Grim realities in Syria

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2013 - 9:17

Mark Osborn replies to Pham Binh’s polemic against the AWL position on Syria.


“My country is being destroyed. The regime is killing us, many of the opposition fighters are becoming criminals and the world is watching it like a film.” Ahmad, from Deir ez-Zor (Economist, 23 February 2013)

Pham Binh argues: The AWL misunderstands the nature of the Syrian opposition because, firstly, we ignore the continuing secular, peaceful mass demonstrations and, secondly, that we overestimate the degree of influence Islamists have in the opposition movement. Binh argues that there have been relatively few instances of sectarianism among oppositionists; liberated areas are not Islamist tyrannies; we misunderstand the difference between people who are Muslims and people who are Islamists. He sums up that the “AWL’s conclusion that it can support neither side in Syria’s civil war proceeds from the assumption that both sides are equally reactionary… that the choice between Assad’s tyranny and Islamist tyranny is no choice at all.”

Despite the fact that Pham Binh’s article is an honest attempt to engage in a debate on an important question, his argument has serious problems in two main respects. First, because he is complacent about Islamism (and ethnic sectarianism) in Syria. Second because he ignores a big part of our case which has nothing to do with Islamists (directly), but which concerns the Marxist attitude to the state and relates directly to what we’ve said in the past about the use of slogans (for example about the slogan “Troops Out Now” in Ireland and Iraq).

The three key points in the AWL NC resolution quoted by Binh are: given the fragmented and increasingly religiously radical nature of the opposition a victory for the rebels will lead to ethnic cleansing, chaos and warlordism; that if the opposition are able to overrun the Baathist state conditions (both for the welfare of ordinary Syrians and for the possibility of progressive struggle) will be made worse, and so we should avoid slogans which lead to this; as a consequence we would not necessarily denounce a deal between Baathists and oppositionists which we believe might avoid the collapse of Syrian society into chaos. Given this I would not accept Binh’s summary of our position.

It might be worth amplifying the point about the state. In the 1980s, for example, we rejected the use of “Troops Out” without a political settlement for the north of Ireland.

We had come to see the demand as irresponsible, not because we thought the British state had a progressive role, but because if the central part of the apparatus keeping the lid on the conflict abdicated, the way would be clear to a major escalation of inter-communal conflict. Divisions in the working class would deepen, thousands more would die, Ireland would be repartitioned. Since that would be a big step backwards, why would we choose to raise a demand that would lead to it?

Although the British state was brutal in Northern Ireland, its withdrawal without agreement between the two antagonistic communities would make matters worse, not better. In Syria we should understand that although things are very bad (from a humanitarian point of view, and for the possibility of democracy, women’s rights, etc.) they could get much, much worse. In a particular Syrian town, at a particular moment, socialists might well favour the victory of the local militia against Assad’s army. But “victory for the Syrian opposition” as a general slogan now has a real meaning that would take the struggle for freedom back, not forwards.

To understand why, we need to look at the conditions on the ground. So where are we now?

There are probably 1,000 armed militias operating in Syria today. These militias have no overarching command structure, or anything like one. They are funded by a great many outside groups and governments. Large weapons shipments from Qatar are now going through Turkey and from Saudi via Jordan. The US has a programme to train their own FSA group underway in northern Jordan.

The militias might have some real or nominal allegiance to the various outside sponsors, but have wide discretion themselves. Alliances inside the country are continually shifting. They are certainly not led by the latest exterior political front, effectively dominated by the Muslim Brothers, the Syrian National Coalition.

The point here is not that Islamists have control of the opposition movement (although their influence is very worrying, substantial, and increasing), but that no one has control of the movement. There is no oppositional force, good or bad, currently capable of replacing the existing state and keeping the country — more or less — together. In fact Binh doesn’t attempt to argue how the current opposition could get from where it is now, to form a democratic state.

The opposition fighters continue to make gains in the north and north east. However the most significant and new fact is the rebel gains made in the south of the country. This, I think, is the beginning of the battle for Damascus. Josh Landis, the US academic, speaking on 7 April 2013 on Al-Jazeera, argues that Damascus will probably be destroyed in the same way Aleppo has been, and as the military is pushed out the Alawites will fall back, in disarray, to their village heartlands on the coast. If the Alawites lose there — which they will — they will not stick around to find out if the rebel militias, which have not been taking prisoners, will be kind to them. Landis says the three million Alawites will run away, to Lebanon (where they may well spark a new civil war). He likens their likely fate to that of the similar number of Christians killed or driven out of Turkey during World War 1.

We might add that other groups — and certainly the Kurds whose freedom is opposed by pretty much every other opposition group — face repression too. It is already happening. There have been battles between PKK Kurdish groups and both Islamists and more secular rebel groups. The most recent fighting has been widespread in Ras al-Ayn on the northern border.

If the struggle develops in this way — and it is not clear what will stop it — Syrian society will collapse. And it will collapse in many different ways — certainly economically and socially. It will probably also be invaded, by Turkey in the north, from Jordan (buffer zones to keep chaos away from these states are already being planned) and possibly by Israel too.

This is what an opposition victory means right now, concretely.

