Two years ago the so-called "Arab Spring" burst onto the headlines. Incredibly, authoritarian regimes across the Middle East were dramatically and fundamentally challenged by massive demonstrations and uprisings. From Tunisia to Bahrain to Yemen to Egypt to Libya it looked like the decades-long rule of dictators, mostly propped up by the U.S. and western powers, was coming to an end. Connected to a wave of mass protests across Europe, especially in Greece and Spain, the demonstrations were part of a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon of popular action that even inspired the Occupy movement here in the United States.
But nothing in the real world is simple. Although the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, conservative Islamist movements have stepped into the vacuum of power. The rebellion in Bahrain was crushed with the silent acquiesence of the U.S. A quick rearrangement of the chessboard stalled the struggle in Yemen, and in Libya, the uprising turned into a civil war and the lethal intervention of American and European imperialism via NATO bombing changed everything. Lower levels of civil unrest have spread to Jordan, the Palestine Authority, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco. If there is a sense of something new still happening in the world, there is no longer certainty that a victory for "the people" is inevitable. Which brings us to Syria.
Shortly after the demonstrations moved to Syria, the authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad showed it had little tolerance for dissent, and moved to brutally stifle any opposition. Like in Libya, protests and uprisings quickly turned into civil war. Some have recently estimated that civil war has cost 60,000 lives. The regime has been undeniably brutal, killing civilians, punishing towns and cities with destruction for showing opposition, all the while denying the existence of a civil war and blaming everything on "gangs of terrorists." The opposition, much of it seemingly organized on sectarian lines and whole wings of it deeply influenced by militant Islamists, has given the Assad regime a serious military run for its money, holding on to towns and territory and border crossings with rebel-friendly Turkey. But the opposition has been accused, truthfully as near as I can tell, of itself committing anti-civilian massacres and acts of wanton destruction.
I will not pretend to be any kind of expert on the Syrian situation, and I have refrained from posting here on Syria because the situation is so complicated and so full of murky facts. It looks chaotic and dangerous to me: I find the viewpoint and reporting of leftist blogger As'ad AbuKhalil of The Angry Arab News Service to be the most perceptive, sympathetic and useful: he ruthlessly critiques the brutality and excesses of both the Syrian government and its "Free Syrian Army" opposition. He has raked over the coals the uncritical western supporters of both sides in this conflict, and offers a profoundly humanistic empathy with the suffering multisectarian civilian population. A reading of As'ad AbuKhalil suggests a conflict far more complicated and tragic than a mere rebellion against a dictator is underway, full of forces who want a society that many people in Syria would be right to fear.
The "Arab Spring" has been a huge challenge for the left. Some, with some misguided notion that opponents of imperialism must embrace authoritarians politically when imperialism comes knocking, rushed first to the defense of the late Colonel Gaddafi and now to the defense of President Assad. While I do agree that opposing the intervention of U.S. imperialism in the region must come first for revolutionary and internationalist minded people here, I cannot set aside my disdain for dictators and authoritarian regimes to somehow embrace the same monsters who have been repressing their own societies for decades. The leftists who support Assad are, frankly, creepy. That is most assuredly not any kind of "solidarity" with the Syrian people.
On the other hand some social democrats have rushed to support the NATO bombing of Libya and urge the Western arming of Syrian rebels in the name of "bourgeois democracy." In the tradition of the so-called "state department socialists" of old, these leftists forget the cardinal rule of the epoch of imperialism: that "The main enemy of every people is in their own country! ... The main enemy is at home." These leftists forget the global nature of the imperialist war against the peoples of the world; and somehow they never get around to actually arguing for the real social change of class revolution and the overthrow of capitalism in the post-Arab Spring nations. It seems to me poignantly obvious that no good will come from the meddling of the biggest imperialist power in the world — the USA — combined with the former colonial lords of Syria — Turkey and France — in that country no matter how egregious the rule of Assad. The humanitarian pretensions of the West are illusions and lies, and should be called out as such.
It's true that the presence of Israel at Syria's door makes Syria a much more complicated situation for NATO and the U.S.; and Obama's government has already denounced a wing of the Syrian opposition as Al-Qaeda-tainted terrorists. But once again I don't think it's actual solidarity with the Syrian people not to tell the truth about Western intentions for the Syrian people. They want a docile Syria, back in the arms and markets of the West, even less of a threat to Israel than the tough-talking Ba'ath regime of Syria has actually been. They don't want popular power in Syria anymore than they want it in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen...or the United States. The social democrats are attempting to paint their opponents on the left as supporters of Assad, and while this is a convenient lie for their own arguments, it seems to me quite far from the truth. Which brings me finally here, below, to a point of view that resonates with me.
