Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution

by Jamie Allinson on August 28, 2012

First published by New Left Project.

Just as the Assad regime in Syria approaches what appears to be its terminal decomposition, prominent figures on the Anglophone left are hurrying to defend it—or at least to oppose its opponents. The anti-anti-dictatorship crowd includes not only sub-Ickean conspiracists such as Michael Chossudovsky but also people one would have expected to know better, such as  Tariq AliGeorge Galloway  and John Rees.

Some of the arguments are expressed in more inflammatory style than others—such as Galloway’s claim that the Syrian uprising is a “massive international conspiracy”—but they follow a similar line. This is that: the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavor of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-U.S. (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. This externally funded rebellion represents an extension of the U.S. imperial project launched after the 9/11 attacks, embracing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stories of Syrian government atrocities in the Western media are the counterparts of the lies circulated in 2002-2003 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and therefore must be discredited. The only solution to be hoped for is a negotiated peace (a prospect also raised by parts of the Syrian opposition), leaving some remnant of the Ba’ath regime in place, thereby denying the U.S. and its co-conspirators the prize of a pliant regime on Israel’s front-line and a significant weakening of the Iranian position.

These arguments are not made solely by Anglophone commentators: outside of Egypt’s revolutionary currents , they are extremely common on the Arab left. One need only glance at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar to find the Arab revolutions damned tout court as examples of “Political Sunnism”.

Is any of this true?

The situation in Syria is both extremely violent and extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it. Nonetheless, information is available if one is ready to consult people within Syria or those who have reported from there recently—a step rarely taken by those proposing the anti-anti-Assad argument.

Let us take the claims in turn.

“Massive international conspiracy”?

The charges laid by, amongst others, Charles Glass and Patrick Seale, are that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is trained, funded, and armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (leading to an increase in Islamist influence within its ranks) as the co-conspirators of the U.S. and Turkey. These arms and funds, it is claimed, are flowing largely through the contact points established between FSA-held territory and the Turkish border in the north.  It is this weaponry that accounts for the recent boldness of the rebels, and the likely demise of the current regime will be a victory for the suppliers of this ordinance and not the Syrian people.

There are elements of truth to this story. It is no secret that the U.S., and its more vociferous junior imperial partner, wants rid of Assad and in this aim they are joined by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Gulf Cooperation Council more generally. The Saudis and Qataris are providing money, and in some cases materiel, to those bits of the FSA of which they approve. Nor is it any revelation that Western (and Turkish) agencies are attempting to broker the flow of these resources into the country and thereby exercise influence over the revolutionary situation.

In any revolution, anywhere, now or in the future, outside powers will try to do this.

Where this line of argument goes very wrong is in claiming that the Syrian revolution, as a result of these attempts, now consists of “sundry” elements working for Western intelligence agencies and abetting the recolonisation of the country.

First, the weaponry and funding in question is not very much, and not for everyone. One can spot images of FSA anti-aircraft guns or cannons but very rarely. These are also most likely to have been taken with defectors of the defeat of a regime garrison. The regime’s advantage in air power and ground armor is overwhelming: the FSA’s resources bear no comparison.  One would expect a massive international conspiracy worth its salt to furnish its fifth column with some serious anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Such munitions are not evident. Most of the FSA’s light arms seem to come from the Syrian army itself, through defection or purchase with money from Syrian exile businessmen in the Gulf. Here is an example of FSA members having taken Rastan in July, disabling at least two armored vehicles visible in the video:

The regime armor appears to have been hit with improvised bombs, as described in other reports. The fighters have kalashnikovs and body armor but no heavy weaponry and certainly no mortars or rocket batteries.  An example of the motivations and desires of FSA fighters is given in this video:

Defecting out of horror at the regime’s repression, these men seem desperate for weaponry and support from outside. The provision of such support, especially were it to entail Western air superiority, would indeed endanger the autonomy of the revolution—but the fact they are asking for it indicates that the conspiracy is perhaps not so massive or effective after all.

If you were comprehensively funding and arming a rebel force to topple your well-armed enemy, would you leave its fighters to rely on the goodwill of local villagers for food?

Belief in a massive international conspiracy, rather than a popular revolution, also forestalls understanding of why Assad’s forces are doing so badly. The Syrian army numbers about 300,000 and it is an actual army, not a group of men in the woods. Yet it cannot be used, because most of the soldiers are unreliable. The core  shock troops—their loyalty solidified by sectarian or clan identity—can be sent to dispatch the FSA forces, but governing the subdued areas is almost impossible, as the regular troops are likely either to defect or simply not to do their duty. This form of rebellion should also be counted part of a revolutionary process that has been going on since March 2011. The defection of Manaf Tlass and Riad Hijab and the bomb attack killing several high-ranking security officers indicates that the rot has set in even at the core of the regime.

Morphed into civil war?

Yet, are these not simply maneuvers in a civil war, the form into which the Syrian revolution has now “morphed”? Denunciations of the “militarization” of the Syrian revolution, and calls simply to stop the violence, come long and hard from certain quarters of the Western left.  And indeed, the economic power of the working class (at best only scantily visible in the Syrian revolution) provides a firmer basis for revolutionary strategy than solely armed contest with the state. There is no doubt that what Syria is now undergoing is a civil war, albeit one in which the dynamics of a revolutionary process are still present. Nor is the military strategy of the FSA uncontested within the ranks of the opposition themselves. However, absent in the jeremiads against the Syrian revolutionaries for their resort to arms is any understanding of the origins of this development.

The revolution was inspired by and followed the model of Tunisia and Egypt. Even the initial slogan of “the people demand the fall of the regime,” daubed on a wall in Dera’a, consciously emulated Tunisia. Every such unarmed protest was suppressed with the uttermost violence. The FSA was formed out of armed detachments protecting demonstrations, only really beginning in earnest last summer. The Syrian regime has been “militarized” for decades. If it persists in some form, the solution favored by some on the left, the Syrian people will continue to suffer its violence. They are not to be condemned for fighting back.

