Endgame in Syria?

Yusef Khalil and Lee Sustar look at the political implications as the armed conflict comes to a head in the Syrian capital of Damascus itself.

Fighting rages between Syrian military forces and rebels in DamascusFighting rages between Syrian military forces and rebels in Damascus

CAN REVOLUTIONARY forces in Syria oust the dictator Bashar al-Assad in the near future? If so, what will be the shape of post-revolutionary society?

Those questions came to the fore following the July 18 bombing that killed four key members of Assad's security team, including his brother-in-law.

The bombing--almost certainly carried out by a bodyguard or another figure who had access to the regime's inner circles--sent the message that Assad was no longer capable of protecting even those closest to him.

At the same time, the eruption of armed struggle in Damascus and the commercial city of Aleppo shattered Assad's claims that the revolutionary movement was isolated in provincial towns and cities dominated by the majority Sunni Muslim population. The fighting in Damascus, where a massive security presence had previously prevented the kinds of mass protests seen elsewhere in the country, spurred tens of thousands of people to flee to Lebanon.

The rebel fighters--who also seized control of key border crossings into Turkey and Iraq--made what they called a tactical retreat in Damascus as the regime's armed forces slammed entire neighborhoods with tank fire and artillery, much as they have done for the past 17 months in other cities.

According to some analysts, Assad's armed forces struck first in order to force the insurgents into a confrontation before they we were ready, but the rebels were still able to hit far more regime targets than was previously thought possible. Coupled with the assassination of key regime personnel, the fighting in Damascus--along with the battles in Aleppo in the following days--has shaken confidence in the regime.

From a purely military standpoint, the Assad regime retains enormous advantages in terms of firepower--it has tanks and helicopters against rebels who are relatively lightly armed and poorly supplied, despite promises by Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies who are trying to shape the resistance to suit their own agenda. If the Syrian armed forces can prevent large-scale defections, the regime may be able to hang on for some time.

Thus, Assad is unlikely to flee Damascus for the mountainous Alawite heartlands at this moment. He would be admitting that he's lost control of the capital and is waging a survival battle from the coastal area. For a regime that depends on its iron grip for legitimacy--it's the big stick that keeps the major merchant capitalists in line--this would be conceding too much at this stage.

Assad and the ruling elite around him don't want to simply punish Damascus, but need to hold the capital from the inside. They cannot afford to look like outsiders, fighting their way back in. Although there are defections from the army, Assad still commands a considerable number of loyal troops, with enough firepower to attempt to drown the rebellion in blood.

Even so, the regime has lost control over one area after another, including virtually all Kurdish areas, although the status of the largest Kurdish city, Qamishli, is disputed. There are reports that Kurdish defectors from the Syrian military have been armed and trained in Iraqi Kurdistan and are joining the fight against the regime.

This could be a major blow to Assad. Because leaders of the Syrian opposition have equivocated on the Kurdish question, many key Kurdish parties have had a tense relationship with the uprising.

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THESE DEVELOPMENTS, along with the clashes in Damascus and Aleppo, led many observers to conclude that the question is not whether Assad will fall, but when.

Yet for Syrian revolutionaries and their supporters, the issue is also how the regime will fall. Will the grassroots revolutionary forces of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) and revolutionary councils lead the uprising in a popular insurrection, while the armed resistance engages the regime's repressive apparatus? Or will some Syrian general who until yesterday was shelling civilians suddenly declare himself a revolutionary, lead an anti-Assad coup and look to the West for support?

Could the Syrian National Council (SNC), the faction-ridden body whose most prominent leaders increasingly look to Western intervention, parachute into Damascus and declare itself the head of post-revolutionary country? Is there a risk that the country could spiral into sectarian violence that targets the Alawite sect of Islam, whose members are prominent within the Assad regime? Will Syria's long-oppressed Kurdish minority be able to exercise their right to self-determination?

The answers to those questions will depend on the balance of forces between the revolutionary movement and the state, the strength of various currents within the revolutionary camp and the pressures of imperialist intervention.

The U.S. and its regional proxies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with Turkey and the main European powers, have made their preferences clear. CIA agents are vetting the arming of elements of rebel fighters, which go under the umbrella name of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

A political "transition" is being planned by a nonprofit front group for the U.S. State Department, as the magazine Foreign Policy reported:

For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.

This effort is not intended to organize a revolutionary purge of the Syrian state under Assad, but to keep as much of it intact as possible:

The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.

"There's a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria," [said the USIP's Steven Heydemann]. "We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process."

With the eruption of fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, along with the Russian and Chinese veto of UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad, the U.S. is now openly preparing for Assad's downfall with urgent meetings with Israel about "securing" Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, stepping up aid to rebels and preparing the ground for some kind of revolutionary council.

The U.S. goal would be to include members of the Alawite, Sunni Muslim and Christian religious groups on such a council. But as Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, explained Washington's motives: "The much more urgent challenge is to make contact with Assad's generals to get them to defect with units intact."

