Who Supports the Revolution in Syria?

councils in syria

Update 8-Sept-13 5:22pm: link added at bottom to a new source further describing the popular self-organization in some rebel-held areas

Update 17-Sept-13: further links documenting the revolution added

Update 23-Sept-13: NYT link added on the gulf between the revolutionaries on the ground and the unrepresentative expat leadership; a reflection by Reem Salahi; and Rochelle Davis on the revolutionary youth and the conservatism of the elder communists

Update 26-Sept-13: First hand account of the local council in one town

Update 27-Sept-13: To include Chomsky reference to the Syrian revolution; a counterpoint by Rania Masri, an excerpt from Michael Karadjis, and a link to a post by Ghayath Naisse

Update 11-Oct-13: Stephen Zunes and Nader Hashemi debate the merits of arming the rebels

Happily, activists in the U.S. have focused on the need to stop a Washington attack upon Syria. However, many are also ignoring the most interesting and hopeful aspects to what is going on there now.

Yes, there is indeed a real live revolution in Syria. That is a point that needs to be made given the studied ignorance coming from many quarters of the left.

Those who have been in Syria within the last two years or who are in contact with Syrians (listen to the comments of Yasser Munif of Emerson College or the words of Murtaza Hussain writing in Al Jazeera) complain that in rebel areas everyone speaks of the revolution while the outside world speaks only of the civil war. Nothing of the positive features of the revolution comes through. It would be a profound failure then for us on the left in the U.S. to miss that.

Who supports the revolution?

Certainly not large chunks of the Western left, which deny it exists.

Many, like As’ad AbuKhalil, apparently believe progressive forces were snuffed out when the rebellion took up arms in response to Assad’s violence. They have a very different interpretation of reality in Syria.

AbuKhalil actually compares the Syrian rebels to the Nicaraguan Contras, going so far as to call them “Syrian death squads (the ‘revolutionary’ groups, according to US right-wing and leftist media).”

For news fanatics, AbuKhalil’s blog is worth following. He is well informed and his blog is full of interesting tidbits and gossip – but he is also careless (e.g. his embarrassing suspicion of the three American hikers, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal, that had been held hostage by Iran) – and he has not elaborated on why he feels able to be so dismissive of the numerous reports detailing the continued survival of genuine revolutionary currents in Syria.

The left journalist Chris Floyd approvingly quotes AbuKhalil’s critique of Chomsky:

“I don’t know who Chomsky talks to learn about the Syrian non-revolution and I don’t know what he is relying on to follow-up developments on Syria but he seems to me woefully ill-informed. I am quite displeased with his analysis here. The worst part is when he draws an analogy to the Vietcong. Vietcong? The Syrian rebels are reactionary and conservative and anti-revolutionary forces (and I am talking about the armed bands of the Free Syrian Army which the US considers ‘moderate’ and not about the obvious right-wing reactionaries of the Jihadi groups) and can’t be compared to communist liberation movements.  To Chomsky I say: the Syrian rebels are the Contras of Syria, and not the Sandinistas of Syria. And also, it is not a coincidence that Prince Bandar, who had helped fund the Contras — as Chomsky remembers — is the same man who is now organizing all funding and arming for the Syrian rebels.  I don’t want to invoke analogies too much because I detest the Asad regime much more than I dislike the Sandinistas, especially Ortega. So I am on board in considering the Asad regime also a counter-revolutionary regime and his regime is not revolutionary like the Sandinistas when they came to power. But the Syrian rebels (supported and armed by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, US, France, Germany, UK among other non-progressive forces) have to be considered for what they are: counter-revolutionary forces who are responsible for the GCC hijacking of a potential revolution in Syria.”

Note that AbuKhalil does believe there had been a “potential revolution” – but apparently thinks the genuine revolutionaries are now totally out of the picture.

By now, AbuKhalil declares, “a revolution… does not exist in Syria”, though he allows that “There is in fact a segment of the Syrian opposition (represented by Haytham Al-Manna` and others) which also can be placed in this segment.

Now it is certainly true that it would be foolish to lend support to the rebels as a whole. I remember when the ISO and others adopted the posture of supporting (purely rhetorically of course) “the resistance” in Iraq back in the heyday of that antiwar movement. It struck me as utterly foolish because the catchall term encompassed a wide range of forces, some of them brutal thugs. The same dynamics apply here.

AbuKhalil is open to changing his mind, stating “If the leftists-for-US-imperialism would point to me ONE PROGRESSIVE LEFTIST MILITARY ARMED OPPOSITION GROUP in Syria, I would support it myself. But they don’t exist.  Enough of your myth making.”

Well then, what about all these reports of the ongoing revolution? What of the numerous small battalions loosely affiliated and quite independent of the SNC or any other exile coordinating body?

In another post, AbuKhalil said:

“Chomsky, as you know, spoke out against any Western military intervention.  But what bothered me about this interview with him is that he basically adopted the dominant Western governmental discourse about events in Syria: that the regime responded brutally to demonstrations (which it did) and then suddenly overnight the peaceful demonstrators became armed revolutionaries.  Chomsky should go back to the early birth of the Fee Syrian Army, which indicated early on that it is not the same as the civilian population: it claimed that it was being formed to defend the civilian population. The notion that civilians became armed groups or Jihadi over night is not credible.  There is also in such a narrative no mention of the role of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in forming armed militant groups from early on, prior to the eruption of the Syrian uprising and along with it.”

The disagreement here is with the notion that the FSA (along with the Islamists) constitute the totality of the rebel presence.

Then there is the influential elder statesman of the left, Tariq Ali, who writes:

“What of Syria? Here too the mass uprising was genuine and reflected a desire for political change. Had Assad agreed to negotiations during the first six months and even later, there might have been a constitutional settlement. Instead he embarked on repression and the tragically familiar Sunni-Shia battle-lines (this divide a real triumph for the United States following the occupation of Iraq) were drawn. Turkey, Qatar and the Saudis poured in weaponry and volunteers to their side and the Iranians and Russians backed the other with weaponry.

The notion that the SNC is the carrier of a Syrian revolution is as risible as the idea that the Brotherhood was doing the same in Egypt.  A brutal civil war with atrocities by both sides is currently being fought. Did the regime use gas or other chemical weapons? We do not know.

….Whatever else may or may not be happening in Syria, it is far removed from a revolution. Only the most blinkered sectarian fantasist could imagine this to be the case.

