Syria: a reply to Marcus Halaby

Submitted by AWL on 26 August, 2013 - 1:40

"The regime and its allies have lost any moral standing in what they chose early on to frame as an existential struggle, in which self-serving ends justify abominable means.

Much of the opposition, in response, has gradually adopted a similar worldview, brandishing its enemy's ruthlessness to excuse its own excesses ... The opposition refers to the regime as an occupying power and tends to stress the alien culture of the Alawi minority that forms a key component of the regime's fighting structure. ..

"The core of the opposition, never entirely peaceful, has grown vicious and short-sighted, too. Kidnappings for ransom, torture and execution of detainees, desecration of corpses and indiscriminate attacks are not the sole preserve of the regime's henchmen.

"[Pro-regime l]oyalty was driven by communal fear, social prejudice and individual selfishness. Loyalists chose not to see the obvious savagery with which the regime dealt with protesters, peaceful activists. .. A former ambassador acknowledges the regime's horrendous repression, but justifies it as a response to the opposition's radicalisation, when in fact the former catalysed the latter.

"As the revolt has transformed from street protest into all-out war, its initial displays of grace - facing tanks with roses, holding crosses aloft with Qurans and shouting that Syrians are 'one' - have in many cases given way to pure hatred. Armed groups that were initially made up of local shabab (young people) who merely wanted to protect their families and friends became brutal and ideologically repulsive."

(From an article by Peter Harling of International Crisis and Sarah Birke of the Economist, MERIP, April 2013)

This article was written in mid-August. Click here for more in this debate.

Marcus Halaby from Workers' Power has written a long polemic against the AWL's position on Syria. Although Marcus is sincere and honest, replying to him is difficult because his position seems incoherent, the long quotes he uses sometimes appear to refute the point he is trying to justify, and at times his argument against the AWL is not against anything we have actually written.

I will describe his initial arguments shortly. But Harling and Birke get to the heart of our first area of disagreement: the AWL believes that the nature of the Syrian rebellion has changed. Marxists should face up to that fact.

While the AWL initially supported the uprising against Assad we have been forced, by the developing situation in the country - by the facts - to re-evaluate. Earlier this year our National Committee passed a motion with the following elements: 1) Given the fragmented and increasingly religiously radical nature of the opposition a victory for the rebels would lead to ethnic cleansing, chaos and warlordism; 2) 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; 3) 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.

It is worth adding that since I last wrote on Syria (against Pham Binh, Solidarity 282, April 13) several shifts have taken place, none of them good.

First, the military balance has shifted towards the regime. The Lebanese party-militia Hezbollah's fighters were decisive when the regime retook Qusayr from the rebels on 5 June.

A senior Revolutionary Guards leader, Hossein Taeb, explained, "If we lose Syria we won't be able to hold Tehran." Iran has provided more financial and military aid and helped construct a new 60 000-strong militia, the National Defence Force, based on Alawites and other minorities, modelled on its own Basiji. Iran and Hezbollah have intervened for strategic reasons, to ensure Assad's survival.

Second, Syria is increasingly a site for several types of wider conflict to be fought out.

The intervention of Iran-Hezbollah highlights a sharpened international Shia-Sunni struggle. For example, in response to the kidnapping by rebel militia of nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims in May 2012, two Turkish airline pilots were seized in Lebanon in August 2013, apparently to force the Turkish government to ensure the Shia are freed.

It seems that there were 2-5000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria in May during the battle for Qusayr. There are also significant numbers of non-Syrian Shia militia members ostensibly guarding religious sites inside the country.

The Sunni-Shia battle is reflected in the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia (plus Qatar) and Iran. Qatar has reportedly spent $3bn on supporting the rebels over the last two years and has offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family. Saudi armaments go through Jordan, Qatar's through Turkey.

These outside forces meddle directly inside Syria. For example, Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the external-opposition front, the Syrian National Coalition, recently resigned, stating: 'The people inside Syria have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have become only a means to sign some papers while [Saudi and Qatar] decide on behalf of the Syrians.'

It is not only Hezbollah and Iran who have fighters on the ground, but, for example, there are estimated to be 2000 Tunisian Islamists fighting for the opposition (information: Patrick Cockburn, 23 May 13, LRB).

