We print US socialist Pham Binh’s criticism of the AWL’s analysis and attitude on Syria.
The article originally appeared on the North Star website.
As the Syrian revolution progresses, support for it abroad among Marxists recedes. [This shift to the right] parallels the evolution of petty-bourgeois Arab intellectuals such as Jadiliya who supported Syria’s peaceful demonstrators but recoiled in fear when these same demonstrators grew tired of being cut down by machine gun fire and took up arms to defend themselves.
If the revolution’s unavoidable militarisation repelled these intellectuals, the militarised revolution’s “Islamisation” repelled Marxists like AWL, CWI, and As’ad AbuKhalil, the Angry (but not intelligent) Arab.
Underlying these shifts is the question of method.
How do we determine when a struggle’s political and class content changes from being progressive and worth supporting into its opposite, into something unworthy of support? When does quantity (the number of reactionary forces like Islamist extremists or salafis) become quality (the predominance of these forces smothers the revolution’s democratic character)? What role do Islamist forces play in the Syrian revolution, how dominant are they, and how have they altered the revolution’s political physiogomy?
These are important questions that the AWL raises explicitly and answers earnestly. Although AWL’s answers conflate worst-case possibilities with existing realities, they deserve credit for approaching the Syrian revolution in this manner instead of using each new development to vindicate a fixed party line. Historical materialism is not about having the right answers; rather, it is about asking the right questions and then vigorously interrogating the available facts and evidence to formulate provisional conclusions that can serve as a guide to action.
A four-point resolution passed by AWL’s National Committee states the following:
1. We oppose the brutal war being waged against the Syrian people by the Ba’thist state.
2. We are for freedom, democracy, women’s and workers’ rights, and democratic rights for Syria’s national minorities. We are for the right of Kurdish self-determination, including the right of Syria’s Kurdish areas to secede.
3. We oppose all manifestations of Islamism amongst the Syrian political opposition and rebel militias. Given the fragmented and often increasingly religiously radical nature of the opposition, a victory for the opposition against the state is likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and warlordism as Syria descends into chaos and breaks apart.
We specifically back democratic and working-class elements.
We will avoid, in our slogans and propaganda, any idea that a victory for one or some of the currently powerful opposition militias against the Ba’thists will be a positive step forward.
4. As a consequence, while maintaining our right to criticise and our political independence, we will not necessarily denounce a political agreement between the Ba’thists and the rebels that avoids the collapse of Syrian society into warlordism.
AWL’s resolution appears beneath the text of an article entitled “Deadlock in Syria” that provides some flesh to the bare-bones reasoning contained in the resolution.
According to AWL, there was a qualitative change in the Syrian revolution’s political character during 2012 with the rise of Islamist forces:
“The rebellion began in March 2011 with street demonstrations mostly expressing a non-sectarian, secular, and democratic impulse. But initiative and power in the anti-Assad movement has increasingly passed into the hands of Sunni-Islamist militias funded by Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or led by jihadists from outside the country who have entered Syria to join the conflict.
“[W]hen the mass of opposition opinion was able to express itself, in the early demonstrations, it was mainly secular, non-sectarian, and democratic. There may be small groups within the opposition of a democratic and working-class character. They are the people with the key to the future. But Syria’s working class has been atomised and suppressed by the Ba’thist dictatorship for generations. If those democratic and working-class groups exist, we don’t know about them.”
The most serious problem with this characterisation is that the peaceful, secular-democratic mass demonstrations AWL lauds never ceased. Every week for over two years Syrians have defied airstrikes, snipers, shelling, and snitches to peacefully demonstrate against the regime in war sones (Aleppo) and regime strongholds (Damascus) alike. Footage of daily demonstrations is uploaded to YouTube on channels such as SyrianDaysOfRage and Souria2011archives.
Have the slogans changed? Of course. Chants of “the people demand the downfall of the regime” and “get out Bashar” are now mixed with demands for arms, condemnations of the international community for fiddling while Syria burns, expressions of faith such as “God is great,” and, occasionally, Islamist chants like “the people want the declaration of Jihad” or “the Ummah wants an Islamic Caliphate.” Marchers often wave the black flag of Islam alongside the pre-Ba’athist flag of the revolution.
This where AWL’s condemnation of “all manifestations of Islamism” leads them astray, as if proclaiming the greatness of Allah in and of itself is a demand for a Saudi-style Caliphate rather than “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the spirit of spiritless conditions.” Union soldiers marched to their deaths battling the Confederacy with God on their lips as they sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic;” would we characterise these soldiers politically as Billy Graham-style Christian conservatives? Similarly, mosques and Friday prayers have been irreplaceable vehicles for mobilising the masses to demonstrate for freedom in the Libyan, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, and Bahraini revolutions — do these count as “manifestations of Islamism” to be condemned and combated rather than encouraged and developed?
AWL’s resolution is vague precisely where it needs to be explicit and sweeping where it needs to be nuanced.
