The Syrian Revolution as the test of world politics

November 13, 2013

From the November-December 2013 issue of News & Letters:


The Syrian Revolution as the test of world politics

by Gerry Emmett

“What is happening in Syria isn’t a civil war based on religion. It’s a revolution of Syrians who want their freedom and dignity.”
–Syrian Rebel Youth, Oct. 9, 2013

On Aug. 21 the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad murdered over a thousand civilians, mostly women and children, with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta. It committed this crime in full view of the world–images of hundreds of murdered children, still in pajamas (the attack came at 3 AM), laid out in temporary morgues, shocked viewers across the world.

Since April 2011 the world has looked on as over 115,000 Syrians have been killed, and over 7.2 million have been made refugees. When Assad’s regime resorted to illegal chemical weapons, it seemed to many that this would change. It seemed that the images of so many murdered innocents might compel some action.

One of the many peaceful demonstrations in Syria that continue to take place across the country. This one is in Binnish.

One of the many peaceful demonstrations in Syria that continue to take place across the country. This one is in Binnish. Photo courtesy Freedom House (

For a moment many in Syria felt hopeful. But far from the briefly threatened U.S. or French military strikes, which were pre-announced to be minimal and “not game changers,” the U.S. and Russia ended up proposing a deal whereby Assad would turn over his supplies of chemical weapons and in turn be allowed a chance to stay in power. This deal underlines the great powers’ preference for “stability,” however brutal, over the relative threat of freedom and self-determination.

Assad had indeed crossed a “red line” with his sarin gas attack, but the U.S. response was intended to send other messages. It was meant to convey that the Syrian “crisis” would be managed by the big powers, the U.S. and Russia. It was meant to tell other regional powers not to cross other lines, such as the development of Iranian (or Saudi) nuclear weapons, or perhaps an Israeli strike on Iran. Above all it was meant to tell the Syrian people that revolution wasn’t on the agenda.


Opposition to the Syrian Revolution has been consistent, from the early days of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton terming Assad a “reformer,” through the U.S. refusal to arm the Free Syrian Army even as the Russians and Iranians armed Assad, to this joint effort to treat the revolution as a crisis to be managed.

The public first learned of the proposed deal on Sept. 9 through an alleged “gaffe” by Secretary of State John Kerry. When asked how Assad might avoid air strikes, Kerry replied, “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

This was almost immediately accepted by Assad and his patron, Russian President Putin, and formalized by the UN Security Council. In fact, it was not a spontaneous gaffe but a deal that had been hatched in discussions between Presidents Obama and Putin at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg the week before. Far from being clumsy, as many pundits tried to claim, this was an artful way to misdirect attention from the sheer unprincipled nature of such an agreement.

The lack of principle was underlined by Kerry’s subsequent praise for Assad’s compliance with the UN Resolution. Apparently the images from Ghouta hadn’t been seared on his mind.

The Syrian National Council, the external face of the revolution which has been promoted by the U.S. and regional powers, is being coerced and more or less subtly threatened to play along–the end envisioned being an all-parties peace agreement leading to a transitional government. Differences between the U.S., Russia, and other powers however mean that no actual solution is in sight.


What has shown itself in opposition to the Syrian Revolution is the reactionary essence of the state-capitalist world as a whole. In struggling for freedom and dignity the Syrians have had to fight on many fronts; they have come into conflict with every reactionary force the world can muster. It is as brutal and unfair a burden as that borne by the Paris Communards of 1871 who also faced all the might of an oppressive old order.

Nevertheless the struggle has continued. In liberated areas the Local Coordination Committees have continued to function. Peaceful demonstrations expressing the original goals of the Revolution are held across the country, including in areas still under regime control. The majority of Syrians continue to hold to the anti-sectarian, democratic ideals that brought millions out into the streets.

The armed struggle, which only arose in response to Assad’s genocidal attacks on the peaceful mass movement, has had to function under an effective arms embargo by the U.S. and other states. Asked by filmmaker Ben Allison-Davies what help was received from outside, a Free Syrian Army fighter said: “They just provide us with humanitarian aid. They haven’t given us any kind of weapons. If we don’t get heavy weapons (anti-tank, anti-aircraft) this war will take a long time, a very long time.”

The best elements of the FSA and armed opposition have maintained their relationship to the mass movement as a force for self-defense and self-liberation. Recent conflicts between the FSA and the forces of the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, may help to clarify that relationship. As people are learning, one of the biggest lies is the saying that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” There is a fundamental distinction.