The lengthy piece below that I am re-posting in full first appeared in Peacenotes, but I first read it when an anarchist comrade called attention to the anarchist blog Tahrir-ICN. Pseudonymously credited to a Syrian anarchist named "Mohammed," this piece has done what the American left has failed to do: offered empathy with the trials of the Syrian people but suggested that social transformation, called here a "libertarian alternative," is absolutely the only real solution. Bravo to the anarchists, for daring to remind us leftists to not be afraid of our own supposed ideals.
You know what? If you want another world free of oppression and class misery, you have to fight for it now. No more waiting. No more silence about what is possible. About what is necessary.
SYRIA: An anarchist among jihadistsDecember 2012
A view from the grassroots of the Syrian revolution.
As an anarchist it wasn’t easy for me to be among Jihadists, but for some reason, it wasn’t the same treating them as a doctor.
From the first moment I entered the hospital where I was working I was clear that I would treat anyone who needed my help, be they civilians, or fighters from any group, religion or sect. I was determined that no one would be mistreated inside that hospital, even if they were from Assad’s army.
It is true that not all the free army militants are devoted jihadists, although most of them think — or say — that what they are practising is ‘Jihad’. But the truth is that there are a lot of ordinary people among them, as in any armed struggle.
Yes, I helped some jihadists to survive and others to go back to fight. But my real intention was to help the masses I belong to, firstly as a physician, and secondly as an anarchist.
My real problem, and that of the oppressed in general I think, is not with god himself, but with human beings who act as gods and are so sick with authority that they think and act like gods, be they secular dictators like Assad or Islamic imams.
God himself is never as deadly dangerous as those who ‘speak’ for him.
My first and lasting impression about the current situation in Syria is that there is no longer a popular revolution going on there. What is taking place is an armed revolution that could now simply degenerate into a civil conflict.
The Syrian people — who showed unprecedented courage and determination in the first few months of the revolution, defying Assad’s regime despite its brutality — are now exhausted. Nineteen long months of fierce repression, hunger, widespread scarcity and continuous bombardment by the regime’s army have weakened their spirit. And the beneficiary of all this hasn’t been the regime, but the opposition, especially the Islamists.
Drawing on its international relationships — especially those with the rich Gulf despotisms — the latter can now feed and support the hungry population in the areas controlled by its forces. Without such support, a grave humanitarian situation would be taking place.
But this support is not provided for free, either by the Gulf rulers or the opposition leaders. They, like any other authoritarian force, are asking the masses for submission and obedience, and this can only mean the real death of the Syrian revolution as a courageous popular act of the Syrian masses.
The problem with what is happening now in Syria is not only the difficult and bloody process of changing a ruthless dictatorship, but that we may be substituting it with another dictatorship, which could be worse and bloodier.
Early in the revolution, a small number of people — mainly devoted Islamists — claimed to represent the revolting masses and appointed themselves the true representative of the revolution. This went unchallenged by the mainstream of the revolutionary masses and intellectuals. We [anarchists] opposed these claims, but we were — and still are — too few to make any real difference.
These people claimed that what was taking place was a religious war, not just a revolution of oppressed masses against their oppressor, and they aggressively used the fact that the oppressor [Assad] was from a different sect of Islam than the majority of the people he was exploiting — a sect that Sunni scholars have judged to be against the teachings of true Islam.
We were shocked by the fact that the majority of Alawis (the sect of the current dictator), who are poorer and more marginalised than the Sunni majority, supported the regime; and participated in his brutal suppression of the revolution. And this was used as ‘evidence’ of the ‘actual religious war’ taking place between Sunnis and Alawis.
Then came the material support from the Gulf rulers.
Now the potential for any real popular struggle is decreasing rapidly. Syria today is governed by weapons, and only those who have them can have a say about its present and future.
And this is not just true for Assad’s regime and its Islamic opposition. Everywhere in the Middle East the great hopes are disappearing rapidly. The Islamists seem to be getting all of the benefits of the people’s courageous struggles and could easily initiate the process of establishing their fanatical rule without strong opposition from the masses.
The other issue that I think is important for us — Arab anarchists and the Arab masses — is how to build the libertarian alternative. That is, how to initiate effective anarchist or libertarian propaganda and build libertarian organisations.
To tell the truth, I have never tried to convince anyone to be an anarchist and have always thought that trying to affect others is another way of practicing authority upon them.
But now I see this issue from another perspective. It is all about making anarchism ‘available’ or known to those who want to fight any oppressing authority, be they workers, the unemployed, students, feminists, the youth, or ethnic and religious minorities.
It is about trying to build an example — or sample — of the new free life, not only as a living manifestation of its potential presence, but also as a means to achieve that society.
Our Stalin or Bonaparte is not yet in power, and the Syrian masses still have the opportunity to get a better outcome than that of the Russian revolution. It is true that this is difficult and is becoming more so every minute, but the revolution itself was a miracle, and on this earth the oppressed can create their miracles from time to time.
We, Syrian anarchists, are putting all our cards and all our efforts with the masses. It could be no other way, or we would not deserve our libertarian name.