Part of the problem with Binh’s analysis is the relationship he sees between the militias and the previously existing mass movement: “The demonstrators grew tired of being cut down by machine gun fire and took up arms to defend themselves.” In fact the militias in Syria today largely were superimposed on the democratic movement rather than an organic product out of it. The armed groups are certainly not controlled by the mass movement — they have their own command structures, funding, programmes.

On 23 November 2011, we wrote in Solidarity: “The Syrian demonstrators not only have a right to defend themselves from state violence, they are right to do so. It makes no sense that innocent protesters offer themselves up, week after week, as martyrs to be mown down by the state’s thugs.” But that was a year and a half ago, when the movement had a different character, and the meaning of “Victory to the opposition” (the article’s title) was different. We wrote, “The basic feature of the movement in the country, now, is positive and democratic. It is organised by networks of activists and local co-ordinating committees.” But even in 2011 we noted, “The FSA states it is non-sectarian and is simply in favour of freedom. [But] the Free Syrian Army has its own command structure, and the attacks it is launching against regime targets […] are probably independent of the local committees, although some army deserters have clearly been involved in local self-defence.”

And I do not recognise Binh’s description of rebel-controlled areas. Happily Binh tells us that the Islamist judicial bodies that have “sprung up” across the country have not acted in a sectarian manner; liberated areas are governed “fairly effectively by a mix of secular and Islamist elements.” I would suggest that claims that salafi and jihadi sharia courts are not acting in a sectarian way are — at the mildest — unlikely.

There is a substantial amount of chaos already in the country. Four million have no telephones, water, food or fuel. Two million are internally displaced. Thousands of factories, roads, schools, hospitals have been destroyed.

Many of the middle class professionals have fled the country. The death rate is increasing (the equivalent number of killings in the UK, over the two year period of the uprising would be over 190,000). The working class has, essentially, been destroyed, with regular work only existing in pockets of regime controlled territory, and provided to regime loyalists to maintain that loyalty; these are not good conditions to build a democracy, even assuming that those with power intend that.

For example, a new report — whose authors include the UK’s Department for International Development — details conditions in Aleppo, which has been an open battleground since July 2012. The survey is an analysis of 52 neighbourhoods (from 125 in the city).

The report on Aleppo states that 10,800 people have been killed, 4,500 people are missing, 511,900 people are internally displaced, one million people have left. The education system has collapsed; 26 of the 52 areas have not had electricity for six months; only four out of the city’s seven hospitals are functioning; 2.2 million people are in danger of not having enough to eat; 240,000 do not have enough access to water.

Factories have been stripped, either by owners, or militias (some of whom died fighting each other over the spoils). There is no work outside the militarised structures. Basic food and fuel are rare or impossibly expensive. Because the UN relief operations work with the government’s permission, aid goes to areas under regime control. Opposition areas are often subjected to indiscriminate regime bombing.

The BBC adds to the picture (17 January 2013): “It is widely believed in Aleppo that the bread shortage was caused by the FSA stealing flour to sell elsewhere. An FSA officer confirmed as much… None of the FSA brigades — all accusing each other of looting — trusted anyone else.

“Now the shopkeepers, farmers and small businessmen of the countryside are in charge in large parts of the city.

“‘Free Aleppo’ has eight-hour bread queues, power cuts, children scavenging for rubbish to burn and trees in the parks all cut down for firewood.”

The BBC also report large numbers of people being “arrested” — in reality abducted for ransom — often dressed up in political language by the militia responsible.

Part of the appeal of some of the harder-line Islamists is that they are seen as more honest. The FSA-affiliated Northern Farouq brigade, recently in serious conflict with Al-Nusra Front, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, apparently traffics cement, fuel and even drugs.

Obviously the situation in the liberated areas has an impact on activists and their organisations. For example, the oppositionist writer Hajj-Saleh, who is in hiding in Damascus, offers a bleak assessment of the local structures (March 2013): “Conditions in the society of the revolution […are not] promising. [There are] widespread signs of dissolution, damage to social ties, the spread of violence and use of violence to settle diverse scores or for private profit. The forms of self-organisation do not meet needs in most areas, as the elements of dissolution, fragmentation, and selfishness are more present and influential than those of healing, cooperation, and joint action.”

Now of course the gross, systematic sectarian outrages and war crimes committed by the regime have not been simply mirrored by the opposition. That is true. And Binh assures us there have been no massacres carried out by the opposition. Which is not quite true and not equivalent to saying the opposition is not sectarian. Take a small number of recent examples:

1. HRW reports (23 January 2013): “Armed opposition group destroyed a Shia place of worship in Idlib governorate, and two Christian churches in Latakia governorate were looted.” And, “a dozen extrajudicial and summary executions [were carried out] by opposition forces and [there is] torture and mistreatment in opposition-run detention facilities.” (13 November 2012 and 17 September 2012).

2. CNN interviewed Abu Mariam (15 March 2013), a former political prisoner and now an activist in Aleppo. He was flogged by an Islamist militia for “crimes against Islam” and, later, hospitalised by another armed group when he tried to stop them robbing a neighbourhood shop.