The fundamentalists have clearly become an expression of counter-revolution, as much as Assad himself, if far less powerful. Their oppressive interpretations of Islamic law, attacks on demonstrators and sectarian massacres are serving to alienate them from the Revolution, to the point where many are chanting “One, one, one; the regime and al-Qaeda are one!” Women have been active in opposing these forces.

One FSA fighter from Aleppo shared his thoughts on why the fundamentalists would lose: “Why did Christian faith decline in Europe? Because of the clergy’s medieval obscurantism and extremism, their wars against science and reason. What is destroying Islamic faith? Clerics of all sects who monopolize the word of God and Law, and in their obscurantism are fighting reason, freedom, science and progress–bin Laden and al-Qaradawi, Nasrallah and Khamenei, and al-Baghdadi.”

Al-Baghdadi is the head of the ISIL, which has often come into open conflict with the FSA. Far from carrying on a revolutionary struggle, the group’s campaign in Syria has come to mirror its terrorist campaign in Iraq. It is only geared toward seizing territory for its own purposes, and can only do so because so many are displaced from their homes and vulnerable. As in Afghanistan after the 1980s war, as in Somalia or Mali, al-Qaeda would like to function as an occupying army.

Residents of Raqqa, for example, have been resisting ISIL oppression by continuing the revolution, including through anti-sectarianism: when a cross was pulled down from a church, demonstrators lifted it back into place. Youth have openly published calls for love and brotherhood among all religious and ethnic groups.

The kidnap and torture of Rami al Razzouk, a member of the ANA New Media Association network, brought forth the following statement: “We condemn the oppression committed on our members who are dedicated to openly conveying the events on the ground. ANA refuses to stop its operation in Raqqa and vows to continue broadcasting whether with ISIL approval or not. Our revolution was one for freedom and democracy and freedom of expression. Free media is the only way forward for our country. Any party that stands to oppose us will not intimidate us or prevent us from making our voices known.”


This struggle against counter-revolution arising within the revolution is part of a challenge to the religious fundamentalism that arose as a world stage of reaction in the 1980s. It is one of the most profound outgrowths of the Arab Spring. Similar struggles are ongoing in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Iran. The Iranian people’s rejection of its own rulers has led Ayatollah Khamenei and newly elected President Rouhani toward negotiations with the U.S. As with the Egyptian military coup, this is an attempt to head off a more radical mass movement.

Demonstration in Chicago, Aug. 24, 2013, shortly after Assad used sarin gas on civilians killing over a thousand.

Demonstration in Chicago, Aug. 24, 2013, shortly after Assad used sarin gas on civilians killing over a thousand.

These struggles are not separate from that of the Black and Latino masses, women, and workers here in the U.S. against the Tea Party reactionaries and obscurantists. It is a worldwide movement.

The Syrian Revolution, from the beginning, has been world-historic. All powers have had to respond to it, and all revolutionaries have had to do the same.


At the moment that it seemed like the U.S. might actually launch some extremely limited strike on Assad’s forces, there was a rush by many “peace” activists to scream “Hands off Syria!” without acknowledging that the Syrian people are fighting a revolution against a genocidal fascist state. Such one-dimensional politics have deadly consequences.

In Chicago, a Syrian government-aligned organization led a demonstration with a banner saying, “There are no peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Syria only insurgents.” Even some Leftists who profess to support the Syrian Revolution fell in line behind this vile lie, this apology for genocide.

At its worst, this attitude led some to align with the Tea Party and other reactionaries as if the radical Right was an anti-war option, rather than the seed of future genocidal imperialist world wars. It has also led some to echo old racist ideas: the rebels are cannibals! If the majority gets power, it will massacre the ruling minority! We’ve heard all this before.

Failure to understand the fundamental hostility of imperialism toward revolution indicates a failure to understand the nature of reality. “Revolutionaries” who take this path will become reactionary misleaders of future generations.


The shadow dances of reactionary state powers–most recently seen as the refusal of the Saudi rulers to take a seat on the UN Security Council, which has nothing to do with Syria and much to do with rival Iran–and the failure of so much of the Left can’t be the ground for revolutionaries now.

As a young Syrian woman pointed out, “What we have found out is that it’s only people-to-people, grassroots support that we have been able to rely on. That is where the food for the refugees, the medical care for the wounded has come from–from doctors who see what’s happening and volunteer; people who see the need and give of themselves.”

This is the concrete expression of a hard universal truth. Revolution will only come through the creation of new human relations. Those who can’t see the dead of Ghouta, who can’t hear the insistent voices of Syrian freedom fighters, will have nothing to contribute to the creation of a new, human society.

Marxist-Humanists stand in solidarity with and support of the freedom struggle in Syria. We see this revolutionary moment as the test of world politics, which could very likely determine the next stage of history.

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