Revolution and counterrevolution in Syria

May 24, 2018

In the debate about war and violence in Syria and the character of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is critical to be able to answer questions about the nature of the forces that rose up against Assad, the toll of the civil war, and the contending political and organizational forces.

In a two-part interview published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website on April 27 and May 10, Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian socialist activist, founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever, and author of Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God, talked to Joe Hayns about all these questions. In the first part, the two discussed the histories of social class, sectarianism and secularism in Syria. In the second part, they took up Kurdish-Arab relations in the country today.

Part One

IN HIS essay “The Class-Against-Class Basis of the Syrian Uprising,”, Michael Karadjis wrote that, in 2012, the Syrian revolution was “the sharpest class against class in the Arab Spring,” and, very recently, he’s written about relations between civil society groups, and the various armed rebel factions, in Ghuta.

Against this, there have been, I think, two evasions of social class as an explanatory concept in left analyses of Syria.

First is the understanding of Syria as a national unity, against which the U.S., or NATO, or “the West,” are aggressing — a Michael Moore-like geo-political view, in which, in some versions, the Russian Federation is, if not the USSR itself, then at least its “anti-imperialist” epigone. If I remember, Ziad Majed has said there’s a “Pavlovian” aspect to this anti-Americanism.

Second, there’s the view that the conflict is primarily one between ethnic-religious groups, a sub-type of which is to see conflict as between “jihadis” — in its more vulgar rehearsals, a metonym for all Arab Sunnis — and Alawite or Kurdish secularists, as they’re perceived.

Devastation in the war-ravaged city of Raqqa in Syria
Devastation in the war-ravaged city of Raqqa in Syria

Could you give a sense of the Syrian state’s relation to working-class organizing prior to the revolutionary period?

THE DESPOTIC nature of Assad’s rule since 1970 prevented any political opposition. No immunity was granted to any sector of society — no popular organizations, professional associations, feminists associations and so on. Nothing on university campuses, in any way, either from teachers or students. Security agencies arrested students inside lecture halls and expelled many.

This despotic rule included, of course, the repression of trade unions, and also peasants’ unions. Following the 1970 coup, the trade unions were denatured, and made to assist the regime, rather than defending working class interests. The 1972 conference of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) characterized the role of the unions in the Baathist state as “political” — it abdicated responsibility for any autonomous role for the unions, and subordinated any demand to a higher imperative: to increase production. The major political role of the GFTU evolved towards mobilizing their membership for constant productive efforts, and to produce support for regime policies amongst the working class.

Similarly, peasant unions and co-operatives increasingly served the interests of their wealthier members — the peasants with medium-sized holdings — whereas the landless peasants and smallholders were left without organizations defending their interests. Thanks to their position in the co-operatives, the Peasant Union and the party, middle-class peasants became the leading class in the countryside, speaking politically, without becoming its wealthiest stratum.

Hence, in the years prior to the uprising, due to decades of repression, the independent trade unions or other organizations that might have helped in the development of class consciousness were not able to be established. It was different in Egypt, with the independent trade unions there, or Tunisia, with the UGTT [the Tunisian General Labour Union].

WHAT WERE the class bases of the revolution?

THE MOST important components of the Syrian uprising were the economically marginalized Sunni rural workers, and both self-employed and employed urban workers, who have borne the brunt of the implementation of neoliberal policies, especially since the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad.

The geography of the centers of revolt — in northwest Idlib and southwest Dara’a, and other medium-sized towns, as well as more rural areas — shows a pattern: all were historical strongholds of the Ba’ath Party, having benefited from the policies of agricultural reforms in the sixties.

There has been a continuous impoverishment of these rural areas since the 1980s. The droughts from 2006 accelerated a rural exodus. This situation was exacerbated by a national annual population growth rate of around 2.5 percent, one that particularly affected small- to medium-sized towns in rural areas, in which populations have increased by five or ten times, since the 1980s. Public services provided by the state in these towns did not increase — on the contrary, they even diminished, with the neo-liberal policies, leading local populations to witness a deterioration of living conditions

The Damascus suburbs, and the towns surrounding the capital, where protests were important since the beginning of the uprising, were called the “poverty belt,” while the pattern of opposition-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, from the summer of 2012, was nearly exactly that of impoverished, working-class Sunni neighborhoods. They were all densely packed, poorly planned recent urban growths. Western Aleppo, on the other hand, with its better service provision, was composed mostly of middle-class public employees, some sections of the bourgeoisie, and some minorities.

