Dancers and the dictator, Wissam Al Jazairy
Without any pretense of a well founded critical evaluation of political events in syria, in the context of a multi-front civil conflict between imperialist and proto-state actors, we share two anarchist reflections on the country’s revolution, in the wake of the fall of Aleppo to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
From the anarchist collective The Hamilton Institute …
Hommage to Aleppo: What it means to me here
(This was written by THI. Posted on Friday, December 16, 2016)
This text was written and posted quickly, but has since been edited slightly and had problems with the endnotes corrected
After four years of autonomy, East Aleppo, the rebellious city, has fallen. As I write this, buses full of evacuated people are arriving in areas controlled by non-Assadist armed groups in the Idlib area, to the south-west, and some ambulances carrying seriously injured people are crossing the border into Turkey. In the past few days, over a hundred thousand people had their homes, already destroyed by months of intensive bombardment, captured by the the Syrian military or (more likely) allied armed groups, such as Hezbollah (1). Some of these people have been killed in the streets, others divided up by sex and sent to internment camps or conscripted into the military to serve as canon fodder. The others wait, watching as more soldiers arrive and their neighbours are sorted, wondering what’s next.
What has been lost in these past few days, for those of us not directly touched by the violence? As I hide in the bathroom at work and flip through images of people burning their cars and furniture so that the army can’t loot it, what does it mean to me that Eastern Aleppo has been captured? These are some thoughts and reflections I have, as I watch the Aleppo revolutionaries be crushed, about the importance of this moment and what we, as anarchists based in Western countries, might learn from it. (2)
What does revolution mean? Is it still desirable?
The story of revolutionary Eastern Aleppo raises many questions for anyone who finds themselves in struggle against systems of domination such as capitalism and the state, the first being the desirability or possibility of revolution as it’s traditionally understood. Already in Spain in the 30s with Germany’s intervention, or even in the Paris commune sixty-five years earlier, we’ve seen the limitations of a revolutionary population finding itself in armed conflict with the state — with modern weapons of war, the state simply withdraws from the territory, destroys it from outside, then deals out victors justice among the ruins. Many of us call ourselves revolutionaries, but is a revolution like the one in Aleppo even desirable? There is no easy answer to this question and I won’t try to offer you one.
As described by Aleppan anarchists in the Hourriya editions text, Revolutionary Echos of Syria, (as well as in other accounts) the armed liberation of Eastern Aleppo came as a surprise to many of the people most active in organizing demonstrations there. This reduced the less-armed activists (who often had more liberatory political projects) to the role of aid workers. as well as trying to build a popular counter-power that could impose some level of control over the increasingly fragmented armed groups. These radicals suddenly found themselves in a completely novel situation that they struggled to engage with.
We often dream of the moment when our tactics will generalize to a point that we are overtaken by the pace and scale of events, like what Greek anarchists experienced in 2008. But in Aleppo, it was different – the shift to armed struggle represented a fundamental break in the tactical and strategic priorities of anarchists and other autonomously-minded people, rather than a precipitous escalation of them. Many ideas of revolution imagine some sort of escalation of conflict towards armed, territorial struggle against the state, but in Aleppo, this armed struggle became the motor for counter-revolution. What does this mean for our romantic visions of defending the barricades? Won’t we be more likely to end up embroiled in difficult internal conflicts with armed authoritarians behind them? Does this require us to change our understanding of our goals?
Armed struggle and practical solidarity
The most well-armed, mobile, and victorious armed groups throughout Syria have tended to have a Salafist ideology and receive financial support from the Gulf monarchies or from rich individuals living there. Aleppo has been somewhat of an exception to this, where local armed formations have been able to often continue controlling their neighbourhoods, organized into brigades like Liwa Tawhid (3) and even managed to push out Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusrah, affiliated with Al-Qaeda) for about a year, until this past summer, when it was Fatah al-Sham who briefly managed to break the siege on the city. It’s heartbreaking that the response to the cry for help from the 300 000 people besieged by the Assadist state were part of a fascist organization that Eastern Aleppo had already massively rejected.
Why was so little effort made during these four years to support the liberatory elements of the uprising? Why were they left to be dependent for survival on the most authoritarian elements of the anti-Assad movement? This is a vital question, because many revolutionaries described their strategy as being that some sort of outside pressure or support would restrain the Assadist state if they were able to secure their own areas. Is it possible to make a revolutionary strategy that doesn’t rely on receiving practical solidarity? If we aren’t prepared to give solidarity when it’s needed, can we imagine it as any more likely that we would receive it? As well, at least in the places I’ve lived, it seems unlikely that people with anarchistic values would be able to play a significant military role in the event of armed conflict with the state – would we end up in a similar hopeless position should our revolutionary desires gain momentum?
