By Michael Karadjis
Long ago, someone called Jay Tharappel (see note* on Tharappel at end of this contribution) responded to my article ‘Assad Regime Responsible for Rise in Religious Sectarianism’ (http://links.org.au/node/3714) with an article, Syria: Countering Sectarian Apologetics for Imperialist Sponsored Bloodshed (http://dissidentvoice.org/2014/04/syria-countering-sectarian-apologetics-for-imperialist-sponsored-bloodshed/).
While my reasons for not responding were related to time and priorities, as it turned out precisely this passage of time has allowed us to better judge Tharappel’s premise in his title: the idea that the Syrian rebellion against Bashar Assad’s tyrannical sectarian regime is “imperialist-orchestrated bloodshed,” a view that allowed him to slander me as a “loyal servant of U.S. imperialism,” in the best traditions of the so-called “anti-imperialist” left.
Like the rest of this bogus “anti-imperialist” camp, he will have wilfully refused to look reality in the face ever since, and no doubt pretends that the last 8 months of *actual* imperialist intervention (unlike the imaginary one in August 2013) doesn’t exist. That is, the real intervention of US imperialism, with the full and open support of the Syrian regime, in collaborating with Assad in joint bombing expeditions against Raqqa civilians (nicknamed “against ISIS”); in actively bombing ISIS to defend the regime’s control over Deir Ezzor airport (so that regime can continue to use the airport to bomb children to bits all over Syria); in sharing intelligence with the regime; in mysteriously having US drones flying overhead just before regime bombings; in bombing not only ISIS but also Nusra and even the Islamic Front and sometimes even, mistakenly we assume, the FSA, anyone in Syria other than the regime; at the same time as the US is in an even more open joint war on the side of Iran and its proxy Iraqi regime and Shiite sectarian death squads against the Sunni population of Iraq.
Perhaps I could now respond and declare Tharappel and his ilk “loyal servants of U.S. imperialism,” but I don’t need to: for me, being a servant of a regime as fascistic and barbarous as that of Assad, which has turned the whole of Syria into a blood-drenched moonscape, was already damning enough long before the US-Assad alliance came out in the open, even when the “anti-imperialist” left actually had an argument, of sorts: fact is, I don’t share their logic, so I don’t feel the need to slander them for being anything other than they openly claim to be, ie, loyal servants of a savage capitalist tyranny.
So formalities out of the way, let’s get down to the content of Tharappel’s arguments.
My main contentions
The main part of his argument, on the sectarian or otherwise nature of the Syrian regime, is in fact a relatively coherent argument, and if he’d stuck to that as an empirical exercise, then I concede he has some good points, while some of mine could be seen as problematic. My argument was based on an analysis of the make-up of important parts of the regime, revealing the overwhelming domination of the Alawite element, and in particular, of the Assad family, and the connection of this largely Alawite, family-based elite with the country’s mega-capitalist oligarchy, both Alawite and Sunni.
Moreover, it is the open sectarian war waged against the Sunni masses by such a regime, including by irregular sectarian Alawite-based death squads, that is the main cause of the rise of sectarianism within sectors of the opposition and among significant sectors of the Sunni population. My view was that this cause was primary and overwhelming compared to the important, but secondary, role of sectors of the Gulf bourgeoisie (mostly the oppositional bourgeoisie rather than the regimes) in fomenting Sunni sectarian politics, which in turn has played into the hands of the regime and undermined the revolution.
Note that, when Tharappel writes that “according to Karadjis, the insurgent-led campaign of hatred and violence against Alawis is the government’s fault because it’s dominated by sectarian Alawis,” even if we ignore the sweeping nature of the slander against the vast and multi-layered uprising much of which was never sectarian, he is also only telling his readers the first half of my argument. The sectarian dynamic was not created because the regime is “dominated by sectarian Alawites,” but because this effectively Alawite-dominated “secular” regime launched an unlimited war against the Sunni populations for reasons of preserving a dictatorship, not because the Baathist criminals are ideologically “sectarian Alawites.”
In my view, the fundamentals of what I wrote were correct and are well-known. However, Tharappel makes a number of reasonable points in relation to the make-up of the regime and my argument.
The offending chart
First, he points out that the chart I base my claims on (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/all-the-tyrants-men-chipping-away-at-the-assad-regimes-core) was provided by the US think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East policy, which specialises in strategic concerns for US domination and US war-making in the Middle East. He implies that this may make the chart doubtful. Anything coming from such a source needs to be treated with caution, and if Tharappel had better information about its claims he could have provided it. As he didn’t, I suggest the data was broadly correct; “think tanks” do not exist to spread public propaganda to bullshit the masses; imperialism has different institutions, such as Fox News, for that purpose. Think tanks are aimed at readers and ideologues from the ruling class itself, and a certain level of accuracy –within their framework – is necessary for them to be of any use.
The chart, after all, was not something flashed all over the world via some screaming headline, but on the contrary, something one would need to dig hard to get hold of.
What then of the content? Tharappel writes that the chart “doesn’t actually specify what exactly is being mapped … it doesn’t provide any categories, it’s nothing more than a collection of some but not all military figures, cabinet ministers, and business people.” Since I used this chart to create some crude figures about the proportion of Alawites in the regime (eg, “some 10-15 per cent of the population, occupy some 72 per cent of the regime”), he derides this is as “incompetent and lazy” analysis.
I concede his point that one cannot tell exactly what the composition of the entire regime is based on this data, and therefore my precise-sounding figures were rather sweeping. However, a close look at the “some but not all” important posts makes it clear that these are of central importance to the regime, and the positions listed are the leading positions within these central areas, and therefore the data is not quite as anarchic as Tharappel suggests.
Absolute Alawite domination of the military-security apparatus
Moreover, as I wrote:
“Alawite elements are absolutely dominant within the military and security elements of the regime — including head of the Republican Guard, chief of staff of the armed forces, head of military intelligence, head of the air force intelligence, director of the National Security Bureau, head of presidential security.” Given that my main point was about the total war being waged against the Sunni masses by the military-security apparatus, Alawite domination of these sectors is the fundamental issue. In any case, the chart also shows a number of centrally important sections of the regime outside the military-security apparatus.
These are well-established facts and hardly controversial. In fact, according to Stratfor, quoted by Gilbert Achcar, “Some 80 percent of officers in the army are also believed to be Alawites. The military’s most elite division, the Republican Guard, led by the president’s younger brother Maher al Assad, is an all-Alawite force. Syria’s ground forces are organized in three corps (consisting of combined artillery, armor and mechanized infantry units). Two corps are led by Alawites.” Achcar continues: “Even though most of Syria’s air force pilots are Sunnis, most ground support crews are Alawites who control logistics, telecommunications and maintenance, thereby preventing potential Sunni air force dissenters from acting unilaterally. Syria’s air force intelligence, dominated by Alawites, is one of the strongest intelligence agencies within the security apparatus and has a core function of ensuring that Sunni pilots do not rebel against the regime” (http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/gilbert-achcar/syrian-army-and-its-power-pyramid).