It wasn’t only Sunnis. Some forms of dissent and protests did occur in Salamiyah, which is majority Ismaili, and Suwayda, populated mainly by Druze. Many activists from Christian backgrounds were also engaged in anti-regime activities. They faced some difficulties in the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus, however, where they were more cautious. And we cannot forget the massive participation of Kurdish and Assyrian youth, of the popular classes, at the beginning of the protests, nor the involvement, on the side of the revolution, of sections of the Palestinians of Syria, especially in Damascus.

Although the Syrian uprising was mostly composed of the popular and working classes, the majority were from the Sunni sects — it failed to include popular classes from religious minorities en masse. And it failed to translate its class bases into class politics, in other words, failed to go from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself” — an important difference for Marx, who knew the distinction between the mere fact of class position, a matter of sociological description, and conscious mass struggle, by working people, acting for themselves.

I’VE ALSO read about a student section of the revolution, at least in 2011 and 2012. Could you say a little about them?

YES, ANOTHER important part of the uprising, one which was more “cosmopolitan,” was the university students, young graduates and sections of the middle class, in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa. The number of students in further and higher education had increased massively since the 1970s: enrollment figures for Syrian tertiary education went from around 7 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2010. Students represented a significant and distinct social force within society. Students were not directly exploited in the way that workers are, but with the mass expansion of education, they are not a privileged section of society either. They would be a particularly important section of the protest movement at the beginning of the uprising.

The Union of Free Syrian Students (UFSS) was established on September 29, 2011, to struggle against the regime, and for a civil and pluralistic democracy, treating all citizens equally. They grew in numbers rapidly, and most Syrian universities with activists had established a branch. They faced the repression of the official, pro-regime student union members and of the security services. By July 2012, university students were a quarter of all the individuals killed since the beginning of the protest movement, in mid-March 2011, according to the UFSS.

IT SEEMS clear then that the working class in Syria was weak, in organizational and political terms, long before 2011, and wasn’t able to sustainably cohere across sects after spring of that year.

There’s a danger in mistaking that lack of coherence as the result of some primordial distance. But, I think, we need to the appreciate the contingent, and rather effective division of the working class, via sectarianism. On this, Saleh’s essay The Neo-Sultanic State claims sectarianism as a “revenue” for the state — the wages of authoritarian stateness, if you like. To develop this, could you give us a sense of the history of the Ba’athist state’s relationship with Sunni Islam, or rather the varieties of Sunni Islam, in their various organizational expressions since, say, 1970, after Assad’s coup?

IN SYRIA specifically, the Islamic fundamentalist forces, led by the Brotherhood, represented the most significant menace to the Syrian Ba’ath regime, from 1976 up to the Hama massacre in 1982, when between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed. Hafez al-Assad had tried to co-opt some sections of the Brotherhood throughout the 1970s — tried to find some form of understanding with the movement — although combined this with violent repression.

The hostility of the Brotherhood toward the state was deepened, through the years, by this repression, and also by the increasing domination of Alawi personalities of the regime’s institutions. Leading figures of the regime, from the president to the heads of security services, were largely Alawi. The Brothers increasingly concentrated their attacks on the Alawi identity of the regime, rather than, as in the 1960s, on its “atheist” features.

In 1979-80, the Brotherhood called for an armed revolt to overthrow the regime and establish an Islamic state. They presented themselves as the natural spokesmen of the Sunni population in the country, and described and characterized their fight with Syria’s rulers as a struggle between Sunnis and Alawis. The Brotherhood sought to generate a form of Sunni solidarity, cutting across class and regional divisions. They committed sectarian massacres and assassinations. Then, the Hama massacre broke them, organizationally, for a generation.

Despite periods of rapprochement in the 1990s, including liberation of their prisoners and the return of some of their members from exile, and attempts by the Brotherhood in 2009 to seek a formal reconciliation with the regime, they remained a forbidden organization in Syria. Their members were repressed.

Yet the regime developed a religiously conservative discourse, in total contradiction with the secular image the regime has claimed since Hafez al-Assad’s arrival to power.

