The revolution and the war

Barack Obama says that a threatened U.S. attack on Syria would be on hold if a proposal by Russia for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to turn over its stockpile of chemical weapons is implemented. But the Obama administration is continuing to make the case for military intervention against skeptics in Congress and a war-weary U.S. public.

The U.S. drive to attack Syria--supposedly as "punishment" for the regime's use of chemical weapons in a horrific attack in a suburb of Damascus--has raised heated debates among radicals. A number of prominent forces in the antiwar movement not only oppose U.S. intervention, but defend the Assad regime as an opponent of Western imperialism.

Yasser Munif, a scholar-in-residence at Emerson College, spoke out last week in a radio interview titled "Inside the Syrian Revolution and What the Left Must Do," conducted by Jeff Napolitano for the American Friends Service Committee Western Massachusetts Program. A transcription of the interview by Linda Quiquivix was published at Syria Freedom Forever. Below is an interview transcript edited with the approval of Dr. Munif. The interview begins as he describes his recent trip to Syria.

Syrian armed forces march toward protesters in Homs (AFP)Syrian armed forces march toward protesters in Homs (AFP)

THIS SUMMER, I actually spent two months in northern Syria, the liberated area, and it was a very humbling experience. I learned a lot, and I saw an ongoing popular revolution. People are rebuilding institutions, they are managing their cities after the fall of the state and the regime, and it is a very challenging task because there are no resources, there is no funding, and there are continual attacks by the regime. These areas I'm talking about in the north are liberated--there are no clashes on the ground. But there are constant air strikes and missiles launched on these cities.

So people are coming up with creative solutions: they are creating political institutions. There are local councils in each one of those cities, and they meet on a weekly basis. They discuss everything in the city, and they try to solve their problems.

There are millions of people who hear the media in the West and elsewhere talking about civil war and so on, and most of these people reject those labels. It's true that the situation is at a critical period, and there are challenging tasks ahead of them, and there are jihadists who are trying to undermine their work--and obviously the regime. But they believe there is a popular revolution going on in Syria.

THE JIHADISTS are often considered part of the "rebels." But they are, as you say, quite distinct from the revolution itself.

RIGHT. FOR about three or four months now, the revolutionaries have actually been fighting on two fronts. On the one hand, there is the regime, and on the other hand, there is the jihadists--the al-Nusra and al-Qaeda-created groups. The jihadists are actually arresting, torturing and killing many activists--people who have been resisting since day one.

Most of the al-Qaeda-created groups are not really fighting the regime. They are staying in those northern parts. They are letting the Free Syrian Army and other factions fight the regime, and they come in behind them and take over whatever liberated cities or villages there are. They're very vicious. As I said, they're arresting activists--anyone who criticizes them is arrested, tortured, sometimes killed. Right now, they have more than 1,500 activists in their prisons.

As you can see, there are two fronts in Syria right now--the jihadists on the one hand, and the regime on the other. That's why many people believe the jihadists are in some way or another actually allied to the Syrian regime. Al-Qaeda is actually delivering oil to the regime. The pipeline has to go through the region controlled by al-Qaeda-created groups in order for the regime to get that oil to the coast.

So things are much more complex than they seem here in the U.S. where you read articles all the time about the dominance of "al-Qaeda." Al-Qaeda is actually not part of the revolution. It is anti-revolutionary.

RIGHT. THE dominant debate in Congress seems to be that if we bomb Syria, who is going to come to power. There are many people in Congress, Republicans particularly, who seem to think that the problem with bombing Syria is just that al-Qaeda will then take over the country--as opposed to the fact that bombing the country is just not a good idea. One of the popular myths or impressions in the media is that the rebels who oppose Assad and the regime are in favor of a strike on Syria. Is that the case?

FROM FAR away, I can't really tell. I think the population is split. Many people are against the U.S. attacks.

I think that some people, because of the destruction and the violence and the killing, see a U.S. strike as a "way out," but I don't think that they are necessarily the majority. People have learned in the past 30 months that no one is really allied to their cause or cares about the Syrian population--that the Syrian people don't really have any friends. They understand that the West--Europe and the U.S.--aren't necessarily in favor of the victory of the revolution.

When you talk to the average person in Syria in those liberated areas, they tell you that whenever they're losing territory in fighting against the regime, they receive weapons--and whenever they're winning, the weapons stop coming. The reason why is because the West and the U.S. want to see this war go on as a stalemate, because this is in their interest. They're not necessarily in favor of the regime, and they're not necessarily favorable that the revolutionaries--or what they call "al-Qaeda"--win.

So the best thing for the U.S. so far has been to keep this conflict going. That's also in the interest of Israel--it doesn't necessarily want to see the revolutionaries win. For many Israeli politicians and U.S. politicians, they are in favor of a weakened Bashar in power.

I'M REALLY curious about this because nobody--not even on the left--talks about what the revolution actually looks like. In listening to you, I'm reminded of what I learned about the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, where the anarchists and socialists were also struggling with a war on two fronts: one against the fascists, and one against the Communists. That's a more complicated story, but what I was struck by is how your descriptions of the revolution developing its own institutions is similar to Spain, where an egalitarian society sprouted there. What does the revolution look like on the ground in Syria?

