On questions of disillusion among Syrian revolutionaries

Comrade Fred Feldman, referring to an article in the November 28 New York Times (Disillusionment Grows Among Syrian Opposition as Fighting Drags On, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/world/middleeast/syria-war.html), rightly states:

 “This NYT article has the snide tone that the Times loves to use when dealing with defeated, lost, or diverted revolutionary aspirations of all kinds. Nothing pleases the Times more than bitter disillusion and disappointment among the oppressed (and most of the supporters and fighters of the opposition actually fall into that category in one way or another).”

 Yes, exactly, US imperialism and its mouthpieces love to see revolutionary movements defeated.

“Overall, this may be preparation of the ground for rapprochement with the Assad regime (whose relations with imperialism have had ups and downs over the years), following on the tentative deal with Iran and rumored secret talks with Hezbollah.”

 Yes, these things are happening in the region, though the US hostility towards the revolutionary movement in Syria hasn’t just begun now with these geopolitical movements. The hostility has been there since the outset. You don’t have to wait for a NYT article in November 2013 to see that, at least if you’ve been watching.

 And then Fred manages to contradict himself.

“The failure of Washington and its allies in Syria was an important setback. It registered the failure of a 20+ year campaign led by the US government to reshape the Middle East in its interests (from Gulf war and more than a decade of brutal sanctions, to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israeli war against Hezbollah, down to the effort in Syria) has failed.”

 Huh? I have no idea what “failure” Fred is talking about. Fred rightly tells us Washington is gloating over the defeat of a “revolutionary” movement which consists of the “oppressed” (quite right about that too, for anyone who actually cared about the class forces involved), but then jumps 180 degrees (or maybe about 500 degrees, I’m not sure) to tell us that this (alleged) defeat of the “revolutionary” movement is a defeat for US imperialism.

 Wrong. Leaving aside, for arguments sake, the issue of whether the degree of disillusion presented in the NYT corresponds to reality or not, the fact is that IF defeat of the Syrian revolution did actually occur, it would indeed be a victory of US imperialism.

 Actually, though, it is precisely the fact that, whatever setbacks (and “setforwards”, if you like, it changes daily), the revolution has not been crushed, that means Washington also cannot have any terribly straightforward policy, because how you actually deal with things that are still alive, in some fashion, and the various influences and pressures of other capitalist states in the region with clashing interests, is not straightforward.

“Basically Obama (and figures of the other party such as Robert Gates) have recognized this, at least for the immediate future. So Obama now seeks peace deals with others who have always been willing to offer concessions to get an opening to the United States. Overall this is a progressive development and tends to shift the relationship of forces very modestly toward the oppressed and exploited.”

 I’ll have something to say about all these geopolitical developments soon. Once again though we have contradictions rooted in false “anti-imperialist” frameworks. Not in Manichean, conspiracist, Marcyite style “anti-imperialism” which Fred has always been much smarter than. But still a kind of mechanical anti-imperialism that is influenced by the former, without its crass apologetics for capitalist tyrannies.

 The kind that is unable to see that a victory of a capitalist tyranny against a “revolutionary” movement of its “oppressed” people is a defeat for our side and fundamentally a victory for imperialism, whatever other geopolitical issues exist partially in contradiction; and vice versa. Because, you see, apparently you still have to factor in things like that the US government has said some nasty things about Assad, and Assad has said some nasty things about the US, and the US has supplied a few “night goggles” and “flak jacks” and inedible “ready-meals” to a few FSAers, and has even announced it would “arm” the FSA with “new inventory training,” so all this means you have to include some imaginary “anti-imperialist” angle in it.

 So somehow, due to this way of seeing the world, Fred thinks that the “defeat” of a movement of the “oppressed” has forced Washington to carry out a geopolitical maneuver that is in favour of “the oppressed and exploited.” Figure that one out.

 One would have thought that since the alleged defeat of the “revolutionary movement of the oppressed” in Syria was carried out by Assad’s capitalist tyranny, the most violently repressive capitalist regime in the region (currently, anyway), and that this tyranny is one of those forces “who have always been willing to offer concessions to get an opening to the United States,” that US dealing with this regime would be a setback to the oppressed.

 But that would be too straightforward, wouldn’t it? I guess that would be “leaving imperialism out of the picture” as we used to say, sometimes with real meaning and content, and sometimes with none. This case is another example of the latter. 

 Interestingly, with all this geopolitical maneuvering between the US, Iran and the Assad regime, has anyone noticed any suggestion at all that the super-oppressed Palestinian people were likely to see any benefit? I mean, since the Syrian oppressed are obviously not the section of the “oppressed and exploited” that are going to benefit from these “progressive” geopolitical shifts, is it possible that this geopolitics might at least have a progressive side-effect for the Palestinians?