During a speech to the Syrian ’Ulamah [religious council] in 1970, Hafez al-Assad affirmed that a “corrective movement” was necessary to preserve the Islamic identity of the country, against the Marxist drifts of his predecessors. In 1973, al-Assad ordered a new printing of the Koran, with his picture on the cover, which became known as the Assad Koran. The regime further encouraged that conservative Islamic establishment, the ’Ulamah, to channel Islamic currents, as a means to legitimate the regime.

The regime started, sponsored, and institutionalized various non-Brotherhood Islamic groups. The Naqshbandi Kuftariya Sufi order, under Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, and Sheikh Sa’id al-Buti’s group, expanded considerably in the 1970s. Since then, the Qubaysiyyat, an autonomous female branch of the Naqshbandi order, established by al-Sheikha Munira al-Qubaysi established numerous schools — they were around 200 prior to the uprising. The authorities also encouraged the activities of Sheikh Saleh Farfour and its al-Fatih Islamic Institute.

In 1973, following criticism and protests from various Sunni religious personalities and Islamic fundamentalist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad amended the constitution to say that “the religion of the president is Islam.” This article was retained in the March 2012 Constitution, which also says that “Islamic jurisprudence is a source of all legislation,” re-enforcing the Islamic credentials of the regime.

These changes were accompanied by censorship — attacks on literature criticizing religion, and literary and artistic works. Self-declared atheist writers were asked to respect the sensibilities of Muslim believers. The regime promoted a religious literature, filling the shelves of libraries, and “Islamized” the field of higher education.

Feminist activists and groups were publicly accused by religious conservative movements close to the regime of heresy, and of seeking to destroy society’s morality — of propagating Western values, and the notion of civil marriage, and the rights of homosexuals and lesbians, and total sexual freedom. For example, on April 11, 2005, pro-regime cleric Sheikh al-Buti waged a violent attack on women’s rights and feminist activists, describing them as “dirty agents,” “traitors,” “dwarf” and “slaves whose masters seek to eradicate the Islamic civilization from its roots.”

THERE WAS brutal anti-Brotherhood authoritarianism throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and, also an enduring state promotion of several types of Islam, both Sufi, and its own non-Brotherhood version of Sunni Islam. The state expanded its rosta of co-opted religious groups into the 2000s, I believe?

AFTER THE invasion of Iraq, a vast recruitment and facilitation network, for the express objective of supplying the jihadi insurgency in Iraq, was allowed to be established in Syria. Syria’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaru, issued a fatwa [edict] making it farad ’iyn, or an obligation for all Muslims, both male and female, to resist the occupying forces using any possible means, including suicide bombings.

The Syrian regime’s collaboration with jihadis served a particular geopolitical purpose — the aim was to normalize their relations with the U.S., by pressuring Washington to collaborate with Damascus on the Iraqi file. So this collaboration with jihadis then stopped, at which point Syria became the target of their attacks.

There was a revolt of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist prisoners in July 2008, in the Sednayya prison, close to Damascus. Then, for the first time in several years, Syrian security services began a campaign of repression and arrest against jihadi networks within the country. These networks and experiences from Iraq served the development of various groups during the 2011 uprising.

Similarly, at the beginning of the uprising, there was a clear strategy by the regime to favor the creation of Islamic fundamentalist and salafi-jihadi organizations, to discredit the uprising, while repressing democratic components of the protest movement and the democratic Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. The regime also wanted to create fear among sections of the population, afraid of these kinds of forces. The Syrian regime opted for the strategy of allowing the development of these organizations, including Da’esh, in order to present the opposition as Islamic fundamentalist extremists, as its propaganda has done since the beginning of the uprising, and increase division within the opposition.

IT’S HARD to imagine two more different left-wing intellectuals than Aziz al-Azmeh and Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

Al-Azmeh was educated in the UK and is, by all appearances, a “pure” scholar — he doesn’t seem one to join groups or give interviews or sign petitions. But there’s an analytical depth to his writing, which, with the breadth of his themes, is astonishing — it might be on the archaeology of early Islam, on contemporary “culturalism.”

Saleh, though, was a dissident communist, imprisoned for years, a decade or so, by Hafez al-Assad’s regime, and has become one of the pre-eminent Marxist writers of the Syrian revolution. Much of that writing was done in hiding between 2011-2012, and in exile, in Turkey, thereafter. Like al-Azmeh, he writes in Arabic and English, but is in no sense professorial.

