Interview with a Syrian socialist activist
The scorched-earth war of the Assad dictatorship, backed by allies Russia and Iran, against the Syrian Revolution has attained a critical victory with the conquest of the rebellion stronghold of Eastern Aleppo. Now the left must place a premium on understanding the lessons of what happened — and what it will mean for the region.
Joseph Daher is a Swiss-Syrian socialist activist and founder of the Syria Freedom Forever blog. He toured the U.S. and Canada February 9-17 to speak about his recent book Hezbollah: Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God. Ashley Smith interviewed Daher about conditions in Syria and the situation for the remnants of revolutionaries after Aleppo, as well as the role that Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia fundamentalist party, has played.
The interview is republished from SocialistWorker.org, where the full text includes a discussion of Daher’s book on Hezbollah, omitted here.
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AFTER THE conquest of Aleppo, Assad’s counterrevolution seems to have decisively set back the Syrian Revolution. What impact will this have on the remnants of genuine revolutionaries? Also, how have the Islamic fundamentalist forces that came to predominate in the opposition to Assad’s regime responded?
THE LOSS of Eastern Aleppo is, of course, a big blow for the various opposition forces, but especially for the democratic opposition forces. The regime and its allies targeted Eastern Aleppo because of its political and economic significance.
We must remember today that the Syrian Revolution began as a mass popular uprising against the dictatorship. Just like everywhere in the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the people rose up for democracy and liberation. And in Syria, the people liberated whole sections of the country from Assad’s regime.
The revolution faced both Assad’s counterrevolution, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, as well as a counterrevolution waged by Islamic fundamentalist forces like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey backed many of the fundamentalist forces, while the U.S. tried to manipulate and steer the rebellion into an orderly transition to preserve the regime without Assad, although they have progressively abandoned even this position.
Eastern Aleppo was the most significant of all the liberated cities that had begun to create a popular democratic alternative to the dictatorship. The regime has most feared progressive and democratic organizations and activists, even with all their imperfections.
All the global and regional powers also want to liquidate the Syrian revolution’s democratic aspirations in the name of the “war on terror.” Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. elections will most likely lead to some grand coalition to prosecute this aim.
Tragically, each defeat of the democratic resistance has strengthened and benefited the Islamic fundamentalist forces on the ground. The fall of Aleppo has produced the same results. But this time, it has also produced splits and conflicts between different Islamic fundamentalist forces in the countryside around Idlib and Aleppo.
On January 23, Fateh al-Sham, the former al-Qaeda affiliate, launched attacks on armed opposition groups, first on the [Free Syrian Army, or FSA] coalition of Jaysh al-Mujahideen and then other Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Suqur al-Sham.
Fateh al-Sham justified this new offensive as preemptive acts to “thwart conspiracies” against it by the armed opposition forces attending the negotiations held in Kazakhstan. In response, several armed opposition groups, including other Islamic fundamentalist movements, expelled Fateh al-Sham from areas around Aleppo and Idlib.
In a defensive move, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and six other armed opposition groups announced their merger with Ahrar Sham in northwestern Syria in order to fend off the assault by Fateh al-Sham. A few days later, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham responded by announcing the formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition composed of Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zinki and three other Islamic factions.
The establishment of the two rival coalitions was accompanied by a series of defections from Ahrar a-Sham to HTS, including Abu Jaber Hashem al-Shakh, the former general commander of Ahrar a-Sham. Since then, dozens of armed opposition battalions and their leaders have chosen a side, either merging with Ahrar a-Sham or HTS.
Since the mergers, infighting was nearly completely ended, continuing only through propaganda and official statements. The unaligned Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades are pressured to join one of the two coalitions, at the risk of being repressed if they don’t.
The local populations, which have long opposed the fundamentalists, have expressed anger about these internal clashes, and many even staged protests calling for an end to them.
