Ghouta: Issues Behind the Apocalypse: Armed and civil rebellion, Class and Islam

Before and after a school used as an underground basementSchool basement used as underground bomb shelter, before and after bombed by Russian airforce on March 20 (Mohammed Abdullah)

By Michael Karadjis

In early April 2011, shortly after the start of the Syrian uprising on March 15, people poured into the streets in Ghouta, peacefully chanting “The people want the fall of the regime.” Watch this video, and see what happened next: this slaughter of peaceful protest throughout Syria continued for the next six months before some citizens began defending their protests with weapons, and some regime troops began to protect their brothers and sisters rather than kill them; thus was formed, organically from the struggle, the Free Syrian Army.

As the Assad regime, backed by Russian terror-bombing, today closes in on rebel-held East Ghouta, where 400,000 reside among the bombed-out ruins of this vast working-class district, it is important to consider what is at stake. As we will see, beyond the stick-figure style analysis in both the mainstream western media and, generally worse, in the woke “alternative” media, that speaks of a battle between the regime and “terrorists” or “militants” holding East Ghouta, the reality is that a powerful civil side to the revolution continues to exist, a Free Syrian Army also continues to exist alongside better-known Islamist brigades, and even the most odious of the Islamist brigades has been unable to completely dominate over the organs of the revolution, including the democratic local councils.

As we will see, what is at stake in the crushing of Ghouta are the hopes and dreams of millions of Syrians to live with basic freedoms without being saddled by one of the world’s most savage dictatorships.

The Assad-Putin Armageddon

Ghouta has been under horrific siege, with every conceivable weapon of mass destruction bar nuclear poured into the region, with an ongoing war against hospitals and medical centres, and with starvation used a key weapon, for some six years. However, the current offensive that began on February 18 is possibly the worst to date.

According to the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), 1678 people were killed in East Ghouta in the four weeks between February 18 and March 17, of whom 91.4 percent were civilians, and 230 were children. By way of comparison, 1462 civilians were slaughtered by Israel in Gaza during the seven-week period of its ‘Operation Protective Edge’ massacre in 2014.

These horrendous figures are consistent with those of other monitoring bodies, for example, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF):

“In the two weeks between the evening of 18 February to the evening of 3 March 2018, the medical data reveals 4,829 wounded and 1,005 dead – or 344 wounded and 71 dead per day. … Two of these facilities have yet to submit data for 3 March, so this is an underestimate. There are many other medical facilities in East Ghouta that are not supported by MSF, so the overall toll is significantly higher.”

If over 1000 killed in two weeks was an underestimate on March 3, by March 17 the MSF figures would be at least as high as those of the VDC, given death tolls of anything up to 100 on many days; for example, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, on March 7 alone, 93 were killed.

The people of Ghouta have been attacked by barrel bombs, cluster bombs, surface-to-surface missiles, napalm, thermobaric bombs, chlorine among an enormous array of killing equipment. MSF reports that “of the 20 hospitals and clinics MSF is supporting, 15 have been hit by bombing or shelling, with varying degrees of damage … Four of the medics MSF supports have been killed and 20 wounded.” This is leaving “the capacity to provide healthcare is in its final throes.”

As much of the Ghouta population hides in underground shelters, the bloodthirsty Russian airforce is now using bunker-busters to penetrate these last havens. On March 20, the Russians bombed an underground school in Arbin, killing 15 children and two women. “They used a rocket which went through 3 floors & exploded in the basement.”

As Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote, rightly noting the whole world’s abandonment, and the loss of all humanity of the so-called “anti-imperialist” left:

“Do you remember how the American bombing of the Ameriyah shelter in Baghdad in 1991 became an image of imperialist evil? Today the Russians hit an underground school turned shelter in the Ghouta. Seventeen corpses have been pulled from the rubble so far. Almost all are women and children. At other times Assad drops chlorine – which is heavy and gathers in basements – to force the people up to the surface. Then Russia incinerates them with napalm. But none of these events will be fixed as images of imperialist evil. Nobody is even noticing.”

Mass starvation has been a weapon of this war since 2013. On 27 October 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, warned that “the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law” and called for access of humanitarian workers to deliver aid to Ghouta. To date, however, the regime has barely allowed in any relief. The first 46-truck relief convoy that was allowed in on March 5 was stripped of 70 percent of its medical supplies by the regime, including trauma kits, surgical kits, insulin and other vital material, according to the World Health Organization.

As Mark Boothroyd writes, “the UN and World Food Programme (WFP) carried out over 257 air drops of food to Deir Ezzour, a regime controlled city in north eastern Syria that was besieged by ISIS from 2015-2017, yet the UN and WFP has carried out zero air drops” to any areas besieged by the regime, including Ghouta, despite the apocalyptic situation.

For those even remotely aware of this “outrageous, relentless mass casualty disaster” as MSF calls it, to continue providing horrific data would be redundant; only the most politically and morally corrupt are pretending otherwise in an effort to make an adversarial name for themselves. For good overall descriptions of the Ghouta conflict, the latest UN Human Rights Council report is a useful start; but the voices of those within Ghouta – for example here and here and here and here and here, or the many voices here, or this collection of voices from the wonderful Karam Foundation – provide a truly genuine account of the daily horror, a far better way of understanding the reality than listening to western-based conspiracist theorists and ritual apologists for murderous dictatorships.

At the same time, certain others who are well-aware of this tragedy draw an equals sign between “two sides” who both kill, focusing on some of the less savoury rebel groups in Ghouta. This article will show why this is an invalid way of looking at Ghouta.

Attacks out of Ghouta

Before moving on however, it is worth noting one valid point often made: the Ghouta rebels also sometimes kill civilians in regime-held Damascus by firing imprecise rockets into the city. According to the UN Human Rights Council report, the numbers killed by rebels in recent months is in the “dozens.” All killing of civilians, whether intentional or unintentional, should be vigorously condemned. Civilians, who include children, are not the enemy, are not responsible for the actions of regimes or of militias. In the spirit of the revolution for freedom against dictatorship, targeting civilians ought to be seen as not only morally wrong but also in fundamental conflict with that spirit.