The idea that Saudia, Qatar, Turkey backed by  NATO are going to create a revolutionary democratic or even a democrat set-up is challenged by  what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world.”

Ali here tilts against a straw-man to erase the very existence of the revolution. Of course the Syrian National Council is not revolutionary – but there is more to the rebellion than the SNC. And did the peasant agrarian communes in liberated Spain cease to exist simply because colonial Britain sided with the resistance to Franco? Geopolitics makes for strange alliances – a truth so well known it is a cliche.

Left essayist Shamus Cooke meanwhile took the ISO to task, lamenting “How the US Left is Failing Over Syria”:

“And although opinion is certainly divided over Assad, those in the U.S. wishing to stop an aggressive war must focus on the actions of their own country.

“Hands Off Syria” is a united front demand, meaning that it’s intentionally aimed to create a broad based appeal in an effort to mobilize as many people as possible. No anti-war movement — or any social movement — is powerful without massive, ongoing mobilizations.

Within the united front demand of Hands Off Syria there is plenty of room for other tactics and room to discuss the deeper politics of the movement, but creating the largest possible mobilizations must be the base ingredient, and this can only be done under a demand that is capable of bringing together broad sections of the U.S. public.”

I am no fan of the ISO, and don’t read their literature closely, but their publications seem to be taking the right approach to the conflict in Syria. I have already commented previously on the silliness of the ‘hands’ slogan. Contrary to Cooke’s aims, the phrase is redolent of hackneyed Old Left rhetoric that has always failed spectacularly to resonate with Americans. Much better is RootsAction’s simple “No Attack on Syria.

More importantly, Cooke’s abstentionist attitude towards support for Assad allows Assad acolytes to insert their slogans and imagery within protests (as has already happened – the relevant portion of Munif’s interview is from minute 10 to minute 12; and of course such blunders are immediately picked up by the corporate press), instantly alienating the anti-war left from both the Syrian revolutionaries and the U.S. public.

Unsurprisingly, the left clown Slavoj Žižek who, from his perch at the Guardian has exposure few left authors can match, added to the confusion, writing: “the ongoing struggle [in Syria] is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. ….So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special…”

So much for international solidarity.

As Syrian-American author Mohja Kahf passionately pleads:

“In SYRIA, this is a REVOLUTION (and yes I understand it meets the technical definition of a civil war, yes it does, AND, yet, still: This is a Revolution). In SYRIA, a Revolution has been happening, and the will to freedom that began it will not simply be erased; it is a bell that cannot be unrung in the hearts of young Syrians. It is a consciousness change. That is why Syria is not now and will not become, despite all the [chaos] that has ensued inside the revolution, “like Iraq” (and by the way, I marched in the United States against the Iraq War, and over the years have written and published pages of poems based on the unimaginable sufferings narrated to me by Iraqis).

In SYRIA, a broad spectrum of twenty-somethings across every province were inspired by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, by 26-year-old Asma Mahfouz’ call to Tahrir, by the movement for Khaled Said, a young activist murdered by Egyptian police in 2010, NOT by some U.S. president’s call for regime change as in Iraq. By the will to “live like human beings,” as one after another has told me when I have met them and asked for their stories. ASK for their stories, please. They will TELL you what motivated them to risk their lives as they did. Syria’s revolution youth hit the streets out of grievances they have EXPERIENCED, in their own bodies, in their own lives; this revolution was not begun by some Syrian version of Iraq’s Chelebi, nor by established oppositionists, but by geographically widespread rural and small-town women and men ofALL sects, young people whom the CIA never even heard of, coming together in a new spirit. They are nobody’s proxies, no matter how much outside agendas want to make them somebody’s proxies.

And please, do not create a callous denial narrative that erases the masses of mainstream Syrians in this revolution, as if they don’t count, in favor of the Salafist extremists who are trying to take it over from its fringes as, thousands of miles away, you run screaming “Taliban! Al Qaeda!” wringing your hands but not knowing in the slightest the measure of their (nasty) influence. Do not abandon those revolution youth — whether they are still in the civil resistance or have joined the secular, mainline armed resistance — who are now themselves beset by the Salafists even while still fending off the brutal regime. For example, I just Facebook-chatted with a friend inside, one of the original protesters, who refuses to flee Syria, and incidentally he is Alawite, who has received death threats by name from the regime, and from the Nusra front on the other hand.

Above all, do not become so ethically ugly as to deny the massacres the regime has committed against civilians, or become a dictator-defender. Bashar is a Butcher; let’s establish that as a common fact between us, no matter your other views. I have spoken out against atrocities committed by the rebel sides; they AREheinous, AND they in no way come close to the horrors committed by the regime, which vastly outguns all the rebel sides. So the “symmetry” thing, where you say “oh, they’re all about as bad as each other” is ethically reprehensible. If you don’t have time to educate yourself, at least refrain from that moral repulsiveness, please.”

What does the revolution look like?

To give some of the flavor, I will provide extended excerpts from an immensely illuminating essay by Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the London Review of Books (one might also revisit this 2011 profile by the wonderful journalist, the late Anthony Shadid):

“Many of the battalions dotted across the Syrian countryside consist only of a man with a connection to a financier, along with a few of his cousins and clansmen. They become itinerant fighting groups, moving from one battle to another, desperate for more funds and a fight and all the spoils that follow.

Officially – or at least this is what many would like to believe – all the battalions are part of the Free Syrian Army. But from the start of the uprising in March 2011, the FSA has never managed to become an organisation with the kind of centralised command structure that would allow it to co-ordinate attacks and move units on the ground. Until recently, Colonel Riad al-Asad, the nominal head of the FSA, and his fellow defectors from the Syrian army were interned in the Officers’ Camp, a special refugee camp in southern Turkey – for their protection, the Turks say. All meetings and interviews with the defecting colonel had to go through Turkish intelligence. Towards the end of last year the FSA announced that it had moved its headquarters to the Syrian side of the border, in an attempt to prove its relevance. But battalions are still formed by commanders working and fighting on their own initiative across Syria, arming themselves via many different channels and facing challenges unique to their towns and villages. For these people the colonel was just a talking head and a stooge of the Turks, and the FSA not much more than a label. Another problem emerged when higher-ranking officers started defecting from the army. Who leads the FSA? The officers who defected first? Or the men who outrank them? Parallel organisations of defecting officers started to pop up, but few had any real influence where it mattered. ….