A new East/West Cold-war face-off is shaping up between China-Russia and the US-EU over Syria.

The Syrian Kurdish question is also being internationalised. There seems to be the possibility of a major round of fighting between PKK Kurdish militias (dominant in north east Syria) and Islamists. Isa Huso, a senior Kurdish politician in the area was recently killed by a car bomb - blamed on Islamists - in Qamishli, in the north east. Both sides are now mobilising; Massoud Barzani a warlord-political leader in Iraqi Kurdistan has threatened to intervene on the side of the Syrian Kurds; Turkey also has dirty hands.

Third, the war is spilling over into neighbouring countries. There are now 1.7 million refugees in neighbouring countries and the sheer number of refugees is impacting on politics and social life (and this figure is expected to rise to 3.4 million by the end of 2013). In addition, the refugees have brought their political views with them. And finally, societies like Lebanon are already split by the conflict with sections of the original population taking different sides.

Lebanon, for example, has 4 million citizens plus now 525 000 Syrian refugees (the equivalent in the UK would be about 8 million). In August 2013 Al Jazeera reported that 80% of the Lebanese population believes the refugees are stealing their jobs; the government has promised a crackdown. Lebanon, which suffered sectarian war for 15 years, from 1975, is potentially extremely unstable and has already seen open Syria-related fighting in Tripoli in February 2012.

More recently, dozens have died in clashes, and in July a prominent Syrian government supporter, Mohammed Darrar Jammo, was assassinated in southern Lebanon; a roadside bomb hit a Hezbollah convoy; a car bomb wounded 53 people in a Hezbollah area of Beirut. (Fox News, July 13)

Bombs exploded in Turkey on 11 May, killing 49 people, mostly Turks, leading to violent demonstrations against Syrians.

There are now 250 000 Syrians in Egypt who face a clampdown by the new post-Brotherhood government.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, says, probably rightly, "If the [Syrian] opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq." Maliki, a Shia and leader of the Dawa party, is no friend of the socialist left, but he is not wrong to be concerned. An opposition victory would strengthen Islamist and Sunni chauvinist forces that are already mobilised in Iraq, killing hundreds each week with car bombs and suicide attacks. 1045 civilians and security personnel were killed in May, the highest figure for several years.

Support the 'revolution'?

Nevertheless Marcus Halaby wants to maintain support for the Syrian 'revolution'. He begins like this:

Revolutions - quoting Lenin - are not born perfect; we should not expect one army to line up perfectly behind a banner reading, 'socialism' and another behind a banner reading 'imperialism'.

Sectarian civil wars have happened (for example in Lebanon), but this, today, in 2013, in Syria, isn't one; there are sectarian aspects to this uprising against Assad's regime but in communal civil wars each ethnic group normally has their own party/militia. (I am thinking about reworking Lenin for Marcus: sectarian civil wars are not born perfect, with one side lined up behind a banner reading 'Sunni' and one side behind a banner reading 'Alawite'...)

Halaby claims that the war in Syria is not a communal war, and that the majority base of support for the regime is Sunni. For this unusual claim he provides no evidence whatsoever, just his opinion. It is also beside the point, since we have not argued that Syria is gripped by a Lebanon-style civil war, only that the current civil war could degenerate even further to produce a new Lebanon (or much worse).

What we have argued is that the opposition is increasingly gripped by ethnic sectarianism and Islamism. That seems - unfortunately - amply borne out by the facts.

For example:

The Daily Telegraph notes kidnappings and targeted violence from Islamists in this article: "Syrian Christian towns emptied by sectarian violence: Tens of thousands Syriac Christians - members of the oldest Christian community in the world - have fled their ancestral provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasakah." (2 August 13)

In an article 'Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands Into Rural Northern Syria', Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, on the Syria Comment website, details the extensive expansion of sharia courts and Islamist rule across large areas of northern Syria.

A 15 year-old boy, "Muhammed Qatta was executed in the northern province of Aleppo on Sunday by the Al-Qaeda [affiliate]... accused of using the Prophet Mohammed's name in an offensive manner... The rebels shot the boy in the head and neck with an automatic rifle in front of a crowd that included Qatta's parents." (Telegraph, 10 June 13)

Saint Elias church in Qusayr was desecrated by Islamists in May 13 (footage on YouTube, also shown in July 13 on Channel 4 News).

