Revolution and counterrevolution in Syria

It began with children. And it began in March 2011 in a small farming town in Syria’s arid south. A group of boys had scrawled graffiti across a wall whose words read: “The people / want / to topple the regime!” The children in question, between the ages of ten and fifteen, had picked up this slogan from watching television, before hastily daubing it onto stone in a moment of childlike derring-do and wonder. They had been inspired by the scenes of crowds of hundreds of thousands, flocking the streets during the Arab Spring, which was breaking out across North Africa and parts of Arabia at the time.

The young are most susceptible to the winds of change, perhaps because, for them, the panorama of the future is still so open, and its possibilities can seem invigorating and endless. The images of those protestors exploding out from cities in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria must have seemed to the young boys as fantastic harbingers of the exciting and ever-changing world they were on the cusp of stepping into. Perhaps, by their small act of clandestine rebellion, they felt as though they too were embarking on their own great adventure.

Those who would disabuse them of this notion were not children. They were grown men. And they were neither credulous nor hopeful. Rather they were the hired thugs who operate on the part of a state apparatus, which seeks only to perpetuate itself in and through the monotonous application of dull, unthinking cruelty. Those men, hardened by years of state service, were well used to carrying out their inhuman work in gloomy interrogation rooms, and it was in such rooms that they made themselves known to the children. By beating them. By burning them. By pulling their fingernails out.

The regime

It is worth noting that such “interviews” were carried out in the cells of the local Political Security branch and conducted under the control of one General Atef Najeeb who just so happened to be a cousin of the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime had always been cruel, of course, even in the time of his father, Hafez al-Assad.1 But at its outset in 1963, the Ba’athist state’s stability had been guaranteed by more than just force. The surreptitious, behind-the-scenes terror orchestrated by an increasingly well-honed secret police, was also complemented by large investments in social works.

In its early phase, as Shamel Azmeh points out, the regime was bound to projects of industrialization and land reform, which cultivated a social base in the countryside; especially after Syria began to more vociferously exploit its reserves of oil in 1968:

During the 1970s in particular, Assad expanded the state-led developmental model in Syria. This included large investment in state-owned enterprises; large public infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, and energy projects; investments in agriculture; a large expansion in spending on health and education; and a large electrification program in rural areas. It also included the gradual expansion of a large subsidies system that covered basic food products, energy, agricultural inputs, fertilizers, and machinery. These changes ushered in a rapid expansion in agricultural production.2

As the Marxist writer Louis Proyect points out reforms that “helped to create jobs in the public sector, provide health services, guarantee free education, and ensure that working people had access to cheap energy and food,”3 were complemented by the development of a Stalinist-like state, with a muscular security service, where “political parties, trade unions, student associations, and women’s groups were depoliticized by attaching them to the Baathist machine.”4 Indeed, Syria under Assad the elder was heavily funded by its gargantuan Soviet neighbor to the north, who saw in it a useful proxy for imperial power and a gateway to the Mediterranean via a base the USSR had installed at the Syrian port of Tartus in 1971.

But in the decades that followed several processes would intersect and work to undermine the gains that the Syrian population, particularly the rural poor, had seen. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant not just the loss of funds that came from the “largesse” of the “communist” government, but also removed from the economic arena a significant market for the export of Syrian goods—and agricultural goods in particular. From 1996–2004 there was a decline in oil production from 590,000 barrels per day to 460,000 barrels per day5—partly as a result of fields which had been discovered in the 1960s but then had reached maturity with yields tapering off at slower rates. In addition, between 1970 and 2011, the population of Syria expanded from 6.1 million to 22 million, creating an almost unsustainable pressure on a labor market that was already in the throes of contraction.

Neoliberalism and social crisis

Although Bashar al-Assad inherited the legacy of the Pan-Arab nationalism of his father’s regime, and although he decked himself out in the regalia and the rhetoric of populist anticolonialism, when push came to shove the dictator proved to be an eminently pragmatic individual. In the context of a global neoliberalism, where governments across the board were enacting the most pronounced forms of deregulation and overseeing the carving up of state industries by private capital, the Assad government responded to the heightening contradictions in the Syrian economy by following suit—by showing the ability to march to the tempo of foreign investment while evincing a willingness to cut subsidies for workers and farmers.

A period of neoliberal reform was opened up, which the dictator euphemistically described as a social market economy. In reality, the regime capped public employment, liberalized trade, and privatized medical care. Such fiscal solutions provided, as they nearly always do, a temporary boon—wealthy neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar flooded the economy with billions in investment, directed specifically toward the lucrative real estate and tourist trades, which, in turn, saw a boost to financial services, leisure activities, and communications.

But, as always, such measures provided only the type of palliative that temporarily warded off the deeper, underlying contradictions, which were gestating in the economy at an elemental level. Governmental investment poured into the rich suburban areas where a new elite enjoyed state-funded improvements to roads, the creation of more traffic tunnels, the beautification of streets adorned with multicolor lighting systems and lined by elegant, carefully tended trees, and streets along which cruised the latest luxury sports cars. Indeed as Shamel Azmeh notes, “the liberalization of imports led, between 2003 and 2007, to a 122 percent increase in the number of private cars in Syria.”6

But no such impetus was provided to the development of public transport and the number of buses didn’t increase. And while the most salubrious areas in cities like Damascus seemed to be booming with their elite denizens appearing at twilight, champagne-sparkling soirees all photographed in the latest glossy magazines—to the arid northeastern provinces of Raqqa, Hassaka, and Deir ez-Zor (collectively known as the Jezira) the people were left to eke out an existence which might have come straight from the pages of Steinbeck.

The neoliberal reforms projected out from the urban heartlands and the seat of power was diminishing the already meager earnings of small farmers and rural workers, like rays from the beating, relentless desert sun, and in 2007 when a drought set in, the situation in the countryside began to enter a social crisis. The Jezira, which constituted more than a third of Syria’s overall territory and produced the majority of Syria’s wheat, began to suffer crop failures. Neoliberal measures had destroyed the capacity of farms to adequately respond to the danger, and this posed peasants with an existential crisis.

As Proyect points out, the wells that could have provided the remedy to the rain shortage were often in a state of disrepair or, more simply, they were just unaffordable: “Not only were agricultural supports removed by the dictatorship; fuel was no longer subsidized. The price for a gallon of gasoline rose by 350 percent. This meant that motor pumps, so essential to drawing water from underground wells, became difficult to afford.”7 Myrian Ababsa describes the consequences in the grimmest of terms:

The drought put an end to decades of development in the fields of health and education in the Jezira, and the sanitary situation became dramatic. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governance suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five years doubled between 2007 and 2009. To complicate matters, vegetable and fruit growers in dry northern Syria used polluted river water to irrigate their crops, causing outbreaks of food poisoning among consumers, according to environmental and medical experts. Experts pointed out that the problem stemmed from sewage and chemicals allowed to reach rivers in rural areas near Aleppo, Lattakia, and Raqqa. . . . Between 160 and 220 villages were abandoned in Hassaka governance. The wells dried up and the population could not afford to bring water from private tankers at a cost of 2,000 SYP per month (about 30 euros).8

Social crisis and popular revolt

The way in which Syria more and more came to rely on oil imports rather than exports, the collapse of the USSR along with the subsidies it provided and its foreign markets, the turn to neoliberalism on the part of Assad and the further impoverishment of agriculture, the emergence of a bloated financial sector, and a new middle class premised on an industry of luxury consumer goods and services—all these processes and developments seemed to converge at the point when the drought kicked in, creating a situation in the countryside of the most desperate suffering and upheaval, a situation which at once spilled over into the larger towns, as the multitudes of rural poor affected great and terrible migrations in a last-ditch attempt to ensure survival. These huddled, displaced masses swelled cities like Homs, cities which are situated in the agricultural heartlands, cities which were already poor and overburdened, and could not but buckle under the sudden influx of the economic refugees.