‘We reached a point in the fighting, in spring 2012, when we needed proper support. We needed heavy machine guns, real weapons. Money was never an issue: how much do you want? Fifty million dollars, a hundred million dollars – not a problem. But heavy weapons were becoming hard to find: the Turks – and without them this revolution wouldn’t have started – wanted the Americans to give them the green light before they would allow us to ship the weapons. We had to persuade Saad al-Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son and a former prime minister, to go to put pressure on the Saudis, to tell them: “You abandoned the Sunnis of Iraq and you lost a country to Iran. If you do the same thing again you won’t only lose Syria, but Lebanon with it.”’ The idea was that the Saudis in turn would pressure the Americans to give the Turks the green light to allow proper weapons into the country.

Now suddenly, while on the ground the revolution was still in the hands of small bands of rebels and activists, a set of outside interests started conspiring to direct events in ways amenable to them. There were the Saudis, who never liked Bashar but were wary of more chaos in the Middle East. The Qataris, who were positioning themselves at the forefront of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, using their formidable TV networks to mobilise support and their vast wealth to fund illicit weapons shipments to the Libyans. And of course there were the French and the Americans.

‘The Americans gave their blessing,’ Abu Abdullah said, ‘and all the players converged and formed an operations room. It had the Qataris, the Saudis, the Turks and Hariri.’ In their infinite wisdom the players decided to entrust the running of the room – known as the Armament Room or the Istanbul Room after the city where it was based – to a Lebanese politician called Okab Sakr, a member of Hariri’s party who was widely seen as divisive and autocratic. The plan was to form military councils to be led and dominated by defectors from the Syrian army – this in order to appease the Americans, who were getting worried about the rising influence of the Islamists. All the fighting groups, it was assumed, would eventually agree to answer to the military councils because they were the main source of weapons.

At first, the plan seemed to be working. As summer approached military councils sprang up in Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and Deir al-Zour and some major battalions and factions did join in. Better weapons – though not the sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft equipment the rebels wanted – started entering Syria from Turkey. Until this point, most of the weapons smuggled from Turkey had come in small shipments on horseback or carried on foot by intermediaries and the fighters themselves, but these new shipments were massive, sent by truck. Iraq remained the largest single supplier, a legacy of three decades of war, but a lot of the Iraqi ammunition was of bad quality, having been buried in the sand for years. So the new supplies were eagerly received. ….

He had recently been in a meeting with other Aleppo commanders. The cracks between the military councils and the battalions starting to grow. ‘The Islamists at the meeting attacked the councils,’ he said. ‘They’re furious that the officers control the new ammunition. They think we want to bring in military rule, and they consider us infidels because we once supported the regime.’

‘This is a secular nation,’ his friend Musbah said. ‘They want to bring back the days of the caliphate.’ ….

Ali Dibo turned to another supplicant. ‘All I want from you is a short video that you can put on YouTube, stating your name and your unit and that you are part of the Aleppo military council. Then you can go do whatever you want. I just need to show the Americans that units are joining the council. I met two Americans yesterday, and they told me we won’t get any advanced weapons until we show we’re united under the leadership of the officers in the military councils. Just shoot the video and let me handle the rest.’ ….

Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Under its aegis a new military command structure was supposed to include all fighting groups, commanders inside and outside the country. But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments. Only weapons bought from Iraqi and sometimes Turkish smugglers were still getting through. ….

At the end of January, I met a friend of Abu Abdullah; he’d once been a wealthy man, a merchant, but he’d seen his wealth dwindle as all his businesses came to a halt. His lips were quivering with anger and he kept thumping the table with his fist.

‘Why are the Americans doing this to us? They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse? They say it’s because of the jihadis but it’s the jihadis who are gaining ground. Abu Abdullah is $400,000 in debt and no one is sending him money anymore. It’s all going to the jihadis. They have just bought a former military camp from a battalion that was fighting the government. They went to them, gave them I don’t know how many millions and bought the camp. Maybe we should all become jihadis. Maybe then we’ll get money and support.’”

How is it that in the 21st century – when technology is often said to have shrunk the world and made global humanity far more interconnected – that there is so little awareness of or support for the revolution in the rebel-held territories within Syria? When Spanish Republicans, socialists, and anarchists were fighting Franco, the international left not only recognized the revolution, despite ostensible Western support (in reality, very halting) for the anti-Francoists, but demonstrated real solidarity, sending soldiers from all over the world, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the U.S., and from citizens as far away as China and other parts of Asia.

Obviously, the analogy (also made in Munif’s interview) should not be overdrawn – there are no anarchist-controlled communes up and running. But there are popular communal powers operating in some towns, at least if reports are accurate.

Anarchism actually has firm roots in Syria, as author and activist Joshua Stephens’ excellent interview with the Syrian anarchist Nader Atassi discusses. Atassi comments:

“in terms of anarchism in the Arab world, many of the most prominent voices were Syrians’. Despite there being no organizing that was explicitly “anarchist,” Syrian bloggers and writers with anarchist influences were becoming increasingly prominent in the “scene” in the last decade or so. Mazen Kamalmaz is a Syrian anarchist who has written a lot over the last few years. His writings contain a lot of anarchist theory applied to contemporary situations, and he was a prominent voice in Arab anarchism long before the uprising began. He’s written a good deal in Arabic, and recently gave a talk in a cafe in Cairo titled “What is Anarchism?”

Neither is the nonviolent movement gone. As Stephens commented:

“the network of unarmed, democratic resistance to Assad’s regime is rich and varied, representing a vast web of local political initiatives, arts-based coalitions, human rights organizations, nonviolence groups and more. (The Syria Nonviolence Movement created an online, interactive map to demonstrate this intricate network of connections.)”

What are the constructive features of the revolution? This is a passage from the Stephens interview with Atassi:

“[Stephens:] When I interviewed Mohammed Bamyeh this year, he talked about Syria as a really interesting example of anarchism being a driving methodology on the ground. He pointed out that when one hears about organization within the Syrian revolution, one hears about committees and forms that are quite horizontal and autonomous. His suggestion seems borne out by what people like Budour Hassan have brought to light, documenting the life and work of Omar Aziz. Do you see that influence in what your comrades are doing and reporting?

[Atassi:] Yes, this comes back to how anarchism should be seen as a set of practices rather than an ideology. Much of the organizing within the Syrian uprising has had an anarchistic approach, even if not explicit. There is the work that the martyr Omar Aziz contributed to the emergence of the local councils, which Tahrir-ICN and Budour Hassan have documented very well. Essentially these councils were conceived by Aziz as organizations where self-governance and mutual aid could flourish. I believe Omar’s vision did breathe life into the way local councils operate, although it is worth noting that the councils have stopped short of self-governance, opting instead for focusing on media and aid efforts. But they still operate based on principles of mutual aid, cooperation and consensus.