Nor is the revolution over in the form of demonstrations, strikes, and popular self-management. This is a crucial factor in considering the role of foreign intervention: arms and funds are entering Syria from outside but this remains within a context of surprisingly robust popular mobilizations. One must remember that tens of thousands have been killed by the regime, many more arrested and tortured, demonstrations are attacked with live fire, residential districts shelled, and all this for a year and a half. It would be no surprise if Syrian revolutionists disappeared completely from the streets. They have not: indeed, the increased military victories over the regime go in tandem with the appearance of mass opposition in Aleppo and Damascus. To take a few examples from the recent offensives in those cities…

A demonstration in Rukn Al-Din, Damascus, on July 19, 2012:

And on July 20, also in Damascus. You will note the “militarization” of the situation at 4:36 when regime snipers open fire:

Here are demonstrations from Aleppo, from a Kurdish district a few days later—when watching the scenes of fighting from that city, it is worth remembering that this is what the Assad forces are fighting to destroy:

Here is a round-up of the demonstrations in Aleppo on June 29:

The armed attacks on the infrastructure of the security state are also being carried out with popular participation, as shown in this recording of the storming of a Political Security office in the village of Al-Tal:

There have been several attempts at igniting general strikes against the Assad regime, in the hope of repeating the contribution of the Egyptian and Tunisian labor movements to dispatching the dictators in those countries. So far, these attempts have not succeeded, partially because of the deep imbrication of the Communist parties and official union organization, and partially because of the extent of repression. However, strike days have been observed in several cities on several occasions—here is film of a strike of mini bus drivers in the outskirts of Damascus on June 8:

The Turkish-based Syrian National Council is rightly considered by the anti-anti-Assad campists to be a pro-intervention outfit greatly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari sponsors. However, this body seems neither representative nor respected on the ground. Illuminating dispatches from the towns of Saraqeb and Taftanaz reveal elements of popular power in areas liberated from the Assad regime. The Local Co-ordinating Committees, composed of activists directing demonstrations, have in some cases merged with local committees formed to take over state functions. Thus in Taftanaz, Anand Gopal writes of how:

To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.

In Saraqeb:

the committee’s nine members are each tasked with a different role – there’s a media liaison, finance officer, military liaison, political officer, revolutionary courts representative, services coordinator, medical services, donations officer, and demonstrations coordinator. They are rotating, elected posts of three months’ duration. “There is no leader in the group,” said “al-Sayed,” one of the nine representatives who requested anonymity. “We want to get rid of this idea.”’

These are not isolated organizations – the committees elect delegates to regional bodies, which then constitute the Syrian Revolutionary General Command.

The committees are not to be mistaken for Soviets. Like their (now largely defunct) counterparts in the earlier phases of the Tunisia and Egyptian revolutions, they reflect local hierarchies, connections, jealousies, and rivalries.

However, in a society in the throes of  revolutionary upheaval (to which the anti-anti-Assadites blind themselves) class conflict is laid bare and questions of the reconstitution of social order are invariably raised. Thus, in the town of Binnish near Taftanaz, Gopal reports how farmers and consumers agreed food prices through the mechanism of their council on the grounds that “we have to give to each as he needs.” The account continues:

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

Similar dynamics seem to have emerged in Aleppo, where according to a report in the Guardian:

the wealthy…[view]the rebels as a sort of unwelcome peasant army. “If I were to generalise I would say the middle class and upper class don’t want the rebels. They want everything to be how it was so they can trade and go to coffee shops,” one English-speaking resident, who lives in a regime area, said via Skype.

Certain of the local committees, it seems, have even taken up Gramsci’s strictures on the role of the revolutionary press, printing their own newspaper (Revolutionary Words) featuring reports from the literal front-lines, and articles on revolutionary history—in the words of one of its editors: “This is not an intellectual’s revolution… This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”

A “sectarian gang”?

The presence of these local committees, and their character, should not be taken as an argument that the Syrian workers’ republic is nigh. Rather they indicate that the dynamics in Syria are those—complicated, bloody, messy—of an actual revolutionary process and not simply an extrusion of armed gangs operating at the behest of external enemies. One of the commonest arguments being put about is precisely that claim, accompanied by the assertion that to the extent that the uprising enjoys any support, this is on the basis of a violent sectarianism that renders the revolutionaries as bad as (if not worse than) the regime. This fact, it is alleged, is being concealed by a complicit and war-hungry Western media.

The uprising, exactly because it is a popular one, carries with it many of the prejudices and discursive ticks of the provincial, most often Sunni, centres in which it has found its base. Arabic-speaking readers will have noticed the prevalence of religious slogans (“God is great”, “We obey you o God”, “the Friday of Confidence in the Victory of God” and so forth) in the videos I have posted above. Some of these may reflect ideological commitment: more likely, as Anand Gopal writes , these slogans are “typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post-Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.”

It seems very odd that people who accepted, for example, the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel now demand that the Syrian revolutionaries abjure such language. George Galloway’s statement that a “jihadist, extremist, Islamist” current is waiting to take over in Syria seems an especially quick turnaround and a very sloppy use of language. There are, it seems, groups operating under the Al-Qa’ida franchise in Eastern Syria where the border with Iraq allows for a reverse version of the guerrilla smuggling practiced against the U.S. occupation. However, evidence that these are a predominant force within the variegated groups fighting under the banner of the FSA has yet to be presented.

If Talibanization is far from hanging over Syria, the rural, orthopractic communities in which the revolution has been strongest up until now have nonetheless maintained their pre-revolutionary practices of gender hierarchy. The local committees described above seem largely dominated by men. Yet, as in the case of class struggle, a revolutionary process cannot but spur practices of self-emancipation that once experienced are difficult to un-learn. As well as participation in demonstrations, women have joined the Free Syrian Army, including the formation of the “Hawla Bint Al-Azwar” battalion shown below.

If the influence of armed Takfiris is exaggerated, the danger of sectarian carnage is a real one. The longer the regime clings on, pulling everyone else down with it, the greater this danger becomes.