Nonetheless, it is a hypocrisy of the tallest order when supporters of the Assad regime claim that their slaughter of thousands of civilians is in “defence” against the killing of some dozens by rebels. Chronologically it is sheer nonsense, given the years of siege, slaughter and starvation Ghouta has been subjected to; clearly these desperate acts of firing unguided rockets at Damascus are the misguided attempts at “defence” against the regime’s massacre. Even if the chronology were somewhat grey, it is sensational hypocrisy to accept the killing of thousands of civilians by an airforce and advanced weaponry as “defence” against the killing of dozens, but to not accept the reverse.

In all civil conflicts, civilians get killed on both sides. During Israel’s various Gaza massacres, for example, Hamas has similarly fired imprecise rockets into Israel which have sometimes killed civilians – at a similarly tiny rate compared to the civilians killed by Israel. In most cases of such desperate firing out of a besieged ghetto, supporters of human emancipation, while condemning any attack on civilians, do not put an equals sign between these acts and the systematic crimes of the massively armed oppressor. Not only are the numbers so vastly different, but it is this systematic mass violence that creates the overall atmosphere in which small-scale crimes from the side of the oppressed also take place. It is only in Syria that some who have always understood this have reversed their thinking and adopted “war on terror” justifications for mass killing.

“Terrorists” in Ghouta?

To listen to supporters of the regime, and their echo chamber in the western far-right and alt-left, Ghouta is full of “terrorists”, “al-Qaida” and “head-choppers.”  Therefore, the regime has no choice but to bomb the region into oblivion.

Even many non-supporters of the regime buy into this grotesque propaganda. For example, in a recent exchange, I challenged a supporter of the Rojava Kurdish struggle on his assertion leftists “would be the first to be beheaded” if they were to enter Ghouta. Asking for a single instance of rebel beheading in Ghouta, his response was “Ghouta is full of all these al quaida [sic] and other headchopping organisations.”

On the one hand, even if there were a smidgeon of truth in this, it is difficult to see how anyone on the progressive side of politics could use this to justify this all-out slaughter of the civilian population. Surely this is the kind of argumentation that imperialist invaders and oppressive regimes have always used to justify slaughter. The Assadist justification for the slaughter in Ghouta is identical to the Zionist justification for the slaughter in Gaza, the American justification for Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, the Russian justification for Grozny, the Saudi justification for Yemen, the Turkish justification for its decades-long war on the Kurds in the east, and the list goes on.

This desire to justify the Assad regime by exaggerating the role of reactionary jihadists among the opposition also overlooks the detail that the Assad regime has slaughtered, gassed, starved, raped and tortured at a rate that leaves even the worst jihadists a very distant second. It is equivalent to defending the Nazi invasion of Greece in 1941 on the basis that Greece was then ruled by a dictatorship.

That said, there is no truth in these assertions whatsoever; the essentialist, racist labelling of a whole population as “head-choppers” is based on nothing other than prejudice.

The horrific practice of head-chopping is in fact an ISIS specialty; no rebel groups in Syria, not even the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS, practice this method of killing. The only people who believe that ISIS is in Ghouta are those lacking the most elementary knowledge of the Syrian situation. When ISIS has come anywhere near Damascus, it has been decisively chased away by the Damascus rebels. This video, showing the way the Ghouta-based militia Jaysh al-Islam (JaI) deals with ISIS captives reveals a very brutal streak in JaI practice; even though the captives are ISIS, this action should be condemned. But it leaves no illusions that they have anything to do with ISIS.

The only other major force in Syria that practices beheading at times is the Assad regime, or otherwise similar acts such as cutting bodies into several pieces, but this is just run-of-the-mill activity for a regime which excels in horrific tortures and mutilations in its gulag.

If admitted that there is no ISIS, the accusation is that the Ghouta rebels are “al-Qaida”. By this they mean HTS, whose main component group, JFS, used to be Jabhat al-Nusra, then the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. JFS severed links with al-Qaida a year and a half ago, but remains a deeply reactionary, Sunni-sectarian organisation, which the rebels will need to deal with in their own time, such as when they do not need to fight for survival against an infinitely more murderous regime and invading imperialist powers.

In any case, no serious analyst believes there are more than a few hundred HTS fighters out of the twenty thousand or so fighters in Ghouta.

But even many of those who concede that the HTS presence is tiny note that one of the main rebel militia in Ghouta, Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), is just as bad. JaI certainly has a reactionary leadership, though it is a homegrown Islamist group with no links to global terrorism. But just who the other rebels are in East Ghouta, what the role of JaI is, how much power these rebel military formations have over the populations, who the civil resistance is, and what the term ‘revolution’ means in this context, are important questions if we want to go beyond a superficial analysis that says that “bad guys” run both sides of Damascus – as if the aim of the uprising were to place the JaI leader on the throne in Damascus.

Who are the rebels?

So, who are the rebel groups holding out in East Ghouta? There are two major rebel brigades, and a scattering of smaller groups. The two major forces are:

Jaysh al-Islam (‘Army of Islam’), a Salafist-led brigade formed in 2011 by Zahran Alloush, the son of a Saudi-based preacher, dominates the eastern-most region of East Ghouta, particularly the suburb of Douma. It is thought to have around 10,000 fighters or slightly higher. For a time Alloush specialised in very sectarian and anti-democratic language, but in the period before he was assassinated by a Russian airstrike, he had moderated much of this. JaI also engages in repressive practices against opposition. The famous Douma Four revolutionary activists – Razan Zeitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil, Wael Hammadeh and Nazem Hammadi – were kidnapped in late 2013 and have not been heard from since. Family and friends believe JaI was responsible; it denies the charge, but evidence strongly points towards its responsibility.

