attention to the fact that most of the insurgents were actually jihadists and many of them are currently fighting against the Syrian regime? Are they to be considered “fallen heroes of anti-imperialists” suddenly turned into “NATO-backed mercenaries”, even though nothing changed in their ideological background?

Furthermore, Anderson made no reference whatsoever to what has been written on the ties between Damascus and a wide range of Islamist Sunni militant groups previously active in Lebanon and Iraq, now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, including Fatah al-Islam ( and Ghuraba’ ash-Sham ( It was also completely omitted the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militia responsible of the worst atrocities committed in Syria in the name of jihadism, has actually spent more time fighting other rebel factions than the regime and its headquarters are rarely targeted by air raids. There has been plenty of accusations from different political and military factions with regards to the ties between Damascus and ISIS (,,,, whose rise perfectly suits the Syrian State media’s relentless efforts to portray the uprising as an Islamist one since its early phases. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered local witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. I also spoke with a former Syrian security official in Ras al-’Ayn, who confirmed me how easily certain rebel brigades were infiltrated by figures known for their ties with the regime.

In addition to this, Anderson failed to mention how the regime granted amnesty to some of the top-leaders of the Islamist opposition back in May 2011 (including for example the Islamic Army’s Zahran ‘Allush), a few months after the outbreak of the uprising, in a move which could hardly be seen as “coincidental”, as it contributed to the sectarian drift of the revolt.

This is not meant to say that the Syrian regime and the Islamist hardliners share the same agenda and the latter ones do not aim at overthrowing the government; it also remains challenging to evaluate the truthfulness of certain reports, even when they’re built on intelligence sources, but we should bear in mind that they are often as credible as the reports putting the blame exclusively on the Gulf for the rise of radical Sunni groups. What is unquestionable, in my opinion, is the completely misleading portrait of Damascus as a champion in the struggle against Islamism in the light of its historical connections with Islamist networks.

These historical connections include the Syrian support for Hamas, Hizbullah, the Amal Movement (a group established with the explicit purpose to crush Lebanese communists), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other Islamist groups. If the Syrian regime was a promoter of secularism in the region, then it should have restricted its support to secular anti-Zionist militant groups. If the Syrian regime were secular, then it shouldn’t allow Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militants to fight on its side against Sunnis, or did Islamism suddenly become an exclusively Sunni phenomenon? If the Syrian regime were secular, it wouldn’t have supported the ethnic “cleansing” (tathir, in the words recorded on video of one of the perpetrators, of Sunnis in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. If the Syrian regime were secular, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent a Christian from becoming the president of the republic until now just like it wouldn’t state that “Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a fundamental source of legislation.” ( If the Syrian regime were secular, Alawis wouldn’t dominate the intelligence branches to the extent that their coastal dialect is mocked in every single joke on the security forces.

Having said that, I honestly don’t understand the point of defending a regime on the ground of its alleged secularism, if we take a look at how history is rich of examples of authoritarian secular rule such as the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, Kemalist Turkey and the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the rise of Islamist factions in the opposition Anderson and his likes fail to grasp is where “money and guns” come from or, to put it clearly, they know where they come from, but they consider this an outcome of the Islamist ideology of all the insurgents. They seem to ignore the reality of those fighters who had to turn to an outward version of Islamism to catalyse financial and military support: this was the case of the Farouq Brigades from Homs, that quickly became the equivalent of a franchise capable of attracting Qatari funds and, for this reason, it started to attract a wide range of groups under its name ( This didn’t mean there was an Islamist unified vision among all the groups gathered under the Farouq brand, whose Islamist outlook might well have been as pragmatic as the Salafi-looking beard grown by the Farouq’s young commander Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, upon his rise to fame. During Anderson’s talk, when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades as an example of a non-Islamist group, I probably failed to make clear that this was not meant to claim that they are secular, but that their Islamist facade has been pragmatically motivated rather than related to an uncompromising commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state. It is the same pragmatism which led Hezbollah to accept funds from Qatar – a State with whom the party could hardly share any political and religious identity – for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Lebanon following the Israeli aggression in 2006. It is the same pragmatism which saw Hamas, on the other hand, receiving Iranian funds, regardless of their political and religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

As the Syrian conflict kept growing in intensity, securing funds became a crucial factor behind the mushrooming of Islamist hardline factions, in comparison with the initial “low cost” peaceful phase almost void of sectarian drifts. In 2013, I spoke with a Syrian journalist who visited the Eastern Ghuta (Damascus) between March and April and he reported to me how Free Syrian Army soldiers had a daily limit of around 30 bullets (the figure might be higher, but the point was that their ammunition was limited), whereas the Islamic Front could count on unlimited ammunition. This obviously led to an increased number of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamist factions. In June 2013, I travelled towards al-Hul (Southern al-Hasakah) on a truck driven by a Kurdish rebel fighting on the side of ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham: he kept joking about his beard and how he had to grow it to be accepted among jihadists, while promising to go back drinking arak as soon as the war was over. The umpteenth confirmation of how pragmatism was often a priority at the expense of the ideological drive.

As a matter of fact, there are few groups with a distinct leftist stance within the rows of the opposition: one of these exceptions are the recently formed Factions of the People’s Liberation (Fasa’il Taharrur ash-Sha’b, set up in Duma in March 2014. These groups saw the light in the explicit attempt to counter both the regime and the most obscurantist forces of the opposition, but their capabilities are clearly limited due to lack of funds.

Anderson thinks he can wave the banner of anti-imperialism from the pulpit of his lectures in Australia, but he doesn’t seem to care about the fate of those real Syrian anti-imperialists, who are perishing on the ground without receiving a single cent from the Gulf monarchies. It would have been enough to use the funds wasted on the Wikileaks delegation’s trip to Damascus to relief the budget of the Factions of the People’s Liberation, if the aim was to support popular resistance, but Anderson’s farce is more about “copy pasting” Hugo Chavez’s quotes on Asad to feel the revolutionary vibes on Facebook.

Another paradox of Anderson’s unconditional support for secularism against Islamism is that he resorts to the good-for-all-purposes scaremonger of Christian persecutions to back the Asad regime, so that when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades, I got reminded the way “they expelled Christians from their neighbourhoods in Homs”. First of all, to argue that Christians were evicted on the basis of their faith and not as a result of the conflict is an assumption even contested by Catholic sources ( Secondly, Anderson and other “minorities-obsessed” scholars take for granted that Christians are always persecuted because of their religion, while dismissing the possibility for some of them to have been targeted as collaborators of the regime or because of their affluence (for example, the wealth of some urbanized Syriacs was behind their kidnappings in Hasakah and Qamishli in 2013): the implicit premise to this discourse is that Christians are all innocent, they never took sides (not a single word is spent on the loyalist stance of most Syrian clerical institutions throughout the uprising) and they are suddenly in need of Western assistance to escape Islamic zealots. When the idea that Middle Eastern Christians are in need of protection was part of the French Mandate’s search for legitimacy, it was despised by “anti-imperialists” as colonialist propaganda, whereas now it is at the core of the concerns they happen to share with pro-Asad Western fascist and Catholic circles (with whom they also share sources like Mother Agnès de la Croix). As the French scholar Thomas Pierret wrote on his Facebook page, after the hypocritical indignation aroused by the displacement of Armenians from Kassab at the hands of Syrian rebels among the same people who turn a blind eye on the regime’s daily use of barrel bombs on the neighbourhoods of Aleppo controlled by the opposition, “whoever cares more for an Armenian from Kassab than for a Sunni from eastern Aleppo is a racist”.