The Guardian discusses increasing ethnic division and cleansing: "Homs, long a place where a Sunni majority lived in co-existence co-existed with minority Christian and Alawite communities, has now been a city of cantonments for almost 18 months: Alawite areas are surrounded by security walls that are off-limits to opposition areas. The countryside to the north and east, where Sunni and Alawite communities live nearby each other, has been volatile for much of the past year, with massacres documented in Sunni communities in Houla, Banias and Hoswaie.

"The apparent cleansing is not all one way though. North of Latakia, Alawites have been chased out of their villages near the Turkish border by opposition groups, which in that area are dominated by jihadists." (Guardian, 22 July 13)

The offensive led by Islamist militias on Alawite villages in Latakia province shows what an opposition victory might look like: "The three-day offensive, targeting Alawite villages close to Assad's hometown of Qardaha, has seen some 200 people killed, according to activists. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Alawite civilians have fled the villages seeking refuge in the coastal city of Latakia itself, residents told The Daily Star, following a large-scale assault by some 2,000 opposition fighters, led by Al-Qaeda linked groups." (Lebanon Daily Star, 7 August 13)

Moreover we have also argued that the opposition is fractured, increasingly given to brutality and criminality. For example:

"Earlier this month al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq assassinated a senior commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), resulting in fierce clashes between the groups in Aleppo." (Telegraph 30 July 13)

Jonathan Alpeyrie, a French-American photographer was released on 24 July after $450 000 was paid to a FSA unit which had kidnapped him and kept him for 81 days.

"Aleppo Province: A fighter group assassinated a peaceful activist, whom was detained a few weeks ago by a fighter group during one of the protests." (SyriaHR, 3 4 13)

Abu Sakkar who fought with the Farouq Brigade, and now runs his own unit in the FSA was captured on film eating the organs of an Alawite fighter he had killed. What makes someone formerly considered a moderate do this? He says his brothers were killed during peaceful protests, his aunt and uncle were killed, his parents were arrested and then he was phoned up to listen to them being beaten. He has witnessed the destruction of Baba Amr. He has 14 wounds on his body. (BBC 5 July 13).

Whose revolution?

As Marcus must know this is just a short selection of possible recent examples, and yet this is the 'revolution' he wants to win. He acknowledges some concern about the nature of the opposition. But the question he needs to ask himself is not: how far must this situation travel before it becomes the 'perfect' communal war? - that is unhelpful and schematic. He needs to ask himself: what will the consequences be if this opposition defeats the central state - i.e. if what he wants to see - that the opposition is victorious - actually happens.

His answer appears to be: revolutions are messy, the situation is not perfect. Which is generally true, but concretely here, is an evasion. It is a 'left' version of Donald Rumsfeld's shrug, "stuff happens."

And it is also confused because he doesn't seem to distinguish between different types of 'revolution'. Marcus encourages us to read the story of a (failed) attempt by a Sunni Kurd from Homs to lead a mass desertion from an army unit. It is an interesting story that unfortunately for Marcus helps make our case:

Almost every officer in this unit was Alawite (20 of 23), and the Alawites didn't trust the three others; almost every ordinary soldier was Sunni.

The Sunnis mostly wanted to desert. Marcus's conclusion: it looks like a revolution to him (because soldiers are deserting to the opposition, the sort of thing which happens in revolutions). Suppose we concede the point: this is a revolution. But then we must ask another question - as this certainly isn't a socialist revolution, or anything like one, or one that might conceivably become socialist: Is this a 'revolution' we can support?

Unless we think all 'revolutions' are necessarily good, all militancy against a hated regime is always positive - we must ask the question: do we back this revolution? - Of course, there is plenty of evidence that some revolutions make things worse: Pol Pot, Stalin's revolution against the workers, Khomeini's revolution in Iran...

The AWL has concluded we should not back the victory of the rebel war. Why? Because we measure resistance to tyrants against what we positively want to see, not against how much damage is done to a particular regime.