The future of the struggle for liberation against the regime by Arabs, Kurds and others for a better Syria is getting darker every day, and there are no grounds for optimism in the short term. Nevertheless, even in these dire circumstances, there remain some local and democratic popular struggles against both the regime and its reactionary Islamic fundamentalist opponents.
WHAT WILL be the likely outcome of the Russian-backed negotiations? What is the role of the various imperial and regional powers in imposing a settlement and could it hold?
FIRST OF all, it is important to say that these negotiations are really between different wings of the counterrevolution. On one side, you have Assad’s regime and its backers, Russia and Iran.
On the other, you have Turkey, along with armed opposition groups, both the FSA networks and Islamic fundamentalist groups. Mohammed Alloush, a representative of Jaysh al-Islam, a Salafist group supported by Saudi Arabia, is leading them.
Turkey has reached a rapprochement with Moscow and no longer demands the departure of Bashar al-Assad. Now it is solely focused on preventing any form of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria.
The democratic and civilian components of the popular movement are completely sidelined in the negotiations, and with that, so are the initial objectives of the revolution for democracy, social justice and equality.
There have been no clear outcomes from the negotiations in Kazakhstan, despite a public relations coup for the three powers sponsoring the talks. They reaffirmed and reasserted their influence in Syria and on various actors in the country.
Assad, Russia and Iran have successfully recast their counterrevolution as a fight against “terrorism” in Syria. Turkey has now joined that chorus, as has the U.S. under Trump.
In a new development, Russia and Turkey are now engaged in joint military acts. At the end of December, Russian jets assisted Turkish military forces and its allies in attacking ISIS targets around the northern Syrian town of al-Bab. In mid January, the Russian and Turkish air forces conducted their first joint air operation to strike ISIS fighters in the suburbs of al-Bab.
Even the U.S. backed the Syria peace talks in Astana and hoped they would produce a settlement. There is now, and has been for a while, a near consensus between all international and regional powers around some key points: to liquidate the remnants of the revolutionary popular movement; stabilize the regime in Damascus and retain Bashar al-Assad at least for the short to medium term; oppose Kurdish autonomy; and wage joint war to defeat ISIS and Fateh al-Sham.
I don’t think any real change on the ground can occur without the departure of Assad and his clique. Without, there is unlikely to be an end of the war, let alone any kind of transition towards a democratic system.
As a result, the war will likely continue in some form, with a catastrophic impact on Syrian civilians. Assad’s regime and its allies will continue to crush everything opposing them.
WHAT’S YOUR explanation for why so many left and antiwar organizations have betrayed the Syrian Revolution?
SOME SECTIONS of the left and antiwar organizations have analyzed the Syrian revolutionary process only in geopolitical terms. They looked at it from above, as a contest between various states, and ignored the revolution from below entirely.
Of course, imperial and regional powers did intervene in the revolution for their own purposes. On one side, the Western states, Gulf monarchies and Turkey attempted to manipulate and use the uprising.
On the other, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah backed Assad to the hilt. Much of the left wrongly considered the latter an “anti-imperialist” bloc. This analysis led some to deny or ignore the revolutionary dynamic.
The truth, however, is that the Syrian Revolution was not a cat’s paw of other powers. It began as a genuine mass movement from below for the overthrow of the regime and for freedom and dignity, just like all the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.
Sections of the left that discount the revolution and only see it as a contest between imperialism and so-called anti-imperialism ignore the fact that the major powers allegedly opposed to Assad have also collaborated with him. For example, Assad and the U.S. collaborated during the so-called “war on terror.” Turkey and Qatar enjoyed very close relations with Syria’s regime before the uprising. And Saudi Arabia was the main foreign investor in the country before 2011.
And after the revolution started, the U.S. was not committed to regime change, but an orderly transition to preserve the regime minus Assad. But the U.S. even abandoned this stance, striking de facto collaboration with Assad against ISIS.