As the levels of poverty skyrocketed, it was the suburbs on the fringes of cities like Aleppo or Damascus, where the migrants who had arrived with next to nothing and who were now eking out a subsistence-level existence based in the informal economy as odd-jobs men or street vendors—it was these elements who would become the motivating force in the political and social unrest that began to mount. And it was against this backdrop that those children scrawled across a crumbling wall the prophetic message “The people / want / to topple the regime!” It was a message that would resonate with a power they could scarcely have imagined.

On Friday, March 18, 2011, after midday prayer, the parents of those children, alongside a smattering of supporters, took part in a peaceful march, which culminated in a gathering outside the governor’s house in their town of Dara’a. The protest carried a rather simple demand—to see the missing children returned to their families. The security forces also responded in the simplest way—by turning their guns on the protestors. And when ambulances arrived to ferry the injured to hospitals, the soldiers barred their entrance, and the wounded and the bleeding were instead taken to a local mosque where basic medical care was hastily improvised on an ad hoc basis.

Perhaps every revolution has its genesis in just such a moment, one of casual, callous cruelty on the part of an ossified regime—a regime for whom torture and murder had become as much a part of the regulation of civic life as the issuing of parking tickets. In downtown Dara’a it was simply business as usual, conducted with high-powered automatic weaponry and a soldier’s snarl.

And yet, the news of the shootings spread like wildfire and in Damascus a 200-strong crowd took to the streets, and now the demands were more and more uttered in general terms—“God, Syria, and freedom only,” the protestors chanted. The need for justice was greeted with more violence, with police batons, but by now a further protest of some 2,000 people had broken out in Homs, and a couple of days later, everything came full circle when in Dara’a once more, the funerals of two protesters who had been killed the previous day were attended by thronging crowds of 20,000.9

The protesters’ demands were growing ever more strident, demanding the release of political prisoners who had been incarcerated by the regime over the last few decades. Once again the cry for freedom was met with a hail of bullets, but the revolution, it seemed, was swifter than desert winds, and within days the conflagration had engulfed the southern towns of Inkhil, Nawa, Al-Sanamayn, and Jasim. Revolutionary fire had spread across the rural areas, which surrounded Damascus and was rippling up the Mediterranean coast reaching areas as far afield as the historic city of Banias at the foot of Mount Hermon. At the same time the struggle had graduated in its intensity—in Dara’a people burned the local Ba’ath party headquarters to the ground and also decimated a branch of the SyriaTel phone company—a company owned by possibly the richest businessman in Syria, Rami Makhlouf—yet another cousin of the ghastly, bristling, moustachioed ghoul who was ensconced at the head of the country like a canker.

Assad unleashes Sunni jihadists

The Assad regime, murderous and top-heavy, resonating malice, dimly began to apprehend the nature of the movement that threatened it. Alongside the most draconian application of state violence, the regime now made some hasty concessions to the protesters, offering to release several students who had been detained in previous protests.10 The governor in Dara’a—Faisal Kulthum—who had been a focal point of the initial protests was removed from his position.11

At the same time, however, the government used the mass media to slander the protestors, to present the revolution as the chaos orchestrated by subversive international interests (the Israelis and the Palestinians were both implicated in the role of foreign infiltrators). Such variegated tactics on the part of the Assad regime had a classically Stalinist flavor, designed to inculcate confusion by offering a glimmer of compromise which would then act as a cover for another bout of the most sustained and brutal violence, before supplementing that with a strategy of misdirection in which the hidden hand of a sinister foreign conspiracy was presented.

All with the unified aim of undermining the cohesion of the developing revolutionary moment, but now Assad would deploy what was possibly the most Stalinist move in his repertoire yet. One of the tactics the old Soviet dictator would resort to—when faced with mass unrest in the labor camps—would be to bus in a multitude of common criminals in the expectation that they would turn on the activists and the energy of heightening resistance directed toward the authorities would swiftly be dispersed. It was an incredibly effective gambit, it must be said. Assad would do something similar, only instead of unleashing a group of common criminals, he chose to empty the jails of various Islamic fundamentalists, effectively using them as a toxin whose spores could be wafted toward the burgeoning revolutionary movement from the outside, a form of ideological pathogen which would set in and at once start to eat into the resistance like a corrosive, flesh-eating disease.

A former member of Syria’s military intelligence relates how many such releases were enacted, especially during the four-month period leading up to October 2011. In this time, those who were released from facilities such as the Saidnaya prison would become some of the major players in the Islamic extremist groups which would often go on to be locked into a life and death struggle with the revolutionaries on the ground. As the journalist Phil Sands points out, men like “Zahran Aloush, commander of the Jaish Al Islam; Abdul Rahman Suweis of the Liwa al Haq; Hassan Aboud of Ahrar Al Sham; and Ahmad Aisa Al Sheikh, commander of Suqour Al Sham, were all held in regime jails prior to the uprising.”12

This has to be assimilated into any historical narrative of the process of revolution and counterrevolution as it developed in Syria. The majority of accounts promoted by those on the left in particular tend to present the Syrian civil war in terms of a somewhat progressive secular state locked in combat with the darkest strains of Islamic medievalism. But while it is true that the Assad regime has battled against elements of Islamic fundamentalism at different times and to varying degrees, it is also true that such groups have provided one of the central buffers in insulating the regime from the revolution more broadly.

Assad has consciously cultivated rabid fundamentalist groups for this very purpose time and time again, and that is why the release of many of their leaders by the Assad government in 2011 has to be seen in light of a developing trend and ongoing political strategy. To see in the Syrian civil war only a simple and undifferentiated opposition between a species of Arab secularism and religious fundamentalism is to cleave to an anti-dialectical vision in which the perverse but symbiotic relationship between the Assad regime and certain fundamentalist groups goes entirely overlooked.

Assad’s reign of terror

In the period of time when Assad was emptying the jails to provide these carcinogenic fundamentalist groups, the danger the revolution posed to his regime had become a mortal one. At the end of July 2011 the Free Syrian Army was formed, an entity which would provide the militarized core of the revolutionary movement, and whose numbers were made up primarily of defectors from the Syrian national army (SAA).