Al-Azmeh is an avowed secularist, with a strong preference for a “secular state” ( الدولة العلمانية; al-Dawla al-’Alamaniyya) over a “civil state” (الدولة المدنية; al-Dawla al-Madaniyya). Saleh has, I believe, suggested this preference as “propagating an authoritarian form of secularism, one obsessed with monitoring the role of religion in public life.” Could you give your sense of those words’ meanings?

THE NOTION of a “civil state,” instead of “secular state,” is very often adopted by some democrats, liberals, and former leftists as a political move, to ally with Islamic fundamentalist movements, such as the various Muslim Brotherhoods, who themselves refuse the notion of secularism, which is characterized as atheism by these forces.

But the various iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region do not have the same understanding of a “civil state,” which is considered as a first step to an Islamic state, or a state based on Shari’a. They generally talk about a دولة مدنية بمرجعيّة إسلامية (dawla madaniyya bi-marji’iyya Islamiyya) — that is, a “civil state with Islamic reference.”

For example, the former deputy Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Khairat al-Shater declared in March 2011, following the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak:

The Ikhwan [the Brotherhood] are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believe that this will only come about through the strong society. Thus the mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life, empowering of God’s religion; establishing the Nahda [Renaissance] of the ’Ummah [religious community] on the basis of Islam...Thus we’ve learned to start with building the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim society, the Islamic government, the global Islamic state.

The adoption of a “civil state” was, concretely, a concession of a key demand from democratic groups to the politics of reactionary groups, for opportunistic reasons. We have seen similar concessions regarding women’s rights and challenging sectarianism, when it came to justifying alliances or collaborations with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is why I believe that it is not sufficient to speak of a “civil state.” With its use, lots of questions remain unanswered. Of course, I make a difference between political groups that adopted the “civil state” rhetoric to justify and seek an alliance with reactionary groups such as the Brotherhood, and those popular youth groups that emerged during the uprising, using this notion, while not abandoning other courses.

In my opinion, the secularism progressives should defend is not separated from the struggle for democracy, social justice and equality. The secularism we promote does not differentiate between the different sects and ethnicities. Indeed, a secular state — in other words, the separation of the state and religion — is key to challenging sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia. There should be equality for all before the law, and there should be no laws based on religions that discriminate against women in terms of their personal status, or against people on the basis of their sexual orientations, and so on.

I don’t believe that a state established on religion or religious institutions can be free and democratic, that it won’t discriminate against some populations. Religious institutions will try to impose their own understanding of religious laws, instead of the rule of democratic, human-made law, and the sovereignty of the people’s choice

The Middle East and North Africa is not “exceptional” — nothing prevents it from struggling for the same things that other parts of the world want, such as democracy, social justice, equality, secularism.


Part Two

I’D LIKE to ask about the campaign against Da’esh in Raqqa, fought largely by Kurdish forces between June and October 2017, and supported by the U.S.

Raqqa is a majority Arab Sunni city, which Da’esh had taken as its major Syrian base from January 2014. As the pseudonymous author “Samer” wrote in their Raqqa Diaries, after Da’esh took control, “every day they make a crowd gather in the square, as if they are about to stage a play,” and then executed people.

Just over a year later, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) forces broke Da’esh’s offensive against Kobane in the spring of 2015. Following this, and after a name change that autumn to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they defeated Da’esh in Minbij, in north central Syria, in August 2016.

In October 2016, Lahur Talabany, the director of the Zanyari Agency, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK, the major political party in Iraqi Kurdistan) intelligence unit, said that “if there were some sort of reassurance given to the YPG and the SDF, they could very quickly shift their forces towards Raqqa” (from 17m, here). They did shift. I believe the SDF forces were the most important ground force in Raqqa.

You’ve recently written that “the last major success of the PYD [i.e., political body of the SDF] was the expulsion of [Daesh/ISIS] forces from Raqqa.” You recognized the “deep humanitarian cost for its inhabitants,” but nevertheless saw it as “a positive situation.” What are the circumstances of Raqqa currently, post-Da’esh?

TO BE clear, I said that the defeat in mid-October of the jihadist group Da’esh in Raqqa by the SDF, which is a coalition of fighters — Kurds, Arabs, Syriac, albeit dominated by the YPG — with the support of United States Air Force was certainly good news.

