There is an excellent story by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the July 31 Guardian.
The conspiracy theorists will latch on to this because it confirms the presence of jihadist forces (“al Qaeda”) in Syria. This of course has never really been in dispute – the question is what role do they play?
Abdul-Ahad’s article now gives us a reasonably credible picture: they are a small and for the most part recently arrived element in the Syrian rebel forces; but they are acquiring some military weight and there is the beginning of some cross-over between these groups and existing Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgents. Nevertheless, the wider Syrian opposition (including other groups in the FSA) are anxious about their influence and do not share their political views.
I think this might be an appropriate moment to try and deepen our understanding of the Syrian situation, think about what issues this unfolding struggle may raise – both for the Syrian people and those who support their struggle from afar – and discuss what our response to these various scenarios should be.
I write this in the spirit of someone who has a couple of clear political parameters – the current agony in Syria is the responsibility of the Assad regime and its backers; and the resolution of this situation (if one is possible) depends on the eventual overthrow of that regime by popular forces.
But beyond that I find myself in a terrain of confusion, complexity, and unattractive alternatives.
Let me try and set out some of my questions and concerns.
- Sections of the western press, reflecting the views of the FSA forces are talking of Aleppo as “the decisive battle for the rebels”. But I’m not so sure. I don’t fully understand why the FSA has shifted over the past two weeks from what was an increasingly effective guerrilla struggle, waged in close association with the civilian opposition, to this militarised “war of position” in the cities. It strikes me as a serious mistake: and I don’t know if its stems from strategic naiveté on the part of the FSA or something else going on within opposition ranks. It looks to me as if Syria is moving into a Libya/Misrata type situation, where rebel forces hold an important built-up area while government forces conduct punitive operations with heavy weaponry (and aerial attacks).
- U.S. policy seems to be verging on the incoherent: Secretary of State Clinton in her press conferencelast week seemed to invite the Syrian opposition to set up a “safe haven” in territory it controls, and then went on to sketch out a fantasy program for a future opposition government, with no indication of how they would get from the first place to the second.
- The FSA has also been talking of creating a “safe haven” (could it be that its current strategy has been forged in response to U.S. and Syrian National Council encouragement of this objective?). But even if it could ensure the security of such a zone (doubtful) it looks more like a formula for long-term stalemate than “political transition”.
- What effect has this militarisation of the conflict had on the civilian opposition? It has certainly marginalised them in the short-term. The Syrian Revolution General Commission (reportedly the main coordinating bod for the grassroots) is quoted today in the UK Telegraph, so that suggests they are still in business. What possibility is there that they will re-emerge once the military phase of the conflict is over?
- What are the consequences of the increasing jihadi influence? This is a worrying development, and while they are and will remain a relatively small minority within the opposition forces, their presence can contribute adversely to the sectarian climate that is already growing up in the conflict and sow considerable disruption in the post Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s article makes it clear what the source of their influence is: their greater military discipline, the weapons they bring in, and, in particular their ability to help redress the imbalance in firepower between the FSA and the Syrian army by deploying their explosives skills. Is this a case for advocating the provision of heavier weaponry to the FSA (thus far denied to them) and thereby lessening their dependence on foreign fighters?
- What is happening within the regime? Its my impression that Assad has pretty much disappeared from public view. There are confirmed reports that his officials in the Kurdish regions have simply handed the administration over to the Kurdish opposition (perhaps on the understanding that they keep out of the wider struggle). And there are reports that fighting in Aleppo are being waged on his behalf by armed semi-criminal groups – so what’s happened to his regular ground forces?
Answers on the back of a postcard, please!
No, seriously these are the questions that are going to be keeping me up nights for the duration (and probably beyond). I’d be keen for this to be a collective enterprise, and I’m happy to engage with people who may make different political assessments and judgments to me, provided that they know what a fact looks like and are capable of rational thought.
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.