The following is a summary and update of the revolution and counter revolution in Syria. It also raises some questions of how the Syrian revolution might have won:
In this period of revolution and counter-revolution, it is useful to remember the first revolutionary outbreak of this century – the Arab Spring – and the country which perhaps most intensely experienced – and is still experiencing – the flames of both processes: Syria.
The Arab Spring arrived somewhat later in Syria than in neighboring countries like Tunisia and Egypt. That is because whereas all those regimes were oppressive, the Assad dynasty had a history of torture and repression that far surpassed the others.
What they all had in common, though, was that whereas the original calls were for democracy, it had been the neoliberal policies that really underlay the revolts. Bashar Assad, for example, had privatized a great deal of the Syria economy and, as is always the case in this process, he and his cronies also engaged in enormous corruption and self dealing. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, came to control 60% of the Syrian economy. Meanwhile, by 2004 it was estimated that 30% of the population was living in poverty and 11.4% in “extreme poverty.” In the countryside, hundreds of thousands of small peasants were forced off the land. They moved to the urban areas, creating huge shanty towns surrounding the cities. The rich were not suffering, however. As Kassab and al Shami describe it in their book Burning Country: “During the hot summer months the (water) taps sometimes flowed once a week in poorer areas, while the lawns of the rich remained lush and green.”
The first signs of the Arab Spring in Syria was the act of some school kids in the Southern city of Daraa, who spray-painted anti-Assad slogans on the wall. They were arrested, tortured and killed. Rather than cowing the movement, this drove it forward and soon mass protests were springing up throughout the country.
Similar to today’s “popular assemblies” in Chile, Local Coordinating Committees (LCC’s) to coordinate the revolution sprang up in Syria. It is worth quoting at length a report1 from Harper’s Magazine of those committees. They write:
“Courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. to fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils – farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. they in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized [!]. All around [the town of] Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting – twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought….
“In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production…. (The) public affairs committee [of] one of the village’s revolutionary councils [meets]. [A] mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, ‘This is a revolution of the poor! the rich will have to accept that.’”
Assad responded to this rebellion with ever increasing ferocity, especially by his personal militia, the “shabeeha” or ghost troops, whose slogan was “either Assad or we’ll burn the country.” Kassab and al Shami describe what that meant: “In the countryside they killed livestock and burned crops. In the towns the army shelled bakeries, schools, hospitals and market places. Hundreds of barrel bombs dismantled Aleppo…. Women feared the roads lest they were raped by shabeeha at checkpoints; men feared detention or forced conscription…. (there was) mass expulsion of the population from the liberated areas…. The war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones.”
Rather than stopping the revolution, this drove it to new heights: The rank and file of Assad’s army not only refused to fire on the protesters, they started to organize to defend them against the Shabeeha. At this time, the Syrian revolution started to become focused on the armed struggle, which gave these troops an additional importance. The question was who was going to control them. Although there was some attempt to integrate these rank and file soldiers or their direct representatives into the Local Coordinating Committees, those attempts were only scattered or sporadic2.
A layer of lower and mid level officers also started to desert in order to keep control over the rank and file. These former officers in Assad’s murderous apparatus became the chief power in the opposition armies.
In the Unites States, the Obama administration was giving a small amount of aid to the revolutionary forces. Just enough to keep them viable and under the influence of the US. The US government had had a long history of working closely with Assad, from its first Iraq war to using Syria as a favored recipient of its torture program known as “extraordinary rendition”. Hillary Clinton had famously called Assad a “reformer”, and it wasn’t until six months after Obama had called for Mubarak to step down that he did the same regarding Assad. Then Obama only did so when it seemed clear that Assad’s downfall was inevitable anyway. (A series of since-discovered documents from Stratfor and similar groups make clear the real attitude. They can be found in this article3 by the Australian professor Michael Karadjis.) At best, what Obama was after in the first few years was Assadism (neo liberalism) without Assad.
Early on in the process, Assad had played a clever card: He released some 1500 violent jihadi prisoners from his prisons. They formed a second counter revolutionary front which ultimately became ISIS as well as several other Islamic fundamentalist groups. Yes, these groups fought Assad, but they also suppressed the revolution. Equally important, their presence played a big role as far as US intervention.