A year and a half of continuous conflict has undoubtedly led to an increase in sectarian polarization—although, as the International Crisis Group points out, it is perhaps surprising that this has not reached an even worse level. The committees described above operate in Sunni areas and some of their members show a hostility to the local Shi’a village . There are credible reports of the execution of shabiha prisoners and suspected collaborators, including the mass killing of members of the pro-regime Berri clan in Aleppo. But, were the revolution simply a communal civil war, then the Sunni Arabs (by far the preponderant community) would have won it by now. There are also Alawites who have identified with the revolution—they have a Web site documenting their participation. There is a struggle going on within the revolutionary side to assert unity against sectarianism—witness, for example, the code of conduct drawn up by the LCC and signed by the commanders of 29 FSA brigades, pledging to “refrain from any behavior or practice that would undermine the principles of our revolution: the principles of freedom, citizenship, and dignity…[and] respect human rights in accordance with our legal principles, our tolerant religious principles, and the international laws governing human rights.”

These commitments are frequently couched in a discursive culture that confuses those who see ‘Islam’ as a monolithic project, rather than as a political vernacular. For example, this video shows the formation of the “people’s resistance unit” in Damascus. The screen is filled with masked, armed men, standing around a Qu’ran and swearing obedience to God almighty:

But what is the content of their oath? It is “to protect and defend” the “people” who “will determine their desired government,” and to “reject and prevent revenge from occurring outside of our brigade’s control’ and to act “without any discrimination among the civilians, regardless of their ethnicity, sect, or religious or political belief.”

A similar scene is found in this video, showing the formation of the “United Syrian Military Coast Brigade” in Latakia, the Alawite heartland:

As in the previous video, the declaration begins with a Qur’anic verse, and the room is full of beards, guns and martyr’s headbands. They pledge to “build a nation of mutual love, justice and peace” and to follow international human rights law “without regard to ethnicity or religion.” Both videos feature long lists of the brigades declaring their adherence to these pledges.

It is impossible to tell how far this commitments will be followed: what they indicate, however, is a battle within the revolutionary side to preserve national and cross-sectarian unity in a very violent and chaotic situation. There is no such concern on the side of the regime, and to treat the two as equal in this matter is a grave error. Even more so when, as in the case of the Houla massacre, Western leftists replicate the regime narrative that the revolutionaries are the ones doing the slaughtering, in order to discredit the revolution.

In May of this year, scores of people were killed in their homes in the region of Houla north of Homs, after an FSA attack on an army checkpoint. The survivors maintained that the perpetrators were pro-regime elements, either soldiers or shabiha. The regime claimed that in fact the FSA had carried out the killings and then pinned the blame on the government. A German journalist from the Frankfurter Allemeine Zeitung published a similar story, based on anonymous sources claiming that the families were  Shi’a killed because they refused to join the opposition. The local co-ordinating committee stated in response that the victims were Sunni families (as one of the surviving family members confirmed, also stating that he believed the killers to be shabiha) and that no German journalist had contacted them or visited the area.

The U.N. investigation into the matter concluded that pro-government forces were responsible. And yet this incident continues to be cited by the anti-anti-Assad left as if it were Alastair Campbell’s fake dossier justifying justifying the war in Iraq.

What if the improbable and distasteful tale of revolutionaries slaughtering children to make Assad look bad were actually true? It is surely false, but even so, Assad needs no help to make him look bad. The bombing of the town of Azaz on the August 15, killing tens of people, was surely carried out by the regime, unless we believe the FSA has obtained fighter jets and is using them to bomb its own supporters in order to make Assad look bad. In which case, we may as well go the whole hog: let’s believe that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. have conspired to install a decades-long reign of cruelty and dictatorship in Syria, torturing, imprisoning and killing, amassing huge wealth at the expense of workers and peasants, and imposing neoliberal policies on the impoverished masses, all to make the Ba’ath party look bad. Or, if we accept that all these things are not a conspiracy, is such a regime a basis for a sustainable pole of anti-imperialist resistance?

Thankfully for the Syrian revolution, there is at least a small group of leftists internal to the struggle. The Syrian Revolutionary Left publish, when the extremely difficult conditions permit, a newspaper entitled The Frontline. This organ campaigns against sectarianism and foreign intervention and for permanent revolution. The Arabic original of their programme is here. I have translated part of it here. It states as the main task of the current “to build an active revolutionary left able to mobilise the toiling and suffering people, and all those who aspire to freedom, dignity and social justice, on the basis of a progressive programme confronting the social and economic programmes of other political forces.” Their putative comrades in the West should take some time to investigate and support such currents before declaring their revolution the work of massive conspiracies.

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian S. August 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm

An excellent piece, very well researched and a useful pulling together of sources. I’ve commented on it over on the NLP site.


Arthur August 29, 2012 at 12:39 am

Mainly very positive. But (perhaps like Brian), the article still tends to defend the Syrian revolution BECAUSE it lacks Western support. Given the documented (with video) use of snipers to disperse unarmed mass demonstrations it is rather pathetic to be enthusing about a Trot group arguing against “militarization” and opposing “foreign military intervention”.

The armed revolution is confronting the armed counter-revolution, The pseudo-left stands with the armed counter-revolution, as documented in the article. The armed revolution demands and needs foreign military assistance, again as documented in the article. Naturally the pseudo-left and other supporters of the armed counter-revolution are primarily focussed on preventing foreign military support.

The conclusion is simple. We should focus on actually implementing foreign military support. The opinions of the pseudo-left are completely irrelevant. Attempting to persuade them by pointing out that the revolution does not receive much foreign military support is directly counter-productive.

Hopefully they WILL receive more Western (eg US) military support. Helping to speed that up is the most effective solidarity we can offer. We cannot simultaneously argue that they should be supported because the West doesn’t provide much help!


