A Response to Another Insult

from Nablus, Palestine, in solidarity with revolutionary Syria
from Nablus, Palestine, in solidarity with revolutionary Syria

Someone called Asa Winstanley has addressed (yet another) ignorant insult to the revolutionary Syrian people. In order to make his inane points, Winstanley has to ignore facts (like Russian and Iranian intervention, and the continuing activity of grass roots protestors and organisers) and invent others. Sam Charles Hamad makes the following astute comment:

When it comes to the Syrian revolution, Asa Winstanley is completely discrediting himself. It’s somewhat of a small tragedy to behold – witnessing some of these so-called ‘pro-Palestine’ activists reveal that they couldn’t actually care less about the lives of Arabs (including, most tellingly, Palestinians in Yarmouk, who have been the victim of constant bombardment by Assad’s air force and artillery, not to mention a regime-imposed blockade which pushed them to the brink of starvation). The Arab spring, and in particular the revolution in Syria, has revealed that much of those who consider themselves to be ‘pro-Palestinian’ are in actuality only ‘pro-Palestinian’ if it is Israel that is doing the killing, torturing, maiming, imprisoning and blockading – if the perpetrator is a regime such as Assad’s, which is bafflingly seen as being fundamentally antagonistic to Israel, or at least its continued existence is somehow imagined to be advantageous to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and domination, they either completely ignore it or are actively willing to apologise for it. This thoroughly inadequate and contradictory reaction of some on the left to the Syrian revolution, and, more generally, the reaction of some of those involved in causes associated with Arabs, fits almost perfectly into this latent orientalist perspective of the Arab as some sort of idealised figure of resistance against the west; or as a constant victim of the west; or, in the case of Syria, as a faceless, passive entity who has absolutely no right to resist or rise against this tyrannical regime that somehow falls into what is so inaccurately thought of as the camp of ‘anti-imperialism’.

And Nader Atassi, at his indispensable Darth Nader blog, takes on Winstanley’s assertions point by point. Nader’s piece is worth reading right to the end for its combined realism and optimism in regard to Syria.

Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.

“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

“But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations. When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.”

I want to dwell on this point because I believe it is a particularly insidious claim that is oft-repeated. Let’s forget for a second that the claim that the pro-Assad protests were “equally huge” is completely unsubstantiated. First of all, those pro-Assad protests were completely centered in Damascus and took place a few times. How can you compare protests in the political center of the regime to widespread protests occurring all over Syria, from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the North, over the course of several months? The protest movement in Syria at the beginning of the uprising was scattered throughout Syria, not only from city to city, but even within cities they were scattered from neighborhood to neighborhood. How is the political capital from a few pro-Assad protests in Damascus at all comparable to people taking to the streets all over Syria everyday for weeks, even after being shot at? How are we even to compare numbers given that the Syrian anti-regime protests were scattered (and even though they were scattered they still had impressive numbers even after a year of protests and subsequent repression).

Second of all, Winstanley seems to accord some equivalence between these two, as if they are not only morally but practically equivalent. Let us assume for a moment that his claim that no one was forced into the streets for pro-Assad rallies is true. That doesn’t change the fact that these protests were regime-sanctioned protests. These were not spontaneous eruptions of popular support for the regime. These were pro-regime rallies, organized by the regime, and under the protection of the regime. Do these really deserve to be compared to the thousands who took to the streets in Homs in November 2011 at the Clock Sit-In to protest for the martyrs that were killed by regime bullets in previous protests? (Regime forces also opened fire on that protest in what is now known as the Homs Clock Massacre). Anti-regime protests were under constant threat of regime repression, and yet they still managed to have, according to Winstanley, “equally huge demonstrations.” On a practical level, the anti-regime protesters braved bullets, imprisonment and a high likelihood of death, but still had huge numbers and were ubiquitous. The regime protests did not. They are in no way equivalent.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side…

