Red Flag has been a strong supporter of the uprising in Syria, a stance that is controversial. Sam King and Corey Oakley debate some of the issues.
Is there a revolution in Syria?
In Red Flag issue 9, Omar Hassan writes, “There is a widespread belief that the US is desperate to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal dictator. Some go as far as to deny the existence of the revolution taking place in that country, instead seeing the popular struggle there as a CIA plot.”
For Hassan, the popular struggle in Syria is either a revolution or a CIA plot. But what if we agree that the US is not desperate to overthrow Syria’s brutal dictatorship, and that there is a popular struggle that is not a CIA plot? Does that mean we must agree with Hassan that there is a revolution occurring? Like most writers who believe this, Hassan does not define “revolution”.
Traditionally Marxists have seen “social revolution” as the change of state power from one social class to another. In Russia in October 1917 power was transferred from the capitalists and landlords to the working class, while in the Chinese Revolution of 1949 from the capitalists to a peasant army. The term “political revolution” refers to transfer of power from one to another section of the same class by revolutionary means, for example the US civil war.
For Tariq Ali, the size of a popular struggle does not determine whether it is a revolution. “A crowd becomes a revolution”, he writes, “only when they have, in their majority, a clear set of social and political aims. If they do not, they will always be outflanked by those who do, or by the state that will recapture lost ground very rapidly.”
Gilbert Achcar, who, like Hassan, argues there is a revolution in Syria, believes “there is an ongoing process throughout the [Arab] region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks”. He claims the Arab uprising of 2011 represents a long term revolutionary process, “which would develop over many, many years if not decades”.
But this doesn’t help us to understand Syria today. In Achcar’s view, Russia would be in “revolution” just as much in 1907 as 1917 – yet one was a period of violent reaction following the failed 1905 revolution, the other a period of earth-shaking working class advance. So why classify them as the same thing?
Switzerland-based spokesperson for the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current, Joseph Daher, sheds the most light on this understanding of revolution.
Daher’s article “Self-organization of the popular struggles in Syria against the regime and Islamist groups? Yes, it exists!” explains the situation in the opposition controlled town of Raqqa. There, “the popular organizations are most often led by the youth. They have multiplied, to the extent that more than 42 social movements were officially registered at the end of May.”
These campaign by “painting the revolutionary flag in the neighbourhoods and the streets of the city, to oppose the islamists’ campaign to impose the black islamist flag”. In June, “a mass protest led by women was held in front of the islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra’s headquarters, where the protesters called for the liberation of the incarcerated prisoners”.
“In the city of Deir Ezzor in June, a campaign was launched by local activists that sought to encourage citizens to take part to the process of surveillance and the documentation of the practices of the popular local councils.”
More generally, Daher highlights “the emergence of newspapers produced by popular organizations … In the neighbourhood of Bustan Qasr, in Aleppo, the local population has protested numerous times to denounce the actions of the Sharia Council of Aleppo … in the same neighbourhood, the activists hailed ‘go f*c* yourself Islamic council’, protesting the repressive and authoritarian politics of the latter.”
Daher here highlights very important popular struggles. More precisely, these struggles are protest movements against the imposition of reactionary local state power by al-Qaeda affiliated militias. That al-Qaeda is able to kidnap is opponents and the popular movements can only demand their release presupposes that al-Qaeda has power.
The youth must restrict themselves to painting their flag on walls because they don’t have the power to raise it hegemonically. That Daher’s polemic is aimed at proving that a popular struggle even exists in the rebel zones of Syria concedes by omission that this struggle has not taken power.
Daher concludes: “[T]he Syrian revolution is still there, continues, and will not stop.” After Daher’s article was written Raqqa fell to al-Qaeda, whose black flag now flies over Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa and much of Syria’s rebel-held north.
So for Hassan-Achcar-Daher, “revolution” does not mean taking power, it is all about the struggle. But what is the social character of that struggle? No English language Marxist analysis I have seen gives a class analysis of the Syrian opposition.
Socialists like Jonathan Maunder assess the character of the Assad regime as well as “the social and economic roots” of the 2011 uprising, which he argues is based in the failed neoliberal capitalist model of the Assad regime. However, analysis of the class or political character of the organisations of the “revolution” is difficult to find. Supporters of the “revolution in Syria” thesis often avoid talking about Syria much at all.
Israeli academic Eyal Zisser claims the “revolution in Syria … was at its base a peasants’ revolt, a protest by the Sunni periphery against what was perceived as the Baath regime’s turning its back on the country’s rural population”. But he makes no attempt to prove the rural and regional revolt is based in the peasant classes. Nor does he say if he is talking about rich or poor peasants.
The same article details how the non-peasant ruling class Tlas family of Rastan is split between supporting Assad and the opposition, thus tending to contradict Zisser’s own claim of a peasant revolt.
In the most well known case, the town of Azaz was controlled by the Northern Storm militia established by local capitalist Ammar al-Dadikhi before it was driven out by al-Qaeda. Where the poor have taken power is unclear.
Those arguing there is a revolution in Syria maintain it is kept from power only by the Assad regime’s superior weaponry. But if that were the case, what explains the continuous rise of al-Qaeda, which does not have an overwhelming monopoly in firepower?