Crying out “God is great” as the Assad regime bombs Aleppo University and attacks civilian neighborhoods with Scud missiles is akin to saying “oh my God” as the Twin Towers crumbled on September 11, 2001 — it is a universal, human reaction to wanton death and destruction.
Assad loyalists scream “we give our lives for you, oh Bashar” as they fight in addition to psychologically torturing captured revolutionaries into saying blasphemous phrases such as “Assad is great” (the US employed similar tactics at Guantanamo Bay). Shouting “God is great” in response is not simply an affirmation of faith, it is a statement of resistance, of defiance, of allegiance to a power higher and greater than a miserable bloodthirsty dictator who ruled Syria with God-like authority over morality, law, economics, politics, religious matters, the public sphere, the private sphere, and life and death.
The “Islamisation” of the Syrian uprising in 2012 was the result of two factors: the increasingly desperate and brutal nature of the armed struggle on the one hand and the historically unprecedented international isolation of the revolution on the other.
While Western imperialists refused to arm the FSA, the Islamist Gulf states armed their ideological counterparts. While foreign leftists poured over rumors of imperialist intervention that never materialised, hundreds of foreign Islamists poured onto the battlefield to fight the regime. Given this, it should be no surprise that revolutionary Syrians prefer to sing songs honoring Allah and his devout followers at their demonstrations instead of the International.
The longer and more agonising the overthrow of Assad, the more martyrs there will be; the more martyrs there are, the greater the revolution’s religious overtones; the greater the religious overtones, the greater the influence of Islamists. This tendency will hold true unless and until states and/or grassroots organisations abroad deliver aid to secular-democratic forces such as the FSA or the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), providing them with the resources to compete with the Islamists for mass influence. Only deeds can tilt the balance of forces in Syria away from the Islamists towards the “democratic and working-class elements” AWL “specifically back[s].”
Understanding how previously marginal Islamist forces —extremist salafis, conservatives, and moderates — became prominent players is the precondition for discerning how dominant they are today and assessing whether they have successfully hijacked the democratic revolution.
AWL correctly notes the “increasingly religiously radical nature of the opposition” and that “initiative and power in the anti-Assad movement has increasingly passed into the hands of Sunni-Islamist militias funded by Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or led by jihadists from outside the country.”
However, the conclusion drawn from these accurate observations — that “a victory for the opposition against the state is likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and warlordism as Syria descends into chaos and breaks apart” — does not follow. To talk about Syria’s descent into warlordism, ethnic cleansing, and partition after the regime’s inevitable demise is to engage in nightmarish speculation. Lenin warned such an approach, arguing that “in assessing a given situation, a Marxist must proceed not from what is possible, but from what is real.”
In the past two years, there have been no sectarian massacres except those committed by the regime and its supporters against Syria’s (and the revolution’s) Sunni majority. Revolutionary Syria is not occupied Iraq.
Despite the regime’s relentless propaganda campaign to demonise the opposition as sectarian and genocidal towards non-Sunnis and despite massacres by Assad’s forces of Sunnis at Houla, Aleppo, Al-Qubair, Samlaka in Damascus, and Arbaeen in Hama, the opposition has not retaliated against Christian, Druse, Kurdish, Alawi, or Ismaili communities as Iraq’s Shia death squads retaliated against Sunni civilians after Al-Qaeda’s massive car bombings of Shia markets and squares.
This is not to deny that sectarianism is an ongoing problem for and a constant danger to the revolution. However, the regime’s failure to spark a sectarian cycle of violence by repeatedly massacring of Sunni civilians shows that, although the opposition is disproportionately Sunni, its aspirations remain national rather than confessional in nature. If the AWL was correct in claiming the opposite, would representatives of the Alawi community meet in Cairo to call for Assad’s downfall, assert that “this revolution is for all Syrians,” and appeal to Alawi military personnel to mutiny?
The Assad regime was built on a sectarian basis to withstand exactly the kind a popular uprising that is now underway. Given this starting point, what is remarkable about the Syrian revolution is not its sectarianism but its anti-sectarianism, its dogged refusal to play into Assad’s hands and allow the regime to pose as the last line of defense for minority faiths. The masses have become too conscious, too politically enlightened, have shed too much blood, and have struggled too hard for too long for the revolution’s lofty ideals to debase themselves by falling for the regime’s divide-and-rule schemes. That is why they voted by the thousands for “There Will Be No Sectarian State in Syria” to be the slogan of all the Friday protests held across the country on March 8, 2013.
AWL’s dire post-revolutionary forecasts do not appear to be based on a careful analysis of the 68 towns and cities that have been liberated from regime control.
These areas are ruled by a (sometimes overlapping and competing) patchwork of civilian and military councils, only some of which have a pronounced Islamist character. In Idlib, Islamists were frosen out of the civilian leadership bodies. In Kafranbel, a town famous for its humorous and sharp slogans attacking Assad, the international community, and at times even the opposition’s exiled leadership, the local council is drafting a secular constitution to create an interim civilian legal authority. In Aleppo, a coalition of salafi, conservative, and moderate Islamists have formed a judiciary called Hayaa al-Sharia to combat criminality and arbitrate disputes among the population.