In times past the SAA had been used by Assad senior to quell local rebellions by the most bloodthirsty means. For example, the series of clashes which had been taking place between the Ba’athist state and Sunni Islamist fighters, and which broke out sporadically in decades before, reached a bloody dénouement in 1982 when Hafez al-Assad ordered military forces to besiege the town of Hama where a Sunni uprising was in motion. The massacre was prolonged, lasting almost a month; sustained shelling and tank incursions were complemented by the torture and mass executions of those who were suspected of being rebel sympathizers. The Syrian Human Rights Committee estimated the massacre claimed over 25,000 lives, denouncing it as “genocide and a crime against humanity.”13

But in enacting its terrible crime, the state remained in a somewhat paradoxical position, for it was attempting to liquidate a Sunni uprising against a predominantly Alawite regime by means of an army corps whose members were themselves, in a great majority, Sunnis. It was for this reason that the structure of the Syrian army had been cultivated by Hafez al-Assad in a very particular way. The regular army forces who were by and large Sunnis were attached to highly specialized leaderships which had often been carved out of the material of the regime itself, who were extended members of the Alawite clan which now monopolized the state machine and whose loyalty to the Assads was welded by blood.

In addition, such military units were reinforced by Shabiha paramilitaries. These emerged out of racketeers who ran the smuggling routes of the coastal Alawite heartlands. The regime turned them into a powerful arm of the state’s repressive apparatus, which could rob, rape, and murder at will, and with impunity.

The regime added these militias to a Syrian army that it had effectively restructured under Alawite leadership as a honed response to the social composition of its rank and file, specifically the Sunni majority who reflected a larger Sunni bias in the population more broadly.14 The refashioned army had proved to be an effective tool against Sunni rebellions, of which Homs provided the most notable example. But it is worth remembering that the uprising in 1982, which had taken place under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood, had failed fundamentally to link to any greater pockets of resistance in the Syrian territories more broadly.

In 2011, the situation was radically different. This time the revolution had broken out across the board. Sam Charles Hamad lucidly diagnoses the situation when he writes that such “a popular revolution embroiled the regime in a counterinsurgency strategy that requires ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and the mass killing of civilians.”15 Such a crackdown would more and more promote the broiling resentments of the Sunni soldiers who found themselves having to turn their guns on their repressed brethren, and this translated into the type of pressure which would rapidly and inevitably cause the military machine to strain and fragment.

Throughout 2011 and 2012 Assad’s army was disorganized by desertions and defections and, as Hamad points out, this led to the quite startling situation in which Assad himself was compelled to demobilize two thirds of his own armed forces.16 Not only was the regime being wracked by the hammer blows of the revolution, its army was evaporating week by week, hour by hour. It was in this context that the Free Syrian Army was established at the end of July 2011.17

Its spokesperson Riad Mousa al-Asaad, a former colonel in the Syrian Air Force, described its agenda: “We announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army to work hand-in-hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down, protect the revolution and the country’s resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the regime.”18

Assad’s strategy of divide and conquer

Given the breadth and depth of the revolution, and the rapid disintegration of the Syrian army, how was the survival of the Assad regime even conceivable? One factor is the way it was able to detach and neutralize potential avenues of support for the rebels. Such was the case with the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria or Rojava with its large Kurdish population. This region is run on a largely autonomous basis in terms of three self-governing “cantons,” which operate through a grassroots system of communes and councils.

Under normal circumstances, it would have provided a natural ally to the Syrian revolution. The Kurds had fought against Assad and his repression in the past; indeed in 2011, “the Syrian independence flag—which replaced the Baath flag—flew side-by-side with the Kurdish flag in opposition-held territory throughout the country.”19 Many Kurdish activists helped besieged Arab rebels by providing food, medical supplies, and even housing in the early stages of the revolution.

However in a particularly shrewd move, Assad for the first time granted Rojava autonomy from the Syrian state in 2012 with the hope of preventing Arab-Kurdish solidarity. He did this in a behind-the-scenes agreement with the PYD parties, an offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Assad offered the PYD the chance to consolidate political control over Kurdish Syria, and in return this organization rejected the cause of the Syrian rebels and even sent forces to fight against them.20

Tragically, some Arab forces within the Syrian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, fell for Assad’s trick of splitting the revolution along ethnic lines. These refused to acknowledge the oppressed Kurd’s right to self-determination. As a result, the opportunity for joint revolutionary unity among Kurds and Arabs was squandered.

Assad also tried to split the revolt along sectarian lines. He portrayed the uprising as a Sunni terrorist threat not only to the regime but also the religious minorities. He gave content to this charge by releasing Sunni jihadists from his jails, and they went on to form a fifth column within the revolution, targeting not just the regime but also Alawi, Christian, and Druze communities. The regime further weaponized sectarianism by arming vigilante groups—so-called “popular committees”—among religious minorities. These were eventually brought together in a unified body known as the National Defense Forces.

Iran and Russia buttress the regime

Such an initiative was launched to fill the void left by the collapsing SAA, but it was conceivable only as a result of funding flooding in from the Iranian state, which was hungry to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime in Damascus as a proxy for its own power and a bulwark of Shia hegemony in the region more broadly. In fact The Economist argued that, by February 2012, Iran had already provided Assad with $9 billion of financial assistance that was essential in solidifying the National Defense Forces (NDF). 21 This aid also enabled the regime to offer significantly more money to soldiers drawn from the lumpen sections of Syrian society.

Even more dramatically, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards began to train the NDF shock troops in guerrilla warfare, and Teheran armed these forces with a steady cache of the most up-to-date, high-powered weaponry. It also convinced their Lebanese offshoot, Hezbollah, to join it in delivering military instruction in 2011 at facilities dotted around Syria. Hezbollah openly launched its military intervention on the side of the regime with an assault on the rebel-held Qusayr in 2013, a siege which lasted some three weeks and saw the battle-hardened, armed-to-the-teeth Lebanese militia outgun the home-grown Sunni fighters on the ground, while planes from Assad’s air force screeched through the sky, strafing the rebels with fire from above.

Since its liberation in mid-2012, Qusayr had become one of the beacons of the Syrian revolution, and the Assad regime had not felt confident enough to retake the city until they were fully backed by their Iranian and Lebanese allies and the sheer military superiority that they provided. When the reconquest did take place, Mark Boothroyd rather poignantly reminds us of just what was lost: “The opposition [had] established a local council and organised the provision of public services, reopened schools and governed for the people. It was an example of the possibility of creating a free, democratic Syria.”22

A contrast is inevitably invited. The contrast between the Syrian state regime, saturated by foreign finance, fortified by the latest and most sophisticated weaponry from abroad, bolstered by legions of seasoned international fighters, and on the other side the rebels themselves: civilian volunteers or army deserters who were more often than not improvising their resistance from scratch, using weaponry which had been pilfered from the SAA or smuggled across the border, and whose quality was often inadequate or out of date.

The nature of Western intervention

Much has been made of Western imperial support for the rebels in the early years of the revolution. This has, in fact, been an ideological lynchpin of first the Iranian and then the Russian military interventions as they took the side of the Assad government. Such interventions were framed in the spirit of anticolonial rhetoric in which Iran and Russia purported to come to the aid of a beleaguered state very much at the mercy of a rapacious Western imperialism that was seeking to carve the country up according to the appetites of the US government and the International Monetary Fund.