During his visit to Syria, Anderson claims he had the chance to witness the coexistence between Christians and Muslims under the shelter of the regime, thus envisaging a future of religious persecutions, if the opposition will ever take over the country. First of all, this is a distortion of Syrian history, where there is absolutely nothing proving a higher rate of anti-Christian violence before the Ba’thist coup in 1963. Anderson went on specifying that most of the rebels are actually foreigners, an allegation common among Asadists returning from government-sponsored tours of Syria, where they never met with one single opposition fighter, just like Anderson did. I personally met with combatants from a wide range of anti-government factions in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, and the overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, including the hardliners from Ahrar ash-Sham , Ghuraba’ ash-Sham and Ansar ash-Shari’a. Most foreigners fight within the rows of ISIS and they advocate a brutal form of Islamic autocracy Syrians are unfamiliar with: when the militants of this group vandalized a church in Raqqa, its Syrian residents took the streets to protest against religious intolerance, but they didn’t certainly call for the return of the regime. Of course, all of this was not mentioned in Anderson’s talk, where the message needed to remain “foreign Islamists make up most of the opposition and they pose a threat to the Ba’thist religious tolerance.” This was actually the same message conveyed by a Syrian woman who stood up to intervene during Anderson’s talk, when she accused the opposition of organizing protests from inside the mosques, thus suggesting the movement was already an Islamist one since its outbreak. As usual, it went completely ignored the fact that mosques were used by all protesters, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, because of the ban on unauthorized public gatherings. Over these years I spent covering the Syrian uprising, I never met someone who obtained a government license to organize a rally against the regime.

During the conference, there was also room for some racist remarks on the Bedouin roots of the Gulf sponsors of the opposition, as Anderson reported, laughing at the comments of a Syrian government official on their status of camel riders/shepherds (I cannot recall the exact words, but it was definitely a stereotypical racist joke on Arab Gulf tribes). As if it wasn’t enough to resort to Islamophobia under the guise of secularism and religious tolerance, Anderson turned to blanketing the (Sunni) Arab tribes as a bunch of rural barbarians, probably ignoring the fact that millions of Syrians are clan members with kinship links in Gulf countries.

Lastly, Anderson attempted to prove Syria never witnessed an uprising by asserting that “no revolution has ever targeted schools and hospitals and prevented kids from education.” Such assertion implies the absurd claim that the government forces have never targeted schools and hospitals. In addition to this, Anderson ignores all the initiatives launched in opposition-held areas to support education, civil society and local projects, despite the continuous bloodshed ( In 2013, I visited several times the city of Ras al-Ayn (North-Eastern Syria), when it was still under joint Arab-Kurdish control without any presence of the regime: no one told me of kids prevented from going to school and the hospitals and the small clinics were actually struggling to function, thanks to the voluntary efforts of the doctors affiliated to the rebel militias. Unfortunately, most of these armed groups were prioritizing the arms trade over the availability of medicines and I wrote about this issue (, but I was also aware that the same hospitals could not be used to heal wounded protesters when they were controlled by the regime. The reality is much more complicated, if you verify it on the ground, but what you get from Anderson is just that the rebels are medieval bogeymen targeting schools and hospitals.
In conclusion, if some of you had the patience to read through all of this, my personal advice is to remain sceptic of those scholars who abuse their academic positions to spread out ideological propaganda on issues they are completely unfamiliar with. If I happen to spend two weeks during a phase of political turmoil in Cuba, a country Anderson is probably more knowledgeable than me about on the basis of his experience, I would remain aware of my ignorance on Cuba and wary about claiming to hold the truth on the unfolding events. I would expect Anderson and his likes to do the same. Thanks.

I also welcome every Syrian who lived through the uprising to express his/her indignation at Anderson’s denial of his/her efforts to depose the current regime

No Revolution is Perfect


Palestinian Youth Perspectives on Syria, Palestine and a Liberated Arab Region

by Loubna Qatami

                In December of 2010, Palestinian youth of the world watched anxiously, and participated in, the monumental dawn of the Arab revolutions. Many Palestinian young people, despite our inclination to be suspect of any emerging forces and rapid power shifts occurring, instinctively supported the political earthquake as the means of rupturing decade’s long neo-colonial structures. We joined our brothers and sisters in Tunisia, in Egypt and across the Arab world, in some cases symbolically and other cases literally, in the fight against their repressive regimes.  Palestinians are a transnational people, deeply immersed in the disadvantages of being placeless and refugees. We are subject to the repression of those regimes not only by living under them but by their corroboration with the Zionist entity consequentially resulting in our people’s long exile and occupation. Support for the revolutions…

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The Gulf and Islamism in Syria: Myths and Misconceptions

Over the last year, the sectarian (mainly Sunni versus Alawite) element of the Syrian conflict has markedly grown, within an uprising that began as a multi-sectarian popular democratic uprising against Syria’s tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. The hold of Sunni sectarianism is by no means universal among the insurgent Syrian masses and their myriad of civil and armed resistance organisations; on the contrary, despite persistent myths, the revolution still contains a powerful secular wing (both within the civil uprising and the Free Syrian Army), and even the largest parts of the clearly political-Islamist wings are not specifically sectarian; and many are markedly moderate Islamists. However, there is no denying that a dangerous level of Sunni sectarianism has grown, especially among the more extreme ‘jihadist’ fringe affiliated to al-Qaida, and that this is an entirely negative and reactionary development.

As I explained in a recent article (, the Assad regime bears the main responsibility for the exacerbation of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict, on both sides. Though the regime is purportedly “secular,” it is heavily dominated by members of the Alawite religious minority to which Assad and his ruling family belong, especially the military-security apparatus, and this fact combined with the level of slaughter conducted against the mostly Sunni insurgent peasantry and urban poor has facilitated a sectarian mirror among parts of the opposition seeking the overthrow of Assad’s rule.

“Main responsibility” does not mean the Islamic extremists are not also responsible for their own actions; it simply means that overwhelming responsibility rests with the regime which uses its massive superiority in advanced weaponry to extraordinarily barbaric effect against the people who are justifiably in revolt against the tyranny, and it is this context of a Syria dominated by such a regime, by such an awesomely armed capitalist state apparatus, that leads to similar kinds of barbarism, whether in thought or in practice, among parts of the opposition.

In the past I put the blame on other regional states, mostly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni-based Gulf monarchies, for deliberately fuelling the Sunni-sectarian Islamist parts of the opposition, in order to help Assad divide the Syrian masses on religious lines, thereby undermining the initial democratic character of the uprising.

For example, in my article ‘The Geopolitics of the Syrian Uprising’ ( in 2012 I wrote:

“…the Saudis and Qataris are pushing their own very ambitious regional realignment, using parts of the Muslim Brotherhood as a proxy, for their own reasons, while the AKP regime in Turkey is doing much the same for similar reasons as well as other specific reasons related to Kurdistan … the Saudi-Qatari need to derail the Syrian revolution coalesced with the regional rivalry with Iran to form a policy of promoting the Sunni fundamentalist forces active within the Syrian opposition in a bid to not only try to take control of the uprising – as elsewhere – but also to foment Sunni-Alawite sectarian conflict, to turn popular revolution into sectarian bloodletting, killing two birds with the one stone. Given the fact that there is a large Shia minority in Saudi Arabia in the eastern oilfields region, where rebellion is centred, and that the Shia majority led the uprising in Bahrain against the minority Sunni sectarian monarchy, this fomenting of sectarianism regionally also allows these monarchies to demonise the uprisings in their countries as nothing but Iranian subversion. There seems little doubt that the Saudi-Qatari aim is the destruction of Assad’s regime and the conquest of power by a Brotherhood-led regime, effecting a victory in the regional rivalry with Iran and a sectarian victory over their own Shia minorities/majorities.”

