The following piece by journalist Asa Winstanley was originally published on Middle East Monitor on November 22, 2013. On November 25 it was replaced by an editor’s note reading, “Due to the large number of complaints we’ve received which deemed this article to be offensive to the sacrifices of the Syrian people in their struggle for justice, it has been removed. Asa Winstanley stands by his article.”
Although the Jacobin editorial staff has a plurality of positions on Syria, we consider the arguments Winstanley lays out to be a useful contribution to the discussion around the ongoing crisis in the country. We repost it here in its entirety to further this dialogue.—Eds.
What has happened in the Arab world since Tunisian icon Muhammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest in December 2010?
A series of popular uprisings, each feeding off the next, swept the region. From Morocco to Oman, there were varying degrees of protest against ossified regimes, demanding everything from the downfall of the regime to more simple reforms.
But we can now say with confidence that none of these uprisings has constituted a revolution. Of course, the immense struggles and sacrifices that people have made may yet sow seeds for the future.
But what is a revolution anyway, if not a struggle to completely transform the state and society? The closest any of the uprisings has come to revolution has been in Tunisia, which still faces immense internal problems.
As my colleague at the Electronic Intifada Ali Abunimah has put it, Egypt is now back behind square one. The generals’ bloody coup regime is fulfilling its junior contractor roll as part of the brutal Israeli siege on Gaza far more effectively than they managed under Muhammed Morsi. The first elected Egyptian president was kidnapped by the military and now sits in their dungeons, awaiting the outcome of a farcical show trial.
Libya is an absolute disaster. Brutal militias now run the country, gunning down demonstrators, and kidnapping government ministers and security officials at will. The same militias ethnically cleansed an entire town of black Libyans and still blocks their return. These are the fruits of the NATO “liberation” campaign of bombs, which was foolishly supported by even some leftists.
I was always against NATO bombing of Libya. But if I look now back at some of my reactions on Twitter in the early part of 2011, it’s clear I, too, was over-optimistic about Egypt and elsewhere. I, too, spoke in favor of the early demonstrations against the Syrian regime, notwithstanding fears from the beginning that they would be hijacked.
Like many others, I hoped for positive change to the sweep the region. As well as the inherent value of such a change in itself, a free Arab world is best placed to confront Israel’s apartheid regime. The road to Jerusalem runs though Arab capitals, as the late Palestinian leader George Habash used to emphasize.
The American imperial power and its clients and allies were caught off guard and seemed paralyzed. But, spurred on by the Israeli-Saudi tag-team that leads the counter-revolutionary forces of the region, the hegemon soon rallied its forces and wasted little time engaging in covert operations.
And so I come to the missing part of this picture: Syria.
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.
The mostly widely-relied-on body-count, that of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a group which is close to armed rebels, and whose reliability I have questioned in the past), now states that 120,000 Syrians have been killed. The Syrian Observatory claims that the majority of these are combatants — and the majority of those on have been on the pro-Assad side.
The fact of this imbalance is conveniently ignored by western media reporting, which continues with its untenable narrative about a revolution of unarmed Syrian protesters which only took up arms after being shot down by the evil Assad regime.
If that was true, why do even the Syrian Observatory’s figures not bare this picture out? There was never a revolution in Syria.
As I have said, that is also true of other countries, but there are important differences.
Firstly, pro-Western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak were resting on their laurels, and failed to cultivate a significant popular base. (Presumably, they foolishly thought they could rely on their American and European funders not to sell them down the river. How mistaken they were.)
This is why, for example, in the early part of 2011, you never saw anything more than small handfuls of cowed government workers in pathetic little pro-Mubarak demonstrations.
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.
By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side, and these pro-Assad mobilizations occurred before he committed some of his worst crimes. But there is no doubt this popular support freed his hand for further (and often indiscriminate) military crackdowns on the “terrorist” groups.
This is a tyrant who has (as strongly implied by UN weapons inspectors) used chemical weapons against civilians, and who has bombed whole areas indiscriminately in his fight against armed groups. And yet, Assad has a genuine support base which, almost by default, is only growing as the armed insurgents fighting him become more and more openly aligned to fanatical groups like al-Qaeda.
The always questionable “Free Syrian Army” is disintegrating, with many of its members either joining the al-Qaeda-aligned brigades such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — or even defecting back to the regime. Astonishingly, some leaders in these supposedly “moderate” brigades now no longer want Assad to leave power.
One recently told the Guardian’s reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that: “I need Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years . . . It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: we would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other — tribes, Islamists and battalions . . . There will be either Alawites or Sunnis. Either them or us. Maybe in ten years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist . . . In ten years maybe, not now.”
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-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).
And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarized as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.
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-Qaeda revolution. And of course, that is no revolution at all.
This is the “revolution” which, apparently unnoticed by its Western cheerleaders, expelled Syrian Christians wholesale from the town of Qusair, long before the Lebanese resistance party Hezbollah began its divisive intervention in support of the regime there.
This is the “revolution” whose supposedly moderate “Free Army” brigades fought with al-Qaeda groups who invaded Syrian areas which they considered strongholds of the wrong religion or sect. FSA units fought with Jabhat al-Nusra when it invaded the historic Christian-majority town Ma’loula in September (until they were fought off by the regime).
The exiled and nominal head of the FSA, Salim Idriss (who is quite openly armed and funded by France, the UK and US) participated — apparently in person — in a joint FSA-al-Qaeda invasion of Latakia villages in August. This was a purely sectarian slaughter of at least 190 Alawite civilians, with not even a pretence of a military target.
An eyewitness related to the Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele: “When we got into the [Latakia-area] village of Balouta I saw a baby’s head hanging from a tree. There was a woman’s body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild.”
Idriss described this campaign as one of their “important successes and victories that our revolutionaries have gained”. Some victory.
In a November 2011 article, most controversial at the time, renowned Palestinian academic and intellectual Joseph Massad wrote that Syrians “must face up to the very difficult conclusion that they have been effectively defeated, not by the horrifying repression of their own dictatorial regime which they have valiantly resisted, but rather by the international forces that are as committed as the Syrian regime itself to deny Syrians the democracy they so deserve… the struggle to overthrow Asad may very well succeed, but the struggle to bring about a democratic regime in Syria has been thoroughly defeated.”
Unfortunately, today we can see that Massad was both right and possibly even over-optimistic.