Both sides of the imperial and regional rivalry share one commitment in common — the defeat of the popular revolution in Syria and throughout the region. The last thing any of them want is radical democracy anywhere in the Middle East.
So many sections of the left dismissed the Syrian Revolution. That only intensified after the expansion of ISIS and its terrorist attacks in Europe and Turkey. Since then, the right and this section of the “left” agree on the need to preserve Assad’s regime and the other dictatorships in the region in order to defeat ISIS.
Ironically, this puts both the right and this section of the “left” in agreement with the Trump administration and American imperialism. So much for the so-called anti-imperialist left’s anti-imperialism!
The various imperialist and regional powers’ adoption of this so-called realist policy toward Assad in the hopes of getting rid of ISIS will fail. We have to remember that Assad and the other powers fueled the development of ISIS and similar sister organizations.
They emerged as the result of authoritarian regimes crushing popular movements linked to the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The interventions of regional and international states have contributed to ISIS’s development as well.
Finally, neoliberal policies that have impoverished the popular classes, together with the repression of democratic social and trade union forces, have been key in providing ISIS and Islamic fundamentalist forces the space to grow.
The left must understand that only by getting rid of these conditions can we resolve the crisis. That means we have to side with the democratic and progressive groups on the ground fighting to overthrow authoritarian regimes, defeat the counterrevolutionary Islamic fundamentalists, and replace neoliberalism with a more egalitarian social order in Syria and the region.
But there is a deeper problem on much of the left that predates the Syrian uprising. Too many who call themselves socialists looked to states like Stalin’s Russia in the past or other similar regimes today as either representatives of a better society, or at least as opponents of American imperialism.
That led them to turn a blind eye to those societies’ structures of exploitation and oppression. And in the cases of China and Russia today, it leads them to deny the reality of those societies’ capitalist and imperialist policies.
I think what is at stake on the left is how we understand socialism, anti-imperialism and solidarity. As leftists, I believe our support must go to the revolutionary people struggling for freedom and emancipation from below, and not authoritarian and capitalist states, or any regional and international imperialists.
Only through their own collective action can workers and oppressed people achieve their goals. This concept, which is at the heart of revolutionary politics, tragically faces profound skepticism on some sections of the left. This is the real problem, and it must be overcome by a new generation of socialists.
WHAT SHOULD Syrian radicals do now to prepare for the next round of struggle in the coming years?
FIRST, SYRIAN radicals should call for an end to the war, which has created terrible suffering. It has led to massive displacement of people within the country and driven millions out of it as refugees. The war only benefits the counterrevolutionary forces on all sides.
From both a political and humanitarian perspective, the end of the war in Syria is an absolute necessity. It is the only way to give space for the democratic and progressive forces to reorganize and return to playing a leading role in the struggle for a new and democratic Syria.
Likewise, we must reject all the attempts to legitimize Assad’s regime, and we must oppose all agreements that enable it to play any role in the country’s future. A blank cheque given to Assad today will encourage future attempts by other authoritarian states to crush their populations if they came to revolt.
Assad and his various partners in the regime must be held accountable for their crimes. The same goes for the Islamic fundamentalist forces and other armed groups.
We need to gather and unite the democratic and progressive actors and movements against both sides of the counterrevolution — the regime and its Islamic fundamentalist opponents. We have to build an independent front based on opposition to all forms of discrimination.
We have to rekindle the popular movement for radical change of society from below. We have to rebuild coalitions like “al-Watan,” established in February 2012 by 14 progressive and democratic organizations.
It was involved in the popular movement to overthrow the regime and replace it with a democratic state. The regime repressed it and it has since disappeared. But it is a precedent on which we can rebuild the mass movement in the coming years.
Also, Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, has compiled a dossier of articles on the conflict in Syria, presenting various viewpoints. Well worth consulting: http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/314.
For detailed analysis of the Syrian revolutionary democratic uprising, see the blog by Michael Karadjis.