Such accounts glossed over Assad’s own neoliberal adventures and his collaboration with American imperialism through support of the Gulf War and even George Bush Jr.’s program of extraordinary rendition, in which Assad’s jailers tortured prisoners for information sent to the CIA. But it was certainly true that, in the early stages, the West did give some backing to the Syrian rebels. What is absolutely vital, however, is that the quantity and quality of such assistance was on an entirely different scale than that being offered to Assad by his plethora of international backers.

Western powers did not intervene in a direct military capacity until the middle of 2014, and when they did so their bombs were targeted at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, rather than the military installations of the Assad regime. As Boothroyd points out, “By mid-2013 the Free Syrian Army had received only $12 million of a promised $60 million of aid from the US.”23

On top of this, the flow of money and arms from the West to the rebels was tentative and sporadic. In 2013 a commander of the Islamist group Soquor al-Sham said of the international support they were receiving, “The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little. . . . They open and they close the way to the bullets like water.”24 The United States even went so far as to block a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons called MANPADs, which would have enabled the Free Syrian Army to neutralize the sole advantage over the armed revolution—airpower.25

Why were the Western powers so lackluster in the support they offered up? Assad, like Gadhafi before him, had shown a certain ability to compromise with Western interests when they coincided with his own. But at the same time he had remained something of a volatile and unknown quantity, a dictator who was less than pliable and determined to forge alliances with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that have remained anathema to Washington from day one.

More critically, however, the United States was less than persuaded by the forces that were developing against Assad. The US stood against the rabid strains of Islamic fundamentalism represented by ISIS and certain Al Qaeda affiliates. But it was also nervous about more secular and democratic trends, often turning its back on the fight for survival such people were engaged in, either by ignoring them or—in words uttered by then-president Barack Obama—blithely dismissing them as “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists.”26

Behind the suggestion that the more secularly inclined strands of the resistance were incapable of forming an effective fighting force lurks the more invisible suspicion housed by imperial powers toward the development of any popular movement which emboldens the poor. It was the kind of suspicion the US administration had evinced to the social movements, which had developed throughout the Arab Spring. Consider, for example, the US administration’s initial support for the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak even as people gathered in the thousands to risk their lives in protest against his regime. His was, of course, a bloody dictatorship which was closely allied with American imperial interests and had been heavily funded by the United States for decades, so when Mubarak was faced by the specter of a popular uprising, President Obama at once sent his lobbyist Frank Wiser to Egypt27 in order to advise the old murderer on how to save the decadent, crumbling charnel house his regime had become.

It was only when the upswell from the masses achieved such force and momentum threatening not only Mubarak but the entire state that Obama appeared on television and the radio stations around the world to laud the values of democracy in somber, reverent tones and to explain why Mubarak really should have the decency to bow to the will of the people and abdicate his position. In Yemen too the United States supported the old regime and only under duress adopted a policy of orderly transition, which was designed to preserve the regime minus the dictator.

In Syria, the United States and other Western imperial powers had at best a similar policy of orderly transition. They would use the rebels as a force to convince Assad to step down but preserve the state and maintain the existing economic order. Thus rebels in Syria received a drip-drip program of foreign aid from their Western “sponsors,” a program which was often curtailed, sometimes running dry in the very moments when the revolutionary thrust seemed to be gaining purchase and the need for bullets was most pressing. The triumvirate of the US, Britain, and the old imperial master of Syria, France, were profoundly ambivalent toward the popular power, which was developing from below. Assad’s backers, on the other hand, showed no such reticence.

The rise of ISIS

Beyond this, the spores that Assad had helped cultivate were now beginning to bear their poisonous fruit: ISIS was on the rise in Syria. ISIS—a strain of Wahhabi fundamentalism that first appeared as an independent splinter group from Al Qaeda (Al Qaeda in Iraq) emerged in the context of the US invasion of Iraq, where a defeated, defunct Sunni state had been dismantled and then reconstructed on the basis of a top-heavy Shia sectarianism infused with American capital from the private companies that, vulture-like, swooped into the country in the aftermath.

The combination of enhanced Shia power and American capital whose interests were carried by the reverberations of scud missiles and semi-automatics was a necessary one in as much as it fractured the possibility of any unified national resistance to the American invasion in and through the cultivation of an entrenched sectarianism—but in creating this divide, the newly formed subaltern government was locked into a perpetual process of repression against the belittled and fragmented layers of the old administration and the Sunni elements that  underlay it. Sunni villages were monitored and contained by a series of checkpoints fortified with nests of machine guns. Sunni activists, religious and community leaders, and bureaucrats of the old regime were arrested en masse and transported to newly created desert facilities where they would be held indefinitely. 

It was here in the baking heat of the desert sands where Frankenstein’s monster was called into being. ISIS conjured up like a specter—a haunting desert mirage—by the forces of imperialism in combination with its brutal sectarian inflection. ISIS metastasized against a backdrop of international conflict and local ethnic oppression with its program geared to overcome, not only the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq by obliterating the latter, but to dissolve the parameters of the nation-state by raising Sunni hegemony across the countries in the Middle East and eventually the world, in and through a clarion call to the most horrific violence and the creation of a universal caliphate dripping viscera and gore. But the growing power of ISIS in Syria was advantageous for the Assad regime and perhaps even saved it.

The sheer horror of the atrocities ISIS perpetrated helped provide an ideological justification for the regime’s almost genocidal onslaught against its own population, depicting the repression as a necessary product of the “fact” that Daesh had infiltrated local populations so thoroughly that relentless, large-scale aerial bombings were the only recourse. That local Sunni populations were being blitzed with such interminable and methodological violence naturally provided a fertile recruiting ground for an extremist group that, in the words of Hamad, quite “literally thrives on sectarian slaughter and war.” Beyond this, the rise of ISIS helped stymie what little Western support was reaching the rebels in the first place and became part and parcel of the ongoing process by which the resistance of the rebels and the sectarian violence of ISIS became elided into a single phenomenon on the part of the propaganda wing of the Assad regime, with the international mass media increasingly following suit.

But perhaps most importantly of all, ISIS’s political program of conquest and extermination was different from Al Qaeda and that group’s direction under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden.28 ISIS’s strategy consisted, in the main, of targeting non-Sunni groups, particularly Shi’ites, attacking them in the hopes of provoking a conflict, which would create a rising tide of Sunni militancy. Al Qaeda, of course, also saw Shi’ites as “apostates,” but nevertheless tended to regard killing sprees against them counterproductive—at least before the more immediate and imperative aim of waging war against America and driving American troops from holy lands.

Though the Assad regime has loudly claimed that ISIS was funded by the Wahhabi Saudi state—part of its ongoing promulgation of a foreign conspiracy, any foreign conspiracy—in actual fact, however, ISIS had maintained a low-level but ongoing war against the House of Saud, regarding that dynasty as craven pretenders, Shi’ite sympathizers, and obfuscators of the true Islamic destiny. ISIS’s hostility toward other Sunni groups was not confined to Saudi Arabia. As Hamad points out, the “largest single massacre carried out by ISIS anywhere in the world was not of Shia, Yazidis, or Christians but rather as many as 900 of the Sunni ash-Shuaytat tribe in Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Men, women, and children were shot, blown up, crucified, and beheaded simply because they would not give up their lands to Daesh and acquiesce to its tyrannical rule.”29

The absolute, unswerving sectarianism, which drove ISIS’s demented political project, was always going to spill over into the most unadulterated violence against other pockets of Sunni resistance within Syria itself. And it throws into relief the truly tragic situation of the Syrian revolutionaries found themselves in; they faced a struggle on two fronts. Not only were they given little material support against a heavily militarized dictatorship backed up by Iran and Russia, but the revolution also had to confront both the regime and ISIS as two arms of counterrevolution.