 And of course, when you think of it, precisely this has been left out of this discussion. Think about it; there have been no such suggestions whatsoever. And why would there be? Since the Assad regime is the Arab regime that has slaughtered more Palestinians than any other Arab regime, it is unclear why US dealing with Assad would even point in a pro-Palestinian direction; it doesn’t even make sense.

 Sure, Israel’s protests were ignored when the US wanted to deal with Iran. But that only proves that the US does what it wants based on its interests, and again disproves the bogus “Israeli lobby” theory of explanation for everything. But that does not prove that the US is about to change its absolute and total support for extremist Zionism, which it also does for its own strategic interests.   

“The Times’ characteristic gloating over disappointed hopes aside, I think the basic shift of moods is probably very real. The rebel movement failed to build a truly national, pan-Syrian movement, and among the supporters, disappointment and loss of morale are taking hold.”

 Regardless of whether the particular article is accurate or not, there is no doubt that some of this is inevitably true, for a variety of reasons. One of them is this political problem, that Fred rightly alludes to here, that the leadership of the rebellion has been unable to win over certain sectors, mainly among the Alawite and Christian minorities. This is not for the most part due to Sunni sectarian politics among the leadership or ranks of the revolution – since the official exile-based leaderships, and the part of the internal rebellion generally called the FSA, ie, the secular armed forces, include Alawites and Christians and are ant-sectarian.

 Rather, the rise of an extremist jihadi fringe of the movement rightly frightens away the minorities, and the anti-sectarian forces have not been strong enough militarily or financially to fully confront this danger in the context of such savage repression from such a massively armed regime. Arguably, they should be doing a lot more to politically confront this issue as well, but hat is a lot different to saying they are part of the problem, which is just crude amalgamism. In between, there are also the more mainstream Islamist forces, which have not been involved in sectarian attacks on minorities, but whose rise still does give a certain Islamic “flavour” to the uprising that some minorities would recoil against without the secular factor being able to balance it more strongly.

 This is why an outright military victory was not ultimately going to be the way to victory, as many unequivocal supporters of the revolution have acknowledged for a long time. But it is one thing to recognize these political limitations of the opposition, and to recognize that revolution involves many forms, not simply “military victory now,” and quite another to therefore conclude that this is no revolution and to take a “plague on both your houses” view of regime and revolution.

 “The basic reasons for the relative weakening of the rebels are internal. Nor should they be reduced to the supposedly all-powerful nature of Assad’s weapons or the intervention of foreign powers.”

 One wouldn’t want to “reduce” the explanation to any one factor, for sure. But to simply skip over the military factor like this does it no justice. As with my note above, the military starvation of the secular part of the revolution not only weakens it against Assad, but also against the more reactionary-sectarian forces within the opposition, which are well-supplied by private regional jihadist networks extending from the Gulf through al-Qaida in Iraq.

 Moreover, simply evading the issue of the regime’s massive military superiority doesn’t help us take into account events such as this:

 “REYHANLI, Turkey — Late in August, when world attention was focused on
the poison gas attack near Damascus, Syrian government forces were
waging an intense assault against a small rebel-held town 150 miles to
the north.

“The spotlight never touched on Ariha, south of Idlib, even after Sept.
3, when Syrian state media announced that the government had “cleansed”
the town of “terrorist gangs.” But the two-week battle helps illuminate
why Syria’s civil war has created such a catastrophic humanitarian

“To “cleanse” the town, government helicopters dumped dozens of “barrel
bombs” – improvised explosive devices filled with shrapnel and varying
in size from a large pipe to a garbage Dumpster – on houses and shops,
multiple witnesses told McClatchy. Tanks and howitzers fired into the
town, and the army also fired mortars, gravity bombs, vacuum bombs and
cluster bombs.

“Outgunned and low on ammunition, the rebels gave up. They and around
70,000 civilians fled to other towns and to Turkey, and that may have
been the aim of the operation.”

 Full: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/11/11/v-fullstory/3739863/battle-for-strategic-syrian-town.html

 I do not want to underestimate the role of politics. However, examples such as this, repeated all over Syria, are rather concrete. Would better opposition politics have enabled the local people and the rebels (basically the same thing) in this case to ward off these “dozens of “barrel bombs” filled with shrapnel and varying in size from a large pipe to a garbage Dumpster, tanks, howitzers, mortars, gravity bombs, vacuum bombs and cluster bombs” all dumped on top of houses and shops and fired into the town, that drove out he entire population?

 How about if the Russian White Armies had had all the weaponry at Assad’s disposal and had been able to turn Moscow and Petrograd into Homs, or this town? Are you certain mere good politics would have allowed Red Army victory?