Therefore, though not all areas of government are shown in the offending chart, if we find out that non-Alawites happen to run ministries concerned with health or local environment or roads etc, then surely Tharappel would agree that this would be largely irrelevant, especially when discussing a dictatorship? In other words, if this chart showing 23 Alawites compared to only five Sunni in top positions in these central parts of the government and state apparatus is not representative of other parts of government, this may be largely irrelevant.
Moreover, I also pointed out the direct connection between the Assad-family-based Alawite clique and the Syrian big bourgeoisie, “who absolutely dominate the economy.” I pointed out that they are connected to the regime via two main branches, “large companies (oil, banking, telecom etc.) connected via Alawite, and Assad-family connected, members of the regime” including Assad’s cousins, the Makhlouf family, and “big businesses connected via the “Sunni business elite” who are in turn connected by marriage to Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and head of the Republican Guard.” This class connection between Alawite and Sunni mega-capitalists is the main “non-sectarian” aspect of the regime.
Tharappel comes up with what he considers a better set of figures: the sect-based composition of successive Syrian cabinets up to the mid-1990s averaged 68.37 percent Sunnis and 20.41 percent Alawites. He notes that no figures exist since then, and claims there is no reason to think this has changed in the last 20 years, but precisely this is entirely unclear given the data presented. Let us say that neither he nor I know this for sure. All we do know for sure is that, even if these figures have remained much the same, they are overruled precisely by the overwhelming Alawite domination of the military-security apparatus.
Still, he points out that the mere “overrepresentation of a particular sect” in a state’s institutions “doesn’t mean the state actively discriminates on the basis of sect, which is what the label “sectarian” would suggest.” This may or may not be true. But also a red herring, because neither my article, nor the main experts I quoted from, eg Thomas Pierret, made this claim. No, the Assad regime is not religious-sectarian like its Iranian and Iraqi allies. Its Baathist ideology truly is “secular,” in the same way, for example, as mainstream Zionism, and fascism, and American neo-conservatism, are secular. Rather, the long-term sect-based nature of the regime is due to the very nature of capitalist power in Syria (something not unusual for secular regimes, eg, the Sunni political domination in Baathist Iraq); and the post-2011 decision to wage a sectarian war was a cynical and diabolical political decision aimed at keeping the ruling clique in power, nothing to do with any ideological sectarianism.
And apart from the fact that this regime-imposed sectarian war is the main cause for the more general descent into sectarianism in Syria, the other relevant issue arising out of such absolute sect-domination of the state I pointed out in my original article, and I’ll repeat here, by again quoting Syria expert Thomas Pierret:
“The kin-based/sectarian nature of the military is what allows the regime to be not merely “repressive”, but to be able to wage a full-fledged war against its own population. Not against a neighboring state, an occupied people or a separatist minority, but against the majority of the population, including the inhabitants of the metropolitan area (i.e. Damascus and its suburbs). There are very few of such cases in modern history … No military that is reasonably representative of the population could do what the Syrian army did over the last two years, i.e. destroying most of the country’s major cities, including large parts of the capital. You need a sectarian or ethnic divide that separates the core of the military from the target population.” (http://angryarab.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/angry-arab-interviews-thomas-pierret-on.html).
And this remains clearer than ever: Pierret is correct – I cannot think of such a total war being waged by a ruling class against “its own” population rather than against “a neighbouring state, an occupied people or a separatist minority;” the medal for this remarkable achievement goes to the regime that the likes of Tharappel defend.
Sources of Alawite domination of the repressive apparatus
Tharappel continues that even “to the extent that Alawis are overrepresented in government, their power doesn’t stem from their Alawi heritage” – exactly true, my article after all stressed that elite power in Syria is as much “Assad-family based” as “Alawite” in general and no one suggested anything about “Alawite heritage” (??), and more importantly, that “their sect holds no official privileges, and they’re not economically better off than other Syrians.”
By and large I agree with this, and the fact that a great many Alawites are as poor as the bulk of Sunni who are in rebellion against the regime means we need to distinguish between this situation in Syria and the situation in Israel, for example. In the latter, although an Israeli working class exists, and we would need to distinguish between the actions of the ruling class and Israeli people in general, nevertheless we recognise that this is made difficult by the vast level of privilege which the Israeli Jewish population derives from the Zionist conquest of Palestine.
Generally speaking, the Israel situation is similar to that which previously existed in apartheid South Africa in terms of white privilege, while the Syrian situation is analogous to that that existed under Baathist rule in Iraq (or in reverse under Shiite sectarian rule now): Hussein-connected Sunnis dominated the state apparatus and a narrow clique derived great power and privilege from these positions, but the Iraqi Sunni then (and the Iraqi Shia today) are “not economically better off than other Iraqis.” Incidentally, I wonder if the average Shiite in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait is necessarily worse off than the average Sunni in those countries.
However, Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, noting that the initial uprising in 2011 aimed “to get rid of Assad, the state bureaucracy, the Baath Party, the intelligence services, and the general staff of the Syrian Arab Army,” that is, was at heart a democratic revolt against a repressive state, goes on to explain how this very fact could not help but tap an existing sectarian dynamic inherent in the Baathist set-up, because “all of these bodies are packed with Alawites, over 90 percent of whom work for the state” (http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=58875). If this figure is roughly true, then, while certainly “working” for the state does not necessarily convey any kind of upper or even middle class status, it does clearly put the average Alawite in a relatively privileged position compared to the average Sunni, greatly complicating the central strategic task of the revolution of overcoming the sectarian divides.
Tharappel, however, has a theory as to why Alawites are “overrepresented in the military” (ie, why they *overwhelmingly* dominate among top military *leadership*, to put it honestly):
“Prior to Syria gaining independence in 1946, families who wished to exempt their boys from military conscription (under the French mandate) would have pay a fee, which many Alawis, being a generally poorer community, couldn’t afford to pay. Moreover many considered it a lucrative career option because the military in their eyes was one of the few meritocratic institutions they could join to get ahead in life, and one where they wouldn’t be discriminated against because of their beliefs. According to former President Hafez Al Assad’s biographer Patrick Seale, “young men from minority backgrounds made for the army in droves rather than for other professions because their families did not have the means to send them to university” (p. 38).”
He concludes that the more striking thing about the Syrian armed forces today is not “the overrepresentation of any particular sect,” but “rather its class character. After independence, young men from poorer rural backgrounds began swelling the ranks of the army whereas their urban counterparts were more likely to serve their two year term in the military before returning to more profitable careers in the cities.” Tharappel adds that “For someone who loves talking about class, Karadjis is unable or unwilling to recognise the elitist origins of anti Alawi sectarianism.”