THE REVOLUTION is very complex. It's very multi-layered, and there are actually different things happening. The dominant part is the popular revolution. But there is also an ongoing semi-Cold War between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other. There is also a conflict between Iran and its allies on the one hand, and Israel and the Gulf on the other.

So there are different layers of this conflict, but the most dominant one is the popular revolution. I think this is very important to understand.

Another reason to compare the Syrian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War, as you were doing, is that every leftist has an opinion about what is happening in Syria, as was the case with the Spanish Revolution many years ago. And most of the left, unfortunately, is taking the wrong position. They're understanding the Syrian revolution in a very binary and reductive way.

IS THIS the U.S. left or the left in Syria?

EVEN THE left in Syria and the Arab left is split, as is the U.S. and European left.

For the most part, this conflict is understood as a war between the U.S. on the one hand, people who are against the U.S. on the other--"anti-imperialists," according to some. This side includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and the Syrian regime, and its supporters believe that Syria has been helping the Palestinians. That's based on ignorance of Syrian history and how violent the Syrian regime has been for the past 40 years against the Palestinian struggle.

In some ways, these leftists are actually embracing the Bush doctrine--the either/or, with no room for any kind of complexity in your position.

IN OTHER words, "Either you're with us or against us."

YES--the binary, reductive way of thinking about the revolution.

I think this is very detrimental. It's sending the wrong message to the Syrian people. Many Syrians believe the left is, by default, for the regime. Recently, we've seen demonstrations in New York and other cities with people demonstrating against the war, and holding pictures of Assad.

JUST THE other day, there was a prominent picture in the Boston Globe accompanying an article on the protests, and they focused on a group of people in the crowd who were waving Syrian flags with Assad's picture emblazoned in the middle of them. This portrayed the entire march as not just being against the strike on Syria, but in favor of Assad. But I know from some of the organizations that sponsored the protest that this was antithetical to the message they were trying to get across.

RIGHT. THAT part of the left is losing its credibility. People in the U.S. or in the Arab world or in Syria won't necessarily get the message that this is really against the war. They're going to see the pictures of Assad and understand these demonstrations as propaganda--not really against the war.

I think the left has an important task ahead of it. It has to formulate a new, more coherent position--a position where one can at the same time be against the war and also against dictatorship. As long as the left doesn't do that, I think it won't have any kind of credibility.

People in Syria will see these pictures as almost a license to kill because the Syrian regime has been broadcasting those demonstrations on state TV, showing how popular it is in the West--that people are demonstrating in the streets of New York and other cities with pictures of Assad.

The Syrian regime has not even been able to organize such demonstrations or rallies in Syria itself, so it's very happy to see them emerging in other parts of the world. Many of the people who are demonstrating don't know anything about the reality that Syrians are living through--their struggles, their fights, their everyday resistance, and what they're trying to build, and the creativity of what they're doing.

I think there is also racism involved--of simply denying any kind of agency to the Syrians and saying, "This is all a conspiracy, and the U.S. has been planning this since the beginning--it's conspiring against Assad." That means that the Syrians don't have any agency--they can't really think for themselves, they can't really make a revolution. I think this is a big mistake that the left is making.

I HAVE the proposal put forward by the general secretary of the American Friends Services Committee, Shan Cretin, in a letter to President Obama and Congress. What she calls for is a comprehensive arms embargo on all parties in the conflict; that the only solution in Syria is a political solution; support for the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, to press for a rapid convening of a Geneva II conference; and that the U.S. should seek a transition that builds on existing institutions in Syria rather than replacing them, and not alienate people who have served the government or the army.

What do you think about this proposal, and what do you think the left in the U.S. should do?

I THINK the most important thing for the progressive movement and for people who really care about the Arab revolutions and want to support them and show their solidarity is to move away from alliances with different states, and build a social movement that supports the Syrian population.

That solidarity can take many different forms. It can come through reporting--a responsible journalist who goes to Syria, sees what is happening on the ground and tries to take their job seriously. Much of the reporting is about the infighting and the military aspect of the revolution, but I think that's only the tip of the iceberg--it's the most visible part, but not the most important part.

What's happening in Syria is much more than that. There are many revolutions going on in every field: the political, the cultural, the social, the economic. People are creating new institutions with new ideas--they are trying to tackle the most difficult problems and solve them. So that's part of what could be done.

People in Syria need doctors, they need engineers, they need any type of activist who could help them. What's needed is a global solidarity movement that transcends the state-centric politics that has been taking place for the past 30 months, revolving around governments and armies and so on.

I think that's the most powerful message we can send to the Syrian population: building an alternative global social movement that really understands the complexity of the Syrian revolution and doesn't reduce it to "jihadists" and "al-Qaeda," but understand that there are different layers. Progressives and leftists should push forward the revolutionary part, and not just repeat the narrative of a conspiracy that we've been seeing in the media.