But the cost in human terms, as in Mosul a few months before, has been terrible.

Between 270,000 and 320,000 people were displaced by the fighting and were living in miserable conditions in overcrowded camps in the outskirts of the city. The majority were not able to return, because of the presence of mines and explosives scattered by Da’esh — dozens have been killed since their expulsion from the city. Only a few thousand have started to return to Raqqa in recent months to live in the city’s crowded, less-damaged districts.

In the four months of the military offensive on Raqqa in 2017, the fighting killed between 1,300 and 1,800 civilians. The members and staff of the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) are still today extracting and identifying people being pulled from the rubble. Between February 10 and March 28 of this year, the council’s Emergency Team retrieved approximately 315 bodies.

The situation in Raqqa in socio-economic and humanitarian terms is very bad. More than 80 percent of the city has been destroyed, or is uninhabitable, and most basic infrastructures are virtually non-existent. The main electricity network is not functioning, and households’ access to electricity depends on their financial resources, and proximity to communal generators.

Improvements to water, sanitation, hygiene, and health services are the most urgent immediate needs. As the main water network remains unrepaired, inhabitants are relying on trucked water of poor quality, though access to even this water was challenging for households living in uncleared, or heavily contaminated areas. The few health facilities that have reopened only provide basic services, and are overcrowded.

YOU MENTIONED the Raqqa Civilian Council, the RCC, which was created just over year ago, in order to govern the town. Doubts were raised about its structure, remit and resources by Haid Haid last October, but as a dual Arab-Kurd group, my presumption has been of it as a relatively positive force. What has the RCC done? What does “dual” mean in terms of legitimacy?

POLITICALLY, IT was the PYD who appointed the Civil Council. It has a dual leadership: Leila Mustafa, a Kurdish woman, from the border town of Tal Abyad, and an Arab counterpart, Mahmoud al-Borsan, a former member of the Syrian parliament, and a leader of the Walda tribe, which is influential in Raqqa. The Council is officially in charge of administering local affairs and overseeing reconstruction.

At the end of March of this year, the Raqqa Civil Council announced a set of new projects to improve living conditions and economic activity in the northeast of the city. The Council are focusing on the water and electricity infrastructure.

And according to Osama al-Khalaf, a member of the RCC’s media office, since around the beginning of 2018, some services have been re-established. Most of the streets were open, and undamaged schools were operational — approximately 27 schools, for 51,000 students. Re-opened schools generally only provide primary education, and are reportedly over-crowded, and lack qualified teachers.

In Raqqa, the PYD is the dominant actor. Huge portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan are displayed in Raqqa’s central square, Naeem, while SDF commanders dedicated the victory to Öcalan, following the conquest of the city in mid- to end of October 2017.

I should underline a certain fear and mistrust present among certain sectors of the local Arab population against the Kurdish-led SDF — some Syrian activists have even spoken of a new occupation. In my opinion, one can and should have a critical stance against the PYD and its authoritarian practices against political rivals and independent activists — I’ve written about this on my blog, Syrian Solidarity Forever — but the comparison with Da’esh and talk about a new occupation on their model ignores the real and massive differences between the two groups. It is misplaced propaganda.

The Assad regime has repeatedly declared that Raqqa is still an occupied city, and has promised to restore the authority of the state throughout the country. They have also established pro-regime militias in the Raqqati hinterlands, as a way to pressure the PYD-led authorities.

THERE IS a strong sense across the various leftist tendencies in the UK, which I agree with, that the Kurds are an oppressed people, engaged in a national liberation struggle, albeit one of different and even competing political tendencies, developing across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the diaspora in Europe.

With reference only to Syria, in 2014, Da’esh’s attack against Kobane from the south compounded with the longer-standing danger from NATO-member Turkey’s regional imperialism from the north. But PYD forces proved able to fight and defeat Da’esh, and through that, were able to work within the contradictions between the U.S.’s global-scale “war on terror” — the YPG/J became the anti-Da’esh force — and Turkey’s regional-scale “war on Kurds,” to the PYD and the YPG/J’s relative advantage. Raqqa was part of that.

The feared Turkish attack against Afrin, from mid-January of this year, fighting with — apparently, commanding — some of the more reactionary tendencies of the Arab Syrian rebellion, appears to be a resolution of this contradiction against Syrian Kurds. The Turkish-rebel occupation of Afrin seems to me a disaster.