There is so much in this loaded section that it is hard to know where to begin. Even if all this were true, one might well quip that some people live so far in the past that they believe they can analyse politics as if nothing has changed in the world in the last 50 or 70 years. British rulers, for example, promoted members of the Tamil minority to high positions in Sri Lanka to divide and rule; after independence, the new Sinhala dominated state actively oppressed Tamils for decades. Perhaps the Sinhala chauvinists refer back to the past in the same way Tharappel attempts to. Similar points could be made about north and south in Uganda, about Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi, about Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, about indigenous Fijians and Indians in Fiji and countless other places ruled by colonialism.
Thus even if entirely true, I’m not sure how the fact that poorer, marginalised Alawites joining the military back in French colonial times (up to 1945) would justify decades of absolute Alawite domination of the Baathist state, especially since the Assad coup in 1970. One might expect a modern state to try to overcome colonial legacies in 70 years. Speaking of “class,” one might wonder whether, even if anti-Alawite sectarianism had “elitist origins,” decades of incorporation of a highly disproportionate number of the Alawite minority into the ruling class via the military and state apparatus, while the overwhelming mass of Sunni are desperately poor peasants and slum-dwellers, might have changed the class arrangement?
In fact, far from declining with time, the domination of the state apparatus by Alawites greatly increased under Assad, decades after the end of colonialism. Achcar quotes from Hanna Batatu (http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/gilbert-achcar/syrian-army-and-its-power-pyramid):
“Out of the thirty-one officers whom Assad singled out between 1970 and 1997 for prominent or key posts in the armed forces, the elite military units, and the intelligence and security networks, no fewer than nineteen were drawn from his ‘Alawite sect, including eight from his own tribe and four others from his wife’s tribe; and of the latter twelve, as many as seven from kinsmen closely linked to him by ties of blood or marriage.…
“Apart from the special regime-shielding military formations, over which they had all along exclusive control, ‘Alawite generals commanded in 1973 only two out of the five regular army divisions but in 1985 no fewer than six – and in 1992 as many as seven – out of the nine divisions now constituting Syria’s regular army.”
In fact, while the early more leftist Baath regimes (1963-70) may have attracted a lot of Alawite support partially for the class reasons Tharappel claims, Achcar notes the irony that Assad’s right-wing coup in 1970 was more welcomed by many Sunni, ie, the Sunni mercantile elite, who he began the process of enriching. However, when Assad was confronted by the 1978-82 rebellion, his “dependence on his kinsmen and the Alawite brass and soldiery intensified and became the indispensable safeguard of his paramount power,” in other words, the beginning of the real effective sectarianisation of repressive forces’ officialdom was entirely about maintaining an elite in power and divorced in time and substance from class-related issues of earlier periods.
Nevertheless, returning to the issue of colonial legacies, is it possible that Tharappel is telling only part of the story? What about the part in which the French deliberately promoted the Alawite minority, in the same way as the British promoted certain minorities (or like the current Baathist regime continues to do), precisely in order to divide and rule, to have a bulwark against the Sunni Arab majority they ruled over?
According to Daniel Pipes, the Alawites adopted a pro-French attitude even before the French conquest of Damascus in July 1920. “The ‘Alawis … were dedicated to the French mandate and did not send a delegation to the [General] Syrian Congress.” Using French arms, they launched a rebellion against Prince Faysal, the Sunni Arab ruler of Syria in 1918-20. In 1919, French General Gouraud received a telegram from 73 ‘Alawi chiefs asking for “the establishment of an independent Nusayri union” under French protection. Following the establishment of French rule, the state of Latakia was set up in 1922, with legal autonomy. Alawis “turned out in large numbers when most Syrians boycotted the French-sponsored elections of January 1926. They provided a disproportionate number of soldiers to the government, forming about half the eight infantry battalions making up the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, serving as police, and supplying intelligence. As late as May 1945, the vast majority of Troupes Spéciales remained loyal to their French commanders. ‘Alawis broke up Sunni demonstrations, shut down strikes, and quelled rebellions” (http://www.danielpipes.org/191/the-alawi-capture-of-power-in-syria). We may not like Pipes (though not sure about Tharappel – Pipes began calling on the US to support Assad from 2013), but this historical article appears very well-referenced.
Moreover, the holes in the theory Tharappel proposes are obvious, even if it is undoubtedly based on a kernel of truth. Yes, the bulk of Alawites were extremely poor. But were the bulk of Sunni really wealthy enough for their families “to send them to university”? Why are poor Alawites being compared here with Sunni merchant families in the big cities? Tharappel imagines a rather skewed class structure in French-ruled colonial Syria, one in which the Alawite 10 percent of the population were the poor, and thus had to pursue military careers, while the Sunni 70 percent of the population were the middle and upper classes who sent their kids to university! How then did we get to the stage that the overwhelming bulk of the poor peasantry, and the urban poor on the city fringes, ie, the classes today engaged in the uprising against Assad regime, are Sunni? Did this vast wealthy university-going majority all become poor under Assad? If true, it would be quite an inditement of the regime!
More likely, however, the overwhelming majority of Sunni – the majority of the population – were also desperately poor back then. So his theory may well explain the differences between a certain social layer among Sunnis and Alawites in terms of middle class social advancement, but the overwhelming bulk of the Sunni peasantry are simply left out of this picture.
So why did the majority Sunni poor not also join the army like their poor Alawite cousins? On the one hand, it is likely that many did, but the French colonial rulers (like their Baathist inheritors) tended to promote Alawite (and minority) officers for divide and rule purposes; but on the other hand, a great many didn’t precisely for nationalist reasons; according to the same Patrick Seale, who Tharappel quotes extensively, Sunni landed families “being predominantly of nationalist sentiment, despised the army as a profession: to join it between the wars was to serve the French.”
Class, the peasantry, the Baath, the Brotherhood and western leftists stuck 50 years ago
Tharappel is on somewhat firmer ground when he discusses the class issues involved at the onset of the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the first Baath governments after 1963:
“The Brotherhood ultimately represented the interests of the landed elites and merchant classes … the Brotherhood’s counterparts in Syria always clashed with the post-Baathist state for entirely reactionary reasons. In 1964, just a year after the Baath party had seized power … the Muslim Brotherhood began their first insurrection, and for what reason? According to Seale it began in the souks (bazaars or marketplaces) with “prayer-leaders, preaching inflammatory sermons against the secular, socialist Baath”, that the anger stemmed from “merchants, dreading the inroads of Baathist radicalism”, and that “country notables resented the rise of the minority upstarts and their humble Sunni allies” (from Patrick Seale’s book ‘Asad’, 1995, p. 92). The Hama elites backing the Brotherhood associated the Baathists with peasant uprisings, especially since prior to the land-reforms that followed the 1963 coup, four extremely wealthy (Sunni) families owned 91 of the 113 villages in the Hama region (Seale, 1995, p. 42).”
It is widely known that the MB at the time represented urban Sunni mercantile interests and the Baath became the party supported by the poor peasants (both Sunni and Alawite) via these land reforms. Similar events were occurring at that time in Iran; while the Shah was a much more reactionary figure than the early Baath, nevertheless, the onset of his top-down bourgeois-modernising reforms in the 1963 “White Revolution” brought about a reaction led by the alliance between the bazaar and the fundamentalist Shiite clergy and headed by Khomeini, which rejected land reforms and equal rights for women.