JaI’s unsavoury character is often cited not only by those justifying Assadist genocide against the Ghouta population, but also by many who condemn the regime’s slaughter of civilians. They say the presence of this militia indicates that we are not dealing with any revolutionary process in Ghouta; it is just a sectarian war where one side happens to be in a far more powerful position to carry out its murderous designs than the other. This omits the broader question of the relationship between these militias and the civil opposition and the people in a revolutionary situation, which will be examined below; but even on the level of armed militias, it leaves out the other most powerful brigade in Ghouta:

Faylaq al-Rahman (‘Rahman Brigade’), a large FSA military coalition, dominates the western side of Ghouta, closer to regime-held Syria, with some 8-9000 troops. FaR has clashed with JaI numerous times in the last few years, usually due to the latter’s attempts to dominate the region. Most of the big battles against the regime over the last year and a half have been led by FaR, including the big battles linking Jobar and Qaboun early last year, and in Harasta late last year. FaR is led by SAA defector Captain Abd al-Nasr Shmeir, who claims to be fighting for a non-sectarian future for Syria, stating he defected from the SAA in order to protect the people and “because he seeks a Syria that does not serve one sect.” FaR advocates a civil, democratic state.

It was formed in November 2013, as a fusion of several FSA brigades, including Shmeir’s original Liwa al-Bara, consisting of defecting SAA troops in Douma; then the FSA 1st Brigade based in Qaboun and Tishren districts, and the soft-Islamist Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, both fused into FaR in 2016. The latter was itself formed in November 2013, from five Islamist brigades, on the basis of a more moderate interpretation of Islam in line with traditional Damascene Islam, as an explicit rejection of JaI’s increasingly hard-line stance; Ajnad al-Sham makes explicit its goal of protecting minorities.

While JaI’s sectarian stance is often highlighted, neither the mainstream nor the woke “alternative” media note the opposite stances of the other major armed brigade in Ghouta. During last year’s offensive in Jobar and Qaboun, the FSA, and Faylaq al-Rahman itself, released statements declaring their commitment to “all laws of war”, specifically, avoiding civilians “of all religions and sects”, avoiding touching any places of worship or their “symbols” with “direct or indirect fire”, fair treatment of prisoners and the bodies of the dead “without insulting or abusing them” and working to secure and protect “medical personnel, civil defense crews and all humanitarian aid and media groups.”

Two minor brigades are the local branches of Ahrar al-Sham, which controls the suburb of Harasta and has about 1000 fighters, and of HTS, which has several hundred fighters. Ahrar al-Sham fought alongside FaR in the big battles against the regime last year, when JaI was little involved. HTS has been in conflict with both JaI and FaR.

Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army site lists about half a dozen smaller FSA brigades as having a presence in the Damascus region; and the site ‘Understanding War’ names several dozen FSA brigades in Damascus province, but many are based outside of the city.

In response to the spurious attempt to justify this latest massacre on an “al-Qaida” presence, Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham offered to expel HTS’s small presence there, evacuating them within 15 days, in exchange for full implementation of the UNSC’s ceasefire resolution, a full end to bombing and full access to humanitarian aid. FaR spokesperson, Wael Olwan, last year offered to expel HTS to Idlib, but claims “the Russians did not let the evacuation happen.”

The question of arms and alleged foreign support

In the Assadist disinformation war, a common piece of discourse states that in Ghouta Assad is fighting a “US- and Saudi-armed terrorist insurgency at the gates of the capital,” often padded out with ironic statements calling JaI “moderate rebels.” Since those defending this genocide have no argument, they rely on such complete red-herrings.

The US has never provided arms to the Damascus brigades, and especially not to Jaysh al-Islam. The assertion of any US arming is just a bald-faced lie. Nor has the US, or any western government or media ever referred to JaI as “moderate” rebels, a label only ever used to refer to non-Islamist groups dedicated to a civil state (JaI’s main rival, the FSA Faylaq al-Rahman, could very deservedly be awarded this title). indeed US Defence Secretary John Kerry even referred to JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. These Assadist attempts at irony are therefore simply stupid.

According to the pro-opposition news site Qasioun, the US recently warned the FSA Southern Front against attempting to end its ceasefire with the regime to help Ghouta. For anyone who understands why the once mighty Southern Front, with its 35,000 fighters, has effectively been at peace with the regime for two years, this should come as no surprise. It is well-known that the US imposed a number of “red-lines” on the Southern Front back in 2015, one of which was not to advance towards Damascus (one source even claimed the US threatened them with airstrikes if they did); soon after, all supplies to the Southern Front from regional states through the Jordan-based Military Operations Centre (MOC) dried up. The SF was informed that the US would only allow these (mainly the Saudis) to continue sending arms via the MOC if they fought ISIS only, and specifically not the regime (full details here).

Given the geographic isolation of the Damascus suburbs, the prevention of the SF – whose Daraa-based territories border on Jordan – from linking up with them could hardly be more counterrevolutionary; in late 2016, this led to the fall of the iconic revolutionary centres in south-west Damascus, Darayya and Moadamiya.

Trump could hardly make things clearer in any case, announcing in March, in the middle of one of the worst Assadist sieges in the war, that the only US interest in Syria is “to get rid of ISIS, and to go home.”

The question of Saudi support is more complex. Media reports often refer to JaI as “Saudi-backed” (and of FaR as “Qatari-backed) as a matter of course; a discerning reader would notice the complete absence of any attempt to back up these assertions with a shred of evidence. A google search on Saudi support to JaI will turn up a number of articles, all of which were from around October 2013. Even these articles provide precious little evidence of Saudi arms; rather, they claim that the conversion of Alloush’s former Liwa al-Islam (Islam Brigade) into Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) was a Saudi-backed manoeuvre attempting to curb the growing influence of the extremely anti-Saudi Jabhat al-Nusra.

