From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters
Editor’s note: This is the print version of a longer essay.
Joseph Daher’s study, Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), investigates the resilience of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the face of a popular revolution that began nine years ago, in March 2011, as part of the broader Arab Spring. Despite his rejection by the vast majority of the Syrian people, and their inspiring models of self-organization in this struggle, Assad has managed to survive and even prevail in reconquering most of the country.
Refuting those self-styled leftists who malign the Syrian Revolution in the name of geopolitical considerations, Daher situates the Assad regime and Syria’s three counter-revolutions into a broader trend of global neoliberalism.
Following his 2000 ascent to power, Assad oversaw a situation where a third of the population lived below the official poverty line and another 30% lived just above it. As in many other neoliberal settings, economic liberalization relied on well-known patterns of brutal state violence and a glaring “absence of democracy.”
This situation helped spark widespread revolt in March 2011. In the first counter-revolution, the most well-known, about 90% of the civilian deaths were caused by Assad’s regime in a conflict that has left more than 500,000 dead and 12 million homeless.
COUNTER-REVOLUTION AGAIN AND AGAIN
The second counter-revolution involved jihadi forces that came to dominate the military struggle against Assad. Whereas democratic revolutionaries initially espoused non-sectarian and egalitarian messages, their voices have since been eclipsed.
Assad’s regime systematically avoided targeting Islamic State, preferring to target democratic opponents. The founding of the reactionary rebel group Jaysh al-Islam was “engineered” by Saudi intelligence, while its ally, Ahrar al-Sham, was supported by Turkey and Qatar.
Syria’s third counter-revolution, led by regional and global imperialists, enabled Assad to hold onto power in order to buttress the functioning of capital. Illustrating the fundamental inhumanity of the inter-state system, Russia and China, as permanent UN Security Council members, have vetoed all resolutions aimed at accountability for Assad and Vladimir Putin’s crimes in Syria. The U.S. has conditioned aid to rebels on their focusing on Islamic State rather than the Assad regime, has committed alleged war crimes in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and has avoided taking the basic humanitarian step of airlifting food to communities under siege.
The Revolution’s persistence, with the Idlib region’s ongoing protests and a likely shift to underground revolt, corroborates Marx and Raya Dunayevskaya’s theory of a “revolution in permanence.”
While the state has been resilient, so has the opposition. Were the uprisings’ two “halves”—Arab and Kurdish—to somehow unite, overcoming the traumatic gaps between them, they could possibly realize the revolutionaries’ original goals.
As precedents, we can point to the initial enthusiasm with which Kurdish youth met the Revolution, the non-sectarian and pluralistic message of the Revolution’s early phases, the affirming cooperation between Free Syrian Army and (Kurdish) People’s Protection Units in defending Kobani, parallels between the local councils proposed by Omar Aziz and Abdullah Öcalan, and the Syrian Democratic Force’s denunciation of Assad’s “holocaust” in Idlib.
Currently resurgent uprisings throughout the region and the world, by recognizing their links to the destinies of Syrians and Kurds, could help overcome sectarian and campist analyses and coordinate global organization against Syria’s three counter-revolutions and the neoliberalism that animates them.
Daher’s study, instructive with its combination of ruthless criticism and consistent solidarity, deserves wide study and discussion.
—Dan Fischer and Javier Sethness