In early 2013, in ‘Is there a US war on Syria? The Syrian Uprising, the US and Israel’ (, I referred to this “Gulf intervention” as a second “counterrevolution” alongside the Assad regime’s bloody counterrevolution:

“… these two relatively powerful states are engaged in an aggressive regional “sub-imperialist” project, with the dual aims of rivaling Iranian influence in the region, and turning the democratic impulse of the Arab Spring, including its Syrian chapter, into a Sunni-Shia sectarian war. The democratic impulse was and is a mortal danger to their absolute monarchies just as much as to regime’s like that of Assad, as Saudi Arabia’s suppression of the uprising in Bahrain shows. Their intervention is thus a counterrevolution trying to hijack a revolution.”

In both articles, I stressed that Israel held the complete opposite point of view to the Gulf states, that in fact it saw Assad as the lesser evil to any of the forces, democratic-secular, Islamist or jihadist, trying to overthrow it; and that the Saudi-Qatari position should not be confused with the US position (pushing for a cosmetic ‘Yemeni solution’ rearrangement within the regime to defuse the revolution), as these states are acting on their own interests and are not US puppets. While in this article I will show why my earlier view on the Saudi-Qatari role was wrong, to the extent there was any truth in the claim they support Islamists in Syria, then the clear distinction I made to US and Israeli views and interests remains.

The view I will demonstrate to be true here does not deny the dangerous level of sectarianism among parts of the opposition, nor that this is a deadly danger to the revolution that must be fought tooth and nail; indeed it has the same effect in reverse of solidifying the sectarianism, or even merely the fear, of some of the regime’s base of support among minorities. This fits in with my discussion about ceasefire, of there being no military solution and so on, points I have continuously made, and the view expressed in my original article that therefore “all the non-sectarian parts of the resistance need to wage a relentless struggle against the influence of this destructive, reactionary sectarianism within its ranks.”

Indeed, it is still correct to refer to the more extreme sectarian and reactionary elements as a second, mirror-image, counterrevolution. However, this side of the counterrevolution is led unambiguously by the formerly al-Qaida affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), an organisation which is at war with all other parts of the resistance (secular, Islamist and even the more moderate al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra); which is widely suspected of being in cahoots with the regime; and which certainly has no connection with the Saudi and Gulf monarchies who rightly view al-Qaida as their mortal enemy.
The issue therefore is the relative role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in the promotion of sectarianism on the anti-Assad side. While they may have played some role, as I noted in my previous article, “a hard look at the reality forces me to say that this factor has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood” (including by myself).

I have no special desire to want to admit that I was (partially) wrong in these cases. I have no political/emotional attachment to not attacking reactionary and tyrannical regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and therefore blaming them, along with the regime, for the sectarian carnage. In fact, this discourse is very neat and comforting to me, and to other leftists, including many who probably found my earlier articles commendable for exactly this reason. And the rationale appears to be excellent.

However, there is one problem with this entire scenario: it only bears a very minimal connection to facts, if any. Even if you look back at the articles where I wrote these things, it would not be difficult to notice the lack of concrete evidence I presented. My “hard look at reality” can be summed up quite simply: I read more.

The Gulf and Syrian Islamism: States or private networks?

In their excellent article “Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria” (, Bassma Kodmani and Felix Legrand note that the widely-discussed funding of the rebellion from “the Gulf” by no means refers to funding by Gulf regimes:

“In the Middle East, funding is overwhelmingly from Islamic sources and brings with it a conservative agenda. Money circulates through complex channels, some of which are controlled by governments but many of which are managed through private business and religious networks. These networks were first established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to support the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, and have been re-activated during conflicts in the Balkans, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq over the last three decades. While some of the funds are channeled with the blessing of the governments of Gulf countries, thus making them directly responsible for the Islamization of the resistance, these networks are often richly endowed with private resources and are in some cases too powerful for governments to confront, even if they chose to.”

In fact, in the case of Syria in particular, we find that general, sweeping statements such as this are often of little use. But even this general statement makes it clear that only “some” of this “Islamic” funding is state-connected; overwhelmingly this funding and arming of “Islamist” groups comes from non-government “Islamist” networks – of which, more below.

Moreover, we need to connect this discussion back to the main problem: the alleged weakness of the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) vis-a-vis Islamist militias. This is usually explained as being caused by better armed and funded Islamist groups attracting more fighters, compared to the lack of arms in the hands of secular groups. As has been very well-documented, in most cases these fighters have no interest in the Islamist or jihadist ideologies of the groups they join – more important is being able to fight effectively and/or to help provide for their impoverished families while they fight. This is normally explained by the fact that the “secular” western imperialist powers provide zero arms to the secular FSA, while “the Gulf” heavily supplies the Islamist groups. The first part of this equation is absolutely true; the second part is true in as much as we mean non-state Islamist networks in the Gulf, rather than the regimes.

Above all, what the study by Kodmani and Legrand makes abundantly clear right throughout is that it is the jihadist groups, particularly the two al-Qaida franchises (Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS), that are better armed than both the secular FSA and the moderate Islamists, and that above all it is these groups recruiting on the basis of better arms and funding; many moderate Islamist groups are little better armed and funded than the FSA. Yet while the report notes that the Gulf regimes have funded some moderate Islamist militias – more on that below – no-one who is remotely informed about the Syrian situation suggests the Gulf regimes have armed or funded these anti-Gulf regime jihadist groups.

Initial Gulf reaction to uprising: Support Assad

My response will consist of five parts. First, the initial reaction of the Gulf to the Syrian uprising, which was support for the regime, and what this means in terms of the theory. Second, who Qatar and Saudi Arabia began backing when they finally turned against the regime. Third, my opinion on why this occurred. Fourth, the sharp Saudi turn from mid-2012 towards the bourgeois-secularist leaderships and the reasons for this. Five, a look at some other problems with the theory.

First, whether or not we judge that the Gulf later decided to use sectarianism against the revolution, that was not their first response. Indeed, the first response of the three regional powers who later emerge as the key backers of the Syrian resistance – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – was to use Assad against the revolution.

For example, on 3 April 2011, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani sent a letter to Assad declaring Qatar’s support for Syria amid “attempts at destabilization” ( In late March, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan likewise called Assad to reaffirm that the UAE stands by Damascus ( Qatar’s close ally, Erdogan’s AKP regime in Turkey, likewise offered Damascus support, only with the mild proviso that Assad carry out some of the “reform” that he had promised.

The Saudi Arabian monarchy made similar robust declarations of support to the regime; on 28th March 2011, “Al-Assad received a call from Saudi King Abdullah, whereby the latter expressed the Kingdom’s support in what is targeting us from the conspiracy to hit its security and stability” clarifying that “the Saudi Kingdom stands by Syria’s leadership and people to put down this conspiracy” ( Indeed, even as late as July, just as Qatar was finally suspending relations with Damascus, Saudi Arabia stepped in with a long-term 375 million riyal (US100 million) loan to Damascus (, while Kuwait threw in another 30 million Dinars (; this rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we will see, played as much a role as the later antipathy either felt towards Damascus.

Even when the Gulf Cooperation Council did finally urge an end to “bloodshed” in Syria and called for major reforms on August 6, expressing their “sorrow” about the situation, they still stressed their support for “preserving the security, stability, and unity of Syria” (

Notably, this was no different to US policy; responding to questions in Congress regarding the different US reaction to events in Libya, where NATO was then intervening, and Syria, Hillary Clinton responded: “There is a different leader in Syria now [meaning Bashar, as opposed to his father]. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer” ( Even after months of NATO bombing Libya, and Assad slaughtering protesters in Syria, the US was still urging “dialogue” between regime and opposition in Syria (

Of course this initial strong support to Damascus can be explained simply as “class trumps sectarianism” when revolution threatens all, before new tactics had to be considered. However, a look at the situation on the eve of the revolts also shows clearly that the allegedly strong “sectarian” motivations for backing Sunni “Islamists” in Syria by these powers was absent; even if it were true that this came as an afterthought later, as a new strategy for deflecting the revolution as many have suggested, then there was nothing necessary about this particular course of counterrevolution being chosen.