The city of Yabroud, halfway between Damascus and Homs, is the Syrian uprising’s commune. Also a model of sectarian coexistence, with a large Christian population living in the city, Yabroud has become a model of autonomy and self-governance in Syria. After the regime security forces withdrew from Yabroud in order for Assad to concentrate elsewhere, residents stepped in to fill the vacuum, declaring “we are now organizing all the aspects of the city life by ourselves [sic].” From decorating the city to renaming the school “Freedom School,” Yabroud is certainly what many Syrians, myself included, hope life after Assad will look like. Other areas controlled by reactionary jihadis paint a potentially grimmer picture of the future, but nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that there are alternatives. There’s also a hardcore network of activists located all over the country, but mainly in Damascus, called the “Syrian Revolutionary Youth.” They’re a secretive organization, and they hold extremely daring protests, oftentimes in the very center of regime-controlled Damascus, wearing masks and carrying signs and flags of the Syrian revolution – often accompanied with Kurdish flags (another taboo in Syria).

In the city of Darayya in the suburbs of Damascus, where the regime has waged a vicious battle ever since it fell to rebels in November 2012, some residents have decided to come together and create a newspaper in the midst of all the fighting, called Enab Baladi (meaning Local Grapes, as Darayya is famous for its grapes). Their paper focuses both on what is happening locally in Darayya and what is happening in the rest of Syria. It’s printed and distributed for free throughout the city. [The] principles [of] self-governance, autonomy, mutual aid and cooperation are present in a lot of the organizations within the uprising. The organizations that operate according to some of those principles obviously don’t comprise the totality of the uprising. There are reactionary elements, sectarian elements, imperialist elements. But we’ve heard about that a lot, haven’t we? There are people doing great work based on sound principles who deserve our support.”

As for the West, anarchists can help provide unique contributions here as well, principally by helping the new old left (that is, the ’70s influenced ‘New Left’ strongly tainted by Maoism) overcome Manichean imperialism/anti-imperialism dichotomies.

Obama’s sudden eagerness to hit Assad’s forces may in part be motivated by the advantage Assad has gained on the battlefield recently. Obama wants to lengthen the conflict to extend the stalemate. And he does not want to do that by strengthening the rebels. Thus the air strikes. That may simply be, as had been widely reputed, because Obama does not want to aid the Islamists among the rebels – but it could also reflect fears of the very legitimacy of the revolution.

There are indications that Assad too fears the genuine revolution above all else. The Syrian anarchist Atassi comments:

“The regime was wary of those activist networks that were created as a result of those previous movements and thus immediately cracked down on those peaceful activists that it knew may be a threat to them (and at the same time, it became more lenient with the jihadi networks, releasing hundreds of them from prison in late 2011). Aleppo University, as it so happens, has a very well-known student movement in favor of the uprising, so much so that it has been dubbed “University of the Revolution.” The regime would later target the university, killing many students in the School of Architecture.”

Unquestionably, there are plenty of reactionary elements among the rebels. However, some rebels may be less Islamist-oriented than they first appear. Take this group of bearded fighters:

“Coverage warned about the increasing presence of extremist groups in the armed rebellion. Ghaidaa was convinced that religious ideologies remained marginal to what she still cherished as a revolution for dignity. “People are desperate for arms to overthrow Bashar,” Hamzeh explained. “If they don’t get support from the West, they’ll take it from wherever they can.” In his last trip filming inside Syria, he spent several days with fighters who wore long beards and echoed slogans about holy war. Yet some hardly knew how to pray and all peppered Hamzeh with questions about what girls were like in Europe. When pressed, they explained that they were adopting Islamic symbols as a kind of statement. Some admitted that they were making themselves out to be Jihadists in order to obtain guns from the pro-Islamist groups in the Gulf that were the rebellion’s main suppliers. “You can’t blame these people, given what they’ve been through,” Hamzeh sighed. “But if the war continues to drags on, extremism will win.””

Fortunately, there are plenty of people on the left who believe we can both support the revolution and oppose Assad and U.S. air strikes. It is our task now to make ourselves heard so that the likes of A.N.S.W.E.R. do not become the face of the antiwar left.

I will close with the words of Atassi:

“[Stephens:] What can folks outside of Syria do to provide support?

[Atassi:] For people outside, it’s tough. In terms of material support, there’s very little that can be done. The only thing that I can think of that’s possible on a large scale is discursive/intellectual support. The left has been very hostile to the Syrian uprising, treating the worst elements of anti-regime activity as if they are the only elements of it, and accepting regime narratives at face value. What I’d ask people to do is to help set that record straight and show that there are elements of the Syrian uprising that are worth supporting. Help break that harmful binary that the decision is between Assad or Al Qaeda, or Assad and US imperialism. Be fair to the history and sacrifices of the Syrian people by giving an accurate account. Perhaps it’s too late, and the hegemonic narratives are too powerful in the present to overcome. But if people start now, maybe the history books can at least be fair.”

Update 1: for further information on the local councils see the post published today at: http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/self-organization-of-the-popular-struggles-in-syria-against-the-regime-and-islamist-groups-yes-it-exists/

Update 2:

Part of a debate (links included within) with AbuKhalil: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/blog_comments/syria_a_response_to_my_critics




“Gopal wrote an extremely important article for the August 2012 Harper’s Magazine titled “Welcome to Free Syria” based on his visit to the northern town of Taftanaz. I heard Gopal speak at the last Left Forum and can assure you that he is a man of the left. Here is a passage from the article:

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

Excerpts on the class background of the revolution and on the local coordinating committees:
“The mass protests in Syria started and remained, for quite a few months into the revolution, largely confined to marginalised, neglected regions and rural areas such as Dar’a, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, al-Raqqa, the poor suburbs and slums of Damascus, etc. Apart from a few, relatively small solidarity demonstrations, big urban centres (Damascus and Aleppo) did not ‘move’ on a mass scale for a while. This was partly due to the reluctance of urban middle classes to side with the revolution because they still believed the regime could overcome this ‘crisis’, so it was safer for their interests to stay on the regime’s side or keep silent. In contrast, the marginalisation, negligence, deprivation and humiliation in the rural regions had reached such an extent that people living there did not have much more to lose. This, coupled with strong regional identities that made it easier for these people to break away from the regime’s discourse, meant the Syrian revolution was – at least in the beginning – an almost classic revolt by the marginalised rural poor. ….
I slightly disagree, however, that “the leadership of the struggle in Syria is made up of a combination of pro-Western liberals, moderate Islamic organizations, and fundamentalist Islamic militias.” This is because a crucial distinction has to be made between the opposition leadership abroad, mainly the National Coalition, on the one hand and the Local Coordination Committees and the various factions of the Free Syrian Army fighting on the ground on the other.”

