Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Syrian revolt enters a new phase

As Bashar al-Assad flees the capital, the armed segments of the revolution appear to be inflicting blows on sections of the security apparatus and taking over major cities: the revolution is turning a corner.  Robert Fisk reports that a crucial dynamic now is the fracturing of an alliance between the Sunni middle class and the Alawite regime, signalled by the spread of the revolt to Aleppo.  And defections from the state-capitalist power bloc continue.  Indeed, Juan Cole has suggested that such divisions must run deep in the Syrian state for the opposition to be capable of planting a bomb that can kill a senior minister.

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The course of this uprising, from the immolation of Hasan Ali Akleh in January 2011, redolent of Mohamed Bouazizi's death in Tunisia, to the suicide attack on the defence minister, has been brutal.  In the early stages, the Syrian government had a monopoly on violence.  It was police violence and the decades-long rule by the Ba'athist dictatorship, undergirded by repressive 'emergency law', which provoked the 'days of rage'; it was the police beating of a shopkeeper that provoked a spontaneous protest on 17th February 2011 in the capital, which was duly suppressed; it was the imprisonment of Kurdish and other political prisoners that led to the spread of hunger strikes against the regime by March 2011.  And it was the security forces who started to murder protesters in large numbers that same month.  It was they also who repeatedly opened fire on large and growing demonstrations in April 2011.  In the ensuing months until today, they have used used everything from tear gas to live bullets to tank shells. 

And the main organisations of the Syrian opposition pointedly refused the strategy of armed uprising, noting what had happened in Libya, and arguing that the terrain of armed conflict was the ground on which Assad was strongest.  Nonetheless, the scale of the repression eventually produced an armed wing of the revolt.  The Free Syrian Army became the main vector for armed insurgency, expanded by defections from the army and the security apparatus.  Now it is making serious advances.

In response to the insurgency, the argument among a significant section of the antiwar left has been that this revolution has already been hijacked, that those who initially rose up have been sidelined and marginalised by forces allied with external powers, intelligence forces and so on.  Thus, the arms, money and international support for the armed rebellion is said to be coming from Washington, and Riyadh, and Tel Aviv.  The likely outcome is the decapitation of a regime that is problematic for the US, and its replacement with a regime that is more amenable to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.  Moreover, they argue, the political forces likely to hegemonise the emerging situation are essentially reactionary and sectarian.  The left, democratic and anti-imperialist forces are, they say, too weak to lead the fight against Assad's regime.  And so, as Sami Ramadani puts it in the latest Labour Left Briefing, "the sacrifices of the Syrian people have been hijacked by NATO and the Saudi-Qatari dictators". 

Tariq Ali was the latest to make this case on Russia Today (prompting an impassioned rebuttal from this left-wing Syrian blog).  MediaLens, an organisation whose output I have promoted in the past, also takes this view, and reproaches myself and Owen Jones for being insufficiently attentive to the accumulating mass of evidence that the armed revolt is basically a creature of imperialism, its actions no more than, effectively, state terrorism.  Obviously, I think this is mistaken.

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I'll start with imperialism.  One has to expect that in a revolutionary situation, rival imperialist powers will try to influence the course of events.  We have seen the US, UK, France and Russia all involved in Syria's battle in different ways.  Washington has long provided funding and other types of support to opposition groups, and the CIA is alleged to be training groups outside the Syrian border.  It has two specific reasons to be involved: taking out a strategic ally of Iran, and being seen to be on the side of democratic change in the Middle East.  The nature of its involvement is dictated by its preference for some sort of coup d'etat rather than a popular revolution; they want to encourage more senior regime defections so that a faction of the old ruling elite can coordinate its forces, lead an armed assault on the bastions of the Assad regime, and then declare itself the new boss.  That is most likely why they are selectively feeding arms to groups they deem reliable, and training various select groups outside the country.

Russia, of course, is nowhere near as powerful an imperialist state as the US.  Its role is arguably slightly enhanced by the fact that it is backing up a centralised, well-armed regime (vis-a-vis the insurgent population), whereas the 'Western' imperialist powers have been trying to infiltrate and co-opt elements of a very loosely coordinated resistance.  The rebels by all accounts are extremely poorly armed; the trickle of weapons from the Gulf states is nothing compared to the helicopters, tanks and other munitions which the Assad regime possesses and deploys with such indiscriminate force.  However you assess the relative balance between the various intervening forces, though, the point is that if you want to talk about imperialism in Syria you cannot just ignore the intervention taking place on behalf of the regime.