Most people understand that it was incorrect to see the Iranian revolution, 16 years later, led by these same reactionary forces, as a simple continuation of the 1963 revolt; they understand that social changes undermine traditional class patterns. The mullahs in 1979 still represented the same bazaar merchant class, but by then the more modern, imperialist-linked mega-capitalist class that had grown up via the patronage of the Shah regime was so dominant that the bazaar merchant-mullah alliance seemed positively small-scale and petty-bourgeois and were able to lead a vast worker-peasant uprising that overthrew the Shah. Of course, the problem of being saddled by this reactionary leadership became more obvious after the Shah was overthrown, but there was little point in the left standing aside from the masses; if they were to have any chance, they needed to be in the thick of it, trying to push forward the progressive demands of the masses and defending them against the reactionary moves of the new bourgeois-clerical state that tried to consolidate itself after 1979.
Unfortunately, as history showed, they were not strong enough and the reaction won the day, and thus today we see this reactionary mullah-state acting as the phalanx of counterrevolution across the northern part of the Middle East, especially in Syria. But I assume that is not a problem for people like Tharappel who think Iran, like its Assad ally, is a “resistance” state.
But the point here is that while most of the left could understand there had been some transformation in the mere 16 years between 1963 and 1979 in Iran, people like Tharappel imagine there to be no difference in the 50 years between 1963 and 2011 in Syria. Thus they are incapable of staring reality in the face; they tell you about the poor peasant base of the Baath in 1963, apparently clueless as to why since 2011 the revolt against Assad has above all been centred around the poor peasantry and their cousins among the first generation of urban poor on city fringes (many supporting organisations akin to the Muslim Brotherhood), while the big bourgeoisie in Damascus and Aleppo is now the main base of the Baath regime.
Indeed, already by 1979, as in Iran, there had been significant changes. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Brotherhood’s base was still among urban mercantile interests; but the growth of the state-spawned big bourgeoisie had also come a long way. This change had begun slowly after Assad’s 1970 coup – a coup by the right-wing of the Baath Party – when a “corrective movement” against the ‘socialist’ 1960s was launched. “This new alliance strengthened over time thanks to the development of close relationships between high-ranking officials and some entrepreneurs. These relationships became so important that in 1982 Elisabeth Picard described the regime as a ‘military-mercantile’ complex – an alliance between an Alawite-dominated security apparatus (Army and Intelligence services) and some parts of the business community. The appeasement of the bourgeoisie and the co-optation of the representatives of the middle merchants and of the top layer of the commercial bourgeoisie, have lain at the core of Hafez’s strategy of consolidating the regime’s grip over the country” (http://crisisproject.org/syria-its-the-economy-stupid/).
This process, together with the weight of such a repressive state, had gone far enough for vast layers of the ordinary masses, and for a great variety of political forces, including among the left, to loosely align with the Brotherhood in a movement demanding democratic change in the late 1970s and early 1980s (this vast alliance is well-described in Merip Report No. 110, ‘Syria’s Troubles’, which I only have as hard copy). The ferocity of the regime’s repression, slaughtering tens of thousands of people in Hama and Homs in 1982, showed the regime well understood it was not merely confronting reactionary merchants and clerics. Nevertheless, the movement was of a very mixed character, with the bourgeoisie itself divided:
“When the Aleppo merchant community called for a nationwide strike in 1980, serious doubts were raised about the regime’s capacity to survive. At this moment, the Damascus merchants directly took sides with the regime and decided to keep their shops open. Despite the fact that this crisis was only overcome in 1982 with a military intervention and the shelling of Hama, killing over 20,000 people, the Damascus merchants’ spectacular support of the Ba’athist state in 1980 is said to have prevented the regime from collapsing (http://crisisproject.org/syria-its-the-economy-stupid/).
And these changes had already occurred within only 16 years after the Baath took power in 1963, yet the Tharppels write as if nothing continued to change in the next 30 years after that! Most analysts know that Bashar Assad’s neo-liberal transformations since the onset of this century radically changed the support bases of regime and opposition; cutting agricultural and other subsidies, launching industrial and agricultural privatisation, allowing renewed land concentration (ie reversing precisely what had gained the Baath peasant support in 1963), and countless other well-known moves drove poverty rates, especially rural rates, sky high. “Development” was concentrated in areas where state-connected capitalists could make a buck, leaving major rural-based cities – places where the uprising has been concentrated – to rot. Meanwhile, the rural disaster led to mass migration to city peripheries, another base of the uprising. These changes have been very well-documented, I hardly feel the need to give references; perhaps I would just recommend you reading anything by Bassam Chit, among countless others.
In a word, the poor rural dwellers had been transformed from the base of the Baath in 1963 to base of the anti-Baath uprising in 2011, but some still haven’t noticed; the big bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo have become much bigger and largely transferred their allegiance from the traditionalist MB to the modernised, neo-liberal Baath; and a variety of grass-roots Islamist organisations, mostly of a moderate nature and sometimes tenuously connected to the MB (which as an organisation is mostly exile-based) have tended to express the social conservatism among the traditional layers of the poor peasantry and urban poor leading the uprising, layers who were never actually “secular” even when they were Baath supporters.
Needless to say, as in Iran long ago, many of these petty-bourgeois Islamist leaderships also pose political problems for the future, which the left and democratic forces and the masses will have to confront. One of the differences with Iran before 1979 is that organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Jaysh Islam group in Damascus, have already given a ‘heads up’ to the FSA and the democratic revolutionaries more generally, and so we see the latter walking a fine line between the necessary cooperation with groups like Nusra in fighting the regime, and continual FSA clashes with Nusra and demonstrations against Nusra’s actions amongst revolution-supporting populations. A recent popular revolt against Jaysh Islam (described below), indicated in a particularly clear way the kinds of class cleavages that we should expect more of if we were to see the regime’s overthrow.
Apologetics for the Assadist mega-capitalist plutocracy
On a side-point, Tharappel, in his odd attempt to give Bashar Assad’s neo-liberal disaster some ‘social’ characteristics, claims that the state economic sector still accounts for 40 percent of GDP, failing to note that this was considerably lower than that of Mubarak’s Egypt (supposedly 70 percent of GDP in the 1990s according to the World Bank, http://tinyurl.com/ptj22n), and many other countries (at a socialist conference in Turkey in the 1990s, I was told the state still held, officially, some 80-90 percent of industry, decades after the death of Ataturk, and with the Turkish military-state already a long-term NATO asset). The trajectory of all the state-centric bourgeois-nationalist regimes that arose in the Middle East (and elsewhere) in the 1950s and 1960s was that of consolidating a new bourgeoisie via the “middle class” elements (military officers, intellectuals etc) that took over the bourgeois state apparatus. There was never anything “socialist” about it – Nasserism led to Sadatism without a whimper. But what this also means is that figures such as “40%” or “70%” and so on often have little meaning, because the actual state of privatisation and even of sheer plunder of the state apparatus by these layers and their families and connected businesses is often well in advance of the official state of affairs.