 Unfortunately Fred’s text goes from confused to worse:

“The orientation of the official leadership from the beginning was to use the armed struggle to inspire or provoke a large-scale imperialist military intervention on the Libya model to settle the question of power. The official leaders systematically argued that a genuinely Syrian revolution in Syria was impossible, as the Libyan “revolutionary” leaders also did. Given the regime’s brutality, the “revolution” could not win unless the US and allies barred Syrian planes from Syrian airspace, bombed the country, enforced a naval blockade and total economic embargo, seized parts of national territory to provide bases for the rebellion, and shipped arms in massive quantities.”

 How do you make this stuff up Fred? We can talk about Libya another time. We’ll be in somewhat more agreement there, though not if you blame the rebels rather than Gaddafi for the former picking up arms. But for the sake of comparison, regardless of criticisms of the rebel leadership in Libya or otherwise, the fact is that the Libyan rebellion was militarized 2 weeks after the civil uprisings began. NATO intervention began 2 weeks later. Thus 4 weeks for the entire cycle.

 In Syria, the unarmed, civil uprising lasted for about 8 months before it became substantially militarized. I’m trying to imagine even one unarmed protestor being shot dead in a rally in the US or Australia and the screams of “fascist regime” we would be hearing from the left (understandably so, if scientifically inaccurate). Yet when the Syrian masses bare their chests for 8 months to Assad’s machine guns, and his medieval torture chambers, and then finally, finally, begin to respond with arms, and Assad troops begin to desert and use their arms to defend their brothers and sisters instead of killing them, people like Fred apparently think this was merely part of an “orientation” to get imperialism to come in and lead their fight for them.

 And we’re not talking about Assad apologists here, and not about people who I would normally consider to be Orientalists, but rather people like Feldman who ought to know better, feeding us this outright slander about the revolutionary forces, without a scrap of evidence, based on this essentially Orientalist outlook about what people being shot should do, in countries where they ought to be used to it.    

Fred continues:

 “When the imperialists failed to come through as US Secretary of State Clinton had promised (she even offered to put the Free Syrian Army fighters on the federal payroll)”

 Huh? Bibliography?

 “and the Assad regime failed to collapse within “days not weeks” as Obama had promised, this orientation fostered disillusionment and greatly reinforced ever-deepening divisions among the rebels. Even before that, it signaled to one and all; this “revolution” must please the US ruling circles. They were the “hearts and minds” the rebel official leaders were fighting to win.”

 Whatever you imagine Clinton might have said in a rhetorical flourish one day, the attitude of US rulers to the Syrian revolution has been hostile from the outset. One would have to wonder why, if Clinton really said that and meant it, the US has never come through with even a single bullet in 3 years, let alone the “massive quantities” of arms that Fred moralistically accuses them of wanting (imagine wanting that when you’re being slaughtered?); let alone actual imperialist intervention, Libyan-style or otherwise, which has never even been close.

 If it were true that some of the rebels had put all their hopes in a US intervention on their behalf, despite the evidence of relentless US hostility from the outset, Fred might have half a point. Why Fred imagines this to be the case I do not know. I wonder what research he has done.

 The facts of the matter are different in almost every sense. When the US was briefly threatening intervention late August this year, we saw how the bulk of rebels on the ground were opposed; but article after article showed that even those rebels who were tactically in favour, hoping the US would meticulously hit some of Assad’s heavy weaponry so that they could take advantage, were almost to a person mistrustful of anything the US might do, showed no naivety whatsoever about US aims, and their “support” was expressed in nothing other than the most pragmatic terms, of taking advantage of what someone with different interests to them might happen to do.

 The idea that they took up arms with this aim in mind has no support whatsoever from the factual record, and essentially slanders people who bared their chests for 8 months to Assad’s bullets and only took up armed when they saw no other choice.

 It is true that some elements among the exile-based leaderships (like some elements on the ground) have been in favour of some kind of limited US intervention. Even among them it is by no means the robust unanimous “systematic” view that Fred presents at all. And it certainly wasn’t something that manifested itself as early as Fred suggests; in fact the Libyan victory in August 2011 created significant dissension, as many in the exile-based leadership opposed the (spontaneous and inevitable) outbreak of armed struggle on the ground in Syria precisely because they did not want it to lead to foreign intervention, while others opposed armed struggle for exactly the opposite reason, ie, that it would lead to extremism and that this would scare off western backing. It is only natural that these leaderships are more subject to imperialist influence, and less close to the sentiment on the ground. 

 A conversation about the relationship between the armed movement on the ground and the exile-based leaderships from early 2012 demonstrates just how different the reality was from the way Fred presents it. The well-known Harpers article in the northern liberated town of Taftanaz (http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/) has much to recommend it for many reasons, including its excellent look at a liberated town itself, and how armed struggle developed organically from the civil struggle. But after a look at the latter, the article continues:

“Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek (one of the grass-roots FSA fighters in Taftanaz) said Riad al-Asaad (head of the ‘FSA’ exile leadership) had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “ ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’ ”

“When I asked Ibrahim Matar’s commander in Taftanaz (ie, another grass-roots FSA figher) about the FSA (exile) leadership, he answered, “If I ever see those dogs here I’ll shoot them myself.” The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.”