Strong Gulf connections to regime

In fact, Qatar and Turkey had been the closest allies of the Assad regime in the region; the Assad, al-Thani and Erdogan families even had Black Sea holidays together. This is connected to the fact that, despite common misperceptions nowadays, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar was sponsoring, and which is related to the ruling AKP in Turkey, was not particularly sectarian towards Shia; in fact Turkey also had excellent relations with Iran at the time, and in the Lebanon disputes, where Saudi Arabia had backed the Sunni Future Movement against Hezbollah and other groups connected to Syria, Qatar in fact had been pro-Hezbollah – probably, if for no other reason, to spite its Saudi rival. The close relationship between Hamas (the Palestinian wing of the MB) and Hezbollah was another example.

More generally, as has been widely analysed, this alliance was not just about leaders liking each other, or about lack of sectarianism: it was also about the fact that Assad Junior’s neo-liberal reforms had brought loads of foreign capital into Syria, much of it from the Gulf, and the star in that show was none other than Qatari capital.

Despite Qatar and Turkey, however, it may be argued that Saudi Arabia and Iran already saw themselves as geopolitical rivals, and thus promoting sectarianism, or at least using existing sectarian alignments in the region to bolster one’s geopolitical position against the other, was logical. As noted above, this logic had manifested itself around the middle of the last decade over Lebanon, when rival March 8 and March 14 coalitions of Lebanese sectarian parties lined up with Saudi Arabia on one side and Syria and Iran on the other; though even there, ti should be noted, that the rightist Sunni forces the Saudis were backing (alongside rigthist Christian allies) were not in any sense Sunni Islamist radicals, but a secular rightist party based in the Sunni community.

Moreover, this blimp in Saudi-Syrian relations masks the fact that a Saudi-Syrian alliance had been the guarantor of rule by a coalition of sectarian parties, representing the rival wings of the Lebanese oligarchy, from the Taiff agreement in 1990 right up until 2005.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the 2005 shakedown was basically a rearrangement to prepare a new deal for Lebanese capitalist stability. In late 2010, Assad and Saudi King Abdullah met in Damascus and exchanged “senior Orders of Merit,” in preparation for their trip to Beirut, where they were photographed holding hands, to hammer out an agreement between Future Movement head Hariri and Hezbollah head Nasrallah, known as the Syrian-Saudi Initiative, to revive the 1990-2005 order in a new package. In fact, claiming the road to stability in Beirut ran through Damascus, Abdullah even instructed Hariri “to grant Hezbollah all the key government posts it was seeking for itself and allies in the March 8 alliance, and to issue a cabinet policy statement that pledged to “protect and embrace” the arms of Hezbollah” – indicating just how completely removed Saudi policy was from some kind of fundamentalist “anti-Shiite” sectarianism at the time of the outbreak of the Syrian uprising (

Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood

Qatar finally suspended relations with Damascus months later, on July 17, after pro-regime protesters in Syria, angry at (Qatar-funded) Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Syrian uprising, pelted the Qatari embassy in Damascus with eggs, rocks and vegetables. Saudi Arabia eventually followed suit and broke relations in August. The fundamental reason was that the Assad regime’s spectacularly, and surprisingly (even for such a regime) brutal repression had vastly expanded the uprising, and by July-August, while still overwhelmingly a civil uprising facing machine guns to the chest, some parts of the revolution had begun to fight back with arms. Recognising there was no chance of Assad crushing the revolt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the US slowly moved to a new strategy: the Yemeni solution, aiming to maintain the core of the capitalist regime, especially its military-security apparatus, in power, but for Assad and his immediate henchmen to step down, and bring some leading bourgeois oppositionists into the regime, to defuse the revolution.

There is no great body of evidence that the Gulf states and Turkey immediately chose to direct all support to Sunni Islamists (let alone hard-line Salafis) and none to the secular FSA; however, to the extent that there is some evidence of connections to Islamist militias in this early period, ironically it is religiously moderate, and less-sectarian, Qatar that seemed to play this role rather than the Saudi regime with its extremist internal religious regime and well-developed anti-Shia discourse.

Turkey hosted the Syrian National Council, the first exile-based opposition body, which was led by veteran Communist George Sabra, but was largely dominated by exile-based Muslim Brotherhood cadres. Qatar had already adopted the MB as its horse throughout the region (in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and now Syria), and as a soft-Islamist party, the AKP was closely connected. However, as an exile-based group, it initially had little connection with the Free Syrian Army as it emerged on the ground in Syria, largely led by defecting Syrian officers, with a strong secular and Syrian nationalist background.

In March 2012, a new coordinating body was set up between the SNC and the FSA, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey agreeing to direct funds via the FSA external command, also based in Turkey. However, to what extent this aid got to the FSA on the ground, and the politics of which FSA groups got it and which didn’t, and even the relations between the exile based FSA leadership and the FSA on the ground, are all issues around which there is little clarity even today.

It wasn’t until early to mid-2012 that specifically Islamist armed militias began to form in Syria. By all accounts, the growth of a moderate Islamist section of the revolution, alongside its more secular component, was a home-grown, “organic” development, based among the more socially conservative Sunni peasantry, and the urban poor in the new sub-urban shantytowns, who had been ravaged by Assad junior’s neo-liberal reforms, and who had traditionally been much less impacted by the official “secularism” of the regime and its bourgeois and urban upper middle class base. In addition, compared to the south of Syria, the north has tended to be more conservative as a whole (

Working via its Turkish ally to the north, some Qatari and MB funding thus began to go to a number moderate Islamist formations in the north, some with tenuous MB connections. These included the Suquor al-Sham brigade in Idlib, formed in early 2012, the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo, formed in mid-2012, and the nation-wide network Ahfad al-Rasoul, which also originated in Idlib. However, these groups all considered themselves to be part of the FSA, and the MB itself mainly works through non-Islamist-specific channels such as the Syrian National Council and on the ground with the FSA, so the extent to which Qatari state funding went specifically to Islamist as opposed to secular FSA bodies is much less certain than often assumed.

Like the MB itself, these soft Islamist militias claimed to support democracy and to want to work for a more “Islamist” order gradually via democratic means. The report by Kodmani and Legrand (see above) notes that these “moderate or mainstream Islamists, who should be clearly distinguished from the extremist and Jihadi groups, 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.” It further notes that “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.”

Far from promoting sectarianism, the strikingly moderate Liwa al-Tawhid is well-known for protecting local Christians in Aleppo against jihadist threats (; while Suquor al-Sham leader, Ahmed Issa, though seen as marginally more hard-line as an Islamist, does not push sectarianism, declaring he “welcomes an alliance with any movement or sect, including the Alawite sect, in order to achieve our goal which is to overthrow this regime” (

It could thus be claimed that to the extent that Qatar and the MB did eventually promote a number of moderate Sunni Islamist forces, which was part of the opposition becoming more “Sunni” in a general sense, none had any relation to “jihadism,” and none were even remotely connected to conceptions of “sectarian war” against the Alawi or Shia. Moreover, as members of the various and changing coalitions of military forces under the general title of “FSA,” these forces were officially fighting for a government program that only talked about democratic republic and so on; despite the MB’s role in the SNC, it had no “Islamist” program whatsoever.