ISIS killed rebel commanders on a frequent basis—the better to seize and monopolize the territories the latter controlled. Additionally, as Boothroyd points out, ISIS also attacked the revolution’s means of communication: “Daesh was suspected of several attacks on the Kafranbel media centre and the attempted assassination of its director, Raed Fares. Kafranbel’s weekly demonstrations and creative English-language banners have attempted to keep alive the spirit of the revolution, and were a regular target for repression by ISIL and al-Nusra.”30

Revolutionaries fight ISIS

Things finally came to a head in late 2013 when ISIS tortured to death the popular Ahrar al-Sham commander Dr. Hussein Al Suleiman. Prior to this, rebel forces were desperately trying to negotiate some form of truce with ISIS so they could concentrate their fire on the Assad regime itself, but when the mutilated body of Al Suleiman turned up, scarred and missing an ear, the incident acted as a flashpoint for a broader set of grievances. In the town of Kafranbel, which had so recently been scourged by the violence of Daesh, an ominous mood was beginning to develop.

A leading activist from the town, Muhammad Khatib, described the situation in the following terms: “Daesh tried to impose their ideology on the Kafranbel people. They kidnapped activists and destroyed the media centre. They banned smoking, demanded Islamic attire for all the girls. They tried to ban jeans and casual clothes, and asked men to grow beards. The people were fed up in less than a month.”31

All at once the powder caught and flames burst forth. Protests erupted across Syria as thousands upon thousands took to the streets, while rebel groups launched themselves with white-hot fury at the outposts of the mirthless, murderous fanatics who had so highhandedly declared Syria to be one more piece in the creation of their chimera—that illusory vision of a global caliphate whose colors have run wet with blood. But even the demented promise of their bloodthirsty utopia was not sufficient to fortify the black-cloaked, sword-wielding, head-chopping fanatics of Daesh against this massive eruption of popular power, which swept across them in an almighty wave.

As Boothroyd points out, “[I] n the space of six weeks the rebels had driven Daesh out of Latakia, Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa province. They hung on in Deir al-Zour Province, near the border with Iraq, but their presence in most of Syria was smashed. As Daesh retreated from Syria they retaliated by slaughtering many of the civil society and democratic activists they had imprisoned in their dungeons.”32 The rout was conducted by the Free Syrian Army and coalitions of various Islamic groups working in tandem, and the pressure against ISIS proved so potent that even al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra was conscripted into the onslaught very probably in order to avoid being obliterated by the rebel forces itself.

This was one of the most significant chapters of heroism written in any revolution, but beyond that, it sheds light on the nature and the dynamic of what had been transpiring in Syria. It gave the lie to the notion that the rebels operated in terms of a single bloc of religious fundamentalists with an ISIS-type agenda. It is true that the majority of the rebels had and continue to have some type of Islamic affiliation, especially considering the backbone of the revolution was forged from the upswell of mass migrations of rural poor swept into the vortex of urban life in the great cities.

It was virtually inevitable that these elements would draw on their rural, predominantly religious traditions as a means of guiding their resistance and militancy. But within groups fighting under an Islamic ideology there were, in fact, a multitude of differing political tendencies and tones. Ahrar al-Sham, for example, that had been prominent in the struggle against Daesh, operate according to a hard-line Salafism which seeks the establishment of an Islamic state tightly governed by the Sharia, but it also fights alongside democratic forces such as Faylaq Al-Sham (The Sham Legion) as when together they liberated the city of Idlib from the regime and its Hezbollah sponsors back in March 2015.

The revenge of ISIS

The eviction of ISIS from Syria by the rebels—in a heroic action conducted in the most perilous of conditions—received scant attention in the world’s media. Paradoxically, however, the tragic sequel to these events has been covered in full. We all know the story. ISIS spilled back into Iraq in waves where it proceeded to launch an offensive against the historic city of Mosul. The Iraqi army—at this point little more than a corrupted group of mercenaries marching to the tune of American dollars—was greeted by the specter of legions of true believers emerging from the desert’s shimmering heat; almost at once they collapsed and fled.

Large sections of the city’s Sunni population, having been subject to the brutal sectarian violence of the Maliki regime, greeted the black-clad marauders in the fashion of a liberating army; ISIS was, in a matter of weeks, fortified by thousands of new recruits, by the high-tech weaponry the national army had abandoned in its wake, and by the resources of a whole city which was now open to plunder. Exponentially more powerful, regrouped, and energized, ISIS swept back into Syria like an excoriating desert wind.

As Boothroyd recounts, “They captured much of Deir al-Zour province and Raqqa and advanced almost all the way to Aleppo before they were halted. They declared their Islamic State with Raqqa as its capital on June 30.”33 The cost to the revolution was devastating. At a single stroke it had lost almost half of Syria to Daesh. As rebel strongholds, many of these cities and towns had been hubs of revolutionary activity, in the process of creating fledgling forms of social and democratic organizations in the void, which had opened up post-Assad. For instance, in the city of Manbij, a revolutionary council of some 600 members was also complemented by the creation of Syria’s first free trade union34 designed to service the needs of the flourmill workers who produce a sizable amount of Syria’s flour.

When ISIS retook control of the city, the newly unionized workers, along with a host of shop workers and community-level activists, took part in a protest which culminated in a general strike where an estimated 80 percent of businesses were shut down.35 The protests were, of course, crushed with ISIS’s customary brutality. Some months later an uprising occurred in villages and towns across the Deir al-Zour province, which succeeded in expelling ISIS. However, the triumph was short lived and ISIS reinforcements from Iraq resulted in a repression that saw the mass execution cited earlier, and which involved “as many as 900 of the Sunni ash-Shuaytat tribe” being murdered in cold blood.36

Siege conditions and the degeneration of the revolution

There are no doubts that the years of struggle in a situation that was so heavily weighted against them have taken their toll on the rebels. While entities like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra could rely on high levels of funding from international terrorist networks more broadly, the rebels had no such recourse. Boothroyd argues that such financial weakness sometimes crossed over into the processes of civil reconstruction: “Some took kickbacks from state employees in return for allowing them to sit at home, undermining public services and local government in rebel-held towns. Assets like oil fields, factories and power plants were seized by groups and income from them used to pay for the armed struggle.”37

This could lead to infighting as various factions fought to preserve their vested interests, and it was made more difficult for local councils to maintain democratic control over the military groups on the frontlines. The situation was conducive to the emergence of warlordism as some armed groups resorted to robbery, or imposing arbitrary checkpoints on newly created borders in order to level taxes on travelling and trading. As Boothroyd also points out, such petty corruptions seemed to contrast unfavorably with the extreme fundamentalists whose stark, austere ethos was brutally enforced in and through the creation of Sharia courts. As a result, “Islamic rebels gained a reputation as being less corrupt than nationalist or secular armed groups.”38