Update 3:


“With empty pockets and clothes smudged with dirt, the Syrian rebel fighter smuggled himself across the border and traveled 18 hours by bus to plead with Syrian opposition leaders meeting in a luxury hotel here to send help back home.
The fighter, Hassan Tabanja, a former electrician, needed money to provide food, weapons and ammunition for dozens of men fighting alongside him against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But after two days of scant results at the main opposition coalition’s meeting here last weekend, Mr. Tabanja sat on the patio glaring at the men in suits all around him.
What they had provided, he said, “will barely get me back to Syria.”
For Mr. Tabanja and many other government opponents inside Syria, the leaders of the coalition who claim to represent them abroad have long seemed detached from their suffering, and frugal or mysterious with the money they have raised. As the leaders have shuttled among world capitals and bickered in fancy hotels, they have appeared increasingly powerless to affect the course of Syria’s war: more than 100,000 people have died, millions have been displaced, and extremist groups are gaining ground. ….
But in other places, the opposition is simply invisible.
An opposition activist in the north-central Syrian province of Raqqa, who uses the nickname Abu Bakr, said that less than 10 percent of the aid in the province came from the coalition. “We barely hear about relief distribution done by them,” he said. “They don’t have offices inside.”
Rami Jarrah, a Syrian political activist based in Turkey, said the coalition had little contact with local councils set up to administer rebel-held areas, or with battalions fighting under their banner.
“They are totally disconnected,” Mr. Jarrah said. “They are more of a burden now than they’ve ever been. It seems hopeless.””

An excellent read – a first hand account of a visit to the syrian revolution by Reem Salahi,  a civil rights attorney:

“As we lazily sat around during the long hot summer days drinking one cup of sweetened tea after another and doing little else, I was surprised to hear Syrians state they had “no time.” I soon understood that it was not the physical demand for time but the lack of mental clarity for solutions to the intractable conflict that had left Syrian towns with no formal governance and little resources; their residents, without exception, were left psychologically scarred and emotionally taxed. As one young man expressed to me: “everyone wants to train me in transitional justice and documenting human rights abuses but no one has offered to train me on how to overthrow the Regime. It’s been over two years and I still don’t know how to do the very thing that got me involved in this Revolution in the first place.” Unfortunately there is no manual on Ousting Dictators for Dummies and I too was at a loss for a solution. Other activists expressed regret that there had not been a revolution of thought — a period of enlightenment and education — before this Revolution of action. When faced with the overwhelming feat of creating a civil society from scratch, addressing the growing physical and psychological needs of the people and avoiding death by government missile or bullet, it was true; there was very little time.
Living in the U.S., I had long stopped using the term “Revolution” to describe the situation in Syria. Yet in my time in Syria, not a single person I met used any other term to describe it. It didn’t matter whether I was talking to a mother or an FSA fighter or an activist. It also didn’t matter if I was talking to someone who supported the Revolution or was critical of it. They all spoke of the “thawra” (Revolution). Indeed they spoke of little else. Similarly, not a single person I met used the term “civil war” to describe the situation in Syria. I was told time and again that a civil war requires two sides. In Syria, there was only one side — the government — that unilaterally waged war against its people. ….

Residents had only recently returned to Saraqeb when I visited, after months of fleeing to neighboring towns or hiding in the surrounding mountains to escape the government’s incessant shelling. The broken streets, destroyed alleyways and decimated buildings were a testament to the government’s onslaught. Saraqeb’s main street was lined with bags piled seven feet tall full of sand to protect the storefronts from shrapnel. Like the other cities and towns I visited in “liberated” Syria, there were no government soldiers, no pictures of Bashar or government flags. The only reminder of Baathist rule came in form of Russian shells, scud missiles and explosive barrels dropped from the skies above.

Saraqeb is a city of two revolutions — one against the Syrian government and the other against the “Islamiyeen,” the jihadists and al-Qaeda linked fighters. Because of Saraqeb’s size and strategic location at the junction of two major highways going to Aleppo, both Dawlat al-Islamiyya fil Iraq wal Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)) and Jubhat al-Nusra converged to control it. Yet where these fighters had succeeded in controlling smaller towns like Binish, they were met with resistance in Saraqeb.

On one of my trips to Saraqeb, I stopped at a bakery and was met with the stares of approximately twenty male foreign fighters eating ice cream no less. While I placed my order, a young foreign fighter wearing a turban, black eyeliner, military fatigues and an array of weapons interrupted me and told the Syrian storeowner in classical Arabic, “You are exploiting us with your ice cream prices.” The unarmed owner, far outnumbered by his foreign clientele, responded without fear, “Don’t tell me that I am exploiting you. I need gas to operate the generator so you can buy ice cream. When you lower the price of gas, I will lower the price of my ice cream.” The foreign fighter muttered something about the coming of the Islamic era and walked out.

Through that interaction and others that I witnessed, it was clear that the Syrians did not welcome these foreign Islamists and viewed them as an evil, only second to the Syrian Regime and its allies. Indeed many Syrians suspected that there was a partnership of sorts between the “Islamiyeen” and the Regime. “While the Regime constantly targets FSA military posts,” explained a Syrian man from Kafranbel, “it never targets the Jubhat or Dawlat’s military posts.”

None of the Syrians I spoke with knew the exact nature of the relationship between the Regime and the “Islamiyeen” but they strongly believed the Regime wanted them in Syria. “They substantiate the government’s story that it is fighting terrorists,” explained one man. “But rather than targeting them, the government shells us, its own people.” The “Islamiyeen” also became the international community’s scapegoat for declining to intervene in Syria or provide weapons to the moderate FSA. “What, the Islamiyeen are only about 9,000 fighters while the FSA are about 100,000 fighters!” told me the same man. “Yet America only talks about the Islamiyeen as if everyone else in Syria doesn’t count.” And of course, the “Islamiyeen” have little loyalties to the Syrians in the “liberated” areas and justify their extremist views and harsh dealings on archaic notions of religion and religious statehood. The Dawlat (ISIS) kidnapped a young Syrian videographer and activist I had met a day earlier because he wore a Metallica shirt and expressed irreligious sentiments in his private videos. To this day, his whereabouts remain unknown.