In fairness, many of those commentators highlighting imperialist intervention have also noted the flow of arms from Russia to the regime - Charles Glass, for example.  Moreover, none of them appear to be denying serious repression by the regime.  Rather, Patrick Seale is typical in arguing that the transition to an armed strategy, provoked by the regime, has been immensely destructive, as this is the terrain on which the regime is the strongest.

Nonetheless, there is in some of this a type of 'blanket thinking' that one commonly encounters, in which a signposted quality of one organisation, or faction within an organisation, or individual within a faction, is taken to be expressive of the situation as a whole. Thus, for example, Ramadani characterises the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are characterised as "Saudi-Qatari-backed ... logistically backed by Turkey": which is some of the truth, but simply not the whole truth.  I will return to this.  Likewise, when Seale describes the opposition strategy as being one of provoking "Western military intervention to stop the killing on humanitarian grounds", he ignores the declarations of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) which are the organisational, cellular basis of the revolt, and which have consistently opposed imperialist intervention.  He also ignores the left-nationalist and Kurdish forces - there are traditions of anti-imperialism in Syria well beyond the Ba'ath Party.

Or, let's take as an example this article by the comedy writer Charlie Skelton which is being recited widely.  It basically makes two arguments.  One is that leading figures within the Syrian National Council have connections to various US-funded bodies.  The other is that vocal neoconservatives are pressing for military intervention and 'regime change', and declare themselves pleased by the successes of the armed opposition such as the Free Syrian Army.  In and of itself, this could be part of a valid argument: why should these people be the spokespersons for the Syrian revolution in the Anglophone media?  Why should the interests of Syrians be hijacked for some imperialist grand strategy?  However, inasmuch as this ignores the majority of what is taking place, instead looking solely at narrow networks of influence, this is indeed a form of 'blanket thinking', allowing small minorities to stand in for the whole.

Imperialism is certainly involved.  However, a few vulgar regime apologists to one side, no one is denying that there is more to it than that; that there are internal social and class antagonisms that have produced this revolt.  If you want an analysis of the breakdown of the Syrian social compact in the last decade, amid a new wave of US imperialist violence which sent waves of refugees fleeing from Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad's neoliberal reforms, you should see Jonathan Maunder's article in the last International Socialism.  The important point is that the regime can't survive.  It is incapable of advancing the society any further, even on bourgeois terms.  There is, therefore, only the question of how the regime will be brought down, and by whom.

The question is, is the geopolitical axis dominant?  Is it this, rather than domestic antagonisms, which will determine the outcome of this revolt and its meaning?

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When you hear from ordinary Syrian activists, and not the exiles in the SNC, you don't hear a lot of support for an invasion or bombing: quite the contrary.  The trouble is that there have been groups advocating intervention, and there has been a degree of intervention already.  And while the rank and file have never been won over to the strategy of armed imperialist intervention, there isn't much unity over what strategy should be pursued and to what precise end.  The question then is which forces can dominate and impose their line.

Before addressing this, one should say something about the organisational basis of this revolution.  It isn't the leadership of the Syrian National Council (SNC), whose role as an 'umbrella' group belies their lack of influence on the ground.  At the most basic, cellular level, it is the local coordinating committees (LCCs).  A section of these, about 120 of them, have recognised the SNC since it was founded, and have some formal representation.  In fact, they are grossly under-represented in the SNC structure compared to the liberal and Islamist opposition groups.  And they don't make a very effective representation within the SNC structures, which means that when the SNC speaks it isn't necessarily speaking for the grassroots.  However, a larger chunk, some 300 LCCs, have declined to recognise or affiliate to the SNC.  The LCCs have opposed imperialist intervention, despite the bloodiness of Assad's repression; they have even tended to resist the trend toward militarisation of the uprising.  Now, the LCCs, being localised resistance units based in the population, are not politically or ideologically unified.  There are undoubtedly reactionary elements among them, as well as progressive and just politically indeterminate forces.  So, the question of political representation is significant.

And at the level of political representation, there are various ideologically heterogeneous coalitions and groups. The SNC is understood to be the main 'umbrella' organisation unifying several strands from Kurdish to liberal groups.  The leadership is disproportionately weighted toward exiles, while the actual systems of representation within the SNC are seriously skewed toward the bourgeois liberals and the Muslim Brothers.  That's not the end of the world, given that some people have been invoking 'Al Qaeda' (really?  people on the Left buying into this? Apparently so...) or just sectarian jihadis of one stripe or another.  The fact is that Islamists and liberals are a part of the opposition in most of the old dictatorships of the Middle East, from Tunisia to Algeria to Yemen to Egypt to Bahrain etc etc etc.  But these forces do represent the more conservative and bourgeois wing of the resistance to Assad.  Generally speaking, like the LCCs, they have opposed the strategy of armed struggle - this is one of the reasons for their generally antagonistic relationship with the Free Syrian Army.  But they did favour a strategy of armed intervention until forming an agreement in January with the left-nationalist National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which rejected all imperialist intervention from outside the region: in other words, they would accept help from Arab states, but not from the 'West'. (Caveat: as will become clear, the SNC negotiators did not get this agreement ratified, and it may well be that the issue of imperialist intervention was one of the sticking points.)  