Perhaps as a consequence of a rising warlordism, the constant bombardment of local rebel governments and populations, and the sheer loss of infrastructure and life, in 2013 some armed rebel groups engaged in the first bout of sectarian massacres in combination with the forces of the most extreme fundamentalism like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented the killing of 132 civilians including eighteen children in the Latakia suburbs massacre of August 4, 2013, which took place in an area populated mainly by Alawites. Similarly in June of that same year the SNHR documented the murder of fourteen civilians including three children in Hatla village, which was also predominantly Shi’ite in its ethnic composition, while forty-four civilians were killed in the Sadd City massacre in October 2013, some of whom were Christians.39

Assad’s culpability for carnage

Before 2013 crimes against humanity had been the particular province of the Assad regime. But after years of brutalization, and two years of massacres at the hands of the regime—borne by rebels and civilians alike—certain elements within the revolution degenerated to the point of barbarism. That there have been atrocities on both sides cannot be denied. But as distasteful as it might seem to play the numbers game in the context of life and death, in order to get some idea of the general trends of the ebb and flow of the conflict it is necessary to cite the statistics which reveal the level of casualties in the cold hard light of day. In a report, carried out by the United Nations, it is estimated that in 2015 the rebel opposition was responsible for the deaths of 1, 072 civilians. ISIS had a higher body count, which stood at 1,366 for that same year.40

But when it comes to the Assad regime the numbers at once spike. In 2015 regime forces were estimated to have killed 12,044 civilians. This pattern was also indicative of a broader trend. From March 11, 2011, to March 1, 2016, the regime was responsible for 183,827 civilian deaths, which accounts for a catastrophic 94.7 percent of all civilian deaths while in comparison—in the same period—Daesh was responsible for an estimated 2,196 civilian deaths, which made up 1.1 percent of the total.41 The higher death toll is, of course, a product of the military superiority of a regime that has been fortified first by Iranian, then Russian military ground troops and air power.

This must be understood in light of the fact that the social basis of the regime’s power within the civilian population of Syria itself has largely evaporated. From 2015 onward, the Iranian and Russian interventions have, despite the propaganda, served a purpose beyond the fight against ISIS. In bombing rebel-held territories—where often no ISIS presence was to be discerned—the military bombardment was able consistently to disrupt the means by which the rebels were able to build civil and state infrastructure and thus coalesce their resistance into more permanent forms of alternative government. In other words, Assad’s regime is being propped up by virtually genocidal means projected by external foreign powers.

Without the backing of its Russian and Iranian paymasters, the Assad regime would collapse within a week. What little support the regime has is demarked across ethnic but also class lines. Alawite business people, alongside Sunni and Christian elements form a cross section of the urban capitalist class which is bound to the regime, often grudgingly, by an organic sense of revulsion before a revolution that has, in the main, mobilized the rural and urban poor and tends to present itself in terms of a more traditional religious framework. It was precisely the latter, argues Michael Karadjis, who were the ones to be “left out of the bourgeois ‘secular’ Ba‘ath project, especially after 2000.”42

The religious hue of the rebel opposition is thrown into relief by the secular agenda of the brutal regime, and merely overlays a more fundamental opposition, which has opened up along class lines over a significantly longer period. And yet, even the core that remains loyal to the regime is showing some signs of wear and tear, particularly among its Alawite elements. Alawite soldiers have absorbed a disproportionate loss in terms of defending the regime, partly because, as one former Alawite combatant notes, in “battles with Sunni armed groups, the government doesn’t trust their Sunni soldiers not to defect . . . so the Alawites are sent forward.”43 The majority of Alawites are poor, suffered under the period of Assad’s neoliberal reforms, and though they are allied to the government on the basis of ethnic identity, “it is an alliance tinged with hatred,” for the ongoing way in which the regime is using the poorer Alawites as cannon fodder, thus setting the basis for “a quiet rebellion among many in the sect.”44

The horrific depth and scope of its violence, then, are a consequence of the fact that the regime itself now has little organic basis in the society it seeks to pacify, and so it can only preserve its power by the application of the most excessive, external force alone. It has become a ghastly, sclerotic entity which exists in a type of limbo state; it is neither dead nor alive, for it has long ceased to be oxidized and animated by the lives and activities of broader sections and swathes of the Syrian population, but is more and more held in place by the mechanical application of an external and alien power.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a zombified state which—having been artificially revived by international forces—now holds the population in a kind of ossified death grip. Although the rebels have everything against them—they are faced by an awesome array of international military power; they have been compelled into fighting a war on two fronts against overwhelming odds and with terribly depleted and underfunded resources—the rebels, nevertheless, don’t suffer from a lack of manpower. Despite the deterioration of the revolution as a result of the sectarian abuses inflicted upon it by both the Assad regime and ISIS, nevertheless, the struggle for more democratic forms of state and civil society has been sustained.

Crushing democratic hopes

Initiatives like that of the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz, who theorized the need for “the collaboration between the revolution and the daily lives of humans” by means of creating “the local council,”45 offer hope. Such councils would hold the legal responsibilities of housing displaced people, providing loved ones with access to organized databases on the whereabouts of incarcerated family members and friends, and offering some kind of financial aid for people attempting to rebuild their lives again. They would also form a space for “collective expression,”46 one that would “initiate activities of the social revolution at a district level and unify supporting frameworks.”

In other words, political and economic activity would be combined at the grassroots level creating a network of democratic organizations. Aziz died for such a vision; incarcerated by the regime in 2012, he perished from a heart attack in prison the following year. But, as late as 2016, there were over 400 local councils47 in the areas of Syria liberated by the rebels. And alongside such councils there exist “a plethora of other civil society organizations; women’s centers, radio stations, journalists unions and many others.”48

Even when ISIS had devastated rebel territory throughout 2014, and had created the basis by which the Assad regime could go on the offensive once more, even when the struggle of the rebels was at its lowest ebb, Assad’s victories were sporadic, limited to key areas, and unable to effect a breakthrough by which the vast majority of territory could be reclaimed. Despite all his overwhelming military advantage, Assad lacked what the rebels continue to have—significant popular support.

Hamad argues that this was nowhere clearer than in the case of Aleppo in early 2015 when “the regime, backed up by the foreign invasion forces of the Iranian Syria Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the sectarian head-drillers of Asayib Ahl al-Haq and various mercenary forces, not only failed to capture the jewel in the revolution’s crown, but provoked a successful rebel counter-offensive.”49 On the occasions when the regime does actually enjoy a rare infusion of popular support, it comes about when rebels unite with it temporarily against ISIS in those places where the sheer barbarism of the latter has served to override everything else.

The shadow of Stalinism

The issue of the Syrian revolution offers up the single most important challenge to the radical and revolutionary Left in many decades. It has provided a test for Marxist thinkers and activists that we have not known the like of since Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the workers’ and students’ councils which emerged in the context of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. And there is a level of parity between these two revolutions in the way the radical Left has responded to both.