Saudi Arabia’s early Islamist influence

The role of Saudi Arabia was much less prominent at this early stage, but it was only at this stage that we can talk about a Saudi relationship with Islamist forces at all. Due to its hostility to the MB, and rivalry with Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially avoided specifically Islamist groups, and to the extent that it may have tried to push a more “Islamist” framework, it chose to do this through influence within the mainstream FSA, led by military defector Riad Mousa al-Asaad; its strategy was always more aligned with attempting to co-opt “power secularists,” particularly with military connections (more on this below).

The Saudis’ main connection to Sunni Islamism at this early stage seems to have been via an influential “televangelist” Saudi-based Syrian preacher, Adnan al-Ar’ur. He had been known for years using his radio show to debate Shia preachers and was clearly sectarian in his outlook. His fervent support for the uprising gained him much support in Syria, but there is much less evidence that his sectarian ideas were influential as such. Staying within the framework of the FSA, the regime was able to use his sermons to slander the FSA, and even dub him the “voice of the FSA” in order to taint it with the brush of sectarianism, an assertion the FSA vigorously denied.

His most infamous quote was one where he said that those Alawites supporting the regime and who “violated sanctities” (presumed to mean who raped women) would be chopped up and fed to dogs after the victory. While this statement was obviously barbaric and grist in the regime’s propaganda mill, in the same speech he also said that “no harm would be done to those (Alawites) who remained neutral” and “as for those supporting the revolution, they will be with us” (Thomas Pierret, 2013, Religion and State in Syria, Cambridge Middle East Studies), while also endorsing an open letter by the Muslim Brotherhood and the League of Syrian Ulama to the Syrian religious community stressing that “none would be condemned on the basis of his communal identity” after the revolution. Reassuring? Perhaps not. But the issues here are, firstly, that apparent Saudi support for someone like Ar’ur was somewhat anomalous (as we will see below); secondly, that his role was temporary, before the Saudis brought him to order and then his role and influence disappeared; and finally, the question of chicken and egg in this connection.

Chicken and egg: The Gulf and Syrian Islamism

The question here regarding this Qatari support for moderate Islamist militias, and this Saudi connection to Ar’ur, is that of cause and effect. It is my view now that both the growing “Islamism” and the growing Sunni sectarianism – two factors that, while related, should not be confused – were essentially home-grown (the first related to the class divide the characterised the revolution, the second related more specifically to the terror unleashed by the Alawi regime), and it was this dynamic, together with the breathtaking level that the terror and repression against the Sunni peasantry reached, that tended to draw in the Gulf states, pressured them to live up to their claims to be protectors of Sunni Islam in a situation where the regime is creating a new Palestinian-style diaspora, rather than the other way around; though of course in any situation this complex, the chicken and egg will get confused throughout the course of events.
Syria expert Thomas Pierret explains it this way:

“A more accurate characterization is that the Syrian conflict’s internal dynamics have reshuffled regional alignments alongside unprecedentedly clear-cut sectarian dividing lines and that this has often occurred against the preferences of regional state actors − including Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is not to deny that regional actors sometimes contributed to deepening the sectarian character of the Syrian conflict. When they did so, however, it was generally as a by-product of expedient policies that followed sectarian patterns for lack of alternatives, but were not part of a deliberately sectarian agenda. In fact, outside of Syria, wholehearted exploitation of sectarian sentiments in relation to the conflict has often been the preserve of private actors that are not constrained by raison d’etre, in particular transnational Sunni (Salafi) and Shia networks” (

Thus the role of the Gulf regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood; when they did come in to aid Sunni forces, it was more reactive, following the situation, rather than causal
The case of the Saudi-based preacher for example. As shown above, the Saudi regime waited till mid-August 2011 to condemn the Assad regime, and as late as July gave Assad a massive loan; yet Ar’ur had been making fiery sermons supporting the uprising from the earliest repression of the Deraa protests in March. Such preaching had erupted all over the Gulf and throughout the region before either Saudi or Qatari moves against the regime; the existing sectarian dynamic in Syria led to widespread identification among the Sunni masses of the region with the new “Syrian Sunni Palestinians”; the Islamist and jihadist leaning sections of the bourgeoisie of the region sought to monopolise the sentiment; and the preachers gave them the ideology to “lead” it with. A good case example of this process is the following description of the situation in Kuwait by Elizabeth Dickinson:

“For the last two years, (former) MPs like (Hamad al-) Matar (apparently close to the Brotherhood – MK), as well as Kuwaiti charities, tribes, and citizens have raised money – possibly hundreds of millions of dollars – for armed groups fighting the Syrian regime. In many ways, the financing is highly organized. Smartly aligned to a given theme, battle, or season, campaigns are broadcast on social media and advertised with signage and elegant prose.

“But Matar’s account offers a glimpse of just how uncontrollable — even random — this support has become. In Kuwait, private financing came into political vogue in Sunni circles, bringing aboard legions of public figures seeking to associate themselves with support for the Syrian rebels. That broad base of popular support among Sunnis has rendered the phenomenon nearly unstoppable for the Kuwaiti government.

“Suddenly, everyone in Kuwait knew which diwaniyas and charities had funded a brigade. And that visibility attracted a new cohort of donors. Kuwait’s large Sunni tribes held massive fundraisers, in one case reportedly raising $14 million in just five days. They became competitions: Could the Ajman tribe outbid the Shammar? Social pressure increased the take — and made participation a necessity for many of Kuwait’s most prominent politicians” (

The Gulf rulers, who initially wanted to support Assad, were carried by this wave, and had to appear to lead it in order to coopt it, prevent their enemies (the jihadists) from doing so, and thus protect their thrones (while Saudi Arabia and Qatar also tried to ensure leadership vis a vis each other).

Private Gulf funding associated with opposition to Gulf regimes.

Chris Slee, in a comment on my recent article where he defends the view I used to support, notes that, “to complicate the picture, it should be noted that not all Sunni-sectarian groups are backed by the US and the Gulf states. Some groups, such as ISIS, are backed by sectors of the bourgeoisie and clergy in the Gulf states that are opposed to the existing Gulf regimes. These sectors of the ruling classes oppose the Gulf regimes’ subservience to the US, but do so from a reactionary ideological position.” Chris particularly suggests that ISIS “could be a problem for the US in the future” as it “could be an obstacle” to the kind of Yemeni solution outcome the US aims to achieve.

This is all a monumental understatement. First of all, it is not only ISIS that is already (not “could in the future”) a massive problem for the US and Gulf ruling classes; this is true of all the hard-line Salafist groups and even the bulk of mainstream Islamist groups, all of which are relentlessly anti-imperialist, all of which reject any kind of solution that includes elements of the regime, and none of which the US has ever had anything to do with.

Second, it is not only “groups such as ISIS” which are backed by the Gulf opposition bourgeoisie rather than the regimes. When the early literature about Gulf support to Sunni Islamist rebels is looked back at more carefully, virtually all of it – at least that which offers any concrete evidence – is precisely about these private networks in the Gulf, the religious charities, the Salafist preachers, the oppositionist wings of the bourgeoisie backing the Syrian Islamists – not the regimes. The fact that they are based among wings of the opposition bourgeoisie is very crucial to this analysis. And it was this element of the preachers, funders and armers that dominated the wave of “Sunni solidarity” from the very outset in the latter part of 2011.

The source above describing the situation in Kuwait notes about the forces involved in this upsurge:

“Since 2009, a coalition of Islamist, tribal, and youth groups have banded together to demand government and social reforms, among them an end to perceived government favoritism toward the mostly-Shiite merchant class. Now, Syria’s struggle seemed to fit into a narrative of Shiite repression of the Sunni common man.
“Many of the constituencies most active in fundraising have also been the most vocal opposition to the government. Dozens of Islamist and Salafist MPs boycotted the last two elections, but their ability to draw people to the streets is still a looming reality in Kuwaiti politics.