As I left the bakery, I jokingly asked my Syrian hosts if we had accidently driven to Afghanistan rather than Saraqeb. “Don’t worry,” one of them responded, “they are not welcome here and we won’t let them stay in Syria once the Regime falls.”


Rochelle Davis writes:

“In May, I met with a friend, a Palestinian from Syria who left for Amman after his home in the Yarmouk refugee camp was flattened by government bombs. A leftist and activist, he began talking about events in Syria since 2011.
He said: “We discovered that we are people. We have rights and we can achieve them. This is the beginning of the movement. It is happening. I relearned Gramsci from the youth of the Yarmouk alleys, not because Gramsci is right, but because the young people developed their struggle out of local society and their own resistance to the system. We witnessed the faithful and faithless together. But the elite of the dissident political movements held back from embracing this youth movement. I heard them say, ‘Don’t the people know how awful the regime is? Why did they revolt against it?’ It was as if they were blaming the people for inciting the regime against them. Of course, some of the leading dissidents were imprisoned for years and are traumatized. But good people, communists and nationalists, took surprisingly conservative positions. ‘Revolution, yes, but not like this.’ They cited various theories and tried to say what was happening on the ground did not fit and thus would not succeed. But nothing stays the same. And they can’t see that in the intellectual fantasy they have created.”
“What I see is that there is now nothing shared between these generations, not even a shared language or means of communication. The people on the ground are doing things, while the old ideologues shout in the other direction. This is why I say I relearned Gramsci from the youth in the streets of Syria. And the youth want leadership and want to learn. There are good leaders there, and there has been an important moral element. We were upset with the Islamists because this is not our way, not our history. Islam for us is a tradition, part of who we are, but not the only thing we are.” ….
But this moral understanding is absent in the consciousness of the elite, in those who sit around and talk. And in those who don’t understand the revolution.”

Update 4:

Running the Town of Qusayr Without Assad
March 6, 2013 By David Arnold
Sami, by his own account, is an activist-turned-school teacher who writes about changes that have taken place in his hometown of Qusayr
since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began nearly two years ago. In the midst of the conflict that has destroyed
much of Quasayr, Sami recently visited its newly-elected city council to learn about its efforts to restore the supply of power and water since
regular municipal and state services were disrupted a few months ago, and to learn what is being done to make bread and other basic staples
available for local residents. Sami is not the author’s real name. ….
By Sami in Qusayr, March 2013
Before the Syrian revolution, the people of Qusayr never fully understood what democracy meant. They were so busy making ends meet that
basic values like freedom of speech and the right to vote were of only secondary importance to them. They were scared of a regime that had turned Syrians against one another: brothers and sisters would report anything that was said or done to the regime’s intelligence services.
I remember the stories circulating about the regime’s powerful reach and how the Assads supposedly knew what “happened inside people’s bedrooms.” There was a widely-known story about a soldier who spent two years in jail and was dishonorably discharged because he made the mistake of telling a friend that the regime had been overthrown in one of his dreams.

“Democracy is something that requires continuum,” local resident Abo Fida told me. “You cannot expect people to exercise it properly after
being deprived of it for over 40 years. Putting democracy in motion, he said, is like having to cross a dangerous river.” Fida is a member of
our town’s civilian council that has been trying to restore local public services disrupted by the Assad regime.

In many parts of Syria where the Free Syrian Army has been able to repel regime forces, local intellectuals and community leaders have formed
local councils to restore services once provided by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The first civil council in Qusayr started organizing about a year ago. Most of the members were prominent protesters who had been active from
the very start of the revolution. Some two months ago, however, a new council was formed.
At first, I thought that it would be easy to form a council since now there would not be any favoritism or duplicity, but I now realize how mistaken I was. While all protesters were united under the goal of overthrowing Assad, members of the opposition have conflicting agendas and, because of the frequent shellings by the Syrian military, few of these leaders can risk meeting under one roof. Under these circumstances, numerous councils were formed – often with one denouncing another. Eventually, however, they gathered and selected a large 23-member council. Members serve three months and then a new election is held.
The council consists of offices for the president, a deputy, an executive secretary, a political officer, a coordinating and inspection officer, who keeps an eye on all the other offices, and other officers who manage media, legal issues, and services for education, medical care and relief. Unlike many activists, the members of this council do not hide their true identity. They are well known in the revolution and are already wanted by the regime. A former teacher by the name of Adnan runs the relief office, and a pharmacist, Ihasan al-Simer, heads the town’s political office. The latter plans to invite youth to discuss social and political issues with him.
Since I wanted to learn more about how our local government functions, I went to see for myself.
All of the council members work in a modest flat that is divided into offices with labels on the doors of each. The president’s office is on the right side of flat.
As I entered the president’s office I noticed that he was not seated behind his desk, but actually sat next to an elderly citizen who was complaining about having no water or power in his neighborhood since they had been disrupted by government shelling.
The president promised he would personally supervise restoration of power there.
Then the president rose to greet me. I introduced myself and requested an appointment to interview him. He suggested that it could be done right away.
I was struck by this forthrightness because I remembered how nervous and tense I always used to get when I had to enter a government office. In
the old days you had to bribe someone to get anything done; and that was not everything – aside from being corrupt, they were always very mean.
I asked him about the difficulties involved in getting a council up-and-running.
“Getting people to gather in one place was a problem sometimes,” al-Akhras said. But he also pointed to another issue: “The Syrian
society is very diverse. It is not easy to please everyone, but we have finally found common grounds and goals upon which all people agree.”
Bread and water were the lowest common denominator but a top priority for all, he said.
He also said that setting the criteria for selecting candidates was also problematic but they were able to please most if not all people in the end.
Al-Akhras said that he did not mind dabbling in politics now, but stressed that he was not doing it because he was aspiring to get elected to some office in “a future Syria.”
Currently, the siege imposed on Quseyr by government forces poses the greatest threat as there is an increasing demand for the basic needs such as bread, water and power amid a severe lack of funding. Among the various responsibilities this council has is to protect the public buildings like schools, power stations, and post office and to provide flour and water to the general public.

“We have not received much,” al-Akhras said with a sigh. “The Syrian National Coalition gave us $43,000. That is all! And this barely pays for the bread that residents here need.”
Most of the funds are being used to smuggle bread into the city and to help the families of those killed or detained by regime forces, as well as care for the wounded and disabled.