Thus far, Hayaa al-Sharia has not acted in a sectarian manner by persecuting members of minority communities, and the same is true of the Islamist judiciary bodies that have sprung up elsewhere in the country. When self-appointed Islamists authorities have acted to repress women or political opponents, they have met resistance in the form of peaceful protests, a kind of revolution within the revolution. They have generally relented and released whomever they arrested instead of using deadly force against demonstrators.
Studying areas where opposition militias have been victorious over the regime reveals a picture that has nothing in common with the bleak predictions of AWL. Instead of a Taliban-style salafi dystopia rife with sectarian killings, persecution of minority religious and national groups, and apolitical warlordism, liberated areas are governed fairly effectively by a mix of secular and Islamist elements, the latter of which range from moderate to conservative. Even in areas such as Aleppo where conservative Islamists are strongest, their predominance is contested at best and contingent upon the extreme and unusual conditions created by the revolution.
Despite their vanguard role on the battlefield, Islamist chants and slogans at demonstrations calling for a Caliphate are not terribly popular. Proposed Islamist slogans for the weekly Friday protests such as “Armies of Islam: Rescue Syria” are regularly defeated by thousands-strong majority votes. Here, it is important to draw a distinction between religious terminology and Islamist politics (a distinction Islamists prefer to blur); “God Is Great” is not a political program whereas “Islam Is the Answer” strongly suggests one. As the Assad regime stepped up its murderous repression in 2012, the Friday slogans became increasingly religious (invoking the name of Allah and appealing to the ummah for help) but not Islamist (advocating Sharia law, a Caliphate, or jihad). Revolutionary Syrians respect the fearless heroism of the mujahadeen on the battlefield but do not look to them for leadership on the political field or for ideas about good governance.
To sum up: the hijackers may be on board the plane but they are not in the cockpit and do not have their hands on the controls.
AWL’s conclusion that it can support neither side in Syria’s civil war proceeds from the assumption that both sides are equally reactionary from the consistently democratic standpoint of the working class, that the choice between Assad’s tyranny and Islamist tyranny is no choice at all.
This equivalence is false and not only because liberated areas are far from being Islamist tyrannies. One side in the Syrian civil war tortures children, the other does not; one side murders and tortures peaceful demonstrators, the other does not; one side drops bombs on universities and fires Scud missiles at civilian neighborhoods, the other does not; one side massacres hundreds of civilians of a particular sect, the other does not; one side relies on fear and terror to keep its troops from defecting, the other does not.
Acknowledging that one side of this war is progressive does not mean that all the forces and people fighting on that side are candidates for sainthood or guaranteed to be free of reactionary agendas. It does not mean that the progressive side of this war is free of unjust executions, torture, beheadings, looting, banditry, and sectarian tendencies. It simply means that the interests of working people and democracy demands the victory of the Syrian opposition, however tainted and corrupted by Islamist extremists it may be. The choice today in Syria is not between the lesser of two evils but between good and evil, progress and reaction, revolution and counter-revolution, democratism and barbarism, and socialists have a duty to ensure by any and all means that the right side wins even if tomorrow’s enemy is temporarily on the same side as us today.
As the regime collapses, the struggle between fascism and democracy, between tyranny and freedom gives way to a new struggle over the democratic content and boundaries of that freedom. When the battle for democracy becomes superseded by the battle of democracy, this is the beginning of the second stage of the democratic revolution. Only during this second stage will the extent and depth of the democratic revolution’s corruption and distortion by anti-democratic forces like Jabhat al-Nusrah be revealed, and an armed struggle to crush and expunge them is inevitable if they try to replace Assad’s despotism with their own.
It is during this second stage that the real fight over the rights of women, minority faiths and nationalities, workers, and free expression will begin. This battle will split the Islamist camp, pitting salafis like Jabhat al-Nusrah who oppose free elections against moderates like Muslim Brotherhood who support them. There can be no question of neutrality in this second stage of the revolution just as there should no question of neutrality in its current, first stage. AWL’s failure to distinguish between semi-political Muslims, moderate and conservative Islamists, and extremist salafis is a failure to anticipate the central fault line that is already emerging in liberated areas and will become even more pronounced as the regime is uprooted and destroyed city by city, block by block, soldier by soldier.
Only by doing all that we can now during the revolution’s first stage, no matter how small it might seem in the big scheme of things, can we hope to influence the outcome of the revolution’s second stage so that Syria’s workers, women, and minority groups are in the best position possible to organise and fight for their interests against bosses, patriarchs, national chauvinists, and reactionary clerics.
Retreating into neutrality now because heavily armed bearded men are increasingly prominent on the battlefield today is to turn our backs on the revolution, and with it, the only chance the Syrian people have for free and better lives tomorrow.