JaI denies ever receiving Saudi weapons. In 2016, JaI spokesman Captain Islam Alloush, stated that “we in Jaish al-Islam have not received any Saudi military or logistic support. As far as we know, Saudi Arabia is involved in military support only through the international cooperation rooms, which in turn do not support Jaysh al-Islam.” “International cooperation rooms” means the MOC; it is true that Saudi support has gone through the MOC, and that the MOC has only ever armed the Southern Front (and even this has often been blocked by the US), and never sent anything to JaI. If there has been any Saudi support beyond the MOC, it has left no trails. In any case, JaI, despite its change to a more grandiose name, remains almost entirely based in Ghouta, which is encircled; the Saudis would need to fly in weapons to arm JaI.

It is also worth noting that, despite the common association with Saudi Arabia, largely due to the fact that Zahran Alloush’s father is a Saudi-based preacher, JaI and the Saudis have often been sharply at odds politically.[1]

Where then does JaI get its arms? In fact, apart from arms seizures from battle, both JaI and FaR have the advantage of operating in heavily industrial Ghouta, full of little workshops, where they have become very proficient at making the largely primitive arms they overwhelmingly possess, giving them a degree of independence of foreign backers. On the other hand, JaI’s power has almost certainly been boosted by finance from the Gulf, from mostly private Islamist sources in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, rather than any regime.

Class and the uprising in the Damascus ‘suburbs’

If the above sketch of the armed formations shows that that they are not all Jaysh al-Islam, or not even all Islamist, nevertheless a major Islamist component of the uprising exists in Ghouta, as elsewhere in Syria. For many western observers, it seems that Islamists come from Mars, or from anywhere but Syria; or at least it indicates the influence of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Gulf-based Islamist networks. While some of these factors have had influence, these explanations avoid the most important place to look for a powerful, if relatively moderate, Islamist component to the uprising, armed and unarmed: Syria.

The “Damascus suburbs” which ring the east and south of the city – East Ghouta, including Douma, Harasta, Hamouriya, Saqba, Zamalka, Jobar, and further south towns such as Moadamiya and Darayya – have been major sites of the Syrian revolution from the beginning, under full control of opposition councils since 2012.

While the revolution always had a strong component of students, teachers, intellectuals, artists and other urban-based middle-class activists, alongside a heavily rural- and poor provincial-based uprising, the real motor was where the urban and rural worlds of Syria intersect: in the newer working class and poor suburbs and shanty-towns surrounding Damascus (and in east Aleppo city, crushed by Assad a year ago after five years under opposition control), composed of hundreds of thousands of relatively recent rural immigrants from the countryside.

Bashar Assad’s neo-liberalisation of the economy in the last decade before 2011 brought the political demand for democracy and the economic issues of the poor together to form a highly combustible revolutionary mix. As these policies facilitated the growth of an “obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie,” according to Syrian intellectual and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh, especially around the Assad family and its cronies, like Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf who controls some 60% of the economy through his holding companies, at the other end they impoverished the already poor. From the countryside – where peasants had benefited from the Baathist land reforms of the early 1960s – a vast human wave of poor peasants uprooted by these policies fled to the outskirts of the big cities and formed these vast semi-urban, semi-rural slums and shantytowns.

The class divide between regime and revolution was striking in both Damascus and Aleppo. Qadri Jamil, a former minister in Assad’s government who was one of his left window-dressers until sacked in 2013, claims to have long believed that Assad’s economic liberalisation would “lead to a social explosion,” noting it had left “44 percent of Syrians in poverty, and raised unemployment levels to 20 percent.” These policies, he claims, “destroyed local producers in places like the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka, Harasta and Doumanow centers of opposition” — while enriching the new elite. “All those towns whose names we are hearing now are similar to Detroit in America, so how one cannot expect to have resentments in their circles?”

By contrast, the central Damascus bourgeoisie and upper middle classes are of course the base of the Assadist regime – though countless others in central Damascus who don’t entirely belong to either “world” chafe under the totalitarian rule of the regime, including many with secret sympathies for the people of Ghouta, because that is the only place to be safe from Assad’s bombs, missiles, napalm, poison gas and starvation siege.

The division in Aleppo between regime and former opposition-controlled regions was a similar study in sociology. As a Syrian exile wrote who returned to her city:

“Aleppo today is cut in two distinct halves, as was Beirut. Whereas Beirut was divided along confessional lines, social classes separate the two Aleppos. In the East the Free Syrian Army rules over the poor, working-class neighbourhoods; in the West the regime controls the middle class and bourgeois parts of town.”

Islam, Class and Revolution

How does this relate to the question of Islam? Basically, at least some degree of ‘Islamism’ simply represents the traditional conservatism of the countryside and its reflection among the rural immigrants living in the regions ringing the cities. They were never “secular” in the sense of the Assadist elite; official state “secularism”, and the relatively middle-class lifestyle that went with it, was limited by the savage class structure of Assadist Syria. So while Qatar and Turkey tended to support many soft-Islamist brigades (though also FSA brigades) via their Muslim Brotherhood networks, it is important to understand that a certain level of mild political Islam was always going to be part of the mix, just as it is in Palestine with Hamas, in Iraq during the resistance to US occupation, and throughout the Middle East.

To help us understand this, this video shows us a protest by 500 women in Douma, all in veils, protesting when Assad’s security forces detained and tortured children and teenagers early in 2011. Many of these women had never before left their houses alone, but came out into the streets to demand their release. One of them explained (see video at 19.04 – 20.20):

“Sometimes I feel like a man working among men. There’s no more differentiation between men and women in Douma. On the contrary. Men now let women take care of the injured because they know better how to deal with them.”

While this may seem little from the perspective of western feminism, for the traditional Muslim women involved this was an important step; unless we understand the movement of real people where they are at, western observers are merely playing with concepts of “revolution,” or for that matter, women’s liberation.

These are the ordinary people who made the revolution. As Sam Hamad puts it: “Syrians are bearded Muslims. They are hijab-wearing women. They are in general quite poor and haven’t had access to western-style education. They aren’t all liberals and photogenic Good Arabs. Sorry. This belief obscures everything and reflects an internalised racism and Islamophobia. For the majority of the population, like Egyptians or Jordanians or Tunisians etc., their default point of orientation in life, coexisting with other points of belief, is their faith.”