The outside support the revolution did receive came from totally unreliable authoritarians, like the US military and the CIA, who provided them with an inadequate and inconsistent supply of weapons. These weapons were ones that the US felt would not be a threat to it later (so no anti-aircraft weapons) and they would cut off the supply if it looked like rebel militias were about to score a decisive victory (this on-and-off support happened most dramatically in the south). This way, the rebellion would stay focused on weapons and therefore somewhat answerable to Western states, but would never become strong enough to achieve its goals on its own terms. What choice did they have, really? But we should remember two things: that the enemy of our enemy is likely also our enemy and that the “support” the Syrian revolution received from other states played an important role in trapping them in a hopeless situation; and also that the groups that did not receive this double-edged support were often marginalized on the ground.
Fighting the state and social revolution
The conflict in Syria contained several competing forms of struggle against the Syrian state. The Rojava project acts more in the vein of a national liberation struggle, working from a linguistic and ethnic minority on a limited territory without necessarily trying to dislodge the central state. The revolution throughout non-Kurdish Syria contained a majority tendancy that emphasized unity in order to carry out an armed overthrow of the state (with differences within the opposition to be settled later) and another that aimed at radical decentralization and autonomy from that state. In that latter model, their project approached the attempts at grassroots social transformation in Rojava, where conflict with the state was no longer necessary for their freedom. But unlike with Rojava, the state wasn’t willing to leave areas like Aleppo or Homs — those revolutionary projects were never given the (slight) distance from war that Rojava has had.
The ability to carry out a social revolution varied a lot from place to place, though unfortunately the general tendency was that the pressures of war meant that people became extremely precarious and dependent on a capitalist black market in food and basic goods, and that the political strength of Salafist armed groups was often able to push women out of the public space (though that does not mean there has not continued to be inspiring organizing among women throughout the territory). This is the very question the rebels of ’36 had to ask — do we begin collectivizing now, or do we wait for the war to end? Do women have full equality now, or are there more important concerns? The emphasis on unity against the Assadist state in order to survive as autonomous zones essentially meant that the social gains that were possible in Rojava were not in the rest of Syria. It was also these gains that have attracted so much international support to Rojava, and it is often their absence that has allowed the shit-eating state-commie narrative of the heroic Assad’s war on terror to confuse so many of us into inaction in support of the struggle in the rest of the territory.
There is also the Islamic State, the prime counter-revolutionary project, attempting to establish a new state on territories captured from the revolution and competing with the Assadist state for access to resources and markets. Understandings about where this organization came from will probably continue to develop over the coming years, but it’s probably not too far wrong to say: it came from a fusion between the remains of the Iraqi Baathist military and intelligence structures (long supported by the US) with al-Qaeda groups operating against the US on the Syrian-Iraqi border (with some level of support or cover from the Syrian state). Their rise in 2014, right after the Damascus chemical attacks, when it became clear that decisive action by western states was never going to come, completely changed the narrative and allowed all the state-actors to agree to fight terrorism. Over night, the Assad regime, that has caused a thousand times more death and suffering that IS, became the lesser evil. IS also took some pressure off other Salafist groups in Syria, because their actions and beliefs now seemed less repulsive — it shifted the bar on what was considered moderate. This later meant, as the anti-terrorism narrative took over, that everyone fighting the Assadist state kind of looked like a terrorist or like an ally of a terrorist (4).
This idea is only half developed, but I see a parallel in the way that the far-right has taken up much of the terrain that anarchists held during the anti-globalization movement and are, in many places, leading the attack on the neoliberal state. As Crimethinc pointed out, like in the Ukrainian uprising a few years ago or in Brazil or Venezuela right now, anarchist involvement risks being marginalized or recuperated by the far-right’s ability to control events. This cuts off outside support and even opens us up to additional repression. In some situations, even the left has begun conflating anarchist and far-right positions, when anarchists critique things also targeted by the right, like antifa or Islam.