Why, then, did the dominant forces in the SNC look for a time to imperialist intervention?  I think it is obviously because these are not forces that are comfortable with mass mobilisation, least of all with armed mass mobilisation.  A UN-mandated intervention - bombing, coordination with ground forces, etc. - would have solved this problem for them, achieving the objective of bringing down a repressive and moribund regime without mobilising the types of social forces that could challenge their hegemony in a post-Assad regime.  Then they could have been piloted into office as the nucleus of a new regime, a modernising, neoliberal capitalist democracy.  But as the prospects of such an intervention declined, as the grassroots failed to mobilise for some sort of NATO protectorate, and as the emphasis shifted to armed struggle via the Free Syrian Army (FSA) throughout the first half of this year, the SNC has been compelled to respond.  It has developed a military bureau to relate to the FSA, albeit this has produced more claims of attempted manipulation.

Despite its international prominence, however, the SNC is not the only significant political formation organising opposition forces.  The main organisation in which the Syrian left is organised is in the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, mentioned above - also known as the National Coordination Committee (NCC), tout court.  This is the second most widely recognised organisation aside from the SNC, and has a much stronger basis within Syrian society.  It is headquartered in Damascus rather than in Turkey, it has a strong basis in the LCCs and includes Kurdish, nationalist and socialist organisations.  There have been attempts by both the SNC and NCC to overcome their differences and construct a sort of united front against Assad, but their political and strategic differences have made this impossible.  Another factor obstructing unity is the NCC's position within Syria; it is far more exposed to military reprisals by the regime, and thus must pitch its demands very carefully.  This is an important reason why it has emphasised a negotiated settlement as the answer to the crisis.

Also of significance is the Kurdish National Council, created by Kurdish forces in anticipation of having to fight their corner in a post-Assad regime: indeed, the reluctance of the majority of Kurds to actually support the SNC has been a significant factor in the composition and division of labour in the opposition.  For Kurds oppressed in Assad's Syria, who do not automatically trust a future regime dominated by Sunni Arabs to protect minorities, it is seen as far more sensible to turn to a dense network of regional supporters and interests, described very well here.

The lack of unity between any political leadership and the revolutionary base - which extends to a lack of coordination between the coalitions and the armed groups, as we'll discuss in a moment - is a real weakness in the revolution.  Aside from anything else, it makes it harder for the opposition to win over wider layers of the population - because people aren't sure exactly what they'll be supporting, what type of new regime will emerge from the struggle.  There is a real fear of sectarian bloodshed, notwithstanding the cynical way in which the regime manipulates this fear.  The military and civilian opposition leaders have tried to allay this fear, and FSA units say they are working with Allawi forces.  But without a degree of unity and discipline, with the continued disjuncture between the turbulent base and the political leadership, and with Assad's forces heavily outgunning the opposition, this is a powerful disincentive for people to break ranks with the regime.  Moreover, if some greater degree of cohesion and coordination is not reached, then the risk of some force outside the popular basis of the revolt (say, a few generals leading a proxy army) interpolating itself in the struggle and siezing the initiative, is increased.

This is not to argue that the SNC and NCC must converge around a common programme and then somehow impose themselves on the LCCs.  I don't know how the political division of labour in the opposition could be optimised, and unity between the base and the leadership of such a movement would have to be negotiated and constructed on the basis of a recognition of the mutual interests of the social classes and ethnic groups embodied in the movement.  Further, whether a merger would help or hinder the revolution probably depends very much what the agenda is and who is materially dominant in the emerging representative institutions.  It does, however, explain why there have been and will continue to be attempts at forging some sort of unity, despite the ongoing antagonisms and differences between the various forces, and despite the very real problems with the SNC leadership.