The year 1956 provoked a fissure in the radical Left, with many of the old Communist parties of Europe cleaving to the party line and supporting the forces of the USSR. The irony that the Soviet Union was actually murdering the forms of popular, working-class democracy—the soviets—on which it was founded was lost on much of the higher levels of the party bureaucracy, which received both funding and direction from Moscow. But towing the Stalinist line was about more than just material gain and position. The Stalinist bureaucracy had arisen out of the ashes of the proletarian revolution in Russia—and reached its ghastly fruition in a period of revolutionary retreat more broadly. Revolutionary outbreaks of the working class in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and China had all been crushed (sometimes with the active collusion of the Stalinist state), and in the wake of this there lingered a pervasive sense of despair.

The palliative was provided, somewhat perversely, by the existence of the Stalinist state itself. Though it had murdered much of the original Bolshevik vanguard, though it treated the Russian working class with the utmost brutality, it nevertheless decked itself out in the colors and idiom of the proletarian revolution. It presented itself to the world not as a bureaucratic aberration whose power was premised on the wreckage of the worker’s democracy, but as a lonely and fateful entity carrying forth the proletarian flame at a time of the most abiding darkness.

In the aftermath of World War II such a sense of things was heightened. The successful establishment of a genuine worker’s democracy was not forthcoming, and in its absence many communist radicals clung to the image of the non-capitalist USSR as the next best thing, as a challenge to Western hegemony, and the true carrier of the communist tradition. Even Trotsky—who had maintained a lonely and noble opposition to Stalinism for which he would pay with his life—had developed a theoretical justification that would support such a perspective. He and his followers argued that—as Stalinism abolished capitalist social relations in countries by invading them and placing Stalinist bureaucracies at their helm—what the USSR was in fact doing was forming new workers’ states albeit in a “deformed” guise.

If one had to give a brief explanation of Stalinism’s ideological pull then, one could do worse than say it was first and foremost a council of despair—the conviction that socialism could be imposed by an external power from above in a period when the living, breathing possibility of a revolution awakening from below was felt to be either negligible or nonexistent. Of course this was a delusion that worked against the grain of the most fundamental dictum of all Marxist thought—“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes.”

But what was perhaps even more problematic was that the Left—large sections of which had spent many years orientating themselves toward Stalinism as a form of pseudo salvation from above—was increasingly not equipped to attend to revolutionary upheavals when they did break out from below. So when the USSR suppressed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Communist Party of Great Britain along with a large swathe of Marxists and communist activists, applauded Moscow.

At the same time, however, from this rump—ossified by tradition—a key element began to break away. There were mass resignations and expulsions. Those Trotskyist groups, usually miniscule, maintained their noble opposition to Stalinism and decried the events of Hungary. More broadly, a “new left” began to cohere, one that tended to operate in terms of a more humanistic, anti-Stalinist vision of Marxism. Many such figures gathered around the journal New Left Review. In the 1960s, as these elements began to develop new theoretical perspectives, it must have seemed like a kind of springtime on the left, an airing out of all the dusty, accumulated dogma of ages, the chance to breathe in a new, fresher air.

Decades later, it is notable, with regards to Syria, how depressingly monotone the current Left seems to sound. Almost across the board, its leading figures seem united in the conviction that, though the Assad regime itself is not an unqualifiedly good thing, it nevertheless represents the most progressive force on the ground and is preferable to its adversaries. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, argues that the opposition shows “no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances,” and that any secular resistance has been “more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups.”50

Tariq Ali draws the inevitable conclusion51 from such a perspective—“If you want to fight ISIS, you should be going in and fighting alongside Russia and alongside Assad.”52 Ali is a serious Marxist thinker—part and parcel of that new left of the sixties, which emerged very much in opposition to Stalinism and its emissaries in the European communist parties. In addition, Ali has also been an excellent chronicler of the development of Islamophobia in the context of the ongoing Western military interventions in the Middle East over the course of the last fifteen years.

And yet, one can’t help but feel the logic that underpins his analysis of the Syrian upheaval has both Stalinist and Islamophobic connotations—albeit that he remains oblivious to them. It has Islamophobic connotations in as much as it helps blur the shades of differentiation within the opposition into a single tone of uniform extremism—all those who fight under the banner of Islam are understood as ISIS-influenced combatants or their ilk. And once one has established this—has understood that the forces from below are irredeemably incapable of rising toward more progressive forms of social organization and social struggle—then the door is open to a Stalinist-like logic, an inevitable and fatalistic last resort. The despair that comes from faithlessness in popular power is neatly amended by the masochistic desire for an external force to step into the breach and impose some form of order from above. Enter stage left—Assad and his Iranian and Russian cronies.

The so-called anti-imperialist Left

How is it possible that so many on the left have misread the situation so catastrophically? Part of it results from the more secular and democratic forms of popular power in Syria that tend to be obliterated in the moments they are being materialized in the forms of civic institutions—primarily by the bombs of Assad’s air force and Russian and Iranian planes.

Secondly, the elements that throw up these aborted developments are also woefully underreported at the expense of extremist elements. So, for example, when regime forces retook the city of Aleppo, amidst reports from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon53 of atrocities against civilians by Assad’s forces, the Communist daily, the Morning Star, shamefully reported the repression as the “liberation of Aleppo,”54 a victory for progress over and against the dark forces of Islamic extremism. What the Morning Star failed to report was the UN estimate released a month before, which had estimated that of a possible 8,000 rebel fighters only a maximum of 900 were members of the al-Nusra Front.55

Thirdly, there are occasions on which moderate forces certainly do unite with entities like al-Nusra. So, for instance, in 2015 rebels liberated the city of Idlib from the SAA and Hezbollah, freeing the prisoners who had accumulated in the regime’s dungeons—but they were assisted in the endeavor by elements affiliated to the al-Nusra Front. Naturally these elements are horrendous, and would—at some point—seek to obliterate entirely the more moderate rebels in an attempt to impose their brand of brutally authoritarian Salafism.

But the moderates have to make these kinds of cagey compromises, and with a prickling sense of unease—precisely because they are so underfunded—and are locked into a war on two fronts against both Assad and ISIS—both entities with significantly more money and military supplies. To avoid opening up yet another conflict—until it becomes absolutely necessary—is surely a prerogative born from the need to survive.

Finally, the broader global dynamics of the civil war speak to a specific intersection of contending imperialisms. Western powers would ideally like to find an opening where they can sponsor a rebel element that would be wholly beholden to their interests—like the Malaki regime in Iraq—but such a possibility hasn’t developed. For that reason, the West has been prepared to fund some rebel strands weakly and intermittently, and to look on the alliance between Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with a great deal of trepidation.

That there are, in essence, a competing set of imperial interests at work on the global stage is lost on many of the leftist thinkers who see in the Assad and Russian bloc a progressive form of anti-imperialism working against US incursions in the region. Part of this reasoning reflects the recent history in Iraq, and the series of disastrous invasions the US, Britain, and their allies have conducted there in the pursuit of their own imperial interests. But it is also part of the Stalinist legacy when—during and after World War II—Stalin carried out a series of brutal invasions and annexations of satellite countries.