Of course there was a wonderful beginning, millions of Syrians on the streets in 2011, coordinated by local committees. But the uprising has morphed into something different, and the power centres in the opposition are no longer local coordination committees but are with the militia leaders. The politics of the militia leaders are not good, plus there are multiple rebel political centres which virtually ensure a victory over the central state would lead to fragmentation, cantonisation, warlordism and further fighting. Opposition victory won't win democracy, women's or workers' rights. It will achieve economic destruction, partition, the abolition of a relatively normally functioning modern society and with it the possibility of progressive collective struggle.

But Marcus continues: "To argue, as Osborn does, that 'There is no oppositional force, good or bad, currently capable of replacing the existing state and keeping the country - more or less - together' is to take the normative forms of struggle in a labour movement dominated by social democratic reformism, by parliamentary careerists and trade union bureaucrats, and to apply it to precisely the sort of situation where by definition, the material preconditions for it do not and cannot exist."

Now Marcus is just wriggling around. He doesn't answer concretely: there are these forces, X, Y, Z we can identify that could replace the existing state and mark a step forward for democracy, human progress and the working class.

Really he says: this is REVOLUTION! Normal rules are gone. Instead of argument he insists that anyone who disagrees with him - that an assessment of the concrete circumstances, balance of power, forces in the struggle, actually matter - is a wretched social democrat. But we insist: there is a difference between the chaos of Barcelona late 1936, and Syria, 2013; between Paris, in May '68 and Syria 2013. Not all chaos is the same, some is good (from a working class perspective), some is dangerous.

The Sunnis and Assad

And what of Marcus's peculiar claim that the base of the regime support is Sunni? Of course 75% of Syria's 23 million population is Sunni. No doubt there are some Sunnis who still have jobs for the state who - while they might not like the state - are quiet. This is their base of support? Here Marcus equates passive acceptance with support.

It is true, of course, that the sectarian Alawite regime of the Assads (and if you accept this wording, you accept the main base of support is ... the Alawites) had reached an understanding with the Sunni capitalists and merchants (of Aleppo, the old business centre, for example). The merchants would leave politics to the Baathists as long as they were allowed to continue to enrich themselves. Does the Aleppo Sunni elite still back the Assads? That Sunni elite no longer exists - it has been dispersed, and the only economy left in Aleppo is the war economy of the regime, the activity organised by the opposition militias, and the black market operations also in the hands of the militias and state.

Why would the Sunni middle class back Assad, now? Assad has destroyed the country. Sure, they might be scared into silence, living in Lebanon, with bank accounts in Europe. But support the regime? Why?

Marcus describes the base of the opposition in this way: "The largest component of it [is] the peasantry and the semi-peasant, semi-proletarian population of the small towns and cities of Syria's countryside..." Or, to use words he wants to avoid: Sunnis in the countryside.

No doubt there are a small number of Alawites in the opposition; no doubt there is also still significant sympathy among Christians (alongside wariness) for the opposition; but there is no avoiding the fact that the opposition, especially the active opposition, is mainly Sunni. And the opposition is in its big majority actively hostile to Alawites - there are many reports, for example, of oppositionists testing captured government supporters' speech (accent and pronunciation) to weed out and kill Alawites.

Will the military split?

Halaby asks why has the military not split? And he quotes a commentator with approval: "The only independent variable you need to understand the resilience of the Syrian regime is the kin-based and sectarian (Alawite) nature of its military. All other purported factors are in fact dependent variables... The kin-based/sectarian nature of the military is what allows the regime to be not merely "repressive", but to be able to wage a full-fledged war against its own population... Sectarianism is a powerful instrument to make sure that you can use the army's full military might against the population..."

Yes, indeed! The army is organised around a sectarian core, serving a sectarian policy. Alawites control the army and Baath party machine, with other minorities bolted on if possible, and Sunnis distrusted (and in the case of the army often not used, but left on military bases, guarded by (Alawite run) intelligence services.)

As Catherine Philp writes, "Assad's inner circle is now almost completely comprised of blood relatives and fellow Alawites. The last Sunni and only remaining advocate of a negotiated settlement, the former vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa, was quietly removed from office last month." (The Times, 9 August 13).