Brian S. August 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm

I don’t really follow your argument here. Jamie (and me too) certainly refer to the absence of support for the Syrian fighters as evidence to refute the allegation that they are simply catspaws of foreign powers. But our support for them is not predicated on that. (It seems very strange reasoning on your part to suggest that it is.) Jamie doesn’t really take a position on assistance to the rebels, in common with the other relatively positive left pieces we’ve discussed over the last week or so. (Maybe they’re shy; maybe they haven’t ‘t made up their minds; maybe they haven’t finished their analysis, who knows?) But if you look back at my posts (I know there’s a lot of stuff on this site, so I don’t blame you for losing track, but I’m disappointed that you don’t remember me – Diana certainly would have.) I’ll think you’ll see a very clear position: I am strongly in favour of western military assistance to the FSA, particularly of weaponry that can be effective in countering Assad’s armour and aircraft. I’m not in favour of the sort of indiscriminate western intervention that you advocate, because I think it would take the initiative away from the Syrian fighters and constitute a political trap. (And is not necessary anyway) .


Arthur August 30, 2012 at 12:26 am

I certainly do recall your previous posts on this disagreement, as I responded directly to them, eg:

Events are moving on. Light arms and cash are being supplied. They want more. They also want heavier weapons, suppression of the regime’s air force, air support against tanks and artillery and safe-zones. The latter imply boots on the ground.

I agree it is positive that some of the “left” are rejecting their typical posture of rabid opposition to assistance to the rebels to not saying anything much either way.

As you say: “(Maybe they’re shy; maybe they haven’t ‘t made up their minds; maybe they haven’t finished their analysis, who knows?)”

I would be inclined to add “maybe opposing assistance has become completely untenable so they fear losing their base if they don’t shift a bit”. But we don’t need to argue about motives.

I also agree you clearly do support assistance and I see that as VASTLY more positive than the articles that you consider more positive than I do.

You summarize our difference like this:

” I’m not in favour of the sort of indiscriminate western intervention that you advocate, because I think it would take the initiative away from the Syrian fighters and constitute a political trap. (And is not necessary anyway) .”

Using the word “indiscriminate” distracts from the concrete difference. Syrian revolutionaries have very clearly exercised their initiative in also demanding certain forms of assistance which you oppose and I support. Le’s name them rather than avoiding the issue with words like “indiscriminate”.

1. They want a “No Fly Zone”, which is a euphemism for similar assistance to that provided in Libya (which was what inspired the demand). This involves first suppressing the regimes’s (extensive) air defences and air force and then using air power to attack regime tanks and artillery etc. That is also an essential precondition for item 2, since no zone could be “safe” while potentially subject to air, tank and artillery attack from outside.

2. They want a “Safe Zone”. That presumably means an area near the Turskish border, hopefully extending to Aleppo, where Turkey with NATO support would provide direct military protection enabling them to establish a secure base area to which “defectors” could rally and where they can establish an alternative government that would gradually extend its authority.

In demanding these things it is rather unlikely that they “are not necessary anyway” or that they have not thought through and are prepared to deal with any danger of a “political trap”.

It seems clear that active preparations for such assistance are actually unaware. France has offered immediate recognition to an alternative government and supports a No Fly zone. The US has announced that it is engaged in operational planning with Turkey for a possible safe zone. Preparation of western public opinion is under way, with a rather sophisticated campaign highlighting that the world’s inaction leaves Syria bleeding.

Maybe you haven’t made up your mind, maybe you haven’t completed your analysis. Who knows?

But events are moving quickly and if you make up your mind from being “not in favour” to being strongly against such “indiscriminate” assistance, you will find yourself on the enemy side.

I don’t think that’s at all likely, since you have clearly broken from the pseudo-left by supporting assistance with weaponry against Assad’s armour and air force.

But I really wish you’d hurry up with your analysis and make up your mind. There’s a war on!

PS The “excellent” link below does not deal directly with reluctance to support “indiscriminate” resistance, but I think its remarks on the “conditionality” of some intellectuals are highly relevant. If Salafis fed on a solid diet of Western imperialism being the Great Satan can see that more “indiscriminate” Western support is necessary, leftist intellectuals could be a bit less precious about it.

PPS Yes your former comrades in the pseudo-left will hate you. But they already do.


Arthur August 30, 2012 at 12:31 am

Typo: “active preparations for such assistance are actually underway” not unaware.


Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 8:25 am

@Arthur. ” Light arms and cash are being supplied. They want more. They also want heavier weapons, suppression of the regime’s air force, air support against tanks and artillery and safe-zones. The latter imply boots on the ground.”
Light arms and cash are being supplied by some external actors (the Saudis and the Qataris) to some Syrian fighters (those connected with the Muslim Brotherhood or particular jihadist groups). The core of the FSA has not really benefitted from this, and as I pointed out in my earlier posts, are even short of ammunition in some cases. (It seems that the main role of the CIA has been to try and control who gets what, which almost certainly means that they are holding up the flow of assistance.) So a proper program of even light weapons sup;ly by the west would help both the military and political situations considerable. Of course they want heavy weapons, and , as I’ve made clear, Western governments should supply them.
Beyond that, as I pointed out in my earlier post (thanks for the link) there is no clear call from the Syrian opposition – at some point or other sections of the opposition have called for almost everything; at the moment they don’t seem tobe calling for anything (because they’ve up hope of western support), but I imagine they’d be glad to take anything they could get. The one thing that every section of the Syrian oppostion is clear and united on is that they don’t want “boots on the ground”.
Unlike you(and in common with the Syrian opposition) I am not prepared to put my trust in the benevolence of US imperialism.
“a ‘Safe Zone’ .. an area near the Turkish border, hopefully extending to Aleppo, where Turkey with NATO support would provide direct military protection enabling them to establish a secure base area to which “defectors” could rally and where they can establish an alternative government that would gradually extend its authority.”
You’ve been hanging out with the 8th Route Army fairy again. A “safe zone” would not be an FSA “liberated zone” but an extended refugee camp where Turkey and the US would control the comings and goings, turning various taps on and off to pursue their own political objectives, creating a dependent “leadership” for the Syrian opposition (in which the civilian grassroots certainly, and the FSA probably, would be marginalised.) That in my book is a “trap”.


Arthur August 30, 2012 at 10:12 am

1. “A “safe zone” would not be an FSA “liberated zone” but an extended refugee camp where Turkey and the US would control the comings and goings, turning various taps on and off to pursue their own political objectives, creating a dependent “leadership” for the Syrian opposition (in which the civilian grassroots certainly, and the FSA probably, would be marginalised.) That in my book is a “trap”.

a) Why then are they demanding it?

b) Comings and goings in the Kurdish safe zone were not determined by Turkey or the USA and the Kurds become a lot more independent than they had ever been. The Free Syrian Army is already comparable to the peshmerga.

c) Ditto for the Benghazi safe zone

d) The revolutionaries have been able to operate independently in territory still dominated by the regime. Your belief that they would be more constrained in the safe zone they are demanding is frankly bizarre. In fact it is so silly that I suspect you are making these arguments up as you go along. ie Given that you don’t want to be forever branded as an imperialist stooge by people about whose opinions you should not care, but still do care, therefore you have to come up with these sort of patently ridiculous arguments, which just wouldn’t occur to anyone simply thinking about the situation objectively.

2. Theoretically a safe zone could be established purely with air cover (as in Kurdistan) so technically the calls for a safe zone are compatible with opposition to boots on the ground. Certainly I agree there is little or no explicit calls for boots on the ground. There’s more to be said about what’s likely to prove practicable and necessary, but lets leave that aside for now and focus simply on the fact that we both agree they would be “glad to take anything they could get” in the way of a safe zone and air cover, without boots on the ground, AS WELL AS both light and heavy munitions.

3. So, lets unequivocably mobilize to put pressure on NATO to provide what they would be happy to get.

4. There’s plenty of evidence the Saudi support is going mainly to Salafis. Opening NATO supply channels would reach a higher proportion of the fighters and more people who I would prefer to see armed.

5. I doubt that there is a serious conflict of interest with the CIA about this. They would also prefer to see more arms going to people the Saudis are less likely to arm. I hope they are able to reduce any leakage of arms to the takfiris as they can do immense damage. There’s currently no sign of revolutionary lefist fighters that the CIA might be inclined to keep arms away from just for old times sake, so I don’t know who it is you imagine they might be impeding the flow of arms to.

6. In previous discussions I mentioned that the rebels capacity to benefit from heavy arms is probably very limited by lack of trained officers and troops. Even in Engels day it took a year to train an artillery officer. As I understand it the regime’s armoured divisions are almost exclusively Alawite so there are very few defectors with those skills.

7. On a side issue, I haven’t been following closely enough to be clear about ammunition supplies (and am not sure whether it would be feasible to do so). But for what it’s worth my impression is that shortages of ammunition would reflect local logistics problems (smuggling past checkpoints etc) and preferential distribution to groups favourd by the Saudis rather than an overall lack that could be solved by more supplies at the border. This impression is formed by seeing videos of fighters wasting ammunition on undirected area fire and celebratory shooting. I remember the Vietnamese liberation forces, who WERE short of ammunition used to say the main re-training they had to give to puppet troops that changed sides was in ammunition discipline.


Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Why are they demanding it? Its not clear who “they” are or that they are “demanding it. Riad al Assad called for it some time ago, probably because his appears to be the faction favoured by Turkey, and they have so far given him a relatively free hand while locking up his rivals of higher rank. That could easily change.
I’m not familar with how the northern no fly zone operated in Iraq: but in any event the Kurdish areas were on the geographical periphery of Iraq, and the Kurds were only concerned with gaining control of their own lands. The Syrian conflict is about who controls the whole of the country.
There was no “Benghazi safe zone”: Benghazi was a major city that was under rebel control from the start of the revolt onwards.
The rebels might well chafe at the controls imposed on a safe zone, but they would be dependent on western assistance to manage the areas, and the scope for the west to foment divisions would be considerable. It would be like asking the FSAto take on two enemies at once and remember this isn’t the 8th route army, its a politically inexperienced, fragmented, loosely coordinated, and internally conflicted set of fighters.
The CIA is obsessed with preventing weapons getting into the “wrong hands” and is often bureaucratically challenged andjust plain incompetent in these sorts of situations. Reports suggest that at the moment they require supplicants for financial aid to travel to Istanbul and undergo a lengthy vetting process before anything is released into otheir hands.
We don’t have much, if any, real leverage in this situation – but what we do have should be concentrated on the “weak link” in imperialist policy, which is the asymmetrical nature of th econflict and the need of the fighters for more effective weaponry to redress the balance.Frankly, I think that the west is most likely to sit on its hands for the forseeable future.


Arthur August 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Pham’s reply has adequately documented that they have requested a safe zone, and who “they” are. The rest of your remarks seem frankly incoherent. Especially your insistence that supporting what the FSA is demanding would be “asking them to take on two enemies at once”. This stuff has a hallucinatory quality.

Its still unclear but I wouldn’t be so sure the West will continue sitting on its hands.

There isn’t the same urgency as with Libya because the revolution does not face imminent defeat. It looks to me like the US administration is simply reluctant to take on “unnecessary burdens” for the sake of avoiding a few thousand more Syrian deaths.

But we already know what public posture a US administration adopts when it intends to stand by while a counter-revolutionary massacre takes place:

Eventually it was the response of public opinion to TV broadcasts of hundreds of thousands of Kurds fleeing to Turkey that resulted in Bush Senior imposing a No Fly Zone. All the administration statements were aimed at avoiding doing that. They were very explicitly and publicly committed to NOT bringing down the Baathist regime.

The current admiistration’s behaviour strikes me as more like typical dithering and delay. Instead of publicly committing to not bringing down Assad they have in fact put themselves in a situation where survival of the regime would be generally recognized as a major US defeat. But they haven’t acted quickly or vigorously enough in support of a policy they are already committed to.

Believing that they will sit on their hands makes it easier to feel comfortable about us sitting on our hands.

But public opinion can make a difference and you have drawn attention to the Syrian flash mobs seeking help. The numbers of refugrees pouring into Turkey are nowhere near the numbers that produced a Kurdish NFZ. But they are heading that way, rapidly.

We should be loudly and clearly supporting the Syrian people’s demands for safe zones. It can help make a difference.

PS “There was no Benghazi “safe zone”. Benghazi was a major city that was under rebel control from the start of the revolt onwards.” Please pause for thought before writing such absurdities. Benghazi could not have remained under rebel control without NATO air power. That was the whole point of the original intervention. You could not possibly have missed that!


Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

“Benghazi could not have remained under rebel control without NATO air power.” Its true that NATO blocked the armoured assault that Gaddafi had launched against Benghazi and prevented an aerial assault taking place. But that was accomplished very quickly and Benghazi was not left in a dependent relationship on NATO, and the Libyan rebels retained the initiative on the ground thereafter. The dynamic of a long-term NATO-assured “safe zone” in Syria would be very different.
Arthur, I’ve been around on the left long enough to automatically filter out all the noise generated by polemicists. So all you’re “pseudos” , “incoherents” , etc just pass me by. So you could save all those unecessary key strokes – but I appreciate you are probably playing to the gallery (as of course am I).

Arthur August 31, 2012 at 12:40 am

The aim is not a long-term NATO-assured “safe-zone” but overthrow of the current regime. A safe zone would be a major step towards that. Whether you like the terms or not, your arguments against that are not just wrong, but simply don’t make sense ie are incoherent and the only point of them that I can see would be to pander to what I call the “pseudo-left” and what you still call the “left” but which we both know is hopeless.

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

“Beyond that, as I pointed out in my earlier post (thanks for the link) there is no clear call from the Syrian opposition – at some point or other sections of the opposition have called for almost everything; at the moment they don’t seem tobe calling for anything (because they’ve up hope of western support), but I imagine they’d be glad to take anything they could get.”


Add that to all of the Syrian protests that have been held in the past year calling for some form of imperialist military action against the Assad regime’s forces (none have been held in Syria opposing intervention), such as this one held at the Turkish border by Syrian refugees:

I haven’t heard any calls from any quarter opposing intervention, unlike 2011, which is what Seymour and the other centrists condition their support for the revolution on; I think the absence of countercalls indicates tacit acceptance of calls for no-fly zones and “buffer zones” on the part of the consciously anti-imperialist sections of the revolution. The same forces that rejected militarizing the revolution have also been quiet on that issue since the beginning of this year, again, indicating a tacit acceptance of the reality that they are now in a fight-or-die situation.

In terms of the bigger picture, I think the regime is going to go on a bloody offensive. Assad’s appearance on T.V. in the flesh is an indication that he has regained his footing. This may be the Battle of the Bulge of the Syrian revolution since the imperialist powers would rather bleed the revolution through inaction than help it win. (The CIA is blocking heavy weapons from getting into the hands of the FSA:


Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

@Pham: I don’t accept that expat groups speak for the internal Syrian opposition unless they have some demonstrable link to internal forces. The video is more forceful – but I think actually reinforces my point: the placards that people are holding call for a zone of safety, while the spokesperson who is interviewed calls for a no fly zone. Its understandable that people in a desparate situation want some form of external relief, but I see no consensus in the Syrian opposition as to the form that should take. In so far as there is a “common denominator” it is around what I am advocating: effective weaponry to counter Assad’s armour and firepower. I am not saying that I would actively oppose ANY form of support to the Syrian people; only that I think that the zone of safety would be a very dangerous route to go down in the longer-term, and that we should be aware of that. I’m inclined to think that there is greater chance of getting some consensus and some leverage around the weapons demand, but I’m not confident of that (the reasons I support it are exactly the reasons the western powers will oppose it). I’ll come back later to comment later on your second point


Arthur September 1, 2012 at 6:44 am

The difference between the internal and external leadership of the revolution (as opposed to the “tame opposition”) was primarily that the SNC attempted to oppose a line of rejecting international intervention which naturally had little support among people actually facing the regime’s attacks.

Here’s an extract from the Chatham House report you recently linked:

“Burhan Ghalioun – who led
the SNC until May 2012 – was accused by a number of Syrian activists and
revolutionary councils of selling the opposition movement short by committing
it to opposing international intervention, and demonstrations were held
against him.

The position of the SNC is now to support and advocate for international
intervention in Syria,”

BTW the reason I am relatively confident that there will eventually be Western intervention is simply that the situation will continue to get worse the longer they dither about it. There’s no chance of things settling down with the regime still in power and a sufficiently protracted conflict would eventually generate hundreds of thousands of refugees, revitalization of Al Qaeda and sectarian massacres, none of which would be helpful to Western goals in the region. Their stupidity and cynicism can explain delays but is unlikely to extend to reverting to the same kind of indiference to the conseqences of the region remaining a swamp that characterized US policy pre 9/11.

Also the new Egyptian regime is likely to make a significant difference.


Arthur August 29, 2012 at 11:52 am
Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 9:31 am

A good piece with a discussion of the geopolitical implications of the Syrian crisis that avoids the usual hysteria from western commentators on this subject:
This is my comment on it on the Guardian website:
Martin Chulov, who has given us some of the best, on the ground reporting from Syria; now puts it into its important geopolitical context. He does this without underestimating the complexity of the situation, but also without succumbing to the Armageddon complex that afflicts most commentators on the region.What Martin’s piece has made me realise (one of those things that seem obvious once its pointed out) is that the Arab Spring has initiated a tectonic shift in the regions politics – domestic and international. This is not a process that can be turned on and off at will by anyone – its “history” on the move, as one of Martin’s interviewees points out. The most that we bystanders who solidarise with the people of the Arab world can do do is to try and nudge it in the most benevolent direction, and promote actions and policies which will aid the most vulnerable. At the present moment that means supporting the uprising of Syria’s’ people against the regime.


Brian S. August 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

PS: I’ve posted this on the Aiding the Syrian Revolution thread; but just thought I’d repeat it here in case people don’t notice it: Occupied Kanfranbel is now LIBERATED Kanfranbel:


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Consensus? Since when do Marxists operate or make decisions on that basis? There have been many revolutionary demos (with signs in English!) all over Syria calling for airstrikes/NFZ and zero opposing them, so it is untenable to consider the expat groups who are simply echoing those demands as being “unrepresentative.”

Forces on the ground continually complained about the SNC because they tried to impose control/slogans/tactics from above, but this is very different. No one on the ground is disowning SSG, SAC, and the Syrian Expats because these groups are not trying to manipulate but act in the interests of the people fighting and dying on the ground. None of them are terribly political or ideological, nor are they seeking to be anointed as official spokemen by Western governments.