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As for the armed contingent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been summarily vilified and demonised by many polemicists.  Consistent with the 'blanket thinking' referred to previously,  the FSA has been deemed a sectarian gang, terrorists, a Saudi-Qatari front, and so on.  The first and most important thing about the FSA is that it is made up of anything between 25,000 and 40,000 assorted rebels - defectors from the armed forces, both soldiers and officers, and various civilians who volunteered to fight.  As such, it is as politically and ideologically variegated a formation as the LCCs.  Nominally, the FSA is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, a defector from the air force whose family members have been executed by the regime.  But the reality, as Nir Rosen describes, is more complex: "The FSA is a name endorsed and signed on to by diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership. Local armed groups have only limited communication with those in neighbouring towns or provinces - and, moreover, they were operating long before the summer."  In other words, this is a highly localised, cellular structure with limited cohesion.

Contrary to what has been asserted in some polemics, then, the FSA is not simply a contingent of the SNC.  It formed independently, several months into the uprising, following a series of lethal assaults on protests by the regime, specifically in response to the suppression in Daraa.  It incorporated armed groups that had been operating locally with autonomous leadership for a while.  Its relationship with the SNC, despite attempts by the leaderships to patch over differences, has been strongly antagonistic - largely because of the SNC leadership's opposition to the strategy of armed insurgency and its fears of being unable to control the outcome.  Earlier in the year, a split from the SNC formed briefly over this point, with a group formed within the council to support armed struggle.  Therefore, those who describe the FSA as "the armed wing" of the SNC, as The American Conservative did, are only exposing their ignorance, as well as that blanket-thinking.  The same applies to those who say that the FSA is a Turkish-Saudi-Qatari client.  Undoubtedly, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have an interest in this struggle.  Certainly, the leadership of the FSA is currently situated in Turkey, and enjoys Turkish support.  And Turkey is a NATO member.  But the extent of any support must be judged to be poor, because by all reports the army remains an extremely loose, and lightly armed force.  Purely on military grounds, the regime has always enjoyed the advantage, and continues to do so.  Moreover, the FSA is just far too disarticulated and heteroclite to be converted into someone's proxy army - unless you assume that any degree of external support automatically makes one a proxy, which strikes me as specious reasoning. 

Finally, there is the question of the FSA's human rights record.  Those who want to oppose the revolt say that the armed insurgents are a bunch of thugs or even - some will actually use this propaganda term - 'terrorists'.  Well, the fact is that the armies have captured and tortured and killed people they believed to be regime supporters or informants. I believe they have blown up regime apparatuses and probably have killed civilians in the process.  My answer?  You can criticise this or that attack, you can say that the Islamists who bombed Damascus and issued a sectarian statement are not allies of revolution.  But you can't keep saying this is a 'civil war' and then express shock when one side, the weaker side, the side that has been attacked and provoked, the side that is ranged against a repressive dictatorship, actually fights a war

For the regime is fighting a bitter war for its own survival, and it is destroying urban living areas in the process.  Do you want to go and look at Jadaliyya, and see the kinds of reports they post every day?  Do you want to see the footage of what the Syrian armed forces are doing to residential areas, not to mention to the residents?  Unless you're a pacifist, in which case I respect your opinion but disagree with you (in that patronising way that you will have become used to), the only bases for criticising such tactics are either on pro-regime grounds, or on purely tactical grounds.   Among the tactical grounds are the objection that 1) this is the territory on which the regime is strongest (true, but I think the signs are that this can be overcome), and 2) there is a tendency in militarised conflict for democratic, rank-and-file forces to be squeezed out (not necessarily the case, but a real potentiality in such situations which one doesn't overlook).  Of course, those tactical observations are valid, and people are entitled to their view.  My own sense is that the regime has made it impossible to do anything but launch an armed insurgency and so these problems will just have to be confronted.

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All this raises the question, then: what accounts for the advances being made by the insurgency given its relative military weakness and strategic divisions?  Part of the answer is that there is no surety of continued advance.  It's an extremely unstable situation, wherein the initiative could fall back into the regime forces' hands surprisingly quickly.  The current gains have been chalked up rather quickly, and not without serious cost.  Nonetheless, the dominant factor clearly is the narrowing of the social basis of the regime, and the growing conviction among ruling class elements, as well as the aspiring middle classes, that Assad and the state-capitalist bloc that rules Syria can neither keep control, nor update the country's productive capacity, nor reform its rampantly corrupt and despotic political system. 