Now, all that said, this does not entirely explain the presence of a particularly odious character in the form of Zahran Alloush, the late leader of Jaysh al-Islam. Some of these Islamist formations are strikingly moderate and committed to a civil state, while others are more hard-line, and JaI, though furiously anti-ISIS, is generally seen as on the hard-line end. But here’s where conjunctural factors come in. JaI was not set up as a cadre-based ‘jihadist’ group like Nusra (or even Ahrar al-Sham in its early years), with chapters all over the country dedicated to a particular system of thought; rather, it arose as a genuine anti-dictatorship movement based in the traditionalist working class region of Douma. One reason it ended up with someone like Alloush at its head was that Assad released Alloush, along with 1000 other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests and tortures was taken up by people like Alloush, who also had connections among Gulf Islamist circles.

Moreover, just as the most traditionalist areas tended be more ‘Islamist’, after the war began the most devastated areas were going to tend towards radicalisation. As a Palestinian friend in Sydney put it, this is the same reason Hamas is in Gaza, whereas Fatah is in relatively more comfortable (by occupation standards) in Ramallah; in similar vein, JaI arose in Douma, a kind of Syrian Gaza, except where Assad’s version of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ goes on for years instead of weeks, an obvious breeding ground for more radical politics. While the current siege reaches cataclysmic proportions, mass killing and starvation has been the staple all along; for example, regime shelling killed 250 people in Douma in February 2015 alone, then on just one day, March 15, 83 were killed; in virtually any period over these years similar figures could be pulled out. As Gaza shows, reducing a slum to smashed up ruins 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.

The question of Jaysh al-Islam’s sectarianism

More significant than the extent of JaI’s ‘radical’ evolution was the vocal sectarianism of its leadership. Alloush made his most famous sectarian rant, promising to “cleanse” Damascus of Shiites and Alawites, in September 2013. More than any other speech or action in Syria outside the realms of Jabhat al-Nusra, this particular speech, coming from an Islamist with generally friendly relations to the mainstream opposition, was of almost decisive importance in helping cement the sectarian divide that Assad had deliberately and cunningly created; most Alawites who may have been hedging their bets, especially in the Damascus region, would likely have resigned themselves to putting up with Assad.

Alloush made this speech soon after the most devastating event Ghouta has suffered: Assad’s sarin massacre in August that year, just weeks earlier, which killed 1400 people, above all children, in various suburbs throughout Ghouta. While this hardly justifies a speech that virtually re-labels the democratic struggle as a sectarian war, context is hardly irrelevant: where a people are being literally smashed to pieces and starved to death by an Alawite-dominated military, which then uses chemical weapons and is granted licence by the world, the emergence of anti-Alawi sectarianism is surely no mystery. This was made worse a few months earlier, with the mass entry of Hezbollah into the war on Assad’s side, when this Lebanese Shiite-communalist militia played the decisive role in besieging, conquering, destroying and “cleansing” the strategic rebel-held Sunni town of Qaysar, in June 2013. Alloush’s appalling statements reflected a rise in Sunni sectarianism in the context of this onset of the invasion by the Shiite-sectarian international, of Nasrallah’s sectarian war.

A year and a half later, however, Alloush publicly retracted these views. Regarding co-existence with minorities, he said this has always been the situation in Syria, and “we are not seeking to impose our power on minorities, or to practice oppression against them”, including the Alawites who are “part of the Syrian people.” Alloush claimed his earlier statements were due to the pressure he lived under in Ghouta: “We are under siege. We all suffer psychological stress. When I was in prison and the jailer would come and torture prisoners, after he would leave prisoners would quarrel and beat each other.” Regarding democracy, which he had previously denounced, he claimed that if they succeed in toppling the regime, “we will leave it to the people to choose what form of state it wants.” In another interview later in 2015, he again said that Alawites “are not our enemy, they are victims of the regime.”

Of course, the damage had already been done, given that the damage was political, not that Alloush’s loud noises from the ghetto ever had any reality. We also have no way of knowing if this reincarnation was genuine. But the issue is not the personal honesty or otherwise of one individual, now dead; even when he was alive, the issue posed was never of Alloush taking Assad’s place on the throne. Nor was it ever an issue of JaI having the military capability to overrun central Damascus, still less the distant Alawite coast, to be able to carry out Alloush’s threats; to harbour such fantasies would be equivalent to imagining that Hamas may one day win a military struggle with Israel and rule over Jews in Tel Aviv.

Rather, the issue is that, regardless of the reason for this change, JaI was never Nusra, ie, was never a militia whose existence was defined by an ultra-sectarian ideology. As a vehicle for the local people to resist Assad’s attacks with arms, carrying out a sectarian war on Alawites had nothing to do with the reasons thousands joined the group. As one civil activist in Douma, hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around. Two years ago, we went from a partial siege to a total siege. The bombardments come from the heights of Ghouta Valley, and these missiles condition our daily life. The fighters are not all Salafists, or, rather, they are Salafists by circumstance.” As such, an idiosyncratic leader could flip this way or that without it changing much on the ground.

Jaysh al-Islam, repression and civil resistance

Actually, JaI is more a danger to the local Sunni population and the democratic revolutionaries of Ghouta than to out-of-touch Alawites; the disappearance of the Douma Four revolutionaries is a good example. Yet it should not be forgotten that before disappearing, these four were leaders of the fight against the Assad regime; whatever they may have thought of JaI, it already held the same powerful position in parts of Ghouta that it does today (indeed, the Violations Documentation Centre, which they had set up, was not shy about also reporting rebel violations). Moreover, since their disappearance, thousands of other democratic revolutionaries still continue to operate in various ways (as we will show below), including those who consider themselves the continuers of their work, often called the “Razan Zeitouneh network,” around the Local Coordinating Committee they had built, including the Violations Documentation Centre, the Douma Women’s Protection Centre and various health and educational activities. One such activist, named Hani, notes that the armed brigades cannot override Ghouta’s social dynamics: “… the women in the Razan network don’t give up. These types [eg, Alloush] are the new local despots. But they are not Bashar’s murderous forces.”