And a good example of this outright plunder is precisely that of Assad’s first cousin, Rami Makhlouf, which my article showed was an example of direct connection between the mega-capitalist class and the military-security apparatus (and of course the extended tentacles of the ruling family). Rather than grapple with this reality, Tharappel chooses a side-point – my assertion that Makhlouf “controls 40-60 percent of the Syrian economy” – to claim this is an example of my “Alawi-phobic conspiracy.”
Tharappel questions what this figure means and suggests instead that as Makhlouf’s net worth is reportedly about $5 billion, we can say that he owns “roughly 6 percent of Syria’s GDP.”
OK, so let’s go with that for the moment. Australian GDP in 2014 was reported to be some US$1560 billion, while Forbes Asia estimated Gina Rinehart’s wealth in 2014 to be US$17.6 billion. This means the wealth of Australia’s richest person is about 1.3% of GDP, less than a quarter of the equivalent percentage of Syrian GDP he says is owned by Makhlouf. I think Tharappel knows what most leftists and socialists in Australia think about Rinehart and about a system that allows such sensational concentrations of wealth. Yet he draws no conclusions about this in relation to the economic system presided over by Makhlouf’s cousin, the Syrian tyrant. He merely thinks there might be some problem of “corruption.”
But of course the 60 percent figure does not mean personal wealth; “control” of the economy is estimated via the various holding companies that he has significant or dominant stakes in. According to the Financial Times,
“Mr Makhlouf controls as much as 60 per cent of the country’s economy through a complex web of holding companies. His business empire spans industries ranging from telecommunications, oil, gas and construction, to banking, airlines and retail. He even owns the country’s only duty free business as well as several private schools. This concentration of power, say bankers and economists, has made it almost impossible for outsiders to conduct business in Syria without his consent” (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e29a73f8-6b78-11e0-a53e-00144feab49a.html#axzz3Uq0sUEsa). Likewise Gilbert Achcar gives a good description of what this means in his excellent book, The People Want, see the page at http://tinyurl.com/q956w44.
Once again, we are left wondering how someone claiming to be a leftist can draw no conclusions about a system that allows a single individual (not to mention the dictator’s cousin) to control telecommunications, oil, gas, construction, banking, airlines, retail, duty free business and education, while also being directly connected to the repressive forces.
The ubiquitous sectarian war waged by the Assad regime from Day One
Returning to my *main* point – that the Syrian regime is responsible for the rise of sectarianism not simply because of its domination by one sect but because this sect-heavy regime has waged bloody sectarian warfare against the Sunni majority from Day One, both via the irregular Alawite death squads (Shabiha) and the regime’s destruction of entire Sunni cities, Tharappel attempts to discredit this, asserting:
“the three examples he cites to support this point, i.e. Houla, Bayda and Banyas, are ALL proven false flag attacks that were actually carried out by the so called “revolutionaries” the Imperial-Left love so much.”
First, on the well-known Houla massacre of mid-2012, he claims “the story blaming the government was debunked by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.”
Noone reading this can be sure why one story in one German bourgeois newspaper is the final word on this massacre. After all, why not the story in another German newspaper, Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/a-look-back-at-the-houla-massacre-in-syria-a-845854.html), that actually got reporters into the area, and completely debunked the Frankfurter Allegmaine Zeitung story, and conclusively showed that it was the regime that perpetrated this horror? Why not the final, greatly detailed, 102-page UN report on the massacre (http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2012/aug/15/un-inquiry-syrian-arab-republic) that showed beyond a shadow of a doubt the regime’s responsibility? Never mind, supporters of some fascist regime have their preferred article, no matter how discredited it has since been.
It is not as if the regime’s Houla massacre was the only one around that time. Soon after, the neighbouring village of Qubair was attacked by Shabiha thugs, who killed 78 people, half of them women and children, once again involving horrific killings with knives, burning etc (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/second-syrian-massacre-qubairs-killing-fields-7827900.html).
In August 2012, Syrian troops and Shabiha committed an appalling massacre of at least 200 men, women and children in the pro-rebel Damascus suburb Daraya, with some reports of up to 500 or more killed (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/26/syrian-regime-accused-daraya-massacre; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/28/syria-worst-massacre-daraya-death-toll-400?newsfeed=true; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/07/syria-daraya-massacre-ghost-town; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/27/world/middleeast/dozens-of-bodies-are-found-in-town-outside-damascus.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&ref=syria). According to one of the first reporters to get in after the massacre, Janine di Giovanni:
“People hid in basements, and when the army arrived some were pulled out and killed outside; others were sprayed with machine-gun fire, Rashid says. “We had some informers who pointed out where opposition people were. They let the women run away but they shot the men one by one. In some cases, they went into the basement and killed old men and children – just because they were boys.” His wife’s four brothers and three nephews were among the victims.”
One of the most despicable things about this massacre is that, under relentless regime shelling for days, the FSA actually left the town on August 23, in the hope of sparing the local people the regime’s slaughter; once the FSA left, the regime’s killers went in, in a replay of the Sabra-Shatilla scenario.
Of course I will expect Tharappel and his ilk to reply that the FSA massacred their own families, and base this on a report by embedded “journalist” Robert Fisk, who rode into the town with Assad army units and “questioned” residents. While anyone with a brain would see that this was equivalent to riding into a Jewish death camp on a Nazi tank as far as validity of research goes, the fact that this low point for Fisk has been taken seriously by anyone is indicative of how low some of the standards of “journalism” have fallen with regard to Syria. Here is a good response to Fisk’s disastrous degeneration: http://qunfuz.com/2012/08/28/to-kill-and-to-walk-in-the-funeral-procession/
Stunningly, Tharappel even tries to link the massive slaughter of hundreds of Sunni villagers in Banias and Bayda, in Lattakia province, in May 2013 with the opposition, based entirely, it seems, on the identity of one family among these hundreds. This is quite an ambitious claim. UN investigators, for example, established that the Syrian regime and its Shabiha death squads were responsible for this massacre of up to, they claimed, 450 men, women and children – killed, as in all these other instances, in horrific ways which, ironically enough, would now be called being killed “ISIS-style” in an example of stunning historical amnesia (http://news.yahoo.com/syria-war-crimes-deepen-battle-territory-u-n-080613638.html). Human rights Watch also published a 68-page report showing the regime and Shabiha massacred around 250 people (167 in al-Bayda and 81 in Banyas, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/09/13/no-one-s-left-0). Of course, Tharappel might decide the entire HRW report was faked, because HRW would, in his opinion, be “biased” against his favourite tyranny, but in that case, he may have to be consistent and also dismiss HRW’s report several months later on the ISIS-led massacre of Alawite men, women and children in Latakia in August 2013.