Much has been made of Assad's supposed popularity, and the fact that he does have a significant social base.  Even if the signs are now that the core bases of his regime are starting to split, the durability of the pro-Assad bulwark has to be encountered and understood.  Recently, there was a Yougov poll of Syrians, which Jonathan Steele drew attention to in the Guardian.  55% of those Syrians polled said they wanted Assad to stay, and the number one reason they gave for saying this was fear for the future of their country.  Now, you can take or leave a poll conducted under such circumstances.  After all, the poll was conducted across the whole Arab world, with only 97 of its respondents based in Syria.  How reliable can it be?  And it would seem pedantic and beside the point to expect anyone targeted by Assad's forces to pay any heed to it.  Nonetheless, there's a real issue here in that at least a sizeable plurality of people are more worried by what will happen after Assad falls than by what Assad is doing now. 

A significant factor in this, as mentioned, is the problem of sectarianism.  There is no inherent reason why a country as ethnically and religiously diverse as Syria should suffer from sectarianism: this is something that has to be worked on, and actively produced.  The Ba'ath regime certainly didn't invent sectarianism, but in pivoting its regime on an alliance between the Alawi officer corps and the Sunni bourgeoisie, it did represent itself as the safeguard against a sectarian bloodbath and has constantly played on this fear ever since, even while it has brutally repressed minorities.  Given the breakdown of the class and ethnic alliance making up the regime's base, sectarianism as a disciplinary technology is one of the last hegemonic assets the regime possesses.  The importance of opposition forces being explicitly anti-sectarian (as has been seen repeatedly) can thus hardly be over-stated.  At the same time, fear of imperialist intervention and some sort of Iraq-like devastation being visited on the country, is also real.  Syria, as the host of many of Iraq's refugees, experienced up close the effects of that trauma.  Nor is there much in Libya's situation today that I can say I would recommend to the people of Syria.  So, it has been of some importance that despite serious bloodshed the LCCs and NCC maintained resistance to the SNC approach of trying to forge an alliance with imperialism.

If you observe the tendencies in each case of revolution, you see amid concrete differences important similarities.  For example, there were considerable differences between the Mubarak and Assad regimes and in the tempo and pattern of resistance and opposition.  This was not just in terms of foreign policy and the relationship to US imperialism, but also in terms of the prominence of the state as a factor in neoliberal restructuring which was far more important in Syria, the impact of the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing flows of refugees and fighters, the role of an organised labour movement in sparking rebellion which has so far played very little role in Syria (strikes have tended to be organised mainly be professional or petty bourgeois groups  - another serious limitation faced by the revolution), and the role of military repression and insurgency in each state.

Even so, there are broad convergences which point to a general pattern.  Most important of these are:
1) within these societies, a secular tendency toward a widening of social inequality, coupled with a narrowing at the top of society, resulting from the imposition of neoliberal accumulation patterns.
2) the fraying of the class alliances sustaining the regime as a consequence. 

3) the exhaustion of the regime's resources for adaptation, and intelligent reform, such that all concessions come far too late and after such immense repression that it is hard to take them seriously.

4) the declining capacity of the state to maintain consent (or rather, encircle and marginalise dissent) either through material consessions or terror.
5) the re-emergence of long-standing opposition forces in new configurations during the period immediately before and since January 2011, with middle class liberal, Islamist and Arab nationalist forces playing a key role. 
6) the emergence of forms of popular organisation - militias in some cases, revolutionary councils in others - performing aspects of organisation that would ordinarily be carried out by the state, and assuming a degree of popular legitimacy in contention with the regime.
7) the defection of significant sections of the ruling class and state personnel, who attempt to play a dominant, leading role in the anti-regime struggle and assume control of reformed apparatuses afterward.

My estimation is that in the context of the global crisis, and amid a general weakening of US imperialism - notwithstanding the relatively swift coup in Libya - these regimes are going to continue to breakdown, and opposition is going to continue to develop in revolutionary forms, ie in forms that challenge the very legitimacy of the state itself.  The old state system, based around a cleavage between a chain of pro-US dictatorships and an opposing rump of nominally resistant dictatorships, is what is collapsing here.  That is something that the advocates of negotiations as a panacea here might wish to reflect on.  Certainly, I have no problem with negotiations as a tactic, particularly in situations of relative weakness.  But these are revolutionary crises inasmuch as they severely test the right of the old rulers to continue to rule in the old ways. 

These processes, not just in Syria but across the Middle East, are richly overdetermined by the various crises of global capitalism, which are so deep, so protracted, and giving rise to much social upheaval, that it is beyond the capacity of even the most powerful states to bring them under control.  Into these complex processes, as we have seen, imperialist powers can impose themselves in various, often destructive, ways; but those commentators who spend all their time charting the agenda of US imperialism and its webs of influence in the region would do well to scale back and get a wider perspective.  There is no reason at this moment to think that imperialist intervention is, or is going to be, the dominant axis determining the outcome and meaning of this process.