Many, on the Communist left in particular, saw these invasions as being part of the last bastion of resistance to the imperial power projected by the United States and the heartlands of global capitalism, and so they failed to recognize that Stalin’s military takeovers represented a form of rapacious imperialism in its own right. In the case of Syria, this image of Russia as in some way anti-imperialist has been overlaid by the false and undialectical opposition of a secular regime up against a virulent fundamentalism. But in the last analysis we, as Marxists, must always return to the class roots of the phenomenon. For, as Proyect questions with both acuity and pathos: “If we line up on the wrong side of the barricades in a struggle between the rural poor and oligarchs in Syria, how can we possibly begin to provide a class-struggle leadership in the USA, Britain, or any other advanced capitalist country?”56

  1. Among his rich list of various crimes, Assad père had joined the rightest campaign in Lebanon by slaughtering Palestinians in the Lebanese camps and suppressed protests and uprisings in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1973, and 1980 culminating in the massacre in Hama in 1982 thereby helping to create the basis for, in the words of Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, “an absolute state.” Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, London: 2016), 13.
  2. Shamel Azmeh, “Syria’s Passage to Conflict: The End of the ‘Developmental Rentier Fix’ and the Consolidation of New Elite Rule,” Politics & Society, Vol. 44(4).
  3. Louis Proyect, “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution,” The Unrepentant Marxist, December 14, 2006,
  4. Ibid.
  5. US Department of Energy cited in “Syria’s Oil Industry,” Sourcewatch,
  6. Azmeh, “Syria’s Passage to Conflict.”
  7. Louis Proyect, “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution,” The Unrepentant Marxist, December 14, 2016,
  8. Myrian Ababsa, “The End of the World: Drought and Agrarian Transformation in Northeast Syria (2007–2010),” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl eds, Syria: from Reform to Revolt (Syracuse University Press, New York: 2013).
  9. “Syrian Police Attack Marchers at Funerals,” New York Times, March 19, 2011,
  10. “Syria: Seven Police Killed, Buildings Torched in Protests,” Arutz Sheva 7, March 21, 2011,
  11. “Syria Unrest: Governor Fired,” The Scotsman, March 22, 2011,
  12. Phil Sands, Justin Vela, and Suha Maayeh, “Assad Regime Set Free Extremists from Prison to Fire up Trouble During Peaceful Uprising,” The National, February 17, 2017,
  13. “Massacre of Hama (February 1982) Genocide and A Crime against Humanity,” The Syrian Human Rights Committee, February 14, 2006,
  14. For the same reason Assad has been complicit in the cultivation of Sunni sectarianism turning a blind eye to the Sunni jihadists that waged war on the American occupation. For more see Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).
  15. Sam Charles Hamad, “Anti-anti-Imperialism—The Syrian Revolutionary War and the Anti-Imperialist Left,” in Jules Alford and Andy Wilson eds, Khiyana Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution (London: Unkant Publishers, 2016), 72.
  16. Ibid.
  17. It is more accurate to describe the Free Syrian Army not so much as a unitary military force but as a collection of various militias which emerged out of the ongoing process by which the revolutionaries learned to defend themselves against the regime.
  18. Riad Mousa al-Asaad cited in “Defecting Troops from ‘Free Syrian Army,’ Target Assad Security Forces,” World Tribune, August 3, 2011,
  19. Loubna Mrie, “The Demise of Arab-Kurdish Solidarity in Syria,” The New Arab, August 22, 2017,
  20. Ibid.
  21. “Syria’s Crisis: The Long Road to Damascus: There Are Signs That the Syrian Regime May Become Still More Violent,” Economist, February 11, 2012.
  22. Mark Boothroyd, “The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Anti-war Movement,” in Khiyana Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, 53.
  23. Ibid, 93.
  24. Abdel Rahman Ayachi cited in C J Cheevers and Eric Schmitt, “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A,” New York Times, March 24, 2013.
  25. Nour Malas, “Syrian Rebels Get Missiles,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2012,
  26. Barack Obama cited in Glenn Kessler, “Are Syrian Opposition Fighters ‘Former Farmers or Teachers or Pharmacists’?” The Washington Post, June 26, 2014,
  27. Abdullah Al-Arian, “Obama’s ‘Arab Problem,’” Aljazeera, November 11, 2011,
  28. Daniel Bayman and Jennifer Williams, “Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: The Battle for the Soul of Jihad,” Newsweek, August 29, 2017,
  29. Sam Charles Hamad, “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—Some Inconvenient Truths,” in Khiyana: Daesh, The Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, 163–64.
  30. Mark Boothroyd, “The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Anti-war Movement,” in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, 57.
  31. Muhammad Khatib cited in Jane Burgess, “Syrian Opposition Fractures,” Assyrian International News Agency, January 5, 2014,
  32. Boothroyd, “The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Anti-war Movement,” Khiyana, 57–8.
  33. Ibid., 58.
  34. Yasser Munif cited in “Manbij, a Success Story in the Liberated Areas,” The Syrian Observer, January 22, 2014,
  35. “General strike challenges ISIS in Aleppo town,” International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggles, May 23, 2014:
  36. Hamad, “The Rise of Daeshin Syria—Some Inconvenient Truths, in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, 163–64.
  37. Boothroyd, “The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Anti-war Movement,” 52.
  38. Ibid., 53.
  39. “The Society’s Holocaust—Most Notable Sectarian and Ethnic Cleansing Massacres,” Syrian Network for Human Rights, June 13, 2015, 27-8,
  40. Adam Withnall, “Syria: Assad Regime Kills So Many Detainees It Amounts to ‘Extermination’ of Civilian Population, UN says,” Independent, February 8, 2016,
  41. “2011–2016: Who’s Killing Civilians In Syria?”
  42. Michael Karadjis, “The Class Against Class Basis of the Syrian Uprising,” in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, Jules Alford and Andy Wilson (eds) (London: Unkant Publishers, 2016), 266.
  43. Cited in Ruth Sherlock, “In Syria’s War, Alawites Pay Heavy Price for Loyalty to Bashar al-Assad,” The Telegraph, April 7, 2015,
  44. Ibid.
  45. Omar Aziz, “A Discussion Paper on Local Councils in Syria by the Martyr and Anarchist Comrade, Omar Aziz,” TAHRIR-ICN, September 13, 2013,
  46. Ibid.
  47. Mark Boothroyd, “Self Organisation in the Syrian Revolution,” The Project—A Socialist Journal, August 14, 2016,
  48. Ibid.
  49. Hamad, “Anti-anti-Imperialism–The Syrian Revolutionary War and the Anti-Imperialist Left,” in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, 73–4.
  50. Slavoj Žižek, “Syria is a Pseudo-Struggle,” Guardian, September 6, 2013,
  51. Others who drew similar conclusions include Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh, David Bromwich, George Galloway, Max Blumenthal, Glenn Greenwald, Seamus Milne, Jill Stein, Stephen Kinzer, and many others.
  52. Tariq Ali, speech at rally sponsored by Stop The War Coalition, YouTube,
  53. Ban Ki-moon cited in Harry Cockburn, “UN Chief Warns of ‘Atrocities Against Large Number of Civilians’ in Aleppo,” The Independent, December 13, 2016,
  54. “Morning Star Statement on the Situation in Aleppo,” Morning Star, December 13, 2016,
  55. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura cited in Tom Miles, “Aleppo’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham Fighters Far Fewer Than U.N. Says—Sources,” The Daily Mail, October 14, 2016,
  56. Proyect, “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution.”


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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