Meanwhile, a UN report from 2013 listed 9 massacres, one carried out by rebel forces and eight by the regime (http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/09/11/un-report-on-syria-lists-at-least-eight-massacres-allegedly-perpetrated-by-the-assad-regime-and-one-by-the-rebels/). Here we can read about other large-scale regime massacres that Tharappel thinks didn’t happen, for example a massacre of 20-40 men, “blindfolded with their hands tied, shot at close quarters,” in Deir Baalbeh in Homs in April 2012.
Therefore, even if Tharappel is right that in the Tremesh massacre of 200 people in Hama, “the majority” of victims were “insurgents” rather than civilians, it is rather obvious that the list of large-scale massacres by the Shabiha regime is rather impressive anyway and fully backs my essential point in the article.
Even then, Tharappel’s own quote that the Battle of Tremseh was essentially “a lopsided fight between the army pursuing the opposition and activists and locals trying to defend the village” leaves plenty of room for ambiguity: of course, for supporters of bloody tyrants like Tharappel, “activists and locals trying to defend their village” are by definition armed “insurgents” that of course deserve to be mowed down; but this highlights the problems for those who support brutal counterinsurgency wars, not only in Syria but throughout the world: when people fight to defend their own villages against a bloody regime, the line between “civilian” and “guerrilla” is often unclear. The difference is that elsewhere in the world and in other conflicts, leftists instinctively know that, whereas Syria has created a whole oddball race of “left” reactionaries who place themselves on the other side.
Moreover, some of the massacres listed in the UN report just noted are not of such massive numbers as most being discussed here. For example, the UN investigators claim “six male farmers were executed when they approached troops to ask for access to their farms” in Al-Hamamiat, Hamah, on March 13, 2013; and, following the flight of most civilians, except the elderly, after heavy shelling of the Bab Amr neighbourhood in Homs, “on March 27, pro-government forces executed seven people of the Bzazi family. The dead were between the ages of 50 and 88 and included four women and three men.”
The point here is that, while much focus has been on the gigantic regime-shabiha massacres such as Houla, Bayda and Baniyas, too much focus on them (and people like Tharappel playing with “exposing” them), can overshadow the fact that the massacre of the Sunni population by the Shabiha regime was a far more widespread phenomenon from early 2012 onwards. Thus even though killings may be only of a dozen here and half a dozen there, not big enough to make Houla-style headlines, these small-scale massacres, village by village, slaughtering and burning, were ubiquitous across the length and breadth of Syria.
This 2012 report by Amnesty International (http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/deadly-reprisals-deliberate-killings-and-other-abuses-by-syria-s-armed-forces) provides graphic information for anyone with the stomach, to understand that “repression” was not “only” a matter of machine gunning peaceful protestors in the chest, nor “only” of high tech aerial slaughter, but full-scale death squad sectarian terror. One small excerpt:
“Everywhere, residents described to Amnesty International repeated punitive raids by the state’s armed forces and militias, who swept into their town or village with dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles, in some cases backed up by combat helicopters, firing indiscriminately and targeting those trying to flee. At times, the army’s incursions came in the wake of attacks on government forces by armed opposition groups or clashes between the two sides. The outcome was the same in every case – a trail of death and destruction, much of it the result of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks.
“Everywhere, grieving families described to Amnesty International how their relatives had been taken away by soldiers and shot dead, often just a few metres from their front doors. In some cases, the bodies had then been set on fire in front of the terrified families. The mother quoted above had found her three sons burning outside her home. Another woman had found the remains of her 80-year-old husband among the ashes of her burned home after she was told by soldiers to look again for him in the house. Traumatized neighbours of a father of eight described how soldiers had dragged him to a nearby orchard, shot him in the legs and arm, shoved him into a small stone building, doused it with petrol and then set it alight, leaving the man to burn.”
Note the stress on burning – the extent to which victims have been burnt to death by Assadist death squads is truly shocking. When we consider how the ISIS burning of one Jordanian pilot (barbaric and horrific as it certainly was) got such huge international coverage, the idea that the western media is “biased against Assad” is shown to be as absurd as it always has been. More on the Syrian regime’s large-scale use of killing by fire: http://sn4hr.org/blog/2015/02/18/executions-burning.
Furthermore, as the war developed more into one using high tech slaughter, the towns and cities, or districts of cities, targeted for total demolition were also Sunni. As I quoted in my article from Syria expert Thomas Pierret:
“The problem is that many people do not even recognize the sectarian character of these atrocities, claiming that repression targets opponents from all sects, including Alawites. In fact ordinary repression does target opponents from all sects, but collective punishments (large-scale massacres, destruction of entire cities) are reserved for Sunnis” (http://angryarab.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/angry-arab-interviews-thomas-pierret-on.html).
While Pierret’s “destruction of entire cities” is usually thought of in terms of the Hiroshimas the regime has made of Homs, half of Aleppo, Damascus suburbs etc, it is important to note that destruction of whole towns and mass expulsion of whole populations also occurred in small towns (eg, al-Heffa in north-west Syria in June 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/15/world/middleeast/monitors-report-vast-devastation-in-syrian-village.html?_r=3&), pointing again to the likelihood that the phenomenon was much more widespread across great expanses of Syria than was newsworthy enough to be reported.
It is not difficult to see how all this led to the sectarianisation of the conflict. And as I write, an excellent article has appeared in the New York Review of Books by Jonathan Littell which describes the process of regime-driven sectarian slaughter turning an anti-sectarian uprising into a sectarian war in Homs (http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/mar/18/syrian-notebooks-what-happened-in-homs). Beginning with his arrival in Homs in January 2012, he reports “the people were still gathering daily to demonstrate—calling for the fall of the regime, loudly asserting their belief in democracy, in justice, and in a tolerant, open, multi-confessional society,” and notes that “The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up mostly of army and secret services deserters disgusted by the repression, still believed its primary mission was defensive, to protect the opposition neighborhoods and the demonstrations from the regime snipers and the feared shabiha.”
However, he was able to document “the first deliberate sectarian massacre of the conflict, the murder with guns and knives of an entire Sunni family in the Nasihin neighborhood on the afternoon of January 26, 2012. Many more would follow, first of other families, then of entire Sunni communities in the village belt surrounding Homs to the West, in the foothills of the Jabal an-Nusayriyah, the so-called “Alawite mountain” from which the regime continues to draw its main support.”
He claims that “up to that point, as all our interlocutors kept repeating to us and as we witnessed in the demonstrations, the revolutionaries were doing everything in their power to prevent the descent into sectarian warfare,” and even with this massacre, the FSA response “was not to slaughter an Alawite family, but to attack the army checkpoints from which the murderers had come.” But by mid-2012 this was changing and Assad’s strategy was bearing fruit as “uncontrolled” rebel units were also carrying out sectarian massacres of Alawites.
