A stalemate in Syria?

April 24, 2012

Lee Sustar and Yusef Khalil look at the state of the revolutionary movement in Syria--and escalating attempts by conservative Arab states to intervene.

A UN-brokered ceasefire is being used by Syria's rulers to consolidate their grip on power after a horrific wave of violence that has left more than 9,000 people dead, almost all at the hands of the military and government-backed thugs.

Meanwhile, the divided Syrian opposition, based in Turkey, is under increasing pressure from conservative Gulf Arab states determined to channel the conflict into a sectarian Islamist military resistance.

Other currents in the revolutionary movement take a different approach. Some groups in the Local Coordinating Councils--the leaders of the struggle on the ground--continue to try to build a popular, revolutionary democratic movement that can withstand repression and unite the Sunni Muslim majority with segments of the religious and ethnic minorities that comprise about 30 percent of the population.

Against these efforts, the ruling Baath Party--which draws its leading personnel from the Alawite Islamist community and which historically has had the backing of the Christian and Druze minorities--will continue to pursue a bloody divide-and-rule strategy.

A boy in Daraa sits in the rubble of his damaged home
A boy in Daraa sits in the rubble of his damaged home

President Bashar al-Assad is attempting to terrorize the Sunni majority through bombarding civilian areas--while warning of a possible future Sunni Islamist government that would repress religious minorities, in an attempt to bind minority groups to the state.

Under these circumstances, Western sanctions might actually help the regime remain in power. As Reuters noted, Assad could follow the example of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and use the crisis caused by sanctions to bolster that state's control over food and fuel--while posing as a defender of Syria's sovereignty against Western imperialism's economic attacks.

Conservative Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are playing into Assad's hands by funneling guns and money to Sunni jihadist groups that have a strategy of guerilla war rather than popular revolution.

The Saudis and Qataris would like to install a Sunni Muslim government in Syria and deprive arch-rival Iran of its key ally in the region. As journalist Joshua Jacobs points out, "The Saudis have clearly made the calculus that the potential fruits of toppling Assad and enthroning a Sunni-aligned regime in Damascus are well worth the political risk."

The Saudi and Qatari monarchies are just as opposed as Assad to a democratic revolution in Syria. As Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri observed, the Gulf states--backed by the U.S.--are the center of counterrevolution in North Africa and the Middle East:

[T]his is now a full-fledged counter-revolution across the region in different forms and different guises with different players. And some of them, like the American government, supporting some revolutionaries and supporting anti-revolutionaries in other places...[pursuing] their interests, but without any consistency and often without any principles.

But U.S. support for the Syrian opposition comes at a price. Despite tough talk, the U.S. isn't arming the rebels because it is worried about spillover into a regional conflict involving Lebanon, Turkey and Iran. Plus, having spent a decade attempting to quell a Sunni-based insurgency in Iraq, U.S. policymakers are hesitant to unleash similar forces in Syria.

Unable to control or even influence many of the various revolutionary forces in Syria, the U.S. is, for now, confining its efforts to sending humanitarian and communications equipment, with the goal of developing U.S. "assets" on the ground.

While the U.S. has not abandoned the ineffective Syrian National Council (SNC) entirely, senior officials say that the Obama administration began in recent months to cast a much wider net in the search for opposition figures who could potentially lead Syria after Assad falls.

IN THE near term, a UN ceasefire, which began on April 12, may provide a measure of cover for street protests to reemerge in a number of cities, despite attacks on unarmed demonstrators in several places by Syrian military forces and the shabiha, the paramilitary thugs paid by the regime to organize the counterrevolution.

For the revolutionaries in Syria, acceptance of the ceasefire plan negotiated by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, poses a problem.

First, it implies an international acceptance of the Assad regime remaining in power. Second, the regime is using the ceasefire to buy time to continue repression and to reposition heavy weapons. This explains Assad's foot-dragging in the negotiations with Annan, then the acceptance and addition of last-minute conditions, followed by selective compliance.

For its part, the main Syrian opposition body outside the country, the SNC, accepted the ceasefire as the best option available under the circumstances. The internal opposition, however, is skeptical. It accepted the agreement while calling for continued mobilizations on the street.

Increasing the number of UN monitors from 30 to 300 may inhibit the Syrian military from carrying out its most brazen attacks on civilians. Nevertheless, the regime and its supporters are willing to tolerate the UN deal.

In part, this is because they can't afford to alienate their backers in Russia, the key broker of the ceasefire deal. But it's also because Syria's rulers believe their counterrevolutionary strategy has already succeeded. A headline from Bloomberg News captured the sentiment: "Syria elite dance to dawn as risk of Assad overthrow fades."