“”The government cannot do anything because if they move against such activities, the Islamist parties will start shouting loudly against the government,” Bashar AlSayegh, the editor of Kuwait’s Al Jareeda newspaper, explained” (

The rise of Syrian al-Qaida

This giddy activity of the Gulf oppositionist bourgeoisie, preachers and Islamic charities fed into various wings of Islamist fighters in Syria, including, not surprisingly, al-Qaida, which appeared in Syria in early 2012.

At this time, around the end of 2011 and early 2012, the particular conjuncture had produced a mixture of factors that, when jumbled together with little analysis, could easily create the conspiracy theory that has dominated red-brown pro-Assad propaganda ever since. The escalating repression had by then generalised the armed component of the opposition (whether secular or Islamist), a natural political-social process; Saudi Arabia and Qatar were now firmly pro-opposition and to one extent or another had some vague links with some Islamist forces; preachers from the Gulf were launching anti-Assad propaganda that was also increasingly sectarian; Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida, announced its formation in January 2012; and a number of terrorist bombings hit civilian targets in Damascus. Jumbled together, the UFOish theory of “US-Gulf-Jihadist wicked conspiracy to destroy Syria” had been hatched.

In reality, however, the entrance of al-Qaida into the conflict demonstrated just how far out of the hands of the Gulf monarchies (let alone the US) the Syrian uprising had gone. The ravings the conspiracists have continually made for several years now about “Saudi Arabia arming the jihadists” or even of “the US and al-Qaida” being on the same side are so breathtakingly absurd that it is difficult to know where to start.

A good place might be to remind people that it was al-Qaida that bombed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon with hijacked American passenger planes, that most of the 21 terrorists were originally from Saudi Arabia, and that al-Qaida represented a wing of the Saudi bourgeoisie that was fed up with the narrow rule of the Saudi and Gulf monarchies, which both excluded the majority of their class from political power, and which kept their nation in subservience to US imperialism.

Anyone who thinks the Saudi nationality of most 9/11 attackers and the Saudi origin of al-Qaida means that the Saudi monarchy attacked the US in 2001 is welcome to their deluded world-view; such people also probably think that the Saudi monarchy is arming al-Qaida in Syria.

And the importance of this from the point of view of the launching of “sectarian war” in Syria is that it is overwhelmingly the al-Qaida franchises, Jabhat al-Nusra, and especially ISIS, that have forcefully inserted a violent sectarian discourse, and a run of actual sectarian crimes, into the Syrian rebellion, not the overwhelming majority of mainstream Islamist groups. And it was Jabhat al-Nusra in particular that took responsibility for some of those terrorist attacks in Damascus at the turn of 2011-2012, though not for all (and there is also evidence that the regime stage-managed at least some of them, see for example defector general Ahmed Tlass’s account:

Furthermore, when getting back to trying to understand the issue here – why many Islamist forces are better armed than secular FSA forces – the biggest contrast is not in fact secular fighters versus Islamists, but the majority (secular and mainstream Islamists) versus the jihadist/al-Qaida forces. And the reason the latter are better armed than most has absolutely nothing to do with the fantasy of arms from their arch-enemies in the Gulf monarchies. Rather, their key strength is that the flow of arms and money to these jihadists from the anti-monarchial Gulf bourgeois opposition is facilitated by al-Qaida in Syria being an extension of al-Qaida in Iraq, which exists just across the open Syria-Iraq border in Iraq’s Sunni Anbar province. Thus with arms, organisation, infrastructure, cadres etc directly flowing between Iraq and Syria, we can say that the most clearly and violently sectarian part of the Islamist opposition is also the section which arose the least organically within Syria, but is also the section which is the least associated with the Gulf monarchies.

Saudi reaction to MB and jihadists: Turn secular!

The Saudi monarchy was now thus at a curious juncture. Opposed to the democratic revolution, it originally supported Assad, unconcerned with sectarian issues or even its rivalry with Iran. As the Sunni solidarity wave swept the region, the monarchy was drawn in to “support” it in order to not lose it; which coincided with the need to undermine the democratic thrust of the uprising by giving it a Sunni coloration, even if the regime didn’t initiate it; and as Iran was also drawn in, on the other side, this thus reignited regional rivalry with Iran and made it more of a zero-sum game for the Saudis geopolitically.

However, the radicalisation of that Sunni wave had now given rise to a third and fourth Saudi enemy (after democratic revolution and Shiite/Iranian sectarian/geopolitical opponent): the MB-linked militias backed by Qatar, and now the rise of these anti-Saudi jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra – the whole of Syria looked like a mass mobilisation, on all sides, of mortal enemies of the House of Saud.

Hemmed in by the wrong kinds of Sunni Islamists, it may be surmised that the Saudis would find some “national”, non-al-Qaida-linked, Salafists to support as a wedge between the moderate Brotherhood and the radical jihadists, without the “international revolutionary” pretensions of either. An obvious choice could be the “national-jihadist” Ahrar al-Sham (AaS), set up in early 2012. Yet evidence for any Saudi support for AaS is remarkably thin. The fact is that AaS is one of the militias whose major funders are well-known, as Pierret explains, “it has been funded from the onset by the politicized wing of the Kuwaiti Salafi movement” whose leading ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri “holds views that are particularly abhorrent to Saudi rulers, namely a curious mixture of political liberalism, Jihadi-like anti-Westernism, and hostility to Gulf regimes” (, and so unlikely to be of much use to the Saudis. Even less so given that, despite AaS’s vocal criticism of JaN for its links to al-Qaida, this has never stopped it from engaging in very active collaboration with JaN, and for a time even ISIS, on the ground.

What all this meant is that, from around July 2012, Saudi Arabia, while cracking down on Salafist networks in the kingdom that were finding the Syrian opposition, and pulling back on whatever support it may have been providing some small Islamist groups, swung right over to directing all support through the official opposition secular military and political bodies. From December 2012 this meant all military support was to go through the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the FSA and all political support directed to the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), when they were both set up with strong Saudi support; and this support came in via Jordan in the south as opposed to Qatar’s northern base in Turkey.

While it may sound surprising that the Saudis were backing the secular leadership, it is fully in tune with the massive Saudi support for the al-Sisi’s Egyptian “secular” coup against Morsi’s MB regime in mid-2013. As Pierret explains: “Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy. Saudi policies are not driven by religious doctrines, as is too often assumed, but by concerns for the stability of the kingdom, which translate into support for political forces that are inherently conservative or hostile to Islamist movements” ( The reason Saudi Arabia cannot support al-Sisi’s equivalent in Syria, ie Assad, is only due to sectarian reasons, so it therefore it aims to achieve the same via co-opting defected former Baathist, secular Sunni, military officers that head the SMC (Ironically for the Saudis, al-Sisi, their man in Egypt, soon became a major backer of Assad!).

Regarding the jihadists, Pierret rightly notes that “the idea that Gulf monarchs may support the franchise of an organization – i.e. al Qaeda – that brands them as apostates and waged an armed insurgency on Saudi soil a decade ago does not make sense,” and similarly, a decade earlier, the early 1990s, saw the Sawha (Awakening) insurgency against the Saudi rulers led by allies of the MB (not to be confused with the unrelated US- and Saudi-backed Sunni movement in Iraq using this same name that confronted al-Qaida late last decade).