Critical solidarity and the role of anarchists
The failure of any form of international solidarity with the Syrian revolution is utterly devastating. The only group that received consistent anarchist support was the PYD and its armed formations, the YPG/YPJ, which have done a lot of work in building a social revolution in Kurdish-majority areas of Syria. However, the open collaboration of the PYD/YPG with the Assad regime as it crushed free Aleppo barely caused a ripple. The YPG helped to cut supply lines, prevent retreats, and attack positions. The relations between Sheikh Maqsoud and Efrin Canton with non-PYD armed groups around Aleppo has been complicated, but even if we can accept some of these maneuvers, how can we accept that a revolutionary project has been content to watch another be crushed right in front of it? How can we explain that a movement based on the spread of directly democratic assemblies fought to opportunistically seize territory that had been held by other popular decision-making structures, the dozens of local councils that existed in Aleppo? Wouldn’t a truly revolutionary position involve encouraging the autonomy of other areas, not monopolizing power and striking alliances of convenience with authoritarians? Really, it is two revolutionary dreams that died with Aleppo, as it seems pretty clear now that at least the armed and political structures of the PYD are not pursuing popular, liberatory goals (5)
So much of the support that has mobilized recently for Aleppo has been purely humanitarian — they don’t necessarily disagree with the reconquest of the city by the state, just how it is being carried out. The support that does call for solidarity with the Syrian revolution is often doing so in a framework that could be called imperialist — open support for escalated NATO involvement in the country. Western Assad-supporters have latched on to that and bundled it into their conspiracy theories, and (although they’re despicable cold-war throwbacks who have found themselves in bed with the far-right in their Putin-worship) are not wrong to criticize this (6). But these crummy politics have created a confusion which has often meant that anarchists have stayed away or completely avoided building an anarchist position on the Syrian revolution. At a recent demo of two hundred people for Aleppo in a major western capital, there was only one person holding a sign denouncing all states as enemies of people in struggle, with a cute little circle-A. Anarchists are well positioned to cut through the bullshit smokescreen of the so-called anti-imperialists and the military interventionists – it’s our own fault if after four years we still don’t see any organizing in support of Syrian revolutionaries that speaks to us.
Although demonstrating is often a position of weakness, it is better than doing nothing, especially because anarchists and anti-authoritarians who are on the ground in Aleppo are looking for it from us. They deserved to see some level of even symbolic support, to feel that they are not alone, but too often, and especially in North America, we didn’t do it.
Nothing is over yet, even if the liberatory character of the Syrian revolution (at least within the fight against the state) was probably dealt a final, fatal blow with the fall of Aleppo. Some sort of cessation or reduction of violence is likely on the horizon, opening up possibilities for more organizing that isn’t dominated by war, especially if it becomes safe for people hiding out in Turkey and Lebanon to return. The reconstruction of Syria will be a new phase of struggle and support for prisoners will only get more important. Maybe we can use this moment of increased attention to clarify our collective understandings and be in a position to at least show symbolic support going ahead. Or look closely enough at the largest revolution of our time to supplement our understandings of what it really means to be a revolutionary.
- The two other main groups are The Noble movement for the party of God, from Iraq and also participating in the battle of Mosul on the side of the Iraqi state and the US, and the Fatimid Brigade, mobilized by Iran.
- I was going to try to put lots of footnotes and source everything, but it’s just not in the mood I have today. If you want to get updates, #Aleppo, or visit the list of blogs and twitter feeds listed at the bottom of other posts
- Although these formations can’t be described as liberatory, they were often local and answerable to the people living in the areas they defended. Today is the one year anniversary of the death of Liwa al-Tawhid commander Abu Furat
- The use of the word “terrorist” in talking about Syria is almost completely unhelpful. Really, all it means is that the state or state-supporter using the term considers some group an enemy.
- Though, to repeat, at a grassroots level, there is still lots of revolutionary energy throughout Kurdish majority regions and as well this is increasingly threatened by the Turkish state. To be caught between an increasingly counter-revolutionary domestic party and a hostile neighbouring state is a bad situation to be in — we should definitely not drop our support of Rojava, but we should be critical and understand that there are different currents within it.
- Like when the United States and Saudia Arabia use starvation seige and aerial bombardement on Sanaa in Yemen, people don’t seem to be so upset?
Leila Al-Shami’s work on syria continues to be one of the most important english language sources for information/reflection on the revolution. We share below an interview with her conducted by Patrick Ward (sources: Leila’s blog, Tahrir-ICN) …
In 2011 the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa. Millions of people rose up against dictatorships across the region, toppling governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, with the Libyan regime also falling following Western intervention. Among the countries in which revolution seemed to be on the cards was of course Syria. But, five years later, the country is in turmoil, with President Bashar Al-Assad clinging to the power he has left with the backing of the military might of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and others. Facing them are reactionary Islamist forces such as Islamic State/Daesh and Jabhat Al-Nusra. The situation looks increasingly hopeless, and it is generally portrayed in the media as a battle between equally horrific forces, with ordinary people reduced to spectators desperately attempting to avoid barrel bombs or making terrifying journeys out of the country as refugees.