JaI, in other words, may often try to use repressive means, but it is limited by the very revolution all around it of which it is part, however deformed. Even JaI’s denial that it was involved in the disappearance of the four activists, and the secretive nature of the entire episode, reflects the fact that association with crimes against such outstanding revolutionaries would be met with rejection among the revolutionary masses. A comparison with the Assad regime’s practice of returning tortured and mutilated corpses of relatives, even children, to families following time in its dungeons is indicative of the contrast; the regime’s aim is precisely to terrorise, seeing, quite rightly, the mass of people as its enemies.

As a result, we have continually seen large demonstrations in Ghouta against JaI, and in the majority of cases, JaI forces do not attempt to repress them, though there certainly have been exceptions; and people also protest these attempts at repression. At times, JaI has also faced demonstrations against high prices caused by its alleged corruption and profiteering, such as the “hunger demonstrations” of late 2014. At this time, Douma residents also attacked the storage units of merchants who dominate the local food distribution business, and they identified Jaysh Islam with these merchants, in a particularly notable example of both the class nature of such “Islamist” leaderships and of the kind of “uninterrupted” revolutionary struggle that could result if the regime is ejected and the people are not dependent on the armed groups for elementary protection against the greater enemy. At the time, JaI guards did fire live ammunition at the rioters, but they fired back, and Ghouta’s Unified Judicial Council issued a statement warning against these JaI-backed “monopolists,” calling them “blood dealers” and partners of the regime in the siege on Ghouta. The council gave them a week to put the goods on the market at their previous prices. When someone then attempted to poison council members, the council made no bones about pointing the finger at JaI.

This back and forth between the dominant armed group, the people in the streets, and the Ghouta local council reveals a dynamic different to that pictured not only by enemies of the revolution, but also by some of its well-intentioned supporters, who condemn Assad’s slaughter of civilians but tend to see the Islamist hijacking of the revolution as a completed dead end. The reality of Ghouta is far greater than that of the armed groups that arose to defend it.

Ironically, this complexity has even been shown at times of some of JaI’s worst actions. On November 1, 2015, following a period of some of the most horrific bombing of the entire war, JaI attempted to force a pause in the bombing by publicly parading SAA prisoners of war, and their civilian wives and adult family members, in cages atop the backs of trucks, which were placed in public streets and squares in the city.

This followed an October 30 regime bombing of Douma, which killed at least 70 people and wounded 550, a mere spike within the daily slaughter. Earlier, on August 16, 112 were killed in the one day, again with some 550 wounded civilians, 40 percent of them children. The desire to do anything to protect local civilians form this daily devastation is more than understandable; the hypocrisy of those who condemn JaI’s action but not the regime’s mass killing, is beyond words available in the English language. That said, the use of prisoners in such a demeaning way – especially the civilians – was condemned by almost all pro-revolution activists, and organisations, and by most of the very people of Douma being battered by regime airstrikes.

According to the news site Syria Deeply, while opinions in Ghouta “varied drastically,” everyone they spoke to “agreed that the women and children should be immediately released ‘because Jaish al-Islam shouldn’t act like the regime’.” Moreover, “all of the sources” they spoke with “confirmed that cages were paraded around the city for two hours, before residents of the city convinced Jaish al-Islam militants to return the captives to their standard holdings.”

Needless to say, the damage had been done, with global focus on “caging people” rather than slaughtering them, and the revolution seen to demean itself as it demeaned civilians, but the point here is not to defend JaI; rather, to note again that its susceptibility to popular pressure.

This dynamic was revealed in an even more significant way in March 2017, when Jaysh al-Islam closed the ‘Rising for Freedom‘ Magazine, after some protestors stormed its office when it published an article which they deemed “blasphemous.” Taking advantage of this situation, JaI also banned five other local NGOs, none of which were connected to the magazine, including the Violations Documentation Center, The Day After: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria, Local Development and Small-Projects Support, and the Hurras Network for Child Protection, while even the LCC was allegedly ordered to cease operations. Eleven other local organisations joined the five in condemning the crackdown.

While this may have looked like the end of local democracy, several days later the judicial committee of Douma ordered the re-opening of all five organisations. Unfortunately, it maintained the closure of the magazine pending the court hearing, but protestors prevented the arrest of magazine staff. To compare JaI’s rule to Assad’s on the basis of this unsuccessful attempt to ban these organisations would be inherently self-defeating, since no such organisations would be allowed to exist in the first place under the Assad regime; their leaders would be in Assad’s torture archipelago.

The episode once again indicated the very complex nature of the relationship between armed militias formed out of crisis response to regime terror, the ongoing civil side of the uprising and its elected bodies, and the local population itself. At this point, it would be worth reviewing the main aspects of this civil resistance.

Elected Local Councils and Civil Opposition in Ghouta

Douma’s revolutionary democratic council was one of the earliest to rise to the task of running the region free of the Assadist regime, when the latter withdrew in October 2012. The Douma council has 19 offices, dealing with “water and electricity, health and education, agriculture, legal affairs, civil records, sanitation, subsidies, women’s affairs, employment, media and the cemetery.” After JaI took control of religious affairs in November 2014, it tried to also take control of the council, but soon gave up. “They knew they would fail if they put their sheikhs in charge,” says Taha, a then council member, who says most of the council’s members “are technocrats: engineers, lawyers, members of civil society.”

The council also became the location for the headquarters of the National Assembly of the Forces of the Revolution in East Ghouta, “a broad movement of political activists, civilians and rebels from 58 urban centres in the area with the purpose of creating a unified council for the entire East Ghouta region.”

