Syria’s uprising versus the counterrevolutions

Interview with Terry Conway, published on Socialist (first on Socialist, by Gilbert Achcar, Oct 7, 2013.

… YOU DIDN’T mention Russia when you talked about counterrevolutionary forces. Would it be accurate to describe them as the fourth column in this case?

  • I didn’t mention them because they are obviously a key force propping up the Assad regime. In that sense, Putin’s Russia is part of the first column, not a fourth one.  

IS IT not true that their involvement has not only an important material effect through their supply of arms to Assad, but also an important ideological one in that they disorient some who you would expect to support the uprising?

  • IN THE final analysis, the Syrian uprising has very few friends. Even among people that one would expect to be friendly to revolutions, you can see some hostile attitudes–people taken in by the propaganda of the Syrian regime, which portrays the whole uprising as jihadist as well as that of Moscow.
  • And some people look to Russia as if it were still the Soviet Union, even though in terms of its political and social character, the U.S. appears as rather progressive compared to what Putin’s Russia is: an authoritarian government, wild capitalism, a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, robber barons and so on. There is much more ground to consider Russia as an imperialist country than an anti-imperialist one.
  • As for those who believe that the Syrian regime is “anti-imperialist,” they just ignore the history of this regime and the sheer opportunism on which it bases its foreign policy.
  • Assad’s Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 to crush the Palestinian resistance and the Lebanese left, to prevent their victory over the Lebanese far right. In the 1983-85, it waged or backed wars against the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 1991, the Syrian regime fought the war against Iraq under U.S. command; it was part of the U.S.-led coalition. From the 1990s until 2004, the Syrian regime was the protector of the neoliberal, pro-U.S. government of Rafic Hariri in Lebanon. And during all these years, the Syrian border with Israel has been the quietest and safest of all Israel’s borders.
  • So there is no sense in which the Syrian regime can be described as “anti-imperialist.” It is a very opportunist regime, which does not hesitate to switch sides and alliances in order to further its own interests.

COULD YOU say something about the balance of forces within the Syrian opposition?

  • FROM REPORTS from friends whom I trust and who have visited all the areas controlled by the opposition, the two al-Qaeda groups represent no more than 10 percent of the fighters, while the Salafists probably represent about 30 percent.
  • This leaves a majority of forces acting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, although part of it is also Islamic-leaning. This is the outcome of the fact that the main sources of funding for Syrian anti-regime forces have been Islamic, and based in the Gulf, from the monarchies to various religious networks.
  • That’s talking about the armed groups. As for the popular resistance, in their vast majority, people are not interested in any kind of Islamic state, but in the democratic and social aspirations which have been the objectives of the uprising since it began.

COULD YOU say something about how the resistance organizes and what its main demands are? … //

… HOW HAS the opposition responded to the regime’s attempt to portray them as sectarian?

  • THEY HAVE responded in various ways–through statements and proclamations, banners in demonstrations, using the names of Alawite or Christian or Druze figures from history for their Friday mobilizations, etc.
  • The fact is that there is no possible comparison between the sectarian killings that have been carried out by the regime and its shabbihas–its militias–who perpetrated most mass sectarian killings, and the sectarian killings by anti-regime forces. The latter are mostly perpetrated by the jihadists, whom I consider as another counterrevolutionary force.
  • Of course, there are wild reactions from people with poor political consciousness, reacting in a sectarian way to the regime’s brutality. What do you expect? This is not an army of Marxist intellectuals facing the regime–it is a popular uprising, and without a political leadership able to educate the people.
  • So there are sectarian actions on the part of the opposition in reaction to the massive sectarianism of the regime. We had the same in the Lebanese civil war, with much higher symmetry in sectarian killings between both sides–if that were the criteria, everyone should have equally rejected both sides in the Lebanese civil war.
  • Of course, we should denounce all sectarian acts whenever they happen–and they are actually denounced by the opposition and the FSA. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of ignoring the difference in scale between the regime’s mass sectarian killings and those perpetrated by anti-regime forces.

WHAT IS the relationship with the Kurdish struggle?

  • BOTH THE regime and the opposition courted the Kurds at the beginning. The regime did this because it didn’t want the Kurds to join the uprising, and the uprising did so because they wanted to get them on board. The SNC included in its program the recognition of minority rights–not to the extent of acknowledging the right to self-determination. But then, that’s not even a unanimous demand of the Kurds in Syria, though, of course, I would be strongly in favor of defending this right.
  • The Syrian Kurdish movement seized the opportunity and took control of the Kurdish areas. The dominant force among the Syrian Kurds is linked to the PKK, which is dominant in the Turkish-controlled part of Kurdistan and has cultivated links with the Syrian regime over the years.
  • But the Kurds are not directly interfering in the civil war; they are busy controlling their own area, establishing de facto autonomy like what happened in Iraq. I could hardly imagine they would lose this in the future–so that’s an achievement for them. They keep some distance from the civil war, apart from clashes with the jihadists every now and then.

HOW WOULD you describe the situation in the areas controlled by the FSA? Clearly, the humanitarian situation is a disaster, but how would you describe it politically?

  • YES, THE humanitarian situation is definitely appalling. In many of the areas where the opposition has taken over and got rid of the Baathist state, we have seen the creation of local democratic committees, with some form of election.
  • This is definitely positive, but it is somewhat normal when the authority disappears in a locality to try to organise something to replace it. One shouldn’t portray such committees as “soviets” or anything like that–that would be completely over the top. These structures can represent an interesting potential for the future, but for the time being, they are but measures of self-organization in order to replace a vacuum of power created by the collapse of local state agencies.

HOW WOULD you sum up what the left should be doing with regard to Syria?

  • IT IS really important to come out in solidarity with the Syrian uprising, and not to be shy about it. If we believe in the right of people to self-determination, if we believe in the right of people to freely elect whoever they want, then even if we had an uprising where Islamic forces were leading, this shouldn’t change our position–as it didn’t, for example, with Gaza and Hamas, or with the Iraqi resistance, which I would remind people was far more under Islamic control than anything you have in Syria.
  • For all these reasons, I think that it is very important to express solidarity with the Syrian revolution, to build links with the progressives among the Syrian opposition, to counter the regime’s propaganda, as well as that of Moscow, and to denounce Washington’s and the West’s complicity in the crime against humanity that is perpetrated in Syria.

(full long long interview text).

(Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the author of numerous books, including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, and his latest, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. He spoke to Terry Conway in an interview for the Socialist Resistance website in Britain).


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