But while creating this “uncontrolled” response was part of the strategy of “transforming a popular, broad-based, proletarian and peasant uprising into a sectarian civil war,” Littell claims the regime also wanted the real “terrorists and Islamic fanatics” that it labelled the opposition but which didn’t in fact exist; so, beyond the well-known release of jihadists in mid-2011, the regime “favoured the rise, throughout 2012, of the radical Islamist armed groups that would soon enter into conflict with the more secular FSA. When Da‘esh first began conquering territory in Syria, in January 2013, “they never fought the Damascus regime and only sought to extend their power over the territory freed by our units,” as an FSA fighter explained. “Before their arrival, we were bombed each day by the Syrian air force. After they took control of the region, the bombing immediately stopped.”
Role of “the Gulf”
All that said, my article did not say the Gulf has played a merely “peripheral” role in the promotion of sectarianism, as Tharappel “quotes” me; I argued it was secondary, and he knows that secondary does not mean peripheral. The introduction to my article raises the issue of “the sponsorship of parts of the resistance by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, who are supposedly driven to divert the democratic struggle into a sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict in order that the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring does not reach their own tyrannical regimes” and says “this is certainly a factor.” However, my article did not aim to write about everything, but to balance this often “greatly exaggerated and misunderstood” factor. I give a fuller account of what I consider the role of the Gulf at https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/the-gulf-and-islamism-in-syria-myths-and-misconceptions/ .
In that article, I evaluate what I had previously written, that the Gulf was fomenting a mirror-image counterrevolution by promoting reactionary Islamist militias at the expense of the main opposition to the Assad regime, ie, the democratic secular FSA. My re-evaluation neither reduced the role reactionary Islamists, nor denied the dangerous level of sectarianism among the opposition, nor dropped the term mirror-image counterrevolution – I merely looked at facts and concluded that the Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia – have played a smaller role than often assumed (though Qatar has played a significant role funding moderate Islamists), and the main role of the “Gulf” has been funding for anti-Saudi jihadist militias by the oppositionist big bourgeoisie in the Gulf, those who hate their own rulers as much as they hate the Assad regime:
“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.”
So all of Tharappel’s preaching about how bad the reactionary Sunni sectarian forces are is irrelevant; that is a given in my articles, but I simply demonstrate that the highest level of responsibility falls with the genocide-regime, a regime Tharappel fawns over.
Sunni sectarian militia
Tharappel is totally dishonest where he writes that “the leadership of the two most prominent insurgent fronts, namely ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, are openly sectarian.” As he well knows, no one in the Syrian opposition considers ISIS to be part of their struggle; all parts of the opposition, from secular through soft-Islamist and even harder Islamist consider ISIS an enemy alongside the regime, and most believe that the regime was in cahoots with ISIS until the US began bombing ISIS, at which point Assad sought to demonstrate his usefulness to the US “war on terror” by finally beginning to “bomb ISIS” (usually civilians in bakeries in Raqqa) in concert with the US.
In contrast, as my article pointed out, “the war currently (ie, January 2014) being launched against ISIS by the rest of the resistance” was “a very positive step in the direction” of the “relentless struggle against the influence of this destructive, reactionary sectarianism” which my article called for. As people who check know, this offensive by the FSA and allies drove ISIS out of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Deir Ezzor and briefly even Raqqa, something never achieved by any other force against ISIS before or since.
Nusra is a different matter with a more complex relationship with the rest of the resistance, though of course he is right that it is “openly sectarian.” For my views on the contradictory nature of Nusra and the need for the FSA to struggle against it while not being sucked into the cynical US plans to have the FSA and Nusra kill each other for the benefit of the regime, see https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/as-nusra-plays-at-isis-lite-the-us-excels-as-assads-airforce/. However, he is wrong to claim only Nusra (let alone ISIS!) as the “most prominent” insurgent group.
Further, his implication that the rest of the rebellion and all “moderate” rebels can be represented by the views of the Jaysh Islam (JI) group, based in the bombed out Damascus slum Douma and led by sectarian nutter Zahran Alloush, is deeply cynical, aimed at fooling his readers who don’t have time to read up on the revolution.
One wouldn’t know for example that other member groups of the Islamic Front (of which Jaysh Islam is one member) are non- or anti-sectarian. For example, the main IF group in Aleppo, the moderate Liwa al-Tawhid, makes it its duty to protect local Christians against potential jihadist attack (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Sep-21/232025-christian-hostel-in-aleppo-has-own-view-of-jihadist-rebels.ashx#axzz2gfb4z1J2). Ahmed Issa, leader of Suquor al-Sham, the IF franchise in Idlib, declares 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” (https://www.academia.edu/5825228/Syrian_Jihadism). Even the original Islamic Front declaration, while full of plenty of questionable “Islamic law” kind of language, contained nothing specifically Sunni at all; and in any case, the Islamic Front is not all the Islamist militias in Syria, many of which (eg, Jaysh Mujahideen, which played a prominent role driving ISIS out of Aleppo, and the al-Ajnad Union in Damascus) are markedly more moderate than even the moderate parts of IF. Moreover, even the overly “Islamist” parts of the original IF declaration were effectively neutralised by the “Revolutionary Covenant” (signed in May 2014 by IF, Jaysh Mujahideen, al-Ajnad Union and other Islamist groups), which pledged support for human rights and the rule of law in a “multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian” Syria “without any sort of pressure or dictations” (http://justpaste.it/fi2u).
I don’t say all this because I want to play them up, or necessarily even trust all this – that is a question of balance of forces, the real views of the rank and file of these groups etc. However, we need to criticise what needs to be criticised, not paint everyone who is an “Islamist” with the same essentialist brush. Thus when we condemn someone like Alloush for his vile sectarianism we also need to recognise the anti-sectarianism among other Islamists, and give credit where due alongside condemnation where due.
Even in Alloush’s stronghold, the slums of Douma, context is hardly irrelevant to his sectarian rants. Reading Tharappel’s account one would not know that regime shelling killed 250 people in February alone, then on just one day, March 15, 83 were killed (http://eaworldview.com/2015/03/syria-daily-83-killed-on-sunday-as-regime-steps-up-bombardment-of-douma/, and this level of slaughter has been going on for years; or that the regime has imposed a long-term starvation blockade on Douma. The regime deliberately targets schools, medical units and marketplaces, and reportedly even uses vacuum bombs (http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1424225651#.VOVTYC6TWmX). As Gaza shows, reducing a slum to smashed up ruins, to Guernica, tends to strengthen “Islamist” forces or anyone who can offer either “radical” action, or God, as some kind of alternative when the entire world has abandoned you. Really, where a people are being literally smashed to pieces and starved to death by an Alawite-dominated military, we find anti-Alawi sectarianism? Why is this different to anti-Jewish views among many Palestinians?
In any case, it is not as if Alloush’s group is unchallenged in the Damascus region among the Islamist forces; in fact, in late 2013, Alloush’s megalomania (labelling his Islam Brigade the ‘Army of Islam’), his repressiveness (he is suspected of involvement in the kidnapping of the ‘Douma 4’ revolution activists) and his sectarianism led to open dissension from virtually all other Islamist groups in Damascus, with the Greater Damascus Operations Room set up by 12 major brigades excluding Jaysh Islam (http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53566&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-5-14; http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53432), and the moderate al-Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union was formed in opposition to JI, initially claiming 15,000 fighters (http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54750&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-5-14), based on the traditionally more moderate Damascene Islam(http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54758).