Could you give a sense of how the various Arab Syrian opposition groups have considered the Turkish state’s assault against Afrin? Has the SDF’s participation in the Raqqa campaign affected such considerations?

THE SYRIAN Coalition, composed mainly of liberal, Islamic and conservative groups and personalities, not only supported Turkish military intervention and continued its chauvinistic and racist policies against the Kurds in Syria, but also participated in this operation, by calling Syrian refugees in Turkey to join the Syrian armed opposition groups fighting in Afrin.

They have called for Turkish military intervention for a long time and have encouraged Arab chauvinism and racism against the Kurds, while even justifying and supporting the presence of Islamic fundamentalist movements. The Syrian fighters in Ankara have multiplied racist speeches and violent behaviors — assassinations, looting and so on — against Kurds, since the beginning of the military operation and occupation of Afrin. They are also cases of attempts at demographic change — replacing original Kurdish inhabitants by Arab populations from other areas.

Most of the Islamic fundamentalist movements — from salafi movements, to the Syrian Islamic Council, to the various Muslim Brotherhood groups — have openly supported the Turkish invasion. They’ve cheered it. This is rooted in an old Arab chauvinism and hatred of Kurds. We saw videos at the beginning of the military operation showing racist speeches against the Kurds from fighters, as well as slogans in favor of Saddam Hussein and Erdogan.

The Syrian opposition groups participating in the occupation of Afrin, mostly Islamic fundamentalist groups, have not mentioned Raqqa, but rather justified their involvement by saying the Kurds were actually the al-Assad regime’s allies. Some have mentioned the military assistance provided by Russian airplanes to SDF forces fighting against Arab armed opposition groups in Arab-majority towns, including Tal Rifaat, in February 2016. The capture of the city of Tal Rifaat by the SDF led to the displacement of the local Arab population, around 30,000 persons, who fled to the Turkish border. Only a small number of them, approximately 1,000, were allowed to come back by YPG forces in the following months.

Several Syrian leftist and democratic groups and activists supporting the uprising have condemned the Turkish military invasion of Afrin, but they remain, unfortunately, a minority.

Of course, all Kurdish political groups have, despite their rivalries, condemned the military assault on Afrin. The Turkish-led attack against Afrin increased the popularity of the PYD among Kurds, or at least their reliance on them — they are seen more than ever as the defender of the Kurds.

No solution for the Kurdish issue, or an inclusive Syria, can be found without recognizing the Kurds as a proper “people” or “nation” in Syria, and providing unconditional support to the self-determination of the Kurdish people, in Syria and elsewhere. This does not, however, justify being uncritical of any negative PYD policies, or YPG or SDF operations.

AS I’M sure you are aware, the YPG/J are indeed strongly supported, rhetorically and otherwise, by various tendencies of the left in the UK, from anarchists, to autonomists, to CP-style communists. Could you give a sense of the history of European support for Kurdish liberation, and perhaps broach why support for Arab Sunni liberation — excluding Palestinians — is less developed?

IT’S A difficult question to answer, regarding the support for the PYD and the YPG/J. Firstly, obviously, I am in support of the self-determination of the Kurdish people in the four countries of the Middle East — Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq — and think everyone should celebrate the support provided to people who suffer from harshly violent, racist, authoritarian policies, for decades, by these states.

The non-diaspora European support to the various Kurdish groups comes after decades of activism in European countries from Kurds in leftist, trade unionist and other progressive circles — and those leftists’ support did not come from the sky. They have been advocating for their causes in these milieus for decades, producing important knowledge about it.

This is a major difference from Arab progressive opposition individuals and groups. A few came as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, but most who have arrived came recently again as refugees. This work is starting, but is still very much at its beginning — of course, the help of European progressive forces is needed.

Another problem is that the main Arab opposition bodies in exile, dominated by the liberals and the Brotherhood, are unfortunately the ones with the greatest opportunity to access the media, and the various services provided by the Western government. They are allied with Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and are not appealing — rightly so — to progressive networks in Europe.

These are not reasons for leftists to not support the Syrian uprising, and progressive groups from Syria, but it does not help this, especially as there is a general lack of knowledge on this country amongst Western leftists.