One of the upsides of having established this council is that it has helped restore residents’ dignity. Syrians are not used to being able to express their views freely. Before the revolution, people hardly knew anything about democracy and how to properly practice it.
Now, people in Qusayr feel that their voices are being heard. They come and file complaints or suggest things to the council without fearing persecution or arrest as in the old days.
As I was leaving al-Akhras’ small office, I felt quite hopeful about the future of Syria. I thought to myself: If we were able to form this council amid all these hellish conditions, there is a very good chance that there will be better days ahead once this regime is no more.

Update 5:


Mohammed Attar Interviews Noam Chomsky, July 11, 2013

MA: There is one astonishing point related the Syrian revolution. Individuals and groups belonging to the Far Left in Europe, the Arab world and other regions of the globe, have evinced hostility to the revolution on the grounds that it is part of an American and imperialist plot. Hostility also comes from the Far Right, which regards it as an extremist threat to the existence of minority communities and Christians in particular. We have heard similar statements from the French Far Right and from Nick Griffin, leader of the extremist British National Party who visited Damascus, defending Bashar Al Assad. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

NC: Just disregard them. They are insignificant. They represent groups that cannot be reached or communicated with. There is no need to worry too much about your inability to convince fringe groups it is difficult to reach out to in the first place. There are groups far more important, active and influential over the decision-making process that should be reached out to first.

For a somewhat contrasting view (though focused on a distinct question):
RANIA MASRI, (919) 633-9940, rania.z.masri@gmail.com, @rania_masri
Masri is assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. Until recently she was Environment and Energy Policy Adviser for the United Nations Development Programme in Cairo. She is currently in the U.S. She said today: “One of the possible culprits behind the car bomb in southern Beirut is the so-called FSA [Free Syrian Army]. Brigade 313, of the so-called FSA, has claimed responsibility for the attack. Previously, other factions of the ‘FSA’ had threatened Hezbollah with direct attacks in Lebanon. Various threats to ‘take the battle to inside the Lebanese lands’ were issued by the so-called FSA since October 2012.

“Once again, we need to know: who exactly does the Obama administration want to arm within Syria? The recognized terrorist organization of Al-Nusra Front? Or the various bridges operating under the name of ‘FSA,’ many of whom have gloated about committing war crimes and have called for further sectarian killings?

“Congress is currently not supporting the Obama administration in sending lethal aid to the rebels. It is impossible to choose good guys among the Syrian rebels and send weapons to them. Chairman of the UN independent panel investigating possible violations of human right sin Syria, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro himself has said that there is no clear-cut difference between good and bad guys among the Syrian opposition. Rather, sending weapons to those considered good guys would not contribute to the settlement of the conflict but would trigger more violence and military crimes.”

An excerpt of particular relevance:


Michael Karadjis

I will first clarify what I think is going on generally. The Syrian revolution, which broke out in February 2011 as a democratic mass revolt against the dictatorship, is still the fundamental fact. The fact that after eight months of slaughter by the regime revolt was forced to take up arms by late 2011 does not change that.

Countless reports from liberated towns about the nature of this democratic process, under attack from the dictatorship, for example in TaftanazSaraqebQusayr, the Damscus outer suburb Duma,SarmadaIdlibAzaz, parts of Aleppo and elsewhere, are examples which deal with the real-world difficulties of revolutionary democratic governance from below, but nevertheless reveal some semblance of popular structures that surely deserve defending against the dictatorship and its tanks, scud missiles and torture chambers, and which on the whole do not show evidence of imposition of sharia law or sectarian cleansing of minorities.

While a complete run-down of the various forces and organisations involved in Syria would require another article, for the sake of clarity it is worth noting that the liberated towns and networks of activists throughout Syria are connected via the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the main opposition force on the ground in Syria. It does not have a “political line” as it represents the spectrum of people’s opinions involved in the revolution. Since the armed struggle began to dominate, the LCCs still organise all manner of demonstrations and other non-military actions.

Some units of the Syrian army refused to murder civilians and thus defected to the revolt; these armed groups all over Syria are called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which likewise has no central chain of command or overriding “political” view as it is basically the armed wing of the LCC. Thus when leftists slander the FSA as a whole, either as dupes for imperialism (usually based on statements by some exile leader) or as jihadi extremists or criminals (based on actions of some rogue faction), they are in fact slandering the entire movement on the ground, as the overwhelming bulk of the armed forces are nothing other than these “council regimes” with arms to defend themselves, not under the effective control of exile-based leadership bodies, and not responsible for actions of any rogue group.

The neo-pacifist critique that some of the Western left have newly taken up, that says no matter how much you get slaughtered you should still turn the other cheek, can be countered by the following rather typical description of how the civil uprising became the armed uprising in the northern liberated town Taftanaz (http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/):

By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up all across the country. The Syrian army tried to cut them down, firing on and killing scores of civilians, only to inspire further protests. The mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core activists in each town

… But the conscript army started to buckle, and some soldiers found they could not fire on their countrymen. I had met one of them in Turkey, a twenty-seven-year-old named Abdullah Awdeh. He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, which put down protests around the country, when one day he was directed to confront demonstrators near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived he saw only men and women with their families: boys perched atop their fathers’ shoulders, girls with their faces painted in the colors of the Syrian flag, mothers waving banners. He decided to desert.

By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, held up his military identity card, and professed support for the revolution for the entire world to see on YouTube. These deserters joined what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army. Awdeh, with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a hundred fighters.

Many activists worried about the militarization of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters into a confrontation with a powerful army that they could not defeat. But in small towns like Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown activists in prison, desperation trumped long-term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of the rebels to those of a mother: ‘She may seem innocent, but try to take away her children and how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That’s what we are being reduced to, in order to defend our families and our villages.

In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, so much so that government forces could no longer operate openly. Party officials and secret agents vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.

Let’s be completely clear: these grassroots FSA fighters are what a section of the left has come to routinely slander as an imaginary “US-Saudi intervention allied with Al-Qaida making war on Syria”. Should Assad’s “anti-imperialist” scuds bomb them to bits to “defeat imperialism”? This is a concrete question. As is the question of why much of the neo-pacifist left believe these fighters should be denied better arms from wherever they can get them from.