Thus it was the Turkey-based “FSA” leadership, those who “sit and eat and sleep and talk to the media” and are most exposed to the imaginary imperialist conspiracy, who questioned the local FSA’s decision to defend themselves with arms, and they responded with contempt to the suggestion that they should not try to defend their families.

In reality, it took the exile-based Syrian National Congress many months to clearly and unambiguously accept the validity of the armed struggle that had spontaneously broken out on the ground, and relations with the FSA were for along time characterized as tense.

I’ll make a final point about the article. The article shows a significant degree of disillusionment among fighters, for lots of good reasons. I suggest real revolutions are like that, especially when confronted with this extraordinary degree of repression (the article itself notes the savagery of the repression unleashed surprised supporters and opponents alike).

I also suggest that Assad’s strategy in launching such repression was partly to get this result: forcing the civil uprising to take up arms given no other alternatives; knowing that guns would inevitably unleash the sectarian dynamic that already existed in Syrian society (due to Alawite domination of the armed forces and the central regime and Sunni domination among the urban and rural poor), so that it would be easier to slander the movement as sectarian by nature (which happened to suit the Sunni Gulf monarchies as well); and knowing full well that the regime’s overwhelming military superiority would never be challenged because he knew full well the West would not arm a revolution. 

But it is also worth noting the clear class dimension in the article. The disillusionment is mostly among the urban, secular, middle class rebels. I don’t say that to slander them; let’s face it, many of us would be in that boat. These are people who have alternatives, as some of them mention in the article, such as studying abroad. One previously “studied English literature and his family owned apricot orchards,” and now has a visa for Sweden. Who can blame them? Certainly not me. Many had given up everything and all they can see from it is Assad destroying their country with massive doses of conventional WMD for years while the world looks on. The looting and other crimes carried out by some rebel leaders, which also disillusioned the activists, is also hardly surprising in this situation, at least if we are materialists. As materialists we also understand the idea of urbanites getting out if you can. Of course the article also makes clear that none of them would consider returning to the Assad fold. That is only a fantasy of western leftists, for reasons best known to themselves.

But the article also states:

“Because such groups tend to be more vocal, he said, their changed views may be magnified beyond their numbers. Most are urbanites who had little understanding of the conservative poor whose mobilization is the backbone of the insurgency.”

Exactly. And this is the fundamental class dimension. The rural poor – and the urban poor in the vast new suburban rings around Damascus and Aleppo who are their first generation cousins – are those who have nothing to lose, and nowhere to go. And as the article says, they are on the whole more “conservative” – ie, traditionalist, Islamic in a general non-jihadist sense – than the urbanites. Assad’s smashing of the morale of the secular urbanites, the destruction of all these ‘human resources’ building local councils etc as the article states – is part and parcel of smashing the revolution. It is beyond doubt a huge blow (to the extent it has succeeded). But if western very secular leftists don’t understand this class dimension behind the increasing “Islamist” appearance of a large part of the revolution, which is still fighting on strongly, which rejects all imperialist-orchestrated manoevures, whether the threat of US attacks OR the current US dealing with Russia and Assad, then we are not really understanding the process of revolution as it proceeds in the real world, warts and all.  

That of course does not mean we share the politics of the mainstream Islamist leaderships. We are leftists; we certainly don’t share their politics. But this is not a socialist revolution, at least not at this stage. Revolutions in the real world don’t usually start this way either. The Russian revolution of November 1917 was the culmination of a broken 12-year revolutionary process began by a preacher. At this stage a revolution to overthrow a vicious family dictatorship involves not just workers in the narrow sense (and considering that Assad sacked 85,000 workers and closed down a huge percentage of Syrian industry when workers began to move in late 2011, we are not seeing a big narrowly defined “workers’ movement”), but peasants, urban poor in the informal economy, small urban and rural petty bourgeoisie excluded by the “secular” Baathist mega-bourgeoisie etc. Many of the leaderships of the rural and urban poor will come from the more educated or connected urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie, and will express themselves in religious terms.

Thus if we exclude the actually reactionary jihadist fringe (al-Nusra and especially ISIS), these mainstream Islamist movements based among the poor will be a major part of the revolution. Building solidarity with the left, secular and working class forces that fight alongside them in the quest to vanquish the tyranny is the best the western left can do to help such forces balance the more traditionalist forces in the make-up of this stage of the revolution.

Dwelling on “disillusion” and “defeat” and the like is just what the New York Times would prefer you to do.

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