By 2014, the US regime had more or less dropped any effort to even institute Assadism without Assad. That was because by then they saw the greater threat as being the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, especially the Islamic State. Michael Karadjis has amply documented this, as for example his article documenting how the US and Jordanian regimes demanded that the Southern Army of the FSA stop fighting Assad.4
Nevertheless, by 2014 Assad was on the ropes. That was when the Russian regime stepped in with massive military intervention. Together with Assad’s forces, they unleashed a war of terror from the skies. A weapon of choice for Assad’s forces was (and still is) the low cost barrel bomb. This is simply what the name implies: a barrel filled with explosives and any sort of shrapnel – nails, metal scrap, whatever. These were simply dropped from helicopter onto the defenseless population – a population that was without defense because by that time the US was prohibiting the importation of any sort of anti-aircraft arms to the FSA. The barrel bombs supplemented more “traditional” bombing of schools, public markets, hospitals and residential areas.
War on the population
It is estimated that as many as 570,000 civilians have been killed in this war. According to the widely respected Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 21,065 children have been killed. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that nearly 90% of civilian deaths are due to combined Assad and Russian forces.
The United States forces have contributed to this slaughter from the air, but not in the way commonly thought of. The US bombings of the Shayrat air force base (2017) and on the chemical weapons facilities (2018) were almost entirely symbolic. They did minimal physical damage and killed nobody. (This is not saying they should have done more; it’s a simple recognition of fact.) In contrast, just a few weeks before the Shayrat bombing, the US had bombed the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near al-Jinah, killing some 40 civilians. That largely unnoticed bombing was an attack on Nusra/HTS. Subsequently, US forces pulverized the city of Raqqa, the supposed capital of the Islamic States’ caliphate. According to the Washington Post (4/19/2018) that city was all but destroyed. Pictures of that city after US forces got finished with it are indistinguishable from pictures of Gaza after the Israeli air force bombings there.
Then there is the issue of Assad’s system of imprisonment, torture and mass murder. In 2014, a former Assad official code-named “Caesar” presented photographs of over 55,000 men, women and children who had been tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. Since then, things have gotten worse. According to Amnesty International, up to 13,000 prisoners were executed in Assad’s infamous Sadnaya prison alone up to 2015. On top of that is the tens of thousands of political prisoners who have simply “disappeared” in Assad’s gulag, as well as the 17,000 that Amnesty counted in an earlier report.5 It should be understood that many of these murders took place over a period of time in which prisoners were slowly beaten (and starved) to death over weeks or months. There is evidence that as Assad consolidates his grip on the entire country, he is actually stepping up the executions.6
The Islamic fundamentalist forces also have a history of repression, including beheadings. However, if simply because of the lack of resources and infrastructure, their record doesn’t come close to matching that of Assad.
The question of the Kurdish minority also must be considered. They had been historically repressed by Assad, but in the context of the popular rebellion sweeping the rest of Syria, the Kurdish nationalist PYD was able to carve out an autonomous zone in northwest Syria, Rojava, where most of the Kurdish people live. In that zone some very progressive steps were taken, many around the role of women. This was done in conjunction with a de facto truce with Assad, one in which anti-Assad forces within Rojava were repressed.
The Kurds also found themselves in conflict with the Islamic State and, as a result, they had a natural alliance with the United States. The other factor that made that alliance possible was that that US imperialism’s main rival in Syria – Russian imperialism – lacked a base among the Kurds there. So US imperialism became their foremost supporter and protector. It was in support of a PYD military offensive against the Islamic State that the US destroyed the city of Raqqa. Also, US military outposts in Rojava protected the Kurds from an across-the-border attack byTurkey.
Trump’s now famous withdrawal of those outposts gave the green light to exactly such a Turkish invasion. It also opened the door to even closer links between the PYD and Assad and the entry of Assad’s troops into Rojava. The Turkish invasion has been carried out with a ruthlessness similar to that of Assad. It has included political assassinations and attacks on population centers. There are reports that Turkey’s Erdogan is planning to use the area his troops have taken over to resettle the Syrian refugees who are presently living in Turkey. This will further exacerbate whatever ethnic tensions that already may exist.
At present, only Idlib Province in Northeast Syria is not under control of Assad. Who actually controls what parts of Idlib is not clear. While the Islamic fundamentalist forces seem to have general control, even that is contested, and there have been reports of public protests and popular resistance to their domination inside Idlib. Turkey is opposing this military thrust of Assad and Russia. It seems their main reason for opposing it is that it will further destabilize the situation inside Turkey. Home of close to 4 million such refugees already, the Turkish government worries that hundreds of thousands more will be driven across the border. Therefore, in some instances Turkish troops are battling Assad’s forces in Idlib.