While the council was originally formed by local consensus, given the difficulties of holding elections in a war-zone and the necessity of immediate administration, this gave way to elections which have become more democratic over time. A Supervisory Electoral Commission created by the National Assembly organised council elections in January 2014, electing 25 council members. These first elections were from general assemblies of the local communities, with some 26 local councils across Ghouta operating. The next step was to move on to full popular elections by secret ballot. The first such election took place in Arbin district in January 2016, followed by similar elections in Douma, al-Malihah, al-Abbadeh and Saqba during 2017.

According to the elected president of the local Saqba council, Mr. Yasser Obeed, election officials “were keen to ensure the necessary environment for voters, such as secret rooms and the prevention of outside influences that might change voters’ opinions. In addition, the stages of the elections were subject to oversight from the ballot, to the counting of votes, and to the final statistical process.” According to Robin Yassin-Kassab, in the Ghouta elections, militia leaders were not allowed to stand, though fighters were, but none were elected.

The 2017 elections were also notable for the participation of women. “For the first time since the start of the revolution, female candidates formed coalitions, fund-raised and campaigned among the people,” resulting in the nomination of 14 women for the educational, medical, economic and engineering sectors.

This participation of women, despite the presence of Salafist militias like JaI, was helped along by the widespread activities of civil society. “During 2016 and 2017, a number of activities were carried out in the city of Douma to empower women in the fields of education and work. This included activities by The Day After organization, which held forums and lectures on political diversity for women,” despite the site of the activities sometimes being subject to attack and the organisers being beaten. Another organisation, Women Now for Development, which provides opportunities for women to work on their own projects,” also conducted workshops on women’s rights which they believe contributed to increased women’s participation in the elections.  Indeed, given the anti-woman politics of most Islamist groups, the large-scale participation of women in organsing the anti-Assad resistance in East Ghouta is outstanding.

Some 70 civil society organizations operate in East Ghouta, in sectors “including women empowerment, child care and protection, relief, skills training, advocacy, associative action, etc,” a part of the revolution related to, but separate from, the councils. These organisations are related to the entire network of civil society built up by people like Razan Zeitouneh around the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which also organise anti-regime demonstrations and disseminate information about the revolution. At the Douma Women’s Protection Center, which she founded, over 300 women regularly distribute survival baskets; a member of the network named Madj recounts being involved in the creation of seven educational centers, which serve 200 to 250 children. These are just a few of the great range of activities taking place in Free Ghouta, despite the almost impossible situation of endless mass killing by the regime.

In the midst of this furious slaughter today, civil society organizations, activists, and leaders released a statement on March 18 demanding the UN and international community take action to save lives in Ghouta, to protect civil and humanitarian agencies and for the civil bloc to be included as a negotiating party. These people have stayed to the end. They are not staying to protect JaI, or because JaI is “using them as human shields”, the accusation used by every imperialist and oppressor regime as it rains death on civilians. On the contrary, the only reason the civilian population has put up with the likes of JaI is due to the desperate needs of defence against the tyrannical regime, but the civil society bloc speaks with its own voice.

A momentary aside in Idlib …

Before concluding, it is important to note that all the same caveats about the relationship between armed militias (whether HTS, Islamist or FSA), civil uprising and councils, and the revolutionary people applies to the other large region still under the control of the revolution, Idlib province and neighbouring parts of south and west Aleppo and northern Hama – also under devastating attack earlier this year. And that is despite the larger role played there by HTS, and its anti-democratic practices, including kidnappings, killings and torture of other oppositionists.

In fact, revolution-held towns such as Maraat al-Nuuman, Saraqeb, Karanbel, Atareb and others have continually resisted encroachment by HTS (and precisely such towns have been continually bombed by Assad and Russia). Meanwhile, local council elections were held in Idlib in early 2017 despite the HTS presence; and by this time, HTS rule itself had softened notably, including in terms of social restrictions, under the impact of popular pressure. In mid-2017, however, HTS was able to defeat its main rival, Ahrar al-Sham, but this had more to do with many town councils and FSA brigades not seeing Ahrar as their representative, and making separate deals for HTS to keep away; and some of this may have been due to lost credibility when Ahrar did not take part in the spring offensive against the regime in Hama (which both HTS and FSA brigades led), in turn related to Ahrar’s dependence on Turkey and the new geopolitical game Erdogan was playing with Putin. However, as this very victory then encouraged HTS’s tendency to act oppressively, the people continued to resist it in a great variety of ways; and their demonstrations are generally tolerated by HTS. Moreover, with a new offensive led by Ahrar al-Sham against HTS in early 2018, local people, regardless of their views on Ahrar, have seized the opportunity to throw off HTS rule; it has been driven out of some 30 towns across the province.

Once again, therefore, the defence of Greater Idlib against Assad must not be seen as a defence of HTS, or of the armed brigades in general, but of the people’s revolution.

The loss of Ghouta: A huge loss to democratic prospects

Therefore, Assad’s likely military crushing of Ghouta will represent a massive blow against the democratic aspirations of Syrians trying to resist the full re-imposition of tyranny; the stakes are far bigger than the defeat of some Islamist militia.

But the stakes are bigger also than the survival of Ghouta itself. One propaganda device of the pro-Assad camp is to depict this struggle as a defence of the people of central Damascus, and the Alawites of the even more distant Mediterranean coast, from being overrun by armed Ghouta-based brigades like JaI. Apart from the reality of defence being the other way around, the problem with this is that it depicts all-or-nothing military victory by one side or another to be the issue, a flagrantly dishonest portrayal of the struggle.

At least since 2012-13, no serious observer has considered a sweeping military victory of the armed opposition even remotely likely; as stated above, the likelihood of JaI “coming to power” in Damascus, given military realities, is equivalent to that of Hamas “coming to power” in Tel Aviv. What then is the military struggle about, apart from the obvious desire of people in rebel-held pockets to not be ruled by Assad?