YOU’VE GIVEN reason to be less optimistic about Arab-Kurdish power-sharing in Raqqa. Would you go further, and agree with Donya Alinejad and Saskia Baas, when they write that “despite shared grievances against the Assad regime and a common interest in rising up against it, Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences”?

We’ve gotten a sense of how that “split” has developed politically and militarily over the last four years, and of the circumstances in which European leftists have come to understand the revolution, or revolutions, in the region. Does that history of the various diasporas in Europe, and the more recent cleaving in the region, mean solidarity will remain “split”?

I WOULD not say that you have a truly Arab-Kurd power-sharing in Raqqa, although officially, yes, the Raqqa Council is managed by an Arab and a Kurd. The PYD are the true rulers. I largely agree, yes, with the statement of Alinejad and Baas.

I am, personally, in the middle of two different spheres in regards the Kurdish issue.

On one side, on the Syrian scene, we have to struggle radically against the Arab chauvinism present among large sectors of the opposition. Especially as someone with an Arab origin, I have a specific responsibility to confront this issue.

On its side, the PYD, with the benevolent attitude of Damascus, used the opportunity of the uprising to become the dominant Kurdish political actor in Syria. They concentrated on building their own institutions, on organizing society with an effective military force, with many advances and achievements in certain aspects, including the secularization of laws, and the inclusion and participation of women and religious- and ethnic- minorities in state institutions. But they had authoritarian, repressive policies against rival Kurdish organizations, and on some occasions against civilians, notably Arabs.

In the West, the issue of solidarity is different again.

My main problem with some sections of the left — not all — is the selective solidarity. I am in critical support of the PYD and PKK, and acknowledge their achievements on women’s issues — on rights and participation — and their secularization of laws and institutions, their including of religious and ethnic diversity. But I do this without forgetting their authoritarian policies regarding rival actors.

I expect a similar view towards Syrian Arab progressives, towards the democratic parts of the Syrian uprising — this is a key issue for all internationalists. Some sections of the left in the West have had a very bad record regarding Syria, even sometimes silencing those progressives forces of the uprising.

“Selective solidarity” involves selective learning, and a selective knowledge of the uprising — lots of our experiences are missing from progressive networks in the West.

IN ON the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin sees an “avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion” — and sees “the working class [as] the role of the savior of future generations,” thus giving a sense of contemporary revolutionary politics as not only possibly generating different futures, but retroactively giving meaning to the struggles of past “failures.”

Do you think this theological thinking is valuable, or has “past injustice occurred and is completed,” as Benjamin’s friend, Max Horkheimer, wrote to him?

MEMORIES OF the previous periods of repression were not at the core of the protest movement, although mentions of past crimes were made, especially regarding the Hama massacre.

One of the main differences from the past is the large documentation of the uprising, something that has never been seen before in history. There has been significant recording, testimonies and documentation of the protest movement — the actors involved, their modes of action.

In 1970s, Syria witnessed strong popular and democratic resistance, with significant strikes and demonstrations throughout the country. Unfortunately, this memory was not kept, and was not well-known by the new generation of protesters in 2011. But the Syrian revolutionary process that started in 2011 is one of the most documented. This memory will remain, and will not only be there to [allow people to] look at the past, but [to allow them to] seize this past to build on [for] future resistance. The political experiences that have been accumulated since the beginning of the uprising will not disappear.

Revolutionary processes are, indeed, long-term events, characterized by higher- and lower-level mobilizations. They can even have periods of “defeat,” as the uprising in Syria is, in my opinion, witnessing, with the advances of Assad regime and the domination of Islamic fundamentalist movements outside regime-controlled areas.

Self-organization has suffered so much from these two counterrevolutionary forces that it is surviving now only with very limited capabilities, in some isolated areas. The near-”dual power” arrangements at the beginning, with local councils working with Local Coordination Committees, both with democratic aspirations, regarding women’s rights, minorities’ rights, in addition to the mass protests challenging sectarianism — they are nearly all defeated.

The conditions that allowed for the beginning of these uprisings are still present, and the regime is very far from finding ways to solve them. However, after more than seven years of a destructive and murderous war, no group can transform these into political opportunities.

No opposition body, with a significant size and following, offered an inclusive, democratic project that appealed to large sectors of society. The failures of the opposition bodies in exile, and of the armed opposition groups, left frustration and bitterness. The effects of the war and its destructions will most probably weigh on us for years.

First published at rs21.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives