I posted a link to this French-language documentary a week ago in the Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong comment thread, but it probably got lost in the flow of discussion there, so I am reposting it here along with a brief review of some of the contents of the film.
The documentary was made by a two-person team from the French TV station Canal Plus who entered Syria from Turkey with the cooperation of Syrian oppositionists last December. They spent 10 days with a group of Syrian Free Army (FSA) fighters in a small village in the northwest of the country, near the key opposition center of Idlib. Apart from following this group, they managed to briefly enter Idlib, and also to be present at a major gathering of opposition forces (military and civilian) somewhere in a “liberated zone” in the Jebel Az-Zawiya mountains nearby.
Like most good documentaries, this is most valuable in providing a sense of the human dimension of the conflict and those involved in it. But it also provides some factual details about the struggle that are relevant to the issues that we have been discussing here.
Obviously the program provides only a microcosmic picture of what is going on in one small locality and over one short space of time. Remarks by the people encountered suggest that the events and views recorded were fairly typical of a large swathe of the Syrian opposition, but there will be places where things are very different (especially in the large cities).
Those who can’t follow the French commentary may not find it worthwhile to watch the whole film but I think that the final 10 minutes, which shows the large gathering in the mountains, is worth watching just for the visual images, which give a sense of the popular enthusiasm that the revolt has mobilized (at least in some places) and of the relationship between the fighters and the civilian population.
Key Points of the Film:
The FSA, at least in this part of the country, operates in small groups of fighters based in local villages. The group that the filmmakers were attached to were described as a mixture of Syrian army deserters and local peasants, but most appeared to be deserters who had joined the opposition because of the repressive actions they were being ordered to carry out. Their command structure is located across the border in Turkey, and their weaponry fairly basic: small arms and one or two machine guns. Their operations center around providing protection to civilian opposition forces in the villages, particularly for demonstrations, but they clearly undertake some offensive actions against the Syrian army. Their basic structures are the small groups, but they regroup into larger units as necessary.One fighter expressed the view that in the village where they were based, political opinions were divided, with 60% being anti-Assad and 40% pro-government, the divide largely on generational lines (the younger generation being more solidly pro-opposition). There is interesting footage of a demonstration in a small local village where such gatherings apparently take place every evening. (@15:52) One of the slogans of the demonstration offers some insight into the strong nationalist (and quite sophisticated) politics of the grassroots movement even in rural areas like this: “Your father sold the Golan, you suffocate our souls” (meaning Bashar al-Assad’s father Afez).
The filmmakers entered the city of Idlib in agreement with the local opposition. Interestingly, the opposition leader who they deal with tells them that the FSA is only allowed to operate in the villages – they are forbidden from entering Idlib itself, because the local opposition believes that their presence increases the risk of armed exchanges with Assad’s military. In their view the most important thing is the continued mobilization of the mass movement. This indicates that there are tactical differences within the opposition, but suggests that the deciding voice is that of the civilian movement not the armed wing.
Discussions with fighters about external assistance again show divergences: some plead for international support (but are unclear about what form it should take), but one FSA officer when asked about this simply says that Western government should at least expel Syrian ambassadors.
I’ve suggested that those interested might watch the last 10 minutes on the gathering in the mountain “liberated zone” so I won’t say much about that, except to note that the civilian demonstration seems large for such a remote area, and that there is heavier weaponry on display here (but only rocket-propelled grenades). This may be a result of different units being present or of recent changes in supply sources or both.
To clarify the background for these comments I’ve done a bit of research into the Syrian opposition, and I must admit to being embarrassed at my own ignorance – I was really not aware of the extent and depth of the popular grassroots organizsation, only a hint of which is provided by this film. I don’t want to overburden this post, so I’ll close it here, but might feed some of my further findings either into the discussion or in another post looking more at the civilian opposition.
Brian Slocums is a retired social scientist and was a militant in the Canadian and British Trotskyist movement over many years. He is now politically unaffiliated but retains a firm commitment to socialist values, while accepting the need to rethink the means through which they can best be realized.