For Assad to be overthrown by a full-scale revolutionary uprising, armed or unarmed, would have required the armed and unarmed opposition to have had the political capacity to win a decisive part of the Alawite minority away from the regime, to the perspective of a democratic, non-sectarian revolutionary solution. Despite the democratic and anti-sectarian slogans of the early uprising, Assad’s militarisation of the revolution inevitably led to deepening sectarian fissures among the people; bloodshed has that effect, even aside from the fact that Assad’s massacres also had a deliberate sectarian nature. The rise of organisations such as Nusra, and vile statements such as those of Alloush in 2013, closed the immediate possibility of such a united, nation-wide insurrection against Assad. While civil oppositionists, FSA brigades and the exile-based opposition leadership continued to issue democratic and anti-sectarian statements, this would have needed to be daily shouted from the rooftops to counter the actual trends that had taken hold due to Assad’s war.

This left two possible ways of ending the conflict: military or political. But Assad plunged the country into military conflict not only to poison the political atmosphere, but also because as long as the struggle was purely military, his regime could not lose: the regime’s overwhelming military superiority could never be broken. Even if the West and regional states had properly armed the FSA – for example with the needed anti-aircraft weapons that in fact the US went out of its way to block – that would not have resulted in military parity; it would simply have allowed the rebels to hold onto their own territory without all this civilian slaughter, and to advance into areas where they had a natural support base (eg more of Daraa, Hama and Homs provinces); anti-air weapons would not have helped the rebels conquer regions where the regime had its support base, such as central Damascus, western Aleppo, Tartous or Latakia.

In fact, all major actors, both regime (officially if not in practice) and opposition (except Nusra) and all regional and global actors have been committed to some form of “political solution” since the Geneva process began in 2012. This has always been understood to involve a ‘transitional’ administration replacing the Assad regime, including mutually agreed upon members of the opposition and of the regime, tasked with organising free elections. From the opposition’s standpoint, this would exclude Assad and his immediate circle of mass murderers; from that of regime supporters and religious minorities, it would exclude jihadists and sectarians.

In all joint declarations of the Syrian opposition – political, military and civil – including the ‘Islamist’ brigades (including JaI), the form of state envisaged following the transition is “a democratic pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian society, with women playing an important role and with no discrimination against people regardless of their religious, denominational or ethnic backgrounds.” In 2016, he opposition Higher Negotiations Committee added that women must be represented “in all entities and institutions to be formed at a rate of 30 percent” while stressing that “the Kurdish cause shall be considered a national Syrian cause and action shall be taken to ensure their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural rights in the constitution.”

However, ceasefires, political arrangements and elections do not necessarily guarantee great steps forward for the people’s revolutionary dreams; this depends on the content of such stages. For the best outcome, the military balance on the ground is a decisive factor: it is the difference between a transitional political arrangement in which the opposition can demand the release of political prisoners, the end of sieges, be able to keep their weapons, to provide security and democratic governance to the areas they continue to control during the transition, and be able to hold meetings and demonstrations without being shot at, compared to one in which the regime is able to deny these basics: in other words, the difference between a ceasefire that leaves the door open to non-military revolutionary possibilities, and one that slams it fully shut, an Assadist regime without Assad – the preferred model of the imperialist powers and regional dictators (and they no longer insist even on the “without Assad” part).

Therefore, the crushing of Ghouta is not only a setback for democratic governance in Ghouta itself, but for the optimum balance of forces required for the future revival and success of the civil democratic revolutionary movement throughout Syria.

What can we do?

Many supporters of the Syrian people have advocated action such as dropping food and supplies to the besieged people, boycotting Russian airlines, or the coming World Cup in Russia, trying to get anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels, a No Fly Zone, or other ideas. The complete disinterest of the “international community” in adopting even the least militaristic approaches – especially that of dropping food as they did in Deir Ezzor – should make clear enough what has been blatantly obvious for seven years: the western imperialist agenda has been for the crushing of the Syrian revolution, just via a different tactical approach to that of the Russian imperialist mass murder machine. While people should continue to take solidarity actions as long as the unbelievably steadfast people continue to resist, the military crushing of most of Ghouta is probably a matter of time.

Given the irrelevance, when not outright malevolence, of a large part of the western political left on the question of Syria (despite many honourable exceptions) – many having formed an alliance with the fascistic, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist far-right on this question – it is probably most helpful at this stage to support organisations more relevant to the cause of human emancipation today who are aiding the battered people in various exemplary ways:

Karam Foundation: https://www.karamfoundation.org/eastern-ghouta/

Syria Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’): https://www.whitehelmets.org/en

Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org.au/ghouta-massacre/?a1=0&a2=0&a3=0&cn=trd&mc=click&pli=23501514&PluID=0&ord={timestamp}&gclid=CjwKCAjwnLjVBRAdEiwAKSGPIyxZL7kefZMWQVpIDu2YpVNEv_84MCLO6j5oc9fHA6xUklvkYqxxjBoCNksQAvD_BwE

Syria Relief: https://www.syriarelief.org.uk/news/starved-once-again-ghoutta/

Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders): http://www.msf.org.au/syria

UNHCR: https://donate.unhcr.org/gb-en/syria

Endnotes

[1] For example, Saudi Arabia was angry with the US for not attacking Syria in August 2013 following Assad’s chemical massacre; JaI, like all Islamist groups, vigorously opposed the US plans. Saudi Arabia had been part of training some pliant opposition cadre in Jordan alongside the US around that time; JaI condemned them as puppets. In response to the (bogus) US threat to attack Syria, Liwa al-Islam (JaI’s former name) declared:

“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.” “It’s crew, which it has been preparing for months” can only mean the Saudi-supported “crew” being prepared in Jordan.

Several months later Saudi Arabia came out strongly encouraging opposition political and military forces (who were deeply divided on the issue) to attend the US-Russia organized Geneva II negotiations with Assad in January 2014. JaI, by contrast, demanded that the Islamic Front coalition (of which JaI was a founding member) “put the participants of both parties in Geneva II [ie, both regime and opposition] on a Wanted list” (the Islamic Front itself declared participation at Geneva “treason”).

5 thoughts on “Ghouta: Issues Behind the Apocalypse: Armed and civil rebellion, Class and Islam

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