Ghayath Naisse, a Syrian surgeon exiled in France, recently wrote that the relative calm in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo is the result not only of repression, but:

is also due to the concentration of the "private-sector" bourgeoisie, which supports the regime. The cases about which we have heard of financial support from wealthy people (trying to buy a clear conscience) to the revolutionaries remain isolated. The "contract" with this bourgeoisie, which is organically linked to the state and to the dictatorship, was and remains: Let us govern, and we will let to you get rich without limits.

A U.S. academic specialist on Syria, Joshua Landis, made a similar point: "The Syrian revolutionaries are largely rural and young, just as were the Baathists in the 1960s. Wealthy and educated Sunnis fear the results of the present revolution could be the same for them as the results of the last revolution, when Syria's rural poor took power. "

With the religious minorities and the capitalist class still mostly behind him, Assad is using the ceasefire to prepare for the next wave of struggle. If the Syrian economy can survive the mounting pressure from sanctions imposed by Western countries--which is no sure thing--Syria's rulers believe they can consolidate their grip on power by shooting down resistance in the streets, and sending the secret police to arrest, torture and assassinate leading activists.

IF THE regime is increasingly confident, it's in large part because the SNC is ineffective and rapidly losing credibility.

It isn't representative of the internal opposition groups and revolutionary forces. And while the SNC does contain some progressives, it's dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It functions in an undemocratic manner, coordinates its policies and actions with Western powers and the Gulf states, and is filled with people seeking "leadership" positions in a post-Assad Syria. It is certainly not the hegemonic force on the side of the revolution that the U.S. wishes it was.

One key reason for the SNC's failure is its unwillingness to support the demands of Syria's Kurdish minority for self-determination, whether in the form of a federation within Syria or outright independence.

In part, this is the price of accepting Turkey's backing for the SNC, since Turkey has for decades pursued a strategy of military repression against its own Kurdish minority. But much of the SNC leadership adheres to a version of Arab nationalism in which there is no place for the Kurdish national identity. As a result, many of the main Syrian Kurdish parties are on the sidelines in this struggle--and Assad has now revived an alliance with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out the armed struggle in Turkey.

The political disarray in the SNC has a parallel in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is comprised mainly of defectors from the Syrian armed forces.

The FSA is lightly armed and has been overwhelmed in its attempts to carry out a head-to-head battle with the Syrian military. Although the Saudis and Qataris have made noises about arming the FSA, they have so far been quite limited in doing so, apparently preferring to build up Islamist jihadi cells under their direct control. For its part, Turkey, while allowing the FSA to operate from its territory, has also held back from giving the armed opposition heavy weapons, let alone engaging Syria militarily.

For now, the U.S. and its allies are biding their time, because they see no good options. The European Union, for example, has dropped its demand that Assad must go. As author and activist Gilbert Achcar put it:

The truth is that one of the major reasons for the skepticism and reluctance shown in practice by the Western countries towards the Syrian situation is the fear that the fall of Assad would lead to an outcome that would be worse for Western interests and Israel.

SO THE U.S. is backing--or at least tolerating--the Saudi-Qatari efforts to recruit Sunni Islamist networks within the Syrian opposition. As the regime tries to impose a sectarian logic on the revolution, the conservative Arab states are all too willing to respond in kind.

Based on this situation, Joshua Landis concludes: "The opposition will have to rebuild itself to be more Islamic, militant and sectarian in order to take on the Assad regime. Opposition leaders on the ground, those who are actually fighting the regime, have already become more militant and Islamized."

But such a view is fatalistic--and premature. Although the media mostly covers the armed conflict, there are plenty of underreported actions that may seem largely symbolic at first glance--for example, raising independence flags in different locations in Damascus--but that indicate the continued development of grassroots opposition networks and coordination. As one Damascus revolutionary activist told Al-Jazeera:

You have to look at what lies behind the action, not at its immediate content. Doing this simultaneously means that different nonviolent groups are finally getting together and organizing common actions. Achieving this degree of coordination should not be taken for granted in Damascus, where security control is tight, communications are either tracked or lacking, and moving from one area to another is extremely difficult.

The question of nonviolent mass protest--and whether and how to conduct an armed struggle--is key for the Syrian revolution. Organizing the self-defense of a neighborhood or city under attack from the armed forces is different from building the Free Syrian Army as a fighting force--particularly if foreign powers are attempting to dominate the FSA. Meanwhile, the emergence of Iraq-style jihadist attacks on civilian targets would only play into Assad's hands by giving credence to the idea that the revolution is simply the work of foreign agents carrying out an Islamist agenda.

If the opposition is to overcome the pressures towards sectarianism from the Assad regime and the Saudi-Qatari intervention alike, it must make appeals to the working class on economic questions and other class issues that cut across sectarian and ethnic lines.

This has been made all the more difficult by the terrible repression and the regime's effort to whip up sectarian hatreds. But as the economy declines, class antagonisms will sharpen, too. If the Syrian revolutionaries can appeal to the working class, they can lay the basis for struggle with the social power to overthrow the Syrian state.

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