This is all the more important when one takes the time to look at a map, and note the closeness of the Saudi, Jordanian, Iraqi and Syrian borders. Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan is a monarchy, but one so far little affected by the Arab uprisings; as a fellow monarchy next door, Saudi Arabia wants to keep it that way. And the Jordanian monarchy’s main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, and so would be threatened by a new Syrian regime involving the Brotherhood or related Islamists, let alone by jihadist victories, a contagion whose next stop would likely be Saudi Arabia.

Talk of past Saudi promotion of Sunni sectarianism and “Wahhabism” at other times and in other places, for example support for the Taliban in distant, non-Arab Afghanistan, or perhaps in Chechnya, is thus irrelevant to the issue at hand.

So who exactly has Saudi Arabia been supporting in Syria since about mid-2012? A curious mixture, all of which have one thing in common: none are political Islamists. This includes:

1. Small brigades of “apolitical” or “quietist” Salafis aligned with the Saudi religious establishment, such as the Ahl al-Athar Battalions (which Pierret says is funded from Kuwait by the quietist Heritage Association) and the Nur al-Din Zanki Battalions (which apparently passed through other Islamist groups such as Tawhid until the Saudis were able to split them away). This means Salafis who have no political pretensions whatsoever, and who only push their ideology in the social field; they believe the world of politics is for non-religious bodies, in other words their ideology replicates precisely the Saudi model. This means that they work within the FSA, and their Saudi-backed coalition, the Front for Authenticity and Development (FAD), whose political platform is “strikingly unambitious and presents no distinctly Islamist feature” (, and also incorporated some early defector officers and tribal groups aligned with the Saudis. All in all however, the FAD likely has several thousand troops, one of the smaller bodies among the Syrian rebels.

2. An idiosyncratic coalition the Saudis supported within the exile-based Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) against the Qatar- and MB-backed forces, including the liberal-secular Christian and long-term dissident Michael Kilo; Ahmed Jarba, also a secular figure from the Shummar tribal group (which stretches into Saudi Arabia), and member of the Revolutionary Council of Syrian Tribes; and liberal Islamist Ahmad Tomeh. Saudi Arabia backed such people taking a more prominent role in the opposition political leadership after the SOC was launched in December 2012, to expand political leadership beyond the SNC, which was seen as dominated by the Qatari-backed MB. The Saudis appear to have no ideological connection with such people, and only see them as a bulwark against their rivals. While Qatar got its Brotherhood-aligned Ghassan Hitto up as prime minister of the SNC, the Saudis eventually managed to depose him and replace him with Jarba and Tomeh. The alliance with Jarba may have a tribal connection, his tribe stretching from Syria across parts of Jordan into Saudi Arabia.

3. The Saudis began moving their main support among the military opposition to various defected ex-Baathist military officers, ie, what we might call “power secularists,” both the secular leaders of the exile-based SMC and various other officer-defectors, as Pierret notes, “among the least religious component of the rebel leadership.” Pierret notes the early Saudi courting of defector officers such as Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, and explains that “Riyadh has been the driving force behind several initiatives aimed at organizing the insurgency under the aegis of defector officers rather than of the civilian volunteers that run most Islamist groups: General Mustafa al-Sheikh’s Revolutionary Military Council, General Hussein al-Hajj Ali’s Syrian National Army, the Joint Command of the Military Councils, and General Salim Idriss’s Headquarters of the Free Syrian Army” (ie, the SMC) (

It is also interesting to note what happened to Adnan al-Ar’ur with this Saudi turn. Apparently, from preacher he did begin to run his own “mini-insurgency,” and many rebels complained about “the havoc these militants were causing.” Now however, he “was prevailed upon to give up his own war and publicly back an initiative to incorporate the main FSA blocs under a single, joint command” (ie the SMC) ( Yet since that time, little has been heard of him.

Implications of Saudi support to secular opposition

There are a number of interesting implications of the Saudi support to the secular Syrian opposition.

First, since most western leftists rightly want to emphasise support to the “democratic, secular” wing of the opposition as opposed to “Islamist” forces, the idea that a tyrannical monarchy with an ultra-puritanical internal Islamist social policy could be on the same side may feel uncomfortable; that’s why it is more comforting to believe the Saudis back elements that they do not.

However, the problem here is not viewing these issues in class terms. Certainly it is correct, in general, to express support for those forces advocating a democratic, secular outcome (as long as this is not done in secular-chauvinist style that views all Syrian Islamists as the same thing, a view that snubs the peasant and poor working class base of the Islamist groups). But while moderate Islamism can rightly be seen as a bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology, let’s be clear: so is the secular Arab nationalist ideology of the defector officers and main political opposition. The class division between regime and resistance is abundantly clear; but there is no working class or socialist leadership in Syria. The Saudis thus aim to do something not terribly original: “support” the secular wing of the resistance via the bourgeois leaderships of it, in the hope of co-opting the leadership, just as progressives can support the same movement from the complete opposite point of view.

In fact, not only does this correspond to Saudi support to the secular Mubarak and secular Sisi against the MB, but to Saudi policy more generally. Especially relevant in Syria’s case is the fact that the Saudis’ key allies in Lebanon next door are the secular Sunni-based ‘Future’ movement of the Hariris, which is allied with the right-wing Christian-based Lebanese Forces – not the kind of allies that would look happily at too much Sunni jihadism next door in Syria. In fact, when the jihadist Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam appeared in Lebanon back in 2007, the “Sunni” Hariri regime waged a vicious war to crush it, to the point of acting the same way as Assad is currently acting towards Palestinian camps in Syria: Hariri pummelled the Tripoli Palestinian camp where FaI had embedded itself (as an aside: Hezbollah at the time, quite rightly, condemned this state terror, a sharp contrast to its current attitude to Syria).

Of course, one might say that Mubarak, Sisi and Hariri are well-established reactionary secular leaders, whereas here we are talking about a popular uprising. In that case, more relevantly, Saudi policy in Syria corresponds to Saudi support for the right-wing secular al-Fatah leadership of the PLO against the MB-linked Hamas within the Palestinian liberation movement. In my view, this does not make the whole organisation of historic nationalist Fatah a Saudi pawn – far from it – but the Saudis have co-opted the right-wing PA leaders who are now dominant over some of the more leftist and nationalist forces within Fatah.

The second issue is that, if Saudi Arabia is not promoting sectarian war in Syria, then where does this leave the role of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Syria? Doesn’t Saudi Arabia still want to win a geopolitical victory against Iran in Syria (given the rivalry also manifests itself in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon), and wouldn’t this necessitate some kind of “Sunni” victory? The simple answer is that some kind of “Sunni” victory or at least strengthening of position can be achieved without “sectarian war” and support for Sunni extremists. After all, in Lebanon, the Saudi card is the secular Sunni ‘Future’ Movement of the Hariris, not some group of radical Salafis. Given Sunnis are the Syrian majority and that any rearrangement of the regime, even the US-preferred conservative rearrangement, would necessitate greater Sunni input, and Saudi Arabia could present this as a victory.

Indeed, the Saudi mouthpiece al-Arabiya explained earlier this year that a Sunni prime minister with real power – even with Assad remaining in some capacity – would suit Saudi interests, a strikingly non-radical proposal. The article claimed the US and the Saudis “see that Syrian President al-Assad is not going to capitulate anytime soon” so “the Saudis see Assad ultimately becoming the Queen of England while the prime minister, whoever that will be—most likely a Sunni—will hold real power; a scenario the Saudi’s were originally seeking in the first place.” Notably, it also stressed that the first project of this new “type of confessional state” would be “to eradicate al-Qaeda completely” (

The final implication of Saudi policy of support for secularists is related to the original issue, the claim that the secular FSA is losing out to Islamists because the alter get plenty of arms from the Gulf states, while the FSA doesn’t. If in fact Saudi Arabia has been arming the secular defector officers, then why doesn’t this allow the secular forces to be stronger vis-à-vis the Islamists?