Part of the issue many have is that many of the militias that fall under the broad umbrella of the FSA are Islamist militias. For example, the Farouk Brigades are partly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (which has broad support in Syrian society, and which is regarded to be relatively “moderate” in Islamist terms and not classed as “salafist” or “jihadi”), but also contain secular fighters. Meanwhile, other militias within the FSA, which cannot be called “Islamist” in any political sense, adopt Islamic-sounding names, unsurprising in a Muslim country. This simply reflects the political broadness of Syrian society.

However, assertions that all fighting groups in Syria are Islamist (a claim, made for example by the New York Times and repeated ad nauseum in pro-Assad left websites) are simply untrue; anyone can, for example, look at the list of names of FSA militias that signed the LCC declaration noted above to see a mixture of religious, non-religious and neutral names, for example “Falcons of the Land Brigade in Hama”; or the many that are just called after the name of their town, such as “Revolutionary Military Council in Deir Ezzor” or at the list of secular Syrian nationalist names associated with the National Unity Brigades of the FSA, such as the Abdel Rahman Al Shabandar Brigade (named after a Syrian Arab nationalist who organised the Iron Hand society against French rule); or for that matter the first fully Christian FSA brigade or the FSA brigade headed by a defecting female Alawite officer, hardly a symbol of Salafism.

Meanwhile, both the LCCs and the FSA should be distinguished from the exile leaderships, the Turkey-based Syrian National Congress (SNC) and the broader group that incorporates the SNC but is more representative, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (often shortened to “Syrian Coalition”), and the exile military leadership, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which officially “leads” the FSA but in practice has no control over it on the ground.

All of these internal and external organisations should be further distinguished from the hard-line “salafist” militias outside of both the FSA and these political structures, which either belong to their own umbrella armed organisations, such as the Syrian Islamic Front to which the hard-line fundamentalist Ahrar al-Sham belongs, or Al-Nusra, which acts entirely on its own, of which more below.

The intellectually lazy amalgam made by the pro-Assad and neo-pacifist left between imperialism, exile opposition leaderships, the FSA, the LCCs, the jihadists, Al-Qaida and military struggle as a tactic – i.e., everything they don’t like – gets them into serious problems with reality. If it is thus assumed that these imperialist-influenced exile leaderships have driven the innocent internal uprising to militarisation in order to “make war on Syria”, then the discussion between the grassroots military brigades in the town Taftanaz referred to above and the exile leadership makes for difficult reading:

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’”

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “ ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’”

When I asked Ibrahim Matar’s commander in Taftanaz about the FSA leadership, he answered, “If I ever see those dogs here I’ll shoot them myself.” The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.

Thus the Turkey-based “FSA” leadership, those who “sit and eat and sleep and talk to the media” and are most exposed to the imaginary imperialist conspiracy, who questioned the local FSA’s decision to defend themselves with arms, and they responded with contempt to the suggestion that they should not try to defend our families.


Since Syria is such a dangerous place for foreign journalists and since the Baathists either tightly control or outright ban outsiders from reporting, it is not easy to get a handle on what life is like under rebel control.

One of the few detailed reports was filed by Anand Gopal in the August 2012 Harpers, which thankfully is not behind their paywall. While by no stretch of the imagination can it be described as a soviet, this extract from the article should convince you that something was happening there that deserved our support:

Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

And even as the power of Islamists has escalated, there are still signs that such people committed to democracy and a relative degree of secularism continue to fight for a Syria that reflects their values. In the April 3, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine, there’s a report from Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to rebel control, in this instance largely due to jihadist weaponry. Despite being nominally in control of the city, the Islamists face defiance from the city’s democratic-minded citizenry as Rania Abouzeid reports on an argument that took place over the hoisting of a black Islamist flag over the city:

A few days earlier, a massive black flag bearing the shahada had been hoisted atop a flagpole in Raqqa city’s main square, in front of the elegant, multi-arched governorate building. “We will become a target for American drone attacks because of the flag—it’s huge,” said Abu Noor, a wiry young man who worked in a pharmacy by day and at night volunteered to guard the post office near his home against looters. “They’ll think we’re extremist Muslims!” (There haven’t been such strikes in Syria yet, though the possibility is much discussed here.)

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat [an Islamist militia] member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

“We are not forcing anything on anyone,” the Jabhat member said. “We offered it as a choice. We did not take down the revolutionary flags in the city—even though we could have.”

Outside, the night air was cool. Warplanes that had been continuously rumbling over the city during the day had retreated, prompting bakeries, shuttered because of the threat of air strikes, to open. Long queues, segregated by gender, quickly formed as night fell, just as they did every night, guarded by armed men with black scarves covering their heads and faces.

“With this banner you have cleaved us from our country Syria,” Abu Moayad said. “Why is it here? We are not an Islamic emirate; we are part of Syria. This is a religious banner, not a country’s flag.”

The Jabhat member leaned forward and looked the older man in the eyes. “This is a lack of self-esteem, something we were conditioned to feel toward our religion by a regime that didn’t let us practice it,” he said. “Do you know how many people a day come to offer loyalty to us, to try and join us?”

At that, Abu Moayad lost his temper. He stood up, moved a few steps across the room toward the young masked man, and wagged a finger in his face: “The Syrian revolution rose up to step on Bashar’s neck, but I swear I am with Bashar against this flag!” he yelled. “That is how strongly I feel about it! You are causing fitna [internal divisions]!”

The young man remained seated. “What did you do for the revolution?” he asked.

“I used to transport ammunition smuggled from Iraq to towns in Raqqa province.”

Returning to the original question raised at the beginning of this article, I am totally opposed to the USA making war with Syria. But if that means organizing a protest against shipments of powerful weapons to the sort of democratic-minded activists described in the Harpers and New Yorker, count me out.

Self-organization in the Syrian people’s revolution
Monday 1 July 2013, by Ghayath Naisse

Update 6:

A useful exchange on the question of arming the rebels:

NADER HASHEMI 20 September 2013 http://www.opendemocracy.net/nader-hashemi/syria-savagery-and-self-determination

STEPHEN ZUNES 23 September 2013 http://www.opendemocracy.net/civilresistance/stephen-zunes/opposition-to-intervention-in-syria-utilitarian-not-ideological

NADER HASHEMI 4 October 2013 http://www.opendemocracy.net/nader-hashemi/reply-to-stephen-zunes-on-military-intervention-in-syria

STEPHEN ZUNES 5 October 2013 http://www.opendemocracy.net/stephen-zunes/on-syria-most-thoughtful-people-are-torn

3 thoughts on “Who Supports the Revolution in Syria?

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