As they make clear, the U.S. and its allies want Assad's ouster, but they want to keep the Syrian state intact--and they certainly have no interest in the revolutionary transformation of Syrian society. U.S. support will be aimed at promoting their people and marginalizing others, even if it means fragmenting the revolutionary forces. This is a real fear shared by many people in the Syrian revolutionary movement.

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FOR THEIR part, the revolutionary forces in Syria, while united in their desire to oust Assad, have been divided over the means to do so.

The LCCs, which have organized mass protests for more than a year despite savage repression, have been frustrated by their inability to exercise political control over fighters in the disparate groups of the FSA, which also functions independently of the SNC.

A loose grouping of often uncoordinated rebels, the FSA label has been applied to a variety of forces, ranging from former Syrian military officers based in Turkey and backed by the West to local armed insurgents organized to defend cities against the regime. According to the West Point-based Combating Terrorism Center, sectarian Islamist groups, encouraged by Saudi Arabia, are also involved in fighting the regime, from outside the FSA.

The Assad regime did not wait for the presence of Islamist fighters as a pretext to attempt to channel the conflict along sectarian lines. It carried out horrific massacres in Sunni Muslim cities and neighborhoods, raising fears among Alawite and Christian minorities that they would be targeted for revenge attacks should the Assad regime fall. In general terms, by unleashing the armed forces, the regime sought to turn the revolution into a civil war that it could win through overwhelming force.

This in turn sharpened the debate within the revolutionary forces over armed resistance rather than nonviolent mass protests. Certainly people have the right to defend themselves against military attack--and the LCCs have been seeking to organize what they call civil defense.

The question is whether the armed struggle is seen as something that is to be carried out by a small number of professional fighters or becomes an unavoidable method of struggle as part of a mass insurrectionary movement.

The scale of the Syrian military's onslaught has pushed many to the conclusion that armed struggle is necessary. As The Economist noted:

Even semi-official statistics admit to 17,000 deaths so far, with 112,000 registered as refugees abroad, 200,000 internally displaced and another 3 million needing humanitarian aid. Foreign relief workers put the figures much higher, reckoning that 1.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, with 250,000 fleeing abroad.

Even so, there remains the question of whether the armed struggle is part of the self-defense of communities or whether it is seen as the way to oust Assad.

The fighting in Damascus and Aleppo appears to have been carried out by locally based fighters. The people in those cities are now paying a terrible price for this resistance, as the armed forces carry out collective punishment with tanks and helicopters. But the fighting in the country's two most important cities has shattered regime's narrative that the revolution is restricted to the provinces and is being controlled by foreigners.

As a result, both the regime's atrocities and the revolutionary movement can no longer be ignored. Damascenes have to take a side. Therefore, more people will get involved in the revolutionary movement, and defections from the regime are likely to accelerate.

At the same time, mobilizations have continued in Damascus and Aleppo. There are popular activities in solidarity with the besieged neighborhoods as well as civil disobedience. The idea is to overwhelm the regime's ability to respond to everything at once and demoralize the security forces.

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THE INCREASING role of the armed struggle raises the question whether to accept arms and support from the West. Promises for arms and aid from the U.S., European countries and the Gulf states hasn't yet materialized in any meaningful way--the U.S. has denied FSA requests for heavy weapons. In the days before the Damascus uprising, rebels reported that the flow of arms had actually decreased.

In any case, there are strings attached to any such offer of arms--although we've also seen a remarkable resistance by many revolutionary groups against attempts by the West and its allies to manipulate them. According to a report in Time magazine:

[T]here is growing frustration along the border among rebel commanders who have been waiting weeks for shipments due "any day now," "in the next few days," "soon Inshallah [god willing]." That may be because, says the Damascene [arms] distributor, the main batches from the Gulf came with preconditions: "They are saying that there are weapons in depots here [in Turkey], but they won't release them to us because we are not pledging allegiance to them. They want us to follow Saudi Arabia or a big organization like the [Muslim] Brotherhood. We are refusing this. That's why the next batch of weapons has been delayed. Either we follow them and get lots of weapons, or we don't and die."

As the struggle continues, more arms are going to flow in. While many in the Syrian revolutionary movement are opposed to U.S. and Western intervention, they will take whatever help they can get.

The problem is that in the absence of a recognized political leadership in Syria, the revolutionaries are in a weak position in relation to the U.S. And the more that Russia and China continue to back Assad politically and militarily, the more tempting it will be for Syrian revolutionaries to accept Western aid, even at the risk of losing some of their autonomy.

That isn't inevitable, however. For more than a year, LCCs and popular revolutionary committees have been organizing sustained mass resistance and, as the regime has retreated from entire towns, even began functioning as local governments in some areas. These organizations have been critical to sustaining the revolution. They are also the best hope for its future.

Where the U.S. hopes to manipulate the struggle and place a friendlier figure on top of the old state, the revolutionaries have every interest in broadening the struggle as it reaches its decisive phase.