Brian S. August 31, 2012 at 7:19 am

@Pham: The point, Pham, is that its easy to find particular demonstrations or expat groups who are saying this or that. The question is what do they represent? I think that is one of the first questions a Marxist (or anyone else), should ask when trying to assess what is happening somewhere where we have no direct contact and limited information.
Anyway, lets remind ourselves of what we are arguing about.
My objection was to Arthur’s invocation of a universal “they” (an invocation of “consensus” if ever there was one) as demanding specific forms of western response. That was in the context of my expressed concerns about the political implications of the “zone of safety”
I’ve done some trawling of the web, and this is the position as I can best determine it (of course its easy to miss things, so always open to correction):
1. I can find no statement from the grassroots organisations calling for foreign intervention (although I readily concede that I do not have access to Arabic, and that is the predominant language for their communications.)
2. I can find no statements from figures or forces in the FSA, since Riad al-Assad’s call for a “zone of safety” some months ago, calling for direct external intervention. In so far as there are calls for support (and they are few and not very clear) they are focused on weapons.
3. The forces around the National Coordination Committee (even people like Michel Kilo who have swung behind the FSA) remain opposed to direct external intervention. But I accept that they are a force of limited significance.
4. There is some foundation for your view when it comes to the Syrian National Council. The Syrian National Council doesn’t really do formal decision making: its inner core basically make up policy as its needed. But at its recent meeting with Francois Hollande, the SNC delegation, headed by its President Abdelbasset Sida, essentially asked for everything – weapons, no fly zone, zone of safety. So, in so far as this appears to be the only semi-coherent external voice of the Syrian opposition – I guess that you can say “they” have called for direct external support.
I’ll close the post here to give you time to get your breath. But I’ll return later with more material, unless the discussion moves on significantly in the meantime.


Brian S. August 31, 2012 at 7:38 am

PS: Sorry, meant to post the following link to the most recent Chatham House summary – not a lot of new info but some insight into UK Foreign Office and establishment thinking.


patrickm August 31, 2012 at 11:11 am

The Syrian regime has an extensive capacity to kill people defending the revolutionary demands to the extent that it is left alone to do the work and it has been steadily doing so, and the masses around the world across the region and in the west are sick of watching this. There is IMV a massive underlying goodwill for the intervention that is being organized yet dithered with.

Take a deep breath Brian and get ready to jump in with other progressives across the world who will support the military involvement when it increases from the current pathetic levels. Clear thinking progressives want Assad’s supporters stopped and that can’t be done with wishes or good will. The priority is to shut down the enemies ‘artillery’ on the way to winning this war. The revolutionary civil war is underway so fear-mongering about the future must be treated with a ‘lets cross that bridge when we get there’ attitude as the peoples look to deal with their immediate enemies.

a) any worries about unexplainable powers of imperialists to control populations that hate them when that population can vote for their own political parties will not be prioritized and
b) the potential of entrapment of those parties by the Great Satan in particular will be ignored in favor of uniting with anyone who can assist shutting down the enemies artillery.
Those revolutionary purple stained elections will be held, Brian as they have been elsewhere and they will produce an independent country.

Anyone not in Neverland knows that any thinking that has the bourgeois forces of any significant country LOOKING FOR NEW MASTERS is pure junk thinking. This thinking has nothing whatever to do with what Mao described as the era that he was living in (and he died over 35yrs ago!). Mao said the era was one where ‘countries want independence nations want liberation and the people want revolution.’ Mike doesn’t think in those terms at all. Mike is of course an American ‘Maoist’ circa ‘Life of Brian’.

Consider this material from some years back.
Afghanistan: The Oil Behind the War by Mike Ely
it was originally published in Revolutionary Worker newspaper, November 4, 2001. 7 yrs later the article was dragged out as above to remind people of the correct line, just as Obama was looking like winning and thus setting off another split in the – start big then shrink – anti-war milieu.
4yrs on I bet that even Brian understands that Ely’s article is exactly the sort of thinking that keeps ‘anti-imperialist leftists’ sleeping away in Neverland while the real world revolutions roll on.

Instead of reviewing the material of 4 years ago and comparing the reality that has unfolded Mike Ely simply repeats that junk thinking now over Syria as he has done in one form or another for decades. If people stick to ‘debate’ with people who liberally tolerate what they know to be bullshit they will not have to deal with reality, and when unable to even stand to repeat it to themselves they can just go silent and move on to promote solidarity with Greek demonstrators and even advocate that people read Mao’s ‘Combat Liberalism’ etc. Nothing can sink in with people who cant win an argument about an issue as simple as piracy and yet won’t change their mind so there is no way that complicated issues to do with bourgeois democratic revolutions and united fronts will.

Yet Mike Ely is having trouble moving on from the Middle East and keeps getting drawn back into the deadly swamp as reality gets thrown at him on the MSM every day. Libya when it first blew up produced the usual sympathetic chit chat for the demonstrators and against the tyrant but when those demonstrators wouldn’t suffer a glorious defeat and instead called for intervention by the Great Satan and other lessor devils out came the foolish thinking from a decade ago.

A political line of abandonment of any imperialist loving democrats was swiftly adopted in Neverland! Forces that were selling out the (abstract) Libyan people and (potential) revolution had apparently triumphed and so there was now no genuine revolution to worry about. Mike and his kind spoke up about the always bad imperialists and how the local junior exploiters and backward god botherers wanted new overlord masters for Libya. Nothing could be done because bad people had misled the revolutionary Libyan workers and other progressives. Nothing can be done but talk shit about what a real revolution would have been like.

At this point last year some more people woke up quite startled with where they were now standing and waved farewell to Neverland.

This years developments in Syria has people like Mike Ely proclaiming that once again more local bourgeois forces are looking for new imperialist masters or in great danger of being ‘trapped’ by them! Some people want to stand in 2 places at the one time and end up pleading for more time to make up their minds. After all it’s not as if our leftist views count, goes the refrain. Western lefts just take positions we don’t actually have a real effect not like governments!