3. A video (see Syria Comment site) shows a victim of a Sharia court in Raqqa. He has been horribly beaten for — essentially — having the wrong girlfriend. The Washington Times (4 April 13) reports a ruling from a salafi cleric, Sheikh Yasir al-Ajlawni, that it is legitimate for those fighting for an Islamic state in Syria to rape non-Muslim women.

4. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported in March: “For the third day in a row, protests erupted in Mayadeen [rebel-held town in eastern Syria] calling on the Al-Nusra Front to leave the town.” The Islamists had set up a sharia court and religious police force. “The protests are an important indicator that people in eastern Syria — where people do not have a culture of religious extremism — do not welcome the imposition of religious law,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said. (Reported by Middle-East online 13 March 2013).

5. An interesting report recently released is an analysis of the attitudes of Alawites in the Homs area (“The Alawite Dilemma”, Aziz Nakkash, March 13). In April 2011 one young Alawite man said he joined a large demonstration against the regime in the main square. He remembers that on this occasion, the “secret service people were brutal with the demonstrators. And that same night, they started shooting at people”. Soon afterwards, he remembers hearing loud appeals to jihad coming from the minarets of mosques — which to Alawites meant a holy war against them. He says, “Suddenly I became scared and I changed my mind, as I realized that what was happening was no longer a revolution”.

6. Of the 80,000 Christians in Homs almost all have left, some apparently after a door-to-door campaign by Islamists.

7. The UNHCR conclude (November 12) that the “conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature.”

“The Commission has received credible reports of anti-Government armed groups attacking Alawites and other pro-Government minority communities. One interviewee, an FSA fighter in Latakia, detailed how, upon capturing Government forces, the Sunni captives were imprisoned while Alawites were immediately executed. On 30 October, a bomb exploded near an important Shia shrine outside of Damascus, killing and injuring several people. On 6 November, a car bomb exploded in the Alawite neighbourhood of Hai al-Wuroud in the north-west of Damascus, reportedly killing ten people.” The report suggests that communities are retreating into communal organisations.

This process should be familiar to anyone who has looked — for example — at the break-up of Yugoslavia. In such circumstances the reasonable, secular or cosmopolitan-minded majority are marginalised. The political pace is set by the communalists and bigots, and once begun the mass of people, feeling they have no choice, fall back to their communities for safety. Communalism is strengthened and a poisonous retreat begins strengthening mean, narrow ethnic-sectarian and religious identity at the expense of more rational social relations.

Binh assures us that, on demonstrations, calls for a Caliphate are “not terribly popular,” and Islamist slogans for the weekly Friday protests are regularly defeated by thousands of votes. This is good if true as stated. Our knowledge is limited, and restricted to English language sources. And no one would argue that the opposition is one reactionary mass — far from it. But, again, the problem in Syria is that, the way the struggle is being played out, the people voting against Islamism are not the people who will decide. The decisions will be made by those that control the guns.

Binh makes a big fuss about the AWL’s supposed confusion between Islam and Islamism. I don’t think we have given any reason to suppose we confuse the two. Our NC motion says we oppose all manifestation of Islamism, not all manifestations of Islam.

Binh says that exclaiming “God is great” in response to fighter planes bombing Aleppo university is simply the equivalent of our “God help us!” watching the planes hit the Twin Towers. That might even be true, but there’s a little polemical sleight-of-hand here, and especially writing “God” in English, because I don’t agree that the militia fighters’ shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” or calls made from Sunni mosques for jihad, are more-or-less meaningless, or are consequence-free (even if some of those chanting don’t understand these calls as being politically loaded). To understand the point, imagine living in a Christian village and hearing the fighters’ calls from the outskirts.

Binh says such shouts are a sign of resistance and defiance. No doubt. But in the name of what, since the resistance is not just negative?

Binh notes that “mosques and Friday prayers have been irreplaceable vehicles for mobilising the masses.” Irreplaceable? Really? And again, these places are used to organise against our enemy — but not necessarily in the way that we would positively choose. Honestly, has the left learnt nothing from Khomeini and Iran? In Iran in 1978 the mosques were important organising centres against the Shah but left their positive and reactionary print on the political shape of the opposition. Khomeini reassured us that he was for women’s rights and democracy, and he lied. Our job is not to take the Islamists’ word for their reasonable intentions but to learn from history, to agitate, and to warn.

So when Binh writes that there are two phases of the Syrian revolution, one where we side with all the opposition to Assad, and a second where the opposition will divide over women, minorities and democracy, he’s wrong in several respects. Firstly, because the battle over democratic rights is going on now — it is something for us to take sides on now, not in the future. Secondly, because he says the division will put us on the same side as the Muslim Brothers (who favour elections) against the more extreme jihadis and salafists. The idea of the Brothers acting as a force for democracy can be dismissed quickly by anyone honestly looking at Hamas’s behaviour in Gaza where they have built a one-party, religious state which is intolerant of women’s rights, all manifestations of criticism and self-organisation, unions, opposition political parties and other religions.

The situation now in Syria is grim. We can’t escape that reality by imagining conditions and the opposition political forces are better than they really are.

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