But there is a side to the story that is often overlooked – that of the continued resilience and self-organisation of Syrians resisting both the regime and groups like ISIS. This is the subject of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, a comprehensive account of Syria’s recent history told often through the stories of people on the ground.
I spoke to Al-Shami about why contesting the prevalent narratives on Syria is so important.
Why did you write Burning Country?
There was a lot being written about Syria, a lot being written about Syrians, but very little that actually spoke to Syrians and asked them how they themselves define what’s happening in their country. So we really wanted to bring Syrian voices to the forefront, and to speak with people who had been involved in the revolution and see how they felt, to hear their story and to enable other people to hear their story.
I think in general a lot of the narrative on Syria, whether it’s been through people writing books or through mainstream journalism, has been looking at Syria either through a humanitarian lens or through an extremist lens. So, really wanting to see Syrians as either victims or terrorists, but not really wanting to see Syrians as agents of change.
Many people seem to think that the situation in Syria is simply too complicated to understand. Why do you think that view has become so common?
I think that a lot of mainstream journalism, which people depend on for a lot of their information on Syria, has been extremely poor. By focusing on issues such as the humanitarian crisis or the extremism, what people are getting are symptoms rather than causes. So people do not feel, often, that they have a real understanding of why this happened or what the dynamics on the ground are. For example, if you are looking at the refugee crisis only through a humanitarian lens, you are not looking at the causes of the refugee crisis. It’s going to be very difficult to find a solution, because there isn’t a humanitarian solution to a political problem.
One argument that comes across very strongly in your book is that there’s been a level of misinformation about the situation – of a regime that’s hated by the United States on the one side and on the other side you have forces like Daesh/ISIS and Al-Nusra, supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc. That seems to have become quite a dominant idea in sections of the left, for example.
I think a huge problem is people coming to the Middle East through a pre-2011 paradigm, and they are trying to interpret things as they interpreted struggles that happened in the Middle East before. But of course the whole region changed radically in 2011 when there were transnational uprisings from Egypt to Bahrain to Yemen, all across the region.
This has been hugely problematic, because there is this very dominant narrative in sections of the left that the regime is a resistance regime, but this narrative doesn’t match reality. It doesn’t explain the role of the Assad regime, of Assad the father in Lebanon, the massacres of Palestinians in the Lebanese camps that occurred during the 1980s. It doesn’t explain why Bashar Al-Assad worked with the Americans for the extraordinary renditions, when the Americans were handing over suspected terrorists to the Syrian regime basically for torture by proxy. That was throughout the war on terror.
This resistance narrative has persisted, but the thing is that the regime has used this resistance narrative to build popular support, and it did manage to do that both within Syria and across the wider Arab region because it was speaking the same kind of anti-Western, anti-Zionist rhetoric, which was in line with popular sentiment on the street. But a lot of this rhetoric was really to justify internal repression.
For example, you have the emergency law that was put in place, which was ostensibly because Syria was at war with Israel. But really that was the war which suspended all the constitutional rights of Syrian citizens and greatly empowered the security forces, so that was the law that was used to round up and detain dissidents to take them to military courts. But at the same time, the borders with Israel remained quiet, there weren’t serious efforts to liberate the occupied Golan, for example. The Syrian borders with Israel were quieter, more peaceful even than borders that had peace deals with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan. So the resistance narrative doesn’t match up.
And there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the Saudi regime or the Turkish regime are funding Daesh, and it seems highly unlikely that they will. If you look at Daesh’s statements, one of its main targets is to bring down the Saudi regime. I think it’s certainly the case that individuals in Saudi Arabia have sent money to Daesh, and Saudi Arabia until fairly recently has played a very negative role in not clamping down on those financial transfers to Daesh from citizens within its territory. But I don’t see any evidence that the Saudi regime itself is funding Daesh, there is enough we can criticise the Saudi regime for without making stuff up.
What has been the role of the United States in supporting forces hostile to the regime?