This can be answered in three ways. First, the fact that actual Saudi and Qatari support to any wing of the insurgency has been much less than is often assumed; second, the secular US has blocked as much as possible the arming of the secular opposition by the Saudis; and finally, the secular wing of the FSA is by no means as dead as the imperialist media and the pro-Assad conspiracists have been telling us for years.

First, the abundance of reports from the ground, where fighters report getting none of the weapons that various states have allegedly sent, or only getting them in dribs and drabs, applies to both moderate Islamist militias as well as secular ones. The fact that the Saudis mostly fund secular forces doesn’t mean they get very much. In general, it is mostly the jihadists that reportedly have better weapons. What’s more, as has been widely reported elsewhere, the Saudi-Qatari rivalry has tended to make the organisation of getting arms to various rebel groups ineffective and chaotic. Further, the way analysts talk about Gulf states, or others, getting weapons to either secular or Islamist militias inside the country, often sounds as if Saudi or Qatari officials can simply cross the Syrian border and find the address of the militia they like. The reality is that funds and arms have to be directed to outside bodies, such as the SMC, based in Jordan or Turkey, and then arms get in via a number of arms dealers. While a funding state may direct the dealer to a particular group, a great deal happens in between, including corruption, theft, the preferences of these dealers, being killed or captured etc. Small wonder the rebels on the ground report getting little.

For example, in an article reporting that some 3500 tons of military equipment had allegedly been brought to Turkish and Jordanian bases by Qatari and Saudi planes, we read from the ground:

“Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt. “The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria. He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. “They open and they close the way to the bullets like water,” he said.” Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job. “There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said” (

Second, one reason this Saudi shift did little to help the fortunes of the secular fighters was the fact, ironic as it may sound, that the “secular” US applied massive pressure on the “fundamentalist’ Saudis to restrict any support to any section of the resistance, even the most secular. Last July, the reporter Joanna Paraszczuk explained that a US-Saudi conflict has been going on for some time:

“While Saudi Arabia has built up large stockpiles of arms and ammunition (in Jordan) for the Free Syrian Army, the US blocked shipments until last Thursday. The US and the Saudis are involved in a multilateral effort to support the insurgency from Jordanian bases. But, according to the sources, Washington had not only failed to supply “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa” but had actively prevented deliveries, apparently because of concerns over which factions would receive the weapons. The situation also appears to be complicated by Jordan’s fears that arms might find their way back into the Kingdom and contribute to instability there. The sources said the Saudi-backed weapons and ammunition are in warehouses in Jordan, and insurgents in Daraa and Damascus could be supplied “within hours” with anti-tank rockets and ammunition. The Saudis also have more weapons ready for airlift into Jordan, but US representatives are preventing this” (

What is behind this US pressure we will look at in the second part of this series, when dealing specifically with the US role.

Third, while the thesis that secular militias have been weakened by relative lack of arms compared to jihadist militias, and that the Islamist wing of the resistance as a whole has eclipsed the size of the purely secular FSA, is true, this should not be confused with the imperialist and left-conspiracist lie that the secular FSA is dead or tiny. There are many tens of thousands of basically secular FSA forces, as I have documented, based on a variety of sources, elsewhere (eg,

The two parts of the country where the secular FSA is at its strongest are the south – the region from the Jordanian border, through Daraa, where the revolution began, to the working class “suburbs” of outer Damascus – and the northwest, the Idlib-Hama region. And it is in these two regions that the Saudis are well-known to be supporting the FSA. Of course, as shown above, this support is restricted; and it is certainly not only the Saudi factor that has allowed the FSA to maintain strength in those regions. However, to the extent that the Saudis have been able to defy the US, the weapons they have got across the border have certainly helped. For example, in early 2013 the Saudis got some Croatian weapons though to the SMC-allied forces in the south; while out-of-date and limited in number, it did help improve the fortunes of the secular forces on the southern front, which on the whole have remained consistently better than in the north and east; indeed here they still strongly outnumber the Islamist forces as a whole.

In Idlib in the northwest, it has been widely reported that the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade (SMB), one of the largest secular FSA militias in the country, is Saudi-funded; and in Idlib, the balance between the SMB and the mainstream Islamist Suquor al-Sham (with possible Qatari-MB connections) has been maintained throughout the war. In fact, the SMB was one of the major components of the new Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a kind of north-western sub-FSA coalition set up late last year, with probably over 20,000 troops, which played a leading role in the joint rebel attack on ISIS beginning in January 2014.

Gulf crackdown on Islamist fighters headed for Syria

A final point exploding the myth of Gulf state support for radical Islamists in Syria is the continuous crack-down on these fighters in these states.

Saudi Arabia has led the way. In March, a Saudi court sentenced 13 men to up to 14 years in prison “for security offences including material support to wanted Islamist militants, aiding terrorism and helping young men go to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to fight,” the article noting that Saudi Arabia “has sentenced thousands of its citizens to prison terms for similar offences over the past decade” (*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-20-14). Since then, the kingdom officially added the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida and Hezbollah as “terrorist” organisations banned in the country; “moral or material support for such groups would incur prison terms of five to 30 years, while travelling overseas to fight would be punishable by sentences of three to 20 years.” The Saudi regime even threatened Qatar with a land, sea and air blockade for its support for the MB, and alongside Bahrain and the UAE, suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar.

The Saudi crack-down on the MB has also pressured other Gulf states to do the same, especially Kuwait with its generally more liberal internal atmosphere (*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-12-14#). Already in 2013, Kuwait had issued new laws criminalising “terrorist financing,” whereby “banks will be required to note down the personal details of all their clients as well as anyone making an international transfer of more than 3,000 KD ($10,500). To help track and investigate misdeeds, the Central Bank will build a new Financial Intelligence Unit with the help of experts at the IMF” (

Despite these new laws, in April, “in a remarkably undiplomatic statement that officials said had been cleared at senior levels, (US) Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen called Kuwait “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”,” underscoring how relatively unregulated the situation is in Kuwait compared to the tighter control of financial flows in other Gulf monarchies – and the level of US hostility to any Gulf support to Syrian Islamists (

Also in April, the Jordanian parliament passed a bill granting authorities “greater powers to detain without trial people suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups” while also criminalising “the intent or act of joining, recruiting, funding or arming terrorist organizations inside or outside Jordan.” The bill was clearly aimed at Jordanian Islamists who slip across the border to fight in Syria, “whom officials deem a major national security threat.” Since December, 120 suspected fighters have been arrested as foreign enemy combatants in the military-run state security court, and more than 40 have been convicted. “Right now, any Jordanian who goes to fight in Syria is arrested upon his return to the country and sent to the court,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani (

The US position: They should all kill each other

A second part of this article will give an update on the US role in all this. While this would be a useful enough issue in itself, the connection here is the possible contention that not only the Gulf monarchies, but the US itself, may also secretly support the Islamists over the secular opposition in order to detract the revolution from its democratic impulse and divide the masses. However, as I have shown that, however logical it may sound, this has not been the role of the Gulf monarchies overall, then there can be no question of the US supporting the Gulf on this. However, even to the extent that the Gulf monarchies have partially funded moderate Islamist movements at different times, and are at least partially amenable to trying to co-opt and control them, the US has always remained relentlessly opposed – indeed the big public spat between the US and Saudi Arabia in the second half of 2013 had much to do with the refusal of the US to arm anyone – secular or Islamist. However, to the extent that the US has offered to perhaps send a few arms to some highly vetted “moderate” rebels it has always been precisely on the basis that they use such arms to launch an all-out war on the jihadists – the US strategy being to let all wings of the anti-Assad resistance kill each other.