As the imperialists get (even more) involved there is (apparently) going to be a terrible price to pay as there was for our fathers and our fathers fathers, and for…… yet as with any life of Brian skit the end result (after the aqueduct and the roads that go without saying etc.) is what did the Romans ever do for us?! All progressives are expected to nod wisely as Reg-Mike-and now slightly awake Brian get ready to formulate ‘a whole new motion’. Just remember that once Loretta speaks up -with the desire to have babies – even the Romans are found to be without fault. That how silly this is getting.

Brian is never going to comfortably dream Neverland dreams of emerging bourgeois democracies seeking out ‘new masters’ and is not interested in oil issues when discussing Syria. Brian is only slowly waking up but Brian IS waking up. We would all rather think about the new bourgeois democratic revolutionary kid on the block News: Egypt’s Morsi denounces Syria regime, defying summit host Iran

The last time the country of Syria was involved (outside of it’s own tyranny meddling in Lebanon) in a larger political undertaking it was involved in a United Arab Republic with Egypt The idea that the Great Satan can have any behind the scenes controlling imperial role in Syria in the 21st C is simply stupid; it won’t because it can’t. The future of this region is emerging from a process thats released the internal forces to the region even though the revolution exists in a global capitalism context that none of us understand.

There is simply no danger of the western imperialists led by the Great Satan or the old imperial powers as represented by the current 21stC Turkish government taking ‘charge’ or even gaining political influence over a future ‘grateful’ Syria. A fully independent Syria will emerge from this bloody revolutionary struggle as nothing else is possible because real bourgeois politics fit for at least some centuries ago is on the agenda. Syrians haven’t had external masters for many decades and are not looking for new masters. Syrians will form the political parties and they will contest the eventual elections. All of the Neverland thinking is wrong.

The following is a comment on that Kasama thread patrickm said July 28, 2008 at 2:21 am
Mike Ely developed his analysis in the month after the attacks of 9/11. He said of ‘the newly independent CARs and Caucasus republics, …[that] The main difference was that they were looking for new masters.’ He is wrong and if he were facing up to errors as all communists ought he would accept that and then deal with the fallout from being exposed as wrong. However, like Chomsky he dare not face his mistake.
I also said patrickm said July 28, 2008 at 11:48 pm
Bourgeois democracies and the revolutionary struggle for them where they don’t exist will not disappear as an unfolding issue just by wishing that the world was further developed than it is.
Policy change on the part of the U.S. ruling-elite can’t be hidden from when the old school foreign policy establishment is screaming that their whole life’s work is being undone.
I am delighted that the old policies of standing in the way of the masses overthrowing tyranny have been dumped and I believe that anyone interested in furthering proletarian interests has an obligation to re-think their stance when it has turned to crap over these last seven years.[I see Brian thinks there’s ‘..a tectonic shift in the regions politics – domestic and international. This is not a process that can be turned on and off at will by anyone – its “history” on the move’ now 11 years after others started working it out, good show Brian, the longer you’re out of Neverland the more you will make sense]
So let’s now debate the real draining the swamp thesis because there is a lot of swamp out there and proletarian revolutionaries with our world to win can only contribute if we are fearless and correct our mistakes.

There is a messy revolution and there is a counter revolution. Unfortunately many brave Syrians struggling against the Assad tyranny and very many innocent civilians will not survive or will be injured for life the longer Obama dithers. The quicker the intervention the better for the revolutionaries. The quicker the counter-revolutionaries are killed in the aircraft and tanks that belong to Assad the less revolutionaries they will kill. The Egyptian leader is this very day speaking up strongly in favour of assisting the Syrian revolutionaries as a moral imperative! Are western Leftists to be seen as less progressive than the MB? I don’t think so. But of course the MB are more progressive than pseudo-leftists.

My understanding is that Brian rejects the Kasama total hands-off Neverland approach over Syria having learned just how wrong this foolishness was over Libya last year. I believe Brian would also reject the barking mad ‘looking for new masters’ RCP/Kasama bullshit and point out to Mike next time he’s in that part of the Internet, that he really ought to wake up to himself and let a hundred flowers blossom, but I won’t hold my breath.

Brian understands that western military intervention acted as the artillery to destroy the Libyan tyranny’s mobile warfare capacity for the Libyan rebels. Some people opposed that effort because it would in their view come with ‘strings’. Some people that opposed ‘imperialist intervention’ gave in over air and sea power and made a big deal of boots on the ground land power being the very important issue instead. They are trying that formula out over Syria but it won’t work.

When the Turkish troops cross into Syria and they will, the liberation they bring in their wake will destroy that short comfort stop of opposing any boots and all occupations.

Brian says; ‘I’m not in favour of the sort of indiscriminate [I read discriminate air power attacks and required ground troops in mostly Turkish columns, special forces and so forth] western intervention that you advocate, because I think it would take the initiative away from the Syrian fighters and constitute a political trap. (And is not necessary anyway).’

It really is no progress at all to advocate that the US/Turkey/Nato provide some weapons to Syrian revolutionaries like the Saudi government is doing when the requirement for intervention is right in your face at every international news report and the bourgeois forces are already talking about the intervention measures. Only the realists and the pseudo-left think intervention is not necessary because they are not thinking of what is required for real revolution.

Neverland slogans;- troops out now, let’s scuttle the navy, hands-off everybody – are at least clear and consistent and without any doubt totally wrong.

Imposition of a Syria wide NFZ is an obvious – revolutionary helping – step that would be best imposed with full use of US air power as Turkey takes co-ordinated ground actions, and there might well be a very big job for boots on the ground from others (such as Egypt and Jordan and all manner of special forces) as well. Syria will IMV require boots for all manner of reasons. Right now imperialists are providing boots on the ground right up to the borders and these boots are not even opposed by the usual Hands-off brigade. Thats the way the life of Brian goes. The Romans are already doing stuff while Reg is proposing another motion.


Arthur August 31, 2012 at 11:35 am

Patrick, whether intentional or not, references to “The Life of Brian” in debate with a person named Brian are unlikely to be helpful.

Lets stick closely to the immediate issues.


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