Even JI’s rule in Douma itself has faced mass opposition from the revolutionary masses for corruption and profiteering – they demonstrate against both Alloush and Assad, with slogans like “who escapes from the regime army is killed by the tyranny of Islamic Front” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qmR97tklu0). Douma residents also attacked the storage units of merchants who dominate the local food distribution business to protest high prices, and they identified Jaysh Islam with these merchants (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/syria-douma-protest-jaish-al-islam.html), in a particularly notable example of both the class nature of certain “Islamist” leaderships and of the kind of “uninterrupted” revolutionary struggle we can hope for if the regime is ejected.
And that is just among the Islamist forces; the 60,000 secular FSA fighters, especially in the magnificent Southern Front (http://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/the-free-syrian-army-southern-front-transitional-phase/; http://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/free-syrian-army-factions-of-the-southern-front-unite-their-forces-against-the-regime-and-extremists/) with its clear non-sectarian message, are completely absent in Tharappel’s account. My article even provided an example of an excellent non-sectarian appeal by the FSA in Latakia to the Alawite masses who were waging their own struggle against the regime at the time (http://darthnader.net/2012/10/13/and-then-there-was-hope/) as a contrast to the sectarian dynamic; Tharappel’s account of course ignores it.
Tharappel’s final point, that “even in cases of alleged crimes by state forces, every effort is made by the state to downplay or deny them as its considered shameful, where the “revolutionaries” not only commit sectarian atrocities, they brag about them openly,” is too absurd to comment on, and since he provides no evidence, it is hardly my problem to disprove what has only been asserted as an odd slander.
What is rather obvious, however, is that he contradicts himself here: he has accused the Syrian rebels of carrying their own slaughters of their Sunni base in Houla, Banias and Badiya, yet in these cases the rebels (like everybody else) blame the regime, rather than “bragging about them.”
And he accuses me of “mental gymnastics.”
 Some other useful summaries of the structure of Alawite domination of the military-security apparatus: Alawi Control of the Syrian Military Key to Regimes Survival, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e3fb2452.html; The Structure of Syria’s Repression: Will the Army Break with the Regime? http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67823/ahed-al-hendi/the-structure-of-syrias-repression; Why Most Syrian Officers Remain Loyal to Assad, http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/b8f4f88b-94d3-45a0-b78e-8adad3871daa
- Note on Jay Tharappel. I have never met this person, and know nothing about him, except what I know from reading his constant apologetics for Baathist terror. But after I had already begun to write this response to his critique, I came across a strange facebook discussion. Tharappel had placed a meme, which he had presumably created, on a friend’s page, which used a photo of my face, from my facebook profile, with my name prominently written across it, and the out-of-context quote from an article of mine, that “much of the ranks of Nusra are decent revolutionaries.” Next to this he showed two pictures of Nusra pigs shooting women in the head for “adultery,” trying to associate my statement with these crimes. In my article he “quotes” from (https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/syrian-rebels-overwhelmingly-condemn-us-bombing-as-an-attack-on-revolution/), I wrote the following about Nusra, in the context of opposing the US imperialist bombing of Nusra on behalf of Tharappel’s genocide-regime, and of explaining the FSA’s condemnation of the US bombing: “Despite also being a sectarian organisation which the FSA will have to deal with in the future in its own time, based on its own decision-making, JaN (Nusra) has for the most part been fighting on the side of the FSA and the other rebels against both the Assad regime and ISIS … Despite the jihadist Nusra leadership, much of its ranks are decent revolutionaries, often former FSA cadre just going where the money and arms are.”
Really, the fact that many rebels have joined Nusra’s ranks due to its superior (Gulf-supplied) wealth, while having no commitment to its ideology, is so well-known as to be cliché. I’m hardly the first to note this. The implication that it is these ranks who carry out then kinds of crimes depicted is grossly misleading, to put it politely.
In a further article (https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/as-nusra-plays-at-isis-lite-the-us-excels-as-assads-airforce/), explaining how this US bombing of Nusra politically strengthened it and thus facilitated its renewed attacks on the FSA from November 2014, I wrote “This has meant that many former FSA fighters, or fighters with little ideological commitment that would otherwise have been in the FSA, have joined JaN, without supporting its reactionary Sunni sectarian ideology.” I pointed out that this often moderated Nusra on the ground (ie, where such troops are present), and gave the example of Nusra’s brief liberation Raqqa from ISIS in January 2014, when they liberated two churches and removed the black jihadist flags that ISIS had put on their spires – because JaN in Raqqa was by then largely composed of FSA entryists.” I also explained that these FSA had since quit Nusra: “… the FSA’s Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, which spent some 8 months inside Raqqa JaN before re-emerging in April (it is now also fighting in Kobane alongside the YPG against ISIS).”
Further, I write that though Nusra had changed following its split from ISIS in mid-2013), “it remained an anti-democratic, Sunni-sectarian organisation at the level of leadership and ideology.” Then further explaining the implications of the new change in late 2014, and its renewed attacks on the FSA, I wrote that, regardless of compromises in practice Nusra had made with the FSA over the year (mid-2013-late 2014), it “stands openly for a clerical regime which is explicitly Sunni-sectarian … its explicit view that Alawites and Shiites can only be offered oppression under its rule can only strengthen the attachment of these minorities to the regime …”
I then noted that, while Nusra had not for the most part been acting like ISIS in terms of religious repression, “an arrogant JaN ruling unchallenged” may well begin to impose such repression, and noted that in Idlib, where Nusra had just waged war against the FSA (November 2014), a Nusra “Islamic court in Darkoush execut(ed) a man and woman through stoning (https://t.co/TlrKDkEZOt),” in other words, I referred to precisely the kind of “moral repression” as in the two “adultery” killings Tharappel tries to pin on me (they took place, also in Idlib, in January 2015), which I clearly condemn and connect to this new anti-FSA turn of Nusra.
Tharappel knows very well I support the struggle of the FSA against Nusra, and the various anti-Nusra demonstrations that have broken out among pro-revolution populations throughout Syria, especially in Idlib and Damascus. As I said, I know nothing about this guy, but he is clearly aware of my actual views, since he must have quite an unhealthy obsession with me to go to the trouble of putting together this slanderous meme and plastering it around the internet, someone who needs to get a life. I would prefer to simply reply to his views, but since he chooses to engage this obsessive slander, I hope readers take into account the ethics of this person when assessing his pro-fascist views.
3 thoughts on “Countering apologetics for the Baathist apocalypse: Once again, Assad regime responsible for sectarianism in Syria”
Excellent review of the issues. I wouldn’t worry unduly about being targetted by
Tharappel- he seems to have moved on to Noam Chomsky who he’s claiming to have “exposed” (on what planet I couldn’t say) http://www.medhajnews.com/article.php?id=NTA5NQ