The United States support for Free Syrian Army militias on the ground has never really been any more than rhetoric. It’s never really given any serious support to them. The main thing that opposition fighters on the ground need is heavy anti-aircraft weapons to defend communities from air force attacks, which are the main cause of civilian deaths inside Syria. The Americans have never sent in those anti-aircraft weapons and their most significant military intervention has actually been to veto other countries from sending in those weapons to FSA fighters. Some things have gone in, lighter weapons, a lot of things like night vision goggles have gone in, but that’s not what these groups need. And also with the weapons that have been going in, it sometimes seems designed to pressure Assad to the negotiating table, to create a stalemate. Some gains will be made as a consequence of that in the battle field, and then the weapon supply dries up, so there’s always this small gains being made, the weapons dry up and then of course the regime makes gains. So it seems that this stalemate is just maintained much of the time.
That seems in stark contrast to the way Russia and Iran are giving support to the Assad regime.
The regime has massive amounts of financial and military support from its backers, both Russia and Iran. There should be strong sanctions on countries sending weapons to the regime.
Where does this leave the revolution, and the self-organisation of those besieged from all sides?
Communities have had to self-organise for survival because as the state’s collapsed in large parts of the country or has been pushed out. People have had to come together to keep life functioning in those areas. And I think this is one of the really remarkable things about the Syrian revolution and the untold story is how people are creating alternatives to authoritarianism in these immensely challenging circumstances when they are being bombed by their own government, they are being bombed by foreign governments, they are under attack from Islamic extremists, they are being starved, they are being gassed. But they are also trying to create ways of organising which are democratic, which is much more community-based, to keep their communities being able to stay in those areas.
In the book you mention how a number of ideas, such as Islamism and anarchism, are part of the debates in how these communities should be organised.
There are so many different ideas going around, and that’s the result of the revolutionary situation. People are really discussing and debating and trying out new ways of organising and new ideas. The self-organised communities are under threat not only from the regime but also by Islamist extremist groups, and in some areas there has been a power struggle, around the councils and within the communities as other groups have also tried to impose structures on the people. Today in Idlib it was the 85th day of protests against Jabhat Al-Nusra in Marat Numan, so the people have been very clear that they don’t want Jabhat Al-Nusra to stay in Marat Numan. They are very clear that they do not want to replace one authoritarian system with another. Idlib is under very heavy bombardment at the moment from the regime, and by Russia, and it’s exactly to destroy these self-organised and democratic communities. They are not ISIS, they are not these extremist groups, they are FSA militias and self-organised communities.
What’s the best way of offering solidarity to the Syrians?
There are serious humanitarian issues that need to be addressed, there are still many communities in Syria which are under siege. The UN set the deadline of 1 June to airdrop to these communities, and that’s deadline’s passed and there’s been no airdrops. Now the UN is saying that it’s wanting permission from the regime, the people responsible for the siege of these communities, to access those areas. Today in Daraya they’ve actually sent in some aid, and what they’ve sent are mosquito nets while the people are starving, it’s an absolutely desperate situation and I think one very important form of solidarity is to call on the UN to call on those governments to ensure that aid gets to those areas.
But we can’t do this all through a humanitarian lens, there has to be a political solution to this problem, there has to be a real and meaningful peace process which is inclusive, and ultimately has representatives from the ground included in it.
In terms of solidarity, there hasn’t been much visible solidarity with Syria and I think that’s hugely problematic that that’s been the case. I think it’s amazing that at the moment when you’re having this massive slaughter, this constant bombardment, there aren’t people in their thousands, in their millions out on the street calling for it to stop.
Is that something that people feel betrayed over?
Of course they feel betrayed over it, and I’m sure they are no longer waiting for solidarity from the outside world, I think those days have long gone.
Do you have hope that the regime will fall, and that something somehow positive can come afterwards?
In many ways the regime has already fallen, because it is completely reliant on foreign powers for survival. It is completely dependent on Iranian and Hezbollah, and Shia militias from Iraq and from Afghanistan and from all over, for ground forces, and on the Russian air force. It’s not managing to take and control territory, and it’s unlikely that it’s going to be able to take back the massive sections of the country which it’s now lost. But I don’t see any quick solutions to this problem. I can’t predict what the future will be, I’m fearful that there will be some kind of partition scenario, some kind of imperial carve-up imposed from outside, it’s so difficult to tell.
But what I would be fairly certain of is that I think that throughout the region the return to the security state is not going to be something which is going to happen. I think the region has changed dramatically and that we’re in a long process of change.
Anti-authoritarian and/or anarchist, or simply alternative, non-corporate english language sources for the syrian revolution include: Leila Al-Shami’s blog, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s blog, the Syrian revolution commentary and analysis blog, the Tahrir-ICN blog, and The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution site.