A negotiated settlement? A third camp?

Is a negotiated settlement likely, possible, or something which socialists should advocate or welcome?

Although the US's and its European allies' preference is to see an end to the fighting, marginalisation or destruction of radical Islam, return of the refugees and a stable government in place in Syria which it can talk to and deal with, preferably without Assad, the US has no idea how to get such a settlement.

A negotiated solution certainly is possible, but not currently likely, soon. Might it become so? I don't know, but that is not really the point. Our role is not to advocate a rotten deal. We are not aiming to become brokers between the West, Russia, Assad and the FSA.

However if a deal is struck - not our deal, no doubt not pleasant, not done in the interests of the people - our role is to assess it against the possible, real alternatives. It is not our job to posture, or invent radical (but fantastical) alternatives from the comfort and safety of our south London bedrooms.

If it is true that 'victory to the opposition' will lead to much worse conditions (politically, and from a humanitarian point of view), we should not use the slogan (or similar); and we should ask ourselves what else might be possible, short of a victory for the regime.

The US think-tank, CRS (13 June 13) writes, correctly, I think, about the most likely current alternative: "If current trends hold, fighting may gradually turn from a two-sided war into a contest involving multiple combatants from armed ethnic/sectarian communities, rebel militias, and remnants of the old regime. External intervention, including Hezbollah and Iranian support for Assad and increased U.S. support for select opposition forces, may invite a cycle of counter-intervention from other parties."

So it is not a matter of calling for a rotten deal, advocating a rotten deal. But simply of an attitude towards a deal that may be done in the future, against a worse alternative (chaos, warlardisom, collapse, vast sectarian slaughter). To denounce and agitate against such a deal, when the alternative is worse (much worse, possibly), would be wretched.

How not to pose a problem

Marcus: "I might pose the problem as follows: there is a struggle going on within the revolution, just as there is in Egypt and Tunisia, except that the prolonged nature of the revolution and civil war has meant that it is taking place now, even before the regime has even fallen."

This is Marcus's weakest point. In Egypt and Tunisia there are powerful independent trade unions and organised leftists. There are women's organisations and independent media. There is space to organise and discuss. Non of this exists in Syria.

Marcus talks of the "unicorn" of the Third Camp. This unicorn is trotting around in Tunisia and Egypt. Not so Syria.

There is a struggle going on in Syria, but it is different to the struggle going on in Egypt and Tunisia. The battle in Syria is between different wings of the armed opposition, the state, outside powers - there is no left, no unions, and only the remnants of the original opposition remain, hemmed in by militarised groups.

Not to be able note the qualitative differences between the fight between the FSA and Islamists (in so far as it exists) in Syria, and the recent general strike by the Tunisian unions against Islamist violence, is to be seriously disorientated. They are different types of struggle.


Marcus accuses the AWL of, "Searching in Syria for a working-class agency ... and failing to see one behind all the beards," which causes us to fall for "the favoured device of imperialist diplomacy and bourgeois journalism to talk of the threat or actuality of 'failed states', 'age-old ethnic hatreds' and 'chaos' precisely in those situations where the ruling class sees no obvious or credible agent capable of executing its will and managing its affairs for it at an acceptable price."

The problem here is not that the bourgeoisie manages the truth to serve its own interests. It does, and of course we know that. However, when the US declares that Syria is (pretty much) a failed state and there is chaos in Syria - they are right.

(Marcus, assess the matter independently! Reading bourgeois policy statements and assuming the opposite is true is not Marxism!)

And the implication of "...and failing to see [a working class agency] behind all the beards..." is terrible. Marcus can't believe there are unions and workers' parties in Syria. He must mean: given the lack of a working class agency the men with the beards will do. Our problem is not beards per se (sometimes I forget to shave myself), but what these particular people with beards think and do: the men that run the opposition militias are not a substitute for a workers' movement (or the mass popular, democratic movement which existed in Syria two years ago - also featuring men with beards, but with different political intentions to the current militia leaders).

To believe the current Syrian opposition can substitute for the workers or the original plebeian mass mobilisation is a really serious 'Orthodox Trotskyist' delusion. Instead Marcus should face the unpleasant truth.

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