Surely the case is closer to how Tariq Ali explains it, “a crowd becomes a revolution only when they have, in their majority, a clear set of social and political aims. If they do not, they will always be outflanked by those who do” – even if that force is utterly reactionary.
There is a revolution, and the left must support it
It is extremely fortunate that the millions of Syrians who have risen up against the Assad regime, engaging at enormous cost in one of the great popular revolts of modern history, did not first consult the Western left about the proper manner in which to make a revolution.
If they had, the Assad regime would still be firmly in place. Its monstrous security apparatus would still terrorise anyone who dared to raise the faintest voice of dissent. The private capitalists and regime insiders who grew obscenely rich over the last decade as a result of neo-liberal economic “reforms” would still be swanning around the capital in their expensive European cars, dining at fancy restaurants, gloriously unconcerned about the growing social crisis around them. Bashar al-Assad and his wife would still be travelling around the world like Saudi royalty, feted by the Queen in Buckingham Palace, and John Kerry in Washington.
Why? Because for some on the Western left, any revolt against a dictator who is not wholly in the pocket of US imperialism is by definition suspicious. At one extreme are those like Sydney University lecturer Tim Anderson, an open apologist for the regime. He is of the type who, every time the regime carries out a massacre, immediately announces it to be a “false flag” operation: at best fabricated, at worst carried out by the opposition itself. Anderson and others like him also dutifully repeat every lie of the Assad regime denouncing the opposition as all Islamic terrorists and pawns of US imperialism.
Sam King does not adopt this approach in his article. But in raising the question of whether there is a genuine revolution taking place in Syria, he follows a pattern of leftist suspicion about the Syrian uprising, and demands a standard of proof for the credentials of the revolutionary forces far beyond that demanded of those who have risen up in revolt in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.
There is a simple reason for the inconsistency. Whereas in Egypt the revolution was directed at overthrowing the pro-US regime of Hosni Mubarak, in Syria the revolt is directed at the supposedly anti-imperialist Bashar al-Assad. Even among those on the left who have little sympathy for Assad, the rhetorical hostility of the US to the Syrian regime, and the fact that Assad has from day one characterised the opposition as pro-imperialist, has had a profoundly disorienting impact.
In this context, it is necessary to establish some basic facts about the situation in Syria. The first is that the Syrian revolution is a genuine part of the broader Arab revolt – a movement for democracy and political freedom, for the redistribution of wealth, and an end to the economic and social policies that have had such a devastating impact on the lives of people across the Arab world.
In Syria, the period since Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power was marked by a neoliberalism that dramatically restructured the previously statised economy. Austerity decimated spending in health, education, and social security. The regime encouraged the establishment of private schools, universities and hospitals for the rich, while running down public services. Real estate speculation and an end to rent controls drove reasonably well off workers into the impoverished suburbs of the cities. At the same time these suburbs were swelling with an influx of poor people from rural areas hit by drought and neoliberal policies that combined to cause a deep crisis in the countryside.
These factors explain why the Syrian revolution was driven from the beginning not by the educated middle classes, but by the rural and semi-urban poor.
In the initial phase of the revolution, before the regime forced it to become militarised, enormous steps were made to develop networks of popular control. Local co-ordinating committees, district revolutionary councils, and an array of other grassroots organisations sprung up – as did countless radio stations, revolutionary newspapers, and social media networks. The level of organising outstripped that of the revolutionary movements in other Arab countries.
While there were significant strikes, one of the weaknesses of the Syrian revolt from early on was the lack of independent working class organisation. And, as King suggests, the rural based revolt was far from some simon-pure class movement.
The revolution is undeniably messy, contradictory, ideologically and socially variegated. Given the history of Syria and the region, it is utopian to think it could be anything but. Nonetheless, for all its weaknesses, the Syrian opposition has fractured the regime to an extent that virtually no one believed possible. The regime has lost territorial control of large swathes of the country, and faces both armed and civil opposition in almost all the areas it still controls. If this is simply a “popular struggle” and not a revolution, it is a non-revolution of a quite unique kind.
This is not to say the Syrian revolution does not face immense difficulties. While the institutions of civil revolt still fight to exist, and particularly in the south have been extraordinarily resilient, the logic of armed conflict has taken a heavy toll. The role of al-Qaeda linked Islamists has been much exaggerated, but they are playing an increasing role in the north and west of the country, which has recently led to sharp struggles with the revolutionaries.
Numerous outside powers are intervening to try and shape the conflict in their interests: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the side of the regime; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and to a lesser extent the US on the side of elements of the rebellion.
All of this means that there is no guarantee the revolution will succeed. If your definition of revolution is so narrow that it only includes revolutions that have already succeeded then, yes, I would concede that there is not a revolution in Syria. Just don’t tell the Russians who thought they had a revolution in 1905.
King quotes Tariq Ali’s definition of revolution. Without knowing the context of the quote, I have to say it strikes me as schematic and lifeless. I prefer Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin said that revolutions happen “when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way”. Two undeniable features of Syrian life today.
Trotsky said, in characteristically more poetic terms, that “revolution is above all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”. For nearly three years now, millions of Syrians have been fighting to rule their own destiny. They have given their blood, their lives, their loved ones and their comrades in terrible number. The least the Western left can do is give them our solidarity.