Assad and his Russian backers are carrying out a battle to regain control of Idlib with all the ruthlessness that they used throughout the country. For example, in early December 25,000 civilians were forced to flee the bombing attacks of Russian and Assad forces. Mohammad Halaj, director of Syria’s Response Coordination Group, explained “Around 425,000 civilians are living in the villages and towns of Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Ariha. If the attacks target these places with the same violence, the number of displaced will rise more (in Northwest Syria).”7
A typical example of what is happening there was the November 20 (2019) attack on the QAH refugee camp in Idlib. This was an attack using cluster bombs, and it resulted in the death of “16 civilians, including 11 children and three women and injured at least 50 others, as well as inflicting damage on the Maternity Hospital, and damaging at least 10 of the tents.” 8 And on December 20, the Syrian Observer reported9 on 113 civilians having been killed from 420 air strikes carried out in Idlib by Russian and Assad air forces during just the period of Dec. 15-18.
One problem facing Assad is that it’s not possible to control a population without “boots on the ground” – that is, without reliable ground troops. In part, the Iranian regime is supplying this. Their main interest is in bolstering their power throughout the region. Specifically, this includes establishing a ground link between Iran and Lebanon in order to reinforce Hezbollah there. Towards that end, the Iranian regime has sought to replace the mainly Sunni population of some towns such as Zabadani and Madaya with Shia people.
Iran and Russia
While the Iranian and Russian regimes are basically on the same side, there is also a conflict between them. The Israeli regime bitterly opposes any Iranian troops anywhere near Israel, and Putin is allied with Netanyahu. There is also a rivalry over which regime will have what power in Syria. In fact, in April of 2019 an open clash broke out between Iranian and Russian troops. Once again, it was the Syrian people who bore the brunt of this, and eleven civilians, including two children were reported to have been killed and eleven more wounded.10
What is truly amazing is that despite all this carnage, it seems the revolution has not been completely crushed. That is why, for example, Assad has still been unable to seize control over Idlib. He and his sponsor – Putin – can rain all the bombs they like on the province, but in the end he has to send in his troops, and they are unreliable in the face of a popular opposition.
Meanwhile, a new revolt has broken out in the “cradle of the revolution”, the city of Daraa in southern Syria. According to one report,11 “The political scene in Daraa is in a state of chaos… The province fuelled by angry popular demonstrations, carrying political messages to the regime and its allies and foreshadowing a new revolution.… The assassinations of former dissidents in the region have led to popular outrage. This fury included demonstrations, some of which occurred during the funerals, after the escalation of assassinations recorded against unknowns.” The former governor of the province, Ali al-Salkhadi, is reported to have commented “the issue of traitors and mercenaries is still ongoing. Anyone who is proved to have been dealing with the regime will be killed.”
Outside Syria, it is impossible to really know the degree to which the revolution has been crushed or is still ongoing, just waiting for a new opportunity to break out in a mass conflagration again. But now, over five years later, some general lessons remain – lessons that apply to the new wave of revolts throughout the region and, in fact, beyond.
First is the role of the Local Coordinating Committees. As the article from Harper’s quoted above shows, the LCC’s tended to go beyond coordinating the movement; they tended to move towards actually running society. This was a classic example of the potential for “dual power”. Today, we are seeing something similar arise, as for example in the rise of the Popular Assemblies in Chile.
Any such approach would be met with intervention of all the surrounding regimes, including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, as well as Russia and the US. However, many of these countries are experiencing uprisings of their own and those that aren’t are ripe for such movements, or in the case of Israel at least of the Palestinian population. That is why the potential systematically and organizationally linking the rebellions is not only possible, it’s necessary.
Finally, the necessary end result has to be considered. The repression and exploitation meted out by these regimes are simply the expression of capitalism in this stage of its decay. While the original revolution was against repression and corruption, the economic issues involving neoliberal “reforms” were very much at the root of the matter. Therefore, a program dealing with that was always necessary. But in order to deal with those issues, the entire question of capitalism needed to be openly raised. In Syria, as in several other countries, a dictatorial and corrupt regime has associated itself with the term “socialism”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Exactly how and through what forces these lessons can be carried out, both in Syria and in the revolts elsewhere today, can only be determined by the forces on the ground. But these general lessons should be considered.
1Harpers 8/2012 https://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/
2Based on personal communication of Leila al Shami.