In his article, Asa frequently mocks people for believing mainstream media narratives on Syria, yet it seems that this claim itself is based on the mainstream media narrative that is hyper-focused on the armed groups. Many areas in Syria still have anti-regime demonstrations, and many also have anti-ISIS demonstrations. Here is one in Yarmouk Camp in October, here is one from Aleppo in October, here is one that took place today in Idlib, and here is one in Raqqa city against ISIS in September. I’m not sure if Winstanley is unaware that they exist, or if he is aware of their existence but is stating that they are insignificant (to which I’d respond: why?).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Here Winstanley assumes that Assad has a continued support base due to the fact that jihadis dominate the armed opposition. First of all, can we please dispel any illusions that the Assad regime is still in power because it still has a support base? This is a regime that is totally insulated from any popular support it still has. Any areas it still controls it does by militarization and force, that is, setting up several checkpoints and controlling movement of people. Thus, it owes its continued survival to regime cohesion, intervention by its allies, and military might, not some ‘mandate’ from its support base. Furthermore, if you follow the moves Assad took in the initial months of the uprising, you will see that Assad indeed made calculated moves in order to posit himself as a lesser evil. For example, in late 2011, Assad released 1400 political prisoners from prison in what was seen as a concession to the revolutionary movement. These 1400 prisoners turned out to be mostly Salafist activists, many of whom had fought in Iraq previously. The Islamist military leadership is filled with people who were released from prison in that amnesty. Are they Assadist agents? I don’t believe so. But was releasing them a calculated move by Assad? Definitely. Those prisoners he released have come to dominate the armed opposition, most notably Zahran Alloush, who is now the leader of the newly-formed Army of Islam. Which brings up another point:

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

This actually isn’t the case. In fact many of the Islamist units have been distancing themselves from ISIS. The Army of Islam was formed as a counter-weight to ISIS, with many of the biggest Islamist factions joining it. While accurate numbers are hard to obtain, word on the (Syrian) street is that most Syrians have left ISIS and ISIS is now mostly composed of foreigners. In fact today, an even bigger anti-ISIS Islamist coalition was formed, the Islamic Front. I am in no way implying that these are the revolutionary forces in Syria or the progressive sectors of the armed struggle. Yet the nuances are important: these are Islamist reactionary forces, but they are not allied with al-Qaida or al-Zawahiri, and they are against ISIS. Simply painting al-Qaida and ISIS on one side and the Assad regime on the other is inaccurate.

Winstanley prefaces a list of crimes committed by the Islamist opposition armed groups with:

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.

Is Syria a mess today? Certainly. The most reactionary armed groups seem to have the most resources and the most weapons (thanks to Gulf donors). Many Syrians in the “liberated” areas feel trapped between regime airstrikes and scuds, and jihadi rule. Yet when you view the Syrian conflict through this dichotomous prism of jihadis vs Assad, of course you are going to conclude that there is “no longer a revolution,” although Winstanley goes further by claiming there “never was a revolution.” I agree with Winstanley that none of the revolutions have been successful yet, but I disagree that this means that there is no longer a revolutionary process or revolutionary forces. Revolutions are a long-term process, and there is a long-term revolutionary process in Syria. They consist of mostly unarmed activists, but many armed groups as well, and they are still working all over Syria today (I have spoken about the grassroots revolutionary movements in Syria previously here, and you can read more about them here on Tahrir-ICN and here on the Syria Freedom Forever blog).

The real revolutionaries of Syria, to be frank, probably will not emerge victorious out of this latest conflict as they are pushed to the sidelines and left without resources. Yet they exist, and their existence deserves to be acknowledged. The revolutions in the Arab world have not been fully successful yet, but it is not our place on the outside to despair and write obituaries for the revolutions, but to support a long-term revolutionary struggle. And the first step to supporting that is to acknowledge and identify it, not to write it off and claim that ‘there is no revolution in Syria, there is only Assad and ISIS,’ just because the most powerful forces in Syria today are counter-revolutionary forces.

I agree that the short-term political future of Syria seems bleak. I also can agree that perhaps Syria would really benefit from a ceasefire, giving the Syrian people a chance to breathe and also perhaps the Syrian revolutionaries a chance to regroup and flourish. Yet, I don’t understand why this view needs to be paired with the “there never was a revolution” claim. I believe in a Syrian revolutionary process, and I believe that the short-term political future of Syria won’t necessarily fulfill that process, but I also have long-term optimism for Syria as I know that so many Syrians have been radicalized by that revolutionary process, and those Syrians and that process won’t go away once the dust settles and the war is over.

2 thoughts on “A Response to Another Insult”

  1. People of Syria with its history, social structure, religion, and ethnic and tribal composition will never accept another dictatorship regime, clan or faith … either secular regime, on-going revolution or break-up.

  2. Historically, arabs just replace one tyrant with another. I hope New-Syria is the people, the systems, the political architecture, and the institutions needed.

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